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Thread: The Origin of Abstract Ideas

  1. #1
    Leon Freeman
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    Default The Origin of Abstract Ideas

    The final victory of the Bourgeoisie in England and in France impressed a complete revolution upon philosophic thought. The theories of Hobbes, Locke and Condillac, after having occupied the center of the stage, were dethroned. People no longer deigned to discuss them and they were never mentioned unless truncated and falsified, to serve as examples of the wanderings into which the human spirit falls when it abandons the ways of God. The reaction went so far that under Charles X even the philosophy of the sophists of spiritualism fell under suspicion. An attempt was made to forbid their teaching in colleges. [6]

    The triumphant Bourgeoisie re-established on the altar of its Reason the eternal truths and the most vulgar spiritualism. Justice, which the philosophers of Greece, England and France had reduced to reasonable proportions, which suited it to the conditions of the social environment in which it was manifested, became a necessary, immutable and universal principle. “Justice,” cried one of the most academic sophists of the Bourgeois philosophy, “is invariable and always present,” although it arrives only by degrees in human thought and in social facts. The limits of its field of action are ever extended and never narrowed; no human power can make it leave ground once acquired.

    The Encyclopedists threw themselves with revolutionary enthusiasm into the quest of the origin of ideas, which they hoped to find by questioning the intelligence of children and savages. [7] The new philosophy scornfully rejected these inquiries which were of a nature to lead to dangerous results. “Let us set aside in the first place the question of origin,” exclaimed Victor Cousin, the master sophist, in his argument on the True, the Good and the Beautiful.

    “The philosophy of the last century was too complaisant to questions of this sort. To what purpose shall we call on the region of darkness for light, or on a mere hypothesis for the explanation of reality; why go back to a pretended primitive stage in order to account for a present stage which can be studied in itself; why inquire into the germ of that which can be perceived and which needs to be known in its finished and perfect form? We deny absolutely that human nature should be studied in the famous savage of Aveyron or in his peers of the Islands of Oceanica or the American Continent. The true man is man perfect in his type; the true human nature is human nature arrived at its full development, as the true society is also the perfected society. Let us turn away our eyes from the child and the savage to fix them upon the actual man, the real and finished man.” (15th and 16th Lessons)

    The ego of Socrates and Descartes could not but inevitably lead to the adoration of the bourgeois, the man perfect in his kind, real, finished, – the type of human nature arrived at its complete development and to the consecration of bourgeois society, the finished social order, founded upon the eternal and immutable principles of Goodness and Justice.

    It is time to inquire into the value of this Justice and these eternal truths of Bourgeois spiritualism and to reopen the debate on the origin of ideas.
    We may apply to the instinct of animals what the spiritualist philosophers call innate ideas. Beasts are born with an organic pre-disposition an intellectual pre-formation, according to Leibnitz’s phrase, which permits them to accomplish spontaneously, without going through the school of any experience, the most complicated acts necessary to their individual preservation and the propagation of their species. This pre-formation is nowhere more remarkable than in the insects which go through metamorphoses, as the butterfly and may-bug. According to their transformations, they adopt different kinds of life rigorously correlated with each of the new forms which they take on. Sebastien Mercier was altogether right when he declared that “instinct was an innate idea.” [8]

    The spiritualists, not having the idea that instinct might be the result of the slow adaptation of a species of animals to the conditions of its natural environment, conclude stoutly that instinct is a gift of God. Man has never hesitated to put out of his reach the causes of the phenomena which escape him. But instinct is not like the Justice of the sophists of spiritualism, an immutable faculty, susceptible of no deviation, no modi fication. Domestic animals have more or less modified the instincts which God in his inexhaustible goodness bestowed on their savage ancestors. The chickens and ducks of our back yards have almost lost their instinct of flight, which became useless in the artificial environment in which man has placed them for centuries. The aquatic instincts has been obliterated in the ducks of Ceylon to such a degree that they have to be pushed to make them go into the water. Different varieties of chickens, Houdans, LaFleche, Campine, etc., have been robbed of the imperative instinct of maternity; although excellent layers they never think of sitting on their eggs. The calves in certain parts of Germany for generations have been taken from their mothers at birth, and among the cows a notable weakening of the maternal instinct has been observed. Giard thinks that one of the prime causes of that instinct in the mammals might be the organic need of relief from the milk, which makes the breasts swollen and painful. [9]

