Does Labeling Make a Thing “a Thing”?11 min read


“Reality is continuous” Zerubavel (1996:426) tells us, “and if we envision distinct clusters separated from one another by actual gaps it is because we have been socialized to ‘see’ them.” This assumption, that without “socialization” an individual would experience reality as meaningless—or as William James (1890:488) said of the newborn “one great blooming, buzzing confusion”—is fairly common in sociology. 

Hand-in-hand is the assumption that socialization is learning language: “It is language that helps us carve out of experiential continua discrete categories such as ‘long’ and ‘short’ or ‘hot’ and ‘cold’” (Zerubavel 1996:427). Boiled down, this view of socialization is a very standard “fax” or “downloading” model in which the socializing agents “install” the language in its entirety into the pre-socialized infant. The previously chaotic mass of reality is now lumped and only then becomes meaningful to the infant. Furthermore, because the socializing agents have the same language installed, the world is lumped in the same (arbitrary) way for them as well. This is what allows for intersubjective experience.

As Edmund Leach puts it:

“I postulate that the physical and social environment of a young child is perceived as a continuum. It does not contain any intrinsically separate ‘things.’ The child, in due course, is taught to impose upon this environment a kind of discriminating grid which serves to distinguish the world as being composed of a large number of separate things, each labeled with a name. This world is a representation of our language categories, not vice-versa.” Leach (1964:34)

Where did this assumption come from?

Generally, Durkheim’s Elementary Forms is cited to shoulder these assumptions. According to the introduction, the problem to be solved is that an individual’s experience was always particular: “A sensation or an image always relies upon a determined object, or upon a collection of objects of the same sort, and express the momentary condition of a particular consciousness” (Durkheim 1995:13). As a result of this, Durkheim attempts to argue, humans cannot have learned the basic “categories” by which we think—like cause, substance, class, etc.—from individual experience, not because it is continuous, but rather always discontinuous and unique. The alternative was that the categories exist “a priori” which, regardless as to whether this apriorism is nativist or idealist, Durkheim found an unsatisfying solution.

While there is of course much debate about this, Durkheim posited a sociogenesis of these basic categories from the organization of “primitive” societies which “preserves all the essential principles of apriorism… It leaves reason with its specific power, accounts for that power, and does so without leaving the observable world” (Durkheim 1995:18). After their genesis, however, there was no need to re-create them: “in contrast to Kant, Durkheim argued that these categories are a concrete historical product, not an axiom of thought, but in contrast to Hume, he acknowledged that these categories are as good as a priori for actual thought, for they are universally shared” (Martin 2011:119).

Once generated at the moment human society first formed, these categories had to simply be passed down from generation to generation. It seems intuitive that language would be the mechanism of transmission: “The system of concepts with which we think in every-day life is that expressed by the vocabulary of our mother tongue; for every word translates a concept” (Durkheim 1995:435)

It is here where we also get the more “relativist” interpretation of Elementary Forms in which each bounded “culture” can live in a distinct reality delimited by each language. Furthermore, while Durkheim’s argument is about the most generic (and universal) concepts of human thought, Zerubavel argues that our perception of the world is changed by highly specific labels: “As we assign them distinct labels, we thus come to perceive ‘bantamweight’ boxers and ‘four-star’ hotels as if they were indeed qualitatively different from ‘featherweight’ boxers and ‘three-star’” (1996:427 emphasis added).

We see a similar notion in The Social Construction of Reality, to which Zerubavel’s work is indebted: “The language used in everyday life con­tinuously provides me with the necessary objectifications and posits the order within which these make sense…” (Berger and Luckmann [1966] 1991:35 emphasis added)

Is such an assumption defensible? 

To outline the notion up to this point: First, we imagine the unsocialized person— usually, but not necessarily, the pre-linguistic infant. Their senses are providing information about the world to their brain, but it is either a completely undifferentiated mass or hopelessly particular from one moment to the next. In either case, their experience has no meaning to them. Second, the unsocialized person somehow learns that a portion of their experience has a “label” or “name” and it thus can be both lumped together and split from the rest of experience, and only then becomes meaningful. Third, on this basis, each language forms a kind of “island” or “prison-house” of meaning, carving up the undifferentiated world in culturally-unique ways, such that things “thinkable” in one language are “unthinkable” in others. (I will set aside the problems of how exactly these labels are internalized.)

