I'm struggling to grasp what is meant by 'real abstraction' in Žižek's The Sublime Object of Ideology. As an example, consider the following paragraphs:

"A coin has it stamped upon its body that it is to serve as a means of exchange and not as an object of use. Its weight and metallic purity are guaranteed by the issuing authority so that, if by the wear and tear of circulation it has lost in weight, full replacement is provided. Its physical matter has visibly become a mere carrier of its social function."

If, then, the 'real abstraction' has nothing to do with the level of 'reality', of the effective properties, of an object, it would be wrong for that reason to conceive of it as a 'thought-abstraction', as a process taking place in the 'interior' of the thinking subject: in relation to this 'interior', the abstraction appertaining to the act of exchange is in an irreducible way external, decentred - or, to quote Sohn-Rethel's concise formulation: "The exchange abstraction is not thought, but it has the form of thought."

Conceiving of a coin -the physical object- as an avenue to exchange is a form of abstraction, yet I see no reason to think such abstraction takes place 'outside' of the thinking subject; I know not what that could even mean.

I know little philosophy, so the less technical terms the better.

  • 3
    The quotes you give sound to me like pompous nonsense poetry that's trying to dazzle you with its erudition and its deep insights.
    – mudskipper
    Commented Jun 5 at 20:30
  • An exchange, by definition, takes place between two entities, so it cannot be interior to either one of them.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 5 at 23:24
  • Why the marxism tag?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 5 at 23:27
  • @ScottRowe en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavoj_%C5%BDi%C5%BEek?wprov=sfla1
    – J D
    Commented Jun 6 at 4:08
  • 1
    To serve as a "carrier of social function", the "exchange abstraction" cannot possibly be "in the 'interior' of the thinking subject", or it would not be able to function for the purposes of exchange between those subjects. And Žižek explicitly emphasizes that this does not make it objective either, "the 'real abstraction' has nothing to do with the level of 'reality', of the effective properties, of an object", hence the scare quotes in 'real abstraction'. Such social constructs are commonly called "intersubjective".
    – Conifold
    Commented Jun 6 at 12:57

3 Answers 3


The trading value of a coin is an abstraction (because it derives from a consensus and not from the material value) and it is also not subjective (in the mind of a person), since it is exchangeable among a society.

  • Don't feed the bear. Žižek is beyond hope.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 6 at 10:53
  • @ScottRowe That is not a helpful comment. The quoted text from Zizek's book is not difficult to understand, and the point it makes is interesting and worth considering within the broader history of arguments for semantic externalism.
    – user509184
    Commented Jun 6 at 16:23

Interesting claims. Having not read Žižek, I would speculate:

If I am presented with an opportunity to explore a territory, I could generate an artifact called a map. But in order to generate the map, I would have to think about which features of the territory are relevant, decide how they would symbolized, and then generate the abstraction of the map. There is no one way to do this. I could use various natural languages. I could use various iconographies. I could choose various geographical features. That process of abstracting across these domains and creating any map happens internal to me.

The process is very much between my ears, as it were, results in a very interesting effect. Someone who reads the map has to have some insight into my abstraction because it is private. A good map maker, of course, relies on conventions of map makers and map readers. But it would be possible to create a map as a cryptographic artifact, as a pirate might do, to hide some of the abstraction to prevent comprehension and thus use of the abstraction.

But a coin is not like this. A coin relies on symbolic abstractions that are entirely external to the thinker. A shape and metal and imprint combine to provide an artifact that requires no knowledge of them. One doesn't need to know what the language on the coin says. One doesn't need to know who the portrait of the coin represents. One doesn't need to know anything about the metal, other than some simple properties, perhaps the color and weight and size.

These abstractions are subsumed by the coin external to the user of the coin. In fact, unlike reading a map, a simple monkey could use the coin in a transaction, because the abstractions are external, and are simply properties of a physical object, as opposed to linguistic intensions to be understood. Our monkey having observed its keeper could pickup the coin, and then use it in a vending machine to achieve a goal. The machine is also constructed to deal with external abstractions, and even more than a monkey, has no awareness of the abstractions.

How does this work? This externalization of abstraction? This is because the coin is an abstract unit of value around which human society functions. In this way, the use of a coin is similar to a performative linguistic act. Only a coin of certain physical properties fashioned in the shape according to an abstraction will work, one that requires abstractions such as elements, round, thickness, numerical value, and fiat currency. But unlike the abstractions of a map, those abstractions are available "externally".

  • 1
    It is the externalization of abstraction that creates power, because unlike a map which requires an agent to possess certain intellectual capacity, externalized abstraction allows performative effects without much less cognitive capacity. Thus, where as barter might be bound by morality and reciprocity since they are intertwined with the ability to abstract internally, the use of fiat currency allows one individual to achieve wider aims by leveraging abstraction divorced from thinking and context.
    – J D
    Commented Jun 5 at 22:08
  • Good thoughts: +1 You could consider repurposing this answer to my question where everyone seems to want to give the one word answer "abstraction" without stopping to consider Does my abstraction even barely function?
    – Rushi
    Commented Jun 6 at 2:36
  • There is no meaningful response to anything Žižek says, which is how he wants it.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 6 at 10:53
  • 1
    @ScottRowe He seemed over on the Continental side. Haven't paid the man any attention.
    – J D
    Commented Jun 6 at 14:08

The rules of how you use money have the following effect: you ignore the value of the actual amount of precious metal in a particular coin, and instead you treat every coin of that kind as having the same value as every other coin. Even after a coin has been in use for years and much of the precious metal has rubbed away, you still treat it as having the same value as a freshly-minted coin of the same kind. This is "real abstraction": when you use money, the real physical object, the particular coin you hold in your hand, is treated as an abstraction.

This case of "real abstraction" doesn't take place in the interior of the subject, because you are not free to decide the value of a coin. The value of a coin is decided by a government, probably a national mint, and it only works if enough people recognize the decision about the value of a coin that most people are confident that most other people agree to the value of the coin. So it's not internal.

It was many years ago that I read "Sublime Object of Ideology." If I recall correctly, the phrase "form of thought" refers to the idea that a person's thinking about the physical world typically works by a kind of "real abstraction." You have a word, like "cat," and in your thinking about the word, you can use the word "cat" to represent all actual physically-existing cats, regardless of the various differences between individual cats. That's "real abstraction." But that seems much more internal than the example with money, where for it to work, an individual can't do the "real abstraction" alone in their head, but rather some organization (like a national mint) has to do it and lots of people have to go along with it.

Worth comparing to Putnam's famous counterexamples to semantic internalism in "The meaning of 'meaning'."

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .