Abstraction

Displacement of the particular—people, place, purpose—by general principle.

Abstraction supplies principles to die for—socialism, nationalism, equality, humanity, progress. Large scale turns human society into a rich provider of abstraction; the space that was once occupied by practical observation and direct affections is filled with ideology. The ideology is then enforced. As industry, population and rootlessness grew in the nineteenth century, abstraction got everywhere and smudged everything, like the smoke:

To the question of daily bread, liberalism did not give much serious thought. It is too romantic to trouble itself with such gross requirements. It was easier for liberalism to invent the people than to study it.A1

Alexander Herzen (1812–1870) made the case for the particular—for local detail, for pragmatic decision-making, for the near-at-hand, for presence. As for the great altruistic ideologies and systems of thought which lift people’s gaze from the local, from their own friends, values and talents, demanding big sacrifices, offering general solutions and explaining the meaning of life, these he recognised as monstrous delusions.A2

For Herzen, the values to be trusted consisted of such things as earning enough to feed a family, enjoying one’s work, living in peace. Such aims are manageable, and have a good chance of being met without horrible and unintended consequences. Herzen believed that the individual is responsible for his own choices; the big abstractions and projects with a long, never-to-be-achieved vision usurp that responsibility: the person is reduced to the currency of politics—and spent. Although citizens have cogent views of what is good, just, beautiful or true, abstraction abstracts the possibility of bringing them about.

And here, Herzen is in the good company of other scourges of abstraction and pretension: Oliver Goldsmith, for example, with his plain insight that “there may be equal happiness in states that are differently governed from our own.” Goldsmith’s insight about the different personalities of different places was simple, but it needed to be said, for the Enlightenment’s scientific and economic presumptions favoured the single vision supplied by reason. And Aristotle, of course, was aware of this, with his distinction between two ways of thinking, between the universal and the particular, between general theory (episteme) and practical wisdom (phronesis). Aristotle recognised that there is no reason why arguments should be consistent with each other if they apply to different moral problems; there can be different, but equally reasonable, interpretations of the same argument in different places; diverse ethical theories, he noted, are not mutually exclusive: they are complementary. They call for informed prudence about the particulars of the case.A3

Another telling critic of abstraction is the well-beloved mayor of Bordeaux, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–1592). He was a follower of the Stoic philosophy, so when he writes of giving attention to himself, it is not a selfish lack of concern for others that he means. On the contrary, it is a direct alertness to people, place and circumstance; there is no veil of cleverness and strategic abstraction between what you see and what you think. Montaigne gives us a fresh, direct vision, a quality of encounter which is the starting point of moral judgment:

As far as in me lies, I give all my attention to myself; and even here I would willingly curb my feelings and keep them from plunging too deeply into an object that I possess by the favour of others, and over which Fortune has more right than I.A4

But, all too often, the allure of abstraction is irresistible. Vigorous policy and reform programmes almost invariably consist of abstractions; the opposite approach—relying on particular local knowledge, on skills and inspiration—leaves politics with less obvious, less elevated things to do, such as preserving the peace and the law, supporting the institutions of social capital and the active presence and participation of citizens, and giving the society in its care the benefit of reliable long-term foresight about, for instance, energy, climate, population, food, and the need for long-term solutions to the growth problem in economics. But politicians with such a role would be reduced to public servants . . .

One powerful enticement to abstraction, then, is that it provides grounds for almost any form of destructive intervention; abstractions and the rationalism they express can easily be made unfalsifiable: they cannot be disputed by pointing to the particular because their existence means that the particular has already been discounted. Abstraction is above such dirty details; it is detached.

For a perceptive take on abstraction, and on the paralysis and disempowerment that come with it, it is not a bad idea to turn to novelists, whose medium is the particular. Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim is introduced to us as “a seaman in exile from the sea, [who] had Ability in the abstract, which is good for no other work but that of a water-clerk”. His exile and abstraction were due to a devastating incident in his past, in which he, along with all the other officers, had escaped in the few lifeboats from the steamer Patna, which they believed about to sink, leaving 800 pilgrim passengers to what they supposed (wrongly) to be their deaths. Here was a man who had become undefined, unidentified, in the “extreme weariness of emotions, the vanity of effort, the yearning for rest”. At the inquiry even “the sound of his own truthful statements confirmed his deliberate opinion that speech was of no use to him any longer”. The novel is about Jim’s recovery of a concrete identity, through unstinting commitment to a distant and troubled locality and its people; it costs him his life, but as the trusted narrator, Marlow, concludes, tentatively, “There are days when the reality of his existence comes to me with an immense, with an overwhelming force”; and not so tentatively: “Not in the wildest days of his boyish visions could he have seen the alluring shape of such an extraordinary success!”A5

Matthew Arnold summarises,

The great safeguard is never to let oneself become abstract, always to retain an intimate and lively consciousness of the truth of what one is saying, and, the moment this fails us, to be sure that something is wrong.A6

Whether Lean Logic lives up to that standard is an open question. But at least it is not a grand project. It starts with the working-day particulars of who we are, and what we are about.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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