“To Thing”: A New Verb

Jeff CarreiraBlog Posts, New Paradigm Thinking22 Comments

Thing (v). to thing, thinging.   1. To create an object by defining a boundary around some portion of reality separating it from everything else and then labeling that portion of reality with a name.

One of the greatest human skills is the ability to thing. We are thinging beings. We thing all the time. We started by thinging the natural world. We saw a tall plant and we defined that kind of a plant as a “tree.” We thinged it. Then we looked at some of the appendages sticking off the tree and we defined them as branches. And the flat green bits that sprout from them we called leaves. A tree is a thing that includes branches and leaves. Branches are things that often include leaves, but not always. Leaves are things that grow on branches and trees but are independent of them.

Yes, yes, you might think, but we are not really “thinging” after all trees, branches and leaves already existed before we named them. We are not creating things we are just labeling things that already exist. Ahhh…but that is the question. Did the things that we named exist before they were named? Or more precisely, in what sense did they exist before they were named, and how did their existence change after they were named?

These are important questions that I believe we should all spend time thinking about very, very deeply. Language is the medium of knowing. And if we are unclear about how language affects what we know, and therefore what we think and relate to as real, we are lost. This was the great insight of many of the analytic philosophers like Gottlob Frege, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Bertrand Russell who realized that if you wanted to know what was real and true you had to look closely at the way language relates to knowing. The American pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce was also an early pioneer in exploring the relationship between language and knowing.

If we think about trees it is easy to complain that our naming it a tree is only a label slapped on to something that already exited. It is not an act of creation. What if we consider something like a national border? Is the border between Canada and the United States a real thing? How about paper money? It is certainly real paper, but is it real money? These are the kinds of “social realities” that I started writing about some months ago and with those it is easy to see how naming things is an act of creating them.

But what about simple things like trees. We certainly have all learned by now that our naming different living species and then acting as if they are separate rather than part of a holistic ecological system has had devastating effects. Although there was something there in the first place that we slapped the label “tree” upon, it is still true that what the word “tree” implies in our minds – a thing that exists separate from other things – is not actually a part of the inherent reality of the original thing that we named.

The names that we give to things inevitably are not just labels – they are interpretations. And we act on the basis of those interpretations, and those interpretations become real. Our names become reality because we don’t relate to them as names of real things, we relate to them as the real thing itself. Our idea of a tree is contained in the word ‘tree’.  When we see a tree it conjures up the word tree in our mind and that stimulates our ideas of what a tree is. This all happens so fast that we don’t realize it and so the physical tree, the word ‘tree’ and our ideas about the tree all merge and become one thing.

This is one of the ways that language creates reality and it is part of what the American philosopher Wilfred Sellers was describing when he spoke about “the myth of the given.” The painter Magritte was ironically pointing in the same direction in his painting of a pipe that had printed under it in French, “This is not a pipe.”

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Don Briddell
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The problem with a word like consciousness is that it is not a thing. It has no objective reality. That is why meditation is important. It is one of the few, for many, the only “thing” we do where we attempt to be without “thingness” between mind, experience and what is. Hence the power of the koan.

Don Briddell
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Jeff,
How about the fact the only difference between “no thing” and “nothing” is space. Is space a thing or a no thing or a nothing? Physics is as hung-up about this as philosophy.

Carl
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This is beautiful! it reminds me of so many parallels from findings in the science of behavior. Naming, or concept formation, requires what a behavior scientist would describe as two different functions in the behavior of an organism: discrimination (different behavior) between instances and non-instances of the “thing”; and generalization (the same behavior) across the set of instances responded to as the “thing.” Skinner would say that these discriminations and differentiations fall along what he would call “natural lines of fracture.” They correspond to what is USEFUL. The naming of a “thing” is reinforced because it is somehow useful, as… Read more »

Catherine
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Catherine

I feel speechless, after this blog and the incredible post by Carl !!

Catherine
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Catherine

Carl, it is the morning and I recovered abit of my “speech” after a refreshing night !!
I have a question for you : how do you reconcile the behaviorism, which is commonly interpreted as a science of the “exterior” to spirituality, which is to me related to the evolution of the “interior” ?

I am very curiosu to know how someone like you positions himself with this question. Do you reconsider the contours, the definitions themselves, of what “exterior” and “interior” mean ?

Carl
Guest

Good question. Unlike the so-called “methodological behaviorists” who came before him and who simply ignored inner life because it could not be reliably measured and observed by others, my teacher, B.F. Skinner, was a “radical behaviorist” who said that everything is behavior, including inner thoughts and feelings and perceptions, etc. Just because only one person — the “subject” — can observe or measure it, that does not mean that it’s not real, etc. In fact, in this tradition, we do things like counting thoughts and feelings, graphing them, and then seeing what factors in our environments or self-management types of… Read more »

Catherine
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Catherine

Yes it is a beautiful answer! Strangely I like both the idea that there a fracture between inner and outer and the idea that there is no boundary at all between the two. Somehow thefracture is arbitrary, relative and cultural

Robert Sloan
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Interesting point. Is a stand of aspens that are all clones of the first seed that drifted there on the wind an individual or a group of trees? Is it all one individual being if all the raspberry bushes in a ramble are still connected by the runners they sent out?

Carl
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Parts of a whole, I think. Where how we define the so-called parts depends on our “purpose” or why we are naming it at all — the consequences.

