Wednesday, August 16, 2006

ascending from the abstract to the concrete

Borderland has a wonderful story, What the Known Demands, of how things went dramatically wrong for him on a drive to collect firewood in Alaska.

This reminded me of the phrase, "ascending from the abstract to the concrete". The lineage is Marxist. The central idea of Marxist philosophy is contradiction, ceaseless struggle between different aspects of a thing, the underlying ability of things to transform themselves - including into their opposites. This is also known as dialectics. War turns into peace. Education turns into vegetation, etc.

Here are some rough notes about this phrase, which is very much about how to view the world:

Everything is in constant motion or change

All things develop through internal contradictions, aka dialectics

Dialectics is the mutual interpenetration of opposites, that opposites can change into each other, depending on the conditions and their stage of development. This is why everything is in constant motion.

Abstraction means to strip away the superficial or incidental aspects of a thing and to reveal its most important aspects, or essence, aka theory, hypotheses

Abstraction is important and can lead to deeper (beyond surface understanding ) of things

Abstraction can also go wrong. There are different ways to abstract. How do we test whether our abstractions (theories, hypotheses) are right or wrong?

By testing our abstractions in practice, by ascending from the abstract to the concrete.

Related ideas:
Theory and practice form a spiral in which practice is principle
Change is constant, stability is temporary

It's a tremendous irony that Marxism is now mainly thought of in terms of dull grey stagnancy (eg. the failed Soviet State) whereas at its centre is a very dynamic philosophy of change.

Contextualisation for Abstraction
Following Cassirer, it can be argued that abstraction always includes taking a point of view from which the concrete can be seen as meaningfully related, but finding this point of view depends on the contextualisation of one's actions. Therefore abstraction is seen here as a dialectical process, including both the process of going from the concrete to the abstract and the process of ascending from the abstract to the concrete (Davydov). The process of going from the concrete to the abstract (and vice versa) is still not thoroughly understood. On the basis of Billig's theory of arguing and thinking, and Sfard's theory of focussing attention, a new perspective on abstraction is developed...
(would like to check out some of the authors cited here)

Learning by Expanding
Traces 3 generations of Activity Theory ...
The first generation, centered around Vygotsky, created the idea of mediation. This idea was crystallized in Vygotsky's (1978, p. 40) famous triangular model of "a complex, mediated act" which is commonly expressed as the triad of subject, object, and mediating artifact ...

... The insertion of cultural artifacts into human actions was revolutionary in that the basic unit of analysis now overcame the split between the Cartesian individual and the untouchable societal structure ...

... The limitation of the first generation was that the unit of analysis remained individually focused. This was overcome by the second generation, largely inspired by Leont'ev's work. In his famous example of "primeval collective hunt" Leont'ev (1981, p. 210-213) showed how historically evolving division of labor has brought about the crucial differentiation between an individual action and a collective activity ... The concept of activity took the paradigm a major step forward in that it turned the focus on complex interrelations between the individual subject and his or her community ...

The third generation of activity theory needs to develop conceptual tools to understand dialogue, multiple perspectives and voices, and networks of interacting activity systems. In this mode of research, the basic model is expanded to include minimally two interacting activity systems. This move toward networks of activities, while still in an embryonic form ...
The Last Superpower forum contains this philosophy thread which includes an analysis of the "ascending to the concrete" phrase:
"Marx talked of "ascending from the abstract to the concrete" which on the surface can seem rather absurd.

How can a concrete view of reality be superior to a more abstract view? We all know that science takes us beyond the surface appearance of things and proposes deeper explanations that are not immediately apparent. And anyone who has studied child development knows that initially children view the world in a "concrete" way and as they become able to think better they become capable of thinking more abstractly. So isn't abstract thinking more advanced than concrete thinking?

The difficulty arises from confusing the Marxist idea of "the concrete" with the idea that what is concrete is that which is easily and immediately perceived via the sense organs - ie the surface appearance of things. (note: the whole idea of anything being "immediately perceived" is in any case incorrect. Perception always involves some cognitive processing ).

However what Marx meant by "concrete" was not what is meant by the pedagogical distinction between concrete and abstract (or formal) thinking.

Marx's use of the word "concrete" has to do with the notion of truth and is not related to the idea of concrete thinking as child-like and primitive.

To ascend from the abstract to the concrete means to move from the initial ability to abstract away from surface appearance (via everyday and relatively easy generalisations and simple concepts) toward a richer and more accurate view of concrete reality. This does involve abstraction - but it is abstraction that is on its way to a richer and more concrete (truthful) world view."

Center for Activity Theory
This page has thumbnail sketches of the major theorists: Marx, Vygotsky, Leont'ev, Luria, Il'enkov, Cole

Evald Ilyenkov's Philosophy Revisited
outline of the contents of a book


Anonymous said...

The background information you put together here will be useful for one of my future reading projects. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Ahh I love abstractions Bill - Picasso's bull series - bullness captured by an abstraction featuring horns and testicles, Matisse's snail, Cumming's poetry, the concept of number, scientific theory - but I had never thought about making them more powerful catalysts for understanding Leunig's "great symphonic invisible madness: the accumulating, collective, interactive madness called human life" through notions of "ascending to the concrete" - great new thinking