Abstract & Concrete

Abstract and Concrete are philosophical concepts concerned with the development of conceptual knowledge: abstract = simple and remote from reality, concrete = mature and closely connected to reality. But in appropriate contexts, these meanings can seemingly be inverted.

History

The meanings of Abstract and Concrete in CHAT derive from Hegel and Marx but both words have a long and complicated etymology from the Latin. ‘Concrete’ is derived from the Latin concrescere – to grow together. ‘Abstract ‘comes from the Latin abstractus, incorporeal, but also the French abstrait – expressing a quality rather than a concrete object, or isolated, secluded, and as a verb, from the Latin abstrahere – to drag away, to appropriate, to set free, to separate.

Explanation

Abstract and Concrete are philosophical concepts concerned with the development of conceptual knowledge. The contrast between abstract and concrete does not mean the contrast between a theoretical idea and practical reality, but both words may have seemingly opposite meanings in different contexts.

E. V. Ilyenkov explained it this way:

“Marx says that all the definitions used in (pre-Marxian) political economy were products of movement away from the concrete, given in the notion, to increasingly meagre abstractions. In describing the historical path traversed by political economy, Marx therefore characterises it as a path beginning with the real and concrete and leading first to ‘meagre abstractions’ and only after that, from the ‘meagre abstractions’ to a system, a synthesis, a combination of abstractions in theory.
“The reduction of the concrete fullness of reality to its abridged (abstract) expression in consciousness is, self-obviously, a prerequisite and a condition without which no special theoretical research can either proceed or even begin. Moreover, this reduction is not only a prerequisite or historical condition of theoretical assimilation of the world but also an organic element of the process itself of constructing a system of scientific definitions, that is, of the mind’s synthesising activity.
“The definitions which the theoretician organises into a system are not, of course, borrowed ready-made from the previous phase (or stage) of cognition. His task is by no means restricted to a purely formal synthesis of ready-made ‘meagre abstractions’ according to the familiar rules for such synthesis. In constructing a system out of ready-made, earlier obtained abstractions, a theoretician always critically analyses them, checks them with facts and thus goes once again through the ascent from the concrete in reality to the abstract in thought. This ascent is thus not only and not so much a prerequisite of constructing a system of science as an organic element of the construction itself.
“Separate abstract definitions, whose synthesis yields the ‘concrete in thought’, are formed in the course of ascent from the abstract to the concrete itself. Thus the theoretical process leading to the attainment of concrete knowledge is always, in each separate link as well as in the whole, also a process of reduction of the concrete to the abstract.” (1960, pp. 136-7)

An abstract concept may mean a simple, undeveloped idea which is the product of the analysis of a whole complex process. It is described as ‘abstract’ because the complexities and differences that were to be found in the representation of the process at the beginning of the analysis have been ‘pared’ down to simple characterisations of the whole, or a number of such abstract concepts. For example, in lieu of a list of the names and details of all the unemployed people in a country we get the simple, average unemployment rate, say 6%. Such an analysis begins from the “imagined concrete” which Marx characterised as a “chaotic representation” (Marx, 1857) and produces a simple abstract representation. That initial representation is ‘concrete’ in the sense that it is a combination of very many abstractions – the various facts, measurements and impressions which would be found, for example in historical records or personal recollections – although each fact is just an abstraction and of little significance in itself.

Each of the facts are ‘abstract’ in the sense that they have been torn out of their context, are one-sided and frozen in isolation from the whole process. Facts are abstractions. So a collection of many facts may be ‘concrete’, but is nonetheless “chaotic.”

The product of the analysis of such data are abstractions – abstractions in the sense of being simple and stripped of all the complexity reflected in the data from which they were derived, such as an average or total.

They may also be ‘concrete abstractions’ if they contain within them the rational analysis of a large amount of diverse data and sum up the real connections between all that data. A ‘more concrete’ generalisation would be a considered characterisation, taking everything into account, summed up in concepts like, for example, ‘recession’ or ‘recovery’. However, statistical data, such as the percentage unemployment rate, would be described as ‘abstract generalisations’, because such a generalisation, even though it is combination of a large number of isolated, ‘abstract’ facts, is a very poor reflection of the whole. In any case, the outcome of the first phase of analysis is abstractions.

So, as Marx famously remarked, must then begin the “ascent from the abstract to the concrete,” from the principles and theories abstracted from the raw data, proceeding to the reconstruction of the “imagined concrete” of the whole process, but this time “the concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse.” Thus the abstract concept of the whole (in terms of theoretical conceptions) becomes more and more concrete in the development of concepts into a practical and scientific theory – “a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought.”

So in short, ‘abstract’ means simple, and isolated from connection with the whole, whilst ‘concrete’ means the combination of many abstractions.

But there are two senses of ‘concrete’: ‘concrete’ as in an unfiltered image of a complex reality (‘one damn thing after another’), and ‘concrete’ as in the scientific concentration of many abstractions in a mature concept or theory (a ‘concrete universal’). In both senses the ‘concrete’ conception captures all the complexity of the whole, but in the first case as a “chaotic conception” and in the second case as a reconstruction of the whole in concepts.

And there are two sense of ‘abstract’: ‘abstract’ in the sense of poorly connected to reality (‘abstracted from its context’ or ‘cloud-cuckoo-land’), such as in the case of isolated facts or ill-founded theories, and ‘abstract’ in the sense of being the succinct product of a protracted process of analysis which strips away the inessentials and to capture things ‘in a nutshell’. But to the extent that the abstraction captures the whole it is also concrete.

Whilst a bare average is a “abstract generalisation,” the ‘unit of analysis’ is a “concrete universal” even though it is an asbtraction!

References

Ilyenkov, E. (1960). Dialectics of the Abstract & the Concrete in Marx’s Capital, http://www.marxists.org/archive/ilyenkov/works/abstract/index.htm

Marx, K. (1857). The Method of Political Economy, The Grundrisse. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch01.htm#3

-- AndyBlunden - 15 Nov 2013

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Topic revision: r16 - 21 Nov 2013, AndyBlunden
 

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