Abstractions

Today’s OLDaily points to a paean of abstraction. I wonder if it is really useful to glorify the abstract in this radical, literal, narrow (well: abstract) sense, or if we are conflating it with other forms of generalizations or indirections, such as patterns or metaphors.

OK, a concept or an idea is unsatisfactory if it applies to only one single concrete situation. But do we want it to apply to multiple concrete situations or to none ? Abstract = “drawn away” from worldly affairs, suggests “none”. Metaphor, by contrast, connects two concrete, embodied things and shows a common, general pattern of how they are related. (In particular, pattern recognition relies very much on our ability to find salient, outstanding objects among a backdrop full of statistically familiar objects. And as far as I have understood McGilchrist, it employs much right hemisphere integration instead of left hemisphere abstractions.)

I was lucky to have a math teacher in 1965 who emphasized this power of general applicability to us 7th-graders, while others were trying to curry favor with us by pretending immediate relevance of their discipline, or by drumming their pale abstract symbols into us until they would become as familiar as if they were concrete. Focussing on a false tangibility, IMHO, does more harm than benefit. And in particular, the tangible assessment results, and the intimidating concreteness of grades, distract very much from abstract thinking.

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