    Another naturalist shows that the nest-building instinct of the stickleback must be attributed not to the Deity, but to a temporary inflammation of the kidneys during the mating season.
    One fact strikes us at the outset; often one and the same word is used to designate an abstract idea and a concrete object. The words which in European languages signify material goods, and the straight line, have also the meaning of the moral Good and Right, Justice;

    Ta agatha (Greek) goods, wealth; to agathon, the good.
    Bona (Latin), goods; bonum (Latin) the good.
    Les biens (French) goods; le Bien, the good.
    Orthos (Greek), rectum (Latin), derecho (Spanish), droit, (French), etc. have the double meaning of being in a straight line and that of Right, Justice.
    Here again are other examples chosen in the Greek language: Kalon, arrow, javelin, beauty, virtue; phren, heart, entrails, reason, will; kakos, man of plebeian origin, base, wicked, ugly; kakon, vice, crime. The word kakos contributes to the formation of a series of terms, employed for what is vile and evil; kakke, excrement; kakkia, vice, baseness; kakotheos, impious; kakophonia, unpleasant sound, etc.

    The fact is worth attention, although little noticed. This is the way with daily phenomena; because they fill the eyes they are not seen. Nevertheless, it is worth considering how the vulgar tongue and the philosophic and legal tongue have joined under the same term the material and the ideal, the concrete and the abstract. Two questions are raised at the very outset: first, have the abstract and the ideal been degraded into the concrete and into the material, or have the material and concrete transformed themselves into the ideal and abstract? – and how has this transubstantiation been accomplished?

    The history of successive meanings of words solves the first difficulty; it shows the concrete meaning always preceding the abstract meaning.

    Aissa (Greek), used at first for the lot or portion which falls to anyone in a division, ends by meaning a decree of destiny;
    Moira, at first the portion of a guest at a banquet, the lot of a warrior in the distribution of booty; then one s portion in life and finally the goddess Destiny, to whom “gods and mortals are equally subject.”
    Nomos begins by being used for pasturage and ends by meaning law.
    The link which attaches the abstract meaning to the concrete meaning is not always apparent. Thus it is difficult at first glance to perceive how the human mind could have linked pasturage to the abstract idea of law, the straight line to the idea of Justice, the share of a guest at a banquet to immutable destiny. I shall show the links which unite these different meanings in the article on the Origins of the Ideas, Justice and Goodness. It is only important at this moment to point out the fact.

