Have you ever paid attention to the origin of any thought process you had? Have you ever wondered how you ended up thinking about an unfinished book that is probably lying around somewhere in the attic and how you have burned with a severe need to rush upstairs and find it? A thread, thin as a strand of hair, runs through your chain of thoughts, linking them.
That is an abstract thought process; to think of something that is not tangible, like an idea or a concept, such as perceiving a fairly mundane experience to have meaning far beyond the realm of realism. How often have you felt as if your circumstances were signs (from the devil most of the times lol) to do something you have been delaying, to change your career path, maybe?, or some sort of a warning for you to brace yourself? We all have heard of the phrase ‘the calm before the storm,’ and you all know exactly what I am talking about.
All of this is what you call Abstract Thinking; thinking beyond in search of a deeper meaning to things that don’t look like it at a first glance. It does make you an abstract thinker but it doesn’t take away your concrete thinking skills either. As the name suggests, concrete thinking involves objects and situations that you can observe directly i.e thinking of an event at face-value.
You are a blend of your concrete and abstract thinking to function properly in your life.
An insight into abstract thinking
To begin with, we all have an abstract thought process at some points during the day. But the question isn’t whether you are an abstract thinker; but rather in what domain exactly and how much?
You see, abstract thinking is domain specific and can be measured, for example, Vincent Van Gogh had exceptional abstract thinking skills in art during the post-impressionist era, unlike other painters at that time who are not known to us now (for a reason, right?). But he might have not have been that of an abstract thinker in mathematics, for example, which is another highly abstract form of a subject.
If you want to read more about Vincent Van Gogh, an insight into art and its relation to his suffering, click this link.
When are you an abstract thinker?
So, you’re great at math? You just get it? That indicates you have a high level of abstraction in this subject. But on the other hand, you suck in arts. You can never paint a decent picture on your own. If you do, you only think one step ahead. In other words, you resort to concrete thinking; breaking your painting into several images and pulling an image into your head before drawing it. You need step-by-step instructions. This is a high indicator that you are a concrete thinker in a specific domain rather than an abstract thinker.
For an artist, or a writer, or a movie producer, they can visualize their final product i.e the image, the story they have to write etc.
Humor is another form of abstraction where you connect ideas and experiences not normally thought of being related. And metaphors. And analogies. What do these things have in common? They depart from the literal. Thus, they are distinctly abstract. The phrase ‘recharging my batteries’ is an abstract form of saying ‘I need to spend some time alone,’ for example.
The Power of Abstraction
We are the only species who can extract abstraction from the literal and the concrete. Mind you, abstractions are only representations of our concrete reality; we can never really create something out of nothing, but we can forge exceptionally unique things from what we have at our disposal. That is also what we mean by creativity, isn’t it? You create something unmatched, exemplary, from what already exists.
You listen to something, a song stuck in your head, or you read a book and you wonder. Or maybe you begin to look at things differently; the library stops feeling like home for example, and it doesn’t make room for you anymore when you walk through the numerous isles. Maybe a tragedy has forever marred its image for you. The towering ceilings now threaten to remind me of all the empty spaces they had once disguised with warmth.
For you, this abstraction that is completely fashioned by your mind is more than real. It is your reality then, in the moment. Can you dispose of it? Can you dismiss it? Can you believe something other than what the rapidly caving-in walls are telling you?
I think Jordan B. Peterson really captured the essence of abstract thinking when he said:
“You could say there’s a principle that the dominant person manifests, and then you might say that principle shines forth even more brightly, if you know 10 people who are dominant and powerful. Then you could extract out what ‘dominance’ means from that. You can extract what ‘power’ means from that, and then you can divorce the concept from the people. We had to do that, at some point, because we can say ‘power,’ in the human context, and we can imagine what that means. But it’s divorced from any specific manifestation of power. How the hell did we do that? That’s so complicated. If you’re a chimp, the power is in another chimp. It’s not some damn abstraction.
Think about it. We’re in these hierarchies, many of them across centuries. We’re trying to figure out what the guiding principle is. We’re trying to extract out the core of the guiding principles, and we turn that into a representation of a pattern of being. That’s God. It’s an abstracted ideal, and it manifests itself in personified form.
That’s ok, because what we’re trying to get at is, in some sense, the essence of what it means to be a properly functioning, properly social, and properly competent individual. We’re trying to figure out what that means. You need an embodiment. You need an ideal that’s abstracted, that you could act out, that would enable you to understand what that means. That’s what we’ve been driving at. That’s the first hypothesis.
I’m going to go over some of the attributes of this abstracted ideal that we’ve formalized as God, but that’s the first hypothesis: a philosophical or moral ideal manifests itself, first, as a concrete pattern of behavior that’s characteristic of a single individual—and then it’s a set of individuals, and then it’s an abstraction from that set, and then you have the abstraction, and it’s so important.”
There’s more to us than we know. Even our actions are at times meaningless to us and we struggle to find reasons for them. In Jordan Peterson’s words again, “You’re a complicated animal with the beginnings of an articulated mind. You are just way more than you can handle.”
Our actions, our way of acting, brought us closer to represent our actions and then to the representations themselves which became abstractions.
“You can pull the representation of the behaviour away from the behaviour and manipulate the representation before you enact it.” -Jordan B. Peterson
Written by Dua K.