Hypostatic Abstraction. Thought of the Day 138.0

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Hypostatic abstraction is linguistically defined as the process of making a noun out of an adjective; logically as making a subject out of a predicate. The idea here is that in order to investigate a predicate – which other predicates it is connected to, which conditions it is subjected to, in short to test its possible consequences using Peirce’s famous pragmatic maxim – it is necessary to posit it as a subject for investigation.

Hypostatic abstraction is supposed to play a crucial role in the reasoning process for several reasons. The first is that by making a thing out of a thought, it facilitates the possibility for thought to reflect critically upon the distinctions with which it operates, to control them, reshape them, combine them. Thought becomes emancipated from the prison of the given, in which abstract properties exist only as Husserlian moments, and even if prescission may isolate those moments and induction may propose regularities between them, the road for thought to the possible establishment of abstract objects and the relations between them seems barred. The object created by a hypostatic abstraction is a thing, but it is of course no actually existing thing, rather it is a scholastic ens rationis, it is a figment of thought. It is a second intention thought about a thought – but this does not, in Peirce’s realism, imply that it is necessarily fictitious. In many cases it may indeed be, but in other cases we may hit upon an abstraction having real existence:

Putting aside precisive abstraction altogether, it is necessary to consider a little what is meant by saying that the product of subjectal abstraction is a creation of thought. (…) That the abstract subject is an ens rationis, or creation of thought does not mean that it is a fiction. The popular ridicule of it is one of the manifestations of that stoical (and Epicurean, but more marked in stoicism) doctrine that existence is the only mode of being which came in shortly before Descartes, in concsequence of the disgust and resentment which progressive minds felt for the Dunces, or Scotists. If one thinks of it, a possibility is a far more important fact than any actuality can be. (…) An abstraction is a creation of thought; but the real fact which is important in this connection is not that actual thinking has caused the predicate to be converted into a subject, but that this is possible. The abstraction, in any important sense, is not an actual thought but a general type to which thought may conform.

The seemingly scepticist pragmatic maxim never ceases to surprise: if we take all possible effects we can conceive an object to have, then our conception of those effects is identical with our conception of that object, the maxim claims – but if we can conceive of abstract properties of the objects to have effects, then they are part of our conception of it, and hence they must possess reality as well. An abstraction is a possible way for an object to behave – and if certain objects do in fact conform to this behavior, then that abstraction is real; it is a ‘real possibility’ or a general object. If not, it may still retain its character of possibility. Peirce’s definitions of hypostatic abstractions now and then confuse this point. When he claims that

An abstraction is a substance whose being consists in the truth of some proposition concerning a more primary substance,

then the abstraction’s existence depends on the truth of some claim concerning a less abstract substance. But if the less abstract substance in question does not exist, and the claim in question consequently will be meaningless or false, then the abstraction will – following that definition – cease to exist. The problem is only that Peirce does not sufficiently clearly distinguish between the really existing substances which abstractive expressions may refer to, on the one hand, and those expressions themselves, on the other. It is the same confusion which may make one shuttle between hypostatic abstraction as a deduction and as an abduction. The first case corresponds to there actually existing a thing with the quality abstracted, and where we consequently may expect the existence of a rational explanation for the quality, and, correlatively, the existence of an abstract substance corresponding to the supposed ens rationis – the second case corresponds to the case – or the phase – where no such rational explanation and corresponding abstract substance has yet been verified. It is of course always possible to make an abstraction symbol, given any predicate – whether that abstraction corresponds to any real possibility is an issue for further investigation to estimate. And Peirce’s scientific realism makes him demand that the connections to actual reality of any abstraction should always be estimated (The Essential Peirce):

every kind of proposition is either meaningless or has a Real Secondness as its object. This is a fact that every reader of philosophy should carefully bear in mind, translating every abstractly expressed proposition into its precise meaning in reference to an individual experience.

This warning is directed, of course, towards empirical abstractions which require the support of particular instances to be pragmatically relevant but could hardly hold for mathematical abstraction. But in any case hypostatic abstraction is necessary for the investigation, be it in pure or empirical scenarios.

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