site banner

Can You Help Me With the Etymology of Reification (Verdinglichung)?

For various reasons, I follow Brian Leiter's blog--if you're not familiar, Leiter is perhaps most famous as the originator of a law school ranking website (not updated in some time), and a philosophy graduate school ranking website (since handed off to others). He is an outspoken, sometimes abrasive Marxist, but also decidedly anti-woke. He occasionally cites mostly-approvingly to Freddie deBoer, but is much older and better educated, so it is helpful to read Leiter if you want a sense of what very old school, very leftist academic thinking looks like today.

Anyway a recent entry on Leiter's blog piqued my interest, because I am a word nerd, but not an academic linguist. In it, Leiter appears to be airing his annoyance at the way the word "reification" gets used in its literal sense (making the abstract concrete)--he's praising NYT for using the word "correctly," in its Marxist sense, while also offering further correction:

"Some social scientists have a term--'reification.'" Actually, the terms [sic] comes from Lukacs, one of the few useful concepts from his History and Class Consciousness...

Now, it is true that contemporary Marxists using the term as a term of art are indeed channeling Lukacs. However, the term itself most assuredly does not originate with Lukacs. Etymonline traces it to 1846 (the relevant Lukacs' text arrived in 1923). Wiktionary provides some further context, suggesting that the word is "a macaronic calque of German Verdinglichung." The only other source I've found suggests that the term "emerged in the English language in the 1860s" but no supporting evidence is provided for the claim, and the rest of that blog sticks to Marxist exposition.

That is where my Google-fu caps out. I know that the term today gets used in programming contexts (e.g. LISP) so certainly the word has been genericized whether Leiter likes it or not. And of course Marx himself was writing in 1846, so I can't dismiss the possibility that Marxists did coin the term (either in German, or by being the ones to calque it from German), in which case it might even be a mistake to credit Lukacs for the concept. But neither can I dismiss the possibility that the term itself had no Marxist implications for several decades before Lukacs came along, in which case the term has been co-opted by Marxists to the extent that they (like Leiter) assert the "correct" use as a Marxist one.

Either way I suspect Leiter's annoyance re: "incorrect" use is not justified by linguistic history, except to the extent he is complaining about people talking about reification in Marxist contexts without using the term in Lukacs' sense (which doesn't appear to be the case, from this blog entry, but I am doing a lot of reading between the lines). Some of you speak German and some of you read Marx and some of you have access to fancy corpus databases... any chance one of you knows, or can find, the first English or German print instance of "reification?"

Jump in the discussion.

No email address required.

I have regular access to the online OED (I'm an emeritus Prof at Wayne State and a linguist). Here's what the current OED says:

  1. The making of something abstract into something more concrete or real; the action of regarding or treating an idea, concept, etc., as if having material existence. Also: an instance of this.

1846 G. Grote Hist. Greece I. xvi. 466 (note) Boiocalus would have had some trouble to make his tribe comprehend the re-ification of the god Hêlios.

1854 Fraser's Mag. 49 74 A process of what may be called reification, or the conscious conversion of what had hitherto been regarded as living beings into impersonal substances.

1882 J. B. Stallo Concepts Mod. Physics 269 The existence, or possibility, of transcendental space is another flagrant instance of the reification of concepts.

In sense 2 after German Verdinglichung (1904 or earlier in specific Marxist use; 1824 in apparently isolated early use in sense 1).

  1. In Marxist thought: a process whereby the alienated worker falsely endows commodities and the production relations, institutions, and ideologies of capitalist society with autonomous existence independent of himself or herself, or his or her labour, and hence comes to view them as natural or necessary aspects of life;

The word is not used in early English translations of Marx.

1941 H. Marcuse Reason & Revol. ii. i. 279 Marx's early writings are the first explicit statement of the process of reification (Verdinglichung) through which capitalist society makes all personal relations between men take the form of objective relations between things.

1970 J. J. Shapiro tr. J. Habermas Toward Rational Society iii. 39 The active assault upon culture is based on the same reification as the fetishism of those students who believe that by occupying university classrooms they are taking possession of science as a productive force.

We could really use someone with access to the latest OED.

In the meantime, this is the entry from OED1, which is out of copyright. I believe this is the work from 1846 to which they are referring. It seems to be about Greek mythology, just like the one quoted by @iro84657, who may have missed it because of the hyphen.

