Revisiting “Nounifying a Verb”

I recently read Erich Fromm’s classic To Have or To Be?, which I discussed in a previous post.  In the book, Fromm makes some interesting observations that I now explore as I revisit my previous post on “Nounifying a Verb.”

  • “A certain change in the emphasis on having and being is apparent in the growing use of nouns and the decreasing use of verbs in Western languages in the past few centuries.  A noun is the proper denotation for a thing.  I can say that I have things: for instance that I have a table, a house, a book, a car.  The proper denotation for an activity, a process, is a verb: for instance, I am, I love, I desire, I hate, etc. Yet ever more frequently an activity is expressed in terms of having: that is, a noun is used instead of a verb,  But to express an activity by to have in connection with a noun is an erroneous use of language, because processes and activities cannot be possessed; they can only be experienced” (Fromm, Erich, To Have or To Be?. 2013, New York: Bloomsbury, pp, 17-18).

In this observation, there is no judgment about whether nouns are better than verbs.  As I wrote about earlier, nouns are very important — we are also physical beings.  And we experience time, so verbs are also important.  Both nouns and verbs are important.  The problem Fromm points at is when we mistakenly refer to verbs as nouns, when we nounify a verb.  This mistake changes both the essence of what we are describing, the experience of the verb, and it changes our ability to shift the experience.

  • “By saying ‘I have a problem’ instead of “I am troubled,’ subjective experience is eliminated: the of experience is replaced by the it of possession.  I have transformed my feeling into something I possess…This way of speaking betrays a hidden, unconscious alienation” (Fromm, 2013, p. 19).

Fromm’s “being” state invites us to make explicit the experience of the reality of possibility and development over time, and that these two levels of perceived reality are qualitatively different than the outcomes level of reality.

  • “In the having mode of existence my relationship to the world is one of possessing and owning, one in which I want to make everybody and everything, including myself, my property” (Fromm, 2013, p. 21).
  • “‘Being’ in its etymological root is thus more than a statement of identity between subject and attribute; it is more than a descriptive term for a phenomenon.  It denotes the reality of existence of who or what is; it states his/her/its authenticity and truth.  Stating that somebody or something is refers to the person’s or the thing’s essence, not to his/her/its appearance (Fromm, 2013, p. 21).

What are your reflections on:

  1. the difference between the states of “being” and “having”?
  2. the impact of confusing “having” with “being”?

Please share them with us here in the Comments section of this post.

3 Interwoven Realities — Being, Doing, Having — Where Do YOU Start? — Recommended Reading

Fromm, Erich, To Have or To Be?2013, New York: Bloomsbury.  

[You can see Fromm’s book online here.]

“Poverty is when your dreams shift from who you are to what you have.” — Mayan leader in Guatemala.  (from our work with CARE to re-define poverty in Guatemala, click here)

In the thriving success of capitalism, a growing community of thinkers and doers question whether people are better off today because they have accumulated more stuff.  This emerging question is a modern twist on an old question — is human well-being defined by having or being?

In this classic text, Erich Fromm frames the age-old question — “the great Masters of Living have made the alternative between having and being a central issue of their respective systems” (Fromm 2013, 13) — then explores the implications for modern applications of economics, politics, culture, and social interactions, which I refer to as “the four big questions.”

From an Ecosynomic perspective, “having” focuses on the outcomes level of perceived reality where one’s awareness is conscious of the things one has.  “Being” focuses on the potential and development levels of perceived reality where one’s awareness is conscious of possibilities and the pathways for developing those possibilities over time.

“By being or having I do not refer to certain separate qualities of a subject as illustrated in such statements as “I have a car” or “I am white” or “I am happy.” I refer to two fundamental modes of existence, to two different kinds of orientation toward self and the world, to two different kinds of character structure the respective dominance of which determines the totality of a person’s thinking, feeling, and acting” (Fromm, 2013, p. 21).

While the “having” and the “being” schools both acknowledge the importance of the three levels of reality of potential, development, and outcomes, Ecosynomic research shows that the two schools propose completely different starting points, resulting in completely different experiences.

The high vibrancy groups we have met use some form of the “grounded potential” pathway, starting with infinite potential, discovering pathways for developing those potentials over time into sustainable outcomes.  These groups relate strongly to the “being” school.  The more mainstream groups we have studied relate strongly the “having” school.  They prefer the “enlightened matter” pathway, looking to develop the capacities to deliver more efficient outcomes, and the potential to further develop those capacities.

Emerging research seems to show that the higher vibrancy groups following the “grounded potential” pathway achieve much greater results on a much more sustainable basis.  This is the outcome both schools want — one just seems to achieve it better than the other.