In defense of armchairs


by Charlie Huenemann

Generally, in any conflict between long-held, seemingly obvious beliefs and new research challenging those beliefs, defenders of the old beliefs will find themselves charged with sitting in armchairs. It never is a rocking chair, park bench, hammock, or divan. It is an armchair, the sort of chair one finds in venerable, wood-paneled clubs where stodgy old men opine about the world's events more from preconceived opinions than from any well-grounded knowledge. An armchair represents both laziness and privilege, a luxurious class of opinion-mongers who simply will not bother themselves with actual empirical research – the original La-Z-Boys, as they might be called.

Such armchairs – unfortunately, from my perspective – are often associated with philosophers, for those who argue from the armchairs are arguing from broad, philosophical perspectives. These perspectives are allegedly grounded in a priori truths, but those “truths” are in fact little more than prejudiced opinions born of casual reflection. But of course the world has no obligation to pay any attention to what philosophers take to be obvious, and if we want to know what really happens, then we must rise from our armchairs and take up residency in the sciences.

Reflective and informed people will recognize that this is a poor characterization of philosophers, who usually are very well aware of empirical research. One could not find a more ambitious researcher than Aristotle, who is said to have spent his honeymoon collecting biological samples (and no, that's not a euphemism). Descartes busied himself with experiments and dissections. Leibniz knew all the science known by anyone of his day. Kant offered expert lectures on physics, anthropology, geography, and mineralogy in addition to topics in philosophy. Hegel knew his physics, and even the latest research findings in phrenology. Russell and Cassirer published good books on general relativity, and, in general, the bulk of 20th-century philosophers working on matters connected to science have suffered the requisite pains to know what they are talking about – to a far greater degree (I pridefully add) than have scientists who take it into their heads to write philosophy.

Of course it does sometimes happen that people – and, yes, philosophers too – try to battle against the results of research armed only with baseless opinion, and “the armchair” is as convenient a trope as any for characterizing their intellectual sin. Frequently, however, the armchair is used merely as a rhetorical device to demonize an alternative view (or even, ahem, an entire discipline) without taking the time to actually understand that alternative view. Ironically, in these cases the charge of “Armchair!” issues from someone who at that moment is sitting in an armchair. Still more frequently, the charge is made against a group that turns out to be entirely fictional. When one tries to find any people who hold those silly views, it turns out there aren't any. In these cases, “the armchair” helps an author to create a fictional Other against whose views the author's views now seem startlingly innovative and well-informed.

Still, in all this I think armchairs are getting a bum rap. There are occasions when just thinking hard about something can be illuminating. I would not for a moment accuse Einstein of being uninformed about physics, but didn't special relativity arise out of a gedankenexperiment conducted in an armchair? Darwin amassed mounds of evidence, but the core of the idea of evolution by natural selection was an idea he came to (maybe in an armchair in London, after returning on the Beagle) as a way of making that evidence meaningful. Any scientist will tell you that collecting data, while indispensible, is of little worth unless those data are accompanied by an idea, a theory, that is arrived at by a leap of imaginative speculation. Armchairs are great places for that sort of thing. (Comfy, too.)

An armchair is a place of frictionless speculation. In an armchair we can ask What would I see if I rode upon a beam of light? and What if species aren't fixed? We can also ask Why do people follow laws even when the cops aren't around? and What is it about opera that makes it seem so much more meaningful than barbershop quartets? We can ask what it is that makes mathematics true, and whether there are any cases when providing the greatest happiness for the greatest number turns out not to be the right thing to do. Empirical information is required in all these cases, but what is even more important is our ability to speculate and conjecture, to imagine and project. If we don't discover any new answers, we at least begin to see our old presuppositions for what they are.

Armchair speculation can also help us see what our theories entail. Is our mental life purely a matter of what the brain does? If so, then could I read your mind if I studied your brain? Are human actions as fully determined as any nonhuman event? If so, then on what basis would we call any of our actions “free”? If we list the physical causes leading up to an event, do we thereby explain the event? Or in some cases – think now of historical or cultural developments – does explanation require something more than a listing of causes? Again, it would be silly to think that all the information relevant to these questions can be reached from an armchair, but it is impossible to try to tackle them without some good old-fashioned armchair speculation. Answering questions is sometimes just as much about how we think about things as it is about those things themselves.

So: vive la fauteuil! Human knowledge requires not just research, but also speculation. It is from the armchair that we make information meaningful, recognize implications and limitations of our theories, and try to gain a comprehensive vision of how what we think we know all hangs together. It certainly is not the only piece of furniture in the house of our knowledge, but it is one we cannot do without.