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Reification

A fallacy of abstraction that consists in treating abstract concepts as if they were concrete things or even agents with intentions and power of agency.

This can be exemplified by statements such as the following:

The central bank has raised key interest rates in order to calm the market.

The “market”, in the sense the term is used here, is an abstract concept that describes the totality of the interactions of many agents – as such, the market cannot be “calmed”; In contrast to the people acting on the market.

Names

Other names

  • Objectification
  • Hypostasis
  • (Fallacy of) misplaced concreteness

Etymology

The word “reification” is derived from the Latin terms “rēs” (“the thing”) and “făcĕre” (“to make, produce”). The original Latin expression can therefore be translated as “to make something into a thing”.

Description

Abstract concepts can help to deal with complex issues in a simple way and they can indeed help to make them “tangible” in a figurative sense.

However, there is a danger that such abstractions will at some point be perceived as something “concrete” and attributed properties that an abstract concept simply can not have.

The fallacy described here is thus to misunderstand an abstract concept as something concrete – in extreme cases even with typical human characteristics – and no longer as the abstraction that it is.

Limitations

Reification is a fallacious process, in which an abstract concept is inadmissibly (mis-)understood as a concrete thing. However, there are situations in which this only appears to happen. This is often connected to equivocations of the terms:

Abstract terms with a concrete meaning

Abstract terms may well stand for concrete things in specific cases, for example in the form of what is known as a totum pro parte (metonymy). For example:

The UK has elected a new prime minister.

Obviously, a country (here: the UK) is not a person and thus has no right to vote. At first glance, therefore, this seems like an example for a reification fallacy.

However, the expression recognisably does not really refer to the country as such, but to the voting population of the country, or at least to those who have actually exercised their right to vote (“the whole stands for a part”). Thus, the word “the UK” does not describe the abstract entity of a country, but in fact a concrete (and eligible to vote) group of people.

In other words, the extension of “the UK” is in this specific context actually concrete and not abstract.

Examples

“Society”

“Society is to blame for XYZ.”

Probably everyone has heard such statements, supposedly “critical of society”, which try to explain real or supposed grievances with the structure and peculiarities of “society”.

However, society is an abstract concept that cannot be “guilty” of anything. The “reification” (possibly even “humanisation”) of the concept distracts from the fact that there are usually actors in society who can correct grievances. It would make more sense to name them clearly.

Incidentally, in case of doubt, the actors that can change a society are all members of that society (albeit usually to varying degrees).

Something similar applies to many other conceptual terms, here as just one example:

Patriarchy is to blame for women earning less than men.

Similar to “society”, also “patriarchy” is an abstraction that can not be put in a position of blame.

Different to, for example, employers (of any gender) who pay women less than men. A first step to remedy this deplorable state of affairs would be to openly pronounce the person or persons specifically responsible for it.

See also

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