The Abstract and the Concrete

by Gene Callahan

Abstraction can be an entertaining and useful activity. But every abstraction falsifies reality simply because it is an abstraction – it is a one-sided emphasis on certain aspects of the real at the expense of neglecting or even denying others. That is not necessarily harmful as long as we remember what we have done. But the abstraction, being simpler and more manageable than the real world, is a seductive fantasy, and the temptation to ignore messy reality and attempt to replace it with a clean and neat dreamworld.

Let me offer a few examples to illustrate what I am on about. For instance, Jared Diamond, in Guns, Germs, and Steel, wants to replace the history of the individual with what he seems to think he has founded, namely, “scientific” history. The end result is that he often winds up botching his history. (I have contributed a chapter discussing the errors in Diamond’s understanding of history to a forthcoming book entitled The Meanings of Michael Oakeshott’s Conservatism.) But, he is corrrect in thinking that history is unscientific, at least if, by “scientific,” one means “concerned with abstract universals” — but that is because, as it deals more directly with concrete reality, it represents an advance over the world of science with its general laws that, as Nancy Cartwright points out, lie. (Sudha Shenoy once expressed this idea to me by saying, “The real world is not theoretical; it is historical.”)

I was recently reading The Last Three Minutes by Paul Davies and found him contending that we are not sure whether or not the universe is a digital or an analog computer. Well, we can, in fact, be quite sure that the universe is not any sort of computer – nor are our minds. A computer is a device built by abstracting a certain aspect of human thought and building a machine to implement that abstraction. To then declare that the mind that created the computer, or, even more absurdly, the entire world, “really is” a computer is as if an artist drew a self-portrait and then began to imagine that the drawing was him.

Mary Midgley, in discussing the work of Barrow and Tipler, notes the motive behind this sort of confusion: “They write, in successive sentences, that ‘an intelligent being… is fundamentally a type of computer’, then that ‘a human being is a program designed to run on particular hardware called a human body’, and—still on the same half-page – that ‘a living human being is a representation of a definite program rather than the program itself’. All they want is some formula by which to bypass any large, awkward questions about what a human being really is, and to justify treating it simply as a memory-store, transferable at will to clouds of stellar dust which will outlast the heat death of the universe.” (From her essay “Artificial Intelligence and Creativity.”) That three-year olds may deceive themselves into thinking that Bugs Bunny is a real rabbit is understandable, but it boggles the mind that educated adults of some intelligence can convince themselves that running a ‘simulation’ of a person on a computer – whatever in the world that is supposed to mean – makes that person go on living.

I could continue to cite examples for many, many paragraphs –for instance, in economics, perfect competition used as a norm rather than a foil springs immediately to mind, and, in biology, the fantastical notion that human behavior is “really” just genes trying to survive — but I hope I have offered enough examples to make myself clear already. To try to view reality as “really” being an instance of some abstraction is to try to live in a fantasy. It can’t, of course, actually be done, but, as Collingwood wrote, “A person may think he is a poached egg; that will not make him one: but it will affect his conduct, and for the worse.”

34 thoughts on “The Abstract and the Concrete

  1. It seems to me that this approach will prevent you from being able to see the deep similarities among a wide variety of things. Is the universe — or the brain — LITERALLY a computer, meaning a artifically constructed device designed to engage in computaitons? Of course not. And no sane person is making that claim anywhere. It the universe — or the brain — a computational device, able to take in, compute, and put out information? Absolutely. Is that information discrete (digital) or nondiscrete (analog)? It matters if we are going to understand the nature of the universe — and of the brain. My own contention is that it’s both simultaneously. In the end, abstraction is what occurs when you deal in metaphors. Metaphors are how we think. We cannot think without abstractions — and, more, we cannot understand the deep similarities in structures of a wide variety of systems in the universe (including the universe) without them. Concrete particulars-only thinking also has the problem of historicizing things to such an extent that we become convinced that the past is irrelevant to understand the future. This results in a breakdown of understanding and knowledge, and tempts us to believe that we don’t need to understand the past at all. Rejection of abstraction is one of the cornerstones of progressivist thinking — and all the problems that come about from it.

