Thursday, July 7, 2011

Reification

When I first came across this curious word I understood it right away—and that because my little Latin sufficed to tell me that the re stood for the Latin res, thing. Therefore the word meant thingification—and signals the process whereby something that isn’t is turned into something that is—a thing. The word comes from German, Verdinglichung. It was coined by Marx, but for German readers it is as immediately understandable as thingification is in English, but with a lesser feel of awkwardness, the reason being that both parts of Verdinglichung come from West Germanic roots, but in thingification the thing is West Germanic but the -ification comes from Latin; the smell of a mongrel is in the air. Not surprisingly, therefore, translators rendered that German word in Latin. A variant is Versachlichung, rendered as objectification, and that English word is much less awkward because object comes from Latin too. Germans are less inclined to form neologisms from Latin—one reason why it is relatively easier to read philosophical works in that language. That Norman invasion has done strange things to English.

What Marx had in mind was turning living labor into gold, thus into a lifeless, tradable good. I came across the word in a more philosophical context and discovered, only this morning, that Marx and economics loomed behind it. In the philosophical context it stands for turning spiritual values into the material. Hence this word is a terrific single sound for characterizing cultural decline. It’s everywhere. Life is just a species of chemical reactions. Mind’s just the firing of neurons.

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