abstraction (intellectualism) The use of conceptual ideas to discuss and codify a topic as part of everyday language and writing, and as the basis for theological, philosophical, intellectual methodologies with the use of abstraction as part of a formalised mode of language which is broadly known as intellectual thought within what has been labelled Western Civilisation or Western Thought, which is centred on latinate, Judeo-Christian culture. Abstraction is a general function of language and thinking, but it can also be foregrounded and isolated as a specific use of language and thought: abstraction as intellectual thought privileges a certain type of thought and the claim to knowledge given to ‘ideas’ is part of this privilege.
Additionally, in terms of cultural production, predominantly in contemporary fine art and to some extent in modern literature, the use and the meaning of abstraction has been extended to identify aesthetic forms which are non-representational, often based on specific conceptual theories and so intentionally non-realist and 'ideas based'. This is abstract art in modernism, postmodernism, although abstraction is present in the cultural production of all societies to different degrees. The foregrounding of abstraction in contemporary art being a particular historical and cultural phase which has been linked to the collapse of social structures, their ideological coherence and their shared narratives.
Narrative in contrast to abstraction is representational, it tells and shows things, representing things as part of the action of a story: so narrative forms do not produce or function as abstractions, except in so far as they offer representations of abstraction with the narration of a story. Abstraction can be contrasted to narrative and in doing this it shows how narrative and abstraction work in crucially different ways to codify and describe reality, existence.
As a clarification, the narration of a story in drama or prose can include statements of abstraction, statements that deal with abstract ideas, but the events, the plot and action of a narrative can be stated without abstraction, and conversely, abstract discourse takes places without the need for representation or story: abstraction is about ideas not things.
To consider how abstraction functions in language and how it structures understanding and knowledge one can consider the types and usage of nouns. There are empirical based nouns which identify actual things. A Proper Noun identifies and names a particular person or thing: Sarah and Sarah’s Tree. A Concrete Noun is a specific thing, singular or definitive: A Tree, The Tree. The specificity of nouns begins to move from a particular thing toward abstraction because a Collective Noun is a group of specific things, or it is the concept that gathers and codifies things: There are six trees, is a specific empirical statement, while the statement, oaks, pines, ash and birch are all trees, has an abstract aspect as it groups several different growing organisms under the concept of, the idea of trees. Similarly Common Nouns, name things specifically or in general: country, bridge, home, can be specific things, a home, the home, or the idea of home. Count and Mass Nouns, identify the number of things rather than the type, the idea of the things: the cohort, the team, the parliament: here there is an abstract concept, a team, but there is the number, related to the number of participants of the team: the football team with eleven team members on the field. Abstract nouns are concerned only with ideas: freedom, truth, happiness. Nouns in their meaning move between the concrete and the abstract.
What this outline of the usage of noun illustrates is that language moves between what this understood as an external thing and the abstract idea of what a thing is and how things are. In doing this, in using the different formations of nouns, thought and cognition shifts between naming things and understanding things as ideas. In contrast, story in the sense that it offers and presents a reality of things describes without reference to abstraction: the dog ran down the road. This statement needs an understanding of the concrete nouns dog and road, to comprehend the statement, so the statement is narrative and not abstract, it does not discuss what a dog is or what a road is. In everyday life, in our speech and thinking we often do not consider if we are thinking or speaking abstractly, or concretely, so that there is a mixture of these different kinds of statements, and we are effectively shifting between different types of thought. Given these circumstances, one can ask why are there are these different modes of thought and language and what is their purpose and function?
To consider this issue one can view language and thought as shifting between inductive and deductive reasoning, a process of defining, testing and validating experience and knowledge through what is known as rational thought. The caution here is that rational thought is given a privileged status in many societies, but this privilege is historically constructed: what might be labelled as irrational thought, can be highly regarded in societies. In relation to induction and deduction, inductive logic takes account of a number of factors to construct a category or principle: the move is toward a generalised understanding, an abstraction: I’ve never waited more than 15 minutes for a number 19 bus to arrive, so that the number 19 bus must be scheduled to run every 15 minutes, it’s a regular bus service. The last statement is an abstraction, its placing a quality, an idea on how the bus service runs, it’s regular, and this sets a principle and truth for this bus service which might or might not be true in actuality. Deductive logic starts from the abstract principle, the idea and then moves to the particular and specific: The bus company schedules the buses to run regularly, and I never have to wait for more than 15 minutes for a bus, so the schedule is actually working. Here the abstract principle, regularly, is tested by the actuality, the circumstances of how the buses run.
