Think for a moment about these words: ambition, anger, fear, love, excitement, enthusiasm, energy, intention, attitude, consolation, desire… Those will do for a start.
What do they have in common?
Yes, they’re all words that have the appearance at least of referring to things that are supposed to go on in the inner workings of a human being… Yes, they are labels for categories that seem to have some relevance to what it is to be a human being…
Yes, they are abstract nouns…
But what precisely do they mean? Not as in some airy-fairy gush of feeling or wishful thinking, squelch of horror, or expressible in some momentary high-minded physical gesture. What is their exact meaning as in ‘this large puffing machine going along iron rails is a steam locomotive’—the equivalent of that kind of relative precision.
Sure we have those words but are they anything more than words? Invented labels. The possession of words does not mean the possession of things. You could find an ordinary stone on a beach and tie a label round it ‘GOLD’ but the label would have nothing to do with the actual stone. Tie the label ‘ambition’ on to a whole bag of inner something or others and it would have no real connection—only an imaginary one. We are full of imagination.
If you’re asked to say what ‘ambition’ is, for example, one kind of answer would be to say, “I want to be an engine driver…” but that’s not what I’m driving at. The question is—what does the abstract noun ‘ambition’ refer to? “An inner oomph to achieve…” you might say. What is an ‘inner oomph’? “It’s a piling up of wants going in a certain direction?” What’s a ‘want’ and how does it get a ‘direction’? And so on. More abstractions…
Like all abstractions ‘ambition’ is a human invention and has no meaning until you make it work for you. “I want to be an engine driver…” does not define the word, the concept itself. It’s the same with all the other words up there. If you’re asked to define what they mean you are driven to putting them into a personal context. Notice how this works. “My passion is collecting china dolls…” “I have a drive to cycle across India…” What is a ‘passion’? What is a ‘drive’? More abstractions…
Abstractions are Airy Nothings
We choose to enslave ourselves to the idea that abstractions ‘mean’ something. And in doing so we enslave ourselves to the politicians and the advertisers of all shapes & sizes, the war-mongers and the religionists, who revel in abstractions because we slaves tend not to question their meanings, stupidly imagining that they must know best.
‘We are so befuddled by language that we cannot think straight; it is convenient sometimes to remember that we are really [just] mammals…’ (Gregory Bateson) The heart is merely a squashy roundish thing that ticks along inside us for a little while—not the seat of what we label ‘love’. Abstractions are human inventions with a long beguiling history.
All feelings are abstractions. Feelings are nothing other than reifications of a certain something or other that takes place in the human mind-body apparatus: we make feelings into things by giving them a name and pretending to ‘have’ them.
Similarly, ‘self’ is a reification of an improperly delimited part of a much larger system of interlocking processes that reaches from here to the stars & back. ‘Self’ is an abstraction from the whole system.
There is a constant flux of events from which we concoct abstractions in order to appear to control what would otherwise be just a great unmanageable sprawl. But then abstractions conceal the reality of things. They are a very effective smoke-screen for people who have things to hide.
Abstractions are just words…
Experience unchecked is an endless flow. It can be overwhelming. How do we check the flow? By caging it in words. Words segment experience into seemingly manageable bits.
Some words we use to check the flow of experience clearly refer to things that come from observable ‘reality’.
Now, no matter what you’re doing, the focus of your attention is limited, at least for a moment, on the small segment of ‘reality’ represented by the word ‘cat’ even if there isn’t one around for you, even if you detest cats…
What do you have in your mind right now?
For me, experience is punctuated by ‘cat’ because, just now, a cat came into the room; in the next moment I’m hearing words on the radio about severed heads in the Syrian uprising and so my experience is differently punctuated; “I’ll light the fire…” I hear myself saying and my stream of experience is re-punctuated by another small segment of total ‘reality’. Words shift focus.
Some words segment external ‘reality’—they focus attention outwards; the senses alert us to segment experience on the outside. Other words segment, or attempt to segment, an assumed inner ‘reality’.
