Introduction to ‘Abs-Traction’
The Literal and (Con)figurative Foundations of Thought
Many specialized forms of “abstraction” are discussed throughout this blog (ranging across AI, meditation, societal analysis, semantics, intellectualism, fitness, and more). As I have developed in many later posts, abstraction can have obvious practical benefits. In terms of the basic thinking process, I write how Abstraction Will Make You Smarter. I also demonstrate that Abstraction Will Make You More Politically Moderate.
I encourage the reader to take away both the simple meaning above (abstraction as thinking, meditation), and the practical critiques or tools noted in the other posts such as Vicious Abstraction and Systemic Racism, The Abstract Society, The Abstraction of Jordan Peterson, or the many others.
As the namesake of this organization — The Abs-Tract Organization — and cornerstone of TATO’s research agenda, “abstraction” warrants a detailed exposition and validation. First of all, ‘abstract’ is split into a pun — Abs-Tract — to draw attention to the multiplicity of the word, and create two separate words. The separation of the etymological roots reveals the literal meaning: ab- (away, from) and tract (draw off). Together, abstract means ‘to draw away,’ which is suggestive of two distinct meanings: ‘to withdraw (from the senses),’ and ‘to write (in solitude).’
As a double entendre, ‘abstract’ invokes the imagery of a monastic scholar, meditating in isolation, researching and recording their thoughts; a pure form of abstraction (Cf. Abstract Meditation). These are the primeval origins of written philosophy, which also has parallels with the practice of geometry (cf. Geometry and the Liberal Arts). That being said, we realize that thinking is also a social practice, so it is a balance between this pure solitary abstraction and ‘abstracting’ with other people.
In the second meaning, ‘abs-tract’ is intended to be suggestive of a breakthrough in meta-philosophy, enabled by metamodernism. Just as the splitting and fusion of atoms unleash torrents of power, so can the deconstruction and reconstruction of the word. As we will see, the meaning of abstraction is expansive, summarized in the TATO executive summary as such:
TATO’s essential value proposition is found in the concept and special applications of “abstraction,” a manifold term differentiated across and within many fields, including math, computer science, linguistics, neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, and social theory. Such a vast methodological synthesis is resistant to summary, and is detailed within this Business Plan [+White Paper]. Abstraction is generally defined as a conceptual process of complexity reduction that highlights the essential properties or first principles of a given object or idea.
So, we have a working definition, but also countless instantions and contexts in which to apply it. Given the wide range of expressions, from a shorthand for critical thinking to an integral process of knowledge production, the utility of abstraction cannot be understated. Abstraction is easily taken-for-granted, but research shows that explicit abstraction improves education outcomes.
However, as the term ‘abstract’ is highly equivocal and prone to be misunderstood, so TATO provides the necessary depth and insight to make abstraction more accessible and relevant to the public and specialists alike. The fundamental confusion of the word — abstract — may stem from the fact that abstraction is both a varied thinking process and a varied social process unto itself, not to mention its diverse instantiations in different fields listed above. Do not let the multiple meanings of the word be an excuse to ignore it.
The challenge of this blog, or hypertextbook, as I call it, is not merely to define abstraction, but to abstract a deeper narrative and tie together disparate instances of the universal concept of “abstraction.” My intention is to make an abstract ‘proof of concept’ to consolidate the complexity of social problems into simple workable truths. We start from the assertion that most issues are heavily politicized, the world is made needlessly complicated. A big picture approach can help demystify and disarm many contentious social issues, which are obscured by focusing in rather than stepping back, such as climate change, racism, drug policy, and war itself.
It is our intention to resolve such apparent inconsistencies, because to TATO, the general problem and general solution are both abstract. The general social crisis is abstract in that the roots become politicized, masked, hidden, obscured, and mystified (eg. war on drugs, pollution). And abstraction writ large is a more efficient problem solving framework, as I have shown in How to Humanize AI with Abstraction, for example.
Instead of thoroughly ‘abstracting,’ both the public and policy-makers end up focusing on surface aspects and symptoms rather than a deep diagnosis of the problem. The general solutions are abstract in that objective analysis and problem solving depend on higher-order thinking and a conceptual framework. In theory this should also simplify the problem, but ‘pure’ philosophical abstraction can also becomes a target of scorn, as I have discussed in The (New) Reproach of Abstraction.
