Social Belonging and Abstraction

Social belonging is largely impossible in an age of reflection, because social belonging must consist of bonds between actual, concrete individuals, not between the individual and abstractions.  As always, it must be remembered that abstractions do truly not exist

In our current reflective age, the dominant abstraction is “the public.”  This is an abstraction that is essentially created by mass, now social, media.  It diffuses action to the abstraction, obviating any responsibility for action or even the formation of individual opinion.  Democracy does the same, and the press is, as it itself recognizes, the engine of democracy.  This is not a good thing.  It is also the engine of the democratic soul.  

More, incorporation into the abstraction requires leveling, the stifling of characteristics that distinguish the individual from their abstract identity.  Yet, these distinctions are what make us who we are and what enable us to form social bonds.  Think the complementary character of friendship or marriage or any organization. 

We are not part of the public, because the public does not exist.  We cannot find social belonging or identity in being a member of the public because to be a member of the public requires us to stop being individuals capable of forming social bonds. 

Our increasing desperation to maintain the illusion of the public’s existence is why the heretic, the man who refuses to be incorporated into the abstraction is so viciously denounced. 

Kierkegaard, The Present Age

Kierkegaard describes his age as one of reflection, rather than of revolution.  Ironically, he wrote this in 1846.  Perhaps it wasn’t ironic, I don’t know enough about 1848 to say for sure.   The mere fact that a revolution, or revolutions, occur does not mean that they are truly revolutionary, nor that we have escaped the doldrums of the age.  Regardless, the characterization certainly applies to the present

A reflective age is one in which the predominant turn is inwards, away from action and towards understanding.  Not true understanding in the sense of the Delphic maxim, γνῶθι σεαυτόν.  Indeed, true understanding is impossible in a reflective age, because we have become besotted with abstraction.  We move inwards unmoored from a connection to the concrete, and thus our search for higher relations with which to understand abstracts us more and more from reality and from ourselves. 

(True understanding involves the individual as an individual fixed within a concrete reality and through concrete action orienting himself towards the grounds of that concrete reality, God made manifest in Creation.  It involves a move within, but this move is within us as persons not within us as a part of the larger, abstract whole)

The more moored we are to abstraction, the less possible action becomes, since abstractions do not exist and require a removal from the particularity of ourselves as actors,  “There is no more action or decision in our day than there is perilous delight in swimming in shallow waters.”   More, abstraction necessarily requires the loss of passion, because the passions are both cued by and are the particulars that are abstracted away from.  To construct ourselves as abstract we must denude ourselves of our spiritedness, the very thing which makes action possible (this can be seen clearly in the idol of the Cartesian self as merely thinking substance). 

The reflective age is thus an age of indolence, dissipation, and boredom, devoid of meaning. 

A passionate tumultuous age will overthrow everything, pull everything down; but a revolutionary age, that is at the same time reflective and passionless, transforms that expression of strength into a feat of dialectics: it leaves everything standing but cunningly empties it of significanceInstead of culminating in a rebellion it reduces the inward reality of all relationships to a reflective tension which leaves everything standing but makes the whole of life ambiguous: so that everything continues to exist factually whilst by a dialectical deceit, privatisime, it supplies a secret interpretation–that it does not exist.

The Abstract and the Universal

True knowledge–maybe understanding would be better–comes from moving from particulars to universals. 

We can’t simply jump to the universal, because universals are always and only instantiated in particulars. Tree doesn’t exist in the world independent of the trees themselves.  We thus come to know Tree through trees.

Since the ultimate ground of universals is the mind of God–they are ideas therein–the movement from particulars to universals requires an inward turn.  Why? Because knowledge of God comes from knowledge of God’s fullest instantiation in the world, in His image, i.e. human nature.  (Hence why knowledge of God and understanding of creation becomes more and more possible the more we conform our nature to Christ, the perfect image). 

Universals contain within themselves the richness of the particular.  There is not any aspect of any tree that is not contained within the Tree.  (An aside, we glimpse in this the mind-shattering beauty of the fundaments of reality, think Charles Williams, The Place of the Lion). 

The process of turning inwards and moving from particulars to universals is superficially easy to compare with abstraction.  We do in a sense abstract the form of a thing from its particular instantiation in order to understand it.  However, abstraction, in the more conventional sense, is in actuality a movement away from true understanding.  Abstraction denudes particulars of their richness, rather than uniting that diversity in unity.  Compare an actual tree to a generic tree on an architectural diagram. 

Abstractions are constructions of the mind.  As constructions they are necessarily inferior to and have less actuality than their template.  Abstractions are less real than the things from which they abstract from.  In a sense, not real at all. They are thus mere reflections or shadows of the particular, a step down the chain of understanding, further into the cave. 

Mistaking abstractions for universals is one of the great and characteristics errors of our time. 


One of Dante’s great insights* is that out punishments are simply when we receive what we’ve chosen.  The fact that what we’ve chosen makes us miserable is not some arbitrary punishment delivered by an authority figure, but a consequence of there being a path to happiness and peace and us stepping off that path.  We are unhappy because we’ve chosen to be unhappy.  God’s punishment is to let us have what we’ve desired. 

In other words, it’s a mistake to see the current situation, in any of its various permutations, as necessarily leading to chastisement.  Instead, we must realize that the situation is the chastisement.  We’ve stepped off the path into the brambles, and our thrashing around amidst the thorns is the punishment for doing so, not the cause of some future, independent, punishment delivered from above. 

The great mercy of God is that He retains His love for us amidst this thrashing and, even more gloriously, turns our chastisement towards the Good.  Perhaps, in our stumbling through the thickets we clear a path for our, and others’, return. 

* I call it Dante’s but it is certainly not original to him; it’s all over Plato, for example.  And I wonder if we might find even more traces in the epics, Achilles perhaps, something to puzzle over next time I read them.