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Five thoughts on abstraction

  1. Abstraction is active. It is something one does, in a fully embodied way, within a context. It is undertaken for reasons and structured by dispositions which are inevitably prior to the situation in which one is abstracting.
  2. Abstraction is relational. One always abstracts from an object, stepping back from its particularity in order to foreground specific attributes and background others. The abstraction itself thereby acquires characteristics as a cognitive entity, as well as discursive and material ones, if the abstraction is recorded in some way. This entails new relations with other cognitive and material objects e.g. similarity/dissimilarity.
  3. Abstraction is partial. In the obvious sense that one is abstracting from an object but also because of the multiplicity of attributes which characterise even the simplest object. There is always an element of choice, even if the horizon of this choosing are occluded by self or circumstances. It is also dependent on the subject’s engagement with the object i.e. the object one is abstracting from is not exhausted by one’s past perceptual, linguistic and cognitive engagement with it.
  4. Abstraction is interdependent. The role of past engagements in shaping our encounters with objects, as the pre-condition for further abstraction, means that past abstractions play a causal role in shaping present abstractions.  Therefore to call abstraction an activity shouldn’t imply it must be analysed in a unitary way.
  5. Abstraction is relative. All these claims imply a purposiveness to abstraction, albeit one that may be latent and unclear to the subject. This entails a relativity which is both epistemic and (partially) judgemental: what constitutes a better or worse abstraction is in part relative to the purpose underlying it.

Categories: social theory Thinking

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Mark

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