Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Even in our scientific age we humans still tell stories, indeed it seems we need to tell stories. Stories to try to make sense of our lives and stories to try to understand our world. Rational, scientific stories will quite often suffice. Many of these are illuminating and beautiful, numinous even. We have the wonderful story of human evolution, the story of relativity and quantum physics, the stories of the diversity of life and the unfolding story of the origins of the universe. Yet sometimes we try to grasp other insights, truths even, which are not yet illuminated by science. We tell stories to ourselves and to others, in literature, in music, in art and even using legends and myths.

La Barbe Bleue – Charles Perrault

One type of story is the fairy tale. Some of these find their origin in the mists of time and some may even have been based on real events, though these are well-nye impossible to recover. At first largely orally transmitted, only later were these tales written down. In the English-speaking world we tend to think that our most famous fairy tales come from the Germanic world, from the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen. But many of our favourite tales were first written down by a Frenchman in the seventeenth century. His name was Charles Perrault. You might be surprised to know that it was Perrault who first brought us Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty and Puss in Boots. Another tale that Perrault first wrote down was Bluebeard. It’s a story that I have returned to on and off over the last twenty years; first in the Brothers Grimm version, later in Béla Bartók’s 1911 opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and more recently yet again in Perrault’s original. What does it mean? Of course there can never be an answer to this question; so what does it mean for me? But first Perrault’s Bluebeard itself:


 There was once a man who had fine houses, both in town and country, a deal of silver and gold plate, embroidered furniture, and coaches gilded all over with gold. But this man was so unlucky as to have a blue beard, which made him so frightfully ugly that all the women and girls ran away from him.

One of his neighbors, a lady of quality, had two daughters who were perfect beauties. He desired of her one of them in marriage, leaving to her choice which of the two she would bestow on him. Neither of them would have him, and they sent him backwards and forwards from one to the other, not being able to bear the thoughts of marrying a man who had a blue beard. Adding to their disgust and aversion was the fact that he already had been married to several wives, and nobody knew what had become of them.

Bluebeard, to engage their affection, took them, with their mother and three or four ladies of their acquaintance, with other young people of the neighborhood, to one of his country houses, where they stayed a whole week.

The time was filled with parties, hunting, fishing, dancing, mirth, and feasting. Nobody went to bed, but all passed the night in rallying and joking with each other. In short, everything succeeded so well that the youngest daughter began to think that the man’s beard was not so very blue after all, and that he was a mighty civil gentleman.

As soon as they returned home, the marriage was concluded. About a month afterwards, Bluebeard told his wife that he was obliged to take a country journey for six weeks at least, about affairs of very great consequence. He desired her to divert herself in his absence, to send for her friends and acquaintances, to take them into the country, if she pleased, and to make good cheer wherever she was.

“Here,” said he,” are the keys to the two great wardrobes, wherein I have my best furniture. These are to my silver and gold plate, which is not everyday in use. These open my strongboxes, which hold my money, both gold and silver; these my caskets of jewels. And this is the master key to all my apartments. But as for this little one here, it is the key to the closet at the end of the great hall on the ground floor. Open them all; go into each and every one of them, except that little closet, which I forbid you, and forbid it in such a manner that, if you happen to open it, you may expect my just anger and resentment.”

She promised to observe, very exactly, whatever he had ordered. Then he, after having embraced her, got into his coach and proceeded on his journey.

Her neighbors and good friends did not wait to be sent for by the newly married lady. They were impatient to see all the rich furniture of her house, and had not dared to come while her husband was there, because of his blue beard, which frightened them. They ran through all the rooms, closets, and wardrobes, which were all so fine and rich that they seemed to surpass one another.

After that, they went up into the two great rooms, which contained the best and richest furniture. They could not sufficiently admire the number and beauty of the tapestry, beds, couches, cabinets, stands, tables, and looking glasses, in which you might see yourself from head to foot; some of them were framed with glass, others with silver, plain and gilded, the finest and most magnificent that they had ever seen.

