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Reification (also known as hypostatisation, concretism, or the fallacy of misplaced concreteness) is a fallacy of ambiguity, when an abstraction (abstract belief or hypothetical construct) is treated as if it were a concrete, real event, or physical entity. In other words, it is the error of treating as a "real thing" something which is not a real thing, but merely an idea. For example: if the phrase "holds another's affection", is taken literally, affection would be reified.

Note that reification is generally accepted in literature and other forms of discourse where reified abstractions are understood to be intended metaphorically, but the use of reification in logical arguments is usually regarded as a mistake (fallacy). For example, "Justice is blind; the blind cannot read printed laws; therefore, to print laws cannot serve justice." In rhetoric, it may be sometimes difficult to determine if reification was used correctly or incorrectly.

Pathetic fallacy or anthropomorphic fallacy is a specific subset of reification. The pathetic fallacy is also related to the concept of personification. Personification is direct and explicit in the ascription of life and sentience to the thing in question, whereas the pathetic fallacy is much broader and more allusive.

Etymology

From Latin res thing + facere to make, reification can be 'translated' as thing-making; the turning of something abstract into a concrete thing or object.

Theory

Reification often takes place when natural or social processes are misunderstood and/or simplified; for example when human creations are described as “facts of nature, results of cosmic laws, or manifestations of divine will”. Reification can also occur when a word with a normal usage is given an invalid usage. Such "mental shortcuts" lead to ascribing substance or real existence to mental constructs or concepts, particularly treating them as live beings. When human-like qualities are attributed as well, it is a special case of reification, known as pathetic fallacy (or anthropomorphic fallacy).

A reification circle refers to the event when a norm, first seen as artificial and forced, in time becomes so accepted that even its creators start to think of it as a natural law.

Willard Van Orman Quine suggests that reification exists potentially in all linguistic categorisations and naming objects, insofar as the recognition of the same object in different spatio-temporal contexts requires abstraction from time, change, interactions, and relations pertaining to the object. Already Heraclitus had observed "it was impossible to step in the same river twice", and this implies that identifying the river involves the imputation or attribution of a constancy which in physical reality does not exist.

Reification may derive from an inborn tendency to simplify experience by assuming constancy as much as possible.[1]

Compared to hypostatisation

Sometimes a distinction is drawn between reification and hypostatization based on the kinds of abstractions involved. In reification they are usually philosophical or ideological, such as existence, good, and justice.

Physics

Philosopher Steve Wilson [2] and others have suggested that Dark Matter, Dark Energy and the Higgs Boson may never be discovered because they are only reifications of the difference between the standard model and the observed universe, in mathematical form. This equates to the pathetic fallacy in mediaeval physics, where descriptions such as fluidity were reified as properties rather than analysed as the product of properties.

In literature

Note that reification applies to rhetorical devices, as well, such as metaphor and personification, which are not fallacies at all, but important and useful tools of language in literature. The distinction between treating abstractions as material existents rhetorically or using them in arguments that result in false conclusions is often difficult to detect, or even to describe, especially when the fallacious use is intentional.

Examples

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Nothingness

Another fallaciously reifying use of "nothing" is found in this joke: A man walks into a bar. The bartender asks him what he wants. "Nothing," he says. "So why did you come in here?" "Because nothing is better than a cold drink." The fallacy is manifested in the listener's interpretation of the man's answer, as, if the joke was successful, the listener is led to conflate the semantics of the two distinct but interrelated notions of emptiness and nothingness. If interpreted without this natural equivocation, the man's answer literally -- if awkwardly, in the context of answering the question -- means that he would prefer to drink nothing than to have a cold drink, instead of "Cold drinks are better than everything".

Legal and ethical

Regarding a state or a society as a conscious being ("This product is known to the state of California to cause cancer") or assuming government is a being with desires ("Government wants to help/harm you"). Both of these reifications are examples of the linguistic phenomenon metonymy.

The legal recognition of corporations as "individuals" may lead to fallacious assumptions. In reality, these are just organizations of capital and labor, but have been assigned the status of legal 'persons' which gives them entitlements and liabilities, such as the ability to own property or to be sued.[3] It would be fallacious to attribute other personal qualities to corporations based on this status, e.g., "Acme Explosives is a warm-hearted company." (This anthropomorphic fallacy is explored in detail in the movie The Corporation.)

Phrases

  • "The universe will not allow the human race to die out by accident." (attributes intention to the universe)
  • "Religion attempts to destroy our liberty and is therefore immoral." (attributes intention to religion)
  • "Good and evil are forces ruling the universe." (attributes existence and agency to the abstract ideas of good and evil)
  • "Evolution chooses the strong to survive." (attributes intention to evolution)

Similar fallacies

Pathetic fallacy (also known as anthropomorphic fallacy) is a specific type of reification. Just as reification is the attribution of concrete characteristics to an abstract idea, a pathetic fallacy is when those characteristics are specifically human characteristics, thoughts, and feelings.

The animistic fallacy involves attributing intention of a person to an event or situation. This is usually not reification because the "real" attributes are given to the perceived person involved, and not the event or situation. For example, "The train's conductor must have been impatient, so we missed the train." (animistic fallacy), compared to "The train was impatient." (reification).

Reification fallacy should not be confused with other fallacies of ambiguity:

  • Accentus, where the ambiguity arises from the emphasis (accent) placed on a word or phrase
  • Amphiboly, a verbal fallacy arising from ambiguity in the grammatical structure of a sentence
  • Composition, when one assumes that a whole has a property solely because its various parts have that property
  • Division, when one assumes that various parts have a property solely because the whole has that same property
  • Equivocation, the misleading use of a word with more than one meaning

See also

Notes

  1. ^ David Galin in B. Alan Wallace, editor, Buddhism & Science: Breaking New Ground. Columbia University Press, 2003, page 132.
  2. ^ Aisling Magazine no 9
  3. ^ "Corporation". http://www.riskglossary.com/link/corporation.htm. Retrieved 2007-08-18.  

References


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