ABSTRACTION (abstractio, from abs traho, to draw away from; also called
separatio, resolutio, and precisio).—(1) The exercise of mind by which attention
is withdrawn from certain qualities in an object, or from certain objects among
many, and concentrated upon others. Abstraction and concentration are the two
sides of one mental exercise. (2) The product of this exercise—(a) the
representation of a quality, taken apart from the qualities with which it
coheres; (b) a conception including a certain number of qualities to the
exclusion of others, which becomes a "symbolic conception," representing many
objects or occurrences.
Abstraction is essential to a free use of comparison, and is a necessary
preliminary for generalisation. It is thus a condition of advance in knowledge,
but it is an artificial expedient for classification of the contents of
knowledge, not an exact knowledge of things as existing. On this ground, "the
abstract" was declared by Hegel to be the false, the concrete alone being the
real,—the abstract being the apprehension of a thing on one side, or in one
That we are capable of abstraction, and that the exercise is
essential to progress in knowledge, are positions universally admitted. As to
the character of the mental exercise, see Locke's Essay, II. ch. XI. sec. 9 ; Keid's Intellectual Powers, essay
V. ch. III. - Stewart's Elements, ch. IV.;
Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, Transcendental Analytic, bk. I.; Hegel's
Vermischte Schriften, II. ch. VIII. 2; Werke, XVII. 400; Hamilton's Metaphysics,
lect. XXXIV.; Mansel's Prolegomena Logica, 2nd ed., p. 26; Ueberweg's Logic
(Lindsay), p. 127; Wallace's Logic of Hegel, "Prolegomena," ch.
Outlines of Psychology, p. 342.
"Drobisch observed that the term abstraction is used sometimes in a
psychological, sometimes in a logical sense. In the former we are said to
abstract the attention from certain distinctive features of objects presented (abstrahere
[mentem] a differentiis). In the latter we are said to abstract
certain portions of a given concept from the remainder (abstrahere differentias)" (Mansel,
Prolegomena Logica, 2nd ed., note, p. 30).
Whether we can represent to ourselves an abstract conception, as an object
present to our imagination, has been a subject of dispute.
"The mind," says Locke, "makes particular ideas received from particular objects
to become general, which is done by considering them as they are in the mind
such appearances, separate from all other existences, and the circumstances of
real existence, as time, place, or any other concomitant ideas. This is called
abstraction, whereby ideas taken from particular beings become general
representatives of all of the same kind; and their names general names
applicable to whatever exists conformable to such abstract ideas" (Essay, bk.
II. ch. XI. sec. 9 ; bk. IV. ch. VII. sec. 9).
In reference to this, Berkeley has said—"I own myself able to abstract
sense, as when I consider some particular parts or qualities separated from
others, with which, though they are united in some object, yet it is possible
they may really exist without them. But I deny that I can abstract one from
another, or conceive separately those qualities which it is impossible should
exist separately; or that I can frame a general notion by abstracting from
particulars as aforesaid, which two last are the proper acceptation of
(Principles of Human Knowledge, introd., sec. 10; Fraser's Selections from
Berkeley, 2nd ed., p. 17).
Hume maintains "the impossibility of general ideas, according to the common
method of explaining them," holding that "a particular idea becomes general, by
being annexed to a general term" (Human Nature, I. sec. 7 ; Green's ed.,
"It seems to me," says Hume, "not impossible to avoid these absurdities and
contradictions" (essay on Sceptical Philosophy, in Inq. Hum. Und., sec. 12),
"if it be admitted that there are no such things as abstract in general ideas,
properly speaking, but that all general ideas are in reality particular ones
attached to a general term, which recalls, upon occasion, other particular ones
that resemble in certain circumstances the idea present to the mind. Thus, when
the term 'horse' is pronounced, we immediately figure to ourselves the idea of a
black or white animal of a particular size or figure; but as that term is also
used to be applied to animals of other colours, figures, and sizes, their ideas,
though not actually present to the imagination, are easily recalled, and our
reasoning and conclusion proceed in the same way as if they were actually
present" (Essays, ed. 1758, p. 371; Green's ed., II. 129).
The most recent view as to the psychological aspect of Abstraction is that of
generic images, maintained by Sully and Galton. According to this view, "what is
in my mind is a kind of composite images formed by the fusion or coalescence of
many images of single objects, in which individual differences are blurred, and
only the common features stand out distinctly" (Sully, Outlines of Psychology,
p. 339; Galton on "Generic Images," Nineteenth Century, July 1879). Pollock
(Spinoza, p. 201) seems to trace the origin of this view in Spinoza (Ethics, pt.
II., prop. 40, schol. 1). Spinoza found the source of the gravest errors in
philosophy in the abstract view of things which is natural to man, i.e., in
regarding things not as modes of the Divine Attributes, but as res completœ,
John S. Mill censures severely the practice of applying the expression "abstract name" to all names which are the result of
abstraction or generalisation, and consequently to all general names, instead of confining it
to the names of attributes. He
uses the term abstract as opposed to concrete (Logic, 2nd ed.,