They ceased not to extol and envy the happiness of their friend, who in the meantime in no way diverted herself in looking upon all these rich things, because of the impatience she had to go and open the closet on the ground floor. She was so much pressed by her curiosity that, without considering that it was very uncivil for her to leave her company, she went down a little back staircase, and with such excessive haste that she nearly fell and broke her neck.

Having come to the closet door, she made a stop for some time, thinking about her husband’s orders, and considering what unhappiness might attend her if she was disobedient; but the temptation was so strong that she could not overcome it. She then took the little key, and opened it, trembling. At first she could not see anything plainly, because the windows were shut. After some moments she began to perceive that the floor was all covered over with clotted blood, on which lay the bodies of several dead women, ranged against the walls. (These were all the wives whom Bluebeard had married and murdered, one after another.) She thought she should have died for fear, and the key, which she, pulled out of the lock, fell out of her hand.

After having somewhat recovered her surprise, she picked up the key, locked the door, and went upstairs into her chamber to recover; but she could not, so much was she frightened. Having observed that the key to the closet was stained with blood, she tried two or three times to wipe it off; but the blood would not come out; in vain did she wash it, and even rub it with soap and sand. The blood still remained, for the key was magical and she could never make it quite clean; when the blood was gone off from one side, it came again on the other.

Bluebeard returned from his journey the same evening, saying that he had received letters upon the road, informing him that the affair he went about had concluded to his advantage. His wife did all she could to convince him that she was extremely happy about his speedy return.

The next morning he asked her for the keys, which she gave him, but with such a trembling hand that he easily guessed what had happened.

“What!” said he, “is not the key of my closet among the rest?”

“I must,” said she, “have left it upstairs upon the table.”

“Fail not,” said Bluebeard, “to bring it to me at once.”

After several goings backwards and forwards, she was forced to bring him the key. Bluebeard, having very attentively considered it, said to his wife, “Why is there blood on the key?”

“I do not know,” cried the poor woman, paler than death.

“You do not know!” replied Bluebeard. “I very well know. You went into the closet, did you not? Very well, madam; you shall go back, and take your place among the ladies you saw there.”

Upon this she threw herself at her husband’s feet, and begged his pardon with all the signs of a true repentance, vowing that she would never more be disobedient. She would have melted a rock, so beautiful and sorrowful was she; but Bluebeard had a heart harder than any rock!

“You must die, madam,” said he, “at once.”

“Since I must die,” answered she (looking upon him with her eyes all bathed in tears), “give me some little time to say my prayers.”

“I give you,” replied Bluebeard, “half a quarter of an hour, but not one moment more.”

When she was alone she called out to her sister, and said to her, “Sister Anne” (for that was her name), “go up, I beg you, to the top of the tower, and look if my brothers are not coming. They promised me that they would come today, and if you see them, give them a sign to make haste.”

Her sister Anne went up to the top of the tower, and the poor afflicted wife cried out from time to time, “Anne, sister Anne, do you see anyone coming?”

And sister Anne said, “I see nothing but a cloud of dust in the sun, and the green grass.”

In the meanwhile Bluebeard, holding a great saber in his hand, cried out as loud as he could bawl to his wife, “Come down instantly, or I shall come up to you.”

“One moment longer, if you please,” said his wife; and then she cried out very softly, “Anne, sister Anne, do you see anybody coming?”

And sister Anne answered, “I see nothing but a cloud of dust in the sun, and the green grass.”

“Come down quickly,” cried Bluebeard, “or I will come up to you.”

“I am coming,” answered his wife; and then she cried, “Anne, sister Anne, do you not see anyone coming?”

“I see,” replied sister Anne, “a great cloud of dust approaching us.”

“Are they my brothers?”

“Alas, no my dear sister, I see a flock of sheep.”

“Will you not come down?” cried Bluebeard.

“One moment longer,” said his wife, and then she cried out, “Anne, sister Anne, do you see nobody coming?”

“I see,” said she, “two horsemen, but they are still a great way off.”

“God be praised,” replied the poor wife joyfully. “They are my brothers. I will make them a sign, as well as I can for them to make haste.”