  2. Roderick, I recall enjoying that paper very much. What if I qualify my claim as follows: “All abstractions are false, but some commit the more serious sin of being false by commission, while others the less serious of being false by ommission”?

  3. I ask because, when I go on the shooting spree at the mall, and they ask why, it will save time to show them the photo.

    In any case:

    “Rejection of abstraction…”

    Once again, you are responding to some post you have invented yourself, rather than the one I wrote. Last post, you kept badgering me about how I had failed to realize that methodological individualists take account of social conditions, when I had noted that fact at the very start of the original post. This time, you think my post calls for a “rejection of abstraction.” Now, go look at the first line. See it up there? Just how does a post that begins by declaring that abstraction is useful constitute a “rejection of abstraction”?

    “Is the universe — or the brain — LITERALLY a computer, meaning a artifically constructed device designed to engage in computaitons?”

    But the “constructed” part is not essential to something being a computer — as Barron and Tipler declare.

    “Of course not. And no sane person is making that claim anywhere.”

    I agree, those who make this claim are not sane in doing so.

    “It the universe — or the brain — a computational device, able to take in, compute, and put out information? Absolutely.”

    Since “computational device” is a SYNONYM for “computer,” YOU are making the claim no sane person makes right here. And Tipler takes his claims so literally that he believes to “simulate” a person on a computer just IS to revive that person and make him immortal. I agree this is insane.

    You might also ask yourself, Troy, just where the universe gets inputs FROM and just where it outputs TO. The universe next door?

    “Concrete particulars-only thinking…”

    But concrete thinking is most emphatically NOT “particulars-only thinking” — particulars are themselves abstractions. Concrete thinking realizes that isolated particulars and isolated universals are both abstractions, and so takes in both.

    Lastly, if particulars-only thinking is impossible (as I think it is, and as you suggest in stating that it would result in a breakdown of understanding and knowledge, then it can’t be the “cornerstone of any type of thinking, even of something as distasteful to you as “progressivist thinking.”

  4. “Metaphors are how we think.”

    Of course, if this were true, thought would ne hopeless–the only reason we can “get” metaphors at all is through the literal meaning of the terms in the métaphor–if all our thoughts were metaphors, what would they be metaphors FOR?

  5. If I were the only one who thought you said what I thought you said about MI, then you might have a leg to stand on in regards to whether or not I understand what you have written. However, it is another thing entirely when almost everyone else commenting think the same thing as I do about it. This suggests to me that the problem doesn’t lie with those who are doing the reading, but in the one who is doing the writing, who is apparently not communicating what he thinks he is communicating. Having gone back to read what you actually wrote in this particular posting, I cannot help but to conclude that my reading of what you wrote remains accurate. If that is not what you meant, that is your fault, not mine, as I am responding to what you wrote. I cannot respond to what you intended, but onyl to what is actually written. The same is true of everyone else.

    It seems to me, then, that your constant objection that people are literally getting the opposite of what you really meant is indicative not of people’s inability to understand what you wrote, but your inability to write clearly what you think. This situation is much like those people who are still single in their 40s, complaining that somehow everyone they have ever dated wanted to fight and argue, and not seeming to understand that the common denominator in all of their relationships is them. In other words, if everyone reads you as saying something, and everyone who is arguing with you is in agreement with each other, then you were the one who was not communicating well in the first place.

    Now, as for metaphors. The word metaphor means “to carry across.” Every word is a metaphor for what they refer to. And insofar as thinking is relational, it is thus metaphorical in nature. To the best of my knowledge, all thinking is relational and, in humans, primarily in words. Thus, it is metaphorical. Now, I don’t want to be too dogmatic on this. There may perhaps be thinking that involves neither of these processes and which, therefore, may not be considered metaphorical in nature. However, insofar as abstraction means the erasing of differences between concrete particulars, and insofar as the brain immediately abstracts from even one concrete particular (I have seen this in young children, where they are able to identify another concrete particular animal of a species they have only seen one other concrete particular of), then all we are ever really dealing with are abstractions. And abstractions are typically derived in teh same way we construct and understand metaphors. Thus, thought is metaphorical. The way we abstract from concrete particulars also, then, belies any distinction between concrete reality and abstraction. The way that the brain processes sensory input, it is all abstraction.

