footnote Sociological theories may be grouped around two poles. The first presents us with a view of society as a network of human meanings as embodiments of human activity. The second, on the other hand, presents us with society conceived of as a thing-like facticity, standing over against its individual members with coercive controls and moulding them in its socializing processes. In other words, the first view presents us with man as the social being and with society as being made by him, whereas the second view sets society as an entity over and against man, and shows him being made by it. It would be misleading to describe these two views as, respectively, ‘individualistic’ and ‘collectivistic’. The difference between them is rather that between seeing society as the incarnation of human actions and seeing it as a reality which human activity has to take as given.footnote1

If, for example, we pursue two classical formulations of these two types of sociological theorizing, namely those of Weber and of Durkheim, it becomes clear that what is required is a comprehensive perspective which encompasses both by showing their interrelatedness. Certainly sociology deals with realities that are taken as given—with data, in the literal sense of the word. It is this aspect of sociological understanding which Durkheim’s formulation brings out. However, sociology will only accomplish its task if it studies not merely such giveness but the various processes of becoming giveness. The confrontation of the Weberian and Durkheimian formulations cannot be resolved by constructing a highly abstract edifice which can seemingly house both, but at the price of losing the problematics out of which the two formulations arose. The point is not to prove pre-established harmonies between all possible sociological formulations. Rather one must take seriously the objectivity of social existence in its relatedness to human subjectivity. This poses a fundamental problem of sociological theorizing: How is it possible that subjectively intended meanings become objective facticities? Or, to use terms appropriate to the aforementioned theoretical positions, how is it possible that human activity (Handeln) should produce a world of things (choses)? This problem, however, is difficult to deal with in either Weberian or Durkheimian terms only, because these always refer to one or the other pole of what is a comprehensive process involving both poles in an inextricable interrelatedness. If we understand this process as involving both subjective productivity and objective product, men producing society and in turn being produced by it, then our theorizing will be propelled towards formulations of this dialectic in its totality. Indeed, it will become necessary to understand society as a dialectical process.footnote2

It is as a result of such considerations that we believe in the usefulness for sociological theory of certain Marxian categories as well as of insights derived from the phenomenological analysis of social life. This does not imply any doctrinaire commitment. It is important, rather, to show how sociological theory can be enriched by streams of thought coming from outside the sociological tradition in the narrower sense. We are especially interested in this in terms of a sociology of knowledge understood as a centrally important segment of sociological theory dealing with the relation between consciousness and society. Furthermore, we would like to show how dialectical and phenomenological perspectives can be usefully combined in an understanding of human sociality.

We shall use the Marxian concept of reification (Verdinglichung) for an exercise in the sociology of knowledge understood in these terms. We are not concerned with an exegesis of Marx or with a history-of-ideas treatment of the later development of the concept. However, while our concern is systematic rather than historical, we feel obliged to give at least a brief outline of the history of the concept of reification. After this, we shall proceed to our own theorizing, hopefully freed from the burden of historical gratitude. The reader who is familiar with this conceptual development and with the relevant technical terms may decide to skip the historical section immediately following.

As we have implied in our introductory remarks, the concept of reification makes sense only within a dialectical perspective. Hegel made it clear that the dialectic is precisely the experience that consciousness makes with itself. The Hegelian notion of experience, as developed in The Phenomenology of Spirit, encompasses not only the dialectical movement that consciousness makes in its knowledge, but also in its praxis. It is this ‘all-encompassingness’ that makes of the Hegelian philosophy the most ample philosophical totalization that we know of. In the Hegelian philosophy Spirit objectivates itself, alienates itself and recovers itself without respite. The dialectical movement that consciousness undergoes in itself, as much in its knowledge as in its object, is precisely what is termed experience. Therefore, the dialectic is, for Hegel, the manner of thinking that is designed to overcome all forms of rigidly oppositional thinking—it is the attempt to think being and thinking together. Although Hegel never uses the specific term reification (Verdinglichung), it is quite clear that reification takes place at every stage in the history of consciousness as that form of immediacy wherein the object is experienced as an ‘in itself’ over and against a subject. The history of Spirit is the history of Gestalten of consciousness, whereby natural consciousness makes the experience of the inadequacy of its reificational thinking, and is driven on to ever new and higher levels of thought forms on the road toward that type of absolute thinking whereby the complete dialecticality of thinking and being is made fully manifest in their complete unity. Therefore, for Hegel Spirit realizes itself through and as its own proper history: Man exteriorizes himself and loses himself in the things—in the loss the things are posited as ‘in-itself-others’—only to be returned to himself in thought. All alienation, and its attendant reificational thinking, is surmounted in the absolute knowledge of the philosopher wherein Spirit is fully transparent to itself and knows itself in its otherness while remaining with itself.footnote3

The protest of Marx against the Hegelian system, out of which the concept of reification used in this article arose, takes two forms, the first an existential protest, and the second a protest against Hegel’s alleged confusion of objectivation and alienation. In the Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts Marx criticizes Hegel for having made of the actual and concrete ways to be of man ‘moments of motion’. Thus, our anguishes, our suffering, the contradictions which make for our real and existential alienation become in the Hegelian system dialectic moments which are posited in order to be transcended—‘moments, existences and modes to be of man, which have no value taken in isolation or apart, which dissolve and engender one another. Moments of movement’.footnote4 Thus, Marx states, in their real existence the mobile essence of man and his products is hidden; this only appears in thought, in philosophy. As lived-through, the human and its objectivations are, in the Hegelian perspective, reifications, and this is why Marx accuses Hegel of confusing objectivation with alienation, and confusing reification with objectivity as such. From this point of view the Hegelian transcendental idealism becomes a mystification in that the only manner of de-reification is thought, in that the dialectic is only truly realized as knowledge.footnote5

Just as much as Marx will denounce the absorption of man into thought forms, so too he will denounce the alienation of man in an objectivistic scientism which explicates man by nature and thereby loses sight of the fact that, one, there is not a nature without human signification, and two, that science is a human product.footnote6 In a society of commodity production, which results in the quantification of the concrete qualities and determinations of the objects, man produces a nature which is a mathematically expressible manifold. This is a reification which finds its expression in an autonomous science, namely political economy. The social reality expressed in this political economy is a reality wherein man is related to his fellowmen only via the mediation of the commodity. The latter is an external thing which separates men as at the same time it artificially unites them as functions of the autonomous economic system. Labour, for example, becomes not the world-producing realization of the human faculties of man, but a thing, a power to be bought and sold on a quantitatively evaluating market. This is the essence of Marx’s concept of the fetishism of commodities. It is very important that this is not misinterpreted as a rigid economic determinism. As a matter of fact, the Marxian texts point to economic determinism as having its roots precisely in the fetishism of commodities.footnote7