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The Reality Of Abstractions

47. No reproach is more frequently urged against metaphysicians than that they confound abstractions with realities, and treat the figments of the mind as objective existences. Nor is it to be denied that the reproach is often deserved, for the error is one to which our native infirmity predisposes all of us. But the gravamen lies not in the "realizing of abstractions," — since that is a process which Science pursues with advantage, —it lies in an imperfect recognition of the nature and validity of the process, and a consequent confusion of the products. Alarmed at the excesses of the Schoolmen and their modern followers, many writers have run into the opposite extreme, and denied all reality to abstractions; whereas the true position is that which assigns to abstractions precisely the degree of reality which pertains to the concretes which have furnished them.

48. The usual explanation of Abstraction limits it to the Logic of Signs. It is said to be "the power which the mind has of attending to one aspect of a complex object, disregarding all the other aspects." Thus, although we have no possible experience of Motion which is not that of a moving something, no experience of Color without Extension, we can and do abstract each from the other, and regard each by itself. There is no objection to this explanation, except its limitation. This process of Abstraction is equally operative in Perception ; a fact which introduces two important considerations into the question. First, it discloses the criterion to be employed in all Abstraction. Secondly, it discloses that the process is not due to a power which the mind can employ, by an effort of will, but a process which it must follow. Perception, while it groups round a present sensation many absent sensations, never recalls all the details previously experienced in conjunction, but always detaches some of these, leaving the rest in twilight vagueness, or complete obscurity. In our perception of a horse, for example, there is not present to consciousness a tithe of the sensations which that object has formerly excited, but only an abstract of these sufficient for recognition. And this by a law of Sensibility : whatever is out of focus is necessarily more or less disregarded, since it can only be regarded by being brought into focus. Abstraction is focussing, whether by Sense or Intellect.

49. In an interesting work on modern English Psychology * M. Ribot calls attention to a point seldom clearly apprehended, namely, that Abstraction has its degrees as Number its powers ; and that some confusion would be avoided if Philosophy had a precise notation for the ascending degrees of Abstraction, corresponding with the increasing powers of . Number, thus exhibiting at a glance whether the abstractions were based on abstractions of a lower degeee, or on concretes. Whiteness, for example, is an abstraction of the first degree, and expresses simply the quality common to all white objects; Extension again is likewise of the first degree ; so is soldier, or simply fighting-man. But Army is an abstraction of a higher degree, based on the abstraction soldier ; expressing, however, far more than soldiers, because including elements of military organization. War again is an abstraction still more remote from its concretes, and expressing in an abbreviated form a heterogeneous assemblage of military and political abstractions. Man, Nation, and Humanity are three degrees of Abstraction : the two first being Notations of the concretes given in Experience; the third being not only further removed from all such concretes, but also including the ideal conceptions we form of the capabilities and possibilities of human nature, if it were once freed from present hindrances. It is obvious that the, transcendent element is involved in each of these abstractions, but in very unequal degrees ; the transcendence in Man being not only carried into Nation and Humanity, but being there complicated by the transcendence which is involved in the conception of Nation, which is in turn complicated by that involved in the conception of Humanity.

50. And here we become aware of the paramount danger which besets speculation in dealing with abstraction. It is that of not eliminating the transcendent element, but of introducing it into the calculation, and subsequently personifying the abstraction. Having once detached an aspect, and considered it apart, the mind is prone to assign an objective reality to this separated aspect ; and having once transformed a predicate into a subject, the logical tendency is further carried out, and predicates are assigned to this predicate. The danger is slight with abstractions of the first degree. Probably no one ever personified Whiteness, as Virtue and Nature have been personified. Though when we remember that Boundary had its god Terminus, Marriage its god Hymen, and Sleep and Dreaming their gods, it is conceivable that even Whiteness may have passed from a Notation into a Personification. Be this as it may, Rule XI. furnishes a decisive test, by which all abstractions whatever may be used with license and safety. Remembering that in all cases there is some concrete Feeling with its objective correspondent, and on the other hand that in no case is the whole of the concrete reality expressed in the Notation, we conclude that a careful analysis will reveal the precise degree of reality which pertains to every abstraction; it is only necessary to pass from the symbol to the things symbolized, to re-immerse the abstraction in the concretes out of which it emerged, and we may reduce all that is inferential to pure sensible Experience.