  6. Before quizzing Gene I would plead with him and Troy both to be more civil. I mean really, Gene, “when I go on the shooting spree . . .” It’s just wrong to say a thing like that, especially in a written media wherein we cannot observe your jocular demeanor. And, Troy, you really should allow an author to clarify his position without pillorying him for your misunderstanding.

    Anyway Gene, I don’t think I really get your point. I take it you are pointing to a difference between the infinite richness of lived experience and the relative poverty of verbal descriptions or accounts of that lived experience. Is that indeed at the root of your comment? If so, I’m not sure what to make of a couple of things you said.

    First, you say “particulars only thinking” is impossible. Are you saying 1) what we call “particulars” are themselves “abstractions” or 2) we can’t form a coherent interpretation of particulars without abstractions. If 2), why should we say there are particulars at all? Is it a Husserl point about the backward glancing nature of meaning? I guess I don’t see where we can avoid naturalizing consciousness without trashing the Darwinian view that we humans just crazy machines built by natural selection. But if you go with Darwin, then I don’t know what experiential “particulars” could be. Isn’t it interpretation all the way down?

    Second, I wonder if you’re being fair to the authors you cite. Given *your* definition of a computer, the universe is clearly not literally a computer. But I don’t see how that point connects the sort of argument you are addressing. I confess that I have not read “The Last Three Minutes,” but I think I get the basic idea of Davies question. Our *description* or model of the universe will implicitly or explicitly attribute to the universe some degree of computational prowess. That is to say, we may ask what sort of an imaginary computer (Turing machine, hypercomputer, or whatever) would be required to implement our model. We imagine that we have a complete description of initial conditions and a program implementing the laws of physics. We imagine ourselves feeding the program and data into our computer and getting as output the state of the universe at some later point in time. What sort of computer would be required if the output is to be “correct” in the sense that it is consistent with our basic description and would not contradict any observation we could imagine being made at the time(s) to which the imaginary output refers. Putting like that is a bit cumbersome, so we use elliptical language and ask whether the universe “is” a digital or analog computer. What’s so weird about that?

  7. “Before quizzing Gene I would plead with him and Troy both to be more civil. I mean really, Gene, “when I go on the shooting spree . . .”

    I thought that was pretty obviously a joke, Roger. And you have not had Troy obsessively stalking you over your last several posts, telling you how you “don’t get” the very thing you had written.

    “If I were the only one who thought you said what I thought you said about MI, then you might have a leg to stand on in regards to whether or not I understand what you have written. ”

    Sorry, Troy, not a single other commentator, however much they disagreed with me, misinterpreted what I said as badly as you did. And Paul Lewis seem to find what I was saying was perfectly clear. As, I’m sure, would Tony Lawson.

    “Every word is a metaphor for what they refer to.”

    This is an abuse of the concept of “metaphor.” Every word is a *sign* of what it refers to. If there are no literal uses of words, then metaphors would be impossible.

    Roger, you seem to have missed how literally Tipler takes the idea of people as programs (see above).

  8. Roger, your model example is fine — but Davies is talking about actually *using* the universal computer, not about viewing the universe *as* one.

  9. Roger,

    The intention of my last posting was to point out that there seems to be a difference between what Gene means and what he actually writes — a fact which he needs to be aware of, because it is resulting in apparently unnecessary discussion, where he keeps saying he meant quite literally the things he wrote, and then is shocked an appalled that nobody understands him. If people consistently misunderstand you, the problem isn’t likely to be everyone else.


    To be honest with you, I don’t pay the least attention to who the author is of the postings. I pay attention to the content. In fact, I starting reading this blog because Mario posts here. Your postings were an added treat.

