A note on the abstract and the concrete

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In conversations I often am presented with the view that while philosophy may have its merits, it fails to be ‘concrete’. The tacit claim is that the realm of the abstract is, more or less, useful only for contributing to the betterment of one’s moral or spiritual life; and that, therefore, philosophy is of little to no use in addressing tangible issues. In this post I shall outline my view on the matter, to suggest that practical action is at its best when it can grasp and incorporate in its methods the abstract structure of the things it deals with.

As humans we possess faculties of sense and thought that allow us to experience and interpret information about what we perceive as reality. In using our senses we behold a range of phenomena in the way in which they appear to us. Through the senses we come to recognise material objects and the properties peculiar to them.

With the faculty of the intellect we can trace and identify features that are to be found in the world, yet which are not disclosable to the senses. All the information that is perceived about an object — which amounts to the thought of that object — is not the object in itself. In other words, the object of sense and the experience or information derived from our encounter with it are two different magnitudes that must not be conflated. When one thinks of “planet Mars” one does not necessarily sense “planet Mars”.

The distinction between objects of sense and objects of thought is not an idle and pedantic one. It is useful in appreciating the role of the thinkable in the comprehension, the interpretation of the world. Through intelligence human can conceive and study the relations between things; relations that may be purely conceptual and, hence, abstract.

Our senses can furnish information about all that is specific to objects. Our intellect can then identify what is common in the multitude of appearances among those specificities, so as to establish order and hierarchy between the concepts derived therefrom.

“What is an apple?” is as much a matter of concreteness as it is of abstraction. It should be stressed that “apple” is a word that corresponds to a concept _not an object of sense (though it may be utilised to _denote an object of sense). A concept is a degree of abstraction from that which is sensible, for it encapsulates the commonalities while factoring out the particularities.

For sense to be independent from — or devoid of — the thinkable, it will have to directly experience the object as is in its very material constitution, which would, among others, imply the impossibility _of referring to “apple” _as such.

The scientist who will venture to study “apple” will apply a certain methodology which was conceived with the faculties of sense and the intellect working in tandem and which features several elements that are derivable from intelligence.

For the scientist to recognise that “apple” is indeed an abstraction derived from the study of objects that feature commonalities among them, is a matter beyond concreteness. It is, nonetheless, what permits one to speak of “apple”, while having experienced such variations in colour, size, feel, smell and taste in all objects that feature a pattern of common properties that are attributable to the abstraction “apple”.

Similar for the web developer who comprehends such abstract objects as “post types”, “taxonomies”, “functions”, “arrays”, “object-oriented programming” etc. and who knows how to make best use of them in building a website or application that ‘works’.

Or consider the engineer, who will not randomly assemble some pieces of metal, plastic or other fabric into an internal combustion engine; but who will rather rely on their grasp of mathematics (which are abstract) to do diligent and precise work in dealing with such magnitudes as the distance the piston will cover, the cubic capacity of the cylinder, the flexibility of the reed valves, the pressure in the exhaust pipe etc. The engineer will indeed produce something that ‘works’ and it will be also thanks to their reliance on certain intelligible objects.

The list of examples can go on if one wishes to be enumerative, though the point is already made. In recognising the fact that no real contradiction between the concrete and the abstract exists, they are not hampered in their effort to conduct their work. On the contrary, they are empowered. They are provided with invaluable insight to issues that were otherwise obscure; an insight that can always be used to expand the scope of their study/industry and, hence, contribute to the comprehensiveness of the data/knowledge to be gathered/applied.

Do the above imply that every philosophical/abstract claim ought to be incorporated in one way or another to matters of concreteness? No, not necessarily. Nor do the aforementioned suggest that every statement that deals with abstractions is always sound or useful. A claim of such a sort would be presumptuous and erroneous, for there are and can be philosophies/theories that are specious.

What is ultimately and solely suggested here, is that there is no intrinsic antinomy between the abstract and the concrete; that the two are complementary to our inquiry into the world. It would be a critical misrecognition to cavalierly dismiss the potential usefulness of the abstract; and, moreover, it is a matter of conducting proper research into the ‘real’ world to seek to achieve clarity of concept and to comprehend the factors that can enable precision of statement.

Against this backdrop, the final purpose of philosophy is not to foster confusion by posing questions aloof from the fray and by delving into some seemingly ‘otherworldly’ realm of the abstract. It rather is to explore areas of research germane to concrete issues that may have not been adequately considered; and, in subjecting them to thoroughgoing examination and painstaking scrutiny, to sort out the genuine conceptions from the darling follies.

As such, instead of juxtaposing the concrete to the abstract, erecting impregnable barriers between the two; let us adopt a more dubitative, eclectic and qualitative approach that weeds out what is a hindrance to our operations, what engenders confusion and obfuscates our subject matter. It is in that respect that we may overcome such ostensible tension between our faculties — a tension brought by certain misunderstandings — and it is in doing so that we may become more comprehending in the process.