Be Concrete, Be Abstract, Just Don't Ride the Fence
There’s an old saying that you can’t be a little bit pregnant. You’re pregnant or you aren’t. Pregnant and not-pregnant are both great states – optimal states – depending on person, circumstance, and timing. It’d be weird for someone to ape the tendencies and social status of both at the same time. A person who pretends to be pregnant when they aren’t, or the reverse, to gain some kind of emotional edge in a given circumstance is unhealthy.
This happens with ideas. Abstract and concrete ideas are both wonderful. What’s weird is a muddled middle incapable of either raw pursuit of abstract truth or concrete application toward a specific end.
Many young people are capable of neither abstract nor concrete interaction with ideas. The rule of the day is to have an opinion on every idea. Not ignore it, be inspired by it, or act on it – all of which would be better – just have an opinion quickly knowable to the mainstream or contrarians, whatever group you’re gunning for. Maybe the trend has grown, maybe I just notice it more. It makes people intellectually impotent, uninteresting, and sometimes insufferable.
Concrete radicals care about everything only insofar as it contributes directly to their goals. I know successful people like this, shrewd as vipers at eliminating chaff and demanding value from every idea they entertain. They are practical philosophers. They have a massive appetite for learning new things, but a laser-like focus keeps them out of the clouds. They know who they are and so does everyone else. They don’t pretend to know what’s true, just what works for them. There is a beautiful and transparent logic to their approach.
Abstract radicals care about everything only insofar as it leads them closer to truth. I know successful people like this, gentle as doves, openly exploring every idea for that spark of insight that might open their mind to new aspects of reality. Their head is in the clouds, they know it, they own it, they love it. They get the basics of life handled however they can so they can focus on their pursuit of ideas, unconcerned with potential applications. There is a beautiful and transparent logic to their approach.
Some people can switch between both extremes based on their preference and circumstances. I know successful people like this. In some areas at some times, they are concrete as it comes. In others, they throw practicality to the wind and get lost in abstraction.
It’s that flabby, flimsy, floppy middle ground that’s useless. Those incapable of dealing with big abstract ideas playfully or fruitfully, and incapable of putting ideas to use for them to achieve concrete goals. Equally afraid of discussions of truth claims and environments with accountability to specific outcomes. It’ a mode of thought geared at social signalling and desire to appear cool or normal, rather than attain an intrinsic goal, abstract or concrete. Those might end in failure, terror of terrors, while moderation between abstract and concrete is too slippery to win or lose.
One manifestation of this inability to take either extreme is the perpetual critic who never creates. Raising a hand to object to an author’s presentation of an idea scores quick points as a thinker, while not demanding original thought or accountability for the value of your opinion. This proof-of-paying-attention-while-playing-too-cool-to-be-inspired is common in classrooms.
A manifestation in the work setting is the meeting lover. If you hold a meeting with lofty sounding objectives and trendy buzzwords, you toe the line between abstract vision and concrete production, but accomplish neither. In almost every case, sitting at your desk entering data into a spreadsheet or going for a walk to contemplate your target market would be better than a muddled meeting to pontificate about both. To paraphrase Ron Swanson, better to whole-ass one thing than half-ass two.
One more example, popular in the last decade or so, is the non-profiteer who tries to mimic the culture and incentives of a for-profit startup. Rather than seizing their unique advantage of not needing market demand for their mission, this middle-of-the-roader wants to be both shielded from the accountability of profit and loss and enjoy the innovation, fast pace, and coolness factor of a hip tech company. It ends up a parody of both.
I don’t know if this inability to be extremely abstract or extremely concrete is really on the rise, but I see more of it every day with young people. I sometimes think they read every popular book while reading none of them. They post a quick, tepid endorsement, or glib dismissal on the abstract ideas or concrete application, but don’t seem to radically embrace or reject anything as either a tool for their advancement or a morsel on their quest for truth.
It’s hard to look beyond the simulated half-world of school as explanation. This is he most schooled generation in human history. I can’t think of another place where the lack of concrete and abstract is so prominent. Students must engage abstract ideas just enough to prove it on a test. Tests are a phony foam concrete, like a bad Star Trek prop. They have tangible enough outcomes, but grades are an end product utterly disconnected from the real world or any intrinsic student goals.
Contrast the way you have to engage a book in order to pass a test with the way you to do either, a) stay awake all night contemplating its claims because you must know, or, b) get someone to pay you to do something you don’t yet know how to do.
Learning to the task is infinitely superior to learning to the test. Problems, your problems, whether the need to know how the world works or the need to feed yourself, are the best thing to drive learning. They enable both extremes depending on time, preference, and circumstance.
The school-test-grade system is a sloppy mess you’d expect to generate a bunch of people with knowledge tuned for sending a minimum acceptable social signal. It saps the real interest and drive that accompany a radical abstract or radical concrete thinker.
But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth! — Revelation 3:16
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