“Thinging” and the Verb “To Thing”

by Ray Grigg

“To thing” is a new verb invented by the American writer and philosopher Jeff Carriera. He defines “thinging” as: “Thing (v). to thing, thinging. 1. To create an object by defining a boundary around some portion of reality separating it from everything else and then labelling that portion of reality with a name” (Radical Inclusivity: Expanding Our Minds Beyond Dualistic Thinking).

We, of course, are very busy “thingers”, incessantly dividing the totality of wholeness into differentiated parts, compulsively naming and defining them, and then commonly forgetting that the “things” we have separated and isolated for our cognitive convenience are only conventions of thought. By thinking of a tree as being other than the ground and air, we create the conceptual notion that the tree has an existence separate from the conditions it needs for living. The is a fragmenting process that treats the tree as if it and its environment were separate when, in fact, they are each other.

But this is what we do all the time. We separate the trees we want from the forests they make, cut down the trees, then wonder where the forest ecologies went. We farm salmon in pens, feed them with multiple times their weight in wild fish, then wonder why the oceans are being depleted. With our “thinging”, we create a thinking that rends asunder the inherent indivisibility of holistic processes, then we treat the disconnected parts as if they are disposable and irrelevant.

Our inclination “to thing” has created a mind set so profoundly lacking in perspective that it is causing us to dismantle the integrity of almost everything natural. With our obsessive creation of “things”, our attention is attracted to the objects of our invention and we lose our understanding of the systems essential to their belonging. Context is destroyed and meaning is lost. Without this larger awareness, we dismantle ecosystems piece by piece, oblivious to the eventual consequences. “Thinging” fragments our awareness, leaving us unable to perceive the seamless functioning of the world. Inevitably, as we invent the pieces, we lose the wholeness.

In exploring the subject of “thinging”, Carriera summarizes one of Gregory Bateson’s observations by noting that “the boundaries we use to separate one thing from the next are drawn along lines of convenience.” And so we assign to the world those attributes that are commensurate with our size, perspective and needs — we become the measure of “things” because we are doing the measuring.

But we also structure the world in the shape of language. And most languages divide reality into things and actions — nouns and verbs — a process that compels our thinking to bifurcate wholeness and create such absurd linguistic constructions as “it is raining”. The rain, of course, must be raining because it can do nothing else The “rain” is its “raining”, just as a “thing” is its “thinging”. The object we have separated from its context and made a static “thing” is really a process. Indeed, every “thing” is a process engaged with every other “thing” that is also a process. Reality is process, with no “things” at all.

This is why “to thing” is such an interesting verb. It is a mirror reflecting an image of our thinking to our thinking, revealing a structure of thought that begins to explain our broken relationship with our natural surroundings. Nature doesn’t make distinctions, doesn’t do our “thinging”. Nature is all process, an endless unfolding that, at any given moment, is always an integrated wholeness. It has no internal boundaries, no separate parts. It doesn’t “thing”.

This is difficult for us to understand because the tradition of “thinging” is so entrenched in our thinking that we commonly forget nature’s inherently indivisible character. Sadly and unwillingly, however, we are now being reminded by the obvious ecological chaos unfolding around us. But even this clear and mounting evidence is difficult for us to accept because our comprehensive thinking has been so impaired by our “thinging”. The challenge of putting together all the separate “things” required to assemble a sense for the wholeness we are destroying is an exercise we usually fail, undone by our custom of “thinging”.

Perhaps an immersion in wilderness is the closest we can come to the expansive experience that is free of “thinging”. But even in this intricate timelessness our access to a “thingless” experience is handicapped by our inclination to name and separate. We even try “to thing” wild, the operating dynamic of wilderness. But neither wilderness nor wild are actually “things”. They only seem to be “things” because we have also made ourselves “things”. And so, to fully appreciate wilderness, we have to “de-thing” ourselves — yet another difficult challenge. If we were still hunter-gatherers intimately and inseparably connected to the rhythms of nature, the wild and wilderness would disappear from our consciousness because we would be them. Then we would experience our surroundings as process rather than “things”.

But, perhaps, the “thinging” that has removed us from nature may eventually return us to nature. Ever so slowly, painfully and reluctantly, we are being forced to put “things” together again, to realize that the wholeness we have broken into pieces can only function when all the parts have been returned to their places of belonging. This tardy and arduous “unthinging” of “things” is the beginning of a new beginning.