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WILLIAM FLEMING - 1890 - Table of contents

A - B - C - D - E - F - G - H- I - J - K - L - M - N - O - P - Q - R - S - T - U - V - W  

Diccionario filosófico
Complete edition

Diccionario de Filosofía
Brief definition of the most important concepts of philosophy.


A Dictionary of English Philosophical Terms Francis Garden


Vocabulary of Philosophy, Psychological, Ethical, Metaphysical
William Fleming

Biografías y semblanzas Biographical references and lives of philosophers

Brief introduction to the thought of Ortega y Gasset

History of Philosophy Summaries

Historia de la Filosofía
Explanation of the thought of the great philosophers; summaries, exercises...

Historia de la Filosofía
Digital edition of the History of Philosophy by Jaime Balmes

Historia de la Filosofía
Digital edition of the History of Philosophy by Zeferino González

Vidas, opiniones y sentencias de los filósofos más ilustres
Complete digital edition of the work of Diogenes Laertius

Compendio de las vidas de los filósofos antiguos

A brief history of Greek Philosophy
B. C. Burt


A Short History of Philosophy





ABSTRACTION (abstractio, from abs traho, to draw away from; also called separatio, resolutio, and precisio).—(1) The exercise of mind by which attention is withdrawn from certain qualities in an object, or from certain objects among many, and concentrated upon others. Abstraction and concentration are the two sides of one mental exercise. (2) The product of this exercise—(a) the representation of a quality, taken apart from the qualities with which it coheres; (b) a conception including a certain number of qualities to the exclusion of others, which becomes a "symbolic conception," representing many objects or occurrences.


Abstraction is essential to a free use of comparison, and is a necessary preliminary for generalisation. It is thus a condition of advance in knowledge, but it is an artificial expedient for classification of the contents of knowledge, not an exact knowledge of things as existing. On this ground, "the abstract" was declared by Hegel to be the false, the concrete alone being the real,—the abstract being the apprehension of a thing on one side, or in one aspect.

That we are capable of abstraction, and that the exercise is essential to progress in knowledge, are positions universally admitted. As to the character of the mental exercise, see Locke's Essay, II. ch. XI. sec. 9 ; Keid's Intellectual Powers, essay V. ch. III. - Stewart's Elements, ch. IV.; Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, Transcendental Analytic, bk. I.; Hegel's Vermischte Schriften, II. ch. VIII. 2; Werke, XVII. 400; Hamilton's Metaphysics, lect. XXXIV.; Mansel's Prolegomena Logica, 2nd ed., p. 26; Ueberweg's Logic (Lindsay), p. 127; Wallace's Logic of Hegel, "Prolegomena," ch. X.; Sully's Outlines of Psychology, p. 342.

"Drobisch observed that the term abstraction is used sometimes in a psychological, sometimes in a logical sense. In the former we are said to abstract the attention from certain distinctive features of objects presented (abstrahere [mentem] a differentiis). In the latter we are said to abstract certain portions of a given concept from the remainder (abstrahere differentias)" (Mansel, Prolegomena Logica, 2nd ed., note, p. 30).

Whether we can represent to ourselves an abstract conception, as an object present to our imagination, has been a subject of dispute.

"The mind," says Locke, "makes particular ideas received from particular objects to become general, which is done by considering them as they are in the mind such appearances, separate from all other existences, and the circumstances of real existence, as time, place, or any other concomitant ideas. This is called abstraction, whereby ideas taken from particular beings become general representatives of all of the same kind; and their names general names applicable to whatever exists conformable to such abstract ideas" (Essay, bk. II. ch. XI. sec. 9 ; bk. IV. ch. VII. sec. 9).

In reference to this, Berkeley has said—"I own myself able to abstract in one sense, as when I consider some particular parts or qualities separated from others, with which, though they are united in some object, yet it is possible they may really exist without them. But I deny that I can abstract one from another, or conceive separately those qualities which it is impossible should exist separately; or that I can frame a general notion by abstracting from particulars as aforesaid, which two last are the proper acceptation of abstraction" (Principles of Human Knowledge, introd., sec. 10; Fraser's Selections from Berkeley, 2nd ed., p. 17).

Hume maintains "the impossibility of general ideas, according to the common method of explaining them," holding that "a particular idea becomes general, by being annexed to a general term" (Human Nature, I. sec. 7 ; Green's ed., I. 330).

"It seems to me," says Hume, "not impossible to avoid these absurdities and contradictions" (essay on Sceptical Philosophy, in Inq. Hum. Und., sec. 12), "if it be admitted that there are no such things as abstract in general ideas, properly speaking, but that all general ideas are in reality particular ones attached to a general term, which recalls, upon occasion, other particular ones that resemble in certain circumstances the idea present to the mind. Thus, when the term 'horse' is pronounced, we immediately figure to ourselves the idea of a black or white animal of a particular size or figure; but as that term is also used to be applied to animals of other colours, figures, and sizes, their ideas, though not actually present to the imagination, are easily recalled, and our reasoning and conclusion proceed in the same way as if they were actually present" (Essays, ed. 1758, p. 371; Green's ed., II. 129).

The most recent view as to the psychological aspect of Abstraction is that of generic images, maintained by Sully and Galton. According to this view, "what is in my mind is a kind of composite images formed by the fusion or coalescence of many images of single objects, in which individual differences are blurred, and only the common features stand out distinctly" (Sully, Outlines of Psychology, p. 339; Galton on "Generic Images," Nineteenth Century, July 1879). Pollock (Spinoza, p. 201) seems to trace the origin of this view in Spinoza (Ethics, pt. II., prop. 40, schol. 1). Spinoza found the source of the gravest errors in philosophy in the abstract view of things which is natural to man, i.e., in regarding things not as modes of the Divine Attributes, but as res completœ, independent individuals.

John S. Mill censures severely the practice of applying the expression "abstract name" to all names which are the result of abstraction or generalisation, and consequently to all general names, instead of confining it to the names of attributes. He uses the term abstract as opposed to concrete (Logic, 2nd ed., I. 35).



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