Monday, December 05, 2005

Being Abstract

Academic research in the humanities is often all about seeing the abstract picture and making abstract connections. It takes quite a bit of thinking and faith before one can convince themselves that a lot of these thoughts aren't just mad ramblings. Most people's intuition would be to reject some of the abstractions that we study as ridiculous, and that wouldn't be too far off. But as far as I'm concerned, even the most far-fetched ideas (provided that nothing is factually or methodologically wrong with the idea) deserve at least 15 minutes' worth of deep, rigorous thought.

Take for example the following scenario: There are two things called A and B. Then we describe an attribute we can ascribe to these things and call it Q. Now we have one of many directions to take. We can analyze how either A or B is Q or not Q. Then we can say how A and B put together is Q. Notice that this is already a couple levels of abstraction beyond the normal. Let's say Q is "exciting". We're not saying A is exciting and we're not saying B is exciting. We're saying that the A and B put together (not C, just A and B as a group) is exciting. OK, now let's ascend further up the abstraction ladder. We can then talk about the relationship itself bewteen A and B (or some aspect thereof) as being Q. Of course Q may be a quality that only arises out of two other things and so the relationship between A and B as an entity may have to interact with something else outside the world of A and B in order to realize this quality Q.

So this is what us academics do all day long. Think craaaazy thoughts like what I just delineated. But as silly as all that sounded, there are ways to apply it fruitfully in order to produce worthy paths of study. Being an academic isn't thinking up silly abstractions. It's exploring all kinds of abstractions and being able to discover the profound thoughts that lurk behind certain abstractions, even if they seem silly and overwrought at the beginning.

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