The Definition of "Automobile" (by a Music Theorist)

25 November, 2006
Every introduction to the study of automobiles must start with the question of definition. Here, using techniques of discourse and analysis borrowed from the academic study of music theory and music philosophy, I derive a complete and satisfying definition of the word "automobile" in three steps. A special challenge to the student's thinking about automobiles is included at the end of the article.

Definition 1: Organisation

What is an automobile? Many of us have experience of automobiles, and we may know what it is like and how it feels (subjectively) to be in an automobile. But do we know how to formally define what an automobile is?

Automobiles are usually made of metal, plastic, glass and rubber, and it might seem that this is a sufficient basis for a formal definition. But there is more to an automobile than just being made of metal, plastic, glass and rubber. If you look under the bonnet and under the chassis, you will see that these materials are organised in space. And if you turn on the ignition, the automobile will come to life, and you will discover that they are also organised in time.

This leads us to a first attempt to define what an "automobile" is:

An automobile is metal, plastic, glass and rubber, organised in space and time.

Definition 2: Human Agency

An automobile does not just exist by itself; it is constructed by human hands and by human intentions. So we should include this concept in our definition:

An automobile is metal, plastic, glass and rubber, organised in space and time by human agency.

Definition 3: Communication

The composition and construction of automobiles are important aspects of the nature of automobiles. Yet these aspects do not tell us what the purpose of automobiles is.

A clue to the mystery of automobile purpose comes from observing correlation of automobile brand with the economic status of the owner. A rich automobile owner may pay as much as $100,000(US) for an automobile in which the organisation of metal, plastic, glass and rubber is only subtly different from that in a $10,000 automobile purchased by a member of a lower economic class.

This completes the "what" and "how" of our previous definition attempts with the all important "why":

An automobile is metal, plastic, glass and rubber, organised in space and time by human agency, which communicates the economic status of its owner to an audience of onlookers.

There is an exciting connection here with evolutionary theory, as anecdotal evidence suggests that some automobile owners use the status communicated by their automobiles to offset their general lack of sexual attractiveness. Thus a direct link can be established between the ownership of automobiles and the adaptiveness of non-fakeable signalling of information about economic and reproductive fitness to members of the opposite sex.

Is a Pin-Ball Machine a Kind of Automobile?

This is a question that is commonly used to challenge the thinking of first year students. Many of them have a limited concept of automobiles as entities which are purchased from authorised automobile dealerships. A naïve commercialistic definition of automobileness would appear to exclude pin-ball machines. Yet pin-ball machines satisfy the first two criteria of the definition given above:

With regard to the third criterion, i.e. communicating the economic status of the owner, most pin-ball machines are found in pubs and game parlours, and do not say anything in particular about their owner's economic status. However, it is generally acknowledged that if one has a pin-ball machine in one's house, that it is a fairly "cool" (i.e. status-enhancing) thing to have.

If you (as a first year student in automobile theory) find this hard to accept, don't worry, your lecturers and tutors will be presenting you with many more challenging examples of automobileness, including some that don't even precisely fit the definition that we have introduced here. Soon you'll not only be naturally thinking of pin-ball machines as a kind of automobile, but you'll be embarrassed to be standing in the same room as any person who persists in defending the belief that a pin-ball machine is not a kind of automobile.