51. Having said so much of the process, let us now say something of the products. The metaphysician who realizes abstractions errs, indeed, when he does not follow Rule XI.; but the man of science is liable to the same error while some men of science, in alarm at the error, deny all reality whatever to abstractions. The doctrine of a Vital Principle once universal, and still lingering in a few minds, is an example of both mistakes. One school so far realized the abstraction as to believe that a Vital Principle, distinct from and independent of the concrete forces grouped together in an organism, existed objectively, and not simply in the mind as a shorthand expression of the various concretes known to Feeling; while another school, recognizing the subjective creation of this abstraction, denied that it had any objective reality : one transformed a subjective process into an objective entity ; the others forgot that objective concretes were expressed by the subjective Notation.

52. When the question of reality is raised, we should first define the term. Is it simply the existence of a group of sensibles indicated by our idea ? then the reality of an army is as indisputable as the reality of a soldier ; the reality of a river is as positive as that of its constituent molecules. The army is a group, the river is a group ; the group has laws not directly deducible from the laws of its constituents, but belonging to it as a group. But there is not an army and its . soldiers ; there is not a river and its molecules. There is but one reality which, under different aspects, abstract and concrete, group and constituents, furnishes different conceptions.


53. How ready physiologists have been to commit the error with which metaphysicians are reproached, is patent to every well-informed inquirer. Let us select Co-ordination for our example. Certain sets of muscles acting frequently together, as in locomotion, this united action is called their co-ordination. The term expresses compendiously what has been observed and inferred. It is then generalized, extended to all united actions of muscles, or other organs, and the abstract conception of Co-ordination emerges. But now the common tendency towards personification begins to operate, and this abstraction is transformed into a Faculty, almost an Entity. This operation once effected, we must not marvel if we find anatomists eagerly seeking for the seat of this Faculty. They soon believe that they have found what they sought. They observe some part of the motor mechanism which, when injured, alters or destroys the Co-ordination; and they rush to the conclusion that this part is the co-ordinating organ. The Cerebellum is the organ most in favor ; and such is the laxity of opinion on this subject, that the Cerebellum continues to be credited with this imaginary function of Co-ordination, in spite of the in-disputable and varied evidence, both of experiment and pathology, that the Cerebellum may be destroyed, or removed, without the destruction of Co-ordination, and conversely that the "organ" may be intact while this "function" is abolished !

Co-ordination is an abstraction; what are its concretes? Our knowledge of the motor mechanism is our knowledge of its interdependent parts, the nerves, nerve-centres, muscles, ligaments, bones, etc. ; each of these parts must co-operate with the others, or the effect will be wanting ; when these have been enumerated and their interdependence assigned, there is nothing over and above this mutual interaction in the shape of a Co-ordination requiring a special organ : the Co-ordination simply is this interdependent action ; the co-ordinating organ is this group of organs. In any act of locomotion various stages may be specified. There is first the neural act, — the stimulus of a sensory nerve transmitted to its centre ; next a psychical act, the volitional reflex on a motor nerve, an act that may be conscious or unconscious ; then a physiological act, the muscular contraction ; finally a mechanical act, the movement of the limbs against gravity. Co-ordination is the compendious expression for this mechanism in action. We may for brevity's sake de-scribe the nerve-centre as co-ordinating the various muscles, grouping their several contractions towards one particular end ; but this grouping is only possible be-cause the organic mechanism has already been so constituted that the muscles will respond to a given stimulus in this particular manner, — this flexor relaxing when that extensor contracts, and so on. The part played by the centre is doubtless important,—it is the main-spring of the watch; but neither centre, nor main-spring, has anything resembling a "faculty of co-ordination"; and the acceptance of such a faculty is a "realization of abstractions " on a par with any metaphysical chi mera.