Then Bluebeard bawled out so loud that he made the whole house tremble. The distressed wife came down, and threw herself at his feet, all in tears, with her hair about her shoulders.

“This means nothing,” said Bluebeard. “You must die!” Then, taking hold of her hair with one hand, and lifting up the sword with the other, he prepared to strike off her head. The poor lady, turning about to him, and looking at him with dying eyes, desired him to afford her one little moment to recollect herself.

“No, no,” said he, “commend yourself to God,” and was just ready to strike.

At this very instant there was such a loud knocking at the gate that Bluebeard made a sudden stop. The gate was opened, and two horsemen entered. Drawing their swords, they ran directly to Bluebeard. He knew them to be his wife’s brothers, one a dragoon, the other a musketeer; so that he ran away immediately to save himself; but the two brothers pursued and overtook him before he could get to the steps of the porch. Then they ran their swords through his body and left him dead. The poor wife was almost as dead as her husband, and had not strength enough to rise and welcome her brothers.

Bluebeard had no heirs, and so his wife became mistress of all his estate. She made use of one part of it to marry her sister Anne to a young gentleman who had loved her a long while; another part to buy captains’ commissions for her brothers, and the rest to marry herself to a very worthy gentleman, who made her forget the ill time she had passed with Bluebeard.

There are myriad later versions of Bluebeard, many with a darker ending as we shall see. Interpretations abound. Perrault himself liked to add little moral tags to his tales. At the end of Bluebeard he wrote two:


Ladies, you should never pry,—
You’ll repent it by and by!
‘Tis the silliest of sins;
Trouble in a trice begins.
There are, surely—more’s the woe
Lots of things you need not know.
Come, forswear it now and here—
Joy so brief that costs so dear!

                  Another Moral

You can tell this tale is old
By the very way it’s told.
Those were days of derring-do;
Man was lord, and master too.
Then the husband ruled as king.
Now it’s quite a different thing;
Be his beard what hue it may—
Madam has a word to say!

Later Freudian and Jungian psycho-analysts couldn’t resist the tale. As you might imagine their interpretations all centred around keys and locks (read penises and vaginas) and around the blood on the closet key that couldn’t be wiped off (read defloration). But let’s not bother ourselves further with such bunkum.

In more recent times, Bluebeard has become a favourite story for feminists. Dozens of retellings have appeared – from Angela Carter and Margaret Attwood for example – and hundreds of interpretations offered. I wouldn’t dream of stepping on their turf.

Such stories can be interpreted in many ways and no one is right. In fact the word interpretation is probably not very helpful. I prefer to see them as parables or allegories which for us somehow mirror or illuminate a perhaps obscure, but nonetheless real, facet of our own life and our own world. It is in this way that I offer this short muse on Bluebeard.

Bluebeard’s new wife is not named by Perrault, so I will use the name given to her by Bartók in his opera – Judith.

Judith said to them, “Listen to me. I am about to do a thing which will go down through all generations of our descendants”. Book of Judith 8.32

What had become of Bluebeard’s wives?

Judith and her sister were at first repulsed by Bluebeard’s ugliness. ‘Adding to their disgust and aversion was the fact that he already had been married to several wives, and nobody knew what had become of them.’ They felt that something was wrong, what had become of his wives? But Bluebeard was, after all, rich and he entertained Judith, her relatives and many young people in the neighbourhood for a week in just ‘one of his country houses’. ‘The time was filled with parties, hunting, fishing, dancing, mirth, and feasting. Nobody went to bed, but all passed the night in rallying and joking with each other.’Judith was seduced by all this splendour and fun. His beard became less blue and even though she had sensed an evil she persuaded herself that ‘he was a mighty civil gentleman’.

When we are children we have an innate sense of right and wrong, it is biological. For sure our parents, our schools and our communities will ‘socialize’ us with more morality – sometimes for the good, often not. Just like Judith we can sense evil and we shy away. But then we are shown all the things we might have if we can just overcome our repulsion. All the cars, the houses, the clothes, the food and the holidays we can have. Judith must agree to marry Bluebeard, which she does despite her misgivings. We agree to join the great capitalist, consumerist frenzy despite an inkling that there’s something darker hidden just out of view. For both Judith and us, if we comply and obey then we are promised we will receive the precious keys to the cupboards in the castle, and all they contain. We can have it all so long as we submit and obey.