    Please note, though, that it’s not like I’m coming over here just making petty comments entirely for the purpose of annoying, with nothing of real substance to say or add to the discussion. Rather, I try to engage what you actually write. Which is all I can do: respond to what you actually write. I cannot read your mind; I cannot tell what your intention was when you wrote what you wrote. You have the disadvantage of knowing what you meant, and then seeing that meaning in what you wrote, even if it’s not there for another reader. That’s why it’s always a good idea to set writings aside in order to forget them, so you can see what you wrote with fresh eyes. And that, of course, is a problem with blogs, since it is hardly conducive to such a method. Thus, a tendency to run into such misunderstandings. But it doesn’t help if the writer refuses to consider the fact that he may not have accurately communicated what he was thinking. Everyone came around to agreeing with what you eventually said, but that just means they let you get away with miscommunicating in the first place, which is what I wasn’t willing to let you do, since you would never admit that you hadn’t been clear in the first place.

    Aristotle once said, “A serious man doesn’t take things seriously.” Huizinga said of play that it was “a nonserious thing done seriously.” I don’t take these things seriously. The play is the thing. But when I’m playing, I play as though I’m serious. Without that spirit, no advancements in ideas can occur. People who treat such games seriously, meaning they cannot take criticism, never learn to play the game well — and at the very least, shouldn’t play in public. I’m not necessarily saying this is how you are, but it is definitely how you are coming across right now. Don’t make your thoughts public if you can’t take real criticism of what you write. I don’t know you personally, so none of this is meant personally — despite how you’re obviously taking it. That being the case, it would be more rational to consider why someone is interpreting what you write as they do rather than to assume that there is some sort of ulterior motive to . . . do what? I don’t know. I’m just interested in intellectual discussions and clarity of thought. If I say something that is less than clear, I don’t take offense when it’s pointed out — rather, I try to clarify myself.

    Now, as for metaphor, let me point out how metaphors work. If I say “Achilles was a lion,” it is generally understood that we mean that Achilles has the attributes of courage, fierceness, nobility, etc. rather than that he has large canines, sharp claws, and a tufted tail. We erase the irrelevant differences. That is how a metaphor makes sense, and how it works. It contributes to understanding by making a bridge between two unlike things. Now, if this is the definition of a metaphor — the bridging of two unlike things — then our minds create concepts precisely through metaphor-creation. The chair I am sitting on as I write this is different from the chair you are sitting on as you read this, yet we would easily identify both as chairs. How do we do that? By erasing the particular differences between them to see the underlying similarities — by metaphor-creation. The question then is, are words metaphors for things? You are absolutely correct that words are signs, but that doesn’t answer the question of whether or not words are also metaphors. There is some evidence that words may have had their origins in something we still use: onomantopoeia. A word like “chirp” resembles the sound some birds make. In this case, the word is certainly a metaphor. It is an abstract reproduction of the other sound, and abstraction is created by the same mechanism as metaphor creation. There is a theory of language origins that argues that our words originated in attempts to reproduce in mouth-shape and, eventually, sound. If this is the case, then words in fact at the least have their origins in abstraction-creation and, thus, in the processes that lead us to be able to make linguistic metaphors. It is in this sense that words can be said to be metaphors.

  10. So, Troy, when I wrote that abstractions can be useful, thinking that meant “abstractions can be useful”, what it ACTUALLY meant was “rejection of abstraction.”

    I guess because it was a metaphor, huh?

    And Troy, I spent several years immersed in semiotic literature, linguistics, and philosophy of language, so you don’t need to explain metaphors to me. That immersion is also how I know you are misusing the term. Words are signs. Metaphors are a special category of speech, a non-literal use that entirely relies on there being literal, non-metaphorical speech to succeed.

  11. Roger: “Are you saying 1) what we call “particulars” are themselves “abstractions” or…”

    Yes. The general way these terms are used by post-Hegelian philosophers is that a particular is an instance of a universal — the particular and the class are both abstractions created by pulling apart the universal and the individual. Putting them back together, we get the “concrete universal.” Marx gave the example of a factory. To view it as a “particular” is to say, e.g., oh, that’s a steel plant — it’s just a particular instance of the class “steel plants” — and that particular is an abstraction. To arrive at the “concrete universal” (or at least to approach it — it is an ideal!) we must put back in all of the stuff we left out — the plant is owned by so-and-so, these people work there, it is on the banks of the Rhine, they speak German and French inside, the pay level is this, it was built in 1874, etc., etc.

