Intellectual & Cultural History: Cooperating & Competing “reifications” of different “idioms”


One way to understand the contours of intellectual and cultural history from antiquity to the present is to view it as an ever-changing reification of and competition between various idioms. Let me begin with a definition of terms:

Idiom is an expression or phrase that means something more than or other than the literal meanings of its individual words. The combined words become an integrative gestalt. Some words, when combined into a memorable phrase or combination of words, become greater than the sum of their parts. They function as a motto, slogan, tag-line or even battle-cry to symbolize and represent a vision of reality, a set of values, and a way of life.

Reification may refer to making something real, bringing something into being, or making something concrete and seemingly real. It can also mean treating an abstraction as if it were a concrete and real thing. Whitehead called reification “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” Nevertheless, anytime we “transfer” our thoughts and ideas from what Michael Polanyi calls “the tacit dimension” to “the explicit dimension” we necessarily engage in a bit of reification. It is almost impossible for us to use abstract words and phrases without treating them as if they possessed a measure of actual and concrete reality, even if we insist that we are philosophical nominalists and not Platonic realists.

Traditional Religious Idioms: We can summarize the world’s various religious traditions in the form of different “reified idioms.” The most familiar of these reified idioms include:

Spirit – Nature – Human Being (First Peoples)

Being-Consciousness-Bliss (Hinduism)

Non-Attachment – Mindfulness – Compassion (Buddhism)

Yin – Yang – Taoism (Taoism)

Good – Evil – Cosmic Struggle (Zoroastrianism)

Justice – Mercy – Humility (Judaism)

Faith – Hope – Love (Saint Paul’s Christianity)

Light – Life – Love (St. John’s Christianity)

Transcendence – Surrender – Ecstasy (Islamic Mysticism)

Body-Mind- Spirit (“New Age” Holistic Spirituality)

Philosophical Idioms: In the ancient world as today that have always been those who have preferred to express their vision and values in philosophical rather than religious terms. In fact, what we find in the comparative study of the world’s religions is that all of them have variously been interpreted as either magically literalist, religiously symbolic, philosophical metaphysical, linguistically metaphorical and ethically normative.

One of the difficulties in understanding the world’s religious traditions is that there is no common consensus among those within any of the traditions as to which of these interpretative frameworks ought to be taken as authoritative and normative. Some insist, for example, that Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism are not religions but philosophies and ways of life. But That is not entirely true. One kind find all five types of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism if one looks more closely into the ever-changing and evolving traditions. The same is true of the western traditions.

The Hellenistic Philosophical Traditions: In the ancient Western World the various philosophies of the Materialistic Atomists, Spiritual Idealists, Platonic Realists, Aristotelian Scholastics, along with the post-Socratic Epicureans, Stoics, Cynics and Skeptics all developed their own reified idioms.  Among the many reified idioms that gained intellectual and cultural currency was the hyphenated ideation: Beauty – Goodness – Truth.

This Greco-Roman ideal continued throughout the Middle Ages in combination with the Judeo-Christian ideals of Justice, Mercy, Humility along with Faith, Hope and Love. This combination of visions and values drawn from the Greek, Roman, Jewish and Gentile Christian traditions formed the Grand Synthesis of the Middle Ages that lasted for a thousand years.

In the European Renaissance of the 14th and 15th Centuries “Beauty” become identified with “university studies” in the arts and aesthetics. “Goodness” became identified with studies in ethics and law. “Truth” became identified with studies in theology, philosophy, history and science. Eventually in the modern  age theology would go from being called the queen of the sciences” to be separated and marginalized from secular humanistic university studies. The long venerated reified idioms of theology would fall by the wayside.

In the modern secular age we too have our popular reified idioms that express different visions of reality and ways of life. The radical pluralism and contradictory messages expressed by these different idioms makes life in our modern and post-modern age quite baffling and bewildering for many.  Here are some reified idioms that have contemporary currency among different cultural enclaves that live “in different worlds.”

The Hedonic Life: Wine – Women – Song; Drugs – Sex –  Rock n Roll

The Ascetic Life: Silence, Solitude, Simplicity; Contemplation, Reflection, Serenity

The Traditional Life: Faith – Family – Freedom; Tradition – Law -Order

The Progressive Life: Justice, Equality, Solidarity; Health – Education – Welfare

The Libertarian Life: Guns, Guts, Glory; Independence, Self-Reliance, Private Enterprise

The Communitarian Life: Community, Creativity, Celebration; Nature, Sustainability, Ecology

In our highly complex modern “democratic society” there is a perpetual contest between a cacophony of  multiple reified idioms as they express competing visions of reality and ways of life. The jostling forces of religion and secularism, traditionalism and progressivism, individualism and community, hierarchy and equality, ideology and pragmatism are all “in play.”

In our democracy (some would say our “capitalist plutocracy” in the guise of a “liberal democracy”) the principalities and powers of the banking and finance, military and industry, technology and communications, global corporations and private enterprises, government agencies and non-governmental organizations, humanitarian societies and local co-operatives, educational institutions and media conglomerates,  sophisticated art and philistine entertainment are all contending for influence, even as they are required to cooperate with each other where necessary for mutual survival and benefit.

Our “religio-secular democratic republic” is messy enough, but its marriage to “corporate capitalism” and the power of money to influence and control the reins of society makes it even more problematic, an irreconcilable marriage of conflicting reified idioms, impossibly contradictory visions of reality and ways of life.

It does not appear that our cacophony of competing reified idioms will produce anything like the Grand Synthesis of the Middle Ages any time soon. Nevertheless, there are those identified as “cultural creatives” who hope that beyond the current cultural divide between conservative traditionalists and liberal progressives, left-wing communitarians and right-wing libertarians a new creative synthesis may emerge.

The critical challenge seems to be one of pluralistically integrating multiple tacit (or unspoken) assumptions and reified (or spoken) idioms while at the same time resisting the alienating and destructive forces of militarism and apathy, dogmatism and cynicism, authoritarianism and decadence, fundamentalism and  nihilism. What is needed is a “principled pragmatism” that can find wisdom in many counselors and unity of purpose amidst tacit and reified differences.


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