The (New) Reproach of Abstraction
Anti-Intellectualism at its Finest Grain
The Abs-Tract Organization (TATO) has a clear mission: to prove the redoubtable power of abstraction, in all its multifaceted forms, and apply it. This proves difficult, as abstraction is a target of all sorts of scorn and indifference, here called ‘the reproach.’ With the proof, comes acceptance of the implications and imperatives which are positively game changing.
To this effect I’ve outlined a basic Introduction to Abstraction, and I’ve attempted to demonstrate that Abstraction Will Make You Smarter, and that Abstraction Will Make You More Politically Moderate. But it’s not cut and dry, because the human abstractor is prone to error and misuse. I’ve illustrated how abstraction is a vital tool for cognitive mapping, but also is a double-edged sword, in The Abstraction of Jordan Peterson. Abstraction is only as good as we can define it; there in lies the complexity, and the task at hand.
With the study of abstraction also comes the study of many tangential subjects, but there is plenty of material to keep it grounded in the flexible concept of ‘abstraction’ explicitly. I’ve revealed that other types of abstraction are also dangerous social processes that oppress rather than open our minds, in Vicious Abstraction and Systemic Racism and The Abstract Society.
Now we come to the ‘reproach of abstraction’ — ‘the expression of disapproval or disappointment (of abstraction)’—as the phenomenon by which many people choose to condemn abstraction or ignore it altogether. The battle lines are drawn, so this is where the value of abstraction has to confront its detractors. The latest example to buck this reproach is a paper I’ve covered titled Fuck Nuance (Sociological Theory, 2017).
The Reproach of Abstraction
In The Reproach of Abstraction (Radical Philosophy, 2004), Peter Osborne addresses the tension between idealism and realism, in order to defend philosophical abstraction from skepticism. Idealists live in abstraction, while realists doubt idealists’ ontological claims. The ‘reproach’ Osborne refers to is both the general distrust of abstract ideas (skepticism) and the critique of ‘philosophizing’ (over-intellectualizing).
In this article I will include include in the concept of ‘reproach’ the manifestation of anti-intellectualism, which he does not discuss. A Type I error — rejection of truth — would be an anti-intellectual rejection of abstraction. Osborne argues that abstraction is not only defensible, but the “key” to solving humanity’s collective problems at the universal level. His critique of the ‘reproach’ is really then a meta-critique, and as such is a prescient precursor to metamodern abstraction.
For these reasons and others, The Abs-Tract Organization seeks to revive abstraction as a methodological program to simplify complexity and refine concepts as a technique to mediate contested discourse. All of this fits within our wider policy objectives as a think tank. I quote the author’s abstract/introduction in full:
“[The Reproach of Abstraction] is a paper about abstraction, in particular, but by no means exclusively — and this ʻby no means exclusivelyʼ is a large part of its point — philosophical abstraction.* It is concerned at the outset with what might be called the reproach of abstraction: the commonly held view, across a wide variety of theoretical standpoints, more or less explicit, that there is some inadequacy inherent to abstraction per se, which is both cognitive and practical (ethico-political) in character. I aim to cast doubt on this reproach, in its exclusive form at least, in order to clear the way for a thinking of the idea of ʻactual abstractionsʼ as the medium of social experience in capitalist modernities. I take ʻglobal capitalist modernityʼ to be the transdisciplinary object unifying inquiries in the humanities and social sciences, if only implicitly — the idea of global capitalist modernity is the transcendental horizon of their possible unification. I therefore take the notion of actual abstractions to be a methodological key to a philosophically reflective form of transdisciplinarity. It is only a transdisciplinarity such as this, I believe, that can rescue the idea of philosophy as a discourse of universal mediation from the corrosive critiques of its claims to an absolute universality, familiar in recent years in various pragmatist, historicist, contextualist and deconstructive forms. As Ricoeur once put it:
“Philosophical discourse achieves universality only by passing through the contingence of cultures … its rigour is dependent upon equivocal languages … its coherence must traverse the war between hermeneutics.”
