What is the philosophical importance of abstraction in regard to philosophy of mind? People seem to use abstraction all of the time, however, can someone please bring a concrete example that demonstrates the usefulness of abstraction to an agent?

Let's say if I look at a person, monkey, and a fish in some abstract way then I can say these are entities that can breathe. I understand that intuitionally, but what are some better philosophical examples of what abstraction is and how it benefits philosophers?

  • A concrete example of an abstraction sounds a bit like a contradiction in terms. Our mathematics is abstraction and it is very useful in our physical sciences.
    – nwr
    Nov 9, 2020 at 20:35
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    – J D
    Nov 9, 2020 at 21:48
  • 3
    You are using a concrete example of abstraction in the very first sentence of this post. "Concrete" and "example" are both abstract concepts, and you can not ask more concretely because you do not know exactly what you are looking for. Any open-ended search can only be specified abstractly.
    – Conifold
    Nov 9, 2020 at 22:22
  • See Properties and General terms Nov 10, 2020 at 8:35
  • Contra: see George Berkeley: "Berkeley claimed that abstract ideas are the source of all philosophical perplexity and illusion." Nov 10, 2020 at 8:36

4 Answers 4


A "concrete" example from everyday life would be the statement, "Mary is my friend."

Compare to other ways I could describe her:

"Mary is a person. I have met and spent time with Mary over a long period of time and have good feelings toward her and I believe she has good feelings toward me as well."

"Mary is a mammal. She breathes, has blood, and has the capacity to reproduce. At times we make noises at each other."

"This collection of atoms is described by the name 'Mary'. It sometimes enters my vicinity."

"Friend" is probably a more useful abstraction if you wished to describe yourself in relation to Mary.

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    – J D
    Nov 10, 2020 at 8:14

The mind/body problem comes to mind. (https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1p7hKimR4_lJS8cRWNUaEVgT0Dig9QZV1UWy_X2Kbneo/)

Ideas like material abstractions biology, chemistry, anthropology operate on the physical side, abstractions like personality, psychology, will exist on the spiritual side. All patterns are a set of attributes and boundary conditions toward a purpose. An abstraction is merely a metaphor for a relatively complex or fuzzy pattern.


Various benefits can be envisionned :

(1) removing accidents and grasping essential properties

(2) forming general concepts and being able to formulate general or universal truths; as says Aristotle " science is about what is universal"

(3) analysing a representation in order to consider separately its component elements

(4) saving intellectual efforts ( using asbtact algebra, one can demonstrate once and for all laws that hold for a hole buch of mathematical more concrete structures ; once Lagrange's theorem is proved for an arbitrary abstract group, you need not prove it again for more concrete groups you may want to study).

(5) controlling your mind by not considering something that disturbs you or makes you sad ; I remember having read in Kant's Anthropology that " many are unhappy by not being able to practice abstraction" ( the example was that a man can give up marrying a woman , notwithstanding her real qualities, due to the fact that they concentrate on an unimportant physical defect to which they should not pay attention)

Note : 17th century rationalsts have criticized abstraction as a process unable to grasp real being nor to yield clear and distinct ideas; witness Descartes or Spinoza.

  • The word abstraction has many different 'shades' of expression or connotations of definition. When we observe a scene and attempt to report on it, say a sunset over the ocean, whatever we report will never 'capture' the entire scene. We may focus on how the sunlight reflects on the ocean or how the colors of the sky and ocean keep changing. The verbal or written report we make on this scene can be said to be 'abstracted' from it. Or we can call it an abstraction.
    – user37981
    Nov 10, 2020 at 19:07

Short Answer

Abstraction is useful anytime you want to reduce your 'volume' of information. For instance, you can have a set and write out all evens from 2 to 100 or write out "2n∈[2,100]_ℕ"? They both would represent the set of even natural numbers from 2 to 100, but the latter uses an abstraction.

Long Answer

To drive home the short answer above, you just need to ask yourself: would I rather have to carry around a million huge volumes of pictures, words, and numbers in a bag, or a smartphone that abstracts all information to binary digits and looks up information with auto-search features? Abstraction through coding and compression is used every day in information and communication technology.

But let's be humorous: One very powerful example of an abstraction is the abstraction from instances of collections to properties of collections. Let's proceed by example:

C1: A collection which contains three horses.
C2: A collection which contains three pigs.

Thus, if there are three horses, and three pigs, there must be something called 'three'. What is the nature of 'three'? What is the property 'three', and how can it be used?

Well, now you've really started thinking like a philosopher, and now, you have gone from the phenomenological properties of empirical exprience to a rational conclusion which suggests that some propositions are analytical and other's synthetic. For example, there's no empirical evidence there are three universes, yet ample evidence for the possibility of saying 'it's possible to have three animals' is true. Whether or not something can occur in threes in the universe is largely an empirical proposition. Yet, what is three? Apparently it is one repeatedly. So is the fundamental nature of things that there are dichotomies between analyticity and sythesis? How about the physical world and the world of thought? What does all of these even mean anyway?

Now, with all of these questions, it would be a good idea to have a forum to help people ask and answer these sorts of questions. Viola! Philosophy StackExchange. From one man's abstraction to a platform of philosophy to facilitate critical thinking, help corporate interests prosper, help students with logic assignments, and prevent me from having idle hands and getting myself in even bigger trouble we have come.

All by way of abstraction.

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