Into Abstraction and Back Again
Few issues lie as much at the core of the philosophical tradition as the question of abstraction; so much that at times, philosophy itself is understood as abstraction. And yet, as the following essay aims to show in relation to the Norwegian thinker Nils Christie, when it comes to ‘real-life consequences’ and interpersonal relations, abstraction becomes highly problematic, even dangerous. And who else would fit better to revise the simplistic notion of abstraction in philosophy, than G.W.F. Hegel himself? Let us therefore trace the problems connected to pure abstraction.
NILS CHRISTIE: Against abstraction
In May 2015, a remarkable Norwegian thinker passed away. For a life-time, Nils Christie had been working on themes closely connected to criminology and sociology. His voice was soft, clear and at the same time sharp, having a considerable influence on public discussions especially in Norway, but also internationally.
While he was still a student, Christie put forward a work dealing with a central topic that would bother him throughout his whole career (The importance of this text is reflected in the fact that it keeps showing up in lists of curricula in the university until today). Right after the Second World War, Christie was asked to write a report on a prisoner camp for Serbian soldiers that had been located in the north of Norway during the war. The conditions there were said to be terrible, strongly reminiscent of the concentration camps in Germany and Poland, if not worse. Nonetheless, some of the prisoners managed to survive and in some cases even to become friends with some of the prison guards. How was this possible? By interviewing people that had been part of the camp, Nils Christie realized that the crucial difference was whether or not the prisoners were able to get through to the guards in a personal way. In the cases where the prisoners had showed the guards pictures of their own family, spoken some words in Norwegian, or in some other way got a chance to establish a personal connection to them, the prison guards would be less inclined to treat them badly. The reason for this, Christie commented, seemed simply to be that the prisoner thereby was not solely seen as an enemy, but as an actual person, yes, maybe even a friend!
The crucial point which Nils Christie drew out of these interviews was the danger of reducing other people to abstract categories alone. Abstractions like ‘criminal’, ‘enemy’, but also such as ‘politician’ or ‘victim’ hide the individual person behind these abstractions if it is not rendered more concrete. For the rest of his life, Christie was thereby concerned about the fact that we have to create ways of living together where it is possible to hear the stories of one another. If not; if we are satisfied with such enormous abstractions, the consequences will be catastrophic — Beginning with the destruction of living neighbourhoods and ending up in cold murders. Because of this, Christie saw the Serbian prison camp during the war as well as the terror attacks in Norway in 2011 as a direct consequence of such a tendency in our society.
The abstraction needs a face, it needs to become concrete. This simple but profound insight of Nils Christie’s lead him, among other things, to initiate something called the ‘The Conflict Counsel’ (‘Konfliktrådet’). The idea behind it is that before a criminal case goes to the police, the offender and the offended in a conflict should be given the possibility to meet with a lay third part. What they do there mostly is quite simply to tell and hear one another’s stories about how they feel, how they ended up doing what they did, how their childhood was etc. These particular stories of the other remains hidden as long as the other is only an abstract category that one has never spoken to, but only spoken about. Often, the conflict is solved after these conversations. Sometimes, the offender and the offended even become friends! Thanks to Nils Christie, this is now a possibility that every police district in Norway must offer. A concrete way to avoid falling into the empty and dangerous void of abstractions.
Following Christie’s critique, it might be tempting to fall into a type of anti-intellectualism by opposing abstractions altogether, by avoiding or escaping them. I don’t believe such an understanding would do justice to Christie, who would, of course, not reject abstractions altogether. But this tendential temptation makes it important to enquire further into a more precise view on abstraction that does not itself become one-sided.
HEGEL: Who thinks abstractly?
In the desire to contrast Nils Christie’s view on abstraction, as briefly outlined above, it might be tempting to choose G.W.F. Hegel, who often is portrayed as the best example of how abstract and detached from the concrete life it is possible to get. And one must confess, a quick glance at some of his writings would often seem to confirm this view. I personally don’t believe that these accusations are substantial, but taking into consideration that Hegel sees the content of philosophy (as well as theology) as that of the Absolute, and that he by times comments that “by absolute is often meant nothing more than abstract”2placeholder, there should at least be little doubt that abstraction stand at the centre of his philosophical undertaking.
But can this be the whole story? Christie against abstraction and Hegel for? The too clearly defined positions of such a narrative should at the same time indicate that things can’t be that simple. On the contrary, I believe a closer look would clarify both of their views concerning abstractions and indeed bring them closer to one another than what seems immediately to be the case.