We’re probably OK with ‘cat’ and words of reportage on the radio and words that stand for what we intend to do but abstractions segment ‘reality’ in a wholly spurious kind of way: they appear to refer to a certain something or other but exactly what they refer to is entirely nebulous. Yet we act as if abstractions were real; the human process called ‘reification’ makes them into ‘things’ which we proceed to imagine that we possess.
Consider! Tune into your experience right now: it’s probably a seamless flow… Well it was until you read the word ‘Consider!’ when things may have paused for a second inside you… But, before that, probably, one thing had simply followed another, one sense experience and then a different one, on and on; we are bathed in events of this kind; it’s all a seamless flow until you punctuate it, internally or externally, with words. Reading thus, you are choosing to let these words percolate through your psychic apparatus; they have punctuated your drift, but look up and away and notice how you can resume the flow now…
And now segment the flow with your own words: “I see a … [cat, maybe…]…” “I hear … [somebody talking maybe…]…” “I’m now going to… [do something else…]…”
Observe how what was a seamless flow of events is segmented by these punctuations.
Words are the real punctuation marks!
Now wonder how your experience is segmented by an abstraction… ‘Democracy’, say, or ‘love’… How exactly do such abstractions relate to experience? What segment of it do they represent? If you are anything like me, which I am assuming (maybe rashly) you are, things become pretty vague at this point…
The abstractions—ambition, anger, fear, love, excitement, enthusiasm, energy, intention, attitude, consolation, desire—are just labels, conventional signs for what we single out for special attention from all the neutral neural activity in our heads.
Abstractions have no meaning in themselves; they do represent some kind of potential human behaviour but the immediate set of sensations, feelings, attitudes slips out of reach when you try to pin a label on it. Abstractions are slippery customers. They may single something out from the flux of events but in themselves, though words & theories are piled up on them, they fail to describe anything.
Abstractions fall into ANWhitehead’s category ‘the fallacy of misplaced concreteness’ or they come under the heading of ‘reification’—they have us imagine that they represent things. We crave thinginess, the concrete… Things we imagine we can manage. We are all fixed at Piaget’s stage of ‘concrete operations’ which is supposed to have ended when we were around the age of 11.
Uncertainty about how to Proceed Now
Something called ‘uncertainty’ can persist over time and therefore seem real enough. I am in a state of ‘uncertainty’ as I write these words now. My neural connections are all to cock in some way or the other; I’m not sure which way to go; I have a vague idea where I want to go and I know where I want to finish up, you may be pleased to know. Something you could call ‘persistence’ keeps me at it; I have a ‘drive’ to get somewhere with this bit of writing. But ‘uncertainty’, ‘persistence’ and ‘drive’, being abstractions are not something I ‘have’.
What do I have?
Well, there is a kind of unity of sensation; it persists but the label has fallen off. I don’t know how to describe it. I could say that inside me there’s a ‘struggle’ going on, but that’s just a metaphor, a way of speaking.
The unity of sensation is held together for the moment in a temporal sequence and by the space in which I’ve been working; I am aware of a ‘self’ but I remind it that it is just ‘a reification of an improperly delimited part of a much larger system of interlocking processes that reaches from here to the stars & back…’
There’s a unity of effort, maybe, but the cat comes in and throws herself down in front of the log-fire. Any unity that there was is busted apart as I notice not what’s been going on for me but stop to watch her rolling around which gives me as much pleasure as it seems to do when I project it on to her tortoiseshell furry self.
‘When I play with my cat,’ asks Montaigne, ‘who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?’
It’s absurd that we take what we imagine to be a relationship between ‘self’ and environment to be about what we call ‘feelings’. Says Gregory Bateson: ‘It is unfortunate that these abstractions referring to patterns of relationship have received names which are usually handled in ways that assume that the ‘feelings’ are mainly characterised by quantity rather than by precise pattern. This is one of the nonsensical contributions of psychology to a distorted epistemology…’ When we give ‘feelings’ names they appear to be things when, if anything, they are just ‘transforms’, significations of the way we transform patterns of relationship into something else.
