The Concrete Infinite

The apparent immediacy of the concrete is a temptation for intellectuals. The abstract, the medium and origin of our trade as philosophers, is the instrument we hate the most. Yet we are unable to rid ourselves of its shackles. We are embarrassed by the inadequacies of language, the eerie constructions of words and sentences that do not change the world nor express its solid reality. Try and explain philosophy to a friend doing construction work. “Being is nothing,” you say, quoting Hegel’s Logic. “Yeah, sure”, he will reply, “in your head.” Compared to the solidity of the concrete, our philosophical positions and concepts look like toys.


Abstract v. Concrete: The Case Examined

The futility of our abstract concepts, that seem to be without emotional expression or personal significance, has driven many toward the popular philosophy of existence. Were we not taught by Kierkegaard that truth is personal? Did not Levinas teach us that the raw encounter with the face of another subject in his vulnerability constitutes an absolute presence in the order of morality? Should we not accept the grandiose and pervasive metaphysics of positivism that underpins the progress of modern physics and cosmology? Philosophy might be the space in which the deficit of the abstract is registered, but not overcome. I remember a philosophy professor in his 60s, after spending a lifetime studying the intricacies of the philosophy of Husserl finally giving up: "if you can’t explain it to your grandmother, it’s probably no good."

I don’t know about your grandmother, but in my case it was bad advice.

The concepts we study always seem dull and bleak when compared to what we think is the rich and concrete experience that lies above or beyond the abstract. We imagine that a full awareness of the presence of a thing or event in front of us, a teacup, a sunset, or the immediate emotional response to a symphony of Mahler is somehow the paradigm of experience and therefore of truth. How can the analysis of texts and commentaries and positions and argumentative structures be anything other than a flight from reality?

What Does It Mean, the Concrete?

Now let me be clear about one thing, I’m not about to deny the power of immediate experience after setting up this dilemma. I’m asking a question. What does immediate mean? And what does concrete mean? Does it mean what we thin it means: the opposite of the abstract? And can we simply oppose the world of the abstract to the world of the concrete and then connect them again by talking about the intermingling of the two in our everyday experience?

Let’s say you and I are looking at a cup of tea standing on the table between us. Each of us will have a singular and immediate experience of the concrete thing in front of us. The cup has a shape, a color, and a measure that fits its obvious purpose. The cup looks so solidly real, that I cannot imagine my experience of it to be purely personal. But of course I don’t know what your experience of that thing actually is. I don’t know how others would feel about that cup of tea and I don’t know how how it functions within different cultures. That is to say, my knowledge of all of that would not have the same form as my own immediate awareness of the presence of the cup. All of these other experiences can only be expressed to me by the abstract language that describes, expresses or evokes such experiences. That language would never allow me to have a different experience of the thing, because it would merely express an idea. But, and this is the main thing, knowing all of that is not a result of an expansion of my focus, but of entering into what I would call the concrete infinity. The idea IS the concrete in its infinity. The concrete is infinite, and is demonstrated to be so when I move away from the narrow perspective of immediate categories of quality and quantity: smell, sight, color, shape, measure. The idea is not added to the concrete as if it were an abstract predication.

The Case for Infinity: Our Conversation About Reality

Suppose you and I were involved in a conversation about that cup of tea. We would have to use language to express our experience and try to understand our different expressions of our singular experiences. Even if I were able to draw a picture of the cup I would be using a language. What would be the meaning of the event of our conversation? It is first at all obviously an attempt to communicate and understand another perspective. Of course I would need my own immediate experience of the thing as a reference in order to understand a possible different experience. In order to understand an other perspective I need to have one in the first place. And I would need to be aware of the fact that it is just that: a perspective. Knowing the concrete within my experience involves a range of possible other experiences. My imagination allows me to stay with the concrete and yet move around in the fictional worlds in which the teacup takes on other qualities, meanings and references.

Still, this is not a step beyond experience. For human beings it is impossible to understand anything without the direct encounter with the real through experience. But what is experience other than the ‘being-with-reality’ or ‘’being-with-itself-in-its- other” that expresses the inner structure of Spirit? That is not an esoteric view of reality. On that basis I should be able to understand that this cup of tea says nothing to you, because you are a fervent drinker of coffee. Or if you are Japanese, I might be able to understand the importance not so much of the tea, but of the almost religious meaning that drinking tea in company would have for you. All that is implied in the event of this teacup between us, as a topic of our conversation, all of that is involved in the meaning of this ‘thing’. The thing ‘collects’ all of this infinite reference into itself.

The Thing As a Conversation

As a result of our conversation, however, the so called abstract nature of language and the power of the imagination take me away from the immediate and singular experience of the teacup here and now, which proves to be truly abstract. My own experience is now obviously part of a broad range of possibilities of experiencing this thing in front of me. If you add to that the knowledge of how to use tea in a tea ritual and how tea leaves grow and all of that, wouldn’t that make my immediate experience of the tea even richer than it was before? But is it then still an immediate experience of the thing in front of me? Is not that what I now experience in a way conceptual in itself? Is the experience I started with – which turns out to be just abstract, the experience of the concrete as a thing with qualities etc. – not already formed and informed by the culture I participate in? The thing in this first level of immediacy is just the physical object in front of me. But now it has become consciously what it was already: the embodiment of a general concept. What I would call the concrete infinite is its ability to become the focal point of the idea, where our history and whole cultures become apparent and people encounter each other.

I must admit that I would still be bored stiff even by this attempt to understand the cup of tea in front of me. I think however I would be fascinated by something else that occurs here. In the exchange of language many other elements of my concrete experience in my understanding of the world will become apparent. The context in which this so-called immediate experience of the concrete occurs, would be far more interesting to me than that experience in itself. A new and higher immediacy will thereby be opened up. The immediacy of our language and culture would now become the focus of conversation, that is to say our shared world experience and our complex ways of expressing experiences. From “what is this?” we would move on to
how do we express it?” to “who are we”?

The Case Against The Finite Concrete

The opposition of abstract language and immediate concrete experience presupposes a lonely consciousness that is bound to experience in the sense that only the categories of imjmediacy are accepted as expressing the real: quality, Quantity, Measure. I would submit that true experience occurs from within the conversation that we conduct with others or in one sense happens within the conversation that we truly are. The categories of essence and the Idea are vital here. The immediate is not a given that needs to be combined with something abstract but it is actually a product of abstraction itself. I can abstract from the collective nature of my everyday experience and I can withdraw from the continuous dialogue I participate in and I can ignore the language that I’m engaged in, in every single act of perception and knowledge. The result would be the representation in language of immediate concrete experience, of my simple enjoyment of the presence of a physical object, a sunset or a symphony.

And there you have it: the concrete in its relative isolation is actually the most abstract, and what seems to be abstract because it’s conceptual and requires language is actually the historical and cultural experience of truth that I participate in, every waking moment of my life.

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