To be sure, I had to read the above abstract about ten times before it started to make sense. At first glance it looks like a bunch of gobbledygook — exactly the kind of postmodern pontification that invites reproach.
Upon further close reading, this abstract is itself very abstract and lean (parsimonious), and can be bolstered in laymen’s terms as such; 1) philosophical abstraction produces claims of universal solutions, 2) which are dependent on the integrity of shared concepts, 3) whereas bad abstractions are one-sided and contrarian (causing confusion and reproach), good abstractions are clear representations of absolute ideas. 4) This refinement allows us to universally define very abstract concepts (like ‘global capitalist modernity’, for example) as transdisciplinary objects (or more specifically hyperobjects, I would say), 5) so that philosophy (abstraction) can further streamline discussion beyond the postmodern tools available to us, through conciliating equivocal language, to achieve universality, and hence agreement. Universal paradigmatic consensus is the goal, so we can move forward.
The rest of the text is less user-friendly than the abstract. But if I understand Osborne correctly, it seems like a straightforward message: Abstraction is necessary yet nuanced, and is constantly abused and attacked, therefore with new insights we can and must do better. Throughout the paper, Osborne carefully tracks the abstraction meme for us, tracing its evolution through Western philosophy. Rather than try to synthesize the whole paper, I will extract some key ideas and play with them. First, Osborne writes of two reproaches; 1) the epistemological (as conceptualization), characterized by Humean empiricism, and 2) the practical-political (as material process), dovetailing with Marxism, exemplified in the following quote:
“Abstract domination is ʻthe domination of people by abstract, quasi-independent structures of social relations, mediated by commodity determined labour … the impersonal, nonconscious, nonmotivational, mediate form of necessity characteristic of capitalism.ʼ Abstract domination, in others words, is domination by abstractions.” — The Reproach of Abstraction, quoting Moishe Postone, Time, Labour, and Social Domination (1993)
This resonates with what I expound upon in The Abstract Society, about how ‘the system’ rules our lives through (ironically) unfair rules and other overwhelming impersonal forces. The critique of abstraction is continued in other works, as Osborne cites Derek Sayers’ The Violence of Abstraction (1987) and Feyerabend’s Conquest of Abundance: A Tale of Abstraction versus the Richness of Being (two books which deserve exclusive attention in the future).
The conclusion drawn from them is that conceptual abstraction and the resulting knowledge products will always be inadequate because of a “melancholy (loss of the real object) and a certain shame (complicity in the domination of the concept and hence repression of other, more vibrant, more creative aspects of existence)” (Osborne).
This is concurrent with the “incremental depletion” of modern philosophy, due to the rise of empirical science. Regarding this melancholy and shame, there is perhaps no more relevant example than that of neoliberalism, which is the main target of an abstract critique in Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. In that book we can see how through the conceptual domination of neoliberalism, proponents have turned a blind-eye to the shocking negative externalities of capitalism.
The concept of neoliberalism has failed to meet the expectations of its (conceptual) abstraction, becoming vicious. Neoliberals have buried their head in the sand as (material) abstraction expropriated earth’s resources and the lifeforce and agency of the global precariat (more on precariat: 1, 2), as illustrated in two of many abstract quotes from the book:
“Buffeted by imperceptible and abstract powers, we feel incapable of evading or controlling the tidal pulsions of economic, social and environmental forces.”
“Our world has moved on, becoming more complex, abstract, nonlinear and global than ever before.” — Inventing the Future
The struggle with this article is perhaps that it goes too deep in a short space — deep in the sense that it assumes the reader has deep knowledge and can keep up with the high prose and name dropping (Ricoeur, Hume, Lukacs, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Marx, Simmel, Postone, Sayers, Adorno, Feyerabend… and that’s just on the first page) — and does not return from the depths. The entire article is only 6.5 pages long, but incredibly dense. Sometimes I just want to know ‘what is abstraction?’ and ‘how can I improve it and reduce the reproach?’ It is hard to answer those questions here.
