What does the word "abstract" mean?
January 16, 2012 12:33 PM   Subscribe

What does the word "abstract" mean?

I'm writing an article arguing that researchers in my field need to develop a more sophisticated definition of abstractness/concreteness.

For the introduction, I want to give a thorough review of all the different senses in which people actually use the word "abstract" -- both in everyday language, and also in science, business, the humanities, etc.

I'm interested in both your own opinion of what the word means, as well as examples from books, articles, online posts, or anywhere the word is used.

posted by internet_explorer to Science & Nature (11 answers total)
Defined. Avoid definition one for circularity, but definition two is helpful: "expressing a quality or characteristic apart from any specific object or instance".
posted by valkyryn at 12:36 PM on January 16, 2012

Are you only interested in the adjective or do you care about the verb and noun as well?
posted by mr_roboto at 12:46 PM on January 16, 2012

No, IE is looking for how it gets used everyday by working researchers.

I'm a computational biologist who works on biomedically related topics. Beyond abstract's use as a noun, which is by far the most common use, it's often used as a pejorative to refer to work or research that is too far removed from application. You'll hear it sometimes if a physicist or mathematician gives a talk to biologists, and they'll say "His modeling approach is way too abstract to be applied to our heart study." Sometimes this is just to cover up the fact that they don't understand.

While there are models and theories used commonly in biology that would fall under the heading of more "abstract" thinking, it isn't used frequently.
posted by Mercaptan at 12:47 PM on January 16, 2012

In CS an abstract class is a class that can only be used to define other classes. It itself cannot take form. The class is defined to be abstract to prevent human error.

In economics, abstraction is to work out a theory using only some variables.
posted by michaelh at 1:18 PM on January 16, 2012

Abstraction in visual art is the de-emphasizing of accurate representation of real-world objects in favor of emphasis on line, shape, color, texture and so on.
posted by griphus at 1:26 PM on January 16, 2012

Abstraction is also used in programming in a broader sense to refer to the logical separation of unrelated systems.

In a good program design, one piece of code does not depend on the internal workings of other pieces of code it calls upon, only on their outward behavior. For example, a program performing calculations on data does not depend on the way this data is stored on disk - it only calls upon OS code and gets an array of numbers. This is hugely convenient, because it means that, among other things, the teams programming the calculations and file I/O can work independently.

We say that some functionality has been abstracted into a subroutine/function/class/library/whatever. The concept of logical separation is referred to as the abstraction barrier. Abstraction is convenient for design and reasoning about code, but often inconvenient in practice - sometimes the programmer needs to reach some functionality that has been hidden behind the abstraction, and has to do an end run around the original design. This is usually a sign of bad design or changing requirements, but it is also said that any non-trivial design suffers from this kind of abstraction leak in some way.
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:34 PM on January 16, 2012

Also in CS, we talk about abstractions in the sense that the lower level details are hidden from you. For example if you are writing some characters to a file, you generally from a programming stand point don't have to consider the fact that file might really be on a server or an external hard drive or not even be a real file at all. You are also not concerned about the hard disk spinning into place, or magnetically altering the platters of the hard drive or if there is platters at all. Good abstractions build upon themselves in a way that "just works". The lower level details are taken care of for you and you can focus your energies on the higher order and thus more valuable problems. Sometimes these abstractions aren't very good and as such they are referred to as leaky abstractions.
posted by mmascolino at 1:40 PM on January 16, 2012

Best answer: Get thee to a philosopher!

This is, at its heart, a philosophic question . It's been near and dear to philosophical debate for... oh, 2000 years now. I don't even know where to begin on the subject, but you may want to start by reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry. Hopefully, that will help you clarify your question and find some good sources for looking further.
posted by meese at 1:56 PM on January 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Consider watching http://www.infoq.com/presentations/Simple-Made-Easy if this is at all related to computer programming.
posted by rr at 2:29 PM on January 16, 2012

micaleh & meese,

This is why I say Plato was an object oriented programmer!;)
posted by BillW at 6:56 PM on January 16, 2012

Best answer: Concrete vs. Abstract Thinking in psychology: Here's a not-bad description of concrete vs. abstract thinking, from a website about education for children who are brain injured. An excerpt:

"Abstract thinking is a level of thinking about things that is removed from the facts of the 'here and now', and from specific examples of the things or concepts being thought about. Abstract thinkers are able to reflect on events and ideas, and on attributes and relationships separate from the objects that have those attributes or share those relationships. Thus, for example, a concrete thinker can think about this particular dog; a more abstract thinker can think about dogs in general. A concrete thinker can think about this dog on this rug; a more abstract thinker can think about spatial relations, like 'on'. A concrete thinker can see that this ball is big; a more abstract thinker can think about size in general. A concrete thinker can count three cookies; a more abstract thinker can think about numbers. A concrete thinker can recognize that John likes Betty; a more abstract thinker can reflect on emotions, like affection."

On intelligence tests there is often a subtest measuring verbal abstract reasoning ability. A sample question would be:

In what way are an apple and an orange alike?

The answer: "they're alike because you eat them both" gets 1 point, while the answer "they're alike because they're both fruit" gets 2 points, because "fruit" is responding at a higher level of abstraction (general category) than "eating" (functional similarity).

Similarly, on mental status examinations given by psychiatrists, proverbs are often used to assess the patient's level of abstract reasoning:

What does this saying mean? "People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones."

The answer, "because the stone would break the glass!" is an example of concrete thinking, whereas "People who have vulnerabilities shouldn't attack others" (I got that last sentence from the above article) is a more abstract interpretation of the saying.

Developmental psychologists such as Piaget wrote a whole whole lot about the development of abstract thinking in children.

Kohlberg extended Piaget's theory to studies of moral development. For example, saying that slavery is bad because it impinges on personal freedom (a general moral principle) is more abstract than saying we should be kind to others so that they'll be kind to us ("tit for tat").
posted by DMelanogaster at 6:01 PM on January 19, 2012

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