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Old 11-14-2013, 12:26 PM
hyperskeptic hyperskeptic is offline
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Posts: 451

This is in danger of becoming a digression, so I'll just make a couple of points in reply then back away, slowly.

Originally Posted by SchrodingersCat View Post
Abstraction is an important feature of human thinking. Without abstraction, there would be no such thing as "the environment." There's just a bunch of plants and animals, rocks and atmosphere, relating. But "protecting the environment" is a very good idea. It's beneficial to all those plants and animals, not to mention the people, to think of "the environment" as a thing that exists. And it does, abstractly. And relationships also "exists" -- abstractly. There would be no such thing as "a family," just a bunch of people with similar DNA living under the same roof or maybe even just getting together at Christmas. Money, companies, universities, governments, countries, laws..... Indeed, human society is built upon abstractions and treating them like they're real things that have objective existence outside of the people who relate to them. But of course, if you take all the people off the planet, then all the paper notes and metal coins are just trinkets, the companies and universities are just empty buildings, governments and laws are just scribbles on paper, countries are just colourful lines drawn on maps. So yeah, take away the spouses and marriage is just a fancy certificate. But the people are there, and marriage is so much more than that fancy certificate.

. . . .

In a nutshell, there are features of "he" and "I" that are great, but there are also features of "how we relate" (i.e. "our relationship") that are enjoyable in their own right, and I see nothing objectionable about calling those very real features a "thing." It's important to realize that "the relationship" isn't some thing existing over there, all by itself, with or without us. It's a thing existing between us.
It's funny, but my concerns about "thingification" of abstract concepts really began by thinking about how people use and misuse the term, "the environment" . . . a term that can be a useful short-hand for "our surroundings, on which we depend and which we may alter, which are shaped and supported by various complex systems operating at various scales" or even "particular places and creatures we care about, for various reasons."

The danger arises, I think, when this bit of useful shorthand comes to be treated as the name of a thing: we too often talk about "the Environment" as a fragile object, over there, something that - oddly - can only ever be damaged or destroyed by human activity. That's just weird, and not very useful for making actual decisions.

(One prominent book in my field, related to environmental policy, begins with the blunt statement, "There is no such thing as 'the environment'." It concludes with the idea of approaching how we think about our environments by way of narrative, which honors the particularity of places and the complexity of how we relate to those places.)

I think much the same applies to 'relationship', which can be useful short-hand for "the way you and I relate to each other as people, grounded in our recognition of one another's humanity and individuality, with all the various feelings and boundaries and commitments we establish between us."

The focus then is on the people and their mutual recognition and care, rather than on the abstraction.

When the abstraction is treated as a separate thing, as the thing, as a fragile thing that is to be protected, then it's too easy to lose sight of the people involved, in their individuality.

We may owe this tendency to thingify abstract concepts to the Greeks, most especially Plato. It's a quirk of Greek grammar that you can turn an adjective into a noun just by plunking an article down in front of it - so 'beautiful' becomes 'the Beautiful'.

In The Symposium - which really just means "drinking party" - Plato puts Socrates in the middle of a feast. The guests decide that, before they start drinking in earnest - with the explicit goal of getting shit-faced - they should talk about something interesting.

They settle into a discussion of the nature of love.

When Socrates' turn comes around, he sets out the much-misunderstood idea of what is now called "Platonic love." When people use that term, these days, they mean love that does not involve sex. That's part of what Plato has in mind, but not the whole of it . . . and not the worst of it.

What we should love, Plato has Socrates say, is the Beautiful itself, the abstract, changeless form of beauty, rather than the person who is beautiful. Given the passage of time, that person will no longer be beautiful, and what will our love be worth?

So, Platonic love is not about how two ordinary, particular, temporary, flawed people relate to one another in their individuality. No, all of that is belittled and obscured by a singular obsession with an abstraction. Any particular beloved person is, in that sense, disposable: as soon as that individual no longer stands as an embodiment of the Beautiful, he or she is to be discarded in favor of some younger beloved one who, for the moment, embodies the Beautiful.

Last edited by hyperskeptic; 11-14-2013 at 12:30 PM.
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