Buried within this general notion, are four positions: (1) learning a label is necessary and sufficient; (2) learning a label is necessary, not sufficient; (3) learning a label, is not necessary, but is sufficient; (4) learning a label is not necessary, but common evidence that other processes have made a thing “a thing.” For Leach and Zerubavel (and some interpretations of Durkheim), it appears to be (1): once you have a label, boom! Then, and only then, you can perceive a thing. For Berger and Luckmann, it is occasionally (1) and (2) and other times (3) and (4). For example, Berger writes in The Sacred Canopy ([1967] 2011:20):

The objective nomos is given in the process of objectivation as such. The fact of language, even if taken by itself, can readily be seen as the imposition of order upon experience. Language nomizes by imposing differentiation and structure upon the ongoing flux of experience. As an item of experience is named, it is ipso facto, taken out of this flux of experience and given stability as the entity so named.

That’s about as extreme as it gets. However, in The Social Construction of Reality, a slightly tempered view is taken:

The cavalry will also use a different language in more than an instrumental sense… This role-specific language is internalized in toto by the individual as he is trained for mounted combat. He be­comes a cavalryman not only by acquiring the requisite skills but by becoming capable of understanding and using this language. (Berger and Luckmann [1966] 1991:159 emphasis added)

Although there are other parts of The Social Construction of Reality which privilege language above all (and disregarding the “in toto”), here it suggests that vocabulary is part of a practice. In other words, “an angry infantryman swears by making reference to his aching feet,” because of the experience of “aching feet,” and “the cavalryman may mention his horse’s backside,” again because of his experience with horses. Without their role-specific language, the infantryman would still be able to perceive “aching feet” and the cavalryman would know a “horse’s backside.” On the contrary, these terms are meaningful to them—and useful as metaphors—because of their experiences, rather than vice versa.

For this to be the case, however, we must reject the notion that, without socialization (as the internalization of language), perception would amount to “one great blooming, buzzing confusion.” Rather, reality has order without interpretation and we can directly experience it as such. Even infants perceive a world that is pre-clumped, and early concept formation precedes language acquisition and follows perceptual differentiation (Mandler 2008:209)

…between 7 and 11 months (and perhaps starting earlier) infants develop a number of [highly schematic] concepts like animal, furniture, plant, and container… ‘basic-level’ artifact concepts such as cup, pan, bed and so on are not well-established until the middle of the second year, and natural kind concepts such as dog and tree tend to be even later… Needless to say, this is long after infants are fully capable of distinguishing these categories on a perceptual basis. 

Labels likely play a greater role later on in the process of socialization (perhaps especially during second socialization). In already linguistically-competent people, labels can be used to select certain features of perceived objects and downplay others, exacerbate differences between similar objects, or group perceptually distinct objects into one category (Taylor, Stoltz, and McDonnell 2019). However, this does not mean that labels alone literally “filter” our perception—indeed evidence shows (Alilović et al. 2018; Mandler 2008) adults and infants perceive the world first through an unfiltered sweep, and after perceiving, we “curate” the information through automatic or deliberate prediction and attention. Language may make it faster, easier, and therefore more likely to think about some things over others, but this does not render something unthinkable or imperceptible (Boroditsky 2001). Likewise, it is unlikely that naming something is necessary and sufficient to make a thing “a thing.”


Alilović, Josipa, Bart Timmermans, Leon C. Reteig, Simon van Gaal, and Heleen A. Slagter. 2018. “No Evidence That Predictions and Attention Modulate the First Feedforward Sweep of Cortical Information Processing.” bioRxiv 351965.

Berger, Peter L. [1967] 2011. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Open Road Media.

Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann. [1966] 1991. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Penguin.

Boroditsky, L. 2001. “Does Language Shape Thought? Mandarin and English Speakers’ Conceptions of Time.” Cognitive Psychology 43(1):1–22.

Durkheim, Emile. 1995. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. New York: Free Press.

James, W. 1890. The Principles of Psychology, Vol 1. Henry Holt.

Mandler, J. M. 2008. “On the Birth and Growth of Concepts.” Philosophical Psychology.

Martin, John Levi. 2011. The Explanation of Social Action. Oxford University Press, USA.

Taylor, Marshall A., Dustin S. Stoltz, and Terence E. McDonnell. 2019. “Binding Significance to Form: Cultural Objects, Neural Binding, and Cultural Change.” Poetics Volume 73:1-16

Zerubavel, Eviatar. 1996. “Lumping and Splitting: Notes on Social Classification.” Sociological Forum 11(3):421–33.

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