When Bluebeard goes away on a trip he ‘desires her to divert herself and make good cheer’. He gives her all the keys, keys to wardrobes, strongboxes and rooms where all his fortune and luxuries can be found. There is only one small catch, he forbids her to enter ‘the little closet’. If she does, he says, ‘you may expect my just anger and resentment’. Judith promises to obey. We know, of course, that hidden behind the closet door a horror lurks. Judith doesn’t know this yet.

Once Bluebeard is gone all her friends arrive to enjoy the castle. ‘They had not dared to come while her husband was there.’ They marveled at all the luxury and ‘they ceased not to extol and envy the happiness of their friend’. She really did seem to have been given the keys to happiness and everything one could desire in the world. But Judith had made a Faustian pact with Bluebeard, even if she was only dimly aware that she had. The price of the keys was to obey and not to question what lay hidden below the glittering surface.

Many of us do this in our own lives. We obey and we don’t question, and in return we (or some of us) can luxuriate in the good things of life. Yet we still feel something is not quite right, we know there is some type of knowledge, some type of insight that is being kept from us. Who really is Bluebeard? What really is the nature of the society we live in?

Judith is ‘curious’ and ‘impatient’. Although she knows she will be punished, she just must use the key to the little closet to see what’s inside. What is Bluebeard’s secret? We too are curious to find out what is hidden from our view. What are the hidden secrets of our society?

Having come to the closet door, she made a stop for some time, thinking about her husband’s orders, and considering what unhappiness might attend her if she was disobedient; but the temptation was so strong that she could not overcome it. She then took the little key, and opened it, trembling. At first she could not see anything plainly, because the windows were shut. After some moments she began to perceive that the floor was all covered over with clotted blood, on which lay the bodies of several dead women, ranged against the walls. (These were all the wives whom Bluebeard had married and murdered, one after another.) She thought she should have died for fear, and the key, which she, pulled out of the lock, fell out of her hand.

Bluebeard’s wife opens the little closet

This was the secret. Bluebeard’s Heart of Darkness. His life, her life and the castle were all built on the blood of others. As Mr. Kurtz said while dying: ‘The Horror! The Horror!’

In our own lives too we might one day find that the life we lead, the jobs we do, and the luxuries we enjoy are all based on violence and death. Violence towards other humans, violence to other living beings and violence towards the earth. Once we are aware, once we are conscious of the horror, we want to put the genie back. Yet, no matter how frightened we are, we can’t

Judith was scared. What would happen to her if Bluebeard found out she had been disobedient? She notices that the closet key she had dropped was ‘stained with blood’. Desperately she tries to put the genie back in the bottle. ‘She tried two or three times to wipe it off; but the blood would not come off.’

Out, damned spot! out, I say!…. Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.   Lady Macbeth in Macbeth by William Shakespeare

The brothers kill Bluebeard

At first we want to deny what we have seen. When Bluebeard comes back Judith returns all the keys except the one for the little closet, which she tells him she’s left upstairs. Bluebeard is not deceived, he knows she has discovered his secret and disobeyed his orders – his orders to refrain from looking into the heart of darkness. When he sees the blood on the key Judith says she doesn’t know how it got there, but Bluebeard replies: ‘I very well know. You went into the closet, did you not? Very well, madam; you shall go back, and take your place among the ladies you saw there.’ Judith knows she must pay the price for her Faustian pact with the devil. She too must join his other victims. When her pleading and her feminine wiles have no effect on Bluebeard’s determination that she ‘must die’, she begs for a little time because she knows her brothers should be arriving and may save her. They come just in the nick of time and run Bluebeard through with their swords. Perrault ends his tale:

Bluebeard had no heirs, and so his wife became mistress of all his estate. She made use of one part of it to marry her sister Anne to a young gentleman who had loved her a long while; another part to buy captains’ commissions for her brothers, and the rest to marry herself to a very worthy gentleman, who made her forget the ill time she had passed with Bluebeard.

