What is Reification?

The fallacy of reification, also called hypostatization, consists in the supposition that words must denote real things. Because we can admire the redness of a sunset, we must not be led by the existence of the word into supposing that redness is a thing. When we see a red ball, a red table, a red pen and a red hat, we commit the fallacy of reification if we suppose that a fifth object, redness, is present along with the ball, the table, the pen and the hat.

 

In SKYROS we have extracted the blueness of the summer sky and inserted it in a bar of heavenly soap.

(Since the ‘blueness’ of the summer sky is not an object, it cannot be processed like a material thing.)

 

Turning descriptive qualities into things is only one form of reification. We can also make the mistake of supposing that abstract nouns are real objects.

 

He realized that he had thrown away his future, and spent the rest of the afternoon trying to find it again.

(If you think that sounds silly, you should watch Plato searching for justice.)

 

Sometimes objects have consequential attributes, in their arrangement, perhaps. We commit reification if we suppose that these attributes are as real as the objects they depend upon.

 

It [the Cheshire Cat] vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.

(Alice could see it because she had sharp eyes. After all, she had seen nobody on the road, while the Duchess had difficulty enough seeing somebody.)

 

The fallacy occurs because our words have not the power to conjure up real existence. We can talk about things which do not exist at all, and we can talk of things in one form which actually might exist in another. ‘Redness entered the sky’ says roughly the same as ‘the sky reddened’, but the words denote different activities. Our words are not evidence for the existence of things; they are devices for talking about what we experience.

There is a school of philosophers which believes that if we can talk about things they must, in a sense, exist. Because we can make sentences about unicorns and the present king of France, they claim that there must actually be unicorns and a present king of France (with the latter presumably riding on the back of the former).

Yet another school elevates the fallacy into an art form, by talking about the ‘essences’ of things. They claim that what makes an egg into an egg and nothing else is its ‘eggness’, or the essence of egg. This essence is more real and more durable than the actual egg, for ordinary eggs disappear into quiche lorraine, but the idea of an egg goes on. The obvious objection, that this is just silly, is a commanding one. We use words like labels, to tie onto things so we do not have to keep pointing at them and communicating in sign language. Little can be inferred from this except that we have agreed to use words in a certain way. If someone brings out the ‘essences’ behind your words to show you what you really believe in, change the words.

 

‘You claim to support freedom, but the whole liberal democratic system has the essence of slavery. ‘

‘All right. We’ll call it slavery, then. And let it be clear that by “slave we mean people voting as they wish in elections, having a free press and independent judiciary, etc. ‘

(This is an upsetting tactic. The accuser had expected the old image of slaves being whipped on plantations to be carried over into the new use describing the Western democracies.)

 

Your own use of reification can be directed toward showing that what people say they support involves them in supporting your position. You simply take all of the abstract concepts, turn them into real entities, and start demonstrating that their real natures are in line with what you were saying.

 

You say that God exists, but let us look at this idea of existence. We talk about tables which have existence, chairs which have existence and so on, but for pure existence you have to take away the tables and chairs and all of the things which exist, to be left with existence itself. In taking away everything which exists, you are left with nothing existing, so you see the existence of your God is the same as non-existence.

(He’ll never spot that existence doesn’t exist. After all, Hegel didn’t.)