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Context: OnAbstraction

I know very little about continental philosophy ... but that doesn't stop me conjecturing, right?

As far as I can see, the core of the continental tradition is a scepticism about the possibility of abstract thought. And a continuous struggle to work within an environment where ideas are never free of their preconditions.

So ...

  • in Hegel thought can't escape its history. You can't understand an idea unless you followed and understood its development or proof.
  • in Marx thought can't escape it' economic preconditions (mode of production and class). All ideas are suspect according to the class interest they serve
  • in Nietzsche thought can't escape the psychology and personal motivations of the philosophers. Often appeals to morals or abstractions are motivated by desire for power.
  • in HeideggerianPhenomenology and SatreanExistentialism thought can't escape being
  • in Derrida, it can't escape language, and the very historical contingencies and interdependencies of words.

By contrast, in the AnalyticTradition etc. the possibility of precise and abstract thought is a methodological assumption. Often some version of the impossibility of unambiguous abstract reasoning is derived. But it's use isn't struggled with and worried over. (Wittgenstein might be the exception here.)

Q : Where do you stand on the possibility of abstraction, phil?

A : I'm gonna try to appeal to my Popperianism as usual. A variant on EpistemologicalProblemsSolvedByCriticalRationalism. When we use abstractions we conjecture their meaning and we conjecture the fact that we can use them unproblematically. When we're presented with criticisms that show these are LeakyAbstractions or that our use of the abstraction is flawed, we must solve the problem in the particular case, by further explanation or defining new concepts. But we aren't obliged (nor is it useful) to worry about the grounds for our abstractions in general, before using them.

Q : So that's how your Popperian arguments work then, is it? Deny a particular kind of generalization (abstraction?) ie. to the general problem of scepticism, and demand that all sceptical challenges be addressed to particular (concrete?) questions? Funny sort of alternative to a "scepticism about the possibility of abstract thought."

A : Interesting point. Maybe I'm just trading one kind of scepticism for another.

Comment by an abstraction-geek passer-by:

I don't think we can live without them. They are the vitamins of any food for thought. Besides, often you find some kind of anti-abstractionist sensitivity within some analytical scenarios - take not only Wittgenstein but any resistance to Platonism in mathematics from Quine and Nelson Goodman to Dummett and Hartry Field. In those cases, however, I would rather say that we dwell in questions concerning alternative conceptions of abstraction - for instance, do we need a separate realm of forms in order to make abstractions intelligible?

On the other hand, if Husserl, for instance, is allowed in the Continental club (and I guess he ought to be even because my tendency is to settle for a thoroughly sociological definition of the club), I guess abstraction is very much part of the ordinary toolkit of continentals.

Husserl started out critiquing psychologism in logic and phenomenology tried to put forward a theory about abstraction.

Also, I take the ontological distinction of Heidegger is as abstract an idea as any idea could hope to be - and the same goes for, say, GillesDeleuze's insistence on the idea of difference in contrast to repetition.

But I think Phil's insight is interesting and worth discussing, really. As I said, I tend to define Continentals more sociologically (in terms of education, what they read, how they read, their relation to the canonical philosophers etc). But Phil's insight could lead us to wonder what abstraction is really doing.


See also PopperVsHegel, PostModernism

CategoryAbstraction, CategoryPhilosophy