Or in the usual phrase: they all lived happily ever after.

Judith dies in Bartok’s Duke Bluebeards Castle

Béla Bartók’s rather misogynist opera ends more darkly. Rescue doesn’t come and despite Judith’s pleas for mercy Bluebeard kills her. Bluebeard: ‘Thou art lovely, passing lovely. Thou art the queen of all my women. My best and fairest. (‘Judith goes the way of the other women’) Henceforth all shall be darkness, darkness.’

So what are we to do once we have seen into the heart of darkness? Whether this is our own personal darkness or that of the society in which we live. In Joseph Conrad’s novel, Mr. Kurtz’s dying cry of ‘The Horror!’ was both a cry for what he had become and for the society that had made him so. Is there no hope of rescue because we have sinned, as in Bartok, or if we use all our wit and guiles can we delay the end until help arrives? Or should we like an existential philosopher despair and withdraw? The answers must be personal.

Perhaps for each of us the most important question is: ‘Who is Bluebeard?’, or even, ‘What is Bluebeard’. If we don’t see the enemy as the evil it is our fate will probably be sealed… unless we have some brothers to rescue us.

Most people believe that the Earth where we all live is being despoiled and threatened.  Only a few would deny that there is any problem at all. Various reasons for this predicament are proposed and various remedies offered. Some think that nothing can be done, or even that nothing should be done – that’s just the way it is. So let’s enjoy it while we can. Others put their faith in a technological fix. Yet others suggest that it’s all a question of individual consciousness – each of us needs to change the way we think if we are to live sustainably. But, wherever we might locate ourselves ideologically, how we express our views is important. Are we being precise? Do we make statements that are capable of empirical confirmation or refutation? Or are we obfuscating the issues? Knowingly or not, diverting attention away from the real causes of environmental disaster?

Here are two quotes, two uses of words

Mankind has already caused the extinction of thousands of species with processes like deforestation. (1)

The essence of the Western idea of progress can be simply stated: mankind has advanced in the past, is now advancing, and may be expected to continue advancing in the future. (2)

I’ve given the sources for these quotes at the end. They were both taken from extremely well researched and well written articles. I chose them more or less at random. There are thousands of similar ones. My point is not whether the statements are in some sense correct or not. Neither is it whether I or you agree. By concentrating on the use of words such as Mankind (Man, Humankind, or Humanity), I want to suggest that they are distinctly unhelpful in any debate, and certainly the debate about ecology and the environment. I could equally well have highlighted the reified word Western in the second quote, but for brevity I will refrain from this.

What do such statements really mean and what are the implications? This short essay is in part a critique of some of the language used in the ecological and environmental debate, and in part a plea for the use of more concrete and specific language. Before I continue, I would like to qualify my qualifications in this matter. I am not an academic linguist, nor a philosopher of language. I am certainly not an expert in semiotics. I am just a simple economist, historian and writer – with a concern for future of the Earth and all its inhabitants. Readers might take issue with some of my linguistic analysis. So be it! I just ask that the thrust of this argument is considered for what it is.

Let’s start with a simple sentence:

Sentence 1: George went into the New Forest and cut down ten trees.

This sentence uses correct English grammar, uncomplicated syntax, and doesn’t contain much lexical ambiguity. We know the subject, George, who did the cutting. We know he went somewhere, and we know which forest he went to. We also know what he did there: he cut down ten trees.  If we are sure that the person reporting the information is reliable and honest, we might even accept it as a fact and say it’s a true statement.