    So the “concrete universal” is not a matter of ignoring the results of abstractions — in fact, it uses all available abstraction to arrive at the concrete picture. Now the abstract view of “it’s a steel plant” may be perfectly adequate for many purposes, and may save us a lot of time. But if we want to really understand THAT plant, it’s always a partial and defective view.

  12. Thanks, Gene. That last comment clarifies hugely your general pov. I confess to suspecting that you are being ufair to the authors you criticize, but I haven’t read the particular works you blast. To talk of “three-year olds” and “fantasy” does not make it seem like you’re being totally fair in your interpretations.

    Interesting that you give the example of “perfect competition used as a norm rather than a foil.” This is just what Walras did! His metaphysics to support this usage was wild stuff compared to anything we think of as normal today.

    I’m not sure I see why it is a “fantastical notion” that “human behavior is ‘really’ just genes trying to survive.” If you pack too much into the words “really” and “trying” I guess you can end up with something rather “fantasical.” But could you find any prominent theoretical biologists who would say that genes are self consciously *trying* to survive? Personally, I think natural selection operates at multiple levels, namely, genes, organisms, and groups. (Thank you David Sloan Wilson.) But I don’t really see how the “selfish gene” model is *fantasitical* and thus to be simply scoffed or laughed out of court.

  13. I once saw a BBC special about “killer sperm.”

    It seems that there are dominant sperm types that if they are deposited in a women, they will survive for a prolonged time and kill any competing male’s sperm.

    The story claimed that this was nature’s way of protecting the dominant male’s gene reproduction over weaker competitors having relations with the same women.

    This convinced me that Woody Allen had great insight in his movie of “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex . . .” in the scene where the sperm are lined up like parachutists, and are expressing their fear that they will shoot out and end up merely bouncing off a hard rubber surface.

    If only nature could talk, as Machlup once ruminated on.

    Richard Ebeling

  14. I was mostly focusing on statements like this: “the abstraction, being simpler and more manageable than the real world, is a seductive fantasy, and the temptation to ignore messy reality and attempt to replace it with a clean and neat dreamworld.” Such statements dominate your initial posting. And though the first line does say that they are useful, the inclusion of the word “entertaining” suggests that we should not take them seriously. You further seems to support historicism, which denies the existence of patterns behavior, including historical patterns. So while you do indeed say that abstractions are “useful,” the rest of the piece proceeds to undermine the validity of using them at all — indeed, the adjective right before “useful” undermines the word. So based on the intial posting, one cannot come to the conclusion that you do in fact find abstraction a valuable tool — or a valid way of dealing with the world at all. Never mind that we in fact do abstract out everything, as that is the nature of our minds. True, in followup postings you have danced away from these positions, but one is left wondering how you reconcile the followup discussion with the intial posting without putting undue focus on a single word that is undermined by the entirety of the rest of the post.

    Now you will please note that when I engage in intellectual discussions, I don’t pull educational rank — unless it’s pulled by someone else first. As it turns out, metaphor was one of the major topics of my dissertation, and I had a linguist on my committee. I am thus qualified, given the right academic assignment, to teach a graduate level class on the nature of metaphor if I so desired. And, indeed, I would use your definition of metaphor in wuch a class — for about the first week or two, before we moved on to far more advanced ideas on the topic. For example, we would discuss the idea put forward by Nietzsche in “On Truth and Lies” that words are metaphors we have forgotten are metaphors, not Truth. I would talk too about how meaning only comes about as a referent is repeated and metaphorized within the context of other referents. After all, reference is not meaning, though one could see it as a kind of meaning, as how meaning emerges from meaninglessness, through reference. As Nietzsche points out, words are calcified metaphors – they have calcified into referential words. One gets renewed and expanded meaning through their use in sentences and especially in their use in new metaphors.Words do not equate to things, they refer to things, and it is in our association of words with those things that our use of words begins to make sense. The use of the specific word “up” to refer to the idea of “upness,” of casting one’s glance above one’s head, is not necessary. Certainly, other languages have put together other phonemes to refer to this concept. But once we have associated this sound with this concept, it becomes embedded in the language, as a calcified metaphor, making it possible for us to say that “things are looking up” to mean that things are getting better for us. We have related “upness” with “goodness,” and the metaphor has become calcified in our language (for much more on this, in much greater depth, see Lakoff and Johnson’s The Metaphors We Live By, which begins to connect word-metaphors to our physical environment, and develops Nietzsche’s language theory from Philosophy and Truth). Thus, words get associated with truth. Also, Huizinga recognizes that:

    Language allows (humans) to distinguish, to establish, to state things; in short, to name them and by naming them to raise them into the domain of the spirit. In the making of speech and language the spirit is continually “sparking” between matter and mind, as it were, playing with this wondrous nominative faculty. Behind every abstract expression there lie the boldest metaphors, and every metaphor is a play upon words. Thus in giving expression to life man creates a second, poetic world alongside the world of nature. (“Homo ludens” 4)

    I would also point out the relation between metaphor and beauty. Beauty is the ability to see the uniqueness of each individual thing within it created categories. It is to see variety in unity, unity in variety. That is why the creation of new categories, of new metaphors, is beautiful. A new metaphor creates a new set of varieties in unity – it makes us see new unities. We are surprised, saying, “Oh! I never saw it that way before. I never realized those things could go together.” We get a delight from this feeling of insight, from putting a new puzzle together, from seeing pieces put together that shows us something new in the world.

    All of this is from my dissertation. None of my committee members, including the linguist, objected to anything I had to say about metaphor.

  15. Roger,

    I agree with you in regards to the selfish gene model. It’s part of a larger picture, and it has received modification, as it should have, but it’s hardly a “fantastical” idea.


    A Woody Allen film festival would teach one more about human nature than would a grad degree in any of the social scienes or humanities.

  16. Troy, Troy, Troy: ‘the selfish gene model… it’s hardly a “fantastical” idea.’

    Now, that’s not w3hat I said, Troy. I said takig the idea literally was “fantastical.”

    And Roger noted that in his comment. You know why? He is able to read.

    “So based on the intial posting, one cannot come to the conclusion that you do in fact find abstraction a valuable tool ”

    Because, in fact, you can’t read.

  17. Troy, don’t Lakoff and Johnson say that metaphors rely upon a concrete known thing, and then understand something more abstract or novel in terms of a metaphorical relationship to that concrete?

  18. ‘I was mostly focusing on statements like this: “the abstraction, being simpler and more manageable than the real world, is a seductive fantasy, and the temptation to ignore messy reality and attempt to replace it with a clean and neat dreamworld.”‘

    Right: and that says the attempt to REPLACE reality with an abstraction is harmful. The very previous line says there is nothing wrong with abstraction as long as one remembers what one is doing! And I suppose if someone says, “Sex is entertaining and useful,” you will say, “See — he REALLY doesn’t think it’s useful, because he added ‘entertaining.'”

    ‘as a calcified metaphor, making it possible for us to say that “things are looking up” to mean that things are getting better for us. We have related “upness” with “goodness,”’

    Yes, “Things are looking up” is a metaphor. It is a metaphor that DEPENDS on there being a meaning of ‘up,’ meaning, you know, ‘up,’ that IS NOT a metaphor.

    If you ask me “Where is the balloon?” and I respond “up,” what is that a metaphor for, Troy?

  19. Gene,

    You are right, to take the idea of genes being able to quite literally be selfish, that is, to have some sort of agency IS fantastical. Of course, nobody has ever made that claim. Ever. So, if that is what you were really saying — if that’s what you meant to say — then all you did was knock down a straw man. But if that’s not what you were saying, if you were saying what Roger and I thought you were saying (and if you can’t see that he and I are in complete agreement in interpreting what you said on this, then it’s not I who can’t read), then you have a gross misunderstanding of what the proponents of the selfish gene theory actually said (in which case, you didn’t understand what you were reading).

    Now, if I were to get petty about all of this, I would point out that it is very unlikely that someone with a M.A. in English, a Ph.D. in the Humanities, who wrote a dissertation on literary analysis, and who teaches rhetoric and composition doesn’t know how to read. In fact, such a person might be in a good position to tell people when they are not communicating their thoughts well in what they write. But I would rather we treat each other as equals and have a little dignity in all this, wouldn’t you?

