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Artificial Intelligence

No-thing as it seems

You can treat things as “mere objects,” but things can’t be “mere things.” Thing already carries connotations of significance, history, meaning, memory.

At least this is how I understand philosopher Martin Heidegger’s essay The Thing. According to Heidegger, “the Old High German word thing means a gathering.”

table with cups, glasses and jugs and digital projectionThe serviceable milk jug as heirloom is a thing around which family and friends gather at the tea table, but as a thing the jug also gathers together meanings and memories. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) concurs. Its first definition for the word “thing” is as a meeting or assembly, a gathering of sorts.

Contrary to things, objects are there for science, to be dissected and analysed, commoditized and sold, and perhaps represented in computer databases. Things on the other hand carry the aura of authenticity.

I’ve always had trouble dividing the universe into objects and things. Perhaps cheap, mass-produced jugs are just objects, whereas a thing needs to be of hand-made, hand-me-down, glazed and crazed china to be a thing. Perhaps one can become the other, through use, or misuse.

Heidegger was disparaging about typewriters, so computers, mobile phones, digital displays and interactive art might have difficulty entering the realm of things according to this simple classification.

Lest we think Heidegger was content with a comfortable characterisation of things as drawing together meanings, stories, craft processes and communities note his reference to dispute.

… the Old High German word thing means a gathering, and specifically a gathering to deliberate on a matter under discussion, a contested matter. (Martin Heidegger, The Thing, p. 174.)

The OED concurs. A thing is a judicial assembly, and in Scandinavian countries the Thing is the Parliament. Later in the essay Heidegger says

Whatever becomes a thing occurs out of the world’s mirror play (p.182).

Whatever things are, they are individual, situated, contextual, and born of unresolved contest. No thing is quite as it seems, or perhaps more as it seems than we think.

Reference

Heidegger, M., ‘The thing’, Poetry, Language, Thought, New York: Harper and Row, 1971, 165-186.

About Richard Coyne

The cultural, social and spatial implications of computers and pervasive digital media spark my interest ... enjoy architecture, writing, designing, philosophy, coding and media mashups.

Discussion

18 thoughts on “No-thing as it seems

  1. When I read the title, I thought it would relate to surrealism. “nothing as it seems” remind me of the famous painting by René Magritte’s ——–“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”(this is not a pipe).

    Posted by yujia dong | September 29, 2011, 7:46 pm
  2. Just making additions to the linguistic references. In Chinese the word thing literally reads “east west.” I never could understand why those two directional words combined would mean thing. Plus there are four directions, why those two in particular?

    Posted by Lu Yu | October 5, 2011, 2:06 am
    • That’s interesting Lu Yu. Can you provide the Chinese word for ‘thing’. I think wordpress allows Chinese characters. East-west, the directions of the rising and setting sun, birth to death, everything … I wonder.

      Posted by Richard Coyne | October 5, 2011, 8:20 am
      • Yes sure. Here are the Chinese characters for thing: 东西(simplified) or 東西(traditional). I did some digging around on the Internet for the root of the term. It seems that there are more than one explanations.

        One of the explanations says that the Chinese Wu Xing (Five Element) may come in to play. East is associated with the element wood and west is metal; while for south the element is fire and north is water. So wood and metal are more tangible than fire and water, hence east & west are more related to things.

        Another explanation I read is this: apparently during the Chinese Tang dynasty, there are two big trading markets called the “east market” and the “west market” located in Xi’an, the capital of the time. The two markets sold different things, so in order to buy everything people often needed to travel to both locations. So they just used “buy east west” to mean buying things. But there were no written records of the term 東西 found in literature works passed down from that time.

        These potential reasons are interesting, but I don’t think they are very well supported by historical data. Just sharing them for fun.

        Posted by Lu Yu | October 5, 2011, 11:31 pm
      • That’s fascinating. Thanks Lu Yu.

        Posted by Richard Coyne | October 6, 2011, 9:02 am
  3. If we take it for granted that an object in order to be a “thing” has to be hand-made or unique, then all the mass product items are in fact mere objects. However , what about vintage items like a really old radio, which back at the time would have been one of many of the same radios but after 50 years, it has become a “thing”, mostly because of its antiquity. Therefore, a mobile phone can become a “thing” in 50 years from now, even though right now it is considered as a simple object without “personality”.

    Posted by Danai Korre | October 8, 2011, 1:58 pm
  4. The role of time in establishing or stabilising an object as a thing is interesting.

    Posted by Richard Coyne | October 9, 2011, 1:16 pm
  5. Discovering the connotation of things makes me immediately think about the commercial. The commercial always dig the connotation of certain product and double meanings, and advertisements communicate the message that it is trying to portray to its viewers, such as ‘literal’, ‘obvious’ or ‘commonsense’ meaning of a sign. Another sample is paronomasia, also needing multi-definition, I think it has a similar thought format but in the linguistic division. Surprises usually come from little things within everyday life by review ordinary objects, shapes and recognizing their tacit beauty.

    But I don’t understand very much about this sentence – “Heidegger was disparaging about typewriters, so computers, mobile phones, digital displays and interactive art might have difficulty entering the realm of things according to this simple classification.” Why he disparaged those things? The digital media and computing tools can creative many chic ideas, isn’t it?

    Posted by lyyda | October 24, 2011, 8:38 pm
    • Perhaps he was writing at a time when typewriters were easily associated with typing pools and bureaucracy. As I recall there’s a good discussion in Heim, Michael. 1987. Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. Thanks for the heads up on paronomasia.

      Posted by Richard Coyne | October 25, 2011, 7:56 am
  6. Actually, all the things have their own meaning. For instance, we call watermelons as‘西瓜(Xi Gua)’,it means that ‘western melons’ not water melons. It is quite interesting because the watermelons are produced in Africa in the ancient age and this sort of fruit were imported from western countries into China, so that is why the name came from. The other example is that rings can not only make a beauty finger, but also have a significant meaning which is a person who has already got married. Besides that, to different people, one thing may have diverse meanings and usages. I think that is meaning of ‘No-thing as it seems’.

    Posted by Chen Xi | October 11, 2012, 11:49 am
  7. Things article makes me think of Daoism philosophers of China. They think everything is born in Dao (maybe can translate into rules). Maybe in some way, it just like what you said about “Thing already carries connotations of significance, history, meaning, memory.”
    As the traditional opinion of Daism, such as Laozi and Zhuangzi, thing is the opposite side of nothing. So except for nullability, others are all things. Zhuangzi even clearly defined thing as “nurture”. And as the saying by Laozi, “The Dao produced One; One produced Two; Two produced Three; Three produced All things. All things leave behind them the Obscurity (out of which they have come), and go forward to embrace the Brightness (into which they have emerged), while they are harmonised by the Breath of Vacancy.” Moreover, they also held the opinion of that” all things under heaven sprang from It as existing (and named); that existence sprang from It as non- existent (and not named).” In my opinion, that thought is just like the thory of Martin Heidegger. They all emphasize on that the things are not just itself.
    http://ctext.org/zhuangzi/floods-of-autumn/ens

    Posted by Wang Jingyi | November 28, 2012, 7:27 pm

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