The process of induction and deduction indicates the functioning of narrative. The abstract idea is an effectively static, regular is an idea, it’s a concept, it sets a principle and understanding but the narrative, the reality sets, tests and develops this idea. So, narrative has the function of confirming understandings and also challenging them, but not on the basis of intellectual argument, but on the basis of events. Storytelling would not be recognised as part of an explicit inductive, deductive process, but it is. We confirm our general understandings through our experience. To note: story here is not limited to character based story with a plotted formal narrative, but story as a depiction of a spatial and temporal event where things exist and events happen: all forms of story, narrativity, not just mimetic drama.
In the field of philosophy and theology, and identified more broadly as the history of ideas, story has not been included as a central component and in a dictionary of philosophy the entries will be concepts, such as empiricism, rationality, logic, and also the ideas of philosophers and how these interconnect: a philosophical dictionary won’t include dramatists, or novelists, or screenwriters. This separating out of story, discarding it as essential to thought and as key to the cognition and the understanding of lived experience, with abstraction being given a special status should seem very odd, but it is the practice of Western Thought which has been in place for over two millennia, and the reasoning for separating out story was made at the start of what came to be identified as philosophical thinking.
The privileging of ideas, the understanding that abstract thinking has a sophistication and a superiority over narrative and the division between ideas and story can be exemplified and shown historically in differences between the philosophers Socrates (470-399 BC) and Aristotle (384-322). Socratic thought as practised by Socrates and as postulated and used by Plato (424-347 BC) values discourse, the discussion of ideas and in this context story is understood to be a fabrication, a form that incorporates falsehood and illusion, so having little philosophical value, story does not locate truth. So, Socratic Thought is presented in the form of dialogues, questions and answers, not in the form of mimetic narratives. Plato in the Poetics (335 BC) considers the social function of stories with mimesis, mimicking reproducing life, being a key part of learning and understanding, because we learn from seeing, gaining understanding and knowledge from the imitation of life: the representation of life the daily events and in the representation of events is how we learn, so stories have essential value: they tell us about ourselves and our existence. However, the Socratic view splits abstract thinking from storytelling and this view and practice is one that can be recognised as current and forceful today because the Socratic method dominates, in philosophy, in teaching and in contemporary humanities and other fields of education. Here a question is asked to begin the teaching: what is virtue? And the search is to establish principles of virtue. This Socratic posing of a question as the basis for teaching and learning sets out the search for an abstraction, to define virtue, abstractly and in this context story becomes not parallel or part of this process, but merely examples: showing virtue or the failure of virtue.
What shaped early philosophy is the subject and the problem of how to structure a complex society and the principles by which such a society should function, Plato’s The Republic (375 BC) being an example of this scheme and process. What is foregrounded in this is the use of ideas to try and define how things should, abstractly, be rather than objectively observing things, studying events and then codifying them into empirical categories. The early philosophers and those that followed grant this type of abstract thinking a morality because it has a social purpose: philosophy has a goodness. In this scheme philosophy connects to the idea of truth, to ideals, to correct thinking, but this is because of the use it is put to. Plato's view being that that there are ideals, universals that can be revealed and understood, so philosophy actual does embody and present truth and correct knowledge, which then in turns allows for those who understand and carry this knowledge to define and rule their society.
Philosophy, ideas, covers many areas of thought, but what has happened broadly in terms of understanding thinking, how we understand what thinking is, since the foundations of Socratic Thought is thought as a form of codification is now divided into different types: Theology is understood to be thinking where there is a God, ideas must confirm this and religious principles are set for society by this: theology does not require ‘rational’ thought, because we know there is a God and all things stem from this: when we understand God’s plan and God’s world we know what we should do and what we should try to be. Moving forward to more recent times, from the beginning of the Enlightenment in the 18th Century, philosophy develops as a distinct field from theology, with philosophy allowing for secularism, and centring on the idea of man/person/figure as central to thought and rational thought being the foundation of ideas: the key areas of philosophy being ethics and morality, how civil society should be structured, with epistemology being what can be known and ontology being how things are. All of these areas foreground abstraction, giving ideas value, and the fields that are separate to this are effectively empirical, based on evidence, with History based on facts, and science based on observing and testing to prove a theory, which should not be considered an abstraction, but empiricism. Of course these aspects, fields of knowledge are not entirely separate in their history and practice, there are speculations in science, and philosophy can call on scientific theory, psychology, linguistics, sociology, to develop and discuss philosophical principles, but what is clearly set outside of these fields, which is not generally considered to be knowledge based on principles is story. The complexity of actual events and the unending process of events, the mind’s ability to create narratives from events and imaginatively create events, are counter to the neatness of abstraction and story is not limited by scientific testing or historical fact: in an abstraction one can make a general statement about what a person is or what a person should do, but no story is definitive and another story can be made: stories are endless. It’s possible to make an abstract statement such as, all men are created equal, and then to try and hold this principle as a reality as an idea and to try and make this statement true in a society, but story challenges this, stories being told until a principle becomes confused and changed. For this reason story is kept at a distance from ideas.
