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Back to the ancients to find the future of science

Is there an alternative to Abstraction?

A few years back I was listening to an interview on the radio with a female intellectual from the Middle East. She was asked the question “What do you find is the most seductive thing about Western culture?” Her response was direct and succinct. “Abstraction,” she replied, without any hesitation. Her reply stuck with me and added to my torment on this question. Is abstraction a fundamentally Western construct? Is not abstraction the highest form of thought? If not, what is the alternative? Does abstraction have a sibling?

I’ve been concerned about abstraction for many years. My approach has been to attempt to find an alternative paradigm. Back in the early eighties, I was attending a philosophy course given by François Châtelet at Vincennes in Paris, who sadly passed away a few years later. I volunteered to give a seminar on what I conceived at the time, to be an alternative mode of thinking to abstract thought. Instead of abstract theory, I rather naively proposed concrete theory, theory you could construct. I was greatly influenced by my work at the time in Computer Science and had started thinking that alternative to abstract theories were theories you could build with computer programs. Rather than the theory being abstractly described in static pages of a book in the library, surely we can construct theories with computer programs and actually execute them, instead of just reading them. I gave the seminar. I though it went off rather well but to my horror, and to the amazement of the class, Professor Châtelet became extremely agitated and attempted to destroy my argument in the most emotional terms. After the seminar, a group of students of Middle East origin, mainly Algerian, came to my defence saying that they understood what I was saying and were in complete agreement. Like me, they couldn’t understand why it sent Professor Châtelet off the rails.

Since then I came across Hegel’s public lecture Who Thinks Abstractly? (Hegel, 1966 (1808)), His speech was a real gem. Hegel remarks that it is often thought that abstraction is the affair of the educated and cultured man and that it is “presupposed in good society.” Hegel observes that the community:

at least deep down, it has a certain respect for abstract thinking as something exalted, and it looks the other way not because it seems too lowly but because it appears too exalted, not because it seems too mean but rather too noble,

Having played his audience one way, the rueful Hegel cuts to the chase:

Who thinks abstractly? The uneducated, not the educated. Good society does not think abstractly because it is too easy, because it is too lowly …

Skirting the outrageous, Hegel must come up with proof; it is not far away:

The prejudice and respect for abstract thinking are so great that sensitive nostrils will begin to smell some satire or irony at this point; but since they read the morning paper they know that there is a prize to be had for satires…

… and yes, just as in Hegel’s time, a mere glance at the front page of today’s tabloid provides ample testimony to Hegel’s claim. Every day headlines trumpet out the most abstract of abstract catch phrases for consumption of the masses. Hegel provides an example of such high abstraction, the Murderer.

A murderer is led to the place of execution. For the common populace he is nothing but a murderer. Ladies perhaps remark that he is a strong, handsome, interesting man. The populace finds this remark terrible: What? A murderer handsome? How can one think so wickedly and call a murderer handsome; no doubt, you yourselves are something not much better! This is the corruption of morals that is prevalent in the upper classes, a priest may add,…

Having taken in Hegel’s little gem of wisdom we are now able to answer the question, “What does a radio Shock Jock and a theoretical physicist have in common?” The answer, of course is – abstraction.

However, this doesn’t answer the question as to the alternative to abstraction. Our Western universities have become abstraction factories. Is there an alternative product? Is the alternative complementary? The purpose of this blog, and my book soon to be published, is to present the natural sibling to abstraction. I call it the generic. Instead of thinking abstractly, think generically. However, what is the generic?

Follow up post: The Alternative to Abstraction


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