An Abstract Comment on Abstraction

In the previous discussion on ownership and property, Lee Gold said the following: “I own my thoughts and my actions — at least to the extent that I am willing to stand up for them.”  This is a very interesting remark, and set me to thinking.  Let me see if I can both work this out and express it (usually the same process for me).  We’re going to ignore the fact that this remark makes “ownership” meaningless because it ignores the role of the State, which is what defines ownership.  I’m going in a different direction.

My American Heritage Dictionary (I less than three my American Heritage Dictionary) defines the noun “abstract” to mean, “The concentrated essence of a larger whole.”  More important for this discussion are two of the definitions of the transitive verb:  ” 1. To take away, remove.” and  “3. To consider theoretically.”

To abstract, as I’m using it here, means to mentally pull a part out of the whole. Abstracting, in this sense, is a necessary part of thought.  In order to count the number of books on my shelf, I must abstract the quantity–that is, consider nothing about them except the number.  Abstraction is a prerequisite for object permanence, a vital stage in human development.  That our minds are able to do this is, obviously, a key element of thought; but, “this power must be used only for Good;” that is, we are able to do it incorrectly.  Because we have imagination, we are perfectly capable of making invalid or false abstractions–that is, abstractions that do not accurately reflect real world processes and conditions.  To take an obvious example, we can consider only the backbones of snails, but it won’t get us very far as snails, like Democratic politicians, lack backbones (okay, sorry, that was mean).  We can also abstract the backbones of snakes in order to consider, for example, how snakes move.  But this is something we do in our minds; in reality, if you remove the backbone, you no longer have a snake–you have snakeskin, some random organs, a couple of souvenirs, and a decent meal if you know how to prepare it.

The comment I quoted at the start of the post above is an interesting case.  By saying, “I own this,” or even, “I possess this,” we are abstracting the thing from ourselves.  The idea, “I own my actions,” or, “I own my thoughts,” implies “I possess my thoughts” or “I possess my actions.”  This has as much meaning as, “I own my leg,” or, “I possess my leg.”  This has significance today in, for example, the fight for reproductive rights of women–to what extent do you have the right to the control parts of your own anatomy?  But philosophically, what is happening by formulating it in that way, is that you are abstracting a part of yourself, and treating it as if it were separate from the whole.  Clearly, if my leg were amputated, stuffed, and given to me, no one would argue that I don’t possess my leg.  I should prefer to avoid this experience.  In reality, my leg is a part of me.  I would argue that this is a false abstraction.  I do not possess my thoughts, and I certainly don’t own them–rather, they are a part of the unity that is me.

Okay, that’s as far as I’ve gotten.  If you enjoyed reading this anywhere near as much as I enjoyed writing it, seek professional help.  I have no shame, but, hey, at least I own it.

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18 thoughts on “An Abstract Comment on Abstraction”

  1. Obviously, you haven’t worked with an IP lawyer who is willing to try to get you to sign a paper giving them ownership (legally) of your thoughts or even that you have to work for them for nothing. The fact that this doesn’t make a lot of sense doesn’t prevent them from trying. ;>)

  2. If you go too far down this path, you may wind up with David Bohm, his Implicate Order, and his Undivided Wholeness in Flowing Movement. That might not be such a bad place to be, but I’m afraid it’s, well, somewhat abstract.

    For convenience in language and in political discussion, we do have to distinguish the boundaries of objects and use an analytical approach or we will never get anywhere. I think it’s legitimate to say your thoughts are neither owned nor possessed, but are attributes or expressions of your self. You can derive that from the Cartesian reductio. But pretty much everything beyond that is up for grabs by the State if they don’t want to let you have whatever it is you think you own.

    Of course the State has often made efforts to control thought itself, both in fiction and in fact in places like North Korea or Khmer Rouge Cambodia, but those attempts have thankfully mostly failed to date. Of course if you read the comments in a typical Fox News article you can see the truth of Lincoln’s “some of the people all of the time” line.

  3. I have all sorts of random thoughts. It’s the way my brain works. It would be exhausting to try to censor all my thoughts before I thought them.

    Some of my thoughts make me proud. I’m happy to be the person who thinks such noble glorious things.

    Others I’m not proud of at all. I”d just as soon nobody knew they had ever been in my brain. I want to disown them.

  4. I think I need some clarification.

    You’ve stated that one can not possess your own thoughts, even if the state grants you ownership of them, because your thoughts are an intrinsic part of the unity that is you.

    You’ve stated that one *can* possess a guitar, because a guitar exists in spatial relationship and as a separate entity to the unity that is you.

    So what happens when one is grooving out with the guitar, such that the guitar is an essential part of the unity of you that is expressing your thoughts and emotions?

    Do you then become self-possessed?

  5. All you nice people seem to be ignoring the bit about being willing to stand up (privately, in front of friends; publicly, in front of strangers) for thoughts and actions — instead of doing them anonymously.

    –Lee Gold

  6. Lee: Because that has no effect whether your thoughts are an inherent part of you or can be separated, which is the part that interests me.

