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Concrete v. Abstract Thinking

By Dennis Loo (5/10/12)

Editor’s Note: Below is a message that Dennis Loo shares with his students in his Classical Social Theory class. In it he discusses the distinction between concrete knowledge and abstract knowledge. We post it here because understanding what’s going on necessarily involves using abstractions, but the role of abstractions is not widely well understood. In the U.S., theory (the systematic development of abstractions) is widely considered irrelevant and “practical men” are the rule: what matters is whether something works, not why it does.

Yet, in contrast to this widespread belief, everyone uses theory, all of the time. We cannot avoid using theory since theory is the basis for our being able to make sense of our world. Without it we could not operate in the world and we could not survive. Theory provides a structure for meaning: if offers an explanation for what something is, what it is "for," and why it is that way. The so-called practical men of our time actually use theory. The dominant (theoretical) doctrine of our time is neoliberalism, a doctrine that originates from the work of Frederick Hayek. Neoliberalism bases itself, in turn, upon a particular interpretation of functionalist theory.

Different theories offer radically different perspectives on reality and truth. This is as true in the realm of science as it is in the social sciences and humanities and in people's everyday lives. To illustrate this, as Loo states in Globalization and the Demolition of Society:

In sociology there are two major paradigmatic perspectives. The first is called functionalism, sometimes referred to as the “consensus perspective.” It holds that societies are best understood as held together by universal agreement about values among the people and by a division of labor that produces interdependence and therefore social solidarity; inequality is natural, inevitable, functional, and everlasting because people are not equally endowed and because the division of labor requires different levels and kinds of skill; those whose jobs are the most important to the society are more highly rewarded; the public gets the leaders and media that it deserves and wants because the leaders and media function at the pleasure of the public and reflect public sentiment; society’s main and default condition is one of harmony, with the greatest harmony existing when people do their respective parts in the overall division of labor; the preservation of the whole of society is paramount and the whole functions best when everyone knows where they belong.

Sociology’s other major theoretical perspective is known as the “conflict perspective.” Instead of viewing societies as bound by shared values, the conflict perspective holds that society is shaped by groups with different and conflicting interests battling over resources, both material and non-material. This perspective is based on materialism (in the philosophical sense): ideas do not exist separate and apart from material interests and materiality; ideas grow out of and represent material interests and materiality; because values are based on interests, and the interests of groups are themselves in conflict, different groups possess different values; public officials and media mainly reflect the society’s dominant groups rather than the society as a whole; the ideas that serve the dominant groups’ interests are the most widely propagated and promoted ones in the society, but are not the ideas that reflect a society-wide consensus of shared values; the dispossessed and subordinated and those who advance the ideas of the subordinated are generally downplayed, ignored, derided, and/or dismissed; the course of history is shaped by the struggle between different interests and their corresponding ideas; revolutionary changes happen when the subordinated groups and their subordinated ideas overturn those who have been dominant, establishing a new economic and political system based on a different organization of society, especially the economy, and correspondingly different values, ideas, norms, and social relations.

Everyone adopts one of these two perspectives (including variants upon them), whether they know it or not. A consensus person sees the world differently from a conflict person. Both types of people could be watching the famous Rodney King video, for example, and one would see a black man being mercilessly and unnecessarily beaten and another would see the “thin blue line” of the police protecting the citizenry against a large black man, high on PCP, refusing to cooperate with authority.

Functionalism, because it advocates, naturalizes, and therefore justifies inequality, represents the dominant perspective in the US. For the American Dream of great wealth to work as a strong incentive for people to strive and work hard, there must be a wide gap between the rich and the poor. If the gap is not wide then the incentive for striving for wealth would not be strong since a standard of living that was not that much different from others could be enjoyed without having to strive for riches. Thus, those who say that the American Dream allows everyone to be prosperous are misleading people. In fact, poverty is part and parcel of capitalism and of the American Dream in particular. If no poor people existed, they would have to be created as an incentive for those at the lower rungs of society, so that those people would be afraid for their jobs and keep their noses to the grindstone lest they end up like the poor below them. The American Dream, in other words, is rather like a game of musical chairs where some must of necessity and by structural logic be left out in the cold, no matter how hard they might work or how talented they might be.

