Tuesday, July 15, 2008

What is the essence of a pillow?

Okay, enough serious stuff. True story:

We took two pillows to the cleaners to be cleaned, because if you try to wash pillows and dry them in your home dryer, they end up all clumpy, plus you nearly start a fire in the dryer. I've tried this and swore never to try it again. The cleaners told us that it would take about a month. So we waited patiently for a month and finally got the long-expected call: "Your pillows are ready to be picked up."

My husband picks up the pillows and is slightly weirded out by the fact that they sure look an awful lot different from the way that he remembers them. He remarks on this to the girl, who checks the name and assures him that they are, indeed, his pillows. He brings them home and asks me what I think. I concur: They aren't our pillows. The cloth is totally different. It's not soft. It's sort of crinkly feeling and not nearly as nice; there is stitching I don't remember along the edge. They're definitely not the same pillows.

So I call up the cleaners this morning and also, after getting the number, the leather company to which the cleaners sent the pillows to be cleaned. (I guess that's why it took a month.) They both explain patiently to me what this is all about. See, cleaning your pillows doesn't mean cleaning your pillows. It means that they literally take the pillow completely apart, take out the stuffing, put the stuffing through an (unnamed) "process," then put that stuffing in totally different cloth, throw the cloth part of your pillow away, and send the result back as "your pillow," cleaned.

What I want to know is this: How do they decide that the stuffing is the essence of the pillow? What makes them conclude that, in order for them to be carrying out the cleaning of "your pillow" that you requested, the stuffing must be processed and sent back to you, but the cloth--which is, after all, what you encounter more directly on a daily basis--is disposable, so that it's the same pillow if it has the same stuffing but has totally and recognizably different cloth? I mean, this is a sort of deep philosophical question. And why should they assume that I will agree with them that the stuffing, stuffed into totally different cloth, is in essence the same pillow?

There's a practical question, too. I would have thought that the cloth, being the kind of thing that normally can be dry cleaned anyway (right? you send clothes made out of cloth to be dry-cleaned?) would actually be easier for them to process than the stuffing. If they have a fancy way of processing the stuffing, which ought to be the hard part, why don't they just dry-clean the cloth in the ordinary way and put the two back together?

It's all beyond me. But I don't think I'll be sending any other pillows to the cleaners. They never come back again. Just these strangers.


William Luse said...

"How do they decide that the stuffing is the essence of the pillow?"

I don't know. But when I was a kid, I knew at Thanksgiving that the essence of my grandmother's turkey was the stuffing. That's not much help I suppose.

alaiyo said...

That's an interesting question, Lydia. When I *select* a pillow, I am most concerned with the stuffing -- will it be fluffy or firm enough, thin or thick enough, etc., to make me comfortable at night. I'm only concerned with the cloth in wanting it to be durable and well-stitched together, as well as noiseless, so it won't bother me as I'm trying to get to sleep. I don't care what it looks or feels like so much, because it'll be hidden under a pillowcase anyway, which is what I choose for comfort next to my skin.

So I guess I'd agree with the pillow cleaners that the essence of a pillow is the stuffing. EXCEPT: On reflection, I'd be danged upset if they gave me a different cloth that was inferior in any way -- less durable or poorly stitched or noisy . . . !!!!

So my final thought, as I get ready to go put my head on my own lovely pillow for the night, is that the two work together to make the pillow, but that the cover is subordinate to the stuffing and more subject to change without creating an entirely different pillow . . . maybe?

How's that for being definite? :)

But it really is an intriguing question, in a larger sense, because so many considerations of ideas/policies/etc. hinge on what the essence of something is . . . What is "life"? What is "freedom"? What is "personhood"? What is "man" and what is "woman"? What is "marriage"? Etc. . . . Usually more abstract ideas, but even concrete things like pillows can be the source of problems if we don't agree on what they really are. Hmm . . . perhaps I should have my students try to define concrete objects according to their essence before they begin defining abstract concepts . . . I wonder if that would be helpful? In a few weeks, perhaps I shall find out!

Lydia McGrew said...

Well, this does crinkle a little, so it probably would make more noise than the other fabric.

