We are a commune of inquiring, skeptical, politically centrist, capitalist, anglophile, traditionalist New England Yankee humans, humanoids, and animals with many interests beyond and above politics. Each of us has had a high-school education (or GED), but all had ADD so didn't pay attention very well, especially the dogs. Each one of us does "try my best to be just like I am," and none of us enjoys working for others, including for Maggie, from whom we receive neither a nickel nor a dime. Freedom from nags, cranks, government, do-gooders, control-freaks and idiots is all that we ask for.
"Searchin' high, searchin' low, Searchin' everywhere I know, Askin' the cops wherever I go, "Have you seen Dignity?""
Only Bob Dylan could create such a hard-rocking, clever, imagistic song about the hunt for an abstraction. (A rare piano version of Dignity:dignitypianoversion.mp3 - quick download. Official version of Dignity on Greatest Hits, Vol. 3)
Reification isn't on the usual lists of fallacies, but it deserves to be. I define it as the error of handling an abstraction, or a mental construct, as if it were a Real Thing with Real World Substance.
It comes to mind because The Professor, a corporate law professor, noted this week that a "corporation" is not a thing, but rather is a legal abstraction. He addresses the question of "Who owns a corporation?"
Often, it is almost impossible to speak about anything without slipping into reifying fallacies, because having a word for something almost makes it a "thing," and language is full of metaphor anyway. And what is a word? Roger Brown's classic pre-Chomsky linguistics text Words and Things - which I highly recommend - deals with such subjects beautifully and memorably.
What seems to happen with abstractions and mental constructs is that they accrue associations over time, lending them the appearance of substance without a substantial core.
Psychology is famous for such errors. "The id is at war with the superego." Well, that is a metaphor and a kind of professional shorthand, but there is no "id" and there is no "superego." They are theoretical constructs. Similarly, there is in fact no "Unconscious." There are such things as un-thought thoughts, and un-felt feelings and un-felt desires, but there is no thing "unconscious."
Thus the common Reification Fallacy is to to treat such constructs as if they were real things, objective things with real-world impact, rather than as lazy excuses for not saying what is really meant.
The good, but brief, Wikipedia entry offers a few good examples:
"Give peace a chance." Peace is not a thing, so it cannot do anything. It works as bad poetry, but it says nothing.
"Right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Huh? An abstraction like a "right" cannot act on the world. It is high-falutin', inspiring nonsense. As a mental construct, the word "right" can mean whatever anyone wants - including a "right to free car insurance" or a "right to a child" or a "right to 8 week's vacation" or a "right to a stress-free life." Whatever! Because it's all imaginary, you can fill in the blanks!
Got some of your own favorite reifications? Add 'em to Comments.
If you are new to Maggie's, check our category Fallacy of the Week. More on Reification Fallacies next week. This is getting too long for the average blog-reader's ADD, according to our ADD-disabled Editor.
"Right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is not a reification. According to Merriam-Webster reify is: to regard (something abstract) as a material or concrete thing. Two hundred thirty years of our history, a great civil war and constant debate have made it real.
the "right" didnt provide those things.
those things, wars, people, etc, protected a bunch of laws that realized those protections, including the bill of rights - a set of laws.
maybe it's a bad example, but a "right" doesn't do anything.
The issue of whether natural rights have real meaning is an issue of much philosophical disagreement. It isn't, and perhaps will never be, a settled issue. Calling such right's "reification" assumes the negative, but the negative of this issue can't be demonstrated to be false (neither can the positive).