The Problem with Abstract Concepts

One person gets a mark of 50% on an examination, while a second person receives 100% on the same test. If we apply a simple statistical method to these two scores, we find their average to be 75%.  So, what ‘averaging’ has done is reduce our knowledge about these two individuals, where one did poorly and the other perfectly.  Such an understanding suggests we have lost more information than we have gained when we depend upon averages.  Understanding ‘average,’ then, begins to inform us of the nature of all abstract constructs. 

Let’s look at another example of an abstract construct.  Regarding race, ‘black’ turns into an abstract construct (where precision is lost), since people of any color vary widely from each other as to their skin tone.  As well, being white consists of a variety of shades, including shades that could pass for black or for white.  Things get more complicated when race no longer refers strictly to skin color, so that a black person can be white in their attitudes, thus turning them less black, according to some.  This happens when the real attitudes of blacks do not match the attitudes blacks are supposed to have.  For example, blacks must hate the police to be properly black, according to many whites and blacks, but frequently when blacks are asked if they hate the police, a surprising number do not agree to hate them and want their continued service in their communities.  And a white person can turn blacker if he possesses the right black attitudes.  How disorienting!  So, after a brief discussion and a bit of reasoning, we may have to conclude that for some people, being properly black means supporting eternal Marxist Revolution and has nothing at all to do with skin color.

This observation about rigid categories breaking down under close scrutiny regarding skin color applies to all abstract constructions.  For example, ‘war’ can be economic, cyber, kinetic, or philosophical.  Therefore, one must be careful when using ‘war’ in a sentence because information has already been lost as to what type of war we are referencing.  To correct this problem, we must begin to depend upon adjective-like phrases such as ‘cyberwar.’

We can now see that using abstract constructs has serious negative consequences, degrading communication sometimes to the point of unintelligibility.  This unintelligibility becomes particularly severe when a sentence contains only abstract constructs that refer to each other without grounding in concrete referents.  Publicly calling someone ‘racist,’ which is a terribly broad abstraction and can instantly ruin their lives, causing the object of the epithet to lose his job and leading to his being cancelled, a term which is not entirely abstract, because it has concrete and measurable effects.

An alternative form of discourse is that which is found in the Talmud, completely foreign to most people.  Those who engage in its study can spend hours, days, or weeks studying a single page, because nothing is taken for granted in terms of word definitions.  Words’ various shades of meaning are rarely, if ever, left at an abstract level.  For example, in the Talmud, ‘theft’ can be either surreptitious or at the point of a weapon.  In American English, it is the difference between being defrauded and mugged.  However, in studying the Talmud, we are continuously forced to claw back meaning before proceeding.  This process becomes a lifetime endeavor that reaches into everyday life even when the Talmud volume is closed.

At the university level, students used to engage in reasoning, but less so today.  We are told that such processes do not serve society.  Yet, thinking about this kind of rigorous thought process suggests the opposite.  Close reasoning prevents the dismissal of important information.  Much of the time ‘average’ will not do if we are seeking knowledge.

More importantly, the brain of an individual exposed to close reasoning must be and is in fact different from someone who depends on ill-defined or forever undulating abstract constructs.  When we fail to engage in close reasoning, meaning escapes us, causing reliance on emotion in making decisions.  I, for one, never want to hear my doctor say things like, “It’s your choice.  We can give you this medicine, just cut the whole thing out, or do nothing.”  ‘Choice’ should be based upon knowledge, not an ordinary person’s ignorance.  In this instance, ‘choice’ needs a warning sign printed on it, because, as an abstract construct, it can take on any meaning someone might wish to assign to it.

We cannot bury abstract constructs because they are the basis of our poetry, visual perceptions, humor, sarcasm, etc.  But abstract constructs begin to mislead at the precise moment they are placed on paper or leave someone’s mouth.  The world remains the same no matter how we misunderstand it.  Only our fate as individuals and groups changes depending upon what we emphasize.  We need to be so careful with how we describe the world, because our framing of the questions we ask determines the answers we get.

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