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A Sideways Glance with Richard S. Bogartz: Do abstractions actually exist?


Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Concrete nouns refer to sensed, worldly objects. The thumb’s fingernail. I see it; I touch it with my nine fingers that are not attached to it.

Abstract nouns refer to something we cannot know using the senses. They are things of the mind. Time-travel. Freedom. Generosity. Neurosis. Existence.

Do abstractions actually exist? Asking this question already assumes that existence, an abstraction, is something real. When people demand, and fight wars for, their freedom, it seems difficult to deny freedom’s reality. Apparently, we assign reality to at least some of our abstractions. Not all of them. Not unicorns.

Consider the abstraction “I” in “I will love you forever.” You may deny that “I” is an abstraction. Surely “I” refers to who I am, what I am. David Hume, a brilliant British philosopher, examined his mind extensively and proclaimed he could find no such referent of “I.” You may snicker at Hume and declare your self is real if anything is. Some Buddhists will side with Hume.

Let’s explore further. You might say “When I was 4, I loved chocolate ice cream.” But what does “I” refer to in that sentence? Does it refer to who you are, what you are? Now? But you are not 4 years old. That 4-year-old is vastly different from you. Different body. Different mind. What entitles you to refer to that kid as “I”? Why isn’t he “Him” or “Her”?

You may resort to memory. “I remember him being me. I’ve been me even as time and mind and body changed. I am still me even though I’ve transformed.” But that memory is something constructed by your mind now.

How can this little story you reconstruct, now, justify your claim to sharing identity with a totally different being from a different time? And what about that vase he/she broke? Should you be blamed and held responsible for the breakage? Or do we simply age out of our misdeeds even as we retain our identity?

With this puzzlement about “I” in hand, let’s return to “I will love you forever.” Sounds like a reasonable promise. More comprehensive than merely “Till death do us part.” Seems to me there are at least two problems here.

The first is that it does not say what you mean. You mean something like “In this moment, I love you so much that it seems inconceivable to me that there could be a time when I would not love you.”

The second problem is that it assumes there is an “I” here today who will be here throughout the future and this “I” of today can speak for the feelings and the emotions of the “I” of every tomorrow because all those “I”s are one and the same. But one does not have to have lived very long to realize that feelings, emotions, perspectives, needs, desires, aesthetics, goals, and more are changeable.

If one is fortunate, they discover one of my favorite abstractions: ”Changeables change.” I got to it from “milk spills” to “breakables break” to ”changeables change.” With this abstraction in hand, it is evident that the “I” of today will not be the “I” of tomorrow and therefore cannot realistically make commitments that bind the “I” of tomorrow.

So, am I advocating fickleness, capriciousness, lying, infidelity? Not at all. Rather, I advocate honesty with respect to the way things are. We would not have words-of-honor, oaths, covenants, bonds, warranties, sureties, pledges, crossing of hearts, swearing, swearing on bibles, swearing up and down, etc., were it not for the reality that what we take to be ourselves changes over time. These devices are little tricks we play on our changeability to forestall it. Alas, changeables change.

Then was Hume right? Is there no self? Is there nothing that “I” points to? Is “I” like the “It” in “It’s raining”? Just a linguistic device pointing to nothing at all? We mystics think not. There is a nothingness that “I” points to. That nothingness is awareness itself. Awareness without attributes. The flawless pure mirror of consciousness. With no attributes there is no change.

The intuition that present you and 4-year-old you are one is correct, but it has nothing to do with the here-one-moment, gone-the-next thought, “I.” The thought “I” has usurped the role of awareness as the self. We are aware of the thought “I” but we err by taking “I” as that which is aware. Self-realization is nothing more than discovering your actual self, awareness.

Richard S. Bogartz is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.