Theory and Society

, Volume 16, Issue 2, pp 263–293 | Cite as

Rethinking reification

  • Hanna Fenichel Pitkin


By now this essay has accumulated over twenty alleged meanings, senses, or aspects of reification; there seems not much point in listing them.1 Some of them are mutually consistent, almost overlapping; others are incompatible. Some are in accord with the dictionary definition, others not. With some, the sense in which some entity is being converted into a res is evident; with others, try as I might, I cannot find such a sense. The dictionary entry itself is rather slipshod, and interpreters have expanded the term's meaning almost indefinitely beyond it. The main ways in which Lukács and Berger and Luckmann use the word do not fit into the dictionary definition at all. They make the meaning of reification dependent on concepts like “can” and “could” that are themselves heavily dependent on the particular context of their use. Lukács's and Berger and Luckmann's discussions are confusing and very probably confused. The whole thing is a swamp.

Can this concept be saved? And should it?

Within the limits of the dictionary definition, the concept does its work well enough. When Stephen Gould, say, criticizes psychologists for reifying intelligence by assuming that the I.Q. test must be testing something, he and the concept perform a clear and useful function.2 But if the main concerns are those of Lukács and Berger and Luckmann, in my opinion the term mystifies more than it reveals. Their concerns could be accommodated within the dictionary definition as reification of persons, in the sense of denying people's capacity for agency. But although Lukács and Berger and Luckmann do occasionally use the word this way, for the most part they do not. So articulating their concerns within this sense of the word would require extensive rewriting of their arguments. Would political theorists who share those concerns not do better to abandon the concept?

I would unhesitatingly advise it, except for one, crucial consideration. There really is something going on among us that we urgently need to think and talk about, and that Lukács's and Berger and Luckmann's conceptions of reification were meant to address. People do feel trapped, in a way that makes Kafka's little fable so perfectly emblematic for our experience. Despite the prevalence in modern society of all of Berger and Luckmann's “social circumstances that favor dereification”, very many people do feel helpless to influence the conditions that constrain their lives. Millions of Americans turn their backs on politics, judging that engagement in it would make no significant difference. Millions of members of the underclass feel worthless - though also filled with diffuse rage - because society seems to have no use for them. Almost all of us function in large organizational systems, whether as parts of the machinery or materials being processed, and have learned to take that condition for granted. We function within an economy that depends on a system of international banking and finance that everyone knows to be in constant danger of collapse. Almost all of us submit without question to the “technological imperative” that daily exhausts our resources, destroys our health, and poisons the earth. And we march like sleepwalkers down the road marked “deterrence” and “nonproliferation,” toward nuclear doom.3 Experts and critics offer various diagnoses of our condition, but whatever measures are actually taken to treat it seem only to make it worse.

This familiar litany of troubles suggests a malaise far too extensive and too grave for the powers of political prudence. When a society, or an entire civilization, or even the whole human species seems bent on self-destruction, one suspects systematic, pervasive, fundamental derangement in people's patterns of both thought and conduct. Calling on political prudence here is almost bound to mean calling for “more of the same”. Here what is needed is a more basic realignment of assumptions, of the sort that has traditionally been associated with great political theory.

Wading through the dismal swamp of reification theory, as this essay does, can leave one feeling that such concepts, and political theory itself, are hopelessly abstracted from reality and of no practical use in relation to our urgent political problems, so that political prudence is the only hope. But political reality itself, and the prudence by which gifted actors know how to move within it, always presuppose and depend on theoretical frameworks - if not self-conscious, deliberate theorizing, then unexamined, inherited theory or, more likely, fragments of theories that may well be outdated or mutually inconsistent. So if we seem today bereft of political prudence and judgment, close to our wits' end, that may be because our wits are operating out of such incoherent fragments of inherited assumptions.

The message to be derived from the familiar litany of our troubles and our sleepwalking, then, is not the familiar exhortation to, “For God's sake, do something before it is too late!” For while we may feel inert, we are already doing something - a lot of things - and they are the source of our troubles. Like Kafka's mouse, we run and run. Berger and Luckmann's and Lukács's concept of reification was meant to address precisely those troubles that are the large-scale outcome of our myriad activities, sustained and enlarged by nothing more than what we do. The problem is how to stop, how to do something else, what else to do.

