The Essential and the Abstract
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by Josh Davis
Essentials are hidden. Abstractions are apparent. Because this is the case, the abstract seems more real to us than the essential. But the abstract is grounded in cognition – in human thought – while the essential is grounded in reality. The abstract is therefore less real than the essential, not more so. The error of taking the abstract as the real, and of discounting the essential, is repeated on many levels.
We speak of the actions of corporations and governments, which are abstract, rather than the actions of the people in charge of those organizations, who are real, i.e. essential. The problem of “world hunger” tugs our conscious more than the hunger of a single beggar whom we pass by on the street. World hunger seems real and pressing, though no person has ever experienced it, while the hunger of a single person seems trifling by comparison, almost non-existent, though it is actually felt by someone – actually experienced – and therefore actually real.
We consider other people to have fixed characters, mistaking them for the static representation of them that we have constructed in our minds – despite knowing ourselves as constantly growing, constantly learning, constantly changing beings. We think of others as concrete nouns, which are but abstractions, and not shifting and inconsistent verbs, which is the reality, the essential.
We repeat this error when we look to change the world, to make it a better place. We tend to think in terms of movements and groups and classes of people – all of which are abstractions – and to overlook or discount the individuals effected, who are real and essential. The abstract movement is apparent – there are demonstrations and protests, policy proposals and press conferences – while individuals are hidden, leading their lives without press attention or public theater.
When we place our emphasis on the abstract – when we fill our vision with movements and groups exclusively – we can inadvertently end up acting in ways that are detrimental to individuals – that is, detrimental to essentials. In seeking to “solve the problem of poverty,” for instance, we may end up degrading individual poor people. We must seek, then, to serve not abstractions, but essentials. Our goal should not be to serve “the movement” or to serve “low income communities,” or some other abstraction, but rather to serve as best we can the individuals we interact with. It should go without saying that this type of service requires that we inquire of these individuals how we can help, rather than assuming that we already know what is needed. Only abstractions can be dealt with in general – the essential requires a individual approach. Abstractions can be specified in advance, but the essential can only be engaged properly in the moment.
Things do not have more value simply because they are large. Abstractions are large, but they have no value of their own. Likewise, things are not valueless just because they are small. The essential is small. A human life is small. And while both are often hidden from view they are, nonetheless, that which gives value to everything else.
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- 17: Scaling-Up the Cooperative Movement
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