Abstraction and Everyday Life

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Expanding Dooyeweerd's ideas, Roy Clouser, in his book THe Myth of Religious Neutrality in Science and Theoretical Thought (1992, Univ. of Notre Dame Press), highlighted three ways of thinking and functioning in the aspects: Understanding these has helped me, at least, to: I like that!

The Three Degrees of Abstraction

Everyday Living - No Abstraction

See new page on Dooyeweerd's approach to everyday experience.

In everyday living we function in all the aspects in a more or less integrated way, without being aware of any ot them. Whatever knowledge of the aspects we employ, we do so tacitly. Even though we might focus our attention on a single thing, we are open to and aware of the the context of that thing. For example, I might be trying to prune a rose in my garden, carefully because it is a rare variety, and getting ready for the visitors we are having tonight. My attention is on the rose and the pruning, but I am also awere of things around me such as my children playing down the garden or the state of the football match on the radio beside me, or I might also be aware that the visitors expected are experts on rose care and I want to avoid criticism.

Another example, when giving a talk (lecture to my students or sermon in church) I am functioning:

Note that I am just *doing* all this, not often thinking about any particular aspect of the situation as such, and often not planning ahead. It is rather like what the philosopher Michael Polanyi called The Tacit Dimension (1967), in which we make use of tools or knowledge without realising it; they become 'part' of us in a very real way. The knowledge about how I am doing each piece of functioning has been 'compiled' (using a computing metaphor) into my mind and I function without awareness of the details of what I am doing.

That is everyday functioning. And it is more successful the more we integrate all the aspects in what we are doing and go with rather than against their laws. It can be allied to intuition.

One important characteristic of this kind of thinking is that it is integrative. It integrates all aspects, and may be said to allow us knowledge of the whole, a holistic sort of knowledge, as opposed to abstractive forms of knowledge that 'parcel up' what we focus on. Many thinkers have recognised this, such as:

Polanyi's defined 'tacit knowing' as knowledge that cannot be explained, distinguished from explicit knowledge. This distinction is much referred to, and seems to be a intuitive notion that was awaiting a label. But the distinction is now criticised from some quarters. Dooyeweerd's notion of aspectual knowing provides a much richer account of tacit knowing.

Explication involves the analytical and lingual aspects. Since functioniing in these is not absolute, explication can never be complete, so there will always be a tacit element. However, sensory-psychic knowing is particularly difficult to explicate (e.g. riding a cycle), so is much more tacit. So is pistic knowing. In these ways, we can see that Dooyeweerd accounts for the less than sharp distinction between tacit and explicit knowledge.

Lower Abstraction

Lower abstraction is when we are involved with something and aware of one or more aspects in which that something functions. Out in the garden, I might appreciate the beauty of my rose or its cost or its symbolism, for example. But appreciation of the aspect is still within the context.

Lower abstraction might be used when I want to understand a situation, for example. Why, I wonder, is the rose growing this way rather than that? I reflect on processes of the biotic aspect, which qualifies the rose as such. But I might decide, "Oh well, it doesn't matter; what really matters is that it looks nice" (which is perhaps viewing the rose from the aesthetic aspect).

In a more complex situation we can use lower abstraction to understand the situation and analyse it. We discern which aspects play an important part in the situation and in the functioning of the various entities involved, and link them together. Mike Winfield's MAKE (Multi-Aspectual Elicitation Method) is useful here.

Thus lower abstraction can be useful in those kinds of 'research', such as action research, where we investigate situations rather than investigating laws of aspects. It can make use of theories that derive from higher abstraction, and it might derive 'theories' of its own, but these are more propositions about things and their connections rather than true theories, which arise from higher abstraction.

Higher Abstraction

In higher abstraction we take abstraction one step further, to the extent of isolating one aspect (or part of an aspect such as property, concept or law within it). All links with context are broken, and this leads to the obvious and oft-encountered danger of technocentric thinking and ivy-tower intellectualism, which are discussed "#ivy">below. But, as Closuer (1992) and Winfield (forthcoming) point out, higher abstraction offers us certain facilities that other modes do not:

Higher abstraction, on the other hand, involves isolation an aspect from all the others (and from its context), and focusing our attention solely on that aspect. Isolation can occur of either the law- or the subject-side; only the former is abstraction. Isolation of the subject-side (entity-side) is what happens when I focus so intently on a thing or an activity that we forget the context, and it is usually detrimental. I might, for example, be so intent on the physical aspect of pruning (making the cut, the way the secateurs slice through material, etc.) that I forget the biotic aspect and cut the rose in the wrong place. Such isolation is often harmful, if allowed to occur in everyday living.

But isolation of an aspect occurs when I want to study and discover the laws of that aspect without my study being contaminated by other aspects: for example I want to study a chemical reaction in the test tube ( physical aspect) and believe that economic things like the cost of the reagants, nor biotic factors like what I had for breakfast, should not affect the outcome. So I isolate the aspect from all others (as far as I can). That is what is meant by higher abstraction.