All societies need to ensure that all or at least most of their population are working and working hard. How they ensure this varies. Hunting and gathering societies demand hard work from their members (for at least part of the day, since hunting and gathering societies actually enjoy a lot of leisure time) as a precondition for being a member of the tribe/group; if you do not work hard then you will be ostracized and ejected. Slavery compelled hard work on pain of whippings and death. Capitalism offers the Hobson’s choice: work or starve. Capitalism differs from feudalism in that in capitalism the vast majority of the population are systematically deprived of the means to survive independently, compelling them to work for those who own and control the means of production, that is, the means to life.

The conflict perspective regards social and economic inequality by classes and other groupings (e.g., race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation) as both very real and not desirable. Those who rule the society consequently do not generally adopt the conflict perspective because the conflict perspective challenges their own position of power and privilege.

Most people in the US have strains of both the functionalist and conflict perspectives intermingled in their views of the world. Only a minority of people are either fully consistent functionalist or conflict people. In response to the Rodney King beating, most Americans were shocked at the police brutality. They were stunned because their native worldview was/is functionalist and the video challenged that view, depicting an event that a functionalist would find hard to believe: police were not acting according to shared values; they were illegally beating a defenseless man. (Pp. 21-23)

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If you find that you are still struggling in this class or if you are doing significantly worse than you are used to doing, or even if you aren’t struggling in this class, these reflections should help you.

Because theory is abstract, it is more difficult for most people. Why?

Abstractions are harder to grasp than concrete, particular cases. Abstractions are a higher order of thinking than concrete thinking.

Another way of getting at this is to speak of the general and the particular, with the general = abstractions and the particular = the concrete.

The general/abstract is built on the basis of summing up many, many particular instances over the course of history. You get to the general by determining what multiple instances of specific instances all have in common. That is the first stage above concrete thinking.

You know the expression, “The exception proves the rule”? This dictum shows that a rule exists because the exceptions are just that, exceptions from the general cases and few in number compared to the rule in which the vast majority are similar to each other. That is why we can call it a rule: a rule is a term to refer to situations where we see a certain outcome and pattern the vast majority of the time.

The next step above summation of many particular instances is that a correct and useful abstraction represents the essence of what all of those particular instances have in common. An abstraction is thus not only a statement about the general trend, but also a statement about what is going on in the process that causes this general result to occur.

If a child sticks his hands on a hot stove and burns himself from the heat, he learns that a hot stove is not a good thing to touch. Does he yet know why? No. But his parent says: “Hot” and the child learns that “hot” means that it hurts and feels a certain way. He learns to associate “hot” with the stove when it’s red. But does he understand the nature of heat as a form of energy? No. To learn that he has to become more developed cognitively and he will eventually learn that heat is a form of activated molecules, caused by putting more energy into the activity of the molecules. He learns that if you pull energy out of the molecules’ activity then it cools down. Etc.

Energy is a concept, an abstraction. Hot is a concrete experience. Energy can only be understood as an abstraction and the Laws of Thermodynamics are based upon this abstraction. Science had to develop to a certain point before it could identify and develop the abstraction known as energy. What you’re learning in this class about theory is abstractions and different and competing theories that offer different explanations for why things are the way they are.

Theory is designed to not only predict but to explain why this outcome will occur. Those are two other reasons why abstract thinking reflects a higher order of thinking than concrete thinking.

For instance, functionalist theory says that the reason why all human cultures prohibit murder and treat it as a great offense is because the people of all of these cultures share the same view that murder is a profoundly anti-social act. This is based upon the view that social solidarity is key to any social grouping.

The concept here of “social solidarity” is an abstraction. You can’t go out into the world and find it but what you will find are all kinds of examples of social solidarity in action. When someone pats you on the back or shakes your hand, they don’t also then literally speak the words, “I’m showing you that I feel social solidarity with you.” But the actions and words that they do use (such as “Hello! How are you?”) are examples of what social scientists call social solidarity.

Understanding the underlying dynamics of what is going on is important because if you don’t understand things on this level, then you will not know how to respond appropriately when the concrete conditions that you are familiar with change, either by a little or by a lot. If you don’t understand the underlying principles that are at work in a process, then you won’t be able to predict what’s going to happen next and you won’t know how to deal with the new situation.