Where I would hope to find a conclusion (reiteration and synthesis) tying the piece together, there is final comments mixed with a list of open questions — 12 to be exact; six per the epistemological and the practical-political versions of the reproach. I’m not trying to reproach Osborne (maybe it is just my own limited comprehension, or perhaps the format an academic journal which will alienate the average reader). But what I like about this article is the validation of a distinct developmental trajectory of abstraction; an abstraction which can help us to decode the chaotic complexity of today’s culture wars. Osborne’s final questions serve only to keep the discussion going, rather than to defeat the reproach. The take away is that there is a ‘reproach of abstraction’ at all!
“Hegel wrote that thought ‘becomes at home in abstraction’… in polemical response to Novalis’s Romantic definition of philosophy as ‘homesickness, an urge to be at home everywhere.’” —The Reproach of Abstraction
Osborne implies that postmodern terminology has become primarily aesthetic to the point that “the problem of abstraction is rendered ironic,” exemplified in the fact that abstract art privileges the non-conceptual use of the term ‘abstract.’ In other words, the word ‘abstract’ is not loaded with any concrete character of either order or chaos, but if anything, most people probably default to the latter meaning of ‘abstract’, thinking of abstract art rather than blueprints.
This means that people unconsciously confuse random chaotic expressive abstraction with ordered conscious schematic abstraction, thereby having no lucid or active concept of abstraction at all. In short, the proximity of art and philosophy in postmodernism complicates matters. This leads to a ‘misrecognition’ and neglect of the “complexities in the concept of abstraction.” The proliferation of technical terminology within postmodernism has reached a point of diminishing returns, thus we must consolidate and metamorphose.
When we synthesize postmodernism into metamodernism, we don’t want to leave out anything vital. We want to compress all that is essential. Thus, we can’t simply expunge marxism and feminism, contra the anti-postmodernism of Jordan Peterson, because we have to respect the core premises (even though J.P. often grants this in passing), which are necessary additives to fight the everpresent injustices of modernism (ie. industrial patriarchy, inequality), hence post-modernism. Ergo, marxism (for capitalism), feminism (for sexism), and critical race theory and social justice (for racism).
Rather than be left to the ‘dustbin of history’, they should be synthesized into a new core philosophy. To the sociologist, these postmodern insights are not baggage (as they are to the psychologist or anti-socialist), they are complicated but integral. To be sure, the metamodernist recognizes where the critique has overstepped and begins to work against itself; the revolutionary zeal of marxists to the point of totalitarianism or anarchy and thus collapse, the radical feminism of misandry or pseudo-feminism of Wonder Woman, the racism and race ‘realism’ of libertarians, ultra-conservatives, neofascists, and/AKA the alt-right.
This is all retrograde postmodernism; spastic reactions, activated by a national culture of holy war, to the dominance and shortcomings of liberal values since the civil rights movement. The antipathy for postmodernism without a true alternative is more reproachment of abstraction; whereas metamodernism is an embrace of abstraction.
The reproach of abstraction is skepticism of philosophical elitism at best, fine grain anti-intellectualism at worst. This appears to be largely the case in Osborne’s paper. On one hand the reproach is an aversion to reification. On the other hand, it is bitter conflict over terminology and conceptualization. In both cases, it is a failure of philosophy reconcile the complexity of its time in salient and operational concepts. I argue that the reproach and anti-intellectualism are two sides of the same arcade token coin, redeemable for cheap trinkets only. Thorough abstraction is reflexive and efficient, and is arguably the core distinction of human beings from other conscious animals.
A problem is that the reproach omits the bigger picture of the ignorance of abstraction. Americans have wholly forgotten how stupid they truly are, and I mean that in the nicest way possible, lest we forget that Richard Hofstadter’s book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize in 1964.
Defined as a ‘general distrust of ideas,’ anti-intellectualism is obviously ubiquitous, and in some cases is warranted, such as in skepticism of byzantine legal code or esoteric econometics, or in the general aversion to “experts” and pundits who can convincingly speak technobabble out their ass to no end. But mostly anti-intellectualism refers to the callous dismissal of eggheads and the life of mind.
