abstract / concrete

"Although there may be a level of abstraction at which similarities can be made to appear, there is also a level of specificity at which differences create a significant gap." (Katherine Hayles, p.6) For Edmund Burke, "wit" consisted of being "chiefly conversant in tracing resemblances," and judgement concerned mainly with "finding differences."


The etymological origins of "abstract" are the latin abs trahere , to draw away from. Thus the abstract is separated from body, object, or application. It can describe qualities apart from any object or thing. In Archaic Greek art, the genre of particular things outweighed their specific, individual qualities in artistic representation. Hence abstraction, expressed through the geometricization of natural forms, dominated Archaic art. A Greek polis , when understood as a particular pattern of life and not just a geographical grouping of people and their belongings, was essentially an abstract conception, just as a nation "is today. (see J.J. Pollitt, Art and Experience in Classical Greece.) When we describe a culture in terms of categories such as "religious," "economic," etc. we are not describing real subdivisions, but are making abstractions for our convenience. In the study of "structures" the practice of analysis consists in constructing " models" that replace the study of concrete phenomena by that of an object shaped through its definition.

Empiricist taxonomies (eg. the Linnean system of classification) start with a given set of concrete individual organisms and compare them in an attempt to discover common properties. Once discovered, these properties are abstracted and used to define the name of a class. The process is repeated to produce an order and division of forms in terms of genus and species, based on the factual similarities existing in the concrete particulars. In this empiricist interpretation of concept formation, "the concept does not appear as something foreign to sensuous reality, but forms a part of this reality; it is a selection ... a 'thing concept'". (Cassirer, Substance and Function)

However, it is easy to forget the fact of abstraction. According to Alfred North Whitehead, when we think of substance and quality, as well as simple location, we are "presenting ourselves with simplified editions of immediate matters of fact" -- elaborate logical constructions of a high degree of abstraction. (Science and the Modern World, p.52) To ignore this abstraction is , for Whitehead, to fall into the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness."For Whitehead, so long as you are dealing with pure mathematics, you are in the realm of complete and absolute abstraction. The physicist's energy is also obviously an abstraction. But for Whitehead, "the concrete fact, which is the organism, must be a complete expression of a real occurrence." (p.36) "We should have in our minds some conception of a wider field of abstraction (?) , a more concrete analysis, which shall stand nearer to the complete concreteness of our intuitive experience."

For Cassirer, the concepts of pure mathematics are not and cannot be formed by abstraction, because there is no concrete correlative in the "given" facts of nature to such concepts as a dimensionless point or a perfectly straight line. Rather, they are theoretical constructions, and, argues Cassirer, the same is true of the concepts of the physcical sciences.

In Kant's Life and Thought, and in Substance and Function, Cassirer describes the unification of a multiplicity as a presupposition, not a consequence, of abstraction as concept formation. The doctrine of abstraction covertly introduces the relation of similarity into the observable qualities of a thing and then claims to rediscover it. It cannot be regarded as an explanation of the formation of concepts, for in that doctrine the fundamental function of the concept -- the unification of a multiplicity -- is tacitly presupposed.

Deleuze and Guattari try to explore abstract distinctions simultaneously with concrete mixes, for example, what they call the de jure vs de facto distinctions between smooth / striated. For them, the abstract line is the affect of the smooth. For Deleuze and Guattari, both capitalism and modern science are based on abstraction. (see work ) For Deleuze and Guattari, "becoming animal" and "becoming intense" are modes of resistance to abstract thinking
For Marx, all qualitative distinctions between commodities are effaced in money. To make quantity the criterion of value--that was the contribution of the capitalism to the mechanical world-picture. The abstractions of capitalism preceded the abstractions of modern science and reinforced at every turn its typical lessons and typical methods of procedure. "The power that was science and the power that was money were, in the final analysis, the same kind of power: the power of abstraction, measurement, quantification." (Mumford)

Abstract art, as opposed to representational art, is characterized as having little or no reference to the appearance of objects in nature. Claude Levi-Strauss sarcastically characterizes non-representational painting as methodically exploiting the contingency of its execution so as to claim to give a concrete representation of the formal conditions of all painting. "It is a school of academic painting in which each artist strives to represent the manner in which he would execute his pictures if by chance he were to paint any." (The Savage Mind, p.31n.)

The classic account by Wilhelm Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy, which calls itself A Contribution to the Psychology of Style, describes abstraction as "motivated by dread." -- specifically, the "dread of space". For Worringer, "this instinctive fear (was) conditioned by man's feeling of being lost in the universe." (p.16) In the West, according to this account, the dread of primitive peoples was to be gradually replaced through "the rationalistic development of mankind," while the "more profound world-instinct" of the civilized peoples of the East enabled them alone to "remain conscious of the unfathomable entanglement of all the phenomena of life." For Worringer, the opposite of abstraction is not "concretion", but empathy. Worringer acknowledges that the polar contrast he draws between abstraction and empathy corresponds to the world views of transcendence and immanence .

The contemporary ways of thinking about computers and life, stemming from the logical analyses of Von Neuman, Turing, and others, think of life as form abstracted from its material content. (see A-life)


In its etymological derivation concrete is the past participle of con crescere and means "having grown together". It is thus opposed to the separation of abstraction and names a thing rather than a quality. It adheres to an immediate experience of things or events.

Claude Levi-Strauss' famous description of "Savage" thought calls it the "science of the concrete." For him, there are two distinct modes of scientific thought, or two strategic levels, one roughly adapted to perception, intuition, and imagination, and the other at one remove from it. (p.15) (see also perceptual / conceptual ) In The Savage Mind, He describes the fine-grained classification of sensible properties, the interest in the riches and diversities of the plant world, as illustrations of the intimate contact between the "native" and his environment. According to Levi-Strauss, this proliferation of concepts has a value of its own, based on the primitive demand for order, which is similar to the basic postulate of science that nature itself is orderly. In fact, magical thought postulates a complete and all-embracing determinism, which appears to Levi-Strauss as "so many expressions of faith in a science yet to be born."

Levi-Strauss" schematic oppositions include:

domesticated wild
"hot" "cold"
modern neolithic
science of the abstract science of the concrete
scientific thought mythical thought
engineer bricoleur
abstract thought intuition / imagination / perception
using concepts using signs
history atemporality
myths and rites.

For anthropologists and historians of writing as a "technology of the intellect", it is precisely the capacity of writing to produce lists, tables, and formulas that enabled the "domestication of the savage mind." (see Goody.) "The trouble arises from applying a crude written technique (the table) to a complex oral process, then claiming one has the key to a culture, to a symbolic system." (p.67)
Hegel distinguishes between the "Concrete Universal" and the "Abstract Universal." For Hegel, the Concrete Universal is "the inner principle of a diversified totality," related to its species internally and necessarily, as opposed to the abstract universal whose relations are external and contingent. Marx insisted on tracing the "concreteness of concepts" to their origins in practical, historical circumstances.

For Deleuze and Guattri, abstract figures are at the intersections of the concrete. The relation between abstract machine and concrete assemblage, between becomings, multiplicities, and the plane of immanence....are all intersections between the abstract and the concrete.

(see immanent / transcendent )
" Unconscious ideas" are concrete ideas, that is to say ideas of things, and not simply of the words or images inside the mind corresponding to the things outside. Concrete ideas are cathexes of things. (see Freud, "The Unconscious") see also body thinking