Friday, December 28, 2012

Reification Fallacy

There are a lot of ersatz 'fallacies', and an ever-increasing number, at that. One that I've been thinking of recently has been the so-called 'reification fallacy'. According to Wikipedia, it "is a fallacy of ambiguity, when an abstraction (abstract belief or hypothetical construct) is treated as if it were a concrete, real event, or physical entity." It's a rather ironic fallacy, actually, since discussions of fallacies regularly treat abstractions as "concrete, real events or physical entities", since fallacies, which are abstract categories are often treated as if they weren't abstract at all. This is often a mistake, of course, but no fallacy is committed, because there is no such thing as a reification fallacy. A fallacy has to be a single, specific, stable, structurally identifiable form of misreasoning; merely making a mistake does not make one's reasoning fallacious, and this is true of merely making a mistake in how the abstract relates to the concrete.

And when we look at supposed examples of reification, we regularly find that there is no substance to the charge of fallacy. There is clearly no single type of error that is classified by the label: we see this already in Wikipedia's fairly typical vagueness about whether we are talking about 'abstraction', 'abstract belief', or 'hypothetical construct', which are none of the three the same. We see this even more clearly when (as with the Wikipedia article) people classify the 'pathetic fallacy' as an example of the 'reification fallacy', because there is no single kind of misreasoning classified by the pathetic fallacy, either. The 'pathetic fallacy' wasn't even originally intended as an error of reasoning; the phrase was coined by Ruskin to describe a misplacement of feeling in poetry, as when we call a storm cruel or a flower gold because they feel cruel or gold, which occurs when poetry is over-sentimentalized. To the extent that Ruskin's pathetic fallacy is even an error, it is purely an error in taste, in which the false is taken as true due to overwrought poetic sensitivities; calling it a 'fallacy' was at best a figure of speech. From there it became generalized to apply to any sort of anthropomorphizing or personification -- with regard to which 'fallacy' is even less appropriate. But even if we set that aside, the 'pathetic fallacy' taken so generally covers many different things -- because personification and anthropomorphization are labels covering reason not by the structure or character of the reasoning but by its effect, and thus indicates any kind of reasoning that leads to a particular kind of result.

Similarly, any kind of list of examples of this alleged fallacy always looks like it was composed by idiots who don't understand basic figures of speech. Also from the Wikipedia article:

Nature provides empathy that we may have insight into the mind of others.

What makes this an instance of the 'reification fallacy'? It clearly cannot be a fallacy at all, since it's merely a claim, and you can't have a fallacy unless you actually have an inference or process of reasoning. Another example from the Wikipedia article:

The notion that ideas are literally "infectious," "predatory," and "selfish" is a fallacious reification of the idea-as-organism metaphor....

Except that this is obviously false. You can never identify a fallacy except to the extent that you can identify how someone is reasoning. Without knowing how one gets from the idea-as-organism metaphor to the notion that ideas are literally infectious, predatory, or selfish, we have no way of determining whether the reasoning itself was fallacious or whether the reasoning was nonfallacious reasoning from false assumptions (assuming, of course, that the assumptions are false, which is itself a substantive thesis requiring some kind of supporting reasons). Of course, almost no one actually thinks that ideas are themselves literally selfish; when people talk this way, they are talking figuratively, even if they are not always careful about that fact. But even if they weren't, mistaking figurative usage for literal is a very different thing from mistaking the abstract for the concrete.

Three examples from another source:

1. The government has a hand in everybody's business and another in every person's pocket. By limiting such governmental pickpocketing, we can limit its incursions on our freedom.

2. I can't believe that the universe would allow humans and human achievement just to fade away, therefore there must be a God and an afterlife where all will be preserved.

3. Religion attempts to destroy our liberty and is therefore immoral.

But there is nothing fallacious about either of these forms of reasoning; in any conversation in which one found these, one would obviously take them to be figurative. The first isn't even obviously an inference, rather than a single position expressed in colorful phrasing. In the second we have reasoning, but the reasoning itself is unexceptionable given certain assumptions; the reification occurs entirely within the first premise (the universe would not allow humans and human achievement just to fade away) and therefore is not fallacious at all, even if it is misleading or incorrect even when interpreted in the appropriate sense. The same is true of the third: if religion does in some meaningful sense attempt to destroy our liberty, then it really is, assuming certain plausible things, immoral; no fallacy is involved at all. The supposed problem is simply with the premise, taken in a sense other than most people would take it, and not with the reasoning at all. Austin Cline is at least sensible enough to recognize that this is all just figurative language; he still tries, unsuccessfully, to salvage its status as a fallacy by saying that such metaphors become fallacies when 'taken too far' -- but this gives away the game, since whether a metaphor is taken too far simply depends on which practical goals are relevant, and not on anything intrinsic to the reasoning itself. One could perhaps argue that, contrary to Wikipedia, the reification fallacy is a fallacy of irrelevance rather than a fallacy of ambiguity -- but this would not change the fact that what is repeatedly identified in such examples cannot be fallacies in the first place because they are not forms of reasoning, just claims that may be mistaken or misunderstood.

Another example, from a third source:

Tom: We as a nation need to have a coherent economic policy.
Dick: Who does?
Tom: The nation, you know, the people.
Dick continues: Oh, you mean the government.

