Lost in the concrete, lost in the abstract

Watching an occurrence is one kind of observation. Seeing a pattern is another. However, it is rare to find either observation in anything approaching pure form. When we observe an occurrence, often what we are most witnessing is the repetition of a pattern — and little else. And when we see a pattern, we imagine an event or two that lends sense to what repeats — but more vaguely than we suspect.

To watch an occurrence without the guidance of a pattern is disorienting. We don’t know what to make of it. But, conversely, to hear description of patterns of occurrences of which we lack real-life experience and cannot imagine is also disorienting, and we don’t know what to make of that either.

In the former case we are lost in the concrete and in the latter case we are lost in the abstract.

But something peculiarly meta happens when we get lost in the abstract: Being lost in the abstract it is also being lost in the concrete. An occurrence of explanation (of some unfamiliar thing) is happening before us in a conversation or on the pages of a book, and we do not know what is going on, and so we do not know what to make of it. (If you are having trouble recollecting a situation where this has happened to you, and it is preventing you from understanding what the hell I am talking about here, right now — well, now you have your example.) In these situations it is possible to master the mode of explanation (as a language game) without gaining familiarity with the reality to which the explanation refers…

  • A historian can get good at discussing battles and generals without ever knowing what it looks like to give an order or to receive a briefing and lead troops into battle or to be led into battle and to engage in combat.
  • A manager can become fluent with the terms used in his organization without actually knowing how how teams collaborate and activities are executed.
  • An armchair politician talks knowingly about Congressional developments without having the slightest insight into how legislation is drafted, debated, negotiated, passed and executed.
  • Statistics demonstrate that women on average make a quarter less than men, but leaves explanations of how this happens to other studies — or to the casual speculations of individuals.

Perhaps the vast share of our knowledge is of this second-degree concrete/abstract variety.


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