Evil is the product of the ability of humans to make abstract that which is concrete.
— Jean-Paul Sartre
This has become one of my favorite quotes. In following radical theologian and philosopher Peter Rollins’ talks (as many of us in The Way Station tend to do after the original group met in his Atheism for Lent course) I appreciate his recent references to Hegel’s definition of the abstract, which is somewhat different than the popularly understood definition. It may be closer to the idea of an “abstract” for a research paper. Hegel uses the term to mean something taken out of historical context for the purpose of isolating and contemplating it—not only removing it from the material world as if onto some ethereal plane but also shrinking it so that it contains far less information. And “historical” needn’t be taken only in the sense of grand events, but also one’s everyday life, the “natural habitat” in which an experience dwells.
Since Hegel was a process-oriented thinker, well before “Process Philosophy” came along, I like to view his concept of abstraction in a process-oriented way, and so to paraphrase (admittedly very extra-contextually) from Scripture, something’s context is that with which it lives and moves and has its being.
Basically, where you find a thing is where it belongs, because nothing is static or non-contingent. When you prise something out of its habitat, like a zoo animal, it becomes changed and inevitably diminished. To call it the same thing as it was in its context is to mislead and begin a project already in grievous error.
The next step in this mistaken course would be to view the process of dialectical synthesis as exemplified by inviting two opposing pundits on a political talk show in order to appear “fair and balanced,” even if the views they represent are closer to each other’s, by virtue of living in the same political bubble, than they are to ordinary citizens of their respective political persuasions. Synthesis has often been understood as merely what happens when a given concept and its apparent opposite “have a baby together” that looks a bit like both of them, but this doesn’t seem to be what Hegel meant (in fact, he never used the term “dialectical synthesis” himself, even; this was just the easiest way of explaining some of his complex language.)
Instead, the second movement of a synthesis is a re-engagement with the original context, not with a new, arbitrarily opposing idea. If you begin a project with that dueling-pundits approach, it can go nowhere good and will at best become pointless. At worst, you will have the ideologically-driven horrors of the last few centuries.
But let’s get a bit more, um, concrete here. It’s spring, and last month the cherry trees were all abloom in Washington. It’s the best thing about living here—some might say the only thing, but then I live far enough from the corridors of power to be able to safely breathe the air, at least. I’ve never run into a political pundit at the grocery store. But since I’ve lived here—since coming here for college, I’ve been in love with the cherry trees in bloom—from the delicate Yoshino trees gifted from Japan that are found along the banks of the Tidal Basin, which resemble only very barely tinted clouds, to some of the domestic varieties found in neighborhoods throughout the Beltway, whose embarrassing wealth of blossoms look a bit like a children’s ballet recital awash in bright pink tutus.
In Washington we also have the story of how young George, who would become our first president, couldn’t tell a lie. (He wasn’t the one who started that well-debunked rumor about his wooden teeth, after all.) In the apocryphal story, he accidentally cuts down a cherry tree with his new hatchet. The story implies that at least one other person, his father, feels he should have let this tree well enough alone. It’s good to be honest and admit one’s mistakes, as this moral tale advises. But I would add that it’s even better to leave a perfectly healthy tree in peace.
For some years in my 30s, in the midst of a prolonged chronic depression, I found myself maddened by the appearance of the cherry blossoms each spring that I had once loved and anticipated. As the old song goes, I felt their beauty was so overwhelmingly apparent, “but not for me.” I couldn’t grasp what this beauty might mean, what it signified in my life. I’m sure the blossoms must have represented so many sources of joy I felt cut off from during that time. Unable to experience pleasure simply by being in their presence, I became oddly obsessed with their deeper metaphysical significance. This, again, was probably exemplary of so many things in my life at that time.
And this is abstraction, the subject insisting on the object being object and on the desolate distance between them, which s/he insists on bridging by “owning” it in some way—whether simply by trying to understand it intellectually, by harnessing it in service of an ideology, or by literally taking a branch from a tree to place in a vase or an exotic animal from a tropical climate to place in a zoo somewhere it snows most of the year.
Human beings in our culture tend to operate this way as a matter of habit, and we rarely notice that it never quite succeeds, this attempt at abstracting and then mastering or consuming rather than realizing that we are part of the landscape, too. The aching distance we experience is in some sense illusory. It exists only in the sense that it is perceived to exist. So it is not entirely illusory (a misunderstanding of some Eastern philosophy, perhaps) because how it is perceived matters, too, not only how it “is,” ontologically, and it is our default nature to perceive the distance to at least some extent, no doubt for pragmatic reasons of survival.
This nuance is explained well by a famous Buddhist passage by Qingyuan Weixin which was translated by D.T. Suzuki.
Before I had studied Chan (Zen) for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and rivers once again as rivers.
Another variation I have heard from a teacher describes the mountain in the third view as being once again a mountain but “levitating just a few feet off the ground.”
So, no, the cherry tree and I are not one and the same (per the first and third movements of this teaching—the common-sense view and the pragmatic, post-mystical view.) But, at the same time, yes, we are (per the mystical view.) It’s good to be alone together.