This is an idea that I think is worth spending some time understanding. It’s always best to define one’s terms so here goes:
Hypostatize: verb [hahy-pos-tuh-tahyz, hi-] : to treat or regard (a concept, idea, etc.) as a distinct substance or reality.
Long ago the philosophers warned us against hypostatizing verbal categories, such as the category of “government” or “the State.” When you hypostatize you endow a concept with a life that it does not actually possess. — John Chamberlain, “Some First Principles,” New York Times, August 4, 1946
A while back I got into an online debate about this concept but made the mistake of not referring to it by name. Instead, I got drawn into a discussion about semantics and sentence structure, all of which missed the central concept. It’s not a new idea but one that I think is important to revisit.
The example I used was that of one’s family. I suggested that the “family” is a concept that aggregates all the individual members under a single term for ease of reference. But that the conceptual aggregate itself has no existence in reality. The members exist, the “family” doesn’t. I went as far as saying to take a photo of a family and remove all the individual members then try to find the family.
This did not go over well and I was lambasted for not ordering my sentences into the correct subject, object, adjective, predicate, etc. structure (for which I was probably guilty). It took a lot of back and forth until my adversary finally stated that “ideas are things, just like a mountain”. This was a fundamental disagreement. I argued that ideas are not things but only refer to things. If the things referred to don’t actually exist in reality, we are debating fantasies. You can imagine how that was received by someone who believes ideas are the same as mountains – conversation over.
So why do I think this matters?
Let’s return to the quote above in which “the government” or “the state” is used as an example. These are discussed ubiquitously as real actors in the world. “China” did this; “US” did that; “France upset over latest action by Russia”, etc. These references are daily and we’ve become so used to this language that we’ve forgotten that it is always individual people in positions of power who are the actors. Referring to “China” is in fact referring to a concept that, as I said about one’s family, aggregates the individual members under a single term for ease of reference. But it is incorrect!
By endowing “China” with a “life it does not actually possess”, it gives the appearance of a real thing that acts. One of the dangers of this error is subsuming the individual members of the concept under it and assigning to them the actions of the decision-makers. Simply put, one can blame all Chinese individuals for the actions of those in power. See the problem?
Let’s bring this closer to home. When you think of many individuals with similar traits as a group, regardless of the reason for grouping them, it is much easier to discuss “those people”. This can be in positive or negative terms but in either case, the individuality of each person vanishes into the concept of the group. Once this is accomplished, it is relatively easy to pit people against each other by referring to their group. It becomes “Us vs. Them”. Sound familiar?
So many of the ills one sees on the news are actually an end result of this philosophical mistake. It helps to take time with it and see it clearly. It will help you cut through the headlines, in particular those that use group identities as the source for a story, and start looking at individuals and their actions. Surely I don’t need to highlight the ongoing racial tensions we read about daily as an obvious example.
There are other ramifications of this shift in thinking which I may talk about another time. But for now, watch how you view people. Odds are you will collectivize them into a group very quickly because you have done this habitually for a long time. Don’t feel bad about this. Virtually everyone around you has done this since childhood.
Just try to be aware of the immediate tendency to give the grouping of individuals a life it does not possess without the presence of those individuals. This is not easy to do but it will help with relating to each of the people you encounter. Try teaching yourself to see someone as a person first and a member of a conceptual aggregate second.
After all, are you an individual person or merely a faceless member of someone else’s group?