Catherine
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Catherine

Carl, yes part of a whole. And yet as a quantum physicist I was always frustrated by the relativist character of the“ part of the whole”. The fact that one can choose somewhat arbitrarily the borders of what makes a part, makes me uneasy deep down. In quantum physics you have two realms and two only: the one where the Schrödinger’s cat is dead AND alive [ quantum realm], and the one where it is dead OR alive [classical realm]. You see, in a sense the boundary IS or is NOT, but when it is, it ‘s contour are defined… Read more »

Liesbeth
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Liesbeth

I watched a program about entropy and the universe (it was explaining that low entropy goes towards high entropy, which means order goes to disorder and that in the end there will be no matter left. ) Catherine’s last post came to my mind. I am always so happy when people with great knowledge write posts, but it is easy to ‘drop out’ because it seems to theoretical. This time I disconnected when she used the word de-coherence. I just looked now what it means, because I thought it might have anything to do with entropy. It doesn’t , but… Read more »

Catherine
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Catherine

I am sorry I shall never use scientific words without explaining them. BUt I find that you perfectly found the description. The theory of quantum de-coherence is the man stream scientific theory about how one passes from the realm of quantum mechanics to the one of the observer. Indeed when you say that in a quantum sate the Schrödinger ‘s cat is at the same time dead and alive, this is strictly true in the quantum realm. Now as soon as you want to perform and experiment, and open the box to “see” , then you will find that the… Read more »

Liesbeth
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Liesbeth

Thank you for explaining Catherine, it is absolutely most amazingly interesting. Please do not feel obliged to explain everything, it might keep you from writing. Only after writing last night I read the last lines of your previous post about the interior and that was actually in my mind a lot. You are actually one of the few people that can ‘ back it up’ with findings in physics, this interior would be than where everything is still possible. Not yet ‘ thinged’ by anything. If I understand it well, it must be very interesting to connect your findings with… Read more »

Catherine
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Catherine

Lisbeth do you want to know where main stream science is at the moment? I know a few very good books. One is ” the magic of the Cosmos” by Brian Greene. This had lots of publicity and it covers all fields of physics while still over selling string theory tomy taste. Other books are those of Etienne Klein a collegue of mine. Everything is good here. He is a philosopher as well asa scientist ( he has actually two Ph Ds. Onein physics and one in philosophy and he writes very well very clearly ) He is widely read… Read more »

Liesbeth
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Liesbeth

How interesting, I can imagine what you say, the more capacity you have to find out, the more interesting it gets. That is obviously what you have to give, but as you found, spirituality goes beyond the mind, so it has to be both. But probably most of quantum physics is already in that direction. Just for your interest, I came home with two books just now, a book from David Bodanis called E=MC2. I think this is where one has to start…and second a book of Brian Green, when I opened your post, I first jumped of having bought… Read more »

Catherine
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Catherine

Liesbeth, it is the `fabric of the Cosmos”; it is just that I have it in French and the translation gives in French the “ La Magie du Cosmos”.
It’s an interesting deformed translation, actually, for a bets seller !

So you have the right book. tell me whether it is OK to read.
Catherine

Dr. Palabra
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Dr. Palabra

“I Feel I Am: Thinking Thinking” Thinking is not a thing. Thinking, once “thinged,” is no longer thinking. It is a thought. A thought is a thing that has been thinged by thinking about thinking. Thoughts are not thinking. A thought is thinking thinking itself as thing. A thought can be unthinged by thinking. A thinking thing is a conscious being. Unthinging itself as unthought a thing can become thinking about nothing. Thinking about nothing creates a no-thing as thinking. A no-thing is an unthinkable thinking as thought. An unthinkable thinking is an unthought no-thing. A nothinged thing is a… Read more »

D. Allen
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D. Allen

I have the sense that you are agglutinating language and logic, or, alternatively, language and being. This is equivalent to mythological thinking.

In the language of the late David B. Zilberman (1939-1977), “in Vedanta metaphysics, [this] is called the ‘non-distinction of Reality from thinking about Reality,’ or,… the `non-discrimination of Language and Being’ — which is peculiar to the mythological mentality.”

“Semantic Shifts on Epic Composition (On the `Modal’ Poetics of The Mahabharata)” David B. Zilberman, p. 267 in “Semiosis: Semiotics and the History of Culture,” 1984. The University of Michigan.

Liesbeth
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Liesbeth

Catherine, the book is totally fascinating to read. Even though I cannot understand much directly, I get into this sense of huge awareness. I am pulled into the awe of all these laws and energy, this hugo process going on. It is the pure joyment of being able to find out on my own strength, being able to dig as far as the interest goes, to the very bottom of what there can be know. It is fantastic. Thank you, Liesbeth.

David Hogg
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David Hogg

Wow, I enjoyed this post immensely! Thank you. I have always wondered if this “thinging” is related to something called “The Frame Problem” in Artificial Intelligence. My understanding is (although – disclaimer here – I may not have my facts straight) that computer scientists starting in the 80’s were excited about the enormous potential of AI systems – only to find that they were stymied by a very serious problem that wasn’t technical – but appeared to be more philosophical in nature! For example, they wanted to develop robots that could “understand” their environment and learn about their environment. They… Read more »

Nina
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… என ன ய ம அற ம கப பட த த னத க க நன ற தல அற ம கப பட த த ம வ தம ர ம ப அர ம ய இர க க .//வ ங க!!! அக பர , மக ழ ச ச !!நன ற அக பர . // r.v.saravanan said… ஆச ர யர பண க க வ ழ த த கள .ந ங க வல ச சரம ச ன ற இட க ய ட ட ல ம ச வ ரச யம க ற யவ ல ல கலக க ங க//ம க க நன ற சரவணன .// ஜ… Read more »