The Meaning of
The Abstract
by Jonathan J. Dickau
©2000 - all rights reserved

To speak of the unspeakable, one must listen. So it is, defining the meaning of the abstract. You can describe what it is not, but in the end, the abstract is not what we define, but rather, it’s that which we use as the vehicle for the process of doing the defining. You see, the abstract is the context on which we hang all of our content, the background for which all of the details found in our descriptions, and definitions, of the universe and its laws, are the foreground. We, ourselves, are a part of the tapestry, woven of many threads, many forms, many colors and flavors, many aromas and textures. There are as many different views about how and what life is, or what it all means, because we all want to know, to understand, to explain the world around us, and to perceive that which is known as reality. Unfortunately, these two facts are the foremost reasons why we all tend to miss the underlying truth of abstract reality. First, is our immersion in detail and content. Second, is our desire to explain what is real, to find a reason for it, and ultimately, to have a degree of control over it. Our cultural malaise thus tends to make us grumpy control freaks, rather than intelligent partners involved in the process by which reality is unfolded.

You see, the abstract has an existence of its own, apart from the world of detail and content which it generates. Just as every unit of form must have a generating function or pattern, in order to exist in the material world, there must be something or someone to create that function, or pattern, an intelligence to create the possibility for it in the abstract, and so on. When I speak of the abstract, I am not refering to a mere rhetorical process of abstraction, but rather of a living thing which has no particular form. This does not mean, however, that I am suggesting it has nothing to teach, or no outstanding qualities to speak of, but rather that it tends to make us free from the boundaries of the particular, and ultimately free from all limitation. The abstract, of itself, is perfectly real and well defined, but it is also infinitely flexible and changeable, in terms of offering possibilities as yet undreamed of. It is the bridge from the realm of infinite possibilities into the world of concrete realities. If something is theoretically possible, and then becomes probable, even if only for an instant, we may see an abstract possibility become a concrete reality. But the whole time this is happening, the abstract reality is coexisting with all concrete possibilities.

To live in the abstract can be tremendously rewarding, but it is unbelievably difficult for most people to get there, and a glimpse is more common than a prolonged stay. Absolute freedom is far too intense and scary for many of us; it seems that it’s just too freeing for the common mind, and people would rather cling to images and symbols, or other substitutes for reality, than truly face the infinite, the realm of unlimited possibilities. We can, however, learn to regard possibility itself as an attribute of the abstract, and to delineate and characterize the various kinds of infinities required to accurately represent it. We can approach absolute freedom by speaking of degrees of freedom (as in directions of motion), or a range of freedoms (to take action), and these things bespeak freedom, as a representation or emissary of the abstract, but they do not really describe it. You see, where the material world presents us with great challenges to our understanding of it, because there is so much detail to observe, and this makes it difficult to describe, the abstract is far more difficult to pin down, because there are so few absolutes, and they are so elusive.

Luckily, the nature of the problem is understood, and the solution is known. There are strategies for going beyond our prison, ways to see beneath the surface of things, ways to go beyond the maze of our own descriptions of, and beliefs about, reality. We must step back from the actual, and move into the world of the theoretical, the possible, in order to see why things are as they are. In this way, we can use the abstract to put the concrete in perspective, but how can we see the abstract itself? In effect, we need to use the power of the abstract to help us discover the nature of the abstract. Liberation from the world of absolutes can empower us to new ability, and an expanded sense of identity. All we need do, to transcend any of various sorts of limitation, is to cease our identification with limitations, as if they were fixed attributes of ourselves, or of our world. This is the true power of the abstract. Each of us is capable of being far more than we currently imagine ourselves to be. There is a side to each of us, rooted in the abstract, which can make us free of limitation, to an unbelievable degree. We can cultivate a relationship with the abstract, and with the force that creates the power for abstraction, which will enable us to do extraordinary things. Virtually everything we believe to be real needs to be re-examined, however, in order to be faithful to this aim.

Abstract thinking is one of the highest faculties to emerge in the human psyche, and one of the last modalities to fully develop. Around the time of life (developmentaly) that people become fully capable of using the imagination, however, and awakening the power of abstract thinking, most are expected to have given up the childhood practice of playing games, and other pursuits which could further develop this faculty. If we can master the use of our own imagination, there is very little we cannot do, in the real world. In some ways, this attributes to the power of the abstract, to engender new states and new processes. The process of abstraction, and the act of viewing things as extending from their abstract roots, are expressions of the abstract, but these constitute only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Abstract thinking is a marvelous tool, which we should continue to develop as adults, because it aids us in using the power of the abstract, in our lives. The abstract itself, however, is our gateway to the infinite, our portal to freedom.

© 2000 - Jonathan J. Dickau - all rights reserved

Single copies for reference or personal use are allowed,
but reproduction for sale is not permitted.

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this page was first posted March 1, 2002