What is a Thing?

The question that plagues fifth graders, philosophers and industry workers alike!

It happened long ago, maybe in 1972. Most of the students at Trinity Christian College had gone home for one holiday or another (Christmas?). I stayed at the dorm and was going about my janitorial work-study job of cleaning the lounge. There was an old gentleman, white hair, sitting in the lounge; we struck up a conversation. 

It was a Seinfeld conversation – a little of this, a little of that, mostly about nothing – for a while. I could understand the gentleman through his thick accent with a little effort. When I asked him where in The Netherlands he was from, he said, “No, I am from South Africa; I am Professor H. Stoker, here to give some lectures in philosophy.” 

OK. This was the Stoker. With Vollenhoven and Dooyeweerd of the Free University of Amsterdam, one of the holy trinity of reformational philosophers! I couldn’t imagine asking for an autograph, but I did ask about his lecture topics. 

“Christian philosophy.” (Duh.)

The topic, according to those who hadn’t skipped the first lecture, was “The first question of philosophy: What is a thing?” 

Thing-in-itself
Thus began my lifelong encounters with the topic of thing(s). I learned that ding an sich (a thing as it is in itself) was an important philosophical idea. It proved useful for impressing others with my knowledge of Immanuel Kant. Is there such a “thing” as a “thing in itself,” or is everything relational?  

It wasn’t long before I realized just how important the little word ding really was. 

“Lisa,” shouted one parent of a grade nine student to her daughter, “bring me the ding.” 

“What do you mean, mom?” 

“The ding. You know what I need?”

“What?”

“The dingus, bring me the dingus I need to clean up the floor.”

“Oh, the vacuum cleaner!”

“Ja, you knew what ding I wanted, didn’t you?”

Natural things
Not too long ago – counting in decades – my friend Steffen brought home a strange piece of wood from the lumber mill. It was wood all right, but such a strange piece. More air than wood, it looked like some sort of stalagmite. Steffen said, “How did this come to be, this thingy?” 

I knew how to find the answer to Steffen’s question. I was teaching Grades Five and Six at the time and I brought the thingy to class. Each student wanted, desired, coveted the thingy. So I promised the thingy to the person who wrote the most creative story about the thingy: its origins, history and composition. Lucas Bishop won the prize (See picture of him with the thingy). Lucas is now in his twenties and works at the fluorspar mine in St. Lawrence, Newfoundland. He looks like this now (see photo 2).  

There is no doubt at all in my mind that Lucas’s knowledge of thingy-ness has helped him in his career. But this discussion of thingy-ness is actually still relevant in 2019 and 2020. Just the other day I was working the levers on the hydraulic wood splitter while Betsey toted big “rounds” of spruce from the tractor bucket to the deck of the splitter. At the base of the largest chunk of spruce we discovered this: a thingy in an early stage of development (see photo on the front page). 

The answer to “What is a thing?” – the phenomenological question of the century – is here in central B.C., and probably in a woodlot near you.

  • Curt Gesch and his wife lead the singing via Zoom for a combined service of small United Church congregations in central B.C. each Sunday morning. In the afternoon, they lead a Friends and Family Zoom worship from their home. If you'd like to join that service, please write Curt at moc.liamg@36hcsegc

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