The Utility of Abstractions

Friday 12 April 2024

Nick Nielsen
9 min readApr 14, 2024

To build a world on abstractions was the ultimate conceit of the Enlightenment, but the Enlightenment was not the first time in human history when human beings tried to build a world based on a frankly unrealistic conceit. It was the ultimate conceit of the Axial Age to build a world on ideals (and idealizations). While the Axial Age is poorly defined, and the term is used differently by different authors, I am here using it to refer to the appearance in history of moralizing religions, which coincides with the appearance of the major religious traditions in world history, most of which are still with us today. Pre-Axial Age religion was pervasive in human societies, and extends far back in human history, long before civilization. It seems that we will never know the early appearance and development of religious ideas because the existence of these Axial Age traditions over several thousand years has largely obliterated all cognitive traces of pre-Axial Age belief. We have the tantalizing material culture of monuments like Göbekli Tepe to remind us of traditions that were probably far older than our contemporary multi-thousand year old religious traditions, and which survived into the earliest period of civilization. That is to say, we have records of the mature stages of pre-Axial Age beliefs, but know nothing of their origins.

Sometime in the first millennium BC, a new kind of religious belief and practice emerged, much more focused on the literate culture of cities, and usually based on a text or texts — what Robert Redfield called a “great tradition.” These texts probably preserved within themselves a significant quantity of pre-literate thought, just as the poems that have come down to us as the Iliad and the Odyssey are likely written versions of oral poetry handed down through the generations during the Greek Dark Age, which itself was part of this pre-literate, pre-Axial world. The Greeks took this pre-Axial Age tradition and built a civilization around it that is still a high water mark for human achievement. Therefore, Axial Age religion is not a necessary condition for high civilization. The Romans adopted Greek culture, only for its cities and its transportation system to become the Petri dish for the development of Christianity, a derivation at one remove from the Axial Age traditions.

The world that was created in the wake of the Axial Age religions was built (albeit imperfectly built) on the ideals to which the Axial Age traditions give voice. Idealizations are usually grounded in some concrete human experience — human, all-too-human experience, as subsequent history showed. While Axial Age civilizations produced memorable monuments to its ideals, like all that is human, all-too-human, these traditions were eventually corrupted and came to serve extra-Axial interests. As the traditions aged, becoming less relevant as the world changed around them and they remained resistant to change, a revolutionary milieu came into being. Societies putatively established on the basis of Axial Age ideals were challenged. Some gave way and collapsed, others changed, some attempted to negotiate with the new ideals, and some reacted, trying to hold the line.

The revolutionary new ideologies were engaged in an explicit exercise of replacement (on which cf. newsletters 267 and 268): replacing Axial Age ideals (much changed over time) with novel abstractions that were to be the basis of a new kind of society. The modern ideals, which are abstract ideals not founded in concrete human experience, but founded instead in human aspirations for a world that has never existed (which is, I guess, a kind of experience — the experience of speculation on what a better world might be like), were much more vulnerable to corruption than the previous Axial Age ideals. This is, I believe, partly because of their being only tenuously grounded in human experience, but more I think due to the inevitable social conditions of appearing with societies that had already achieved an initial condition of maturity.

Egyptian civilization embodies the static monumentality of many pre-modern civilizations.

Static and monumental Egyptian civilization endured nearly intact over almost three thousand years. How could its institutions endure over such periods of time with relatively low levels of the corruption of the key institutions that were the basis of a functional society? In more advanced societies, the corruption of new institutions takes place much more rapidly than in the earlier stages of society in which a newly formed institution might persist for hundreds of years, perhaps even thousands of years, before being compromised. In more advanced societies, the institutions of corruption (if we can all them that, which I think we can) are already well established and so can be rapidly reconstructed and flourish within the new social institutions, reproducing the worst structures of the old order like a mirror reflecting the recent past. During the earliest stages of a society’s development, the institutions of corruption are not yet extant, and they must be constructed from scratch.

Thus Enlightenment institutions have been corrupted within a few centuries of being established — less than three hundred years, in comparison to the three thousand year history of Egyptian institutions. Corruption grew like a weed within the interstices of society, and when the Enlightenment began picking off Axial Age civilizations one-by-one, gaining a world entire, they also inherited the legacy of sophisticated institutions of corruption, which rapidly populated its institutions. The order of magnitude lesser stability of Enlightenment institutions makes them appear slightly ridiculous from an historical point of view, but we must give them the full measure of their short-lived success.

After the Enlightenment, traditional societies fell one-by-one to modern revolutions.