Concerning Hegel, it’s interesting and important to see that he, despite the accusations of exaggerating abstraction against him, seems to have been very much aware of the problem connected to pure abstraction. Eckhart Förster3placeholder has lately shed some interesting light on the close connection between Goethe and Hegel. Especially during Hegel’s years in Jena, where he, among other things, learned to master the field of practical botany as an apprentice of Goethe. In a letter to Goethe towards the end of his life, Hegel openly confessed that for a long period of his life (probably at least since their time together in Jena), he had seen Goethe as his teacher when it came to the importance of not remaining in the abstract, but rather to particularize it; that the abstract has to become concrete in order to become real. (And surely, the ones familiar with the scientific work of Goethe would recognize his stressing of this point, namely the importance of the constant movement between the abstract and concrete as a crucial ontological as well as a methodological principle.) In many places, Hegel indicates that he took this task highly serious. In Phänomenologie des Geistes from 1807, for example, which can be seen as a fruit of Hegel’s years in Jena and his contact with Goethe, the movement between the concrete and the abstract runs through the whole work — as a dialectical fuel. Although these considerations themselves might not establish any proof of Hegel’s actual achievements concerning the task of avoiding pure abstraction, we should at least take his intention seriously.
And indeed, right after the publication of the Phenomenology in 1807, Hegel writes a short, fascinating text titled Wer denkt abstrakt? — ‘Who thinks abstractly?4placeholder (Maybe as a small post-scriptum to the Phenomenology?) Anyway, Hegel is here directly concerned with the question of abstraction. And whom is he addressing? Who are, according to Hegel the ones, who think abstractly? One might fall into thinking that the difficulty itself lies in being able to abstract, and that the more educated a person is, the more abstract he will also think. On the contrary, Hegel says. “The uneducated man thinks abstractly, not the educated”, Hegel states, for the simple reason that it is so easy to think abstractly. The difficulty; that which needs training, is, on the other hand, to avoid pure abstraction.
Luckily, Hegel provides us with an example;5placeholder A murderer is brought to the place of execution. For the surrounding people, he is nothing but a murderer, and thereby someone simply to be executed. But then, a woman might comment that this man is actually a strong, beautiful and intelligent man. The masses are furious; How is it possible to think so badly?! How can this man be anything else but a murderer? The woman’s comment on this particular man’s characteristics shakes the crowd and its reduction of him to the abstract category of a murderer alone. Hegel goes on to describe how every criminal has a personal history to be heard, which will make his actions and situation more understandable. These personal stories and description are forgotten once the crowd shouts for ‘the murder to be executed’ etc. Although he might be a murderer, he is also much more, and recognizing this is important in order to understand the other and ourselves. The resemblance to Nils Christies’ point should be obvious.
For Hegel, the ability to abstract is what makes us human. To wish it away is to wish away the human condition. In order to prevent ending up in such a self-destructive gutter, what he points towards is that the critique against abstraction must be directed against the types of abstraction that are satisfied with the abstraction alone, detached from the concrete thing it is abstracted from. In his Encyclopaedia6placeholder, Hegel compares the satisfaction with pure abstractions with someone who wants fruit, but is disappointed by being offered pear, apple and cherry, since they are not ‘fruit’! People that only think abstractly are, in other words, not the ones we usually call intelligent, as Hegel points out, but rather the ones we regard as stupid, not understanding that ‘pear’ and ‘cherry’ are concretizations of the abstract ‘fruit’.
So why all these considerations about Hegel? Would it not have sufficed with Christie’s warnings? I believe that the points mentioned by Hegel show a crucial side of any true idealism, namely that the ideal is not to be found external to the real, but rather as the most intimate truth of the real itself. Which means that if we abandon the existence of the ideal, we abandon the real at the same time. Abstraction is necessary to understand the concrete, but becomes unreal and dangerous when it is believed to exist independently of the concrete. In my view, Nils Christie’s view is therefore fully compatible with such a kind of idealism; with such a kind of abstraction. This does not mean that I want to force Christie into a idealistic straightjacket, but rather point out that his position does not go against abstractions altogether, but rather the ones that locks out the concrete.
Thus, from two rather different positions, I believe Christie and Hegel could thereby be said to make the same point. Namely that the problem is not to abstract (which we as humans cannot avoid doing), but rather not being able to return from the abstractions; Not being able to choose a concrete fruit, from the tree of knowledge.
“Against abstraction” is the title of a small three pages essay by Christie to be found in the journal ‘Motmæle, 2014’ published by ‘Novus forlag’, p. 63–66.
For example: Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Religion II. Frankfurt am Main, 1969. p. 455.
Eckhart Förster: Die 25 Jahre der Philosophie. Frankfurt am Main, 2011. For example p. 286–289.
To be found in ‘Hegel; Jenaer Schriften; Frankfurt am Main, 1970‘, p. 575.
Ibid.; p. 577.
Hegel; Enz. 1, §13.