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The abstracting process
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II Scene 2.

"Whatever we know without inference is mental."
Bertrand Russell, Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits, p. 224, Simon and Schuster (1948).

"But the condemnation of abstractions is the condemnation of thought itself. Nothing that thought can ever comprise is other than some abstraction which cannot exist in isolation. Everything mentionable is an abstraction except the concrete universal; and the concrete universal is a myth."
C. I. Lewis, Mind and the World Order, pp. 54-55, Dover (1956).

"The concept, so defined, is precisely that abstraction which it is necessary to make if we are to discover the basis of our common understanding of that reality which we all know. On a day which is terribly long to me and abominably short to you, we meet, by agreement, at three o'clock, and thus demonstrate that we have a world in common."
C. I. Lewis, Mind and the World Order, pp. 80, Dover (1956).

"A more problematic example is the parallel between the increasingly abstract and insubstantial picture of the physical universe which modern physics has given us and the popularity of abstract and non-representational forms of art and poetry. In each case the representation of reality is increasingly removed from the picture which is immediately presented to us by our senses."
Harvey Brooks, in Daedalus (Winter 1965). Scientific Concepts and Cultural Change, Science and Culture, ed. Gerald Holton, Beacon (1967).


Korzybski described the mechanism of abstracting in a diagram called "Structural Differential".

It allows to visualise the process and to differentiate silent and verbal levels.

This differentiation is fundamental in general semantics:

"As we know already, we use one term, say 'apple', for at least four entirely different entities; namely, (1) the event, or scientific object, or the sub-microscopic physico-chemical processes, (2) the ordinary object manufactured from the event by our lower nervous centres, (3) the psychological picture probably manufactured by the higher centres, and (4) the verbal definition of the term." Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity (p. 384)
This described the first levels of the process. From there, it is possible for us to continue the verbal process indefinitely. For example, starting from 'apple', we can produce 'fruit', then 'food', etc. This possibility clearly distinguishes us from the animals.

At each stage of the process,

The natural order of evaluation (from event to object, object to descriptions, descriptions to inferences, etc.) is often reversed because of our Aristotelian education. It should then be restored, which is possible by using the tools of general semantics.

This practice leads to consciousness of abstracting and allows us to eliminate the harmful effects of identification (confusion of orders of abstractions) on ourselves.

 Typical errors about Abstracting 

For students beginning in general semantics, it is usual to confuse "abstracting" with "leaving out characteristics." "Abstracting" in general semantics also includes "adding characteristics not present at the previous levels." This adding of characteristics may be due to some prejudices or bias, but can also be 'physically' rooted in the structure of our brain, by genetic or educative necessity. Occidental perspective, for example, is a trained habit for people living in houses with rectangular rooms and rectangular windows. It is neither 'good' nor 'bad' to use occidental perspective, just useful in some cases and useless or dangerous in some few others.

Another error is to consider that abstracting in higher order is 'bad' (resp. 'good') while lower orders are 'good' (resp. 'bad'). There is no moral judgment attached to the level at which one abstracts. For example, today's science represents our highest levels of abstractions. This error was that of one of the first popularisers of the work of Korzybski, Stuart Chase, in his book The Tyranny of Words. A way to abstract in higher orders is to use category-words. There is certainly nothing wrong with that. We use category-words routinely in science and general semantics, and build new words of that kind when useful. Modern languages usually include some easy ways to do that. The danger in these words does not come from the fact that they represent categories but from failing to discriminate between the category and an actual object it represents, in other words in the confusion of levels of abstracting (identification).

Finally, an error frequently made by beginners in general semantics is to believe that animals (other than Man) cannot abstract in higher orders at all. We all know how smart some animals can be and there is no doubt that, in order to behave as they do, they must have abstractions of some kind. But what we know is that this abstraction process stops somewhere, while a man can potentially continue the process of abstracting indefinitely, stopping when he pleases. And above all that, a man can be conscious that he abstracts.


© ESGS, 2002.