The Primacy of the Abstract

“The Primacy of the Abstract.” In Arthur Koestler and J. R. Smythies (eds.), Beyond Reductionism—The Alpbach Symposium. London, 1969.


“What I shall try to explain under this paradoxical heading seems to me in some ways merely a final step in a long development, which would probably have been explicitly formulated some time ago had it not required the overcoming of a barrier built into the language which we have to employ. This is shown by the necessity in which I found myself of describing my subject by an apparent contradiction in terms. We simply have no other suitable term to describe what we call  ‘abstract’ than this expression which implies that we deal with something ‘abstracted’ or derived from some other previously existing mental entity or entities which in some respect are richer or ‘more concrete.’ The contention which I want to expound and defend here is that, on the contrary, all the conscious experience that we regard as relatively concrete and primary, in particular all the sensations, perceptions and images, are the product of a superimposition of many “classifications” of the events perceived according to their significance in many respects. These classifications are to us difficult or impossible to disentangle because they happen simultaneously, but are nevertheless the constituents of the richer experiences which are built up from these abstract elements.”

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