On Abstraction: The Reduction and Destruction of Human Experience

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37 Gruen


ARNO GRUEN practices psychoanalysis and psychotherapy in New York City. This work is an integral part of his pursuit of the viscissitudes of the struggle for autonomy. He is Visiting Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.


A major means by which a culture maintains self-division and violence is abstraction. In the social sciences too the process of employing abstraction to divorce us from ourselves is becoming increasingly more institutionalized. Thus the meanings that emanate from some sectors of psychological research arc often not congruent with human experience. The discrepancy between what is officially acknowledged as experience and what is actually experienced may so block access to this real experience as to distort our perceptions of reality.

A major means by which our culture maintains self-division and violence is abstraction. In part this is due to the overevaluation of intelligence per se which has led to the glorification of abstract though! divorced from passion, enthusiasm, and sincerity. Kierkegaard (1962) observed that the intelligence which is so overvalued transforms everything into representational ideas. The resulting abstractions only turn "the real task into an unreal trick and reality into a play." The consequences of this are destructive to our human spirit and possibilities, especially because the resuiting abstractions, in being divorced from feeling, deny their destructive impact.

Paradoxically, it is the historical process of science's own development that has abetted this most. In bringing about a mental climate that supposes that the reality of the world may be exhaustively described in terms of the abstractions found so successful in building modern science, abstraction was raised to a position wherein its questioning became equated with disloyalty to human "progress" (Whitehead, 1925). The scientific concepts elaborated during the seventeenth century assumed that the

[1] This article is dedicated to the late Professor Max Hertzman whose spirit is woven into it. My warm appreciation also goes to Thomas C. Greening whose generous help and care greatly sharpened and clarified this article.

J. Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 18. No. 1, Winter 1978


39 Gruen

A conversation related by Nobel laureate George Wald as having occurred with one of his psychology colleagues at Harvard is also pertinent and poignant:

One day he said to me, his face just shining, "Give us the specifications, and we'll make the men." I'm afraid I lost control a tittle, and my first reply was, "Not if I can shoot you first." That seemed to irritate him [Wald, 1969}.

The social meanings that emanate from the sciences are often not only incongruent with human experience but, through their domination of acceptable awareness, increase our difficulty in recognizing ourselves. The discrepancy between what is officially acknowledged as experience and what is actually experienced blocks our access to our experience.

Let us look at a recent highly acclaimed example of social-psychological research by Latané and Darley (1969) which received the 1968 Socio-Psychological Prize of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Its background was the murder on a March night in 1964 of Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York, by a maniac in full view of at least 38 of her neighbors, none of whom came to her assistance, and none of whom-—though the assailant took over a half an hour to complete his deed---even called the police.

The researchers felt that apathy, indifference, moral callousness, dehumanization, loss of concern for one's fellow human beings could not be at the bottom of this awful event. If anything, they refer with disdain to "preachers, professors and other sermonizers" who see a moral flaw in this failure to come to the aid of a person in mortal terror and distress. They define the dimensions of this experience by stating that:

Faced with a situation in which there is no benefit to be gained for himself ... it is perhaps surprising that anyone should intervene at all. . . . there are few positive rewards for successful activities in an emergency.

In assuming that we operate like machines in terms of input/output and immediate concrete rewards, the authors cannot consider dimensions that transcend such behavior. The facts of human experience are thus distorted through denial. People of course do respond to another's terror and despair because of empathy and capacity for compassion. And those most in touch with themselves on this level of experiencing cannot live by denying it. Apparently the investigators here can, and consequently were able to, set up a variety of ingeniously designed experimental situations to test the relationship of the mere presence of bystanders to an individual's degree of responding to someone else's distress. Their results, they state, indicate that people take less direct action in response to a victim's distress when there are other bystanders.


42 On Abstraction

in turn, results in the exclusion of considerations outside the frame of reference of power considerations. For example, what power considerations could ever ask the question: Survival for what? Those who manipulate the abstractions of power politics assume that survival means survival of the "best." But in Darwinian survival of the fittest, what is fittest may not be the best. After all, the organism most fit to resist radiation and therefore to inherit the earth is the cockroach.

The process is circular. Abstraction can divorce us from feeling and thus cripple us. And a person so crippled will inevitably seek, in Miguel de Unamuno's words, "ominous relief in seeing mutilation around him."[4] Through abstraction, mutilation can take place in ways other than physical violence. Violence is done not only by directly denying autonomous development, but also by promoting values and life orientations which negate autonomy.

The current emphasis on achieving high cognitive school performance is such an invidious example. For example, Bruner, Oliver, Greenfield, et al. (1966) interpret mental growth in terms of tasks of abstraction whose mastery becomes by their definition of proof of this growth. In such ways the mastery of cognitive tasks has become a socially desirable value. Their early mastery starts those processes whereby the child learns to climb the ladder of advancement and success. Ironically, in doing so the child is defined as being independent. That means he or she can climb the ladder of achievement as defined by the elders. Such achievement is claimed to bestow "independence" since it leads to success and material gains. Yet it is precisely this kind of mastery that blocks those aspects of the child's emotional life that are the only basis of genuine autonomy (i.e., the child's connection to joy, sadness, courage, despair, and the tie to his own perceptions). He or she will have no time for any of these, since they interfere with cognitive mastery of abstractions.

