Like many philosophers, I don't believe that tables and chairs are fundamental objects. Like a much smaller number of philosophers, I like to say that I don't think tables and chairs exist. I have good reasons for my denial. For instance, it does not appear that there is an exact moment at which a table comes into existence. I take four wooden rods, each two feet long, and stand them on their ends outlining a rectangle. On this precarious perch, I put a sheet of plywood. That's not a table. I put some glue between the rods and the plywood. Initially that's still not a table, since the glue hasn't gripped. But once the bond is strong enough, what I have is a (poorly engineered and ugly) table. But then there must be a time such that a nanosecond before it the bond wasn't strong enough to make for a table and a nanosecond later it was strong enough.[note 1] This is very implausible.
So what should I say? Here are three options:
- Say in contexts both ordinary and philosophical that there are no tables or chairs (and hence if someone asks me if there are any chairs in a conference room, answer in the negative, and then explain further).
- Say in ordinary contexts that there are tables and chairs, but deny it in philosophical contexts.
- Say in all contexts that there are tables and chairs, but in philosophical contexts emphasize that they are not fundamental.
In the absence of (3), it would be nice too be able to defend (2). But it seems like plain dishonesty. I think, though, it can be defended.
First of all, ordinary folk already make something like this distinction. If you ask someone: "Are there any potholes on your way to work?" they may answer in the positive. But if you press them and ask whether potholes are really existing, if they aren't rather a matter of there not being asphalt there, I expect you will be told something that sounds contradictory like: "Potholes don't exist, but they're there." If this is right, there is in ordinary language a distinction between real existence and just existence in a manner of speaking.
Suppose that a community of English speakers started saying "There is a xyzzy" whenever there was a full moon, and mosquitoes were biting somewhere in Minnesota, and there was a Democratic president in the US. And they even had identity conditions for xyzzies. They would say that there can only be one xyzzy at a time, and that a xyzzy at t0 is the same xyzzy as the one at t1 provided that either the same Democrat is president at both times or the two presidents are related by a chain of president to vice-president relations. If we were members of the community, we'd have to say that this summer there was a xyzzy. But I think we'd want to deny the existence of xyzzies. Why? Because the right thing to say is that the logical grammar of "There is a xyzzy" does not match its surface grammar. The surface grammar is "There exists an x such that x is a xyzzy." But the deep logical grammar is "There is a Democratic president, there is a full moon and the mosquitoes are biting somewhere in Minnesota."
I think the same sort of thing should be said about tables and chairs. The surface grammar can involve existence claims (and predications and the like). But the deep logical grammar is different. And in cases where the surface grammar does not match the real logical grammar, we do in fact have two usages: an ordinary usage and a philosophical usage that mirrors the deep logical grammar. This is what we do for holes and this is what we would do for xyzzies. We also do this for some claims that aren't existential. For instance:
- That overgrown graveyard isn't really spooky. It's just that you are spooked by it.
- Actually, nobody is annoying. It's just that we are annoyed by some people.
Now, to make sense of this, one does, I think, need some view on which there is something like an Aristotelian focal sense of existence (in the tables and chairs case) or predication (in the spookingess and annoyance cases), and in philosophical senses we focus in on the focal sense. Here then would be an example based on Aristotle's own example of focality:
- There is no such thing as healthy food. There is only food that makes one healthy.