Meta-question about abstraction
July 18, 2012 1:36 PM   Subscribe

Philosophy / education: how can I search for topics related to the ability to generalize and manipulate abstractions?

I am thinking about the process of acquiring / learning abstraction in humans. Today a friend/colleague was struggling with a jargon word in my field which refers to either a class or an instance depending on context, and I found it difficult to find a good explanation to get the point across to him. It is not the first time I see this happening, and it happens to me too. For example today again I was struggling understanding the notion of category in haskell from my previous understanding of algebraic structures.

Now I want to understand better what are the mental processes involved in the distinction between particular and general, how education deals with this, and what it says about our understanding of reality (ie how we make models out of what we preceive). I want especially to understand why it's hard, why different people struggle differently with it, and whether there are methods to optimize the learning of generality.

So I would like to start researching / studying this topic but I don't know from where to start. For now it feels to me like my interest in this topic should bring me to the essence of education, some areas of psychology, some fundamental problems in philosophy, and concepts from logic, but I have not clue which keywords to use in my search.

Hence my appeal to the hive mind. Do you know of either

- search terms / keywords?

- key publications (books, academic articles) that cover this area?

- key people / blogs talking about these topics?

- studies previously made in that direction?

- anything else you can think of that may be relevant?
posted by knz to Education (4 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'd say you are mainly interested in research from psychology and education, not philosophy. I would look at wikipedia articles on research on cognitive development, or pedagogy of abstract concepts like elementary and secondary math teaching.

But let me say a quick word about philosophical work in this area, which is part of metaphysics. Metaphysics is concerned with the nature of categories and abstract entities -- are they real things unto themselves, or do they only exist in our minds? for example -- not so much with what makes a given person better or worse able to come to grips with abstractions. If you want to look at philosophical theories about categories or abstract, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a standard, reliable, free online resource. It will tend to be fairly high-level, but typically gives a lot of great bibliographic info and keywords/key people to use for further searching.

A couple of representative SEP articles that might be interesting jumping-off points:
Platonism in metaphysics - roughly, the stance that abstract entities (like numbers, or algorithms, or abstract things like justice or beauty) exist as real things in a perfect realm, and things in our world (such as just societies or beautiful artworks) only imperfectly reflect these qualities/numbers/etc. The abstract perfect entities have an existence that's separate from the things in this world that reflect them.
Nominalism in metaphysics - roughly, the stance that abstract entities and categories exist "in name only", they do not have separate existence outside of the entities that reflect them (such as just societies or beautiful artworks)
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:52 PM on July 18, 2012

See also the SEP article on 'Types and Tokens,' which is a reasonable search term to use at Google Scholar as well. Luria found the acquisition of abstract thinking skills in a Rudsian peasant population to be strongly associated with the acquisition of literacy, but I don't know how that has stood up over time--starting there and moving forward in what research has been done would work though.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 4:10 PM on July 18, 2012

Russian--damn you autocorrect?!
posted by Monsieur Caution at 4:11 PM on July 18, 2012

Concrete vs abstract thinking.

A lot of work in child development has to do with at what ages and stages children are able to deal with various levels of abstraction. Just for example, see any outline of Piaget's Stages of Cognitive Development--this will also give you an idea of some of the terms commonly used.
posted by flug at 5:26 PM on July 18, 2012

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