Abstract, abstraction. None of the objects presented to us by perception
are simple. Even the least complicated are combined of various qualities; and in order to attain a distinct notion of any of these, it is
needful to separate it in thought from the rest of the combination in
which it presents itself. The process whereby this is done is called
abstraction, a drawing off; and that which is thus drawn off from the
elements with which it is surrounded is said to be viewed abstractedly,
or in the abstract.
Similarly, nothing is ever seen by us in the mere aspect of its
definition, but always with attendant accidents which do not enter into
that definition, and occur some in one object that comes under it, some
in another. When therefore we withdraw our attention from these, and fix
it simply on the definition, we perform an act of abstraction.
The opposite to the abstract is the concrete (from the participle
passive of concrescere, to grow together with). It is in the concrete
that all objects are perceived by us. Their definition or some of their
qualities when taken by themselves are not perceived but thought.
The process of abstraction is a necessary antecedent to that of
generalization. The concrete presentation cannot be an universal, and
only by abstracting that which such presentation has in common with
others can we arrive at one.
It has been questioned whether language be not a necessary condition of
abstraction, and therefore whether the infant before acquiring that, and
the lower animals who never do, are capable of the process. Undoubtedly, language by supplying us with names for
abstractions is a great aid in the formation of such, nor could we
exercise the faculty to any great extent without it. But on the other
hand the faculty seems a needful preliminary to the formation of
abstract words. It is likely that in this matter, as in the case of so
many elements of our mental being, the two act and re-act on each other.
Without the faculty of abstraction we could make no abstract terms; and
without abstract terms, the faculty of abstraction would be little
Whether it be true that the lower animals are incapable of abstraction
is a question not easily decided. In the gradual inspection and then
complete recognition of an old friend from whom he has long been
separated, the dog seems to arrive at a synthesis of marks and
attributes, each of which he must have considered in the abstract. What
I should be inclined to say is that he abstracts but little, and
scarcely generalizes, if he does the latter at all.
The principal sciences which deal with abstractions are mathematics and
logic. These in their pure form are wholly abstract. So too is their
symbolic notation. But all science as such demands abstraction, without
which there could be no generalization. The naturalist no doubt examines
a specimen of concrete existence, but his aim is to arrive at the
definition under which it comes, and the class to which it belongs, and
can only be done by separating essential characteristics from the
accidents with which they are accompanied.