The reproach of abstraction

This is a paper about abstraction, in particular, but by no means exclusively – and this ʻby no means exclusivelyʼ is a large part of its point – philosophical abstraction.* It is concerned at the outset with what might be called the reproach of abstraction: the com- monly held view, across a wide variety of theoretical standpoints, more or less explicit, that there is some inadequacy inherent to abstraction per se, which is both cognitive and practical (ethico-political) in character. I aim to cast doubt on this reproach, in its exclusive form at least, in order to clear the way for a thinking of the idea of ʻactual abstractionsʼ as the medium of social experience in capitalist modernities. I take ʻglobal capitalist modernityʼ to be the transdiscipli- nary object unifying inquiries in the humanities and social sciences, if only implicitly – the idea of global capitalist modernity is the transcendental horizon of their possible unification. I therefore take the notion of actual abstractions to be a methodological key to a philosophically reflective form of transdisciplinarity. It is only a transdisciplinarity such as this, I believe, that can rescue the idea of philosophy as a discourse of universal mediation from the corrosive critiques of its claims to an absolute universality, familiar in recent years in various pragmatist, historicist, contextualist and deconstructive forms. As Ricoeur once put it:

Philosophical discourse achieves universality only by passing through the contingence of cultures … its rigour is dependent upon equivocal languages … its coherence must traverse the war between hermeneutics.1


* This is a lightly revised version of a paper delivered to the conference ʻContinental Drift? Modern European Philosophy in Britain Todayʼ organized by the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Middlesex University, London, at UCL, 14–15 May 2004. An earlier draft benefited from discussion at a Social Theory and Historical Studies Workshop in the Department of East Asian Studies, New York University, March 2003.

1. Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, trans. Denis Savage, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1970, p. 47.

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