Edit: In any case, Lukács is definitely not the one who coined the term.

As it happens, I found that Grote usage a couple hours after my initial message. Note that the version you linked to is the 1851 3rd edition; the only 1st-edition scan I could find on IA is missing the title page but otherwise seems intact.

The Oxford English Dictionary is usually a good place to look. The full version has sourced examples for early usages of all different senses of a word.

Unfortunately it's a paid service but someone here might have access, most likely through a university.

German wikipedia traces it back to Hegel and Feuerbach, which sounds accurate to me, given that that matches with the timeline of being a term coined ~1850.

Also how the fuck do I create cool masked hyperlinks on that website, is that supported yet? Have an ugly dump of a bunch of links instead:*%5B%40attr_id%3D%27verw.verdinglichung.vergegenstandlichung%27%20and%20%40outline_id%3D%27hwph_verw.verdinglichung.vergegenstandlichung%27%5D

This website particularily traces back first mentions to 1860 in Germany, although I couldn't figure out how to search it as to actually get WHO used it first in 1860.

I found a mention in a court document of the Reichstag from 1874 as oldest mention, probably unrelated tho.,1

It being a legal term that Marx picked up somewhere randomly and recoined philosophically would also make sense, given that he studied law and had to read a fuckton of Reichsgerichtsurteile.

As a sidenote, Verdinglichung is a fairly intuitive word for a German. You can just do that in the language, take the substantive "ding" for thing, and make a verb from it, "verdinglichen", then take the verb and substantivate it again to make "the process of making something into a thing", "verdinglichung".

Also how the fuck do I create cool masked hyperlinks on that website, is that supported yet?

The markup here is basically the same as on reddit, as far as I have been able to determine. To link, put words in [] brackets, then the link immediately after in (), like this:

[This text will become a link to Google](

(In this case I added a backslash before the open parenthesis so it wouldn't convert the text to the link, so you could see how to type it.)

Consulting the 1899 edition of the Century Dictionary I find an unhelpful entry for reification

Materialization; objectivization; externalization; conversion of the abstract into the concrete; the regarding or treating of an idea as a thing, or as if a thing.

The definition of reify is simpler

To make into a thing; make real or material; consider as a thing

and the use of the word is illustrated with a long quote, referenced as J. Ward, Encyc. Brit., XX. 78.

Encyc. Brit. = The ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1875-1888. It is in 24 volumes, so my guess is that XX means volume twenty. Perhaps 78 is page 78 of Volume XX. And J. Ward must be the name of the author of the entry and this man That is perhaps a lead on English usage. The quote in the Century Dictionary is

The earliest objects of thought and the earliest concepts must naturally be those of the things that live and move about us; hence, then --- to seek no deeper reason for the present --- this natural tendency, which language by providing distinct names powerfully seconds, to reify or personify not only things, but every element and relation of things which we can single out, or, in others words, to concrete our abstracts.

Going back to 1880ish a psychologist was using reify (and presumably reification) without a Marxist slant.

According to, the notion goes back in the form of vergegenständlichen (litt., to make into a thing) to Hegel. I guess you will get the essence with Google translate.

Notice that in German, Gegenstand = Ding, and the form above is a verb of which Verdinglichung is the nominalization.

Edit: you also have

In any case, premarxist use is attested, and Marx was strongly influenced by Hegel and Feuerbach.

Ah! So, this definitely addresses what I'm wondering about. If the ultimate source is Hegel, then Leiter could perhaps make the case that the Marxist interpretation is just the most faithful use of the term--though given his broad dismissal of Hegel, maybe he wouldn't want to do that.

Warning: I have never read Hegel, do not know the Kapital nor any other writing of the mature Marx, and am generally not conversant with 18th to 19th century German philosophy. But I know that Marxism is one branch of a larger movement that was Left-Hegelianism.

What I gather from the second link is that Verdinglichung is involved in the dialectic process, and that Marx as a materialist had another way of conceiving the dialectic process than Hegel.

Generally, I find it little surprising that words with a transparent ethymological meaning - and an obviously useful one - should be used in different fields as more or less different technical terms. It may be annoying to the practitioners of one of these fields that the term is used differently elsewhere - but that's life. As long as there are no consciously disorienting word games played with it, I would not object to it, and I find the cries of "X doesn't use Y as I do" completely unjustified.

