Abstraction, An idea or generalisation (animal – mammal – humanity) of related particulars (Bill, Bob, Jane, Judy)
The process of moving from particular objects (a specific rock, person, tree, dog) to generalized categories (humanity, dogs, inanimate objects, being) or properties (red, green; largeness, smallness). In other words, moving from sensible (concrete) objects or events to mental (abstract) ideas.
Whether or not we are aware of it—even if we are utterly opposed to it—we all use abstraction in everyday life. Every time we identify that dog as a pug or that oak as a tree, we are involved in some level of abstract thought.
But what is the value of abstraction, and to what extent is it useful? Have you ever had a conversation that ended in “that is just too abstract!” On the one hand, there are many today—and in the history of philosophy—who have thought that abstract thinking is unnecessary. Yet many philosophers have identified abstract thinking as the very essence of intelligent thought.
I think that neither of these extremes is appropriate. To the contrary, abstraction properly conceived is a necessary tool in coming to true knowledge of God and His created world. If we want to think intelligently in this world, we need to use abstract thought. Yet if we want to think faithfully, we must think abstractly in the biblical sense and not in the sense of non-Christian philosophy. In this first article, I want to look at non-Christian abstraction and its problems. In the next article, we will look at a Biblical view of abstraction.
Abstract Vs Concrete Thinking
In non-Christian philosophy, abstract thinking is set in opposition to concrete thinking. Concrete thought is concerned with the particular objects of our experience. It is not interested in knowing what “dogs” are like; it wants to know what Fido is like. Instead of studying anthropology, concrete thought wants to know about John, an individual human.
Abstract thought, in contrast, is concerned with general categories that encompass particular objects. Fido is only of interest to the abstract thinker in as much as he sheds light on “dogs.” John is only important in as much as he reveals something about “humanity.”
For the early Greek Philosophers, abstract knowledge was the only thing that truly qualified as knowledge. For Plato and Aristotle, Fido or the oak tree out your front door do not matter. They are not objects of knowledge. True knowledge is of “dogness” (that essential element that defines a dog) or “treeness.” In this sense of abstract thought, the differentiating features of particular objects or persons (size, height, colour, pattern, behaviour, personality, history) are not objects of knowledge. Instead, abstract thought focuses on the unity of objects; true knowledge is of irreducible essence of a human being, a dog, or a tree. To truly know something is to know the essence, that without which it ceases to be (what is the characteristic that if taken way would disqualify a person from being human or a dog from being a dog?).
Abstraction and the Possibility of Knowledge
Why in the world, you may be asking yourself, would someone define knowledge in this way? Abstraction in this non-Christian sense, if possible, allows humanity to have completely autonomous knowledge of everything. That is, if true knowledge is found in abstracting the irreducible essence of things, it follows that eventually you will arrive at true knowledge of everything. But if true knowledge is of particular objects, we are doomed to know almost nothing!
Think about it. How many objects have you encountered in your life? How many objects are there in the universe? If true knowledge is only of things we experience, we really do not know much at all. Moreover, we do not know how unknown objects might influence the objects we do know! What if there is a being just beyond our experience that interacts constantly with every object of our experience? In this case, we really don’t know the objects of our experience, for we don’t know anything about this essential influence that contributes to their particular existence. To know anything rightly, you must know everything; only by knowing everything can you be confident that your knowledge of any one thing is correct. If to know something you need to know everything, then no human being on their own (apart from revelation from a being who knows everything) can know anything.
The Result of Non-Christian Abstraction
Therefore, if you want to know anything apart from revelation—if you want to reason autonomously—you must hold to abstract thought. You must believe that you can know everything without knowing every particular thing. “It certainly seemed,” for the Greeks, “that abstraction was the royal road to knowledge, even knowledge of concrete realities” (John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 173). But once we have followed abstract thought to its end—abstract knowledge of everything—what is the knowledge that we have obtained?
What, we may ask, unifies “dogs” and “man?” They are both “animals” in opposition to plants and insects. But plants, insects and animals have in common “life.” They are all living things. These have in common with certain materials an “organic” nature, so they are all organic things. With inorganic things, they are all potential objects of our experience. Like our own thoughts, objects of experience can be predicated with the attribute “existence.” In this way, some philosophers say we have arrived at that category that describes all things, “being.” If we know “being,” we know everything.
Yet what is our knowledge of this “being?” If it is the bare unity that describes my ideas, rocks, gases, stars, planets, lizards, amoebae, and humans, what do we really know about it? If your thought of “being” contains any “beings” (a rock, element, idea, person, etc.) then you are not thinking abstractly enough! Our knowledge of being cannot be of any being and cannot have any descriptive characteristics (colour, height, width, location, etc.). It is, essentially, nothing. As the philosopher Hegel once observed, we cannot distinguish being from non-being! Our ultimate abstract knowledge of everything is the knowledge of nothing. In this way, abstract knowledge yields absolutely no knowledge at all. But as we observed above, concrete thought does not get us much farther. If our knowledge is purely of particular things, and we have no help from God, we cannot know anything at all.
Of course, it is obvious at this point that God’s revelation helps us in one sense. Yet the underlying problems with non-Christian abstraction and concretism are not solved by the addition of God’s revelation. Instead, God’s revelation in the Bible requires us to reconsider the nature of abstract and concrete thinking. This will be our endeavour in the second article in this series.
Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash