Thingness and Thereness

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Thinkability

For months now, I’ve been thinking about a whole mess of related ideas with the aid of a Penrose triangle visualization of three key, interconnected loci that frame a sort of canvas on which life scripts (whether canned or improvised) play out. The three vertices are home, public and frontier. This is the simplest version of the visualization:


Between home and public you find subcultures of being and identity, defined by the question, is that a thing now?  Fidget spinners are a thing right now. Gangnam Style was a thing a few years ago.

Between home and frontier you find subcultures of doing and creation, defined by the Gertrude Stein question, is there a there there? There currently seems to be a there there around cryptocurrencies. Opinion is divided about whether there was a there there around Big Data, but we may move beyond that question to the question of whether there’s a there there to Deep Learning, without ever figuring out the thereness of Big Data definitively.

Our lives are shaped by how we relate to thingness and thereness, and how those two qualities relate to each other.

Here home is where people ordinarily (but not always) start out — a space defined by intimacy, privacy, domesticity, and safety. At home you’re in something of what Hannah Arendt calls an animal laborans condition: entirely defined by biological necessities; not quite human.

To become fully human, you have to head out of home, and you have two choices about where to head, defined by the Boydian admonition to choose between being somebody, and doing something.

The public — in the Arendtian sense of a space where you appear in society and have your free humanity recognized by other free humans — is where you head if you navigate life primarily by a be somebody heuristic. A space defined by what Martin Buber called an I-thou dominant mode of relating to reality. We know a great deal about this process. About 99% of everything ever written about sociology, psychology, and anthropology deals with the space between home and public, about the process of becoming somebody by navigating I-thou relationships successfully, without getting terminally trapped in some identity subculture or other.

The frontier is wherever you head if you navigate life primarily by a do something heuristic. A space defined by Buber’s I-it mode of relating. We know very little about this direction. Only about 1% of the humanities and social sciences are about exploratory cognition and identity formation.

Thingness is the essence of consensus. It is a thing if enough people believe it is a thing. The phenomenology of thingness may or may not turn out to be illusory, but its essence is social proof. Thingness is heavily studied. It is the raw material of almost all attempts at meaning-making. These attempts almost always fail.

Thereness is the essence of substance. It doesn’t matter how many people believe or disbelieve that there’s a there there. The phenomenology of something has a thereness to it if and only if there is a non-social core of novelty to it. Something even a single person exploring alone can see for themselves, simply by going there, whether or not they are able to share it. Thereness is very poorly studied. It is the raw material of a small minority of attempts at meaning making, but these enjoy a disproportionate amount of success. If there’s a there there, and you find it, it can become a thing, but thingness does not seem to be a good indicator of thereness.

There’s nothing there, we say, when we dismiss subcultures of being while located in subcultures of doing.

It’s a thing, tastemakers insist, in resisting the dismissals of thereness-seeking doers.

Thingness and thereness are certainly correlated, and definitely not mutually exclusive, but the distinction is real and meaningful. There’s a there there. The fable of the Emperor’s new clothes is about thingness versus thereness. It’s the cliched style-substance distinction. Perhaps there is, as Virginia Postrel argues, substance to style, but either way, the answer is not trivial. It takes exploration to discover something about the answer, and you never exhaust the question.

The visualization is a Penrose triangle because there’s an element of impossibility to the idea of continuous connectivity among the three loci. Only from one very specific perspective does the illusion hold. The socialization of humans in any society tends to revolve around making this specific perspective ingrained for all. You might say the essence of a false consciousness is the limiting of a perspective to make a particular Penrose-triangle illusion seem real.

Shift perspectives a little, and one of the apparent vertices of connection reveals itself to have a liminal gap to it. Where the gap is depends on your particular pattern of screwed-upness. The particular gap in your psyche papered over by your socialization. It is the gap you must navigate in order to reconstitute yourself as a new person. To become whole, you must break your perspective of social reality to introduce a liminal gap.

I’d say my life has been defined by a disconnect at the frontier, which I call goatspace (it’s a private joke I’m still trying to turn into a coherent post). Goatspace is defined by the breakdown of the illusion that you can head to the frontier via a do something adventure, and then turn a corner smoothly to stylishly enter a public space where you’ll be rewarded with recognition as being somebody, a person of substance. If goatspace turns out to be treacherous and unnavigable for you, you’ll have to head back home with your tail between your legs, and try sheepishly to be somebody more directly, by navigating worlds of thingness.

In social terms, goatspace is the liminal gap between sovereignty, a condition which can apply to individuals in isolation, and freedom, which is a condition that only applies to humans appearing among other humans. In private terms, goatspace is a resurrection experience. To traverse goatspace is to be born again.

If there is no goatspace gap for you, there is necessarily a gap at one of the other vertices. If the gap is at the public vertex, I call it crowspace. If it is at the home vertex, I call it ratspace.  I have a whole messy theory of these three liminal disconnection spaces that I hope to coherently write up one day. Maybe I should call my triangle the goat-crow-rat triangle.

But for now, I’ll just leave you with one of the uglier working sketches I made while figuring this out. I have a long way to go still. I don’t usually share work-in-progress studio crud like this, but since we’re about to do the longform blogging course starting next week, I figured I should do a post with some of the sausage factory visible through a transparent wall.

Series Navigation<< On the Design of Escaped RealitiesBeen There, Done That >>

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I think there is more to identity now. It has always been fluid among the younger people. For example, younger people are always trying to find themselves. Is that a thing among “established” people is a different question.