So, in Western societies story is separated from abstraction and the key reason that validates the higher ranking of philosophy, ideas, is that in order for a society to function it requires some system of obedience: a set doctrine or a set of shared and accepted values and principles: these can be religious doctrine, political doctrine with set principles that call and command obedience or democratic doctrine that offers shared principles that the people are meant to accept as citizens in shared society. Fundamentally, without any system of principles, there can be no social coherence and no clear purpose to a society: as key founders of philosophical thinking, Socrates, Aristotle and Plato were all concerned with the social principles of ethics and morals which would define and dictate how a society operates because that was the issue for the city states in which they lived. In their case abstraction enabled structures to be built based on ideas, and these structured political systems, systems of justice, systems of citizenship and definitions of personhood. As a result abstract thought is an essential factor of society, while narrative can either confirm a social model, showing right behaviour or more problematically narratives can undermine social principles on the basis of their deductive capacity: if a society, social law says that stealing is bad, but a story illustrates how stealing makes someone wealthy and happy then the principle of honesty in society is undermined.
As a contradiction, with stories being excluded from abstract thinking, but actually being necessary, and what is always true is that at some point abstraction, the validity of the idea needs to be considered in relation to actuality. Abstract nouns such a freedom, truth, fairness, justice can be defined abstractly as concepts, but at some point they must connect with reality and what actually happens. So, narrative has an essential social function: it shows things, it offers models of conformity and belonging, it indicates social failing, it offers a rhetoric for social stability and also for social change. This is why narratives are present in society and shared and also why they are separated from abstraction.
To offer a final consideration of abstraction in thought and language and how it functions, the concepts of Logical Positivism states that there are only two valid types of statements and all others are nonsensical. There are analytical statements, which are true in themselves: red is a colour, and this statement needs no external evidence for it to be valid. While synthetic statements require empirical validation: the statement London buses are red, requires confirmation in the world. So, synthetic statements are abstract they propose an idea, a state of things, but analytical statements are subject to proof, and this is where reality connects to thought. Narratives represent a reality and they are an extension, a form of synthetic statement: a story can be true or false, real or fake, real or imagined and this is a necessary counterpart to the abstraction of analytical statements where these kinds of statements are only true in themselves: democracy belongs to everyone. Abstraction presents ideas, often ideals, but they do not represent reality.
Narrative examples behaviour, action, and a story is a particular set of events, and this uniqueness can be a challenge to social conformity, with narratives offering how things should be, are meant to be and how they actually are. In society narratives are treated with suspicion, their production and distribution being controlled and regulated through legal sanction, through the discourse of taste, with reviewers, critics, audiences judging narratives by moral and aesthetic criteria: validating or denying a narrative. Abstraction, intellect thought is given a privileged status because of its regulatory function in setting principles. Narrative is subject to control: only certain stories are accepted and believed.
A final difference between abstraction and narrative in its social use, is that abstraction is taught as a special social and political skill so that people can become legislators and rulers. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle were all concerned with rhetoric: the training of future leaders who would succeed in their arguments, their wisdom and knowledge being learned, so that they could rule, and Plato with the idea of The Philosopher King, in offering a wise ruler as the best model for a society, sets an ideal for ruling. Abstraction is about ideas, but then ideas are formed into a set of rules and beliefs, into an ideology, and this is carried forward and held in place by a ruling and educated class through the use of abstraction as a controlling system: they are wise and knowing, because wise rulers know what freedom means, what honesty means, giving abstract thought a social power. Story in contrast to the intellectualism of idea is shared: to tell a story, for a story to be a story, it needs to communicate to the listener, to the audience and as a consequence narratives are socially relegated to a lower social position: it’s only a story, that’s your story, everyone has their own story. Stories have a populism, and to be carried have to relate to people’s actual experience, and stories can state what is happening or what people want to happen. In an attempt to deny people access to stories, to devalue narratives, to label narratives good or bad, there’s an impetus to create higher forms of storytelling: literature as opposed to folk and popular culture, and abstraction in art, drama and poetry rather than realism and narrativity in art, but stories will always be wanted because they tell us things about the world, because ideas are only abstract, and stories are needed to test and consider abstraction.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019