Philosophy of the Home
A Philosophical Essay, with Anecdotes
Making the Home
Whenever I move into a new home, I always find that I am immediately disappointed. Whatever it is I have moved into, it is no home. It is just space, "living space." And this living space is contained within an object, the house or apartment--in my case, always the latter.
Living space is what is marketable. It is the tabula rasa, the mere form, without substance. Living space will appear the same way to everyone. Some may like the space more than others, but whoever enters the living space will perceive the same thing. There is no relationship to the space: it is impersonal, dispassionate, and objective. One sees the mere functionality of the living space as what it is, the walls, the floor, and the roof; as elegant as the living space may be, it was not made for you.
So was it with my first apartment. I would not have rented the apartment if I hadn't thought it was nice. Yet, when I arrived in the apartment with my stuff and stood there all alone, with the white walls, open space, entirely uncluttered, I wondered why I had rented this place and what I had gotten myself into. "I have to stay here a whole year!" I hadn't yet had the opportunity to make this place my own. It was set against me, somehow, entirely disconnected from my existence. Were I there or not, the apartment would be how it is. I was in living space in which I had not yet made my living; I had not yet arranged myself around it nor arranged it around me.
Such arrangements were forthcoming. I had yet to purchase any furniture. A neighbor on the floor beneath would soon be moving out and was selling me some of his furniture, so I had planned on waiting the two weeks to get a deal on furniture. So I bought only bookcases, curtains, a telephone table and a coat rack. The landlord's wife had left me her half-inflated air mattress out of kindness; however, she was in too much of a hurry inflate it for me with her pump. Out of the boxes from what I did buy, I managed to construct a TV stand, a computer desk, and a place to put my DVD player, as well as a coffee table. Out of the air mattress and linen I had brought from home, I constructed a couch of sorts, not unlike a bean chair.
This makeshift furniture was, to be sure, not glamorous. I certainly desired better furniture. However, once I had the apartment arranged, however poorly, to suit my functions, it no longer felt set against me as it had. I had done something with the place. It was no longer living space, it was my place. It may not have been the most comfortable place and certainly not suited to having guests, but for my purposes it worked and I felt comfortable.
Before we can transform blank living space into our place, we have to mold that space to our functions; and in doing so we also fit our functions into the space of the apartment. In this sense, we form a certain relationship with the apartment that gives it personality. It is no longer true that anyone entering the apartment will see the same thing. Anyone entering my apartment, with its cardboard furniture, would have probably felt uncomfortable or even ridiculous; I, however, was pleased and even proud of my place. The house is no longer the impersonal object it was; it has a subjective relationship with us.
The key to realizing this relationship is the organization of the objects. It is in this way that we affect the space: by filling it. The space is empty before we enter with our objects. Our objects themselves are held in relationship to us: we own them because they either have some functional purpose in our lives (a couch, e.g.), express some tastes or values of ours (a Picasso print, e.g.), or have sentimental value (a photograph, e.g.).
By working with our objects and arranging them within the space, we draw forth from the space that which could not have been had it not been for us: our place, also called a home. A home is always absolutely personal. It comes into being from the individual being of one or a group of people and, like a fingerprint, could not occur in the same way anywhere else. Making a home is thus a poetic action, an act of creativity. Just like the sculptor brings into being a sculpture, which without him could not have had being, from his mind and with his hands out of a chunk of rock, so is it when we make our homes out of the living space.
In Against Nature, Huysmans depicts a very eccentric man's efforts to fit a house to his convoluted personality. One room has the below of a boat built within it, with an aquarium between each boat window and real window to simulate being below sea level. There is certainly no traditional category for such a room.
Perfecting the Home
It is difficult to remain satisfied with a home. Kafka's story "The Burrow" depicts some creature endlessly modifying its home to make it perfect, to fit its life and concerns. Though our arrangement of objects within the space may well have made it a home, it is yet another step to making it our ideal home. This bears some consideration. If it is in the arrangement of objects that the essence of home-making lies, then we must ask which objects are most central. It seems to me that, while photographs and pretty decorations have their importance, the central objects are the functional objects: the couch, the television, the bed, the bookcase, and so on. The bed is so important it has a whole room: the bedroom. So when we arrange our homes and want them arranged perfectly--perfectly suited to us, at any rate--it seems that function must be given the most prominent consideration. This conclusion makes sense: our homes are the places where we perform our private functions, the functions of our lives outside of our professional, or public, functions.
Assessing one's most important functions involves some introspection. How large is your family? How frequently do you receive guests? What do you tend to do most? Which objects are most central to your functions? Which objects are unnecessary and merely ceremonial?
