The Abstract and the Concrete Part II

by Gene Callahan

I fear I was insufficiently clear in expressing my view of the relationship between abstract and concrete thought in my previous post on the topic; although I intended, right at the outset, to make obvious that my intention was not to dismiss the value of the abstractions offered to us by science, it is apparent that some commentators, nevertheless, read my post as just such a dismissal. Therefore, it might prove worthwhile for me to explicate further the view expressed in that earlier post, as well as to offer an example of the sort of concrete thought I suggested to be superior to its more abstract brethren.

In regards to the first matter, let me assure readers that I regard abstract thought as being of tremendous value, and that I recognize the monumental achievements of those abstract realms of theory, mathematics and science, in the last several centuries. Such abstractions can be both highly useful and quite illuminating. Rather, my criticism was directed at the tendency, understandable given the success of those abstractions, to mistake the knowledge they offer as superior to, or even as a substitute for, a more concrete understanding of reality. (Both ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ here must themselves be understood as abstractions: no real thinking is ever purely abstract or entirely concrete; instead, these terms ought to be taken as matters of degree.)

It so happens that, after writing my first post on this topic, I re-encountered a wonderful exemplar of the sort of concrete thinking I was lauding in the work of Oliver Sacks, when I commenced re-reading his book An Anthropologist on Mars. The first aspect of Sacks’ work I wish to note is that to deem him in any sense an “anti-scientific” thinker would be ridiculous. Sacks is a trained and practicing neurologist, and is always anxious to incorporate the latest and best scientific findings into his treatments of and case studies about the people with whom he deals. But his genius lies in his refusal to limit his vision to the abstractions arising from purely scientific investigations. In all his interactions with the real human beings he writes about, he also is constantly attentive to the factors that mark their individuality: their unique, personal histories and characters, factors that, he contends, often trump the relevance of any scientific generalizations in determining how they meet the neurological challenges they face. As Hayek would have put it, scientific knowledge, while valid and important, should never be seen as a substitute for knowledge of “the particular circumstances of time and place.” Or as Sacks writes, in regards to his own type of work, “while a single glance may suffice for clinical diagnosis, if we hope to understand the autistic individual, nothing less than a total biography will do.”

8 thoughts on “The Abstract and the Concrete Part II

  1. This very much clarifies your position. Knowledge of something requires knowledge of both the general and the particular. To understand humans, you have to understand 1) human nature, 2) the way that human nature plays itself out in a particular culture, and 3) the way that human nature plays itself out in a particular individual in that particular culture. One needs to know how human beings act as a general rule, how they act as a general rule in a particular culture, but also the particular details which may include exceptions to that rule (rememberng that the exception doesn’t negate the rule). Sack’s last observation, applied to each person, is why metholdological individualism is necessary and why welfare statism to socialist plannining cannot work, as they require that everyone act according to a general description (and, worse, according to a general description that is innacurate).

  2. Of course, Roger, no one ig going to say “Details don’t matter.” But they may behave as if they don’t: for instance, consider the clinicians Sacks is implicitly criticizing. If you read or watch Awakenings (Sacks worked on the movie version and declares himself happy with it) it is quite clear that other clinicians at the hospital where the ‘action” took place were looking at psychiatric theories rather than concrete patients, and the reason Sacks saw hope for the patients and they didn’t is his superior view.

    Or consider all the developmental economists who went to developing countries and tried to implement their textbook models while ignoring culture and history.

    If my point is as trivial as you seem to make it, then what is all the fuss about Hayek’s work about?

  3. Well, I must admit to being fuzzy on what you are really driving at. Some scholars rely too little on close observations; they generalize too quickly. Sure. But others rely too much on particular facts without regard to general considerations. Supposedly, the Younger Historical School is an example. In Misesian lingo, we need both theory and history.

    How is it with mainstream economists right now? I don’t know that it’s a matter of too much detail or too little. If it’s one way or the other, however, would tend to think the vice is too much detail and not enough theory rather than the other way about. This is a theme Pete Boettke has emphasized: models to fit a particular story, but not much in the way of general theory. I also recall what Duncan Foley told Colander, Holt, & Rosser in The Changing Face of Economics.

    He said, “The study of economic data surely has a future, but the question is whether it will be recognizable as economics in today’s terms and whether it will exhibit any real unity of subject matter and method” (p. 212). He notes that “A physicist trying to explain fluctuations of financial prices with a stochastic process model doesn’t fit Robbins’s definition of economics as the allocation of scarce resources among competing ends” (p. 211). He imagines a sociologist who “looks at migration in labor markets by doing some regressions of immigration on wage levels and employment opportunities, without specifying preferences or the supply and demand of labor.” He asks “is that economics?” (pp. 211-212).

  4. Kopppl,

    This was the issue I was having with his previous posting — it seemed there that he was saying that only history mattered, not theory/abstraction. Asd I said above, this post clarified what his actual position is.

