One of the necessary tools for this project is abstraction. This is the ability to draw broad, general ideas from specific situations and relationships, ideas that can then be applied to new situations and relationships. Without the ability to create abstract concepts (such as “food”, “heat”, “cold”, “pain”, etc.), we would confront the world at every moment as an infant, never learning to recognize what those things we interact with might mean to us and thus never even beginning the project of self-creation. But when self-exploration turns into a self-indulgent plunge into an interior separated from any concrete external projects, the necessary task of abstraction loses its link to the world and wanders into ethereal realms, perhaps of madness, perhaps of intellectual absurdity disguising itself as profundity. In my opinion, a great deal of present-day “critical theory”, particularly the sort that comes out of academia, is precisely this sort of intellectual absurdity. Consider these two problems that are frequently brought up within academic circles:
- How do we know what we know? Can we truly know anything?
- Does the individual really exist? Is individuality a meaningful concept?
By leaving these questions in these general abstract forms (or giving them a gloss of false concreteness by addressing them in terms of broad political categories – like the categories of identity politics or the idea of the West – that are themselves abstractions), they can be endlessly debated in a way guaranteed to offer nothing useful. The only people likely to find any interest in these discussions are those who like to lose themselves in theoretical labyrinths separated from the concrete realities of life.
But if we make these questions truly concrete, it changes things completely. For example, let’s ask: “How do we know what we know about building a house? Can we truly know anything about building a house?” All of the sudden, everything is so clear. I come to know what I know about building a house by bringing together people who can teach and aid me, gathering tools and materials necessary for accomplishing the task, and doing it. Once I have successfully built a house, I can say that I truly know how to build a house.
It’s a bit trickier to make the idea of individuality concrete. It isn’t enough to merely rephrase the problem in this way: “Do I exist?” Because this “I” can be conceived of as a pure abstraction, completely separated from the world, a crystallized ideal standing above all relationship. This would leave us in the same quandary as the earlier wording. We would still be left in a labyrinth of pure abstraction without escape.
We can bring the problem of individuality into the concrete world precisely by talking in terms of our relationships with the world, in other words by asking questions like: “Am I picking up this hammer? Am I reading this book? Am I attacking this institution? Am I talking with my friend? Am I writing these words?” Made concrete in this way, the absurdity of the original question is exposed. Since existence is simply the interweaving relationships of individuals acting upon and with each other, of course individuals exist. The concept of existence and that of the individual are meaningless without each other. Since I pick up hammers, read books, attack institutions, talk with friends and write words, since I relate with and act upon the web of relationships that is existence, I exist. And since I do so in a way that is specific to the threads that weave together to form my life, I am a unique individual in relationship with other unique individuals.