Abstract / Concrete

Short                          -                       Long
Concrete                    -                      Abstract
Pragmatic                   -                      Ideal
Narrow                       -                      Wide
Small                          -                      Large
Separate                      -                      Unified
Many                           -                      One
Close                           -                      Distant
Specific                       -                      General
Fixed                             -                     Loose
Matter                         -                      Patterns
Part                              -                      Whole
Individual                    -                     Collective
Analogue                   -                       Digital
Deduction                    -                     Induction
Differentiation             -                     Integration
Analysis                       -                     Synthesis
Destruction                  -                     Creation 
Chaos                           -                     Order
Low                              -                     High
Hot                               -                     Cold
Body                             -                     Mind

At the top of the pyramid things appear to be still, an illusion. At the bottom we can see that they are moving, changing.

Top: no change
Bottom: all change

Thus, we find god at both extremes: above, and below.

Abstraction is the process by which we focus on the underlying constructs of data. As Boisot (1998) admirably demonstrates, the process of abstraction is focused on concepts, not percepts.

Percepts, “...achieve their economies by maintaining a certain clarity and distinction between categories, concepts do so by revealing which categories are likely to be relevant to the data- processing task” or information creation.

“Abstraction, in effect, is a form of reductionism; it works by letting the few stand for the many”.

[Dave Snowden]
'Cynefin, A Sense of Time and Place: an Ecological Approach to Sense Making and Learning in Formal and Informal Communities'

[...] the mind of limited capacity can survey the few and simple relations that lie within the range of its narrow sphere of action, and can handle the levers of these with much greater ease than the eminent mind could. Such a mind takes in an incomparably greater and richer sphere and works with long levers.

Thus the insect sees everything on its little stem and leaf with the most minute accuracy and better than we can; but it is not aware of a man who stands three yards from it.

On this rests the slyness of the dull and stupid, and this paradox: "There is a mystery in the minds of those who have none."

For practical life genius is about as useful as an astronomer's telescope is in a theatre.

[...] For the intellect is a differentiating, and consequently separating, principle. Its different gradations, much more even than those of mere culture, give everyone different concepts, in consequence of which everyone lives to a certain extent in a different world, in which he meets directly only his equals in rank, but can attempt to call to the rest and make himself intelligible to them only from a distance.

Great differences in the degree, and thus the development, of the understanding open a wide gulf between one man and another, which can be crossed only by kindness of heart. This, on the other hand, is the unifying principle that identifies everyone else with one's own self.

The connexion, however, remains a moral one; it cannot become intellectual.

[Arthur Schopenhauer]
The World as Will and Representation, Volume II, p.145-6

Mice live all their lives next to the ground, building their nests and gathering their food among the roots of the tall grass and bushes of the prairie. Because of this, Mice never see things at a distance.

Everything they can see is right in front of them, where they can sniff at it with their noses and Touch it with their whiskers.  Their lives are spent in Touching things in this way, and in gathering seeds and berries to eat.

A Mouse Person would be one who saw everything close up, and whose vision would be limited to the immediate world around him.  

He would be a gatherer of things.  He might gather facts, information, material objects, or even ideas.  But because he could not see far enough to connect to his world with that of the great prairie of the world around him, he would never be able to use or understand all that he saw or gathered.

[Hyemeyohsts Storm]
Seven Arrows, p. 7-8

It is difficult for an adversary to see further than the dichotomy between winning and losing in the adversarial combat. Like a chess player, he is always tempted to make a tricky move, to get a quick victory.

The discipline, always to look for the best move on the board, is hard to attain and hard to maintain.

The player must have his eye always on a longer view, a larger gestalt.

[Gregory Bateson]
Mind and Nature, p. 239

Whether something is monolithic, binary, dialectical, or meaninglessly plural is a function of your distance from it.

When you're very close to something, all you can see is oneness, pure dominance by the thing of all others. For a baby, Mother's breast is the entire universe. For a fundamentalist, it's God.

When you're a bit further away, a tidy binary replaces oneness. There are men and there are women. There's East and there's West. This is the distance journalists live at. The world of journalism is always seeing small fluctuations in the relative positions of big, established binaries like these.

'Binary hopping' 

[...] it is clear what is the function to which Schiller attributes the highest value, divinity: it is the constancy of the idea of the ego.

