Critical Concepts

Abstract and Concrete


Imagine an object -- say, the desk that sits in the front of our classroom.  This object combines in itself a host of particular facts (of history, of material composition, of potential use).  Depending on our needs and circumstances, some of these will be irrelevant, others centrally relevant, still others marginally or barely relevant.  If we are freezing to death, for instance, something that will leap into the foreground of our attention about this desk is the fact that it is made out of wood which, if we have access to matches or a cigarette lighter or know how to exploit friction, we might be able to set fire to.  If we are fanciers of antiques, we might take its serial number to the university archives to search out some purchase order or invoice or shipping ticket attached to it that might give us some clue as to when and where it was made.  If we notice that it is falling apart, and we know that instructors like to sit upon it, we may wonder how expensive it would be to get it re-glued, or (depending on whether we are instructors or students of a certain cast of mind) whether it might afford the spectacle of collapsing under the weight of "ponderous authority." 

All these are facts about this particular object.  We say the object is concrete because these various facts are all, as it were, "grown together in" this single thing.  (The root "-crete" comes from the past participle cretus/creta/cretum, meaning "grown," from the Latin verb crescere, "to grow."  You are already familiar with the present participle crescens in the English words "crescent," "crescendo" and "croissant" [by way of French] and "crescendo" [by way of Italian].  The prefix con-, of course, means "with" or "together" or "together with.")

If we consider the object in the light of only some of its particular qualities, we have performed an abstraction.  (The root "-tract" comes from the Latin past participle tractus, meaning "dragged" or "pulled."  This is the same particle as shows up in the Latinate English words "contract," "retract," "extract," "distract," "subtract," and "detract," and in the Germanic-derived "draw," "dray," "draft," "draught," etc.  The Latin prefix abs- (as in "absent") means "away" or "away from.")  In forming an "abstraction," we as it were "pull certain facts out of" the concrete object, placing them in the foreground of our attention.  The residue we "leave out of account," because it is irrelevant to whatever concern motivated our attention in the first place.

Actually, if you think about it, you'll realize that we never attend to any object in its full concreteness.  Our attention is always governed by some particular motives.  To speak in aural rather than visual terms, we habitually declare most of the facts about any particular thing to be "noise," and so "filter it out."  (If we didn't, we'd be overwhelmed with impertinent truths about the world that would distract us from doing anything in particular:  our attention would be so congested that we'd end up paralyzed, unable to move.)  In practice, in other words, we always approach an object from the point of view of our interests, and so what we experience of it is an aspect (literally, in Latin, a "look-at") of the object as a whole, a perception (a "take" on the object, literally something [like a grip, a handle, a pair of tongs] "through" which the object is "taken"), one specific "take" or "slice" among a virtually infinite range of possible aspects of it.

Our experience of the world, in other words, is only relatively concrete, because it is in fact always more or less an abstraction from the actual fullness of what is there.  In between what we see/hear/taste/smell/touch is a battery of shifting "filters" we constantly employ to defend ourselves from the deafening, drowning "sea of noise" that is going on around us.  Usually we are not conscious of these filters, any more than we are of what they filter out for us.  But they are there, and their presence is always motivated by the preferences dictated in turn by the projects in life we are engaged in, and thus, ultimately, by our priorities, which is to say, by our values.  These values we can be pretty much unconscious of or more or less aware of.  And they can be relatively consistent or inconsistent.

Writers have often been quite interested in representing for our inspection the ways in which experience, as a function of attention, reflects not merely different "knowledges" but different values.  What you experience as the world shows who you are.  And since who you are is a function of your history, what you experience as the world is potentially decipherable as testimony to your past.

If we as readers get down to this level of attention to the various stories inside "a" story, our own experience of it is going to be different from what it otherwise would be.  This has possible implications for whom we eventually become.


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   Contents copyright 2001 by Lyman A. Baker

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  This page last updated 31 August 2000.