Abstract and concrete language in debate

I’m reading a fascinating book at the moment, about architecture and language. One chapter from the book has helped me understand a bit about some of the disagreements which occur between various members. This is the relevant paragraph from the book, I’ll dig into it in a moment and explain why I think it’s important:

According to our Western tradition, from the time of the ancient Greeks, the cogito, there is no thought outside of language because language is its sole vehicle. It is through language that we succeeded in freeing ourselves from the muck of the multitude of sensations enveloping us, from prejudgments and fears, in order to name, classify, choose; this is what the rational thought that came into being in ancient Greece holds. Language extracts us from the sensible world and spares us from having to experience or reexperience or mimic a thing, an affect, so as to be able to imagine it. The aim is to short-circuit experience; it is thus that the concept comes into being. We still have this preconceived idea that intelligence requires abstraction. [1]

The text is talking about the so-called “progression” from concrete (sense-based) to abstract (language-based) interaction with the world and how this shapes human behaviour. It’s rather biased, using sly language to posit one type of behaviour as bad (muck, fears), the other as good (rational, freeing), but the principle under the judgement is sound. As an example, here are some examples of concrete (sense-based) and abstract (language-based) interaction with the world:

Question: What is a car?
Concrete (sense-based) answer 1: That is a car [points to a vehicle on the side of the road].
Concrete (sense-based) answer 2: A car gets me to work in the morning
Concrete (sense-based) answer 3: Cars on the motorway next to my house keep me awake until 3am
(and so on)

Abstract (language-based) answer: A car is a motor vehicle, generally with an internal combustion engine fuelled by petrol or Diesel, although electric motor are more common recently. It generally has four wheels, although may have three or up to six. It usually seats 4 or 5 people, but may have space for as few as two or as many as seven. It can also usually carry luggage and travels at speeds of up to 100km/h, some may travel faster, up to 400km/h. (and so on)

Note that each term within the abstract answer relies upon further abstract definitions which we must understand in order that we can comprehend it, and those on further definitions, and so on. Turtles all the way down, as the late, great Terry Pratchett reminded us.

The concrete answers here rely on direct human experience and the senses, the abstract answer on language and concepts, fairly convoluted language at that. The first answers are something everyone can relate to and understand; although they may be imprecise and inaccurate, they are sufficient for ordinary day-to-day activities. The last answer is typical of an academic mind set, that is a university-based understanding of the world where everything is generalised in order to produce rules and predict behaviour, whereas the first set of answers attempts no generalisation and talks about specific examples of behaviour in a direct way. These positions (language and sense-based interactions) lie along a continuum, with pure abstraction/language at one end, pure concreteness/sensation at the other. All interactions lie in between on the continuum and there are probably no pure examples of either, but some are closer to one end than the other. I would suggest that the thinking of those with a certain type of academic background (philosophy, business, computer science, maths, sociology) lies closer to the abstract end and the thinking of those with a vocational/non-academic background (plumbing, nursing, welding) lies closer to the concrete/sense-based end, although this is not totailising. When the interactions of those two types collide there is a problem, they are talking in different languages, rooted in a different understanding of the world. An important side note here are the recent changes in non-academic/vocational; during the last half century, there have been tendencies in those areas for more abstraction and conceptualisation, less sense-based understanding. For more, see Empire, Multitude and Commonwealth by Michael Hardt and Antonion Negri, specifically the concept of cognitive labour.

So, what’s the point of this, how does this usefully relate to Tangle Ball and the rest of the world?

Firstly, I’m not entirely sure. Secondly, it indicates there are deeper differences between some humans than we perhaps account for when we have a discussion. When a person explains some abstract concept or other to someone who interacts with the world in a concrete way, they are doing something akin to speaking in a different language, producing confusion. As Yoda tells us, this confusion results in fear, anger and eventually hatred. That bad situation is partly resolved by understanding and proceeding cautiously, although there will probably always be a gap and I don’t know how to fix that.

A further, compounding part of the problem is that the two ways of seeing the world are not viewed as equal-but-different, but one (abstract/language) is seen as fundamentally more important than the other (concrete/sense). This is flawed and strays from the principle that all humans are important and valid and equal, and also negates the essential role sense-based interpretation plays in carrying out tasks involving the manipulation of physical objects. Suggestions welcome for how to fix or mitigate this problem.

Those of you who are paying attention will have noticed the irony here: the description of this idea is and can only be entirely abstract, based in language, not in the senses

[1] Christian de Portzamparc and Philippe Sollers, Writing and seeing architecture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, c2008. p 46

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  1. Pingback: Language as reduction | my_blog

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