The achievement-oriented child-rearing that must be done to achieve these cognitive skills destroys the kind of mothering that gives a child a chance to develop emotional integration. A recent investigation of mothering in relation to cognitive performance (Wieder, 1972) shows clearly that the mothering labelled "good" (i.e., nonpunitive manipulation leading to the infant's early mastery of solid food intake, self-feeding, and toilet training) correlates positively with good cognitive performance already at 18 and 22 months of age. This is the kind of mothering that expresses a mother's striving ambition for her offspring, not her joy in her

[4] Quoted in relation to another desperate time (Payne. 1962).

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child's aliveness. It is because of this that success in cognitive mastery becomes identified with goodness in personal development. In other words the mothering that imposes a sham "independence" and prevents genuine autonomy makes for high cognitive scores. Furthermore the most destructive aspect of children being subjected to a coercion denuded of overt punitiveness is that such child-rearing makes it nearly impossible for children to know their anger, much less its source.

Hugo Ball (1970) once said: "Knowledge, where it appears as the ultimate principle, kills enthusiasm, {and} the spirit. . . . Knowledge as a system keeping us from our feelings multiplies problems; enthusiasm solves and simplifies them."[5] Albert Szent-Györgyi (1964) put it more personally when speaking of knowledge as something to be left for safe-keeping in books while using our heads for something better. "... I do not depreciate knowledge ... {but what we need to do is}... learn how to learn, to whet our appetites for knowledge, to teach us the delight of doing a job well and the excitement of creativity, to teach us to love what we do, and to help us to find what we love to do."

It is therefore not accidental that overintellectual young psychotherapy patients who have been raised in this way are often unable to verbalize their condition. Their intellectual talents have been so emphasized in the race to get ahead via cognitive skills that they are incapable of a dialogue with themselves.

One such young woman in analysis would experience intense physical tremors whenever exposed to situations in which she was asked (by the pressure of the social situation) to participate in a mutual confirmation of each other's goodness-in-togetherness. It became clear in the course of therapy that she also experienced contradictory perceptions such as con- temptuousness on the part of the dominant person in such a group situation. Not only were such perceptions unacknowledged by the group as a whole, but the myth of togetherness made the group turn on anyone challenging it. The difficulty in therapy was that the patient could not verbalize what she intuitively felt. She had no verbal tools for this. Her upbringing having been in terms of conceptualizations that stressed togetherness, no allowance existed for the acknowledgment of contradictions found in real life.

Of course her symptomatology was part of a "copping out" in which her feeling like a failure was an aspect of her struggle not to be in a false life. Yet her inability even to communicate to herself her experience of offense

[5] Author's translation.

44 On Abstraction

was a partial function of an abstract mode of conduct that excluded such meanings. Her body literally had to speak for her

In a similar vein Sylvia Ashton-Warner (1963) found that Maori children in a Western school setting, brought up so as to deny or not recognize their inner fears, would, once given the words with which to form a bridge to them, stop being destructive. As destructiveness faded out, creativity and real learning took its place.

David Harris went to prison for insisting on seeing (as his wife wrote) through the windows of his own soul. He wrote about those institutionalized abstractions that produce people whose acts bear no direct relationship to their needs. Such people deal with themselves in terms of abstractions and reflect what society wants them to feel. "Soldiers make war in pursuit of peace. . . . the intention of the act is in no way carried in the act itself {Harris, 1970, p. 59}." And therefore, "when our doing is not an immediate process of making ourselves real when the object and the intention of an act are not done in the act itself a direct relationship to ourselves is impossible {p. 62}." We are then left with an identity that can only be assembled by the rule a particular society demands. If we refuse, Harris goes on to say, we run the risk of isolation, and if our isolated energies are insufficient we risk nonexistence.

The pressure of abstraction is against authenticity. Abstraction, both as environment obscuring our vision and as a process employed without emotional commitment to life, becomes the enemy of life itself. Our intelligence becomes a force that transforms reality into a dangerously self-destructive play. Individuals who try to break out of this, in not surrendering, become defined as maladjusted.

Around 1300 a.d., Meister Eckhart, speaking of conditions similar to ours, said: "When I preached at Paris, 1 said - and I regard it well said – that with all their science, those people at Paris are not able to discern what God is in the least of creatures — not even in a fly! Blackney, 1941"

REFERENCES Ed. note: Accented vowel missing Latane, -LatinE & Darley- Szent-Gyorgyi -Gy5rgyi

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Blackney, R. Meister Eckhart. New York: Harper & Row. 1941.

Bruner, J., Oliver. R., Greenfield, P., et al. Studies in cognitive growth. New York: Wiley, 1966.

Gruen 45

Dinesen, I. Out of Africa. New York: Random House, 1937.

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