Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, August 17, 2015

reification and modernity

Until this morning I was certain that I had posted this some weeks ago ... but I can't find it. So maybe not. Apologies if this is, after all, a rerun.

One of the chief themes of Peter Harrison's recent book The Territories of Science and Religion is the major semantic alteration both terms of his title — science (scientia) and religion (religio) — have undergone over the centuries. For instance,

In an extended treatment of the virtues in the Summa theologiae, Aquinas observes that science (scientia) is a habit of mind or an “intellectual virtue.” The parallel with religio, then, lies in the fact that we are now used to thinking of both religion and science as systems of beliefs and practices, rather than conceiving of them primarily as personal qualities. And for us today the question of their relationship is largely determined by their respective doctrinal content and the methods through which that content is arrived at. For Aquinas, however, both religio and scientia were, in the first place, personal attributes.

The transformation in each term is, then, a form of reification: a "personal attribute," a habit or virtue, gradually becomes externalized — becomes a kind of thing, though not a material thing — becomes something out there in the world.

What's especially interesting about this, to me, is that scientia and religio aren't the only important words this happens to. Harrison mentions also the case of "doctrine":

In antiquity, doctrina meant “teaching” — literally, the activity of a doctor — and “the habit produced by instruction,” in addition to referring to the knowledge imparted by teaching. Doctrina is thus an activity or a process of training and habituation. Both of these understandings are consistent with the general point that Christianity was understood more as a way of life than a body of doctrines. Moreover they will also correlate with the notion of theology as an intellectual habit, as briefly noted in the previous chapter. As for the subject matter of doctrina — its cognitive component, if you will — this was then understood to be scripture itself, rather than “doctrines” in the sense of systematically arranged and logically related theological tenets. To take the most obvious example, Augustine’s De doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching) was devoted to the interpretation of scripture, and not to systematic theology.

So from "the activity of a doctor" — what a learned man does — doctrine becomes a body of propositions.

Curiously, the same thing has happened to a word that I am professionally quite familiar with: "literature." We now use it to refer to a category of texts ("That's really more literature than philosophy, don't you think?") or to a body or collection of texts ("Victorian literature"). But in Dr. Johnson's Dictionary literature is defined as "Learning; skill in letters." And this remains the first meaning in the OED:

Familiarity with letters or books; knowledge acquired from reading or studying books, esp. the principal classical texts associated with humane learning (see humane adj. 2); literary culture; learning, scholarship. Also: this as a branch of study. Now hist.

"Now hist." — historical, no longer current. Yet for Johnson it was the only meaning. (It's interesting, though, that the examples of such usage he cites seem to me to fit the modern meaning better than the one he offers — as though the meaning of the term is already changing in ways Johnson fails to see.)

So here we have a series of personal attributes — traits acquired through the exercise of discipline until they become virtues — that become external, more-or-less objective stuff. (Gives a new resonance to Alasdair MacIntyre's famous title After Virtue.) Which makes me wonder: is there a link between the rise of modernity and this reifying tendency in language? And if so, might this link be related to the technological aspect of modernity that I've been asking about lately? If a social order is increasingly defined and understood in terms of what it makes and uses — of things external to the people making using them — then might that not create a habit of mind that would lead to the reifying of acts, habits, traits, and virtues? What is important about us, in this way of thinking, would not be who we are but what we make, what we surround ourselves with, what we wield.


  • Speaking from my corner of the world (which, of course, has all the answers) this seems related to the Cartesian epistemological shift: in short perception goes from being an activity of the mind to the passive reception of sense data.

    I'm sure MacIntyre has written about it somewhere, but I'm not at liberty to check at the moment. If memory serves, he comes at it via Hume.

  • "If a social order is increasingly defined and understood in terms of what it makes and uses — of things external to the people making using them — then might that not create a habit of mind that would lead to the reifying of acts, habits, traits, and virtues?"

    I think the answer is a resounding yes. I also think this has something to do with the impulse to "algorithmize" that you've been touching on lately: making things, at least in modernity, means making things at scale, which entails both simplification and division into discrete steps (rules) that can be followed consistently. But this standardization and scaling comes at the expense of individual human artistry (signs of personal attributes and character, if you will). I think of the mischievous touches lent by medieval masons and sculptors to Gothic cathedrals that would never have been explicitly planned from above, and how imaginatively rich those cathedrals were compared to modern, often soul-less buildings made of mass-produced parts.

    The irony here is that as we have transferred importance from what we are to what we make, what we make has become poorer in quality, less distinctive, and much less able to sustain the importance we invest in it. And we, by turn, have become attenuated in character from the displacement of attention to what we make. And now that we consume even more than we produce…

  • Not to mention the reification of virtue itself.

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