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Reification: History of the Concept

Until fairly recently, reification was a central diagnostic concept of critical social theory and social philosophy. Due to its heavy metaphysical baggage and its grounding in an obsolescent philosophy of history, the theory of reification has, however, lost much of its credibility and prestige. To explain, describe and criticize various forms of dehumanization in modern capitalist societies, it is occasionally rediscovered, refurbished and actualized by authors within the Marxist tradition of Left Hegelianism. Through a grand narrative of reification, systemic processes of commodification, exploitation and domination that lead to a loss of community (anomie), meaning (disenchantment) and freedom (domination) are connected to a phenomenological description of the alienation of the modern self from itself, others and the world. As a critical category, reification squarely ascribes the blame of alienation to the system. The denunciation of reification is paradoxical, however: to the extent that it presupposes that the object is really a subject, it denies what it affirms (that the world is inhuman) and affirms what it denies (namely that there still is a subject that can act and change the world).


Literally, reification (Verdinglichung) refers to the transformation of human properties, relations, processes, actions, concepts, etc. into things. 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. Depending on the grammatical subject of reification – who reifies what: is it the analyst who reifies the concepts or is it society that alienates the subjects? – the transformation of human properties, social relations,  abstract concepts, etc. into things, types and numbers can operate both on an epistemological and on a social level. Both levels are united by an ontology of practices and a common insistence on the primacy of action over structure. In the philosophy of the social sciences, the concept is used to criticize structuralist, naturalist and positivist theories that hypostatize macro-social entities, dehumanize action and naturalize the system from a dialectical and praxeological position. In Marxist-Hegelian social philosophy, the concept is used by theorists related to the Frankfurt School to criticize capitalism´s systemically induced social pathologies of the life-world that distort the relation between actors and the world, the others and the self and bring the dialectics between agency and structure to a standstill. The concept is never a neutral one. Positive instances of reification (Gehlen, Latour, Virno) are rather rare, though. Usually, the concept is used polemically to denounce the ‘violence of abstractions,’ either of conceptual abstractions (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 (Realabstraktionen) that strip individuals of their autonomy and reduce them to cogs of an abstract social machinery.

As a normative-descriptive concept that denounces the dehumanizing impact of social systems, such as the market, the state or bureaucracy, reification shows a family resemblance with the Marxist concept of alienation and with the Weberian concept of formal rationalization. Although the dialectical idea of objectivation (Entaüsserung)-alienation (Entfremdung)- reappropriation (Aneignung) is already present in Hegel, the real history of the concept really begins with Marx and with Lukács’s Hegelian interpretation of Marx in History and Class Consciousness (1923). In Marx, the concept is used in the context of the critique of the fetishism of commodities, to denounce the transformation of social relations into things. In his classic formulation of the theory of reification, which constitutes the paradigmatic ‘hard core’ of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, Lukács generalized Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, and fused it with Max Weber’s concept of formal rationalization and Simmel’s concept of the tragedy of culture. Confronted with the rise fascism in Europe, the members of the Frankfurt School—Horkheimer, Marcuse, and especially Adorno – progressively abandoned Lukács faith in a proletarian revolution and radicalized, universalized, and totalized Lukács’s theory of reification. Criticizing the Frankfurt School’s identification of rationalization and reification, Habermas reformulated the theory of reification in his theory of communication in terms of the colonization of the life-world by the subsystems of the economy and the administration of the state. Honneth has also revisited the theory of reification and, inspired by the phenomenology of Sartre, he has reformulated it in terms of a theory of non-recognition that foregrounds the lack of an existential relation between self and other. Although reification has received the greatest attention in Western Marxism, and above all in Lukács, it is important not to restrict the use of the concept to that tradition but to see that the concept and the word 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, calculating and alienating tendencies of modernity.


1. Methodological Reification—or the Critique of Conceptual Abstractions

In the philosophy of the social sciences, the concept of reification is used (1) to denounce the hypostasis of concepts (nominalist critique of reism), (2) the naturalization of the subject and the life-world (humanist critique of naturalism), and (3) the ideological justification of the status quo (dialectical critique of fetishism).

1.1 Nominalist Critique of Realism

In the case of the critique of naive conceptual realism (or reism), the notion of reification of concepts is used to denounce, from a nominalist, vitalist, criticist or deconstructivist 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 hypostasis of concepts, analytical constructs, and ideal types. It occurs when one slides “from the substantive to the substance” and identifies the categorical thing with the ‘thing in itself.’ This is, for instance, the case with macro-sociologists 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 or deconstructivist critique of ontology, the charge of reification is almost inevitable. Given that one’s typification is another’s reification, the critique of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” (Whitehead) is endemic in sociology.

1.2 Humanist Critique of Naturalism

The critique of positivist naturalism in terms of reification of the subject 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 (Erklären) 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., structuralism, functionalism, 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’ (Lukács) 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 German social philosophy and critical social theory, the concept is generally used to diagnose, i.e. describe and criticize the pathological autonomization of social structures, systems and subsystems, which, although man-made, are out of control, follow their own laws and alienate the actors, dominating them as if they were natural forces.

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 (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 practices, institutions and organizations (like factories, bureaucracies, tribunals, and increasingly also universities) are human objectivations, but in the course of their development, the 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 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 Lukács’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 (chap. 1, sect. 4) of Das Kapital. 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. Rather like ideology, it is a form of false, yet necessary consciousness that is constitutive of capitalist society and represents 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, Lukács, a Hegelian Marxist who was once a student of Georg 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, Lukács 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’ (Lukács 1923/1968, p. 257). The universality of the commodity form, conceived as the prototype of all forms of objectivity that seemingly follow their own rational 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’. Moving from the sphere of circulation to the sphere of production, Lukács rediscovers the theory of the alienation of labor which the young Marx had developed but not published in the Parisian Manuscripts of 1844 (see Alienation, Sociology of). 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 – the “hope of the hopeless”-  Lukács 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 Lukács’ 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 (in its fascist, communist and capitalist variants), 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, Jürgen 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. In a short essay on reification, Axel Honneth, the main representative of the third generation of the Frankfurt School, has taken a new look at an old idea. By means of a linkage between his theory of recognition and a phenomenological theory of alienation, he disconnects the concept from its Lukácsian origins and predominantly conceives of it as a deficient relation to self and others. Understood as a pathological form of life in which participative forms of knowledge (recognition, reciprocity and care) are systematically replaced and repressed by instrumental, representative and manipulative relations to the world, the other and the self, reification is redefined in terms of a forgetting of a primordial way of being in the world. The question, however, is whether the theory of reification can survive outside a dialectical philosophy of history and a host of problematic metaphysical antinomies (e.g. essence and appearance, form and content, part and whole, theory and practice) that it purports to resolve. Conceptual historians may well conclude in a not so distant future that the concept reached its zenith in the midst of the twentieth century and became largely obsolete in the twenty first century.




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