  20. Now let us talk about “up.” “Up” is a preposition, meaning it is a word that shows relationships. In its pre-Indo-European root, *upo “up from below”, we can see that it has its origins in an action, a movement. But something no longer has to have movement for it to be “up.” It just has to have a certain relative position to an observer or other object. This is a prime example — almost quite literally — of a word as a calcified metaphor, as Nietzsche suggested. The word did once refer to a concrete known thing (to the extent that anything is “concrete” to a person, who necessarily sees everything through the lens of abstraction — if you haven’t, take a look at the fascinating literature on how the eyes work and how we really create an image of the world around us and then check in on it periodically just to make sure nothing’s changed). So now you know what “up” is a metaphor for.

    And finally, let’s take this statement of yours:

    “And I suppose if someone says, “Sex is entertaining and useful,” you will say, “See — he REALLY doesn’t think it’s useful, because he added ‘entertaining.’””

    Now, if you don’t understand that when you change the subject of a sentence, and remove a statement from its context, that you change the meaning of the sentence in such a way that it doesn’t bear much relevance to the previous sentence in its previous context, then I think we understand what your writing problems are. Some writers are good as writing this way, making their thoughts clear in the instant way demanded by blogs — but most aren’t. Most need editors — themselves, over time, and others.

    Of course, I know by now that all of this will be taken personally, even though none of it is meant as such (my not actually knowing you, after all — and I know perfectly well that online personalities do not often reflect real life personalities, as I’ve known perfectly lovely people in real life who, online, did not reflect that loveliness quite as much). So you may wonder why I keep coming back. Well, there’s a reason why I quote Nietzsche so often . . . 🙂

  21. So, Troy, what was the word ‘up’ used to refer to movement a metaphor for?

    As far as your comments re Dawkins, once again, yet another dim interpretation of what I wrote.

    As far as “taking it personally,” I couldn’t care less if you mean this personally or not. When a horsefly starts repeatedly biting my head, it does interest me in the least if it’s me or it does this to everyone: I just want it to go away.

  22. Sounds to me like you would have been one of Socrates’ accusers. As I recall, he too was a gadfly.

    Perhaps it is a dim interpretation of what you meant (which of the two choices is, it, though? I’m going with straw man), but it’s not a dim interpretation of what you *wrote*. That’s the consistent problem.

    The original word that became “up” was a sign for an abstraction, and I’ve already established that abstractions are created in a similar way to metaphors. If you prefer, the PIE word (or, more likely, the absolute original word that is pre-PIE), was a sign, but the word “up” is a metaphor for the original — which is what most words today now are. It is not surprising that someone who studied etymology, like Nietzsche, developed the insight that all the words we now use are metaphors that have become calcified and are no longer recognized as metaphors.

  23. “To abstract is to consider separately things that are inseparable: to think of the universal, for instance, without reflecting that it is merely the universal of its particulars, and to assume that one can isolate it in thought and study it in this isolation. This assumption is an error. One cannot abstract without falsifying.” — R. G. Collingwood

  24. We now have to hand the elements for a syllogism:

    1) All abstract thought is false;
    2) All of Troy’s thoughts are abstract; therefore…

  25. I’m copying to this rather late in the day, but I wonder, Gene, what you think of the argument that there is a difference between abstraction and idealisation. People like Tony Lawson and Onora O’Neill have argued that that, just because it is impossible to comprehend the entirety of (complex aspects of) the socio-economic world in one go, it does not follow that theories and models are justified in employing descriptively false assumptions. On this view, abstraction is a process of focusing on particular aspects of some (concrete) phenomenon, with the aim of individuating or picking out particular features while ignoring others. Notably, it is not the case that the existence of the neglected features is denied; rather they are (momentarily) left out of focus and relegated to the periphery of our attention. Abstraction, then, is a matter of bracketing features of the phenomenon under investigation rather than of denying their existence. Abstract reasoning makes claims that (hopefully) do not hinge on the neglected features of objects to which the reasoning is applied.

