World Cultures General Glossary

   Abstraction at its foundation means approaching a class of phenomena or ideas without relation to a larger or more integrated whole. Abstract thought isolates phenomena, thought, or ideas and stresses internal coherence over integration with wider phenomenon.

   The range of human activities that are referred to as "abstract" or "abstracting" are incredibly large, ranging from speculative philosophy to painting, from physics to music. When applied to philosophy, abstract thinking applies to two activities: a.) speculative philosophy and b.) thinking about the structures of thought itself. In the first instance, speculative philosophy is concerned not with relating conclusions to the phenomenal world, but simply the internal consistency of the thought itself. In the second instance, the concern is not with thinking about any object or problem, but with understanding the internal coherence of thinking itself. When applied to visual art, abstraction always means an overriding concern with the internal design of a work of art rather than with the relationship of the work of art to phenomenal reality. When applied to social structure, abstraction refers to social relationships founded not on real, biological relationships but on temporary categories, such as "teacher-student," "employer-employee," and so on. When applied to the modern world view, abstraction describes the modern tendency to view separate aspects of our lives as completely separable from other aspects. With these and many other applications of the term, it is perhaps best to approach the meaning of the term by looking closely at the origins of abstraction in the modern world view.

   Abstraction as a modern phenomenon seems to have taken hold in the earliest years of the twentieth century. Several superficially unrelated cultural changes all occurred at roughly the same time: in the first couple decades of the twentieth century. Let's do a series of case studies: abstract art, atonal music, relativity, and Keynesian economics.

   Abstract art. In order to understand abstract art, examine a piece of non-abstract art. In order to understand the painting, you have two points of reference. The first and foremost is the "realistic" reference, that is, you understand the painting by relating it to the real world in some way. Its correspondence to a general standard of the nature of the real world allows you to clearly identify the subject of the painting. The second point of reference is the internal design elements of the painting itself: lines, colors, mass, and so on. This second point of reference, however, is almost totally subsumed by the first.

   Now examine a piece of abstract art. There is, of course, no reference to the real phenomenal world; the standard of phenomenal reality has been abandoned. In order to visually understand the painting, all you're left with is the second point of reference: the internal design elements of the painting itself, that is, line, color, etc.

   Atonal music. The process of abstraction in Western art was a slow process, beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century as the design elements of painting began to take precedence over the standard of observed reality. The same process occurred in music as well, only this involved the gradual abandonment of tonality.

   Tonal music is based on a key signature, a set of notes in a clearly defined harmonic array. When you listen to tonal music, you make sense of it by relating what you're listening to the key signature or tonal scale that it's based on. For instance, in the C major scale, there are seven tones in the scale and C is the foundation of that scale. A piece of music written in C major will tend to use those seven notes and combine them in specfic ways (the first and third notes of the scale, the first and sixth notes of the scale, and so on); that piece of music will also tend to resolve itself, either in individual parts or at the end, with C. That is, the foundation of the scale tends to be, in some way, the foundation of the music's conclusion. When the piece of music departs from those seven notes, you understand that departure because you understand tonality. Most human musics are tonal, but not all use the Western tonal system of seven notes; some use more, some less.

   So when you listen to a piece of tonal music, you make sense of it by relating the sounds you hear to two things: in the first place you relate the sounds you hear to the standard imposed by the key signature; in the second place you relate the sounds to each other, that is, to the internal design of the piece.

   Atonal music, on the other hand, is based on no key signature. If you try to listen to the music and relate the sounds you hear to a tonal scale, you will hear nothing but garbage. The only way to listen to atonal music is to simply listen to the relationship of each note to the other notes. As in abstract painting, an externally imposed standard has been removed from the process of understanding and the only aspect of the music left is its internal relationships.

Enlightenment Glossary
Classical Mechanics
   Relativity. At about the same time as atonal music and abstract art were realized in their fullest forms, Albert Einstein devised the theory of relativity which completely remade physics, which had been based largely on the classical mechanics of Isaac Newton. Like abstract art and atonal music, relativity originates in steady changes in physics in the nineteenth century.

   Classical mechanics is essentially based on the notion that every physical change can be understood from two perspectives: the first is a universal perspective and the second is a relative perspective. In the universal perspective, any change that occurs in one coordinate system can be understood in precisely the same way in all other coordinate systems. This universal perspective makes up all the laws of physics in classical mechanics and serves as the standard, or set of laws, by which we understand phenomenal reality. Secondly, physical phenomenon can be understood from the point of view of the observer, which is variable and relative. Observations by an observer in one coordinate system does not necessarily coincide with observations by a viewer in another coordinate system. So human understanding of all physical phenomenon involves two perspectives: a universal standard (the laws of mechanics) and the variable point of view of the observer. The observer tests her perception by measuring it against the standard.

   Einstein, however, believed that the laws of physics were, in fact, always determined by the variable standpoint of the observer, that there was no universal perspective. Not only do the phenomena differ from observer to observer, the laws of physics themselves differ from observer to observer (with one exception: the speed of light). Relativistic physics, then, postulates that no observation of physical phenomena can be related to a universal standard.

   Keynesian economics. Although published in the 1930's, The General Theory of John Maynard Keynes was more or less formulated in the 1910's and early 1920's, about the same time as the full development of abstract art, atonal music, and relativity. Like the other three phenomena, Keynsianism fundamentally changed the modern world view.

   Keynes' greatest contribution involved the classical economic conundrum of the nature of value. From the first invention of economics in the eighteenth century, economists had always tried to figure out precisely where value came from. Why was this book worth ten dollars and this book worth two dollars? What determined those values? Adam Smith, capitalist theorists, and Marx believed that value was primarily determined by the cost of production, especially the cost of labor. So value was a double relationship. In the first place, value was based on an objective standard: the cost of labor and production. In the second place, value was also a relationship between the consumer and the object, the so-called law of supply and demand.

   The real issue involved surplus value. If it cost five dollars to produce a book, why do people end up paying ten dollars? Where does that extra value come from? John Maynard Keynes solved that problem by stating that the only force that determines the value of an object is the relationship of the consumer to the object. Value is determined by demand alone. As in atonal music, abstract art, and relativity, the great eoncomic revolution ushered in by Keynes involved the abandonment of the notion of an objective standard. Value has nothing to do with usefulness, cost of production, or any other objective standard; it is always determined by the internal aspects of the market economy and consumer demand.

   You can see, then, what characterizes modern abstraction in a wider sense: it is the loss of standards or universals. In the place of standards we have instead only the logic of internal relationships and internal design. In such a world view, there is little effort to integrate one sphere of human understanding with another; the modern human existence is one of fragmentation. We approach the community of humanity and we approach our own lives as made up of independent fragments that each operate on their own logic. Of all the cultural anxieties of the twentieth century, this abstractiveness and fragmentation has consistently been acknowledged as the most serious crisis of modernity.

Richard Hooker

World Cultures

©1996, Richard Hooker

For information contact: Richard Hines
Updated 7-14-1999