To thing or not to thing? That is the question.
One of the greatest human skills is the ability to thing. We are thinging beings. We thing all the time. We thing the natural world into pieces. We saw a tall plant and we defined that plant a “tree.” We thinged it into a tree. Then we looked at some of the appendages sticking off the tree and we defined them as branches. And the flat green bits that sprout out of the branches we called leaves. A tree is a thing that includes branches and leaves. Branches are things that sprout leaves. Leaves are things that grow on branches and trees.
Yes, yes, you might think, but we are not creating things. Trees, branches and leaves already existed before we named them. We are not creating things, we are just labeling things that already exist. Ahhh…but that is the question. Did the things that we named exist before we named them? Or more precisely, in what sense did they exist before they were named, and how did their existence change after they being named?
If we think about trees it is easy to assume that our naming it a tree doesn’t change anything. It is not an act of creation. If we consider something like a national border, the border between Canada and the United States for instance, it is more obvious that the line of division is arbitrary. How about paper money? It is certainly real paper, but is it real money? With these “social realities” it is easy to see that the act of naming them is the act that creates them.
But lets go back to the trees. By this time we all know that our naming of living species and then acting as if they are separate rather than part of a holistic ecological system has had devastating effects.
The names we give to things inevitably are not just labels – they are interpretations. And we act on the basis of those interpretations, and those interpretations define reality for us. We act as if the distinctions we make in the world are real and once these distinctions become fixed in our minds it is very hard to see things any other way.