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Can We See with Fresh Eyes? Beyond a Culture of Abstraction Craig Holdrege The problem with biases is that we often don’t know we have them and aren’t aware of how strongly they inform the way we view and act in the world. I want to address one fundamental bias that infects modern Western culture: the strong propensity to take abstract conceptual frameworks more seriously than full-blooded experience. We so easily speak of the world in terms of genes, molecules, atoms, quarks, neural networks, black holes, survival strategies, or other abstract concepts. These are felt to be more “real” than the phenomena of nature we experience —the radiant, blue shimmering Sirius in the winter sky or the deep blue chicory flower that opens at sunrise and fades away before noon. I suggest that, the more we place abstractions between ourselves and what we encounter in the world, the less firmly rooted we become in that world. The maize that feeds our cattle, pigs, and chickens— grown on immense fields of the Midwest, dowsed with fluid fertilizers that contaminate wells and contribute to oxygen deprivation and death in the lower water layers of the Gulf of Mexico—is much more than a nutrient-generating genetic program modified by human artifice. Viewing maize in such restricted abstract terms, isolated from its larger reality , is what leads us to overlook—at least for a time—the “unfortunate side effects” of our approach. Is it any wonder that a culture caught in a web of abstraction becomes a culture disconnected from nature and destructive in its actions? In this essay, I want to show some ways to move beyond a culture of abstraction. Since the first step in overcoming a firm habit of mind is 324 Craig Holdrege to acknowledge its existence, I will call attention to the problem of abstraction itself. Then I will describe how we can open up our perceptual field by trying to put the conceptual element in the background. This entails acknowledging our ignorance and maintaining an ongoing sense of ignorance—and, thereby, intellectual modesty—in all our undertakings . Finally, since we cannot do without concepts, we also have to work on transforming them. This demands changing not only the content of our concepts but also their form or style. I will describe how we can develop what I call living concepts through which we can become more connected to the rich fabric of the phenomenal world. captured by abstractions The capacity to abstract is what allows us to pull back from our perceptions and look at the world as if from a distance. We can form clear and distinct conceptions about things, make judgments, and then act. In this respect, the ability to abstract is a central feature of being human. But, like all gifts and strengths, our capacity to form abstract concepts is a double-edged sword when it becomes too dominant and habitual. If we do not consciously attend to how we form abstractions and then remain aware of their relation to experience, they tend to take on a life of their own.As a result, we run the danger of attending more to the abstractions themselves than to the world they are meant to illuminate. In this essay, I focus on this shadow side of abstraction. Here is an extreme description of the world in terms of abstractions by the contemporary philosopher Paul Churchland: “The red surface of an apple does not look like a matrix of molecules reflecting photons at certain critical wave lengths, but that is what it is. The sound of a flute does not sound like a compression wave train in the atmosphere, but that is what it is. The warmth of the summer air does not feel like the mean kinetic energy of millions of tiny molecules, but that is what it is” (Churchland 1988, 15). For Churchland, “reality”—the “is-ness” of things—consists of the high-level abstractions of science. The apples we see and taste, the melody we hear, and the warmth we sense are all only appearances, mere subjective semblances of true physical reality. And what about our own inwardness? The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, writing in Nature, has an answer: “An emotion, be it happiness or sadness, embarrassment or pride, is a patterned collection of chemical neural responses that is produced by the brain when it detects the Can We See with Fresh Eyes? 325 presence of an emotionally competent stimulus” (Damasio 2001...


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