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What is a floating abstraction?

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something that you know, maybe like a math principle, but you havent grounded it yet to reality. So, lets say you know that if a=b and b=c, that a=c. You can do math problems that use that principle but yet you dont truly know what it means, because you havent given it an example in reality. So to ground the floating abstraction you could use it in a instance like this: jimmy is as tall as timmy and timmy is as tall sally. You can use the principle to say jimmy is as tall as sally even though you didnt compare the two standing back to back.

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something that you know, maybe like a math principle, but you havent grounded it yet to reality.

Not quite. If it's a floating abstraction, you don't know it. To know something is to see its connection to reality and its relationship to the rest of your knowledge. A floating abstraction is a concept or idea which is, in your mind, cut off from reality, i.e., which you have not reduced to its referents. It stands in your mind as a string of words disconnected from concretes.

So, for example, if you say, "A unit is an existent regarded as a separate member of a group of two or more similar members," and then I ask you for an example, and you shrug, the concept "unit" is - for you - a floating abstraction.

But let's take a more difficult case. Suppose you do give a couple examples: "This rock is a unit, when regarded as a member of a group of similar existents, such as those rocks over there. And this camera is a unit, when regarded as a member of a group of similar existents, such as your camera, or your shoe (since they both are members of the group "existents")." Then I ask you, "So what?" and you say, "I don't know. Ayn Rand said that's what units were." I would say it's still a floating abstraction, at least to a large extent. An idea, even a true one, cut off from the rest of one's knowledge [that is, not integrated] is necessarily floating. Anyone disagree with that?

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Is it possible for a definition of something to be a floating abstration, or does it no longer float once you know the meaning. How do you integrate a definition into your mind? Sorry if this is repetitive from earlier posts, but I really don't understand how. Often, say, if I don't understand a word, if I look it up in the dictionary, and find the meaning, obviously, I have no solidly grounded it into my mind. Maybe not obviously, but I usually forget the definition soon after. Sometimes, I just repeat the word and the definition a couple of times. For example, reading Ayn Rand, I agreed with everything she said, because she backed it up and because I had witnessed several of the things she would write about. Therefore, what more do you need to do in order to concretize this knowledge? ---i'm confused :(

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---i'm confused  :(

Don't worry - you're asking the right questions, which means your confusion won't last very long if you remain honest and active minded. Let me take your questions one by one.

Is it possible for a definition of something to be a floating abstration, or does it no longer float once you know the meaning.
First, let's be clear: the meaning of a concept is not its definition. The meaning of a concept is the things in reality it denotes, i.e., the meaning of a concept is its referents, including all their attributes. For example, your concept "book" means all books that have ever existed, that exist, and that will exist, including all their characteristics, even the one's you don't know and will never know. This is true even though you will only encounter a small number of books in your lifetime.

You know the meaning of a concept if you can identify its referents.

A definition is a condensation of all that information into a retainable "label" that enables you to hold your concepts by naming the essential distinctive attributes of the units they refer to. So, for example, I form the concept "book," and then retain that concept with a definition: "a written or printed work with pages bound along one side."

Let me stress: the definition is not the meaning of the concept: the meaning of the concept is actual books. The definition is our way of retaining the concept.

We can now answer your question: yes, even if we know the definition of a concept, we can still hold the concept as a floating abstraction. What, then, must one do to ensure that one's concepts aren't floating? Or, in your words:

How do you integrate a definition into your mind?

You have to re-trace the process of formulating the definition, as if you were the first one to formulate it. A definition we get from someone else, even a good one, is useless unless we go through the same steps the person who formed it did. A definition we get from someone else I like to call a "pointer" because all it does before we make it our own is point us toward its referents. It says, "By this concept, I mean those things." To grasp the concept, you have to actually look at "those things." Then you have to retrace the definition-formation process (see Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology if you have any questions on how to do that, particularly Chapter 5. Then, if you still have questions, raise them here.)