This discourse is a rabbit hole there is not space for here, but suffice it to say contemporary social thought has given up on ‘big ideas’ for a post-postmodern pastiche of inaccessible prose; intellectuals have given up on people. In the same year the ‘Reproach’ was published, Frank Furedi lamented Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?
Anti-intellectualism is a concrete documentable fact, yet ironically is triumphant in hiding its own hegemonic agenda, to dumb down consumers and voters in order to usurp and exploit their power. In my view, the steady ascent of anti-intellectualism since its exposure in the 1960s is the greatest explanatory factor of the political sphere, yet it was scarcely mentioned during the 2016 election. This is a bipartisan issue, although it is more unambiguously a strategy of Republicans. Everyone should be concerned, because anti-intellectualism has reached its nadir in post-truth politics.
As I have articulated in my cinematic critique and self-review of The Abs-Tract: Core Philosophy, entire industries are predicated on hot air and slick sales strategies. It has become clear that even the intellectuals have become stupid, and overshadowed by even lesser minds, demonstrated in The Rise of the Thought Leader in New Republic, which thankfully names names. To this effect, the ‘thought leader’ — the foil of the ‘public intellectual’ — is perfectly parodied in this mock-TED style talk hosted by the CBC (not to mention the brilliant Onion Talks, and Benjamin Bratton’s anti-TED talk). For “God’s” sake, when can we all collectively process the joke and move beyond this stalemate?
The Rise of the Thought Leader
Nowhere is the inadequacy of this metaphor more evident than in his case study of the rise and fall of Harvard Business…
Let us travel from the present moment back in time to ‘the beginning.’ Is not the “Original Sin” the original reproach of abstraction? As the myth goes, Adam was told not to eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge. Adam was forbidden from thinking, from being self-aware, essentially. If the story is to have any root in reality, then the symbolic apple was probably an entheogenic substance of some kind. Thus, the mystical experience is one accessible to all of us if we’re willing to break the “rules.”
Even if it is an allegory is without precedent, the message is clear: knowledge of good and evil is dangerous and garners expulsion from paradise. The fall from grace was coupled with the burden of knowing. And so began philosophy in our pre-history, which shores up against the present crisis of knowledge, with the reproach in tow.
Look how far we humans have come in savaging our own epistemology, snuffing out the light we worked hard to manifest in the darkness. The brightest minds have been bought and commercialized to our own detriment. But there is still a positive role for the reproach and that is the romantic enlightenment sentiments of living, being, and doing.
As valiant as abstraction is, there are limits one must entertain as a matter of course. It is more of question of bridling, than reproaching. It would not be an anti-intellectual reproach but a necessary reprieve from strenuous thought; critical thinking complemented by mindfulness. The following insight, which I begrudgingly take to heart, balances the tension between thought and action; perhaps between enlightenment and earthliness.
“An easily overlooked aspect of Voltaire’s thought was the priority it gave, especially in his later life, to practice. Watchmaking, vegetable growing, star charting: the great Enlightenment thinker turned decisively away from abstraction as he aged. The argument of “Candide” is neither that the world gets better nor that it’s all for naught; it’s that happiness is where you find it, and you find it first by making it yourself. The famous injunction to “cultivate our garden” means just that: make something happen, often with your hands. It remains, as it was meant to, a reproach to all ham-fisted intellects and deskbound brooders.” — ARE LIBERALS ON THE WRONG SIDE OF HISTORY?
The Rapprochement of Abstraction
In opposition to the reproach, I propose a rapprochement. The term denotes ‘(especially in international relations) an establishment or presumption of harmonious relations.’ I intend the double-entendre, both in terms of abstraction and the sense of international politics. Abstraction must be defined and exercised such as to produce Hegel’s ‘actual abstractions,’ and ultimately what Osborne calls ‘self-actualizing abstractions.’
Only then we will know what each other means and we can fulfill Habermas’s ideal of pure communication. Humanity can rejoice in a consensual reality for a change, and realize that fighting is a fool’s errand. In order for this to take place, Osborne concludes that we need ‘good’ conceptual domination that “unify dialectically structured totalities” where “the deep social structure of subjectivity is implicated.”