As a really strange but revealing example of this I once had two students tell me that they got the wrong answer to a test question, the correct answer to which was 20%. I said, “Didn’t I say in lecture that 1 out of 5 people were so and so?” “Yes,” they said. I then said, “What’s 1 out of 5 as a percentage?” “20%,” they said. “Then why didn’t you choose the answer 20%?” “Because you didn’t say it on the test the way you said it in lecture, as 1 out of 5.”

To give you another example, if someone explains to you how to cook a dish and tells you to do this, this, this and this in a particular order, but they don’t teach you the basic principles of how to cook, then if something happens and you’re missing a particular ingredient, you’re going to be stymied because you don’t know what to do. If you’ve been told to add sugar and you find that you’re out of sugar, you’ll not know that honey could perhaps be used instead. If you don’t know what each ingredient does and how it tastes, you’ll not know how to modify the process and/or ingredients to still successfully finish making the dish.

To learn theory, you cannot leave it at the level of understanding a concrete instance of it. When I give you concrete examples to illustrate a theory, the examples I use are meant to help you see the underlying principles but are not the same thing as the principles. If you could understand the entirety of a principle through a specific concrete example alone, then that would mean that the principle wouldn’t be necessary and that all there is to know would be exhausted by that one particular concrete example alone. The principle of some process is a distillation of the essence of what all similar processes have in common and what is the essence of what’s going on under the surface.

The reason that many of you are having some trouble with theory is because not only is theory hard to grasp, but because you have been trained in school by teaching practices that have become unfortunately all too common: teaching people by memorization, fragmenting the material into parts without integrating them into a whole, neglecting to train students in thinking holistically, inferentially, and giving people direct answers to simple direct questions and thus undermining students’ ability to learn how to think through problems and develop critical thinking skills. If you’re used to getting simple direct questions and answer choices, then you’ve not been trained in learning the different dimensions of any process and any thing. Reality isn’t one-dimensional; it is multi-dimensional. Reality isn’t static; it is dynamic.

When you study (this material or any other), ask yourself “what are the different aspects that I have learned/read/heard about a particular person or concept or theory?” There are multiple dimensions or facets to everything and every process. If you cannot answer this question by reciting more than one thing, or if you find yourself answering the question by resorting exclusively to a concrete example of it, then you need to study the matter more. Ask yourself, “What difference does it make to think about it through the lens of this particular theory?” “How does that differ from the perspective of another theory?” “What premises are this theory and that theory based upon?”

As I lay out in the last sheet of the syllabus, there are different levels of cognition. It begins at the level of recognition and recall. This is where all too much of even higher education has devolved to. If all you’re being tested on is if you can remember hearing or reading some word or phrase or some definition that you then recite back without really understanding, then you aren’t learning how to think and you’re not being trained at a college level (or even at the high school level). What you need to get to in Bloom’s Taxonomy of Cognitive Levels is to the level of analysis, synthesis and evaluation – the highest stages. If you’re not studying this material at that level, then you’re going to do poorly on the tests and in the papers. This is what this class is about and what a college level education is supposed to be about. Part of this challenge to get a college level education also requires expanding your vocabulary. If you find that you are seeing or hearing words that you don’t understand, this means that you need to build a bigger vocabulary.

Different words exist for the same reason why different colors exist in a multiple array of intensities, shades, and tones. If you tried to paint an accurate picture of something but only had access to the primary colors of Red, Yellow and Blue, then you could not carry out this task in the way that someone who has access to 50 different colors and shades and tones and intensities could. This is likewise true of words. No two words mean exactly the same thing. That is why we have so many words in the dictionary. You want to learn a lot more words and as you do so, your ability to understand what you’re reading will be greatly enhanced and your ability to be more sophisticated and nuanced in your writing and speaking will also be greatly enhanced. Otherwise it would be like trying to fix a car but only having a hammer, screwdriver, and non-adjustable wrench. Auto mechanics have a large array of tools to do what they do. Anyone seeking to understand society and act effectively in society also needs access to and command over a wide array of intellectual tools, including a large vocabulary.

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