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.”