  7. The problem is that possessives are used for a wide spectrum of meaning, ranging from connection to domination. If we use the former “my leg” makes perfect sense, if the latter, it seems kinda strange (particularly in doctor’s offices, when we learn that regions of our bodies seem to have their own plans). We are naturally connected to our arms, legs, organs and brains; claims of ownership-control-of these all too often turn out to illusory.
    Or, from CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters: “We produce this sense of ownership not only by pride but by confusion. We teach them not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun-the finely graded differences that run from “my boots” through “my dog”, “my servant”, “my wife”, “my father”, “my master” and “my country”, to “my God”. They can be taught to reduce all these senses to that of “my boots”, the “my” of ownership. Even in the nursery a child can be taught to mean by “my Teddy-bear” not the old imagined recipient of affection to whom it stands in a special relation (for that is what the Enemy will teach them to mean if we are not careful) but “the bear I can pull to pieces if I like”.”

  8. Also: Steve, it sounds like you’re inching toward logical positivism here. Would you sat that’s accurate?

  9. Dave: No, I don’t believe so. Logical positivism is just pragmatism dressed up in a lab coat, and pragmatism bases itself on subjective idealism, which I try to stay as far away from as possible.


    It seems that this discussion is going around largely because of the weaknesses and confusions of the words we use – both formally or colloquially. Steve has defined “own” as a legal definition as determined by the state. Thus I shouldn’t say “my wife” since I don’t legally own her. ;>)

    I do believe that we own our thoughts and ideas (that is, we have control of them), but this is of no legal consequence by itself, so it is meaningless in a way. Once those thoughts and ideas are expressed, particularly in a durable manner (writing, recording), then you can talk about legal ownership (copyright).

  11. Thoughts: I see thoughts more as an expression of yourself; an every-changing set of constantly-emergent, complex, ephemeral structures that can’t be owned in any way, but are “yours” in the sense that they exist because you exist as a sentience, much in the same way that a wall is lit because a light bulb is glowing in that direction. This is not ownership, merely a complex form of the expression of existence, and “my” or “your” in this case referring only to the source.

    Actions: Actions can similarly be seen as merely the connection of thoughts through to a specific physical trigger mechanism that has been closely associated by the sentience previously to similar thought features. The action would only be “mine” or “yours” in the sense that our sentience initiated them. This includes and follows-through to tool usage, as the action in the body was triggered to initiate a sympathetic action in the connected tool, again based largely on prior similar thought-association.

    “Owning” a thought or action: This to me has yet another meaning – specifically, that the person in question is willing to continue to follow-through the specific thought or action to the extent that they accept all future repercussions and are willing to defend such without hiding the defense thereto. Another way to look at this is “making the choice to publicly define the thought or action as being a fundamental part of who you are, thereby making any attack against it a concomitant attack against you personally”.

    All of which brings up the obvious follow-on question: What is sentience? What is “me”? My definition of this follows something along the lines of, “The emergent sustained complexity and action-initiation-engine that arises from the specific set of physical structures (and any extra-physical structures that we may not yet understand) contained within the current boundaries of the body to which it is integrated.” That’s about the best I can do at the moment, but I’m sure this will evolve over time, as all things do.

  12. ‘Steve has defined “own” as a legal definition as determined by the state. Thus I shouldn’t say “my wife” since I don’t legally own her. ;>)’

    Mrrr? Is there somewhere I said that use of a possessive only applies to ownership? My opinion is that I never said that.

  13. If I pay attention to my thoughts, I might notice I’ve been thinking what other people have persuaded me to think — and attempt to reverse the process. Are thoughts I’ve picked up from commercial advertising really part of me? When I was thirteen and denounced the President as a liar in my Social Studies class, I felt a sense of near-blasphemy as I heard what I was saying — but I kept on speaking. Was one or both thoughts part of me: the one I held logically based on the President’s statements — or the one I’d somehow been persuaded to hold emotionally?

    If I take my blood and let it drip out… (No, I’m not going to refer to blood donation, though I suppose that’s important too.) I had a friend who was a veteran and who banded with other veterans in 1967 or thereabouts. They half-filled a large glass with their blood and put their DD-214s (their discharge IDs) in it and marched into the local draft board office and gave it to the bureaucrats as a Viet Nam War protest. They didn’t arrange for publicity, though, and they didn’t get any, but I presume that the bureaucrats remembered the incident, at least for a little while.

    –Lee Gold

  14. Steve, I was pointing out the absurdity of our language. Otherwise known as a joke. ;>)

  15. ” Are thoughts I’ve picked up from commercial advertising really part of me?”


    ” Was one or both thoughts part of me: the one I held logically based on the President’s statements — or the one I’d somehow been persuaded to hold emotionally?”


    If there is a point to the blood story, I’m missing it; sorry.

    David: Ah. Beg pardon.

  16. People have random thoughts and then they censor out the ones that seem useless.

    I don’t accept as myself all the thoughts I have. I choose which thoughts to do something with, and my choices are who I am far more than all the free association.

    I am a person who has random ideas. I do not take responsibility for what comes into my head. I take responsibility for what I choose to accept.

    And if advertisers etc put stuff in my head without my noticing, and subtly change my choices? Then they have successfully changed ME without my noticing. I don’t know what to do about that, but it bothers me.

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