Thing, Object, Fact

In my last post, I suggested that to “conceptualize” is to construe a thing as an object. But this, I’m fully aware, is only likely to be informative to people who can imagine various things differently construed, sometimes as objects of one kind, sometimes as objects of another, and sometimes, perhaps, not as objects at all. That is, it will only work for people who define “thing” and “object” in ways that lets them distinguish between them. In this post, I want to provide those definitions. Readers who are familiar with the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein will perhaps notice that my definitions are inspired by his early work in the Tractatus. There’s also a little of Heidegger’s phenomenology in my approach, but I’m by no means trying to do their thinking justice, nor am I committed to any particular metaphysics. I just find it useful to distinguish between ways of looking at things, and I have found that this also sometimes helps authors think about what they are doing when they are writing about their research. As will become clear, the trick here is to understand how things participate in facts and by this means to establish a certain “objectivity” in our writing.

Everything is a thing and every thing is what it is. To say that some particular thing exists isn’t to say very much about it, though it does distinguish it from things that don’t. But ask yourself a deceptively simple question, “How many things are in your vicinity right now?” There’s a keyboard, a computer screen, a mouse, a telephone, a coffee cup, a pen holder, and a pad of paper in front me. There’s also a desk here, a small receipt printer, and I’m sitting on a chair. I suppose the floor is a thing in my vicinity, as is the lamp above me. That’s about a dozen things. But let’s look closer. There are three pens in the pen holder and 104 keys on the keyboard. The phone has a base and a receiver; the screen has a case; the chair has five wheels. It begins to look as though there are, literally, countless things around me. Exactly how many things there are will depend on how you count or, more precisely, what you count as a “thing”. If you don’t care what you are counting there is no way to know when to stop. Even our sense of “in the vicinity” is unclear here: how far away from me does a thing have to be before it no longer counts as one of the things around me? It all depends on how you look at it. I guess we might call the situation “subjective”.

We solve this problem by construing the things in my vicinity as objects of a particular kind. When I was writing the above paragraph, I was standing at the service counter in the library, so some of the things around me were necessary to my work and others not so much. The phone might ring and it would be my job to answer it. A student might walk up to the counter and ask me a question, which it would be my job to answer. I might have to use the mouse, keyboard and screen to help them find what they were looking for. The pens, too, were there for me and others to use if we needed them. That is, some of the things around me afforded me possible courses of action and others made it impossible (or at least unlikely) that particular events would happen. So I could objectify these things as equipment and understand them as useful or useless to me. As equipment, I need the surface of my desk to be clean and tidy, and the computer to be on, and I need to be logged into it. The wheels of the chair stick a little, which annoys me. These interests indicate possibilities, things that could be otherwise. An object is really a thing construed such that we know how it could be different; it’s a thing situated in a space of possibility.

When things are arranged in objective ways they constitute facts. (Note that, as I’ve been defining it, an “objective” reality is really just one of many possible ways of engaging with my environment.) For most of my shift, for example, the lights were on and working fine. But there was a brief moment when an electrician cut the power to the lights overhead. It was a fact that the lights were on and then it was a fact that they were off. And then it was a fact that they were on again. All along, the lamp was the sort of thing (an object) that could be on or off, shedding light on the other things around me. And the black surface of the desk is “objectively” black precisely because it absorbs the light that we shine on it. The white piece of paper that is lying on the surface does the opposite. This is what makes the blue ink (a little lighter than black but a lot darker than white) of the pen so useful when we want to note a book classification so we can go and find it on the shelf. The book could be anywhere (it is possible that it has been misplaced) but it is very likely that it was put back properly and we’ll find it where it’s supposed to be — where “in fact” it is.

I’ve been considering the trivial example of me standing at the service counter during a shift in the library. But not long ago I was doing the same thing in a much less trivial way. We had a researcher visiting who was doing an ethnography of everyday life in the library. She was observing the things it contains and the people who use it, construing them as objects of various kinds, as loci of possibilities that she could then analyze as facts. She would have been “objectifying” me and everything around me. There’s no harm in that and, indeed, there’s no way around it. All things are also objects (in countless ways) and everything that exists participates in (countless) facts. There is no isolated thing. There are no purely objective relations (without things or facts to realize them), which is merely to say that facts realize (make real) particular possibilities and leave others for another time (sometimes, forever). The purpose of distinguishing between things, objects and facts is to organize our stream of consciousness according to our concepts, to let the theories we have make sense of what is happening in the situations we study. Things just are what they are. But we know them as objects when they join up up with other things to form facts.

2 thoughts on “Thing, Object, Fact

  1. Hi. I don’t understand how conceptualising a thing as an object? Doesn’t it mean turning a physical thing/object into an idea?

  2. Lots of issues there. I agree with Chomsky (in the video to this post) that “physical” may not be the most apt word here. Conceptualizing does not do anything to the “thing” itself. It just focuses our attention on certain “aspects of the world”. The whole point of concepts is to make reality available to us for thinking — and in that sense, yes, a concept “turns [a reality] into an idea” — but the world remains as complicated as a ever. It’s just our thinking about it that becomes clearer when we apply the right concepts to our experiences.

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