54. Anatomists endeavoring to detect the seat of Co-ordination, not in the whole of the co-operant organs, but in some one organ, may be compared with those who imagine they have detected the seat of the Mind in the gray matter of the Cerebrum ; though both would laugh to scorn the announcement that the seat of Life was in the mucous membrane of the alimentary canal : a localization which is quite as rational. Co-ordination, Mind, and Life are abstractions ; they are realities in the sense of being drawn from real concretes ; but they are not realities existing apart from their concretes, otherwise than in our Conception ; and to seek their objective substratum we must seek the concrete objects of which they are the symbols.

55. Language is another abstraction which has been personified as a Faculty.* Of late years certain pathological phenomena of great interest, classed under the general term Aphasia, have misled many physiologists into the error of localizing this pretended Faculty in the third convolution of the left anterior lobe of the Cerebrum. I shall hereafter have occasion to discuss this anatomical question ; at present I allude to it simply as an example of the loose way in which men of science often deal with abstractions. Theology has explained the phenomena of Language in a characteristic way, which is little less scientific. It assumed Language to be a gift to man direct from the Creator, — handed over to him, in short, as a thing. This explanation has been ridiculed by men who see nothing ridiculous in the supposition of Language being a " Faculty," or as some say a Property of a cerebral convolution." And yet in my judgment the only superiority which the latter can claim over the theological hypothesis is that of directing attention to the physiological mechanism, though only to one part of the mechanism, and thus keeping the hypothesis within the sphere of possible verification.

Language is an abstraction ; its concretes are the articulate sounds of the vocal organs, expressive of emotions and ideas ; and the mechanism is necessarily that of ideation and vocal expression : a very complex mechanism, composed of many parts. It is absurd to confound this with a particular Faculty, or a Property of tissue ; absurd to seek for a particular seat, or tissue, as its "organ."

56. Psychology has long been obscured by a cloud of such personified abstractions, — processes transformed into Faculties. Memory, for example, has not only been made a special Faculty with its special organ, it has even been separated into two Faculties : the one, Reminiscence, p, passive retention of images ; the other, Recollection, an active reproduction of images. What wonder if the science is in a backward condition, when such is the Method employed !

57. One point more is worthy of remark. Abstractions, like all other symbols, can only be used safely by those who are careful in assigning the sensible values, whenever reasoning quits the symbolical sphere. Abstractions are words having the values of things only so far as they express sensible concretes. They are counters, and some-times also counterfeits ; they are Notations of objective experiences, and also of arbitrary combinations. As symbols it is of little consequence if they have no other community with the things symbolized than that of a conventional sign to represent them. The gold coin, ducat or sovereign, which represents the exchangeable value of the thirty or fifty things it will purchase, has no other community with these things ; it is simply an abstract symbol of their concrete values, and as an abstract is perfectly general, that is, represents all equivalent values. Virtue is, in like manner, the abstraction of the moral qualities in human actions. The coin is not only a symbol of value, it is a concrete thing having precise properties. The word Virtue is also a concrete fact, the conception it expresses is a determinate group of neural units, having the properties of neural groups. The coin may be debased by alloy, the word may be perverted by an inclusion of heterogeneous meanings. The coin has to be weighed, the word translated into its concrete meanings, when any doubt arises respecting the exchangeable' value of the one, or the objective reality of the other.

( Originally Published 1874 )

Problems of Life and Mind:
The Reality Of Abstractions

Ideal Construction In Science

What Are Laws Of Nature?

The Use And Abuse Of Hypothesis

The Passage From The Abstract To The Concrete

Ideal Construction In Metaphysics

The Search After Causes

Intuition And Demonstration

Axioms And Their Validity

Necessary Truths

Read More Articles About: Problems of Life and Mind

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