    The human mind ordinarily employs the same method of work in spite of the difference in the objects on which it operates: for example, the road which it has followed to transform sounds into vowels and consonants is the same as that which is traversed in rising from the concrete to the abstract. The origin of letters appeared so mysterious to the Bishop Mallinkrot, that in his De Arte Typographica, to put his mind at rest, he attributed their invention to God, who was already the author of instinct and abstract ideas. But the researches of philologists have torn away one by one the veils enveloping the alphabetical mystery. They have shown that letters did not fall ready-made from heaven, but man arrived only gradually at representing the sounds by consonants and vowels. I shall mention the first steps traversed, which are useful for my demonstration.
    In the mind of the child and of the savage – “that child of the human race,” as Vico calls him – there exist only images of definite objects. When the little child says doll, he does not mean to speak of any doll no matter which but of one certain doll that he has held in his hands and that has already been shown him, and if another is offered him it results in his rejecting it with anger; so, every word is for him a proper name, the symbol of the object with which he has come in contact. His language, like that of the savage, possesses no generic terms embracing a class of objects of the same nature, but one series after another of proper names. Thus the savage languages have no terms for general ideas, such as “man,” “body,” etc., and for the abstract ideas, Time, Cause, etc. There are some which have not the verb “to be.” The Tasmanian had an abundance of words for every tree of the different species, but no term for saying tree in general. The Malay has no word for color, although he has words for every color. The Tbiponne has not words for man, body, time, etc. and he does not possess the verb to be. He does not say, “I am Abiponne,” but, “Me Abi-ponne.” [14] But by degrees the child and primitive man carry over the name and the idea of the first persons and things they have known to all the persons and things which present a real or fictitious resemblances with them. They elaborate after a fashion, by way of analogy and comparison, certain general and abstract ideas embracing groups of objects, more or less extended, and sometimes the proper name of one object becomes the symbolic term of the abstract idea representing the group of objects having analogies with the object for which the word had been coined. Plato maintains that the general ideas thus obtained, which classify objects without taking account of their individual differences, are “essences of divine origin.” Socrates in the Tenth Book of the Republic says that the idea of bed is an essence of divine creation, because it is immutable, always identical with itself, while the beds created by cabinet makers all differ among themselves.

    The human mind has often brought together the most dissimilar objects having only a vague point of resemblance among themselves. Thus by a process of anthropomorphism man has taken his own members for terms of comparison, as is proved by the metaphors which persist in civilized languages although they date from the beginning of humanity, such as the “bowels of the earth,” the “veins of a mine,” the “heart of an oak,” “tooth of a saw,” the “gorge of a mountain,” the “arm of the sea,” etc. When the abstract idea of measure takes shape in his brain, he takes for a unit of measure his foot, his hand, his thumb, his arms (Orgyia a Greek measure equal to two arms extended). So every measure is a metaphor. When we speak of an object three feet, two inches in extent, we mean that it is as long as three feet two thumbs. [15] But with the development of civilization, people were forced to resort to other units of measure. Thus the Greeks took the stadion, the distance traversed in the footrace at the Olympic Games; and the Latins jugerum, the surface which could be plowed in one day by a jugum (a yoke of oxen).
    Link: https://www.marxists.org/archive/laf...cphil/ch2.html

  2. #2
    Senior Voting Member Rosa Lichtenstein's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Origin of Abstract Ideas

    As should reasonably be clear, if 'abstract' ideas were formed this way:

    When the abstract idea of measure takes shape in his brain,
    language and communication would be impossible, as Bertell Ollman admitted (in the midst of his own attempt to explain what these mysterious 'entities' are, and how they are formed):

    "What, then, is distinctive about Marx's abstractions? To begin with, it should be clear that Marx's abstractions do not and cannot diverge completely from the abstractions of other thinkers both then and now. There has to be a lot of overlap. Otherwise, he would have constructed what philosophers call a 'private language,' and any communication between him and the rest of us would be impossible. How close Marx came to fall into this abyss and what can be done to repair some of the damage already done are questions I hope to deal with in a later work...." [Ollman (2003), p.63. Bold emphases added.]
    Well, it remains to be seen if Professor Ollman can solve a problem that has baffled everyone else for centuries -- that is, those who have even so much as acknowledged it exists! But it has clearly sailed over Lafargue's head -- the author of the above article.

    It is to Ollman's considerable credit, therefore, that he is at least aware of it.

    In fact, Ollman is the very first dialectician I have encountered (in nigh on thirty years) who even so much as acknowledges this 'difficulty'!

    I have summarised the intractable problems this traditional idea (i.e., that there such things as 'abstract ideas', or that there is even a 'process of abstraction') -- the problems this creates in a thread over at the Soviet Empire Forum, here:

    http://www.soviet-empire.com/ussr/vi...52413&start=20

    But more specifically, here:

    http://www.soviet-empire.com/ussr/vi...890334#p890334
    The emancipation of the working class will be an act of the workers themselves.

    http://anti-dialectics.co.uk/index.htm

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