The Chair in the Other Room: Description & Prescription, Philosophy & Action
I could be telling you to bring the chair here, or to go sit in the other room, or to bring the chair here and sit in it, or to bring the chair here so I can sit in it, or to bring the chair here and leave it empty for someone important, or clean it in the other room to keep an important person happy. Depending on our understandings, it could be a simple prescription for any of these things without either of us speaking any other words out loud or silently to ourselves in thought.
However, it doesn’t have to be a prescription for immediate action. I could simply be describing the other room, though it would be odd for me to do this for no understandable purpose, without intending anything be done in the future. Wittgenstein said that if someone said, “That is certainly a tree,” we could say to a stranger overhearing this, “This person is not insane, but merely engaged in philosophy!” If you asked me what there is to do right now, and I tell you there’s a chair in the other room, it would be odd for you to say, “Things do temporarily exist, as the Buddha told us thousands of years ago, but philosophically speaking…” We don’t talk philosophically to do particular things as we’ve already done them, but to think about all the possible ways we could do or change things before or after we’ve done them, including call particular things trees and chairs for particular purposes in particular situations.
Suppose I open a blog post saying “Suppose that I tell you, ‘There’s a chair in the other room.’” You would hopefully understand that I’m talking philosophically, abstractly in ways about truth and meaning that do apply to life but not in particular immediate ways, but if I told you this as a complete stranger on the bus you would think I’m a strange narcissistic exhibitionist who is wasting your time and everyone else’s showing off, which you may or may not think at this point in the blog post. Similarly, if I said “There’s a chair in the other room,” to a complete stranger on the bus, it would not be clear at all what I meant. It wouldn’t even be clear that it was a trustworthy description but without purpose.
We can describe things without prescribing immediate action, much as I could tell you about the chair and mean we could always sit in it next week, but we don’t describe things without any understandable intentions, saying “That is a chair, that is a chair, and that is a table’ to ourselves or anyone else. We would if truth were more important than meaning. Truth is centrally important to everything, but without meaning it isn’t important. We can prescribe things without describing things much at all, as I do when I simply tell you of the chair’s existence and expect you to act, but we can’t prescribe things without informing others about our situation. If I inarticulately cry out, this informs you in some way about your circumstances even if I’m not intending to describe anything or prescribe action for you.
We can speak more or less descriptively or prescriptively in the same way that we can speak more or less philosophically, more or less abstractly about what to do over all compared to particular commands intertwined with immediate actions. Reading philosophy online or sitting in a classroom talking about trees, chairs, buses and strangers, none of which concretely exist but rather are entirely imaginary, is an action, but it isn’t much action which allows for much thinking to go on relatively undisturbed by attention to many of the things that surround us.