Now imagine that it was your neighbour who one day walked into your garden and announced: ‘George went into the New Forest and cut down ten trees.’ What does he mean by this? What is his intention in telling you? After all, without some sort of context, it would be a rather bizarre thing to do. He might add the context himself by going on to say that this is wonderful news because George is building a house and he needed the wood. On the other hand, he might not feel the need to add anything at all because he knows from past experience that both he and you are concerned about the survival of the forest and, therefore, without it needing to be said, George’s action was reprehensible. Even if your neighbour had no intention at all when he uttered the sentence – which might be a little strange – you could, and probably would, want to put your own interpretation on the news. Sometimes you might be able to do this without any more information at all. You know George, you know what he’s up to and why, and you know what you personally think of such actions. On other occasions, you might want additional information before you can make up your mind what this sentence really means to you. For example: Did someone pay him to do this? What did he use to cut down the trees? What type of trees did he cut down?  Why did he cut the trees down? How many trees are there in the forest?

Once we obtain the extra information we think we need, we can interpret what the sentence means to us. We can even, if we wish, make a value judgement, based, at least in part, on our own morality and ideology: ‘I think that what George did was good (or bad) because…’ Was he a hero or a villain? We might even decide that something has to be done. Either we decide to go and help George next time he goes to the forest, or we might start to look for ways of stopping him.

The key point here is this: whatever our interpretation and whatever our ideology, the sentence itself has not unduly hindered us from making up our minds.

Sentence 2: He went into the forest and cut down ten trees.

I have done two things here: Replace the noun George with the pronoun he, and taken away the information telling us which forest George went into. All the considerations that were applicable to Sentence 1 still apply here. But because he is a little vaguer than George, we might first need to ask: ‘Who’s he?’ or ‘Which forest?’

Sentence 3: He went to the forest every day over the last twelve months and cut down ten trees.

A little semantic obscurity creeps in here. Did he cut down ten trees in total or ten trees every day? But this could soon be cleared up by asking another question. The sentence could then become:

Sentence 4: He went to the forest every day over the last twelve months and cut down ten trees each day.

Let’s go a step further:

Sentence 5: Over the last twelve years, logging companies have gone into the forest and cut down ten thousand trees each day.

The scale and duration of the tree cutting has increased – but we still know something about who was responsible, who caused it: it was logging companies, though we don’t know which ones. Yet we still don’t know where the forests are that are being cut down.

This means we might (or we might not) need to ask additional questions before we think we have enough information to be able to interpret the information the sentence provides. We will probably still want to know more about the context of the logging. Which forests? Why was it happening? Was it to build roads? Was it to provide open land to rear cattle to supply hamburger chains? Who is profiting? What were the effects of the logging on local communities? Is ten thousand trees a day a lot?

When we have asked enough additional questions, and obtained what we hope are reliable answers, we can then make up our minds:

‘This is wonderful! With nine billion people on the planet we need to supplement agricultural land wherever we can!’


‘This is horrendous; we are destroying our eco-systems and bringing destitution to countless local people!’

Logging companies is, in linguistic terms, a plural countable noun. We can say ‘four logging companies’ as well as ‘some logging companies’. Let’s change the sentence again:

Sentence 6: Over the last twelve years, business has gone into the forest and cut down ten thousand trees each day.

Note that I have skipped the step of using a simple plural countable noun such as businesses. Instead I have used the word business, which is called in linguistics a singular uncountable noun. It’s singular because we say ‘business is’ not ‘business are’; it’s non countable because we can’t say ‘five business’, although we can still say ‘some business’.

This starts to make our task of giving meaning to the sentence and making an interpretation even more long-winded. More questions need to be asked – if we can be bothered. Questions such as: Which businesses do you mean? What type of companies are they? How many? And so on.

In addition, we can also remove any information regarding the duration of logging, the number of trees cut, or even mention of ‘the forest’ itself, or of any specific forest:

Sentence 7: Business continues to deforest the world.

This sentence may still be a true statement of fact; but we are getting so far removed from knowing who precisely has done what, where, and with what result, that it’s starting to become a little meaningless. But at least the verb deforest still has some understandable meaning, and the noun business still points, though very dimly, at the responsible subject.

The penultimate sentence is this:

Sentence 8: Humans continue to deforest the world.

