Abstraction is a fundamental part of human thought and consciousness, something we use throughout our work, our studies and our daily life. Most people exist in a world of abstraction, so what is it? and why do we do it?
Essentially abstraction is a reductionist approach as it looks to take away aspects of the object of consideration, specifically to take away their uniqueness. Unique things are concrete and specific. Abstractions are general and non-unique. This is a central part of Buddhism and modern mindfulness practices.
Abstraction seeks commonalities between things so that things can be operated upon within our minds. As mind entities abstractions do not have a physical manifestation. In contrast concrete things have a physical manifestation. For example, the concept of a brick is abstract, whereas the realisation of an actual brick is unique and concrete.
Concepts are real in the mind, but not real in the physical world. Many spiritual practices such as meditation and mindfulness attempt to pull consciousness back from the abstract concepts, which they often claim is not alive since it only exists in the mind. Instead such practices try to bring conscious back to the uniqueness of the concrete things. If abstractions are reductionist then an opposite approach, mindfulness, is expansive as it encompasses all of the thing in its entirety. Mindfulness encourages anti-abstraction, so that when we meet an object in the world, we do not see the abstraction but rather see the thing in its fullness. In doing so we move from a mode of thinking and unreality and back into a mode of open full perception and reality.
A real brick has a uniqueness that if I try to describe now I will unavoidably reduce. The only true way to know a concrete thing is to experience it, it’s unique texture arrangement, colour, flaws etc. however my ‘words’ already reduce the experience and are an abstraction.
Indeed, part of the problem with excessive abstraction stems from the need for communication. If every experience is unique, ‘how to we communicate this to each other?’ We have to abstract to speak and speaking and writing is always an abstraction of some level. Another part of over abstraction is that we perceive far too much for our brains to process everything individually. Abstraction allows us to deal with things that we encounter in the world without having to really see them or think about them. We can pick up a pen and write without really thinking, in doing so we don’t need to focus on the pen or the paper but rather the words. This can be extended to the desk, the chair, the light, etc. Abstraction allows us to ignore the non-essential, it thus save us time and thought. It is perhaps for these reasons that human society has evolved massive repositories of abstractions, from language, semantics to domain concepts.
This is problematic though, as the abstract mode of existence becomes the only mode of existing for many people and as such they see a reduced world. When we go to the park, we see the abstract forms, labelled, compartmentalised and therefore reduced. When we stop and really look at the uniqueness of things, which takes more time, we see the world more fully, more clearly, more alive. Our world and our existence becomes alive. This however takes time, it also takes a conscious effort. The practice of mindfulness is about making this reconnection with real things and therefore a reconnection with reality