The powers of human imagination are necessarily linked to the powers of abstraction. An architect imagines a building as floor plan or section. In order to do so she must abstract from many aspects of humanly experienced space. A physicist imagines masses in gravitational fields. In order to do so he must abstract from many aspects of the bodies considered. These aspects are irrelevant to his study, though they may be very relevant to him in some other facet of his life. This is not how he experiences the world, but it is how his science requires that it be seen. An economist imagines the world as a network of realities measurable in monetary units. This imagined world is an abstraction of certain features from among a continuum of features including ones the architect and the physicist (and the economist herself in a different context) find relevant. Only certain measurable features of the world enter into an architect’s, a physicists’s, or an economist’s way of imagining. The world thus imagined is simplified and clarified. The relations between focal quantities are expressible in formulas. The economist’s quantities do not fit as variables in the physicist’s formulas; the physicist’s do not fit the economist’s formulas eithers. Different features of the same thing (e.g., of steel girders or the midday sun) may appear in the imaginatively clarified worlds of all three thinkers.
Human imagination and focused attention allow us to perceive and interpret the world in many patterns. The variation in those patterns of imagination/abstraction make possible such widely diverse things as space flight and short stories, computers and mythology, skyscrapers and pornography, relativity physics and the work of Shakespeare, chemistry and ethics. Because each is an imaginative reconstruction of the world, it is an abstraction of the world. Because each focuses something in, it also focuses something out. Because each expresses a way things are, each also expresses a way things are not. Each is able to tell a truth because each does not tell the truth.[Nathan’s note: yes, I too was wondering what pornography was doing in a list of otherwise undeniably good and useful things]
Herein lies one of the sources of our difficulty as humans. We have been so highly and perhaps naturally impressed by what we have been able to see and understand from our imagined/abstracted points of view that we have become seduced into thinking that these abstractions are reality itself. So we have created religions on the basis of our mythologies, and schools of thought on the basis of our disciplines. We have declared alternative views heresies, reduced others’ ways of thinking to nonsense, and persecuted those who have not occupied our thought-world, calling them savages, uncivilized, and uneducated; calling those who did not know our stories and languages illiterate and barbarian. We have turned these abstracted worlds into playing fields on which all must play in order that we can win and they will lose. Their loss justifies their poverty and disenfranchisement. They cannot complain. They had their chance. We have called it equality of opportunity.Thus our accomplishments in imagining and abstracting have often been accompanied by claims for the comprehensiveness, absoluteness, and exclusivity of the views based on them. The appropriate response to this realization is not to abandon or accuse this human ability to imagine and abstract. The proper response to learning that tools can be dangerous is not to stop using them. The proper response is to be much more critical of our own claims to exclusivity and comprehensiveness. We must realize that it does not follow from the fact that my view reveals a truth about the world that alternative views must be presumed false. Monet painted many pictures of Rouen Cathedral. Each of them does not refute the others. He was not a failure for not being able to paint the picture. Our failure lies not in imagining and abstracting, but in taking our imaginings and abstractions as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It isn’t that we need to find a newer, truer view. We need to find the power to criticize ourselves honestly and then go on to celebrate the variety of our own and other’s limited successes. Let us be happy we have as many paintings of Rouen Cathedral as we have without lamenting the fact that we do not have the picture of Rouen Cathedral, whatever in the world that might be… (pp. 74-75)
What I want to say….is that there is probably no way to end the exclusive dominance of interpretation, to abandon hermeneutics… in the humanities without using concepts that potential intellectual opponents may polemically characterize as “substantialist,” that is concepts such as “substance” itself, “presence,” and perhaps even “reality” and “Being”. To use such concepts, however, has long been a symptom of despicably bad intellectual taste in the humanities; indeed, to believe in the possibility of referring to the world other than by meaning has become anonymous with the utmost degree of philosophical naivete – and until recently, few humanists have been courageous enough to deliberately draw such potentially devastating and embarrassing criticism upon themselves. We all know only too well that saying whatever it takes to confute the charge of being “substantialist” is the humanities on autopilot