Higher abstraction can yield a number of things:

It can do these things because the effects that we observe as we isolate the aspect is an effect that arises solely in response to the laws of the aspect we are studying (together with any earlier aspects on which it might depend, of course). So we can derive knowledge about the laws of that aspect. Doing this is the essence of science.

Notice, however, that higher abstraction studies, not types of entity, but types of law. Thus, under Dooyeweerd's view, a science is not of a type of entity but of the laws of an aspect. Therefore, for example, anthropology, the study of Humankind, is really a study of the aspects in which Humankind functions (all of them!) and is thus a multi-science. Dooyeweerd argues that there can be no 'science of human behaviour' as such, for similar reasons. This means that higher abstraction is closely related to the idea of a science. Science, in this view, consists of isolating some property of an aspect in order to study it and the laws relating to it. See "#science">below. Higher abstraction offers the depth of investigation required by science. One nice feature of this view of science is that it allows each science a measure of "#science.2">freedom.


The implications of seeing things this way are manifold. I do not claim that they are unique to Clouser or Dooyeweerd - indeed, many are saying similar things. But here they are said within a wider framework that provides perspective and coherence.

Gain a view of science that is not reductionist nor positivist

Allow different sciences their own methods and epistemologies

Ivy Towers and Technocentrism

The isolation of an aspect, and consequent in-depth understanding of its laws, has a danger: isolation. It produces experts, those who understand its inner workings better than anyone else, and on whom therefore we tend to rely. But such expertise has been gained by a process of isolation, and these experts often do not understand the inter-aspectual links. Thus we frequently find that such experts are poor guides in practice, and the perjorative adjective 'ivy-towered' (or 'ivory-towered') is often used of the thinking of such people - divorced from reality and of little real use.

A common version of this is technocentrism. Technology emerges from science, and thus retains some of science's tendency to isolate itself. When we apply or use an artifact of that technology we tend to deal with it on its own (isolated) terms, and thus tend to forget or ignore the various aspects of real life that impinge on and should direct our usage of it. It is no wonder, then, that around 90% of information technology projects are deemed to have failed! This can be understood more clearly by looking at the pitfalls in technology transfer.

Understand the pitfalls in technology transfer

Let us take the example of expert system technology. It emerged from the discipline of artificial intelligence, whose roots were in the sciences of mathematics, psychology, logic and computer science. The technology idea was implemented as software packages, and these were used to produce specific expert systems such as AUSCOR, which advises on the risk of corrosion in austenitic steels (Hines and Basden, 1986). Such specific expert systems then came into use (actually only a tiny proportion of them found their way into actual use), and produced benefits or problems in the working context.

From this example we can see a number of stages in technology transfer:

At the centre of the first step lies higher abstraction, and its isolation of a single aspect. The earlier steps depend on such uni-aspectual (or limited-aspectual) isolation for their effectiveness. But the last steps should be multi-aspectual, and there should be no isolation at all; all the contextual links should be open. Otherwise the aspects which are ignored will bring no benefits and often bring harm.

So, as we progress along the steps, there should be a transition from uni-aspectual isolation of higher abstraction to multi-aspectual integration of everyday functioning. Where should that transition be made?

In far too many cases it is made only at the last step. Those who develop the technology idea, the generic tools and specific artifacts, and those who sell them, all focus on the limited set of aspects of the originating sciences - and in many cases only a small subset of these: a part of single aspect from that set. It is assumed to be a responsibility of the final users to open up the aspects. "Let the buyer beware." No wonder what has resulted from science is often harm and problems. But it need not be so, if we make the transition much earlier.

If the specific artifact is created in the context of all aspects, taking them all into account during its creation, then its 'fit' is more likely to be better. If the technology idea and generic tools are developed in the context of all aspects, taking them all into account while focusing attention of the main aspect, then it they are more likely to prove easy to wield in the creation of the specific artifacts. (This, I now see, lies behind the concept of 'appropiateness' I tried to introduce to the knowledge representation community (Basden, 1993).)

So, the transition to multi-aspectuality should be made at least before the development of technology ideas. While it is unreasonable to expect it to be full everyday functinoing, it should at least be lower abstraction - focusing on an aspect but retaining all links with all others.

Understand the richness of 'real life'

To be written. For now, see:

Restore dignity to 'everyday', 'pre-theoretic' living

To be written. For now, ...

This is part of The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Questions or comments are very welcome.

Compiled by Andrew Basden. You may use this material subject to conditions.

Written on the Amiga with Protext.

Created: 16 April 1997. Last updated: 7 February 2001 copyright, email. 20 November 2002 retitled from 'Three Levels of Functioning' to 'Abstraction and Everyday Life'. 7 March 2003 revamped the text of each level of abstraction, combining what was here with what is in thinking.html. 19 May 2003 inserted brief content in last two unwritten sections; a few other minor changes; label 'real.life' repl by 'richness'. 22 April 2005 link to everyday; rid email. 3 September 2015 corrected '../'; rid counter; new .nav, .end.