    I also happen to agree with you that too much economics is all detail, no explanatory theory. This is due, I think, to the mathematicization of economics. Which sounds strange, because what is more abstract than math? Nevertheless, that seems to be the case. I would argue that it is because math his extremely reductionist as well. Throw in some postmodern antiepistemology, antitheory, and historicism, and you get almost all the problems in current economics, as far as I can tell. The systems approach of Hayek is the corrective to all of this — as it deals with the economy as it is: a complex adaptive system with acting agents and emergent properties (a bit redundant, to get the point across). Economics is really interdisciplinary in nature, and if economists are going to understand the economy, they need to understand that and the fact that the economy is a complex adaptive system that cannot really be understood in a reductionist fashion.

  5. Troy,

    I don’t think Gene was ever saying that only history matters and I don’t think I ever suggested he did. But I suppose there may be some fluidity in his position. That’s par for the course in blogosphere isn’t it? I get the impression that Gene is working something out that might be pretty clear in his head, but not yet so very clear that he can deliver the message unambiguously to the rest of us. There most certainly is an issue about general vs. concrete, so I think Gene is reflecting on a worthy topic.

    I don’t think I understand the idea that math is “reductionist,” nor do I usually associate math with postmodernism. Isn’t complexity a kind of math of emergence? And doesn’t the Sokal hoax show that most postmoderns are not very mathy?

  6. Koppl,

    That’s why I said that it was what it seemed he was saying in his apparent attack on abstraction in the previous posting, and that this posting really clarified his point. Also, note I never said you said that. I’m not sure where you got that from what I wrote.

    I agree that Gene is reflecting on a worthy topic. It’s worth putting out there even in incomplete form — but when something is put out there in such a form, it calls out for others to ask for real clarification, which includes people saying, “It seems to me that this is what you are saying.” If that’s not what you meant, the proper thing to do is what Gene has done in this posting, following up and trying to clarify his ideas and think them through some more. The improper thing to do is to take things personally, to engage in ad hominem attacks on people you don’t know who are only interested in rational discourse and clarity of argument, and to try to “prove” that you were really making a good argument by pointing to the bad argument. I’m glad Gene moved on from that and decided to actually think about things and clarify his position.

    Now, let me clarify what I said earlier, as it seems I may have made myself unclear. I didn’t say that math was postmodern. But math is unquestionably reductionist. Let me address this point first. The only level of reality that can be completely described using mathematics is the level of physics — to which one could add chemistry. Beyond chemistry, the mathematics one increasingly has to use is statistical — though complexity mathematics can also model certain processes. Of course, a model is not the same thing as reality. It is like a map insofar as it necessarily removes a lot of details, thus removing the historicity of the actual system being modeled. I believe this is the kind of thing Gene is thinking about in regards to abstraction (Gene — let me know if I’m wrong about this and where I’m going wrong if I am). The problem with mathematics is not with math per se but with the fact that too many people begin to mistake the models for reality. After all, the mathematical models are so much clearer, cleaner, nicer than reality in its full complexity. In this sense, too, there is a difference between complexity mathematics and complexity as reality. Complexity math gives us models that allow us to understand how certain kinds of systems work under certain ideal conditions, but in the end they only give us an idea, and not the full reality (and the math of emergence is catastrophe theory, not complexity theory — though the two aren’t unrelated). More than that, as Wolfram observed, with complex systems, we have evolution over time and, even if such a system were completely mathematically deterministic, one could never use math to predict its outcome, because it would take longer to do the math than to just wait to see what happens. Please note, too, that that is with the assumptions of a compeltely mathematically deterministic universe — and there’s some good evidence that the universe isn’t like that. There’s all kinds of uncertainty and contingency involved.

    Now, please note that I said that in addition to the simplifying tendency of mathematics — the tendency to reduce things to the simplest kinds of relationships which can be handled by the math we currently have — we also have the problem of postmodernism. This is in addition to the problems created by the overreliance on math. Less problematic in economics is anti-epistemology (as the overreliance on math demosntrates, with its tendency to make everyone think they know more than they can possibly know) than historicism (the belief that we can learn nothing about what is happening now by knowing economic hsitory — how many econ history classes are taught in econ departments?) and antitheory (something ironically exacerbated by the overreliance on math, with people thinking it models things in some sort of objective way, and certainly created with historicism).

    As for the Sokal hoax, it showed the postmodernists aren’t very science-y (part of their anti-epistemological stance). More, they use their particualr misunderstandings of what science has discovered to “prove” their points. An example is their argument that Einstein’s theory of relativism proves ethical relativism. The two are as unrelated as any two things could be. More, Einstein’s theory of relativity isn’t actually a theory of relativity, but of constancy — the speed of light remains constant no matter how fast you are going. So your relative speed doesn’t matter as far as the actual speed of light is concerned — it just affects wavelength. And none of this has anything to do with ethics. That’s what the Sokal hoax proved: that the postmodernists didn’t even begin to understand science, and didn’t care to.

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