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La Piccioletta Barca - Issue 16

Furnishing the Philosophical Mind


In 1840, Edgar Allan Poe published a short essay entitled The Philosophy of Furniture,which criticised the taste of wealthy Americans in interior decoration. Needless to say, the piece is relatively superficial – an expression of Poe’s personal contempt for flashy mirrors, gaudy tapestry and an inappropriate use of curtains, which in his view no country had yet mastered: “The Dutch have an indeterminate idea that a curtain is not a cabbage. In Spain they are all curtains – a nation of hangmen.” Setting satire aside, the essay has some more substantial connotations. In the published version, Poe’s aversion seems directed primarily at the idea that aesthetic taste in America has been corrupted by the cult of money as a measure of social status. But in an earlier draft we find a greater emphasis on the idea that the title touches upon. Following a quote by Hegel, in which philosophy is described as ‘fruitless’, Poe continues:

There is reason, it is said, in the roasting of eggs, and there is philosophy even in furniture – a philosophy nevertheless which seems to be more imperfectly understood by Americans than by any civilized nation upon the face of the earth.

Historically, there is a closer association between Poe’s two attacks on his American compatriots than may appear at first glance. For indeed Marx himself accused much of Hegel’s philosophy of relying on an uncritical outlook on the economic relations and material reality it was conditioned by, and which it indirectly justified. Whether or not Poe was right about interior design in America, he would have doubtless welcomed Thomas Constantinesco’s characterisation of “model of the transcendental philosopher, the ‘American Scholar,’ who is the open-air philosopher, whose thought is formed in the contact of nature, far from libraries and from their dusty shelves.” In other words, the Cartesian separation between the ego lost in meditation and its re-embodiment beside the fireplace is all the worse for the indulgent bourgeois who carries philosophical activity outdoors.

This tension requires immediate justification on the part of philosophers (particularly the more idealistic ones), who for the most part have agreed on the condemnation of luxury. The first reply can be traced back to Socrates’ remarks on the Republic, in which he rejects Glaucon’s conception of the “inflamed” or “luxurious city.” In general, Socrates worries that in such social organisations potential philosophers remain self-interested, turning into politicians, sophists, rhetoricians and more generally ‘culture-makers’ who take advantage of their intellectual ability to delude the rest into believing they have found the deepest one of Socrates’ suggestions is that furniture should be kept functional. He also suspected that the focus on aesthetics could direct their psyche’s energy and attention too much towards the senses, money, and acquiring social status. This point has been nicely developed in an essay by Myles Burnyeat, for whom tables and couches as deliberate metaphors of what can be assigned a proper function, and for God has set standards in their corresponding Forms. This is of interest to us because Poe presents a similar preference when he described his ideal room as “a small and not ostentatious chamber with whose decorations no fault can be found. The proprietor lies asleep on a sofa.” In a similar vein, Adorno places a kind of bourgeois naïveté at the heart of Kierkegaard’s philosophy and personality, and even bothers to describe the non-functional nature of his house, where “all spatial configurations are mere decoration; foreign to the function they represent, empty of all use value, produced exclusively for the isolated household.” The emphasis on functionality as opposed to decoration is thus regarded as a reason for distrust, and not entirely unfounded.

In the Arcade’s Project, Walter Benjamin revisits the Socratic line. Here, he compares the unreflective Athenian citizen Socrates choses in his dialogues (such as Glaucon in the Republic) to the Parisian flâneur, the bourgeois who spends her undeserved free time to roam Parisian streets under the pretence of ‘reading’ into its culture. To the flâneur,

the shiny, enamelled signs of businesses are at least as good a wall ornament as an oil painting is to a bourgeois in his salon. The walls are the desk against which he presses his notebooks; news-stands are his libraries and the terraces of cafes are the balconies from which he looks down on his household after his work is done.

The flâneur makes an “interior out of the exterior”, refusing to leave his comfort zone but deploying a façade – excuse the pun – to hide it from his very own field of vision. Herein lies the thread tying Benjamin to Plato, Poe and to his disciple Adorno – the idea that the home we leave behind in our meditative endeavours can limit and condition our thought.

If philosophers have looked inside each other’s homes for intellectually incriminating evidence, this is hardly an ad hominem or coincidental move. Alienation from our everyday environment is likely to encourage negligence of the more social aspects philosophy, and is made all the easier by our peripatetic and escapist ideals. It remains a question whether our distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ philosophy, between ‘lovers of truth’ and egotistic ‘sophists’, can provide appropriate justification. After all, there is much sense in the suggestion that philosophy is born out of free time, and that this can only be achieved when basic needs are covered by another’s toil: even if philosophers can do without an excess of showy lamps and porcelains, it’s doubtful it can ever do without an excess of leisure. At any rate, what we are pointing to in criticising the glittery walls around reputed minds is more than ideological hypocrisy. We are articulating an age-old suspicion against doing philosophy without awareness of ‘material reality’ – where ‘material’ takes on not only, if at all, an anti-metaphysical character, but also a socio-economic one.

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