What is a ‘thing’?

Himangsu asked:

What is a “thing”? Can we call a conscious being a “thing”?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

The answer to the first question is, that this is one of those ‘household’ words that fits many contexts and situations. According to the Oxford Dictionary, “thing” has 18 different meanings, many of which have nothing to do with each other. So for a start, you should look this up yourself and be surprised by how many different uses a single English word can have in common parlance.

All the same, there is ‘chief meaning’ on top, which is that of an object belonging to the class of inanimate artefacts, i.e. all the physical objects naturally formed in the world as well as commodities, devices, implements, machines and so on made by humans.

Note now that the stress lies on ‘inanimate’. Organisms aren’t normally called ‘things’, least of all conscious organisms. At most, one might use the word as an insult. This goes so far as denying the legitimate use of ‘thing’ for the dead; instead we say ‘corpse’ for a deceased body, whether human or animal.

One puzzling issue that perhaps you had at the back of your mind, is the dream of humans “playing God” and creating a thing-like entity at some time in the future that exhibits an intentionality which resembles our own so much that we cannot distinguish it from conscious intentionality. If this were ever to happen, it would certainly affect our language use as well, because it would open a cleft on the line we presently draw between animate and inanimate. But for the moment these deliberations must be reserved to the Scifi industry (which has not, as far as I know, come to grips yet with the predicament it would pose to the way we speak about ‘things’!).

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