My own guess would be that asking students to decide the essence of physical objects before they move on to big stuff might have the opposite of the desired effect, because we all probably recognize at some level that many physical objects don't have an essence, or at least don't have one worth bothering too much about. That's why it's humorous to talk about it. Now animals--that might be interesting. What's the essence of "dog," for example. I tend to think that living things have essences that are more important than the essence of, say, a rock, because living things have a specific _working_ design in the Mind of their Maker, and some things are contrary to that design, are "unnatural." Rocks don't have working parts. Come to think of it, something similar might apply to cars, as they were designed by humans. Using a car as a paperweight is contrary to its "essence," in a sense.

John Fraser said...

Wow, getting your pillows dry-cleaned? I've never even heard of that. I just wait until mine gets too nasty to sleep on and then buy a new one. Or more likely my wife buys me a new one because I didn't notice that mine had become too nasty to sleep on.

But as we all know, the true essence of the pillow is the feeling of comfort it bestows at the end of a long day. Without that, it's just so much fluff. So if that was lost in the cleaning process, you were clearly robbed of your pillows. Speaking of which, I can hear mine calling me now . . .

Lydia McGrew said...

Well, John, I wasn't sure if it was possible either. But I thought if I called the cleaners and said, "Do you dry-clean pillows?" I would find out _whether_ this was a possibility. They simply said, "Yes," adding only that they "send them out to have them done," so I figured that was all there was to it, as long as I was willing to wait.

The place of these two pillows in our household economy was as backrest in the wilderness and one extra (for guests, for example), so no one regularly sleeps on them. We haven't had the chance to check the "essence" of a good night's sleep. I'll ask my next overnight guest how it worked. It seems okay as a back rest. Just a little crinkly. :-)

John Fraser said...

Ah, my mistake. I was picturing the pillows you sleep on. Of course, the thought crossed my mind, "I wonder what they slept on in the meantime?" If it hadn't been around midnight when I was reading your blog, I might have realized what was really going on. We're just not that big of a pillow household I guess. Besides our sleeping companions, we just have a couple of small ones on the couch.

Tricia told me about this post, as she was impressed that you could make such a deep and thought-provoking topic out of having your pillows dry-cleaned. My immediate reaction was, "who gets their pillows dry-cleaned?" Not that I don't appreciate the underlying ontological significance of your question, you understand.

And I still think you were robbed.

Vlastimil Vohánka said...

Lydia, as for the alleged essences of different kinds of objects, have you heard about D. S. Oderberg's new book Real Essentialism? (Routledge, 2008, I think the same edition as your Internalism and Epistemology.)

Stanislav Sousedík, a Czech medievalist, published in 2007 in Czech a book which seems similar to the one by DSO, it's called Identitní teorie predikace (Identity theory of predication).

Lydia McGrew said...

I hadn't seen that, Vlastimil. I've looked at the interesting Amazon blurb.

I'm not a hylomorphist. More of a modernist on the issue of essences for physical objects. But as I indicated in an earlier comment here, I think some sort of essentialism begins to make sense when we start talking about designed objects, especially those that have parts oriented to a function. At that point you can start talking about the function as an idea (or Idea) in the mind of the maker and think of what is natural or unnatural for the object in relation to that.

And even though God is the creator of all things, I don't think that all physical objects have parts oriented to a function in that sense--a mote of dust or a rock, for example, do not--and for that reason I'm willing to accept the modernist idea that there is a certain amount of arbitrariness in trying to decide what is most important. Nominalism, in fact, makes sense more for some things than for others, in my opinion.

Kristor said...

If pillows are tough, what about wine in wineskins? If you become new wine in a new wineskin, are you still you? Yes, presumably; for this is what happens from each moment of our lives to the next.

If you put new wine in an old wineskin, that would be like cleaning the stuffing of a pillow - washing it so that it is like new, indeed whiter than snow - and putting it back in the filthy greasy ticking it had come out of without washing the ticking at all.

I think nominalism seems to make sense for some things only because we are analyzing them in the wrong way. A chunk of granite would seem to have no essence qua chunk, but qua granite it certainly would. The qualities that make it a chunk - so much mass, so long & so thick, smooth, and so forth - are accidental. The qualities that make it granite are not. If the latter were missing - if, say, the chunk were so small that it contained no one complete crystal of granite - then the chunk would not be granite at all, but something else.