Reificationism is a sin best minimized.
It occurs whenever we take dynamic processes to be static objects (things, forms). (The word is derived from the verb ‘(to) reify.’)
Its deepest and most insidious occurrence occurs when we reify ourselves.
Here’s an important question to ask yourself: Is anything natural static? Think of stars, clouds, lakes, wind, trees, mountains, animals, rain, or any other natural objects. Aren’t they all in incessant flux? If you look closely enough, you can see that even a stone is not as unchanging as it initially appears.
The natural world is in such incessant flux that it seems alive. By way of contrast, the human world is populated by dead objects such as concepts (principles of classification) and judgments (applications of concepts).
Given this contrast between the nonhuman and the human world, here’s an important follow-up question: Is the world you inhabit mostly dead or mostly alive?
If, as is likely, it is mostly dead, then you are living in your head and dominated by thoughts about the world (rather than directly experiencing it). That’s a big problem. Why?
The more you live in your head, the more your experiences are stale, dull, or boring. After many years of living in your head, you will naturally feel that life has lost its freshness, sparkle, and vitality. Experiences become endlessly jaded.
That’s the natural result of reificationism.
To point towards the alternative, please ask yourself: where does reificationism come from? What causes it? How have I fallen into the dreadful habit of deadening life?
Once we understand what causes reificationism, we may be able to reduce its impact by minimizing what causes it.
Here’s an important clue: some thinkers call reificationism “nominalization.” A nomen in Latin is a name. A name is a bit of language used to refer to objects.
Apparently, de-nominalization is an important strategy in neuro-linguistic programming. This seems to be the same strategy that a philosopher means by recommending that we avoid reificationism.
For example, Richard Bandler argues that “change happens constantly, and easily, and making it work for you is a matter of understanding how to run your own brain” (from Using Your Brain For A Change; his italics).
Letting ‘conscious’ denote ‘the content of awareness in the present moment’ and ‘unconscious’ denote ‘everything except what is conscious,’ the problem with using our brains more effectively is that they are dominated by unconscious processes. Richard Bandler and John Grinder: “it’s the unconscious processes and parts of the person you’ve got to work with effectively in order to bring about change in an efficient way” (from Frogs Into Princes).
This is no mere theoretical point. If you fail to understand how unconscious brain processes work, attempts to improve life will be, at best, inefficient and, at worst, ineffective.
For example, unconscious brain processes don’t “get” negativity. Therefore, if you are trying to become less fat and tell yourself “Do not eat the chocolate cake in the refrigerator,” you are actually training your brain to attempt to eat the chocolate cake in the refrigerator. Simply understanding the sentence “Do not eat the chocolate cake in the refrigerator” requires thinking about that desirable cake.
In fact, initially just thinking “I am fat and should become less fat” already identifies you with fat! This is a perfect example of reificationism at work: you take yourself to be a separate object with a certain property. That reinforces your conception of yourself as a fat thing.
In fact, the whole conception is a fabrication. Reificationism is based on the delusion that processes are things. Except for concepts and judgments, there are no static things; there are only processes.
The Buddha’s most original and perhaps most profound point, that there are no separate selves, may be understood as an attempt to undermine reificationism. He surely wanted us to open up to the natural flow without attaching to conceptualizations or nominalizations. (This may explain why he never wrote any books, namely, to avoid providing us with more static objects to attach to.)
David Abram argues in his brilliant book The Spell of the Sensuous that it was the development of writing systems that finally cut our ties “to the mysteries of a more-than-human world.” This explains why nature no longer seems alive to us or speaks to us, whereas “In indigenous, oral cultures, nature itself is articulate; it speaks.”
Nobody is arguing that the development of writing systems hasn’t provided us with important benefits. The point is that, like the benefits of the First and Second Agricultural Revolutions, we have paid a high price for those benefits and we seldom realize how high.
It’s sufficient to consider our ordinary temporal concepts to obtain a sense of what reificationism continues cost us. Instead of taking for granted that the future and past are “autonomous realms existing apart from the sensuous present,” it is possible to rediscover them “as aspects of the corporeal present,” in other words, to locate them in the sensuous, nonhuman processes all around us.
To grasp the importance of this, please ask yourself: “Apart from future and past, who am I?”
If you let it, your autobiography, your self story, the ongoing narrative of which you are the progatonist, will begin to unravel. If it does, excellent! ‘I’ doesn’t denote a separate self at all! This begins to explain why I suggested before that reificationisn is at its most insidious when autologously applied.
Of course, temporal language such as “I’ll meet you tomorrow at noon” is a practical convenience. The problem comes with our tendency to reificationism, for example, our tendency to think that “tomorrow” denotes a separate entity.
Despite the fact that Zen masters have produced some marvelous writings, transmission outside such writings has always been a critical theme in the history of Zen. It’s good to have such writings, such fossilized concepts and judgments, but it’s better to use them and then discard them in order to get beyond them to direct experience.
There is no requirement for literacy: some Zen masters have, in fact, been illiterate. In fact, as some prominent Zen masters have pointed out, since attachment to the written word fosters reificationism, it obstructs awakening. (This explains why intellectuals, thought mongerers like me, usually take longer to awaken.)
According to Eben Pagan, the most common words we use are ‘I’ and ‘me’ (and, presumably, their cognates such as ‘my’ and ‘mine’). Whenever we use them, we are committing the sin of reificationism. We are thinking of ourselves as statically being in a certain way, identifying with a certain image or idol. We are lying to ourselves.
This is the good news: You are much more than what you ordinarily think you are!
It can help a bit to think more in terms of ‘I-ing’ or ‘me-ing’ because they at least have the advantage of suggesting processes, incessant transformations, continual flux.
Why not practice avoiding reificationism in an effort to free yourself from remaining trapped in a conceptual world that really isn’t real?
As always, if you know someone who might benefit from this, please pass it along.
Recommended resources: David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous, Richard Bandler’s Using Your Brain for a Change, Richard Bandler and John Brinder’s Frogs Into Princes, Tor Norretranders’s The User Illusion, and Eben Pagan’s “Self-Made Wealth” course.