Abstractions are nouns but they don’t exist in the way concrete nouns exist: like dog, chair, festival. Abstractions are words highly loaded with vagueness, assumptions, baggage, manipulation and more — as my series of posts on abstractions illustrates.
Abstractions can be very convenient for two speakers who agree on the contents of those abstractions, but otherwise the abstractions can cause unnecessary misunderstandings. It is safe to say that each of us often do not share similar packages inside our abstractions. Using adjectives can be one of the best ways reveal the packages hidden in our abstractions. We should try hard to avoid abstractions which are naked of adjectives. Abstractions are best left as tools for manipulation or inspiration, but not for deep understanding.
“Freedom” is an abstraction that can have many sub-packages. For example:
- religious freedom
- representational freedom
- sexual freedom
- speech freedom
- property freedom
- safety freedom
- health freedom
- political freedom
- gun freedom
- abortion freedom
Imagine two speaker, each saying “ I believe in Freedom ! “. Yet if we explored which adjectives these speakers are not saying, the adjectives may look like this:
Speaker #1: sexual, abortion, religious, health, representational
Speaker #2: property, speech, political, gun
It is easy to imagine these type of speakers. If these two people tried to abstractly argue about freedom stripped on these adjectives their dialogue would be fruitless. Arguing about “freedom” intellectually or philosophically without these particulars would be a waste of time. And even in these cases, further exploring the sub-packages may be needed for deep understanding.
Question to readers: What particulars are inside your word “Freedom” when you use it?
7 responses to “Adjectives for Abstractions: “Freedom””
This argument also applies to concrete nouns also. For example, when I say “dog”, it is not clear which dog I mean without more attributes.
@Majid: The point is, for abstractions, adjectives reveal the hidden meanings that the speaker is often unaware their word comes packed with.
In general, I’d say “lack of dependence” is packed into my general idea of freedom. Also words like “symmetry” come to mind, meaning symmetry between another individual and myself. It’s tough to think about “Freedom” without another layer of specificity (freedom of _____).
@ Chris: I agree. I think when most of us use the word “freedom” either it is with specifics in mind but unsaid, or mindlessly as political signaling to ourselves or others.
Political signaling using the word “freedom” is so insufferable. Usually comes from the conservative/right leaning folks.
This post is really interesting and thought-provoking. It really brings to light how abstractions can be interpreted in different ways and how important it is to be precise and specific when using them. It is also great to see how adjectives are key for understanding the meaning behind an abstraction. My question is, how can we be sure that we are properly understanding someone else’s interpretation of an abstraction?
@ Claire: Words don’t have meanings, they have uses. When communicating with others, we can only hope we are USING words similarly, otherwise we have to try and explore our different usages together to get real understanding. If your conversation is using an abstraction, you can explore it with specific questions to help see how they are using it. Language is messy that way — we use words differently, and the emotions behind our words depends on our unexposed histories. Thanx for visiting.