Concretizing the abstract

Eric Voegelin famously (if obscurely) characterized utopian political projects as attempts to “immanentize the eschaton.”   A related error -- and one that underlies not only political utopianism but scientism and its offspring -- might be called the tendency to “concretize the abstract.”  Treating abstractions as if they were concrete realities is something Alfred North Whitehead, in Science and the Modern World, labeled the “Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness,” and what has also been called the “Reification Fallacy.”  It has been an occupational hazard of philosophy and science since the time of the Pre-Socratics.  The Aristotelian strain in Western thought formed a counterpoint to this “concretizing” tendency within the context of ancient philosophy, and also more or less inoculated Scholasticism against the tendency.  But it came roaring back with a vengeance with Galileo, Descartes, and their modern successors, and has dominated Western thought ever since.  Wittgenstein tried to put an end to it, but failed; for bad metaphysics can effectively be counteracted only by good metaphysics, not by no metaphysics.  And Aristotelianism is par excellence a metaphysics which keeps abstractions in their place.

We abstract when we consider some particular aspect of a concrete thing while bracketing off or ignoring the other aspects of the thing.  For example, when you consider a dinner bell or the side of a pyramid exclusively as instances of triangularity, you ignore their color, size, function, and metal or stone composition.  Or to borrow an example from a recent post, when aircraft engineers determine how many passengers can be carried on a certain plane, they might focus exclusively on their average weight and ignore not only the passengers’ sex, ethnicity, hair color, dinner service preferences, etc., but even the actual weight of any particular passenger.  

[Modern Scholastic writers often distinguish three “degrees” of abstraction.  The first degree is the sort characteristic of the philosophy of nature, which considers what is common to material phenomena as such, abstracting from individual material things but retaining in its conception the sensible aspects of matter.  The second degree is the sort characteristic of mathematics, which abstracts not only the individuality of material things but also their sensible nature, focusing on what is intelligible (as opposed to sensible) in matter under the category of quantity.  The third degree is the sort characteristic of metaphysics, which abstracts from even the quantitative aspects of matter and considers notions like substance, existence, etc. entirely apart from matter.]

Abstractions can be very useful, and are of themselves perfectly innocent when we keep in mind that we are abstracting.  The trouble comes when we start to think of abstractions as if they were concrete realities themselves -- thereby “reifying” them -- and especially when we think of the abstractions as somehow morereal than the concrete realities from which they have been abstracted.  

Mind and matter

I have suggested in a couple of recent posts (e.g. this one) that the “mind-body problem” is essentially a consequence of Descartes’ reification of two abstractions.  He first abstracted from the notion of matter everything but its mathematical features, relocating all qualitative features to the mind; and he then treated this mathematical abstraction from actual concrete matter as if it captured everything that really is there in actual concrete matter.  Matter generally came to be regarded ever afterward as inherently devoid of anything but the sort of thing expressible in the mathematical language of a physics textbook.  And this included the matter that makes up plants, animals, and human bodies, all of which were -- necessarily, if lacking anything except what could be captured in mathematical language -- to be regarded as utterly devoid of consciousness, thought, meaning, teleology, or like.

Not that Descartes was alone in making this first abstraction -- Galileo had set the stage for it and other moderns put their own spin on it.  But what was distinctive about Descartes was the other abstraction he added to it.  Having removed colors, sounds, odors, tastes, heat, cold, and the like (at least as common sense understands them) from matter and relocated them into the realm of human consciousness -- making of them the “qualia” so much discussed by contemporary philosophers of mind -- Descartes faced the question of where consciousness itself was to be found.  His answer was to take conscious thought -- which had for common sense and Aristotelian-Scholastic philosophy alike been something properly attributed only to a human being as a whole -- to abstract it from the rest of human nature, and then to reify this second abstraction.  For Descartes, what thinks is not a human being, but a res cogitans; that is to say, what thinks is just a “thinking thing,” thought made into a substance in its own right rather than an activity of a substance.

And there was little else to do with thought once you’d characterized matter the way Descartes had.  The only alternatives to making thought a substance in its own right would be to make of it a collection of little quasi-substances (essentially the solution of the property dualist) or to deny its existence altogether (the position of the eliminativist).  And that is precisely why all the various brands of materialism, which chuck out Descartes’ res cogitans while essentially keeping his conception of matter, inevitably come across as disguised versions of either property dualism or eliminativism.

Suppose aircraft engineers had got it into their heads that the average weight of airline passengers was all there is to airline passengers.  And suppose the people responsible for planning the flight entertainment had determined that all airline passengers like to watch action movies during a flight, and got it into their heads that this was all there is to airline passengers.  Then suppose that the two groups compared notes and decided that since each side had some pretty strong evidence in its favor, they faced a thorny “average weight/preference for action flicks problem.”  Perhaps the entertainment planners would decide that average weight and a preference for action movies are both real aspects of airline passengers, and interact causally in a way we don’t understand.  And perhaps the engineers would declare that the really scientific and hardheaded thing to do would be to reducethe attribute of preferring action movies to the attribute of having such-and-such an average weight.  Or perhaps they’d decide that in light of the success of aircraft engineering practices compared to the questionable methods of the flight entertainment planners, maybe we should just bite the bullet and conclude that action flick preferences don’t really exist after all.