That last question may seem peculiar, so allow me another anecdote. Moving into my second apartment--my first one-bedroom--I began to daydream about how to organize my possessions. I realized that, though I had acquired normal furniture by this point, I had never bothered to purchase a bed. My futon certainly converts into a bed, and yet I have always chosen to sleep on it in couch form. So why--I thought--would I need a bedroom if I don't have a bed? If I allowed this predesigned category of home-making to impress itself upon me, then I'd have to buy either a bed or a couch. I don't need either a new bed or a new couch, however; I am very happy sleeping on the couch.
There are certain categories of rooms in home-making that carry on simply by virtue of tradition. There is no good reason for everyone to have them. For some people they are suitable, while for others they are not. The bedroom, the living room, the kitchen, the dining room, the library, the study, are all possible rooms that we know of by tradition, but why accept any of them if we don't need them?
The bedroom, for instance, is a room that generally contains a bed and one's clothing. One keeps clothing in a bedroom, because generally we put on clothing after waking up. This clothing has to be stored in something, so wardrobes and dressers are often kept in bedrooms. Sometimes a make-up table for a woman. This room is organized around a central function in every human's life--sleep--and a central object to that function--a bed. The other objects derive from surrounding functions and what objects they need. For someone with a spouse, with children, with frequent guests, a bedroom certainly makes a lot of sense. For someone like myself, however, living alone with very rare guests, there is no good reason to have a whole room dedicated to a bed. I don't even sleep in a bed. If I did have a bed, I'd use it for nothing but sleep. Nothing keeps me from changing my clothes in any other room of the house, as I live alone. So a bedroom would be a sad waste of a room. This category of the bedroom is clearly not for me: I do not have a bedroom, though I technically have a one-bedroom apartment. The same argument applies to a dining room: unless one has a family or frequent guests, it is a waste of a room.
The only two traditional rooms I have are a kitchen and a bathroom. These two traditional rooms are nearly inescapable. The bath/shower, toilet, and sink come with each house and are integral to every private life; it makes sense that they are stored together in a single, efficient room. The kitchen, similarly, being the locus of food preparation and storage, is a room integral to all life. Eating is a function we all share.
So, what rooms do I have? I took stock of my functions and discovered that they can broadly be divided between two object pairs: couch-television and desk-computer. Couch-television functions can roughly be categorized as 'recreation' and desk-computer functions can roughly be categorized as 'work'. Most of my day is occurs at my desk, as it is there I read, there I write, there I research, draw, speak on the phone, interact with friends online, and occasionally even listen to music and watch movies on the computer (hence 'work' is a rough categorization). The rest of my day occurs on my couch, sleeping, merely reclining, sometimes speaking on the phone and watching movies.
These two object pairs thus dictate for me what the two rooms of my apartment (besides the kitchen and bathroom) are to be: the deskroom and the couchroom, or, if you prefer, the work room and the recreation room. These are not normal room categories. It may be that a lot of us incidentally have these rooms, or perhaps have them in addition to the traditional rooms; but it is unusual to have only those rooms. However, I have refused to allow the organization of my apartment to be dictated by tradition. How can I have an authentic relationship with my home when my home is decided by categories not suited to my life? One's home should be organized for oneself.
My recreation room, then, contains the television and the couch, naturally. It also contains my clothes, since I sleep on the couch and desire clothes when I wake up. It contains the linen closet, as the couch is my bed. It contains, too, my DVD player and VCR, as well as all my DVDs and VHS tapes with their appropriate storage units, as my television is in that room. The functions of the room and the major functional objects have thus made it clear to me what is to be put in this room, even though to most it would seem an unusual synthesis of bedroom and living room. Similarly, my work room would simply seem to most a synthesis of a study and a library: it contains my desk and computer, all my computer supplies, my bookcases and all my books, a reading chair, and lamps.
Things would be different if I frequently had guests. I would naturally want the home to be welcoming to them, for them to feel accommodated. Just as we don't feel comfortable in a place we have yet to organize around us, our guests will not be comfortable unless we have organized somewhat around them. A table in the living room to rest their drinks upon. Chairs facing the couch or each other for sitting and speaking. Were I frequently visited, I might even see fit to transform my work room into a partial bedroom as well. Thus my home would be divided into a room for receiving guests, the "public room," and a room for personal activity, the "private room."
Idiosyncratic as all this may be, it is not idiosyncrasy for its own sake. There is no reason to be bound by traditional categories that have no relationship to one's lifestyle. One should think for oneself and not allow the tyranny of the majority to make one's home. If we want our homes to be ideal for who we are, then we must organize the objects within them according to who we are and mold the home to our functions as we perform our functions within its bounds. This will, often, involve defying some category distinctions.
More by this Author
Six ways we can preserve our lives indefinitely and what's wrong with them.
Simple instructions for an easy to make and sturdy cardboard bookcase, for economical home furnishing.
It has always been my conviction that the basic insights of the great philosophers can be rendered in pleasing, non-technical prose for everyone to understand. The great ideas arise as a result of experienced reality, a...