In slang lately people ask, “Is that a thing?” They mean is that a concept that people would recognize if they thought about it? It’s not necessarily true or useful, but can it be grasped as a name, a “pot-handle” for an association of ideas that become an idea in themselves? Things come and go, but when they exist they seem real and govern how people see things, even when they contradict provable and concretely perceived “things.”
Anything that can be treated in a sentence as a noun is a “thing”, including phrases. “Going to bed” is a “thing.” A thing can be a “real” thing, but distinguishing between what is something actual and what is merely a set of abstractions can be hard to tell. Consider “race” — it refers to something imagined to be like “species” which is genetic, an expression of actual DNA-governed identity.
But it is in fact a kind of shared cultural identity that might or might not have a genetic component. It was a “thing” responding to meeting a group of people different from the discoverer, who insisted on keeping their identity, though they were changing, overlapping, becoming a new “thing” which was a “half-breed” or “mixed” or “high yellow” — the new “thingness” trying to keep up with the reality.
Or consider “novels” which are a genre of narrative writing considered at first “new” (novel) because it was made up, invented by a known (supposedly) author. Over time the edges blurred so now a novel is sometimes claimed as autobiography reconsidered, or documentary (like a letter or history or purportedly true description written down) until it is considered a fault of a novel if it is written as something experienced but was not. Now it’s a hoax, not because of the writing but because it’s assigned to the wrong category — that was imaginary in the first place.
So now the critics attack the writer, trying to assign him or her to some made-up category of human being. As usual, trying to energize a made-up “thing” by insisting that it is a moral category, thus activating stigma.
“It had been recognized since Aristotle’s time that there re patterns in the way humans think and act — the fundamental assumptions underlying logic — and that we can also identity certain patterns in our thinking that recur with depressing regularity.”
Thomas O’Laughlin in “Liturgical Evolution and the Fallacy of the Continuing Consequence” at Academia.edu.
Everything is a process.
Some principles are obvious enough once you think of them, but have huge implications. The first on the list is one of the most difficult to allow for, since our natural tendency is to keep everything the same, resist even good changes, preserve our identities and the expectations of what is around us. The closer and more dear something or somebody might be, the more reluctant we are to agree to change them, even if it’s just the wallpaper or an old sweater. Most of all we hate thinking of people as changing.
We tend to create abstractions, give them names, and then think they are real. Most of these examples have arisen through history. Romantic love, for instance. arose as a concept in medieval times.
Everything is in layers so that under each phenomenon is other phenomenas. History slips around through language so that English is full of words from “conquered” countries: French, German, India the country, and in America indigenous languages, because one needs words for what is there and other people may see them clearly and name them, like spices or rivers.
Dyads create continuums but also come from drawing distinctions. So drawing a lines makes two sides and defining one side forces the other to the opposite. Most of these examples have arisen through history. It has been enlightening to realize that there was no such thing as “homosexuality” until Kinsey et al, who were startled by research that revealed that many men enjoyed sex with other men. But then that meant that some men were the opposite so the word “heterosexuality” had to be invented. Some men became so committed to that as being “normal” that they punished everything on the other side of the “line” even though there are many variations and changes in desire.
Everything is controlled by an interaction of BOTH the entity and its environment. Changing either or introducing a third factor can produce major differences.
Vantage point, intention, point of view, motivation are sources of morality, often unrecognized or imposed by those outside an effort. Inventing “things” is characteristic of religion which makes up angels, heaven, salvation, sin. Shocked?
Survival comes most often from fittingness, rather than power. The classic example is the tiny mammals who survived environmental disaster when massive fierce dinosaurs did not. Burrowing, internal temp compensation and fur, communal relationships — all counted more. Consider women who in some circumstances can only survive by fitting themselves to men.
Sameness versus uniqueness do not have consistent value in every circumstance. But sometimes sameness — eating the same things at the same time — is good for the body. But sometimes a trace of something unusual provides a missing nutrient. If things begin to go badly, doing something new gains value.
The “virtual” — meaning the existence of ideas, assumptions and practices that are cultural rather than concrete — is as structured as the actual reality. But it is more plastic, because it is in minds, esp when shared in communities. This is what they mean when they say the pen is mightier than the sword because it is the words that hold revolutionary ideas that can change culture. Killing someone does not end their ideas and may make them more potent.
Failure to edit, even eliminating a category of humans for some reason, can prevent progression. On the other hand, it can open the way for something that had been blocked. Tyrants who exterminate whole demographics are likely to be surprised by the results, even if not simple backlash.
The takeaway from this post is that asking “is that a thing?” is a good thing to ask.