Phenomenological Psychology

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Reification

December 23rd, 2007 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

Most verbs readily transform into nouns in response to the question, “what?”. Using the infinitive, “to create” becomes “a creation.” “To paint” becomes “a painting.” These are “things,” that is, present-at-hand objects in the world.

Another category of verb doesn’t translate that well into an object. “To eat” doesn’t become “an eat,” nor does “to collide” become “a collide.” One doesn’t say, “I’m going to sit down for an eat,” or, “I’m going to watch those two trains do a collide.” You can, especially if you’re quaint or fey, but it’s tortured syntax.

Many verbs are somewhere in the middle. “To run” becomes “a run,” as in, “I’m going out for a run.” “To dance” morphs into “a dance” (or “the dance”).

The trend to reify is exacerbated by the anomalous use of plural or third-party pronouns by, e.g., politicians.  “We shall make a great senator,” he did a great job,” uttered by the speaker himself.”  These postulate an object.  The speaker is attempting to achieve an aura of universality, perhaps to resonate with voters.  Instead of a narrower subject-object distinction.

It’s unlikely this tendency started off the other way around, that is, the thing was there first. Activities had to happen, before there were things resulting from them.

Activities are events in the world. Only people can engage in activities. That’s because only people have the capacity to devise, implement, and then reflect on them. We don’t necessarily have to think about them in this matter. Except when describing an action post facto (or a contemplated one pre facto), it’s unlikely we do. We certainly don’t think about them, when we’re performing them. We just non-consciously, but purposefully, engage in the activity.

Reptiles and viruses, on the other hand, are teleologically oriented. Reptiles move into the sun, because the temperature drops. They eat because they require nutrients. They’re not, however, “cold” or “hungry.” Viruses descend upon, and exploit, a weakness in the human immune system. They don’t plot this out in advance, or have an ad hominem desire to make you sick. We classify all of these as “action” verbs. They also can be phrased in passive voice. They only seem like action verbs, though, because of sentence structure. Although something gets accomplished, properly understood, there’s nobody there to do it.

We enjoy anthropomorphisizing our dogs and cats. However, they’re not really all that much like us. They don’t “think” the same way we do.

As J. L. Austin observed, one class of verbs is extra-peculiar, and that is performatives. Performatives imply not only an object, but also a subject. “To order,” “to promise,” “to agree,” etc. all reify. There is “an order,” “a promise,” and “an agreement.” Unlike all other verbs, they necessarily imply a human subject, as well as an object. Cheetahs can run, and clouds can dance. On the other hand, only a “person” can issue an order, make a promise, or enter into an agreement. The reason why is, only people are capable of altering a state of affairs in the world, by using words.

Dogs can mewl all they want when they want to be fed, or take a walk. They succeed in communicating hunger, or an urge to perambulate about the neighborhood. It would be wrong, however, to think they formulate an active intention to do so. They’re not “using” words, in any meaningful sense. They’re just making noises in response to impulses.

Words are innocuous. They’re not all they’re cracked up to be. We simply use them to communicate with each other. They just as easily could be (and many times are) clicks, guttural noises, or hand gestures.

Many philosophers and linguists nonetheless are beguiled by language. In particular, they examine syntactical structures, such as performatives, and conclude there must be a “self” who is doing the ordering, the promising, or the agreeing.  

The notion of “self,” however, simply is an artifact of consciousness. It has the peculiar property of being there only when we look for it, and never at any other time. It isn’t something that “lives” in the brain. Or, if it does, that’s a trivial answer, because without evolved mammalian brains, we wouldn’t be here, to begin with.

Rather, the “self” just is something we imagine having, and then, not too often – certainly not during the vast majority of our day-to-day activities in the world. Rather, we just do what we do, without thinking about it. We don’t act “unconsciously,” because that implies mental forces and influences. More accurately, we act “nonconsciously.” We assume roles, deploy equipment, regard objects, and interact with others. We are profoundly affected by our environment, culture, convention, and social protocol. No thinking is necessary. What distinguishes us from reptiles and viruses is that we can, if we want to, and sometimes we do.

Language exacerbates the problem. We speak serially, that is, words follow each other, projecting into the future. I can’t give you a “thought burst” that communicates everything I want to tell you, instantly. I wouldn’t even be able to compose my thoughts in such a manner, because they occur serially, too. When I’m talking, I just open my mouth, and words come out. I may have a point I want to make, but unless I’ve memorized a speech, pretty much any old word will do, so long as it accomplishes the objective. That word isn’t selected, in advance, and I don’t deliberate which words to use, when I’m saying them.

When somebody tells me to “choose my words carefully,” what they really mean, is, “compose your thoughts before speaking.” You then can express your thoughts using whatever words you want, provided you are circumspect. Even in that extreme instance, you’re not like a produce clerk, selecting only the best potatoes to boil for dinner. You just use words in the language to express your point. Reciprocally, we process incoming audio-visual information, in the same manner.

This temporal structure is responsible for many of our concepts of “self.” Like diagramming sentences in elementary school, it neatly divides the world into subject, verb and object, possibly with a few adjectives or adverbs hanging off to the side. Performatives are especially guilty of propagating this outcome.