Reification / Hypostatization Fallacy - Ascribing Reality to Abstractions

Fallacies of Ambiguity and Language

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Fallacy Name:

Alternative Names:

Fallacy of Ambiguity

Explanation of the Reification / Hypostatization Fallacy

The fallacy of Reification is very similar to the Equivocation Fallacy, except that instead of using one word and changing its meaning through the argument, it involves taking a word with a normal usage and giving it an invalid usage.

Specifically, Reification involves ascribing substance or real existence to mental constructs or concepts.

When human-like qualities are attributed as well, we also have anthropomorphization.

Examples and Discussion of the Reification / Hypostatization Fallacy

Here are some ways in which the fallacy of reification can occur in various arguments:

1. The government has a hand in everybody's business and another in every person's pocket. By limiting such governmental pickpocketing, we can limit its incursions on our freedom.

2. I can't believe that the universe would allow humans and human achievement just to fade away, therefore there must be a God and an afterlife where all will be preserved.

These two arguments demonstrate two different ways that the fallacy of Reification can be used. In the first argument, the concept of "government" is assumed to have attributes like desire which more properly belong to volitional creatures, like people. There is an unstated premise that it is wrong for a person to put their hands in your pocket and it is concluded that it is also immoral for the government to do the same.

What this argument ignores is the fact that a "government" is simply a collection of people, not a person itself. A government has no hands, therefore it cannot pickpocket. If the government's taxing of the people is wrong, it must be wrong for reasons other than a too-literal association with pickpocketing.

Actually dealing with those reasons and exploring their validity is undermined by eliciting an emotional reaction by using the pickpocketing metaphor. This arguably means that we also have a fallacy of Poisoning the Well.

In the second example above, the attributes being used are more human which means that this example of reification is also anthropomorphization. There is no reason to think that the "universe," as such, really cares about anything — including humans beings. If it is not capable of caring, then the fact that it does not care is not a good reason to believe that it will miss us after we are gone. Thus, it is invalid to construct a logical argument which relies upon the assumption that the universe does care.

Sometimes atheists create an argument using this fallacy which is similar to example #1, but which involves religion:

3. Religion attempts to destroy our liberty and is therefore immoral.

Once again, religion has no volition because it is not a person. No human-created belief system can "try" to either destroy or build anything. Various religious doctrines are certainly problematic, and it is true that many religious people attempt to undermine liberty, but it is muddled thinking to confuse the two.

Of course, it should be noted that hypostatization or reification is really just the use of metaphor. These metaphors become fallacies when they are taken too far and conclusions are formed on the basis the metaphor. It can be very useful to employ metaphors and abstractions in what we write, but they carry a danger in that we can begin to believe, without realizing it, that our abstract entities have the concrete attributes we metaphorically ascribe to them.

How we describe a thing has a great influence on what we believe about it. This means that our impression of reality is often structured by the language we use to describe reality. Because of this, the fallacy of reification should teache us to be careful in how we describe things, lest we begin to imagine that our description has an objective essence beyond the language itself.