A Short Piece Featured In (Re)constructing “A is A” by O.G. Rose
On the Problem of Saying “That’s Abstract”
How we associate thinking with being “out of touch” and so absolve ourselves the responsibility.
Letters don’t have meaning, and yet words are made of letters. Letters are sounds, and sounds are more “concrete” than words, and yet letters don’t mean anything. Letters seem to be both “concrete” and “abstract,” and yet we tend to think of these as opposites, that where there’s concreteness, there won’t be abstraction. What’s going on?
It’s strange to think that letters can be more abstract and meaningless than words, seeing as sounds are more physical and “in the world” than the ideas which words point to (ideas which in turn point to phenomena — there’s a “double pointing”-action going on).¹ What we consider “abstract” seems to be relative to our ontology, and furthermore relative to what is meaningful to us. This is critical: we decide when we say, “that’s abstract” relative to the presence of meaning, not relative to the presence of concreteness (though we “think” otherwise). We claim our sense of abstractness is relative to our sense of concreteness, but that’s only because something that has meaning to us is something we consider concrete. In fact, something that’s utterly concrete to the point that no thinking is involved seems as abstract as Heidegger.
To allude to “On Thinking and Perceiving” by O.G. Rose, consider a bookcase without thinking about it. In other words, turn off your brain. Now, does this “thoughtless experience” of life feel concrete to you or abstract? Isn’t it kind of weird? In one sense, it’s radically concrete, and in another sense, it transcends what can be explained (after all, it’s devoid of thought). So, what do you think? Is the experience concrete or abstract? Sure, you may intellectually claim “it’s concrete,” seeing as you can reason there’s no thinking tainting your experience, but I think you’ll feel like the experience “is abstract.” And I’m the opinion that the word “abstract” more often than not refers to our feeling about something, as opposed to say us identifying that the “structure of an idea” matches with some agreed-upon standard that abstract ideas hold. We don’t declare something “is abstract” primarily because of a comparison but because of a feeling, and that feeling in my opinion is primarily the feeling that “I don’t understand.”
We associate “thinking” with “abstraction,” but really it’s the lack of understanding that is abstract to us. We tend to associate this with “thinking” because a lack of thinking is difficult for us to understand, but it is not primarily the thinking that is the source of the abstraction, but rather the lack of understanding. There are plenty of thoughts and ideas that aren’t abstract at all, such as “How was the grocery store?” or “How are you today?” These questions and the ideas behind them aren’t abstract at all, and yet they are matters and results of thinking.
We need to stop ourselves from the “knee-jerk” tendency to associate “thinking” with “abstraction.” Yes, there cannot be meaning where there isn’t thinking (as discussed throughout the work of O.G. Rose), but it is primarily our relationship to meaning, and our capacity to understand that meaning, that is the source of our feeling that something is abstract, not thinking alone. Yes, in the sense that “the thought of a cat” is ontologically distinct from “a cat,” a thought is abstract, but there is a critical difference between “ontological status” and “conceptual clarity.” Unfortunately, where there is “ontological abstraction,” we tend to assume there is also “conceptual abstraction,” and with “abstraction” associated popularly with “unnecessary complexity,” where thinking is present, there can be a quick dismissal. Arguably, this is the main problem: more than associating “thinking” with “abstraction,” it’s blurring “(ontological) abstraction” with “unnecessarily/impractical complexity.” Once this mistake is made, anything “different in kind (ontologically)” from everyday life is “bracketed out” as unneeded — it’s almost discriminatory.
Why does this matter? Because when we associate “thinking” with “being abstract,” it’s then a small step to associate “thinking” with being “out of touch,” and after this step, it doesn’t take us long to moralize not thinking. We come to (subconsciously, at least) associate the thinker with being concerned about things “that don’t matter,” while the plumber is “down to earth” and concerned about “the things that matter.” Hence, the language of abstraction contributes to a social and moral hierarchy where it is honorable to think less than more. If thinking is necessary for solving some of the most critical problems in the world today, this social hierarchy will undoubtedly bear awful fruit.
We associate thinking with abstraction, and though there is some truth to this (ontologically), there can be abstraction where there is no thinking at all. In fact, the most practical people on the planet, if they cannot explain their lives or understand their own lives, could feel alien and abstract to us and others, while a philosopher studying Heidegger who can explain herself and who seems alive can feel “full of meaning” and so not abstract at all. It’s the person who lacks meaning who can feel “out of touch” with life and themselves, and that person is equally as likely to be the plumber as it is to be the philosopher, and yet we tend to associate the thinker with “being abstract,” which by extension moralizes thoughtlessness.² And this brings us to the real Kafka comedy of this disposition.
If abstraction is more a matter of meaning than thinking, but meaning is created by thought, then “conceptual abstraction” is more a result of “bad thinking” or “no thinking”: it is not a result of “good thinking.” If this is the case, then to escape abstraction, we need to think more, not less, and yet if we have a social hierarchy that moralizes avoiding thinking in the name of being “down to earth,” then it is precisely this hierarchy that will contribute to us being “out of touch.” This is a terrible irony: what we moralize to help us escape abstraction is what ends up making us feel abstract.
Fine, all well and good, but what if we’re not capable of “good thinking?” Wouldn’t it be better in this situation for us not to think at all? At the end of the day, isn’t it better for us to be “concrete” and “thoughtless” than risk ending up “out of touch” by not thinking as well as needed? Perhaps, and admittedly this is a difficult question — I don’t know. Here, I only want to suggest that we need to stop automatically associating “a thinker” with someone “out of touch.” There is no necessary relationship between the presence of thought and the presence of abstraction (even if thought itself is somehow “ontologically abstract”), and it is easily the case that when we encounter an abstraction, the remedy is more thought not less. This small step would do us a lot of good.
¹To allude to other works by O.G. Rose, “rationality” is likewise meaningless without a truth that organizes it: until “rationality” and “truth” combine, no meaning can be located: the gap between “the rational” and “the true” doesn’t open, but that’s because no intellectual activity can be found.
²Why do we tend to associate “abstraction” with “thought?” Well, the simple answer is that thinking is abstract in the sense that it’s different in its ontology from say a rock. We can’t observe or feel ideas, and so rocks and ideas seem “different,” and from this thought, it’s a small step to associate thoughts with “abstractions” and rocks with “concreteness.” And certainly, I myself have used this language before, but it’s critical to understand that ontological difference is not the same as conceptual clarity. Yes, ideas can be abstract, because they can be difficult to understanding, but so can an experience of “pure perception” in which the brain is turned off.
If I was to be technical, the word “abstraction” should probably only be used in reference to something “we don’t understand” and/or “that’s difficult to understand”: we should not use the term to signify “ontological difference” (and instead should just say, “that’s ontologically different”). That, or the word should be done away with entirely, because it’s too easy to embed it with a “hierarchy of values.” Almost unavoidably, what we call “abstract” tends to come across as that which is “less valuable or relevant” than something concrete. Now, I myself won’t be able to hold to my own advice here, but it’s at least an important thought to consider.