Pursuing the concept of abstraction, Bateson says that the question to ask is ‘What circumstances promote that specific , habitual, phrasing of the universe… which we call ‘responsibility’, ‘constructiveness’, ‘energy’, ‘passivity’, ‘dominance’ and all the rest. All these abstract qualities… can be seen as various habits of punctuating the stream of experience so that it [seems to] take on one or another sort of coherence or sense…’
What is the Way Out of the Quagmire of Abstraction?
We have tied our cognitive processes to one way of thinking; as soon as we do that we abandon the precious ability to think in new ways; it becomes comfortable and comforting to abandon ourselves to abstractions, for instance, and it’s irksome to be asked to shift into a different gear.
In the category ‘nouns’ we are familiar with the term ‘common noun’—any object you might see lying around you, pencil, book, paper, magnifying glass and so on—and we are familiar with the term ‘proper nouns’—the names of people & places, recognisable by an upper case initial letter. We ought to propose another division to be named ‘improper nouns’ because they bear no relation to ‘reality’—ambition, anger, fear, love, excitement, enthusiasm, energy, intention, attitude, consolation, desire and so on.
How to Unpick Improper Nouns
Let’s go back to the abstraction ‘uncertainty’ = the part of us that is not sure where to go next. A few paragraphs back I described myself as being in a state of ‘uncertainty’ but it is inaccurate to describe my self, my entire self, as being in a singular ‘state’ (abstraction) of ‘uncertainty’. Only a small part of me was uncertain—about what sense I was making, about what to write next in order to clarify things; other parts of me were not at all uncertain—about noticing that the sun had set while I was writing, about the something inside me that was feeling hungry, about the fact that tomorrow is another day, about knowing quite clearly where I was going to end up with this piece of writing, and so on.
To say that my ‘I’—the whole of what is called ‘I’—can be described as being lost in uncertainty is erroneous; only one part of me could ever have been so. I have got up steam now… That’s Persisting-I at work… Let us say that there were at least three or four parts of me signified as being in operation in the previous paragraph. It makes at least provisional sense to call each of these separate parts a distinct ‘I’. So ‘I described myself…’ = Describing-I at work. Then there’s Noticing-the-fact-that-the-sun-has-set-I and Feeling-hungry-I and Knowing-that-tomorrow-is-another-day-I. Not-knowing-where-to-go-next-I could be closely linked to Feeling-the-need-to-make-myself-clear-I or Searching-for-the-right-words-I, Keeping-the-end-in-mind-I and so on in a deceptively seamless flux or unity. This fits Gurdjieff’s important concept that we are not a unity, that Unified-I is a kind of lie or deception. The ‘I’ in a series of sentences spoken by the same person like ‘I am a window cleaner’, ‘I go to the theatre’, ‘I sleep for eight hours a night’, ‘I have porridge for breakfast’ appears to be the same ‘I’—the tag ‘I’ gives the illusion of continuity but there are in fact four different ‘I’s in those four sentences, four parts of what we take to be the ‘same’ self. Four different selves. We move constantly between one ‘I’ and another.
It is of great practical use to follow Gurdjieff’s instruction to ask periodically what ‘I’ you happen to be in.
Now My Sense of Being is in Getting-up-steam-I
Treating behaviour as a unity or abstraction does not enable us to think about it in any truly meaningful way. When ‘behaviour’ remains an abstraction full of ‘excitement’ or ‘fun’ or ‘commitment’ or ‘purpose’, we cannot hope to capture anything relatively permanently manageable from it.
Fact is we behave in lots of different ways all at once: overlapping, concurrent, ill-defined, hazy, given labels that don’t match the contents; feeling uncertain, feeling hungry, making decisions, trying to get things into order—so much happening at one and the same time. Analysing a slice of a behavioural event in terms of Multiple-I’s unpicks the abstraction ‘behaviour’, makes it manageable. It’s just the same with all abstractions.