    Idealization, in contrast, involves the ascription of features to an object that it does not in fact possess, that is, features that are false when predicated of it. Thus, theorists who use idealization invoke fictions, objects that exist only in the realm of ideas. Idealisation generally comes in one of two forms. The first of these involves the use of ideal or limit types, that is ‘enhanced’ versions of entities or situations which possess features that are (in some sense) perfect, complete or pure. Examples would be perfect information, or perfect foresight. The second form is to invent a fictitious being or activity, study its properties, and then contend that the facts of the world are ‘as if’ they had been generated by the invented agent or process. An example would be a ‘representative agent’.

    I appreciate that this doesn’t get around your (to me, a little surprising) claim about the , but I’d be interested in hearing your views on the matter.

    On the question of metaphor, it seems to me that a key point concerns the way in which – from a realist perspective – fresh (rather than dead or calcified) metaphors make it possible for (social) scientists to begin to refer to hitherto unknown causal mechanisms. Given that all observation is theory-dependent, we can’t simply observe and describe such mechanisms from some God’s eye viewpoint. So we make conjectures about what they are like, using terminology that is usually used to describe other, better known objects. Hence the use of metaphor in (social) science. Of course, once we’ve been able to (begin to) pick out and refer to the mechanism in question, using the metaphorically transferred concepts, we can begin to learn more about it, and adjust our terminology accordingly (see my essay on metaphor in the Review of Social Economy, 1996, reprinted in Steve Fleetwood’s 1999 volume on Critical Realism in Economics).

  26. Sorry, I meant to write ‘(to me, a little surprising claim) that every abstraction falsifies reality.’

  27. gcallah,

    Now there’s a fun game to play. Let’s see how certain ideas hold up logically. Starting with the fact that our brains necessarily abstract out everything, and to think we think using those abstractions our brains create,

    Let’s see what happens with gcallah’s statement about abstraction:

    1) All thinking is abstract,
    2) All abstractions are false
    Therefore, All thinking is false.

    Obviously, utter nonsense. So let’s toss out gcallah’s #2 as illogical.

    Next, Collingwood:

    1) All thinking is abstract,
    2) To abstract is to falsify.
    Therefore, to think is to falsify.

    Unless you want to admit that thinking falsifies the world — meaning anyone whose work involves thinking falsifies the world as part of their work — then that’s not all that great a definition, either. Of course, it may also be true.

    Now, let’s look at Gene’s definitions

    1) All thinking is abstract.
    2) All abstraction can be entertaining and useful.
    Therefore, Thinking is entertaining and useful.

    Can’t disagree with that.

    Next, Gene essentially reiterates the COllingwood point, above. That may or may not be true.


    1) All thinking is abstract,
    2) Abstraction is not necessarily harmful as long as we remember what we have done.
    Therefore, All thinking is not necessarily harmful as long as we remember what we have done.

    An interesting idea that needs to be worked out, since the last part involving remembering also involves thinking. How can one think about the potential harm of thinking if thinking is potentially harmful.


    1) All thinking is abstract,
    2) Abstraction is simpler and more manageable than the real world
    Therefore, Thiking is simpler and more mangeable than the real world.

    This depends on which “real world” you are talking about. The brain, with which we do our thinking, is more complex than living things, molecules, or quantum physical objects, but less complex than cultures, economies, etc. that humans create. When thinking about the first list, not true; when thinking about the second list, necessarily true.


    1) All thinking is abstract,
    2) Abstraction is a seductive fantasy, and the temptation to ignore messy reality and attempt to replace it with a clean and neat dreamworld.
    Therefore, thinking is a seductive fantasy, and the temptation to ignore messy reality and attempt to replace it with a clean and neat dreamworld.

    Sometimes, but this is certainly not necessarily true. There are kinds of thinking that this is true of; but it cannot be true of all thinking, or as a species we probably wouldn’t have lasted long.

    This series of syllogisms shows that the ideas on abstraction were all over the place. The result is that Gene could say he said one thing, and he’d be right, and I could say he said something else, and I’d be right. Thanks gcallah for suggesting the proper method to parse out the problem with the argument.

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