Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Meaning and etymology of reification

Merriam-Webster, the OED and Wikipedia agree that reification is "regarding (something abstract) as a material or concrete thing" or "mental conversion of a person or abstract concept into a thing" or "treating an abstraction as if it represented a concrete, real event or physical entity", so it is a mental misrepresentation.

The OED adds a second specifically Marxist meaning:

"Also, depersonalization, esp. such as Marx thought was due to capitalist industrialization in which the worker is considered as the quantifiable labour factor in production or as a commodity."

The OED gives the following examples of usage:

1846 GROTE Greece (1851) I. 467 note, Boiocalus would have had some trouble to make his tribe comprehend the re-ification of the god Hêlios. 1854 Fraser's Mag. XLIX. 74 A process of what may be called reification, or the conscious conversion of what had hitherto been regarded as living beings into impersonal substances. 1882 J. B. STALLO Concepts & Th. Mod. Physics 269 The existence, or possibility, of transcendental space is another flagrant instance of the reification of concepts. 1937 T. PARSONS Struct. Soc. Action xiii. 476 Positivistic empiricism has been predominantly a matter of the ‘reification’ of theoretical systems. 1941 H. MARCUSE Reason & Revol. II. i. 279 Marx's early writings are the first explicit statement of the process of reification (Verdinglichung) through which capitalist society makes all personal relations between men take the form of objective relations between things. 1954 H. J. EYSENCK Psychol. Politics viii. 262 Freud's reification of mental mechanisms is a literary rather than a scientific device. 1962 MACQUARRIE & ROBINSON tr. Heidegger's Being & Time I. i. 72 The Thinghood itself which such reification implies must have its ontological origin demonstrated. 1971 J. J. SHAPIRO tr. Habermas's Toward Rational Soc. iii. 39 The active assault upon culture is based on the same reification as the fetishism of those students who believe that by occupying university classrooms they are taking possession of science as a productive force. 1976 G. THERBORN Sci., Class & Soc. i. 26 The ugly consequences, in Friedrich's view, result from a ‘reification’ of the current epistemological stance of science. 1979 E. H. GOMBRICH Sense of Order v. 143 To see the [wavy] line as water, mountains or, perhaps, a fluttering ribbon might be described as ‘reification’, to see it as a living serpent as ‘animation’. (reference)

So in English its predates its use as a translation of Marx's Verdinglichung, which seems to originate with Marcuse.

Wikipedia has a separate page on reification in Marxism: here. It says the word was coined by Destutt de Tracey, but I am sure this is erroneous: it was 'ideology' that he coined. The rest of the page seems even more confused, but it does have a bibliography.

1 comment:

genossedaub said...

I don't know, if this is too obvious to be mentioned, but I just wanted to point out that thing-like as opposed to living, implies that we regard the other as: unchanging, unrelated to others (as opposed to a part of a living organism), unrelated to ourselves/ the subject. This would be the meaning of Verdinglichung as I know it from Adorno. Interestingly what Marx calls Verdinglichung, seems to be rather the subjectification of real things (as they relate etc.).