There are always lots of bits of me performing in a variety of ways all at once: conflicting opinions, drives, energies, lots of other parts that might all work successfully together when drawn out and put into a relevant system. Batteries of ‘I’s to draw on… ‘I’s for this and ‘I’s for that… Practicalities…
An Indecisive-I and a Being-able-to-suddenly-crack-it-I. Suddenly-deciding-I, Feeling-of-aha-I. Lots of Something-or-other-I’s can come into focus when Adjusting-the-microscope-I gets into its stride.
To describe Other-I’s as Something-or-other-I’s neatly preserves the possibility of an endless multiplicity of ‘I’s. In Bateson’s terms it preserves what he calls ‘loose thinking’, productive thinking, that can be made specific by adopting certain deliberate methodologies. Loose thinking, tossing things around, tightens up when you do something deliberate to produce a sensible structure—one that works.
Here’s one example of how it works practically. It’s a breakdown of the abstraction ‘learning’ into Multiple-I terms. You want to learn how to manage your Multiple-I’s… You might find a course that will enable you to find out just that. You have an Intending-to-learn-I. It is an ‘I’ that is full of ‘hope’ and good ‘intentions’. Beware abstractions! That’s what ‘hope’ and ‘intentions’ are… They will not in themselves get you anywhere.
The crucial point is that the ‘I’ that intends to learn is not the same ‘I’ that decides to go on a course (that one is Going-on-a-course-I) which is not the same ‘I’ that gets down to it (that’s Getting-down-to-it-I) which is not the same ‘I’ that reads a book on the subject in hand (that’s Reading-I allied with Making-notes-I) and so on. It’s a rather large system; here’s one way of doing it—it’s my way & yours might be different.
What is the Meaning of an Individual Multiple-I?
Unified-I is an abstraction. Whenever we use the unexamined tag ‘I’ we are unwittingly using an abstraction. We have grown accustomed to imagine that ‘I’ has some meaning—it does seem to signify ‘self’—but it has no functional, relational, meaning within the system that constitutes ‘self’. The ‘I’s in the above diagram are embedded in a system; at each stage in the system a single Multiple-I could find its own system attached to it: Setting-some-goals-I would probably need Asking-oneself-questions-I and Aiming-for-variety-I and so on…
To acquire ‘meaning’ a specific Multiple-I is to be construed as existing within a pattern or structure of other ‘I’s. A specific ‘I’ only makes sense within its context; a single Multiple-I is part of a system that gives it function and purpose.
The great thing about systemic thinking is that it is productive thinking: a series of ‘I’s in a system will produce an Emergent-I. The Emergent-I at the centre of the above diagram might be defined as Effectively-learning-I.
Without going deliberately round the system there will be no effective learning.
How Come Abstractions are a Danger to the Human Race?
The straightforward answer is that they allow people to get away with murder on a grand scale…
Take a few current abstractions: ‘deficit reduction’, ‘terror’, ‘terrorism’, ‘insurrection’, ‘rebellion’, ‘collateral damage’, ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’, ‘Axis of Evil’, ‘nuclear ambitions’, ‘growth in the economy’… That will do to illustrate the point.
Segmented into Multiple-I’s these abstractions might become amongst other things:-
‘deficit reduction’—Putting-nurses-out-of-a-job-I, Cutting-public-servants-I, Depriving-disabled-people-of-care-I
‘terror’ & ‘terrorism’—Making ‘War on Terror’ gives Bombing-anybody-I-dislike-I carte blanche to do just that; protestors become the object of indiscriminate shelling… cf ‘insurrection’ & ‘rebellion’
You Get the Drift…
All the time we accept abstractions uncritically, we choose to let the Human Race go downhill…
See The Campaign Against Abstractionism: Colin Blundell (Hub Editions 2007) Obtainable from the author…
And consider the organisation Enneagram-Multiple-I’s. Details from the author…