[OPE-L] "Levels of abstraction"

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Tue Feb 05 2008 - 14:20:02 EST


Well we must be getting to the end of this thread. But anyway I do not intend to disparage Paul C., Allin's or Dave's research at all, I mean I admire them, I learn from what they have done, it's no small achievement. What I object to is a schematic or abstract apriori representation of the interdependencies that exist in society, of "basic" and "non-basic"" sectors, of who "supports" whom etc. because my experience is that often when prima facie you'd think that X depends on Y, in reality it turns out that Y depends on X as well, or that in reality the dependency operates in a different way than it might appear. Thus, for example, people whom you might think occupy a marginal position in the social order, suddenly turn out to occupy a very important, essential role, whereas people who seemed crucial, turn out not to be. In that sense, apriori generalities can get in the way of understanding the real order of things.

I don't think  that Paul C, Allin or Dave are "totalitarians", that would be offensive, I was merely intending to refer to a tyranny of concepts which classify the world in certain sorts of ways which I think are really not very helpful. It is not very helpful to say, I think, that the so-called unproductive workers depend on the so-called productive workers if in reality the inverse applies just as much. It's always nice to be able to rearrange the division of labour in a way which you think is most productive, but it takes a lot of knowledge and skill to be able to do it so that it really is more productive, and more productive in terms of a shared goal that people have rather than just your own partisan view, i.e. so you get real cooperation going. That aside, life is not just about productivity, and indeed in particular contexts a revolt against "productivity mania" can be perfectly justifiable and healthy, if it's clearly focused.

Following Vico, Marx argues it is at least possible to understand the totality of society, after all, we made it ourselves. But the question is how we go about understanding it, what the origins of our abstractions about it are - whether we superimpose a set of abstractions drawn from some source on reality, or whether through a rigorous experiential process we verify what the relationships really are. It is important what status we attach to our abstractions, what their role we assign to them, whether we absolutize them of conflate them with reality, or whether we use them as an orienting device which increasingly proves its worth, distinguishing carefully between the abstractions and the real object to which they refer.

I could say for example that the inquiry should start with this abstraction or that abstraction, according to a doctrine I have devised, but the point is that the starting point only validates itself by the results of the inquiry. It may in practice not matter so much where exactly we start, we just use some abstractions to guide us along as orientation, and these abstractions prove themselves by the results they yield. If I am constantly disputing about what should be abstracted from what, I end up with a scholasticism or a dogma which doesn't really tell me anything about the world that I am trying to find out about. And matters become even worse if I operate with abstractions which actually prevent me from finding out about the reality I am concerned with, because they assume precisely what has to be explained. You can get into real conundrums there.  

The point of "pluralism" I think is not simply that "everyone is entitled to their own opinion" as an intrinsic value of toleration but that, through a confrontation or meeting of different views attentive to different aspects, a better understanding and practical orientation results - which would not result if we were all forced to think or act the same way, missing out important aspects in so doing. Personally I don't believe in pluralism for the sake of pluralism, I think pluralism is relevant to get to a better viewpoint or practical standpoint, i.e. other voices or positions are taking into consideration to get to that position. If it is proved that there is a better position, there is no point in insisting in pluralism, because in that case the challenge is to take that better position - but you may need pluralism to get there, and you may need pluralism to be able to convince others. It is not very convincing if I say you should adopt a position simply because I say so. But "pluralism for the sake of pluralism" rapidly gets in the way of organisation that achieves things. A true democrat knows where to strike the balance. A totalitarian does not have that problem, because he has the truth on his side already, he already knows how the world is and how people should see it.

Probably there are some abstractions I stick with quite tenaciously, but that's because of what works and doesn't work in my experience. Generally I can explain why that is, from my corner of the world. But I could hardly claim that they are the absolute truth or something like that, and there could always be situations in which I would need to revise them. It's just that if I would revise what I thought all the time at a drop of a hat, it would not say much for the quality of my abstractions, I would not have any definite views about anything, it would only be an opportunist verbiage, whatever suited the moment. It is just that some modes of abstraction have a pretty solid foundation, other haven't, you definitely know some things and not other things, there'a time and a place to say things, and for a cumulative practice you cannot put into question again all the time everything you believe, "reinventing the wheel" as it were. The question is whether there is a real dialogue, since if there is only a monologue, you only tell what you knew already, and there's no feedback from something external to your own awareness that could change it for the better. Toleration is a positive virtue, if it produces a fructifying dialogue - if it only means an agreed mutual indifference, it is only saying negatively that we are individuals in an atomised world where we accept that others do not accept.


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