Death and furniture

Found this paper by Edwards, Ashmore, and Potter (1995) amusing as recently I tapped a table to make a point about different levels of analysis. From the intro:

When relativists talk about the social construction of reality, truth, cognition, scientific knowledge, technical capacity, social structure, and so on, their realist opponents sooner or later start hitting the furniture, invoking the Holocaust, talking about rocks, guns, killings, human misery, tables and chairs. The force of these objections is to introduce a bottom line, a bedrock of reality that places limits on what may be treated as epistemologically constructed or deconstructible. There are two related kinds of moves: Furniture (tables, rocks, stones, etc. — the reality that cannot be denied), and Death (misery, genocide, poverty, power — the reality that should not be denied). Our aim is to show how these “but surely not this” gestures and arguments work, how they trade off each other, and how unconvincing they are, on examination, as refutations of relativism.

And the point about levels is made:

It is surprisingly easy and even reasonable to question the table’s given reality. It does not take long, in looking closer, at wood grain and molecule, before you are no longer looking at a “table”. Indeed, physicists might wish to point out that, at a certain level of analysis, there is nothing at all “solid” there, down at the (most basic?) levels of particles, strings and the contested organization of sub-atomic space. Its solidity is then, ineluctably, a perceptual category, a matter of what tables seem to be like to us, in the scale of human perception and bodily action. Reality takes on an intrinsically human dimension, and the most that can be claimed for it is an “experiential realism”

Reference

Edwards, D., Ashmore, M. and Potter, J., (1995). Death and furniture: The rhetoric, politics and theology of bottom line arguments against relativism, History of the Human Sciences, 8, 25-49.

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3 comments

  1. dr tuesday

    Just had to read that paper for uni. Hardly an edifying read. It’s argument for argument’s sake. For me that paper just about constitutes an abuse of the English language! Wow.

  2. Andy

    I quite enjoyed it :-) These sorts of examples are very handy for concisely defeating naive thinking about levels of description – often an issue when trying to make sense of models in psychology and neuroscience.

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