According to this source, Tom in his response to Dick commits the reification fallacy "because there is in fact no such thing as a nation" and Dick in turn commits the reification fallacy "because there is in fact no such thing as 'the government'". This is taking a fear of reification to ludicrous extremes, and is another way in which this is a very ironic fallacy: they only way you could think that Tom and Dick are reifying is by treating 'the people' and 'the government' here as referring to things other than people and institutions -- in short, by assuming, quite falsely, that whenever people refer to concrete things in the world abstractly that they are necessarily referring to things that concretely exist in their own right. Falsely, I say; fallaciously is another matter, because the problem here is a an absurd assumption rather than any problem of reasoning. In any case, neither Tom nor Dick are committing any fallacy, unless by 'committing a fallacy' you mean 'making a claim with which the speaker disagrees', which is so pretentious, artificial, and expansive sense of the phrase as to make it useless.

Two examples from yet another source:
How can you not want to go jogging? Look at that street -- it’s calling your name. It wants your feet pounding on it. “Jog on me!”

The Bible says that we parents should kill our disobedient children by stoning them to death.

According to this source, the reason why the first example commits the reification fallacy is "we are attempting to establish a greater emotional connection, thus attempting to get the person to act more on emotion than reason." Err, or we could just be joking around like people do. In any case, trying to get people to act more on emotion, even more on emotion rather than reason, is not any kind of mark of a fallacy, because it is, yet again, not the right kind of thing to be fallacious. The explanation of the second moves us from the territory of Wrong to the territory of Simply Ludicrous, since the supposed explanation of why it is a fallacy is that the Bible, being a book, doesn't say anything. Unless, of course, you speak colloquial English, in which case everyone understands exactly what you mean by saying that a book says something.

It gets even worse when people try to use the label to do amateur philosophy. Platonisms of various sorts are the usual victims of this egregiously bad thinking. Platonists do not, in fact, treat Platonic entities (forms, or mathematical objects, or the like) as "concrete, real events or physical entities"; no Platonist of any kind treats Platonic entities as physical entities, and the only sense in which they are 'concrete' is that they have independent subsistent. But even if we set this aside, if Platonists are wrong it's not because they are making some mis-step in inference; Platonic arguments that are not fallacious are not that difficult to construct. If Platonism goes wrong, it goes wrong because it makes mistaken assumptions; the wrongness of Platonism is a substantive wrongness that can only be identified by substantive arguments, not by simply claiming that there are structural faults in Platonic reasoning. In part this is because when applied to Platonism all the label is saying is that Platonism misdraws the relationship between the abstract and the concrete. This may be true, but this is just to say that Platonism is wrong for some reason, perhaps due to a mistaken assessment or assumption at some point; it is not to say that Platonists are necessarily engaging in any kind of misreasoning. Trying to refute Platonism by saying it commits the reification fallacy is the height of intellectual laziness: the label conveys no actual information about what is wrong with Platonism beyond the fact that it is Platonism and not some other philosophical position. (I see that Paul Manata at "Triablogue" once pointed this out for a somewhat different context, although he doesn't criticize the notion of a 'reification fallacy' as such.)

One of the fundamental problems with much talk about fallacies is that people repeatedly show that they are unable to grasp the distinction between being mistaken in one's position and being fallacious in one's reasoning. One can use 'fallacy' to describe the former but this is a figure of speech. And if one fails to recognize its figurative status, one ends up labeling things as fallacious simply because one disagrees with them. This runs the whole point of calling things 'fallacies' into the ground; it becomes an impatient dismissal rather than a rational assessment. This is certainly the case with pseudo-fallacies like the 'reification fallacy', which seems to have arisen not from any special insight into reasoning, but simply because some people can't understand basic English.


  1. The example from the third source is just mereological nihilism raised to a principle rather than a position.

  2. Brian Schimpf10:25 AM

    Hey Brandon, I've appreciated your posts on informal fallacies. When I taught intro to philosophy, I issued some exerpts from a book which included the "reification fallacy." At the time I thought that one in particular was bogus because it suggested that undergrads should dismiss Plato's metaphysics without any real consideration of the dialogues.

    Do you know of any good books on informal fallacies?

  3. branemrys11:09 AM

    It does seem like it would require something of the sort.

  4. branemrys11:13 AM

    I generally like Doug Walton's books on the subject -- I often don't agree with him, but informal fallacies are an area that is at present extremely messy, so there's lots of room for disagreement regardless. Walton, however, regularly does what I think should be done on the topic: looks at the history of the label, at what is supposed to be fallacious about it, at the limits of it as a fallacy-label, etc.

  5. theofloinn12:57 AM

    Ed Feser discussed reification a few months ago:

  6. Brain Molecule Marketing3:07 PM

    Help me out - I am "evil" marketer and complete brain geek. Medical-physiological is strongly suggesting that "consciousness", the usefulness of subjective experiences, feelings, etc. are just locally normed language conventions, beliefs. Is that reification?

    Also, philosophy is a dead language. But this article made actually behave.

  7. branemrys4:52 PM

    I have no idea what you're talking about, so I'm not really in a position to say whether you are reifying or not.


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