Again it’s still true, but now any precision whatsoever regarding who is actually cutting down the trees has disappeared completely. It’s just the collective plural humans. It completely begs the whole question of which humans? Never mind all the other questions we have already asked; such as: which forests, where, when, for what purpose, who benefits and who loses? It seems to imply, I would suggest, that we (or we humans) are all responsible; the small peasant farmer in Africa just as much as the large capitalist agri-businesses or ‘roving-pirate’ logging companies.

And so to our final sentence:

Sentence 9: Humankind is causing deforestation.

One could equally say Mankind, but Humankind is a little less gender specific. Here we reach the apogee of vagueness. Indeed, we have now somehow reified everything. Reification, from the Latin word res (meaning thing) usually means making a concept real, bringing it into being or making it something concrete.  More generally:

Reification in thought occurs when an abstract concept describing a relationship or context is treated as a concrete ‘thing’, or if something is treated as if it were a separate object when this is inappropriate because it is not an object or because it does not truly exist in separation.

As is often the case, German has a much more expressive word: Verdinglichung. Literally this is the process of ‘turning into a thing’. This process is of great importance. Often we talk about reification as being the act of changing abstract concepts, say truth, beauty or beautiful, into supposedly real or concrete things: Truth or Beauty. Notice how reification nearly always involves capitalization! But it’s not just limited to this. We can also turn a meaningful noun such as a man into a vague, reified concept such as Mankind – and give this concept the qualities of a real thing.

Philosophers, particularly it should be said German and French philosophers, and mostly of the Idealistic or Existential variety, love to reify concepts or processes. One could mention Heidegger’s ‘The Being of Becoming’ (Das Sein des Seiendes), or Sartre’s ‘Being and Nothingness’ (L’être et le néant) – to mention just two vacuous ontological obfuscations. ‘To be’ and ‘to become’ are verbs of condition or process: I am a man; a seed becomes a tree. You can’t hold am or becomes; and you certainly can’t talk to them or hold them responsible. But this is precisely what reification does. We make the simple verb ‘to become’ into a real thing and then we can start to interrogate it and even pass judgements on it!

George is a real thing or object. Actually he is a person (who can even act as a subject as well). Even the pronoun he refers to a person in our example. ‘A human’ usually refers to somebody concrete, though it can be used otherwise. With the use of humans, though it is tremendously vague, if it is used in the present tense then we could, at least in theory, go and introduce ourselves to all these humans, whether that means all homo sapiens or just a proportion of them.

But reification isn’t only about transforming an abstract concept such as beauty or beautiful into Beauty, or even a verb such as ‘to become’ in Becoming. It can also involve transforming simple nouns or adjectives into collective concepts, and then treating these concepts as though they had real concrete qualities – qualities such as volition or the ability to cause physical effects in the world. We can also reify a noun, signifying a real entity, such as a man, into Mankind, or a human (or the adjective Humane) into Humankind.

This isn’t to imply that using such reified words as Mankind, Humankind, or Humanity leads to a complete semantic lack of meaning. If I write the rather inelegant sentence: ‘Humanity’s greatest redeeming feature is it’s empathy with Humanity’, I guess most people will roughly understand what I’m getting at. Some might even place the word Humanity inside inverted commas. Not to signify a quotation, but rather to alert the reader to the fact that the word is some sort of abstract concept, or perhaps that its meaning is contested, or even to signify some sort of post-modernist irony. But Humanity is not a living thing; it can’t have empathy with anybody! Ultimately it’s not an ‘it’. I might want to make my sentence slightly more understandable by writing for example: ‘Humanity’s greatest redeeming feature is it’s empathy with other parts of Humanity.’ Immediately you can notice that I’ve already split up Humanity into parts or groups – in order to be more precise with regards to whom exactly it is I might be suggesting has empathy with whom? I might go a step further in this direction and rewrite my sentence as follows: ‘The greatest redeeming factor of all people is that they have empathy with all other people.’ Immediately, I would suggest, by de-reifying the words it’s much easier for readers to either agree with the statement or want to refute it. The path is immediately open for anyone to say: ‘Well that’s not true; most people don’t empathize with others!’ It is also much more amendable to the design of a scientific test of the validity of the proposition. Of course, it could be argued that the original sentence, which twice uses the word Humanity, can be equally contested in the same way. That it is equally amenable to scientific refutation or confirmation. But one can’t test any statement about Humanity as it doesn’t exist. In order to do so one would need to translate the statement into a testable form – by using such words as ‘all people’.

