I can see someone dancing, I can see someone’s motion, I can smell something burns, I can feel air moves. However, why is action abstract?

  • 1
    ...because a philosopher asserted this opinion, and was believed? Just a guess. Commented Jun 30, 2021 at 16:42
  • I could tell you a chair is abstract - it's very difficult to teach a computer what a chair is, requiring one to build abstractions upon abstractions. Things that seem intuitive to us are actually the result of extremely complex neural processes. The world is made of atoms, and "chair" is a pattern our brains abstract away from the atoms. If that's not the answer you're looking for, you'll have to be more clear and specific about what you mean.
    – causative
    Commented Jun 30, 2021 at 17:25
  • In such sense, is there something that's not abstract?
    – RodolfoAP
    Commented Jun 30, 2021 at 17:57
  • The idea of action is abstract. The action itself is rather real. Commented Jun 30, 2021 at 18:52
  • "The whole problem of justifying nature, of trying to make life mean something in terms of its future, disappears utterly. Obviously, it all exists for this moment. It is a dance, and when you are dancing you are not intent on getting somewhere… The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance" - Alan Watts
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 12:43

2 Answers 2


Consider the following photograph:

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What is the action in this photo? Or perhaps more pertinently, where is the action in this photo? In this owl flying forward? Leaping up or back? Falling like a stone? Hovering in mid-air like a UFO? And really (as an aside), what's with that cheeky expression on its face? What's going on there?

Action by definition involves a change of state over time. But human sensory apparatuses and human cognition can only observe one state at one time. Every thing else is either memory or anticipation. We don't 'see' action; we 'intuit' action by building up a storehouse of frequently observed state-changes and inferring regular (normalized) patterns of change that we call actions.

Action is a theory — one for which we have a lot of evidence, granted — and all theory is abstract.

You can think of this in Sherlock Holmes terms. Holmes walks into a room and sees a dead woman on a divan, a pile of ash in an ashtray, cryptic symbols scribbled on the wall, a red-tipped bird feather; he smells a hint of lavender and muscat wine; feels the heat left in the embers of the fire and the texture of the woman's shawl. He then stands up and tells us not only who the murderer is, but what actions occurred (in the room, and beyond) that led to the woman's demise. No one 'saw' these actions happen; none of us would have known a thing about them if Holmes weren't there to enlighten us. But all Holmes did was look at a single slice of time, and theoretically deduce the actions that must have occurred to create the experience of that single slice of time. And that is all we are doing when we 'watch' an owl in flight.


In physics, action is defined as energy time the time the energy is considered. If I try to find my way through a pile of sand and use my body in trying to break through to the other side I can do this in various ways. I can do it efficiently, I can do it wildly, I can go in the wrong direction, etc. Using different energies in each scenario. Energy is defined as force times distance. So depending on my chosen path through the pile and the way I uses my forces I can break on through in various ways to the other side. The whole field of quantum field theory is based on this kind of thinking though the ways to get to the other side (in a phasespace) are virtual, just ideas of a real action that can be assigned to a real particle and in such a sense abstract. The real particle excercises all virtual actions at the same time but ends up having realized one real action when measured.

But this is no place to go into physics. I merely used this example because the concept of action bevomes very real in this field. I think it is clear that time, space, and force are not abstract. So the action is neither. That is, the action is real.

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