The ego that abstracts itself from affectivity is for him the most important thing, consequently this is the idea he has differentiated most, as is the case with every introvert. His god, his highest value, is the abstraction and conservation of the ego.

For the extravert, on the contrary,  the god is the experience of the object, complete immersion in reality; hence a god who became man is more sympathetic to him than an eternal, immutable lawgiver.

From the abstracting attitude of consciousness, which in pursuit of its ideal makes an experience of every occurrence and from the sum of experience a law, a certain limitation and impoverishment result which are characteristic of the introvert.

[...] For the more the relation to the object is restricted by abstraction (because too many "experiences" and "laws" are made), the more insistently does a craving for the object develop in the unconscious, and this finally expresses itself in consciousness as a compulsive sensuous tie to the object.

[C. J. Jung]
Psychological Types, p. 91-3

[...] it should not be forgotten that, in the same measure as the conscious attitude may pride itself on a certain godlikeness by reason of its lofty and absolute standpoint, an unconscious attitude develops with a godlikeness oriented downwards to an archaic god whose nature is sensual and brutal.

[C. J. Jung]
Psychological Types, p.96

Human beings are capable of meta-abstraction: there’s the phenomena in and of itself - that complicated and multi-layered thing; and then there’s your representation of it - which is what you perceive, [and] is already abstracted, and limited, to a tremendous degree; and then there’s abstractions of that.

It seems to me that language is a thumbnail of images, that are a thumbnail of the reality of things. So if I say ‘cat’ to you, what the word does is produce the image of a generic cat - which is already a kind of abstraction - and then that’s attached to your understanding, so that you can generate the understanding that would go along, at least in part, with perceiving or interacting with a real cat.

So in some sense what I’m doing is compressing the information down to a tremendously low-resolution thumbnail, and then throwing that at you, and you decompress it into a low-resolution image, and then you decompress that into something that’s roughly equivalent to reality. That’s what you’re doing when you’re reading a book, for example. When you read the book you can conjure up images of the places that the author is talking about, and […] of the characters.

Intelligence in general seems to be whatever underlies the ability to generate those low-resolution representations, and to utilise them - to manipulate them in your mind [and] communicate them to others.

Your ability to abstract, and then your ability to manipulate those abstractions, seems to be at the core of whatever ‘intelligence’ is, and that’s what IQ purports to measure.

[Jordan B. Peterson]
'2015 Personality Lecture 18: Openness - Creativity & Intelligence'

Temple Grandin’s claim was that she cannot see ‘house,’ she can only see a house. So if you say to her something like ‘house’ then what comes to mind is a particular house that she’s actually experienced - she can’t take the next level of abstraction past that. [It] seems to be something like a deficit in generating a hieroglyphic image.

[Children] draw people with sticks and circles, [and it’s] unbelievably sophisticated - because those aren’t pictures, they’re hieroglyphics. The child automatically produces them, and that’s a proto-linguistic development. Some autistic kids can draw like Leonardo DaVinci, with no training whatsoever, and that’s partly because they don’t use hieroglyphics - they don’t really conceptualise the thing they’re looking at as an abstraction. They see nothing but detail.

If you’re training yourself to be a visual artist, you have to stop looking at the abstraction, and start looking at the thing. That’s very unsettling.

If you take your hand, for example, and you look at it, and you snap it out of ‘hand’ representation, it all of a sudden looks like some kind of octopus claw. And as soon as you see it that way, you can draw it. But as long as you’re seeing it like a ‘hand,’ you’re going to put a balloon, with four balloons on it, and that’s going to be the ‘hand.’

[Jordan B. Peterson]
'2015 Personality Lecture 18: Openness - Creativity & Intelligence'

In Barthes [...] criticism became what it has only rarely been, subjective and epicurean. Barthes wanted, especially in his last books, a sensuous relation to phenomena rather than an ethical discrimination of their qualities or consequences.

We can interpret pleasure as a more-or-less continuous satisfaction or, as in Barthes's writing, a momentary bliss: in his case it depends upon a savour, a glance, a phrase. In such epicurean forms it goes with the cult of the fragment, not the large-scale work but the sentence. Style appears as a flicker of eloquence; it accompanies the refusal to be great.

Judgement and discrimination are disavowed because they imply an aspiration to completeness which is distasteful to patricians. In judgement and discrimination the detail is chosen only for its representative force and never for the extractable pleasure it provides.

[Denis Donoghue]
The Arts Without Mystery, p. 125

People can identify a given action in many ways. Of particular interest is that act identifications vary in level of abstraction.

High-level identifications are abstract (e.g. becoming more cultured), lower-level identifications become more and more concrete (e.g. attending a ballet; listening to sounds and watching people move around while you sit quiet and still). Low-level identifications tend to convey a sense of "how" an activity is done; high-level ones tend to convey a sense of "why."

Although people drift upward and downward as circumstances change, there's also evidence that people differ in the levels they tend to maintain as they think about what they're doing. Some people report typically thinking of their actions in low-level terms; others typically think of their actions in high-level terms.

These differences are reflected in a variety of ways. For example, compared with high-level identifiers, low-level identifiers tend to be more impulsive and less planful or stable in their behaviour, consistent with the idea that they're especially vulnerable to cues implying different identifications.

[...] Emmons (1992) found evidence that people differ in levels of abstraction they characteristically use when reporting their personal strivings. Some people report strivings that are broad, abstract, and expansive. Others report strivings that are narrower, more concrete, and even superficial.

These tendencies are also reflected in moment-to-moment contruals of behaviours they're engaged in. When randomly paged and asked to report what they were doing, high-level strivers reported they were engaged in relatively high-level activities; low-level strivers reported they were engaged in relatively concrete actions.

[C.S. Carver & M.F. Scheier]
On the Self-Regulation of Behavior, p. 74-5, 79

A high-level identifier is akin to a frame, or a grand-narrative.

In the absence of high-level story, behaviour becomes more diverse. The story imposes sense on those things nested within it; it orders them, providing direction, or 'rules'; it erects boundaries and classes certain things as off-limits.

In its absence, anything goes.

God is the ultimate high-level identifier. For believers, everything takes place under the omniscient eye of a higher-power: no action goes unseen.

Another similarity between the Miller et al. (1960) statement and the Powers (1973a) model concerns the distinction between digital and analog processes and the idea that the two can work in concert within a system.

The Powers model is mostly analog in nature (i.e. both feedback and discrepancies are represented continuously and quantitatively). It deviates from that quality only at the program level, where behaviour is a digital process (i.e. a linear string of decisions).

In the same way, Miller et al. argued that "planning at the higher levels [equivalent to Powers's programs] looks like the sort of information-processing we see in digital computers, whereas the execution of the Plan at the lowest levels looks like the sort of process we see in analogue computers."

They went on to suggest that development of a skill is comparable to providing a digital-to-analog converter for the output of a digital machine. Thus, Miller et al. saw the two kinds of systems as compatible.

[C.S. Carver & M.F. Scheier]
On the Self-Regulation of Behavior, p. 76-7

The defining features of the human condition can all be traced to our ability to stand back from the world, from our selves and from the immediacy of experience. This enables us to plan, to think flexibly and inventively, and, in brief, to take control of the world around us rather than simply respond to it passively. This distance, this ability to rise above the world in which we live, has been made possible by the evolution of the frontal lobes.

To understand the landscape we need both to go out into the felt, lived world of experience as far as possible, along what one might think of as the horizontal axis, but also to rise above it, on the vertical axis.

To live headlong, at ground level, without being able to pause (stand outside the immediate push of time) and rise (in space) is to be like an animal; yet to float off up into the air is not to live at all - just to be a detached observing eye.

[Iain McGilchrist]
The Master and his Emissary, p. 21-2

Archaic                    -                     Being
Magic                      -                     Acting
Mythic                     -                     Images
Mental                     -                     Words

Under the assumption that we may so generalize, we suggest that many aboriginal cultures around the world represent (or approximate representing) the Other as a Firstness; in the Spenglerian tradition, and on analogy with such descriptives as Faustian and Apollinian, we choose to characterize such cultures as manifestations of the “Shamanic” soul, and to note that, for such cultures, the highest and most conspicuous art form is invariably dance, since it is the fleeting ecstasy of dance that most fully allows the artisan to approximate and to represent a state of Firstness.