    I was referred to this blog by Sebastian Marshall. I put it into a Feedly sub, and am enjoying it thus far.

  2. Venkat,

    Is “goatspace” a reference to that guy who built the special goat prostheses so he could join goat society?

    Going out into a wholly new realm, earning acclaim as a visionary/ explorer, then re-integrating and claiming new high status?

    • Something like that. I have this model of the home –> frontier putting you at the bottom of a sheer cliff, while public –> frontier puts you at the top of that same cliff. This cliff is not visible from the POV where the Penrose triangle paradox illusion holds, but if you arrive there, you find you cannot easily traverse the cliff going either up or down. That’s goatspace. The challenge is to become goatlike and make the transition in either direction to grow as a person, and it tends to be a major existential challenge to the psyche. Going upwards is the case you’re thinking of. Going downwards is something like the challenge a too-ambitious person must face in order to heal personal relationships and find a way home again.

      • (Example, a celebrity mainstream rock musician discovered by a label very early, with a couple of hit albums, a bunch of toxic/broken relationships, and a drug problem… must find a way to go to the frontier, rediscover meaning, climb down the goatspace cliff, and find “home” again through a sort of healing process).

  3. The Penrose tribar is the wrong approach. You are looking for Borromeans, and they are physical relations, not impossible at all. A Borromean, in our work on Information Macrodynamics, has two opposing processes working together in a neutral ground. The caduceus is a dynamic illustration of the same phenomenon. They key feature, for your exploration here, is that the process ends in an object at another level, or in another domain. This produces an ontological hierarchy, and what Ulanowicz calls “ascendency.”

  4. Your use of Buber’s dichotomy confuses me a bit! I’d love to hear more about how you made those associations. I see that the Be-Somebody axis is linked to public consciousness, so I-Thou makes sense in that way, but the operative question — “is this a thing?” — sounds very I-It, a path through objects and disinterested value assessments. On the other hand, the Do-Something axis may be associated with the Frontier, but I-It seems misplaced. What’s the object? If anything, this axis seems more intimate, more self-regarding, than the Be-Somebody axis.

    And for Buber, wasn’t I-Thou the genuine frontier, the more evolved of the relations? Does your model maintain something of this preference? Or does it invert it, or discard it altogether?

    Mostly a lurker here, so while I’m commenting — Thanks for all your insights.

    • Yes, I am using Buber’s model with 2 differences:

      1. “Thingness” is really illusory thereness, constructed cheaply out of social proof primarily to catalyze/mediate an I-thou relationship, so I don’t see it as different. It’s I-thou pretending to be I-it.

      2. My philosophical difference as you point out is that I don’t agree that I-thou is the genuine frontier. Humans in the absence of growth provoked by dealing with external novelty (“thereness”) aren’t particularly valuable to relate.

      Elsewhere (in my recent breaking-smart newsletters for example) I’ve been exploring how the two relate. Meaning-making could even be defined as a feedback loop between I-it and I-thou that happens in goatspace.

  5. I’m good with goatspace. Generally accepted by the public too. Have trouble with home though, too ambitious. I’m always restless, learning or searching for more information instead of relaxing with family, pining to leave almost as soon as I get back.

    I have also left a lot of destroyed personal relationships in my wake. Interesting way to see how these things are connected. Great article, hope you come through on that follow up!

  6. Rod Willmot says

    I love this post. I know a lot about goatspace, but look forward to seeing what more you come up with about crowspace and ratspace.

    Your accumulation of notations/appellations reminds me of the side-by-side strokes of pigment in an impressionist painting, or the stargazing trick of looking just to the side of what one is trying to see. Complex processes that can only be known experientially just can’t be reduced to simple concepts, so I grok why you use a Penrose triangle.

    Being allergic to the infantile religiosity that has plagued the country south of mine, I wish you hadn’t used “resurrection” and “born again” in reference to goatspace. I know what you’re getting at, but those words make it sound oh so easy. Traversing goatspace, for me, meant going through years of pain and conflict, and learning to take it instead of giving up, living in illusion or cleaving to the public, as most people do.

    I suggest that those whose fate is to confront goatspace, and who traverse it successfully, reach mountaingoatspace. Forsaking the comfort of the herd, so familiar to ordinary goats, you discover that you are truly at ease on what to others are precipitous heights. And this confers something that is another way of saying thereness: authenticity. A person who reaches mountaingoatspace may not be able to share his finds with many others, but his reward in the public space, at a minimum, is the change in his experience of being in society. He no longer needs recognition to exist. A nodule of thereness, authenticity, has precipitated within him.

    A final note about your colour-stroke “politics” along the public-frontier line. I wonder if you intend this in a very large sense, as the general phenomenon of people working together to achieve a common goal. I suppose it has to include what is usually meant by politics, but I would hope to see it fleshed out by more positive examples.

  7. I was reminded of your Ultimate Life Planning Guide, etc., while reading this. I started to overlay Getting Ahead with “to be” because the ultimate goal is status and that would lead to “Public”, then it follows that “to do” correlates with “Frontier” as risk taking, curiosity & self-expression follow that admonition. Finally Getting Along is not as straight forward for me but I do note that “Politics” shows up in the cross section between “careerism” & “institutionalism.” But since the space between Public & Frontier is between Getting Ahead and Getting Away (as opposed to Along) I’m not sure if this helps clarify or not. Maybe Getting Along is “Home” and if this the case then the other angles would follow as Public –> Getting Ahead and Frontier –> Getting Away.

  8. Are broscience communities(pick-up, bro-entrepreneur) a subculture of being or doing?