May 8, 2014

The Reification Fallacy

(and at the bottom a bit on monks and snails)


Years ago in the Delphi Archaeological Museum, I was standing on the steps looking down at an eastern European tour group surrounding and looking up at the Charioteer, when it occurred to me that the statue was more real than the tourists.  Ars longa, vita brevis.


From Wikepedia:

Reification (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 concrete thing something which is not concrete, but merely an idea.

Another common manifestation is the confusion of a model with reality. Mathematical or simulation models may help understand a system or situation but real life will differ from the model (the map is not the territory).

Reification is generally accepted in literature and other forms of discourse where reified abstractions are understood to be intended  metaphorically but the use of reification in logical arguments is usually regarded as a fallacy.

In rhetoric, it may be sometimes difficult to determine if reification was used correctly or incorrectly.


 Another retired college professor, the Methodist minister, and I were discussing Dante's Divine Comedy after church service last Sunday. I mentioned that Satan was chewing the three worst sinners, Judas, Brutus and I could not name the third sinner. The minister and the other professor thought there were only two sinners in Satan's mouth. Upon returning home I pulled a copy of Dante off the shelf and sure enough the third sinner was Cassius - eternally munched by Satan. The minister and the other professor received an email proclaiming my great victory. Often I have jokingly accused the minster of the fallacy of reification in his interpretation of the Bible.  As the border between myth and history is is often vague and confusing a reexamination time might be helpful; helpful to me at least.


Erechtheus, founder of Athens

The ancient Greek people had a different view of history from ours. They were less interested in what actually happened, and more concerned with the meaning of an event. Historical events were not seen as unique occurrences set in a far-off time, but were  manifestations of constant, timeless realities. History repeated, because there was almost nothing new. Narratives and rituals brought out the eternal dimension. The story of the founding of Athens was handed down from generation to generation. The first king, Erechtheus, was said to have the body of a serpent.  Athenians experience this myth every year in the rituals of the Panathenaic festival, which brought the story into their own lives and helped them to make it their own. One could say that unless an historical event is mythologized in this way and liberated from the past in an inspiring ritual it cannot be religious. To ask if Erechtheus actually had a serpent body the Athenians knew would mistake the nature and purpose of the story. They did not confuse mythos with logos.  Twenty-first century Americans would never accept an image of George Washington with snake legs. Nor are we sure Moses parted the Red sea - it is all logos or nothing to us.

Logos was equally important to the Greeks. Unlike myth, which looks back to the beginnings and to the foundations, logos is the rational, pragmatic, and scientific thought that enables a society to function in the world. We may have lost the sense of mythos in the West today, but we are certainly familiar with logos which is the basis of our modern society. Unlike myth, logos must relate exactly to facts and correspond to scientific realities to be effective. It must work efficiently in the material world. We use logical  reasoning when we have to make something work, get things done, or persuade others to take a particular course of action. Logos is practical, looks ahead and tries to find something new, to discover something fresh, and to invent something novel.

There is yet another way to view these two categories. On May 7, 2014 the St Louis baseball team defeated the Atlanta team 7 to 1. An actual historical event witnessed by many persons in the Atlanta stadium and recorded on May 8 in the New York Times and other papers.

Final 1 2 3   4 5 6   7 8 9   R H E
St. Louis 0 1 1 3 1 0 0 0 1 7 13 0
Atlanta 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 7 1

But at the end of the 9th inning the event vanished into the vicissitude of time. And in a few years it may be totally forgotten, only a few notes in baseball record books might remain. On the other hand Dante's Divine Comedy which is in the category of mythos, has already existed for centuries after Dante's death in 1321. With new translations and many Dante scholars around it will probably have a life span of yet another eight centuries.

That which is historical vanishes in the act of happening, but myth, which never was, can last forever. And the bronze Charioteer, erected at Delphi in 478 BC to commemorate the victory of a chariot race, will certainly outlast you and I. Ars longa, vita brevis, indeed.


  PS: perhaps what makes baseball interesting is its mythological aspect, the eternal reoccurring event creating an occasional hero such as the Babe or Jackie.

This is a link to monks and snails:  Marginalized