[Steven Bonta]
'A Peircean typology of cultural prime symbols: Culture as category'

Aboriginals lived close to the unconscious realm, the realm of Dreaming, constantly dipping into it. Thanks to this proximity every (waking) thing was infused with unconsciousness, or 'dream consciousness.' The border between dream life and real life was permeable, ill-defined.

The sorites paradox (from Greek soros, a heap). Thought to have originated with Eubulides of Miletus (c. 350 BC).

If one grain of sand is not a heap, and at no stage adding one more grain of sand is going to make the difference between not being a heap and being a heap, how can it ever be that (by, for example, the time 100,000 grains are reached) a heap has come into being?

This results from believing that the whole is the sum of the parts, and can be reached by a sequential process of incrementation.

It tries to relate two things: a grain of sand and a heap, as though their relationship was transparent. It also presupposes that there must either be a heap or not be a heap at any one time: ‘either/or’ are your only alternatives. That is the left-hemisphere view, and sure enough it leads to paradox.

According to the right-hemisphere view, it is a matter of a shift in context, and the coming into being of a Gestalt, an entity which has imprecisely defined bounds, and is recognised whole: the heap comes into being gradually, and is a process, an evolving, changing ‘thing’ (this problem is related to the Growing Argument).

Failure to take into account context, inability to understand Gestalt forms, an inappropriate demand for precision where none can be found, an ignorance of process, which becomes a never-ending series of static moments: these are signs of left-hemisphere predominance.

[Iain McGilchrist]
The Master and his Emissary, p. 137-9

The essence of a sane mind, you may say, is to take shorter views, and to feel no concern about such chimeras as the latter end of the world.

Well, I can only say that if you say this, you do injustice to human nature. Religious melancholy is not disposed of by a simple flourish of the word insanity. The absolute things, the last things, the overlapping things, are the truly philosophic concerns; all superior minds feel seriously about them, and the mind with the shortest views is simply the mind of the more shallow man.

[William James]
'Some Metaphysical Problems', Pragmatism and Other Writings, p. 50-1

Elevated power increases the psychological distance one feels from others, and this distance, according to construal level theory (Y. Trope & N. Liberman, 2003), should lead to more abstract information processing.

Thus, high power should be associated with more abstract thinking—focusing on primary aspects of stimuli and detecting patterns and structure to extract the gist, as well as categorizing stimuli at a higher level—relative to low power. 

In 6 experiments involving both conceptual and perceptual tasks, priming high power led to more abstract processing than did priming low power, even when this led to worse performance. Experiment 7 revealed that in line with past neuropsychological research on abstract thinking, priming high power also led to greater relative right-hemispheric activation.

[Pamela Smith & Yaacov Trope]
'You focus on the forest when you’re in charge of the trees: Power priming and abstract information processing'

[...] learning to recognize and appreciate the domain of un-order is liberating, because we can stop applying methods designed for order and instead focus on legitimate methods that work well in un-ordered situations.

Tom Stewart references the case of a group of marines taken to the New York Mercantile Exchange in 1995 to be taught and to play with simulators of the trading environment. Naturally the traders won each time. But when the traders visited the Marine Corp’s base in Quantico and played war games against the marines, they won yet again.

What they realized is that the traders were skilled at spotting patterns and intervening to structure those patterns in their favor. The Marines, on the other hand, like most business school graduates, had been trained to collect and analyze data and then make rational decisions. In a dynamic and constantly changing environment, it is possible to pattern un-order but not to assume order.

In another case, a group of West Point graduates were asked to manage the playtime of a kindergarten as a final year assignment. The cruel thing is that they were given time to prepare. They planned; they rationally identified objectives; they determined backup and response plans. They then tried to “order” children’s play based on rational design principles, and, in consequence, achieved chaos.

They then observed what teachers do. Experienced teachers allow a degree of freedom at the start of the session, then intervene to stabilize desirable patterns and destabilize undesirable ones; and, when they are very clever, they seed the space so that the patterns they want are more likely to emerge.

In the ordered domain we focus on efficiency because the nature of systems is such that they are amenable to reductionist approaches to problem solving; the whole is the sum of the parts, and we achieve optimization of the system by optimization of the parts. 

