Against Abstraction

“It is the ideal of speculative philosophy that its fundamental notions shall not seem capable of abstraction from each other. In other words, it is presupposed that no entity can be conceived in complete abstraction from the system of the universe…” –A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality

In Western thought we are predisposed to abstraction: “the process of considering something independently of its associations, attributes, or concrete accompaniments.” We are so attuned to consider “things” independent of their context, relationships and backgrounds that we largely ignore the fact that “things,” in our concrete, day-to-day experience, never occur separately from some context or background. There is never a table in a vacuum, surrounded by nothing, the table is always in a room, surrounded by chairs, coverd in dishes (for instance). The table can only exist in a vacuum in our minds, and even then, it’s “in our minds” not an actual vacuum, it still occurs in the context of our minds.

This idea has proven to be a very difficult one for me to express. It is the concept that underlies my entire worldview. Though “things” may be different from one another, they are not fundamentally separate from one another. We all share the same context. We are all entities contained within the context of the “system of the universe.” We cannot, in concrete experience, be abstracted from that context. We can imagine things separately from their context, we can hold concepts of things “in and of themselves,” but the belief that that’s the way things are in concrete “reality” is what Alfred North Whitehead calls the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.

It seems to me that most of Western philosophy opperates under the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. One piece of evidence of this is the fact that most philosophers still speak in terms of “things.” I believe I am in line with process philosophy by arguing that a “thing” is merely a sliver of a process, isolated in time and space. All “things” are going through a process of change, transformation and decay. Think of the aforementioned table: it has gone through the process (if it’s a wooden table) of being an acorn, growing into a tree, being cut down into lumber, being turned into a table, eventually it will be given to a junk disposal service who will send it to a wood processing facility, they’ll chip it and turn it into particle board which will be turned into a new table that gets sold at IKEA. The “thing” that is the table, is only that “thing” at certain times and places in the broader process of its existence.

Only if you ignore time and space can you speak of the table rationally as a “thing.” That’s largely what the process of abstraction is, the consideration of a process or thing outside the context of time and space. Nothing in concrete experience exists outside of time and space. This isn’t the first time I’ve tried to express this idea and it won’t be the last. I’m trying to figure out how to express it in a way that will click with people so that they can have a shift in perspective. I think that if people can grasp the idea that nothing is abstract from the “system of the universe” then my model of Pantheism might seem somewhat less outlandish.

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