Physical/material abstraction (the external process characteristic of ‘the system’ in The Abstract Society) and its social problems seem monolithic, while mental abstraction segments and organizes knowledge. By using abstract thinking to measure and diagnosis material abstraction, we can start to see how mental and physical work together reflexively as meta-abstraction.
It would seem then a tautology that ‘abstraction can solve abstraction,’ but it is simply the meta-solution to the meta-problem. TATO has no illusions about abstraction being a simple fix or panacea for the crisis in which we find ourselves, however it is the key to definitively resolving conflicts at the semantic level, to ‘unblock’ collective action for common good on the global scale.
We can not simply do the right thing; we must also not do the wrong things. In the case of climate change, it is not enough to invest in the environment and renewable energy, and other direct causes and charities, while fossil fuels are still lobbying to cut education, and funding anti-science think tanks. The world needs a totalistic solution in this sense. This is why we say meta-solutions to meta-problems. Because the meta-problem is so complex, entailing so much corruption and anti-intellectual politics, it needs an intervention closer to the source, with a meta-solution.
The subtitle of our white paper is ‘map of the problematique.’* In a 2016 talk at the European Graduate School, Benjamin Bratton of the Center for Design and Geopolitics referred to abstraction as a function of intelligence for an organism to “map its own surroundings,” particularly with respect to food, friend, or foe. The formalizing of modes of reasoning is but a projection of this “primordial abstraction.” As we evolve more complex forms of intelligence, ‘abstraction as mapping’ is the general principle of that complexification.[source].
The context of Bratton’s talk was the intersection of design, philosophy, and AI, which is the essential aesthetic and purpose of TATO. An even more direct precedent for TATO to form can be found in Bratton’s book The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, which he concludes is not a manifesto or manual, but rather, “a design brief that invites others to collaborate on the articulation and realization of the renewed modernity described here, with all their deliberate commitment and expert abstraction.” We have taken up this invitation in many ways, and I have written a post specifically addressing Bratton, titled The Abstraction of Benjamin Bratton.
So TATO seeks to map the meta-problem, starting with this overview of an abstract problematique. The term ‘problematique’ comes from a Club of Rome (1970) report titled The Predicament of Mankind: Quest for Structured Responses to Growing World-wide Complexities and Uncertainties. The authors write;
“It is this generalized meta-problem (or meta-system of problems) which we have called and shall continue to call the “problematique” that inheres in our situation…”
The meta-problem is reduced to 49 “Continuous Critical Problems” facing humankind, which have compounding effects and create new problems requiring broader scope solutions. These meta-problems are abstract, chief among being over- population, which acts as a force multiplier of social problems. The nature of meta-problems is discussed in depth in Social Paradoxes and Meta-Problems.
The Abs-Tract Organization seeks to validate abstraction as a grand methodology to correctly diagnose the meta-problem. From a think tank policy perspective, TATO advocates not a series of little tweaks, but a system-wide knowledge and policy intervention to directly address the meta-crisis, to prevent many problems from being produced in the first place, and to free up wasted system resources.
One proposal for a system-wide intervention, that I have reviewed, is The SIMPOL Solution, which uses game theory and novel political strategies to advocate a platform for simultaneous global policy shift. However grandiose and unrealistic these ideas may seem, it is precisely the meaning of a paradigm shift, which is upon us in the form of metamodernism.
I hope I am beginning to make it clear that both the breadth and specificity of TATO’s abstraction is highly integral to a wider project to map knowledge and social systems. ‘Abstraction’ starts with basic thinking, which we all do, and scales up to into a very complex epistemology and social critique.
But TATO is not only about abstraction. As I note in Research Agenda of The Abs-Tract Organization, there are five other research streams, which are meta- theory (metamodernism), public sociology, epistemic justice, evolutionary globalization, and systemic-conspiracy (the ‘military-industrial-etc complex’). These all inter-relate in very interesting ways, and are equally important.
The abstraction research is foundational and serves as a bridge to these other specializations. I have already touched on some of these themes in the posts Think Tank Knowledge vs. Corporate Power: Epistemic Justice in the War of Ideas, and The Abstract Empire of Global Capital: Nonrepresentative Democracy at the Dark Heart of Globalization.
This introduction to Abs-Traction is the tip of the iceberg of abstraction and our think tank work. I hope you will help us map the entire problematique and advise abstract policy interventions so we can avoid another Titanic disaster.
The Abs-Tract Organization is a meta- think tank for solving the meta-problem, highlighting the utility of abstraction as a critical perspective and knowledge representation framework.
If you appreciate the work we do, please support us on Patreon for $1.