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  • James and Dewey on Abstraction
  • Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther

1. Introduction

an abstract concept such as “voluminousness” aptly, yet incompletely, characterizes any physical body.1 Postulated stages of “stimulus” and “response” partition—for fallible, analytical purposes—the continuous physiological process of the reflex arc.2 A judgment of someone as a “murderer” may be accurate, but it all too easily becomes a too narrow universal claim of that individual’s putative fundamental essence.3

A pragmatic analysis sheds light on these three cases of abstraction. Abstractions such as concepts, stages, and judgments are purpose-driven, partial, and useful for understanding, inference, and intervention. Yet, the dangers of what William James termed “vicious abstractionism” and “the psychologist’s fallacy,” and John Dewey recognized as “the philosophic fallacy,” loom large in any abstraction. According to these two pragmatists, whenever context is ignored, abstractions become what will be here called “pernicious reifications.” That is, whenever one forgets (i) the particular function, (ii) the historical conditions of emergence, and/or (iii) the appropriate analytical level of an abstraction,4 the products and processes of abstraction become inappropriately universalized, narrowed, and/or ontologized.

In order to motivate the abstraction-reification account analyzed in this paper, consider a metaphor provided by James:

I have sometimes thought of the phenomenon called “total reflexion” in optics as a good symbol of the relation between abstract ideas and concrete realities, as pragmatism conceives it. … [L]et the water [of an aquarium] represent the world of sensible facts, and let the air above it represent the world of abstract ideas. … We are like fishes swimming in the sea of sense, bounded above by the superior element, but unable [End Page 1] to breathe it pure or penetrate it … and every time we touch it, we are reflected back into the water with our course re-determined and re-energized. The abstract ideas of which the air consists are indispensable for life, but irrespirable by themselves, as it were, and only active in their re-directing function.

(Pragmatism 63–64)

Abstraction is “indispensable”; it “re-energize[s]” our inferences and activities. Yet, abstractions by themselves are “irrespirable,” and processes of inference, concept-formation, and classification can be abused. For instance, Dewey presents “the philosophical fallacy”5 with a different water metaphor:

[T]he philosophical fallacy … consists in the supposition that whatever is found true under certain conditions may forthwith be asserted universally or without limits and conditions. Because a thirsty man gets satisfaction in drinking water, bliss consists in being drowned.

(Human Nature and Conduct 123).

For both thinkers, the abstraction-reification account in a nutshell amounts to recognizing that abstraction is powerful and liberating,6 yet has a dark side.

This article elucidates the abstraction-reification account diagnosed by James and Dewey and locates it in contemporary scientific work. Section 2 explores the complex process of abstraction in James and Dewey, and with a nod to C. S. Peirce. Identifying three stages in the abstraction process—singling out, symbolizing, and systematizing—clarifies the parallels between James’s and Dewey’s analyses. Section 3 investigates these pragmatists’ warnings against committing abstractionist fallacies, and identifies pernicious reification as neglecting three kinds of context: functional, historical, and analytical-level. Both philosophers implored everyday reasoners, scientists, and philosophers to attend to context. Reification, qua pathology of abstraction, results in disease symptoms such as universalized, narrowed, and/or ontologized abstractions. Acknowledging the importance of biographical and social conditions, the genealogy and mutual influence of James’s and Dewey’s perspectives are traced, especially in endnotes. Section 4 explores how James and Dewey avoid reifying the very distinction with which they are weaving their analysis: the abstract vs. the concrete. Finally, following the pragmatic forward-looking attitude, a gesture is made in the conclusion toward developing medicines (pluralism and assumption archaeology) out of the abstraction-reification account. After all, pernicious reification is to abstraction as disease is to health. Such treatments permit de-reifying ill models in contemporary science. [End Page 2]

2. Abstraction

James and Dewey share a general understanding of the dynamics and functions of abstraction. Thought itself requires the simplification and selection afforded by abstraction. James writes: “The act of singling out is...


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