Thing or Things
The word thing is one of the most commonly used words in everyday speech. It is both concrete yet ambiguous, indicating what is sure but not clear. The word thing carries with it all the weight of existence without a conviction about specifics. ‘Thing’ is usually taken to derive from the Germanic ‘ding,’ or the old English ‘þing,’ which means gathering or assembly. Interests come together in a thing: a thing is composed of attachments. The meaning of a thing is caught in its relations.
But ‘thing’ has a charged philosophical history.
That a thing bears many qualities has been said by Plato and above all by Aristotle. Later on, it is expressed in other words and concepts, however the meaning is generally the same even when the philosophical positions are different.
In Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant claims that philosophy has no hope of discussing the way things are in themselves—reality independent from perception—since our thinking and conceptual capacities are limited. This largely unpopular rift divides noumena from phenomena, or the thing-in-itself from its appearance within our conscious experience. Kant’s thing-in-itself is the thing as it truly is, understood apart from our subjective modes of representation.
In Phenomenology of Spirit, G.W.F. Hegel rejects the Kantian division between thing and appearance. For Hegel, a thing is the result of a certain conception of objectivity or a certain conceptual scheme; the thing is what appears as a thing given our methodological approach, or, put differently: it is the scientific phenomenon inside of our scientific paradigm. The thing is consequently already conditioned by our understanding and is not an abstracted thing-in-itself. For Hegel, human representations are not ultimately determined, but rather are continually molded and reshaped in something that resembles a historical process. Hegel shows that even seemingly obvious and solid things change constantly and are relative to us.
A different way of rejecting the thing-in-itself and claiming direct access to truth is found in the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. For Husserl, the reality of a thing is to appear as a phenomenon for human consciousness—any existence of things outside of consciousness is secondary. In Husserl’s view, we must not only start with what is present to consciousness, but also finish there since even if some things remain hidden from our perception, it is senseless to claim anything might exist that would in principle be inaccessible to consciousness. The project of phenomenology is an attempt to grasp the thing in its unity, by means of reduction. Husserl’s contributions to philosophy demonstrate the ongoing tension between a thing and its qualities.
In some ways, the thing is Heidegger’s most important idea, one that encapsulates all the insights of his career. Culminating in his 1927 masterpiece Being and Time, Heidegger revolutionized our concept of things. For Heidegger, things are events, not perceptual or physical occurrences. They are a how, not a what—in other words, they cannot be reduced to a list of traits and qualities. Heidegger guides us through two dramatic ideas in rethinking things: the first is the concept of tool-analysis, where things withdraw from presence into their silent function, and the second is the concept of the fourfold, where things become quadruple mirrors, with each pole reflecting all the others. What Heidegger gives to philosophy is a model of things impenetrable to human intellect and equally opaque in everyday human use.
For Sigmund Freud, the thing is the lost object, what’s absent in the subject. Jaques Lacan translates Freud’s neuronal understanding of the thing into a semiotic one: the thing is the signifier cut off from the chain of signification.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty brings up how the perceiving subject comes to distinguish itself from the outside world, attempting to explain why we don’t think of ourselves as things.
Karl Marx is one of the first to notice that things can define society, even more than people; capitalist production is founded on the creation of commodities out of things.
Paul-Michel Foucault demonstrates in The Order of Things that the history of the thing—history beyond the subject—was central to the first understandings of “history,” meaning the development of history as an object of study in the 19th century.
Anthropologists like Bruno Latour and Arjun Appadurai have constructed entire theories of society and history around thing-ness as an attempt to understand the world not as a product of human subjectivity.
Other extensions of thing into critical theory most notably include Bill Brown’s proposal of thing theory as an analogue to narrative theory or cultural theory—thing theory is intended to explain how inanimate objects constitute human subjects.
But a thing is not just for humans—a thing is for many other things as well, both material and immaterial.
‘Thing’ offers itself as an alternative to ‘object,’ dissolving the dichotomy between subject and object. Because of its ambiguity, the word thing carries a notion of the unmediated, a world without a code, beyond the perceiving subject and the representations that are created by the subject around the thing.
Thing means anything which meets two criteria:
1. irreducible downward to its components
2. irreducible upward to its effects
To be a thing does not mean to be physical material without dignity, but to be a unified entity irreducible to its components or to its effects on the surrounding environment.
How does one retain things—neither too closed on themselves, nor too transient? The question of the thing is not a question of how we know the thing, but a question of what things are. What a thing is cannot be reduced to our access to things—access which is highly limited. Things withdraw, not just from human access, but from each other as well.
A thing is more than its appearance, more than its usefulness, and more than its physical body.
There is always more to a thing than anything we can see or say about it. Things lie simultaneously at hand and somewhere outside the theoretical field, beyond a certain limit, as a recognizable yet illegible remainder that is unspecifiable. The ambiguity of things and the ambiguity in things: to be a thing is to be riddled in contradiction.
The significance of one thing to another differs depending on the perspectives of both. When one thing characterizes another, the first grasps the second in abstract, enough for the one to make some sense of the other, given its own internal properties. A thing’s means of making sense of another is not universal and cannot be explained away through natural law, scientific truth, or even its own perspective. To understand how a thing operates on its surroundings, or they on it, is not the same as understanding how the thing itself understands those operations.
All things translate one another and the things that are translated are irreducible to their translations.
Perhaps the most that can be said with confidence about a thing is that it eludes capture by any concept. Concepts can never provide a clear view of things in themselves, but can gesture toward them.
Knowledge is less like seeing and more like interpretation, since things can never be directly or completely present to us. The point of knowledge is not to experience the unknowable uniqueness of a thing, but to obtain some sort of partial grasp of the features of a thing that is already in our midst.
Everyone searches for an identity, for a single meaning, and a common sense to things. Therefore, everyone fixes the meaning of things, of their life, of the lives of others, or of their acts at a specific sign. Meaning is never given, but obtained through the elimination and relativism of other possible meanings. In truth, this meaning—neither completely existential nor completely semiotic—is simply the possibility of passing from one thing to another.
A thing among things.
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