Imagine a rectangle of white paper. With some skillful folding, you can transform it into something that can fly.

Now you’re holding a paper plane. But say you squash the wings and the fuselage into a paper ball. Does the “plane” survive? And what if you then delicately unfold the paper, so as not to bunch or tear it? The plane is gone, but the wrinkled piece of paper remains. And what even is a plane anyway?

Here’s a further riddle: When you’re holding a newly folded, intact paper plane, are you holding one object in your hand, or two?

These are the puzzles that provoke the questions close to Assistant Professor of Philosophy and 2019 Collegiate Fellow Maegan Fairchild’s heart. “If we take everything I do seriously,” Fairchild says with a wink, “I would say I have two things in my hand when the paper plane is intact: a plane and a piece of paper.”

Concrete Stuff

In the field of philosophy, Fairchild considers the paper plane puzzle with what could be described as a “permissive” metaphysical lens. Metaphysicians pursue questions having to do with the nature of objects, existence, and change. And Fairchild pursues these metaphysical questions with particular expansiveness. Her list of what comprises the material world is longer than most. Presented with what most of us might consider a single object, Fairchild and other permissive philosophers see multitudes in its place.

Metaphysics is downright weird and it’s a hard topic to introduce. But in her “Introduction to Metaphysics: Art and Ontology” course, Fairchild says, “I wanted to take this weirdness seriously and find the right tools to play with questions like these—about what exists, and what it means to create or destroy something. I needed to make some of this stuff more concrete.”

"Students in Fairchild's course pursued metaphysical questions inspired by the Curriculum / Collection exhibition project, which included art from (clockwise from top left) Dominick Labino, 12th Century China, Hatakeyama Norie, and Judy Chicago." Images used with permission, courtesy of David Choberka, University of Michigan Museum of Art

To make these large, unwieldy questions more tangible, Fairchild worked with David Choberka, Andrew W. Mellon Curator for University Learning and Programs at University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA), in a museum and faculty partnership called the Curriculum / Collection exhibition project. The project brings faculty and UMMA staff together to curate museum exhibits with art objects that offer another way of seeing the course material

“It was really amazing how quickly Maegan and I generated so many interesting ideas for an art installation,” Choberka says of their collaboration. “We met at the New Faculty Orientation event in 2018 and made plans to talk at the museum. We ended up walking around the museum for over an hour and having a wide-ranging discussion of art and metaphysics. I jumped at the chance to work on an installation with Maegan when UMMA launched Curriculum / Collection the following year.”

Together, Fairchild and Choberka came up with 16 pieces from the UMMA collection that would be used as proving grounds for metaphysical questions, forming the structure of Fairchild’s syllabus. Fairchild found that studying these objects helped her students explore sophisticated philosophical questions with rigor and enthusiasm. It turns out that a lot of the fundamental questions of metaphysics can be interrogated by looking carefully at art.

Fairchild’s students studied Hatakeyama Norie’s “Endless Line Series II 6 Holes” paper lash sculptures and attempted to define a hole. Does a hole exist, or is it only the solid matter around the hole that exists? They also pondered the relationship between parts and wholes. Is Judy Chicago’s “Cubes and Cylinders” just a scattered collection of 24 separate pieces, or do those somehow compose one unified whole? Sol Lewitt’s “lithographs with instructions” raised questions about how actions change, depending upon who or what is doing them. The class also considered the elements of a musical work—the variety of different instruments used in a performance, or even different performers, such as human beings or computers. What does it take for two performances to be the very same musical work?

Students also probed metaphysical questions about the role of artists in shaping our material world, with help from guest professor Susan Crowel from U-M’s Stamps School of Art and Design, who led a conversation about how artists think about the things they create, and how an artist knows when a work of art is complete. Fairchild noted that the questions and observations about art that filled her classroom conversation did not necessarily end in firm answers, but they provided a touchstone for talking through some otherwise “very weird” problems in metaphysics.

What’s Possible?

Fairchild and Choberka’s collaboration demonstrates the way different disciplines apply to and improve upon each other as tools for seeing the world. Like philosophy, looking at art offers a way to see broadly, and to expand our notions of what is and what can be. The endgame of metaphysics, as Fairchild sees it, is to deepen and expand our understanding of the universe. “When we think this way,” Fairchild says, “we have a chance to consider what we’ve missed, and we have the opportunity to better understand we already know is there.”