Memes want to be free, and shedding parts of their meaning is what makes them able to invade new discoursive ecosystems.

A cursory search for 19th century German sources seems to show that the word "Verdinglichung" is used in at least two ways. The first is similar to how the English word "actualisation" is sometimes used: making something real, going from the theoretical and abstract to the concrete and physical. The second way pops up in law discussions which I don't quite understand. It seems to be a terminus technicus.

Not very helpful, I know.

Not very helpful, I know.

It's more than I was able to glean on my own! Thanks for the insight.

I just thought of two more things that may or may not be helpful for the etymology of the German word.

One, "jemanden verdingen" (to verding someone) is an antiquated word for hiring someone. Verdinglichung in this context might be a very awkward nominalisation of that verb. If that's the case, I think the identical spelling of this and the translation of reification might be a coincidence.

And then there is also this:

Using Google Books, I found two English-language usages of the term from the 1850s; all of the earlier usages appear to be OCR errors. However, there appear to be earlier usages of "Reification" in German and "réification" in French, so I plan to keep looking for those.

"The Principle of the Grecian Mythology: Or, How the Greeks Made Their Gods." Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country, vol. 49, no. 289, Jan. 1854, pp. 69-79. Internet Archive,

In short, although the process by which the Greeks selected the objects of their Pantheon may very well, in the sense in which we are now viewing the subject, be regarded as a process of deification, the actual march of the Greek mind in its intercourse with nature was not a process of deification, or the conscious conversion of impersonal substances into gods, but the very reverse—a process of what may be called reification, or the conscious conversion of what had hitherto been regarded as living beings into impersonal substances. ("The Principle" 74-75)

This is the earliest English-language usage I could find.

Review of A History of Rome, from the Earliest Times to the Establishment of the Empire, by Henry G. Liddell. The Athenæum, no. 1467, 8 Dec. 1855, pp. 1425-1427. Internet Archive,

Primeval men began with a world all vitality, and instead of having any room or occasion to employ themselves in what we call deification or the conversion of things into personages, their whole intellectual procedure necessarily consisted in exactly the opposite—in a gradual and difficult effort of reification, or the conversion of personages into things. (Review of A History 1425)

The reviewer here appears to be repeating the argument from Fraser's Magazine, contra Liddell.

Interesting! Given the year on the Fraser source, I wouldn't be at all surprised if that is what Etymonline and Wiktionary are referencing. This strengthens my suspicion that Leiter was mistaken to attribute the term to Lukacs, who apparently only applied it to Marxism. The concept Leiter has in mind indeed appears to be only one kind of reification, so his suppressed complaint re: people using the term incorrectly seems unjustified.

Thanks for the insight!

I think I found the 1846 usage! A German translation of a later edition of this book contained "Re-ification" on Google Books.

Grote, George. History of Greece. Vol. 1, John Murray, 1846. Internet Archive,

Tacitus, in reporting the speech, accompanies it with the glossary "quasi coram," to mark that the speaker here passes into a different order of ideas from that to which himself or his readers were accustomed. If Boiocalus could have heard, and reported to his tribe, an astronomical lecture, he would have introduced some explanation, in order to facilitate to his tribe the comprehension of Hêlios under a point of view so new to them. While Tacitus finds it necessary to illustrate by a comment the personification of the sun, Boiocalus would have had some trouble to make his tribe comprehend the re-ification of the god Hêlios. (Grote 466)

The derivation appears rather simple here: "re-ification" is constructed by analogy with "personification", going from Latin persōna to rēs. Meanwhile, the other foreign-language hits turned out to be OCR errors, except for an 1855 French usage.

Jullien, B. Thèses de grammaire. Librairie de L. Hachette et cie, 1855. Internet Archive,

Nous réi-fions, si l'on peut ainsi parler, les êtres animés, c'est-à-dire que nous les prnons comme des choses quand, par notre sentiment actuel, nous considérons en eux plutôt l'être matériel que l'être intelligent. C'est ainsi qu'on dit tous les jours, en parlant d'un enfant, d'un domestique:

C'est propre, c'est rangé;

C'est tranquille, c'est studieux, etc.;

Cela ne fera jamais que ce que je voudrai. (Jullien 149)

In the index, this passage is cited as "réification opposée à la personnification" (501). Looking at the inflected form réi-fions, it would probably be a good idea to check for variations on the verb "reify". (Edit: No luck on that front.)