In the domain of un-order, the whole is never the sum of the parts; every intervention is also a diagnostic, and every diagnostic an intervention; any act changes the nature of the system. As a result, we have to allow a degree of sub-optimal behavior of each of the components if the whole is to be optimized.

[Cynthia Kurtz & Dave Snowden]
'The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world'

Music and art come before language in human evolution, so human language evolves from abstractions. 

The evolutionary argument for this is it allows rapid exaptive thinking. The ability to rapidly repurpose things actually comes from abstraction. [You also] get higher empathy in abstraction than you do in the material.

Things like parable form stories for example provide better moral guidance than values or principles, partly because they define the negative not the positive. So an ability to understand or appreciate beauty is actually going to make you a much more effective decision-maker as a human than if you just confine yourself to material.

[Dave Snowden]
'EP11 Dave Snowden and Systems Thinking', Jim Rutt Show

Imagine reality as a series of stacked abstractions.

Let’s use an example: there is a factory floor level view of an assembly line with real parts and real workers, then there can be a process monitoring software abstraction of the same reality running on an operator’s computer screen, and then there can be a higher abstraction yet in the COO’s office where measurements from the real time process control software are aggregated.

Because the COO is looking from a higher plane of abstraction, he or she is likely to focus on weak signals that would only look like noise for the floor factory worker. 

Now I used a process control software analogy, but the same can be said about the mind. Some minds are sensitive to higher degrees of abstraction, and the more complex the environment, the higher the abstraction mental plane required.

Let me make one more point on abstraction and weak signals: the higher the abstraction, the weaker the signal! That is because higher abstractions operate at lower energy levels. In the factory floor example, it takes a lot less energy to run the software abstraction of the assembly line than the assembly line itself, and so, the higher abstraction means less brute force, more subtlety and thus less obvious signals.

This view of reality as a vertical series of stacked abstractions fits beautifully with the complexity which our brains and the world they function in share.

Emergence, the key ingredient of complexity, is precisely the mechanism that enables upward abstraction.

'Effective strategy in complex environments, or why a complex world requires abstract thinking'

In terms of psychotherapy, Grof found that the deepest source of psychological symptoms and distress reached back far past childhood traumas and biographical events to the experience of birth itself, intimately interwoven with the encounter with death. 

When successfully resolved, this experience tended to result in a dramatic disappearance of long-standing psychopathological problems, including conditions and symptoms that had proved entirely recalcitrant to previous therapeutic programs. 

I should emphasize here that this "perinatal" (surrounding birth) sequence of experiences typically took place on several levels at once, but it virtually always had an intense somatic component. 

The physical catharsis involved in reliving the birth trauma was extremely powerful, and clearly suggested the reason for the relative ineffectiveness of most psychoanalytic forms of therapy, which have been based largely on verbal interaction and by comparison seem scarcely to scratch the surface. The perinatal experiences that emerged in Grof's work were preverbal, cellular, elemental. They took place only when the ego's usual capacity for control had been overcome, either through the use of a catalytic psychoactive substance or therapeutic technique, or through the spontaneous force of the unconscious material.

Yet these experiences were also profoundly archetypal in character. Indeed, the encounter with this perinatal sequence constantly brought home to subjects a sense that nature itself, including the human body, was the repository and vessel of the archetypal, that nature's processes were archetypal processes an insight that both Freud and Jung had approached, but from opposite directions. 

[Richard Tarnas]
The Passion of the Western Mind, p. 427-8

Kohlberg's dilemmas, in the hypothetical abstraction of their presentation, divest the moral actors from the history and psychology of their individual lives and separate the moral problem from the social contingencies of its possible occurrence. 

In doing so, the dilemmas are useful for the distillation and refinement of the "objective principles of justice" toward which Kohlberg's stages strive. 

However, the reconstruction of the dilemma in its contextual particularity allows the understanding of cause and consequence which engages the compassion and tolerance considered by previous theorists to qualify the feminine sense of justice. 

Only when substance is given to the skeletal lives of hypothetical people is it possible to consider the social injustices which their moral problems may reflect and to imagine the individual suffering their occurrence may signify or their resolution engender.

[Carol Gilligan]
‘In a Different Voice’, Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 47, No. 4, p. 511-12

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