"The Perils of Abstraction" by Christy Wampole

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

New York Times, November 2019.

When we are reduced to pixels or poll numbers, wars, discrimination and other forms of brutality become easier to justify.

“Show me what winning looks like.”

This was how Senator Elizabeth Warren, in September’s Democratic presidential debate, described the appeal she has made “every time one of the generals come through” as she sought to understand by what measure our military intervention in Afghanistan could be considered a success. In place of an abstraction — “success” — she wanted something concrete. Ms. Warren’s plea, startling in its simplicity, highlights the perilous nature of abstraction and invites us to study the various ways in which it may be deployed to control, cancel or kill people.

In the social and political realms, an abstraction is an idea — love, liberty, Leninism — that has no palpable form. When we speak about something in the abstract, we take concrete instances and average them into generalized — and necessarily reductive — concepts. Through this process, things, events and people lose their visibility and density. The world becomes a series of signs and numbers standing in for things themselves.

Among the thinkers of the past century, the French philosopher Simone Weil stands out as a powerful analyst of the many ways in which abstraction could damage our politics and our soul.

Christy Wampole is an associate professor of French literature and thought at Princeton University.

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