Briefly, Osborne cited Hegel’s distinctions between good, bad, and indifferent abstraction. The ‘Good’ is the “concrete abstraction of an absolute idea,” which when misapplied can turn to bad. The ‘Bad’ is the obvious one-sided misconception. ‘Indifferent’ abstractions are considerations independent from truth, as limited and contextual aspects of knowledge as a whole.
In my estimation, the higher level of abstraction that Osborne calls us to is distinctly a metamodern sentiment. Purer abstractions give us greater conceptual leverage, and plugs the holes of leaky abstractions. I only wish he provided examples, but that is indeed the task of metamodern sociology. Osborne suggests ‘global capitalist modernity’ in passing, but how about ‘universal basic income’ as the new conceptual unifier?
“Are certain experiences of abstraction not the necessary condition of any global social interconnectedness in such a way that it makes no sense to criticize them for their abstraction per se?”
“What new possibilities of the human are produced by the mediating force of actual abstractions?”— The Reproach of Abstraction
John Dewey is at least one famous philosopher who presciently grasped the reproach explicitly and argued against it. In the following quote from a letter to C.I. Lewis, Dewey critiques reification and the blind import of abstractions from the physical sciences to the humanities. For Dewey, abstraction is our matrix through which all information flows in and out. The imperative is to build original abstractions upon abstractions with the care of a craftsman until we achieve a self-evident, honest, and veracious theory of the world (or a given field). Metamodernism is approaching the event horizon of this fundamental upgrade, and we find it’s cues throughout the history of thought:
“Abstraction is the heart of thought; there is no way- other than accident- to control and enrich concrete experience except through an intermediate flight of thought with conceptions, relations, abstracta. What I regret is the tendency to erect the abstractions into complete and self-subsistent things, or into a kind of superior Being. I wish to agree also with Mr. Lewis that the need of the social sciences at present is precisely such abstractions as will get their unwieldy elephants into boxcars that will move on rails arrived at by other abstractions. What is to be regretted is, to my mind, the tendency of many inquirers in the field of human affairs to be over-awed by the abstractions of the physical sciences and hence to fail to develop the conceptions or abstractions appropriate to their own subject matter.” — Collected Papers, By Clarence Irving Lewis or Dewey and His Critics: Essays from the Journal of Philosophy
In post-truth politics, abstractions are openly defaced and civil discourse is eroded until everything becomes moot — nobody can agree on anything important. History repeats itself with devastating effects. This is precisely the trend that makes concepts like socialism, feminism, marxism, capitalism, liberalism, conservativism, etc… absolutely worthless currency in the broader exchange of ideas. Language becomes fully weaponized and the only good idea left is to stick a flower in the barrel of a gun. The moral of the story: Do NOT reproach abstraction. Do not condemn what you do not understand.
I have been working under the assumption that everyone has at least some basic idea of abstraction, even if they can’t articulate it. This is false. While ‘abstract’ is part of everyone’s basic vocabulary, few appreciate or respect the virtually bottomless depth of the concept. It turns out, many people can’t define abstraction beyond the opposite of concrete. This is a subtle form of reproach and anti-intellectualism, as are boredom or impatience with these ideas.
My hope is that The Abs-Tract Organization will help bring the concept to the fore of consciousness, and explicitly into public policy. Like a dream sign or a Pavlovian bell, “point being, abstract” is meant to awaken the inner philosopher. My new wish is that an acute sense of guilt enters the zeitgeist, where people stop and realize how they’ve eschewed and neglected abstraction; how abstraction lies dormant, waiting to be shared. TATO can not make an impact or grow without such a turn.
Thinking is hard and dangerous, and the reproach can be practical or treacherous, but nothing is more catastrophically fatal than being ignorant, as resolved by Hannah Arendt’s concept of “banality of evil.” TATO exists to fulfill Osborne’s thesis and Arendt’s legacy; that abstraction is as vital and necessary as life itself, and most likely the actual “key” to solving humanity’s collective crises.
The Abs-Tract Organization (TATO) is a boutique research and media think tank, centered around the broad concept of “abstraction.”
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