Reification Research Paper

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Notwithstanding its esoteric overtones and philosophical intricacies, reification (Verdinglichung) is a central concept of social theory in general and of critical theory in particular. Although reification has received the greatest attention in Western Marxism, and above all in Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness (1923), it is important not to restrict the use of the concept to that tradition but to see that it can also and already be found in the work of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Dilthey, Husserl, Heidegger, Simmel, and Max Weber to criticize the dehumanizing, rationalizing, and alienating tendencies of modernity.

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As a technical term, the term reification emerged in the English language in the 1860s out of the contraction of the verb facere (to make) and the substantive res (thing), which can refer both to concrete and empirically observable things (ens) and to abstract, indeterminate things (aliquid ). As a synonym of ‘thingification,’ the inverse of personification, reification metaphorically refers to the transformation of human properties, relations, processes, actions, concepts, etc. into res, into things that act as pseudo-persons, endowed with a life of their own. This material transmogrification of persons, relations, processes, concepts, etc. into thing-like entities that act like pseudopersons can operate both on a methodological and a social level. In both cases, however, the concept is usually used as a Kampfwort to denounce the ‘violence of abstractions,’ either of conceptual abstractions (Sohn-Rethel’s Denkabstraktionen) that suppress the reflexive embeddedness of concepts into their social context, treat social facts as things, and transform metasubjects into megasubjects, or of real abstractions (Marx’s Realabstraktionen) that strip individuals of their autonomy and reduce them to cogs of an abstract social machinery. This reference to the Kantian notion of autonomy is important. Outside of the normative context of an ‘enlightened critique of the Enlightenment,’ the notion of reification hardly makes sense, as can be gathered from the fact that conservative, skeptical, and ultraliberal theorists such as Gehlen, Luhmann, and Hayek have a theory of the autonomization of social structures but no theory of reification to connect it to the alienation of individuals in modern capitalist industrial societies.

1. Methodological Reification—Or The Critique Of Conceptual Abstractions

In the philosophy of the social sciences, the concept of reification is used (a) to denounce the hypostasis or substantialization of concepts (nominalist critique of reism), (b) the naturalization of the subject and the life-world (humanist critique of naturalism), and (c) the ideological justification of the status quo (dialectical critique of fetishism).

1.1 Nominalist Critique Of Reism

In the case of the critique of reism (or naive conceptual realism), the notion of reification of concepts is used to denounce, from a nominalist, vitalist, or criticist perspective, the categorical error of transforming abstractions (notions, representations, concepts) into a material reality, in a concrete object ‘out there.’ Reification is here understood as a synonym of the ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’ (Whitehead). What is criticized is the hypostasis of concepts, analytical constructs, and ideal types, the sliding from the substantive to the substance, which involves a subreption of the categorical thing with the ‘thing in itself.’ This is, for instance, the case with macrosociologists who transform their own conceptual constructs or those of the actors (‘the State,’ the Bourgeoisie, the ‘Proletariat’) into historical subjects capable of agency and of determining their own ends (‘the State decides,’ ‘the Anglican Church resists,’ ‘the glorious Proletariat triumphs,’ etc.). It should, however, be noted that due to the absence of a consensus on the ultimate referents of reality and the fact that one can always submit the concepts of the scientist to a neo-Kantian critique of ontology, the charge of reification is almost inevitable. Given that one’s typification is another’s reification, the critique of ‘false conceptual realism’ (Weber) is endemic in sociology.

1.2 Humanist Critique Of Naturalism

The critique of positivist naturalism in terms of reification of the subject and the life-world is linked to the series of methodological disputes (Methodenstreit) which, since the double foundation of sociology by Comte and Dilthey in the nineteenth century, have opposed the partisans of the method of causal explanation (Erklaren) to the partisans of the interpretative methods (Verstehen). Drawing on Vico’s principle of the verum factum (verum et factum convertuntur), according to which we can understand the sociohistorical reality because it is a human product, but not nature which is a divine product, humanists claim that the appropriate method of sociology is interpretative in that it aims to understand, by means of a phenomenological and hermeneutic reconstitution of the meaning of action, the social-historical world (Hegel’s objective spirit) as an objectivation of subjective actions. Social facts thus have a meaning and cannot be treated ‘as if they were things’ (Durkheim). The naturalistic elimination of the meaningfulness of action through statistical observation is reifying in that it transforms psychic acts into pseudophysical facts and reduces culture to (second) nature. Against Durkheim and his fellow ‘factists’ who ‘change the subject’ of the human sciences by substituting factors for actors, humanists thus argue that social facts are not things but that things are social facts whose meaning can be understood and which can be interpreted as an ‘ongoing accomplishment of the concerted activities of daily life’ (Garfinkel).

1.3 Dialectical Critique Of Fetishism

The dialectical critique of fetishism offers a metatheoretical critique of the ideological implications of bourgeois theories and methodologies of the social that, due to a lack of reflexivity on their context of genesis and application, legitimize the status quo. Dialecticians accept the limits of ‘hermeneutic idealism.’ When social relations have crystallized into a ‘second nature’ and social subsystems follow their own pseudonatural laws, ‘dehumanizing’ theories (e.g., functionalism, structuralism, systems theory) and methods (e.g., linear modeling, statistical regression) can and have to be applied. But if one does not want to fall prey to a ‘reification of the second order’ and give a ‘reified perception of the reifying’ (Adorno) that willy-nilly endorses the reality it registers, the observed facts have to be ‘mediated by the totality’ (Lukacs 1923) and defetishized in such a way that the tension between the real and the possible, between what is and what could or should be, becomes perceptible within the facts themselves.

