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More on Abstraction

Posted on 18 September 2017 by James Cowan in General Semantics

There is more to abstraction, and this time it is in the lap of the beholder. If you, in the role of listener or reader, become aware that an abstraction is (or even may be) being used and that its parameters (i.e. that the qualities of an item which are pertinent to the discussion) have not been made clear, then it is up to you either to analyse what you are hearing or reading to try and identify them, or to query it. Anyone who has read A. E. van Vogt's "World of Null-A" will be familiar with his concept of the "corticothalamic pause" used by Gilbert Gosseyn as a practitioner of General Semantics, wherein he tries to evaluate the meaning of the abstraction he has heard to ensure he is responding to what was meant. The Null-A reference is to "non-Aristotelian" semantics, which is the foundation of General Semantics. (See the GS website www.generalsemantics.org for a definition and discussion).

Much of the science boils down to the statement "The map is not the territory", i.e. that a description of something is of necessity an abstraction, and does not define all its characteristics, only a subset.

Let us ignore the Goons' 1:1 scale map, and consider the more usual scales, such as the 1:50,000 that I have in my collection for when I go hiking. This map represents a distance of one kilometre by two centimetres, which means that the map shows some 36×24 km on a page measuring 72×48 cm. In the village near where I live, only streets are shown; as I live out in the country, my house is represented (by a very small square), but only because all my neighbours are some way off. The map shows roads and tracks, contours, ponds, streams and inlets of the sea. (I do indeed live in an interesting place.) However, the map is clearly an abstraction: it shows what can be fitted into the representation, but is primarily concerned with getting from one location to another, not with individual houses.

So the statement that "the map is not the territory" is designed to remind us that any representation is necessarily an abstraction. Very few of us, in talking about a chair, really are considering the molecular structure of all of its components, for example, and while this is implicit, there is rarely a requirement to make it explicit. It is, if you will, a "given" that all participants in the discussion automatically assume, without even considering that they are doing so, that this abstraction has been made.

Not all abstractions are as clear. I recently met a dairy farmer, and watched him milking his cows as we talked of other things. If I did not mentioned that the animals were in fact buffaloes, the image you would have been most likely to have in your mind of the cows being milked would almost certainly have been of Friesians or Jerseys. Which would have been my fault, if it mattered to subsequent discourse.

And of course, there is another aspect to the process of abstraction: the properties excluded. For the purposes of this website, I am a proofreader / editor. But those of you who have fossicked in the site may have found a link to my dragonfly photographs (on the "About" page), which is the top site about NZ dragonflies in Google. And I am currently engaged in aiding the development of a livestock industry service, the first of its kind in New Zealand. I have done, and do, lots of other stuff, but only here am I claiming to be solely a proofreader.


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