We think of abstractions as being out of touch with human lived experience, but abstractions are, on the contrary, eminently practical — much more practical than lived experience, which latter approximates, to a greater or lesser degree, William James’ well known characterization of the world of an infant:

“The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion; and to the very end of life, our location of all things in one space is due to the fact that the original extents or bignesses of all the sensations which came to our notice at once, coalesced together into one and the same space.” (William James, The Principles of Psychology, Chapter XIII, “Discrimination and Comparison”)

The infant makes this rudimentary and kaleidoscopic world effective by crying out, and, if there is an adult who cares within hearing distance, its equally rudimentary needs are met. But we have moved far beyond this rudimentary stage, and we require other mechanisms of practicality.

In what ways are abstractions effective? Abstractions are how we construct knowledge, and knowledge is power. When we act upon scientific abstractions we are enabled to build technologies that greatly enhance human power. This power is, admittedly, highly focused, and not some general enhancement of human faculties, but we have learned to leverage these highly focused powers, as narrow as the abstractions from which these powers flow. When we act upon economic abstractions we produce a financial system. Again, this financial system is itself an abstraction of limited efficacy, but it can be leveraged to do remarkable things that cannot be done without it. And when we act upon psychological abstractions we are enabled to interact with individuals and groups in a surprisingly effective way, uniting societies of millions of individuals into a semi-coherent whole. This is remarkable, even if it can’t last.

Abstractions and idealizations both have their advantages and disadvantages. This is an alternative way of saying that Axial Age civilizations and Enlightenment civilizations have their advantages and disadvantages, and they do. Each has their area of practicality and their area of impracticality. Any ideal placed within the context from which it is derived will be relevant, meaningful, and efficacious. Any ideal taken out of the context from which it is derived will be less relevant, verging on meaningless, and impractical. One way in which ideals are taken out of context is by ongoing history, during which new institutions come to surround ancient ideals and thus place them in a novel context that did not obtain when those ideals originally appeared. Similarly, any abstraction placed within the context from which it is derived will be highly relevant, meaningful, and efficacious. Any abstraction taken out of the context from which it is derived will be much less relevant, verging on meaningless, and rather impractical. We can see this is the history of these respective civilizations. When Enlightenment civilizations have been imposed as a template on remnant Axial and pre-Axial societies, the abstractions of the Enlightenment are so far removed their context that they are not merely ineffective, they are frequently counter-productive.

When a civilization is imposed as a template on a pre-Axial society, it usually doesn’t fare well.

I have written elsewhere that pre-Axial Age societies had the privilege of being ruled over by a living god. This immediate relationship to divinity is something that we have lost, but I don’t think that many alive today would want to return to the days when the ruling regime was divine by definition. Nevertheless, it was no doubt a powerful experience, even if it is no longer possible. One could argue that we have attempted to reconstruct this experience within subsequent social orders, because it expresses something foundational to the human heart. In any case, my point here is to emphasize that even though these pre-Axial Age societies were displaced by the Axial Age traditions, they were in no sense weak or unpersuasive social orders, with no real appeal to the people subject to these regimes. Moreover, these social orders ran the gamut from the theocracy of Egyptian Pharaohs to Greek city-states.

The traditions from which pre-Axial Age societies derived were truly ancient, and if we could reconstruct the histories of these traditions, we would probably trace them back to the Paleolithic cave painters and sculptors, and even farther back to the origins of our species and earlier yet in pre-human ancestors. To a certain extent, the appearance of the agricultural civilizations largely obliterated the record of hunter-gatherer beliefs, though these beliefs, and even some practices, probably continued to exist in a changed form, just as the institutionalized religions of the early agricultural civilizations left their traces embedded in the Axial Age beliefs, and Axial Age beliefs are preserved in a changed form in Enlightenment beliefs.

The US became the template for the Enlightenment propositional nation-state, based on a shared assent to abstract propositions.

The Enlightenment conceit to build a world on abstractions began with political and social abstractions — the idea of being able to construct a social order , which entails clearing the ground of previous social orders so as to erect one’s abstract utopia on a blank slate. Of course we prefer to maintain our silence on this clearing of the ground, since it usually doesn’t possessed the surgical precision and antiseptic neatness that we would like. Out of sight, out of mind. But with the advent of the industrial revolution, the social and political abstractions of the Enlightenment gave way and in some cases mutated into the abstractions of science and technology. We should not be surprised by this mutation of the Enlightenment. The idea of socially engineering society by social and political institutions naturally gives way to the engineering of society by scientific and technological interventions. And while these two classes of abstractions — social and scientific — overlap, they do not coincide. The kind of society that is built on abstract ideas of social organization is distinct from the kind of society that is built on abstract ideas of scientific truth.

Since abstractions are how we construct knowledge, it is the abstractions that make the world intelligible, so this relates to what I wrote last week about the presupposition of intelligibility. The scientific worldview, upon which we increasingly rely to frame institutions and practices, has this presupposition of intelligibility built into it, and so it inevitably runs into problems with human, all-too-human experience that is opaque to scientific knowledge and for which no standard of scientific truth can be the true measure.