51. Reification

Reification (from Latin res (“thing”) and facere (“to make”), also known as concretism, or the fallacy of misplaced concreteness) 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. In other words, it is the error of treating as a “real thing” something which is merely an idea. For example: if the phrase “fighting for justice” is taken literally, justice would be reified.

Note 1:

The ludic fallacy (discussed in episode 36) is a type of reification that confuses a mathematical or simulation model with the reality that it attempts to predict. Mathematical or simulation models may help understand a system or situation but real life always differs from the model in some respect.

Note 2:

The pathetic fallacy (to be discussed in a forthcoming episode) is a type of reification in which the concrete characteristics attributed to an abstract idea are human characteristics such as thoughts and feelings.

Note 3:

“Reification” in the form of metaphor is a useful element of communication rather than a fallacy. The distinction is that the speaker intends, and the listener understands, that a metaphor is a placeholder for something else, for the purpose of illustrating a relationship or function, rather than being the thing itself that is being discussed.

Note 4:

The scientific concept of a “construct” is a hypothetical explanatory variable that is not directly observable. For example, the concepts of motivation in psychology and center of gravity in physics are constructs because they are not directly observable. A construct is acceptable to scientists, and therefore not a fallacy, to the extent that it has predictive value.

Example (of reification):

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

Tom is committing reification because there is in fact no such thing as a nation. Whether he is consciously aware of it not, it is a fallacy because it is no more than an excuse to order someone around. To see that that is so, observe that it is only ever used in the context of justifying what a government does, that would not be justifiable if the government was simply seen to be threatening some random people.

Dick continues: Oh, you mean the government..

Now Dick is committing reification because there is in fact no such thing as “the government” but nothing more than some people acting in concert to harrass and rob some other people. The test is: Can you point to it? (no) Well, is it a metaphor? (no, most of its advocates act as if it as a thing in itself). Perhaps it is a scientific construct? (no, it isn’t modelling anything and has no predictive value). I conclude that it is simply a mask for actions that would be seen as heinous without it; and so, a fallacy.

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