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In Marxism, reification (German: Verdinglichung, literally: 'making into a thing') is the process by which social relations are perceived as inherent attributes of the people involved in them, or attributes of some product of the relation, such as a traded commodity.
This implies that objects are transformed into subjects and subjects are turned into objects, with the result that subjects are rendered passive or determined, while objects are rendered as the active, determining factor. Hypostatization refers to an effect of reification which results from supposing that whatever can be named, or conceived abstractly, must actually exist, an ontological and epistemological fallacy.
The concept is related to, but distinct from, Marx's theories of alienation and commodity fetishism. Alienation is the general condition of human estrangement; reification is a specific form of alienation; commodity fetishism is a specific form of reification.
Development and significance of the concept
Reification was not a particularly prominent term or concept in Marx's own works, nor in that of his immediate successors. The concept of reification rose to prominence chiefly through the work of Georg Lukács, in his essay "Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat", part of his book History and Class Consciousness; this is the locus classicus for defining the term in its current sense. Here, Lukács treats it as a problem of capitalist society related to the prevalence of the commodity form, through a close reading of Marx's chapter on commodity fetishism in Capital. Lukács's account was influential for the philosophers of the Frankfurt School, for example in Horkheimer's and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment, and in the works of Herbert Marcuse. Others who have written about this point include Max Stirner, Guy Debord, Gajo Petrović, Raya Dunayevskaya, Raymond Williams, Timothy Bewes, Axel Honneth, and Slavoj Žižek.
Petrović, in A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, defines reification as:
The act (or result of the act) of transforming human properties, relations and actions into properties, relations and actions of man‑produced things which have become independent (and which are imagined as originally independent) of man and govern his life. Also transformation of human beings into thing‑like beings which do not behave in a human way but according to the laws of the thing‑world. Reification is a ‘special’ case of alienation, its most radical and widespread form characteristic of modern capitalist society.
However, some recent scholarship on Lukács's own use of the term "reification" in History and Class Consciousness has challenged this interpretation of the concept, according to which reification implies that a pre-existing subject creates an objective social world which is then alienated from it. Andrew Feenberg reinterprets Lukács's central category of "consciousness" as similar to anthropological notions of culture as a set of practices. The reification of consciousness in particular, therefore, is more than just an act of misrecognition; it affects the everyday social practice at a fundamental level beyond the individual subject. Other scholarship has suggescted that Lukács's use of the term may have been strongly influenced by Edmund Husserl's phenomenology to understand his preoccupation with the reification of consciousness in particular. On this reading, reification entails a stance that separates the subject from the objective world, creating a mistaken relation between subject and object that is reduced to disengaged knowing. Applied to the social world, this leaves individuals subjects feeling that society is something they can only know as an alien power, rather than interact with. In this respect, Lukács's use of the term could be seen as prefiguring some of the themes Martin Heidegger touches on in Being and Time, supporting Lucien Goldman's suggestion that Lukács and Heidegger were much closer in their philosophical concerns than typically thought.
French philosopher Louis Althusser criticized what he called the "ideology of reification" that sees "'things' everywhere in human relations". Althusser's critique derives from his theory of the "epistemological break", which finds that Marx underwent significant theoretical and methodological change between his early and his mature work.
Though the concept of reification is used in Das Kapital by Marx, Althusser finds in it an important influence from the similar concept of alienation developed in the early The German Ideology and in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.
Frankfurt School philosopher Axel Honneth reformulates this key "Western Marxist" concept in terms of intersubjective relations of recognition and power in his recent work Reification (Oxford, 2008). Instead of being an effect of the structural character of social systems such as capitalism, as Karl Marx and György Lukács argued, Honneth contends that all forms of reification are due to pathologies of intersubjectively based struggles for recognition.
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- Honneth, Axel. Reification: A New Look. Oxford University Press, 2008. Honneth on reification with responses by Judith Butler, Raymond Geuss, and Jonathan Lear.
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- Westerman, Richard: "The Reification of Consciousness: Husserl’s Phenomenology in Lukács’s Subject-Object": New German Critique 111 (Fall 2010)
- Westerman, Richard: Lukács' Phenomenology of Capitalism: Reification Revalued, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, New York.