Sorry if this is repetitive from earlier posts, but I really don't understand how. Often, say, if I don't understand a word, if I look it up in the dictionary, and find the meaning, obviously, I have no solidly grounded it into my mind. Maybe not obviously, but I usually forget the definition soon after. Sometimes, I just repeat the word and the definition a couple of times. For example, reading Ayn Rand, I agreed with everything she said, because she backed it up and because I had witnessed several of the things she would write about. Therefore, what more do you need to do in order to concretize this knowledge?

There's nothing wrong with looking up definitions, but you make the point better than I ever could: if that is all you do, the concept can be nothing more than a memorized string of words. In order to make it a concept tag, i.e., in order for it to be a definition is the proper sense, you have to re-trace the process of formulating it.

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DPW

I'll try doing that for a day, everytime I use a concept, I'll ensure that I fully understand it's meaning. It'll probably be very discouraging... :(

Thanks for the advice.

megan

Oh, you don't have to do that. You only need to do it with concepts that you think are important, but which seem unclear to you. By the way, Rand has a wonderful discussion of how to concretize your abstractions in The Art of Fiction. See pages 52-56.

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First, let's be clear: the meaning of a concept is not its definition. The meaning of a concept is the things in reality it denotes, i.e., the meaning of a concept is its referents, including all their attributes. For example, your concept "book" means all books that have ever existed, that exist, and that will exist, including all their characteristics, even the one's you don't know and will never know. This is true even though you will only encounter a small number of books in your lifetime.

Does this mean that a concept such as 'unicorn' is meaningless? Or even 'characters in Ayn Rand novels'? Or what about cases where you are unsure whether a concept actually has a referent in reality (for example 'quarks')?

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Does this mean that a concept such as 'unicorn' is meaningless? Or even 'characters in Ayn Rand novels'?

They are meaningful, but the referents are imaginary. Concepts of imaginations are derivative concepts - they pertain to a (mental) re-arrangement of reality.

Or what about cases where you are unsure whether a concept actually has a referent in reality (for example 'quarks')?

Then you are unsure. But you phrased the question in exactly the right form: not, does it have a referent? But, does the referent exist, or is the thing it refers to an imagination or an error?

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to clarify those points.

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If it's a floating abstraction, you don't know it.  To know something is to see its connection to reality and its relationship to the rest of your knowledge.  A floating abstraction is a concept or idea which is, in your mind, cut off from reality, i.e., which you have not reduced to its referents. 

It is not usually completely cut off from reality. With most floating abstractions, the person holding it has a vague sense of what it means, but no precise referents or clear (to him) definition. Often, it is a concept just attached to an emotional state.

For instance, most people will say they are for "freedom" or "justice," but if you ask them what they mean by those words, they kinda, sorta know what they mean and they feel that they are somehow good things. THAT's what is meant by a "floating abstraction."

Have I nailed it down?

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I'm not sure I follow. Couldn't it then be said that floating abstractions have imaginary referents in the same way?

No, because the thing that makes it a floating abstraction in your mind is that you can't identify its referents. In other words, what differentiates a floating abstraction from a valid concept is not what it refers to: it's that a floating abstraction refers to nothing.

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  • 3 years later...

Here's a question, based on a discussion in chat...

What are some concrete examples of floating abstractions, that

  • are not drawn from the subject area of philosophy
  • are not drawn from some very specialized area of engineering or science

Anybody have some really good, accessible examples to help not hold "floating abstraction" as a floating abstraction?

Edited by softwareNerd
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Here's a question, based on a discussion in chat...

What are some concrete examples of floating abstractions, that

  • are not drawn from the subject area of philosophy
  • are not drawn from some very specialized area of engineering or science

Anybody have some really good, accessible examples to help not hold "floating abstraction" as a floating abstraction?

That is hard to answer since a floating abstraction is only floating when the user does not understand the connection.