I’m not saying the debate over the mind-body problem is as silly as that, but it is in my view based on a similar set of errors.  The solution to the “average weight/action flick preference problem” is just to stop reifying the abstractions that generated the bogus problem in the first place.  And that is essentially the solution to the dispute between materialists and Cartesian dualists.  That is not to say that mind doesn’t raise important philosophical questions.  Indeed, like other Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) philosophers I think that our intellectual powers, though not our perceptual or imaginative powers, are immaterial.  But the meaning and justification of these A-T claims, and the relation between the immaterial and bodily aspects of human nature, are deeply misunderstood by philosophers whose thinking about these matters is framed by the Cartesian way of carving up the metaphysical territory.


Again, I do not mean to deny that abstractions of the sort in question may have their uses.  On the contrary, the mathematical conception of matter is extremely useful, as the astounding technologies that surround us in modern life make obvious.  But contrary to what some proponents of scientism suppose, it simply doesn’t follow for a moment that that conception gives us an exhaustive conception of the material world, for reasons I have stated many times (e.g. here).  

Nor are the abstractions of physics the only ones we must be wary of concretizing.  The neuroscientist who tells us that it is the brain or parts of the brain (hemispheres, “modules,” or whatever) that “interpret,” “perceive,” or “decide” this or that are making the same mistake Descartes was insofar as they abstract mental activities from their proper subject -- the human being as a whole -- and relocate them to an invented subject (albeit a material rather than immaterial one).  In fact the brain and its components are not substances in their own right but are properly understood only in relation to the whole organism of which they are parts, and the “higher-level” features of a human being -- including conscious thoughts and choices -- are no less real or fundamental than the “lower-level” neurological features.  It is only when we abstract out and reify the latter -- treating them as if they had a fundamental or independent status relative to the whole organism, which is the reverse of the truth -- that the former, “higher-level” features come to seem problematic.  Those who suppose that neuroscience has “shown” that free will or the self are illusions, on the grounds that no such phenomena can be found at the level of neurons and neural structures, are like aircraft engineers who think that the utility of their data about passengers’ average weight “shows” that passengers have no other attributes except weight, on the grounds that passengers’ sex, ethnicity, food preferences, etc. cannot be read off from the data about weight.  (M. R. Bennett and P. M. S. Hacker, Raymond Tallis, and others have made similar points.  But the pop neuroscience industry hasn’t gotten the message, or doesn’t want to get it.)

Then there is social science.  When we abstract from concrete human beings their purely economic motivations, ignoring everything else and then reifying this abstraction, the result is homo economicus, a strange creature who, unlike real people, is driven by nothing but the desire to maximize utility.  Nietzschean analyses of human motivation in terms of the will to power are less susceptible of mathematical modeling (and thus less “scientific”), but are variations on the same sort of error.  Evolutionary psychology often combines abstractions of the natural scientific and social scientific sort.  Like the neuroscientist, the evolutionary psychologist often treats parts of human beings as if they were substances independent of the whole from which they have been abstracted (”selfish genes,” “memes”), and adds to this reification the abstractions of the economist (e.g. game theory). 

As the neuroscientific and sociobiological examples indicate, the Reification Fallacy is often combined with other fallacies.  In these cases, parts of a whole substance are first abstracted from it and treated as if they were substances in their own right (e.g. brain hemispheres, genes); and then a second, “Mereological Fallacy” (as Bennett and Hacker call it) is committed, in which what is intelligibly attributed only to the whole is attributed to the parts (e.g. the left hemisphere of the brain is said to “interpret,” and genes are said to be “selfish”).

Naturally, New Atheist types commit fallacies of this sort with regularity, and add some of their own.  In particular, they first fallaciously generalize from the irrationality and ignorance of some religious believers to all religious believers, no matter how obviously intelligent and educated.  Then they abstract this fantasized universal irrationality and ignorance from every other aspect of real religious people and reify it into a demonized homo religiosusAll religious believers, no matter how decent their behavior and no matter how apparently clever and well-informed their arguments, are made out to be “really” just stupid bigots.  This licenses the New Atheist to devote his attention to attacking this figment of his own imagination rather than actual defenders of religion.

The irony is that while New Atheists and others beholden to scientism pride themselves on being “reality based,” that is precisely what they are not.  Actual, concrete reality is extremely complicated.  There is far more to material systems than what can be captured in the equations of physics, far more to human beings than can be captured in the categories of neuroscience or economics, and far more to religion than can be captured in the ludicrous straw men peddled by New Atheists.  All of these simplifying abstractions (except the last) have their value, but when we treat them as anything more than simplifying abstractions we have left the realm of science and entered that of ideology.  The varieties of reductionism, eliminativism, and the “hermeneutics of suspicion” are manifestations of this tendency to replace real things with abstractions.  They are all attempts to “conquer the abundance” of reality (as Paul Feyerabend might have put it), to force the world in all its concrete richness into a straightjacket.

Voegelin’s analysis of utopian politics was for a time transformed by intellectually inclined young conservatives into a catchphrase: Don’t immanentize the eschaton!  Aristotelians, Wittgensteinians, Feyerabendians, and other anti-reductionists might consider a catchphrase of their own: Don’t concretize the abstract! 
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...