2. Social Reification—Or The Critique Of Real Abstractions

In the tradition of Western Marxism, Marx’s theories of alienation and the fetishism of commodities are combined with Hegel’s dialectical phenomenology of spirit, Simmel’s theory of the tragedy of culture, and Max Weber’s theory of formal rationalization to form a critical theory of society. The concept of reification is used to refer to the relatively autonomous, alienating and alienated functioning of the social and cultural (sub-) systems of modern capitalist societies that impose their constraints from without on individuals, limit their freedom and tend to reduce them to powerless ‘carriers’ or passive ‘executioners’ of the system. As products of praxis, institutions and organizations are human objectivations, but in the course of their development, the cultural and social (sub)systems have been complexified, formalized, rationalized, and depersonalized to such an extent that eventually they have been transmuted into self-referentially closed systems that function independently of the will and the consciousness of individuals, thwart their plans, threaten their autonomy, and perhaps even their existence. The critique of reification is dialectical and thus somewhat paradoxical: the insistence on the alienating autonomy of the system, which is an objectivation of action, aims to reactivate the autonomy of the individuals and to overcome their alienation.

Although the concept of reification (Verdinglichung) can already be found in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, the real history of the concept begins with Marx and with Lukacs’s Hegelian interpretation of Marx. The origins of the theory of reification are usually found just where the word itself is absent, namely in the famous section on the fetishism of commodities (Marx 1869, Chap. 1, Sect. 4). Analyzing capitalism as a system of generalized exchange, Marx notes that the commodity has become the universal form of the product of labor, with the result that the exchange value of the commodity supplants the use value. Consequently, the exchange value appears to those who exchange goods as a property of the commodity itself, whereas in reality it is the result of the labor that is incorporated in the commodity and that expresses itself as a quantitative relationship between the exchanged goods. ‘It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the phantasmagoric form of a relation between things’ (Marx 1869, pp. 23, 86). This inversion of humans and things is not simply an illusion, however, but an expression of the real nature of social relations in a competitive market environment. In the absence of a central organism that regulates both the production and the distribution of the products of labor, the social integration of humans is imposed from without by the systemic interconnection of things.

In ‘Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,’ the central chapter of History and Class Consciousness, Lukacs, a Hegelian Marxist who was once a student of Simmel and Max Weber, presents the classic formulation of the theory of reification. Synthesizing Weber’s theory of formal rationalization with Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, Lukacs generalizes the theory of commodity fetishism beyond the sphere of circulation. In the problem of fetishism, which he immediately identifies with the phenomenon of reification, he discovers the ‘central, structural problem of capitalist societies in all its aspects’ (Lukacs 1923/1968, p. 257). The universality of the commodity form, conceived as the prototype of all the forms of objectivity that follow their own laws and dissimulate the traces of human relations that subtend them, affects the life of everybody, both in its objective and subjective manifestations. Objectively, individuals are confronted with a second nature of pseudo-things against which they are powerless; subjectively, they are estranged from their own activity, apprehending the products of their own activity in an alienated mode— ‘as if they were something else than human products’ (Berger and Luckmann ). Moving from the sphere of circulation to the sphere of production, Lukacs rediscovers the theory of the alienation of labor which the young Marx had developed but not published in the Parisian Manuscripts of 1844. In the sphere of material production, reification expresses itself most clearly in the reduction of labor power to a commodity and of the laborer to an appendix of the machine. In capitalism, reification is generalized and the fate of the worker becomes paradigmatic of the fate of everyone. Expressing the Messianism of the oppressed, Lukacs eventually reintroduces the Proletariat as the ‘identical subject–object’ of history whose Revolutionary actions overcome alienation and reification and thus realize the Hegelian dream of the restoration of the ‘beautiful totality.’

The development of the so-called Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School can best be understood as the result of a progressive disillusion with Revolutionary expectations. Eliminating the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic of consciousness, which they replace by a Freudian account of sublimation and repression, Horkheimer, Marcuse, and especially Adorno, who also gave a Nietzschean twist to the concept of reification, radicalize the Weberian-Marxist strand in Lukacs’ theory. Universalizing and totalizing reification to the point that it appears as an ontological feature of human civilisation, they almost end up indicting Reason as such. Indeed, to explain totalitarianism, Horkheimer and Adorno develop a negative philosophy of history which uncovers in the first protohistorical attempts to dominate nature the origin of the fatal unfolding of a diabolic logic of increasing reification that will find its culmination (but not its endpoint) in the death camps. In his Theory of Communicative Action, Jurgen Habermas (1981), the main representative of the second generation of critical theory, reformulates the theory of reification in terms of the paradigm of language. In this perspective, reification is no longer associated with rationalization as such, as was the case with Max Weber and the Frankfurt School, but reconceptualized in terms of the ‘colonization of the life-world’ by the subsystems of the economy and the administration. When the mechanisms of systemic integration (money and power) force back the forms of social integration from those domains that can only be integrated through language, a reification ensues that leads to a pathological deformation of the life-world.


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