"Community," for example can be, "A group of people living in the same locality and under the same government," and have legitamate meaning. So I could properly say "a community who only allowed in objectivists would be great fun," whereas I could say "we need to develop in our lower class neighborhoods a sense of community," and have no idea what the word means.

So I am not certain that that floating abstractions exist independently of use and context. I suspect not, even though some words meanings are not always as precise as they should be.

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Anyhow, what I was working on saying a few hours ago and sumpin' came up is that a floating abstraction is a consequence of “primacy of the word” epistemology, so as noted in OPAR p. 96 “A floating abstraction is not an integration of factual data; it is a memorized linguistic custom representing in the person's mind a hash made of random concretes, habits, and feelings that blend imperceptibly into other hashes which are the content of other, similarly floating abstractions”. They tend to predominate in academic circles (thus science and philosophy); ordinarily, people don’t talk that way unless they're trying to be deep. Some examples from lit-crit would be “text”, “voice”, “gender”, “hegemony”. Of course, this stuff infiltrates into philosophy. An ancient technical term of linguistics, “generative”, became meaningless non-referential syllable-soup when it was unleashed on the general public.

I think, based on all of the examples of how e.g. Peikoff and Rand have used the expression, that it refers to the vagarification of words that did have referents. But "government" is often a floating abstraction to people who don't know what the government really is; the same is true of "law" -- what the heck is "the law"?

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Anybody have some really good, accessible examples to help not hold "floating abstraction" as a floating abstraction?

How about aphorisms that people use just because they sound good, without knowing their actual meaning or context? A personal pet-peeve is people spouting "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" - though that particular one is skirting your first limitation, I imagine.

JJM

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How about aphorisms that people use just because they sound good, without knowing their actual meaning or context? A personal pet-peeve is people spouting "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" - though that particular one is skirting your first limitation, I imagine.

JJM

How do you feel about: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." ?

Perhaps some floating concepts are valid concepts that have broken free of their mooring contexts through paraphrasing and/or sloppy editing?

Another is "those who are willing to trade freedom for security deserve neither," an oft-spouted bromide which broke free from Franklin's original context: "Those who are willing to trade essential freedoms for a little security deserve neither security nor freedom."

on edit, added:

On second thought, is seems a lot of floating abstractions are random observations that gain apparent credence from the recognition of an example (or imagined, or potential example) in which the observation seems to hold true, or else just "feels" right. Two examples are: "no better time than the present" and "patience is a virtue."

This may be related to the primacy or word epistemology, but may be a primacy of concept; the feeling that if it is written, it is true.

Edited by agrippa1
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The replies have been pretty good in this thread recently, but a floating abstraction is basically any concept that you can't quite put your finger on in the sense of not being able to point to something in reality that is a referent for the concept. If you can't positively identify what a concept means in the particular, then it is most likely floating; so it doesn't have to be a very broad concept or even a higher-level concept, though these tend to be floating in many people's minds.

For example, if one doesn't know much about cars, then telling them that I had to replace my serpentine belt isn't going to mean anything to them. They might know it has something to do with cars, but if they don't know specifically what a serpentine belt is used for on a car, then it is a floating abstraction.

Similarly, if, say, someone in the Congo never heard of picture framing, because they don't have either pictures or framed art, then if you try to tell them what it is and they don't understand it then it becomes a floating abstraction. They have the word and maybe the definition, but they don't really know what one is.

And this can be true of every day items in some cultures that you are not familiar with, like, say, a camel, if you have never seen one and kind of hold it in your mind as some sort of horse-like animal that people ride in the Sahara.

A skyscraper could be a floating abstraction if you grew up in the country and never saw one, even in a picture, but only had someone define it to you without reducing it. You know, it's a tall building, but does that make the silo a skyscraper?

So, if all you have is the word and the definition, then it will be floating, until you tie it to reality. It doesn't have to be something on the extended reaches of science or philosophy. It just has to be something that you know the word for but can't quite pin down, even with a good definition.

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