A final point on Sentence 9 is perhaps of interest – though it is not critical. Here is the sentence again:

Sentence 9: Humankind is causing deforestation

It is surely a wonderful thing that English, and many other languages, can evolve and create such verbs as deforest and a noun such as deforestation. Google begets ‘to google’!  But using the word Deforestation is also reification. Deforestation isn’t a thing, I would argue it’s not even a process, it’s an idea. So if we say: ’Deforestation is causing major problems for the people of Bangladesh’, this is just evasion. Somebody, or some group of people, somewhere is actually cutting down the trees for a specific purpose.

So in what way does this all matter? In general or as it relates to the debate about ecology and the environment. Surely it’s all semantics – both in terms of the scientific and linguistic meaning of the word and in its everyday usage! I would contend not. My argument regarding the use of vague or reified words such as Mankind, Humankind, Humanity and such like can be summarized as follows:

  • The subject is not a real person or group of people. It is not even an identifiable group: a class, a government or certain private companies.
  • Reified concepts such as Humankind can’t do or cause anything.
  • Even if the statement is understandable, has some meaning, and even if it is in some way ‘true’, it is usually just a platitude or a tautology.
  • This means that who actually is causing the effects, the damage (yes ‘cause and effect’) can’t be identified or held accountable.
  • Implicitly or explicitly, the culprit is everybody – even though this is blatantly not the case.
  • This can lead to Quietism, to a turning in on one-self. I am as much to blame as anyone else so I must work on myself!
  • As I do so the real culprits can just go on as if nothing matters – except their own profit.

That is not the end of the story. If I write the sentence: ‘the majority of the destruction of the forests in the Amazon over the last thirty years has been carried out by private capitalist companies from the rich countries; intent only on their own profit.’ This is a statement that is amenable to confirmation or refutation. For the sake of argument, people at either extreme of the ideological divide might even agree to it. But even if capitalist companies were the proximate cause of the felling, there are at least two retorts. One is that while this may be true it is Mankind’s incessant demand for resources and industrial and consumer products that is the underlying or ultimate cause. The logging companies are only meeting that need. Once again we are back to the reified concept of Mankind. Whose consumer needs are being met? Another often used retort is simply that the desire to maximize profit lies at the core of a successful economy and must be encouraged in all circumstances. Fair enough, but at least we know the field upon which the battle must be fought. It’s not a question of Mankind’s collective culpability, but purely a question of who really benefits and who loses – including, we might add, in the non-human world.

Finally, I think it is important to add that many contemporary commentators and historians do not fall into this quagmire of language. They try to tell, as explicitly and truthfully as they can, what is happening now and or what happened in the world in the past. This might be regarding commercial logging in Africa or Indonesia or it might be what is their interpretation of what happened during the land clearances and Enclosures in Britain.

Here are two sentences that I have written – one contemporary and one historical:

Despite the ban on commercial whaling, every year hundreds of whales are still being illegally slaughtered by Japanese commercial whalers in the Antarctic sanctuary – using the pretence of Research.

Note I haven’t written: ‘Mankind is killing the whales.’

The Ariège forests in France were not decimated by hundreds of years of communal usage. Most trees were cut down by rich private capitalists for private gain following the end of the Napoleonic Wars.  

Note I haven’t written: ‘Humans caused deforestation in the Pyrenees.’

You might or might not agree with my two statements, but at least they are clear. And it wouldn’t be too difficult to go about confirming or falsifying them. It’s even pretty obvious (if you accept them) what might need to be done!

I am not immune to using the type of language I have described, but I think it is unhelpful and even invidious and I will try to avoid it in the future.



2. Robert Nisbet, Idea of Progress, Literature and Liberty, Cato Institute, 1978.