That is a problem as much for thought as for action, a problem for action informed and empowered by new thought. Part of the value of Berger and Luckmann's - and even more of Lukács's - discussion of reification is that they tried to provide a general theory of the nature and roots of our condition, orienting us to likely avenues for action, feasible ways and means, probable allies and opponents. Their efforts, this essay has argued, were confused and deeply flawed. The concept of reification is probably not a good tool for the job, and bad tools mean sloppy work. But better sloppy work with a bad tool than no work at all. Those of us who persist in reaching for the word “reification” as a tool should probably employ greater care. We should require ourselves to specify in each case precisely what we mean, and attend to whether and how our various meanings in various contexts are interrelated. But whether we revise the concept of reification, or abandon it, or just let it continue to slop along in its present state of dishevelment doesn't much matter. What matters is that we continue to think - hard and critically, theoretically and politically - about the conditions that Lukács and Berger and Luckmann were trying to address.

Our thinking here must be simultaneously theoretical and political: theoretical in the sense of radical, cutting through conventions and cliches to the real roots of our troubles, seeing social arrangements large-scale and long-range, as if from the outside, which may be what Lukács meant by “intending totality.”4 Yet the thinking must also be political, in the sense of oriented to action, practical, speaking in a meaningful way to those capable of making the necessary changes, those Lukács called “the ‘we’ of genesis.”5 For Lukács, of course, that meant the proletariat. But one need not be a Marxist to see the need for locating such a “we,” and the point of seeking it among those with an objective interest in the right sort of change and the potential power to bring it about. The aim is not some new doctrine to save us from ourselves, but a transformed way of seeing what we already tacitly know and do, which restores us to our real world - the “concrete here and now,” as Lukács puts it - and our real, living selves, including our capacities for action. That would mean not some access to mysterious, infinite powers, but the appropriation of our actual powers, recognizing the present moment as “the moment of decision, the moment of the birth of the new,” as Lukács says, out of which we jointly “make the future.”6 That is no return to Hegelian idealism, but a recovery of the practical, political Marx.

Thinking both theoretically and politically in this way is no easy task; indeed, it is almost a contradiction in terms. Yet it may well be our best hope, and the world is in a hurry. Despite all of the political and philosophical difficulties, unless we undertake this task we may well guarantee our own entrapment, assuring that we will end up like Kafka's mouse, rather than human and free.

  1. 1.

    Well, maybe, in a footnote: 1) Misapprehending a human relationship as a thing (Lukács); 2) Recognizing what had been taken for a human relationship as a thing (implicit in O.E.D.); 3) The coming into being of a world of commodities and their movements on the market (Lukács); 4) Realizing a “mental image” in an artifact (Arendt); 5) Forming a mind in such a way that it tends to take human relationships for things (Lukács); 6) Misapprehending a person as a thing, in the sense of denying capacity for agency (O.E.D., Lukács, Berger and Luckmann); 7) Misapprehending a person as a thing, in the sense of denying moral status (O.E.D., Lukács, Berger and Luckmann); 8) Recognizing as a thing what had been mistaken for a person (O.E.D.); 9) and 10) (Mis)apprehending an abstraction as a person (Lukács, possibly Berger and Luckmann); 11) Misapprehending an abstraction (abstract concept?) as a thing (O.E.D., Woodard, Quine); 12) Recognizing as a thing what had been mistaken for an abstraction (abstract concept?) (implicit in O.E.D., Quine); 13) Misapprehending an abstraction as real (Woodard); 14) Deciding what is real (Quine); 15) and 16) (Mis)apprehending something humanly made as natural (Berger and Luckmann, probably Lukács); 17) and 18) (Mis)apprehending temporary or contingent regularities as eternal, universal laws (Marx on fetishism, possibly Lukács, possibly Berger and Luckmann); 19) and 20) (Mis)apprehending human conventions as sacred (Lukács, Berger and Luckmann); 21) and 22) (Mis)apprehending what is humanly changeable as humanly unchangeable (Lukács, Berger and Luckmann). If one further divides each of these categories between the reification of inhabituation and that of naiveté, their number will double. But perhaps that distinction will not actually fit all of them; I have not pursued the matter.

  2. 2.

    Stephen Gould, The Mismeasurement of Man (New York: W. W. Norton, 1981).

  3. 3.

    A few of these “dangers” might actually be blessings for those now exploited and oppressed, but most would be clear and unmitigated disasters. Even Marxists must now take seriously the possibility that the owners of the earth might destroy it rather than give it up.

  4. 4.

    Lukács, “Verdinglichung,” 303, 297; “Reification,” 174, 169.

  5. 5.

    Lukács, “Verdinglichung,” 267; “Reification,” 149.

  6. 6.

    Lukács, “Verdinglichung,” 348; “Reification,” 203–204.


Political Theory Dictionary Entry Dictionary Definition Fetishism Objective Interest 
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© Martinus Nijhoff Publishers 1987

Authors and Affiliations

  • Hanna Fenichel Pitkin
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceUniversity of CaliforniaBerkeleyUSA

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