Monday, March 21, 2011

Searching for reality

This entry is a reflection on the phenomenology of Dorothy Smith, who focused on the dichotomy of concrete and abstract realities. Smith, writing in the 1960's, argued that women resided in the concrete world and men in the abstract, and because of this, the standpoint of women reflected true reality. It is a misreading of Smith to say that women have a superior essence; her argument is rooted in the dichotomy of the abstract and the concrete, not inherent gender differences.

Dorothy says there's no place like home.

Why can we not just live in the world of the abstract? Why is it important to be connected to the concrete world in some way? Is there really such a divide? Where does that divide fall? What is the concrete world, anyway? Will Dorothy and Toto ever make it back home to Kansas? The answer to the last question is yes. I'll try to address some of the others.... now.

I have often felt annoyed by the dichotomy of the abstract and the concrete and the dominant role that the abstract holds in the world today. Sometimes I feel that life would be the most enjoyable if I could just live in the concrete world and be a sustenance farmer, but usually these feelings are replaced by a sense of responsibility to 1) use the gifts and opportunities I've received and become a leader and 2) choose a life course that will enable me and my family to function easily in today's modern world. My reasons are not important. I share my feelings to point out that by feeling this way, I recognize that the ideas and disciplines that govern the world really are abstract, as Dorothy Smith argued. To be the man I want to be, engaging in abstract dialogue seems to be a necessary part. I suppose this idea is debatable, but I have yet to find a satisfactory alternative.

Accepting the existence of an abstract reality (ha, please notice the irony) and its supremacy in social and economic power does not eliminate our dependence on the concrete world, however. Not only do I feel a strong desire to be connected with the world in which I live, but I also find it necessary to sustain life. Looking past mere survival though, why else might we feel inclined to be more united with the “real” world of the concrete? Why do I feel that strong desire? I would suggest that one reason might be the different effects that abstract and concrete worlds have on people and their relations.

To engage in a dialogue in the abstract world requires training. It is inherently exclusive. Practicing law, for example, requires an undergraduate education, a law school education, and certification to practice law in a given state. Anyone can represent themselves in a court of law, but to do so effectively requires special training, and to do so professionally in behalf of another absolutely requires it. As students of the abstract progress further and deeper in their field of study, they find themselves increasingly alienated from those who do not reside in the same region of abstract space. If they travel far enough, they will find themselves utterly alone, speaking a language of one. Off in the distance they may see friends with whom they had once shared a common space, but they will see that these friends have also forged their own divergent paths leading to equally isolating spaces. Such is the phenomenon of Mathematicians who are unable to communicate with other mathematicians who reside in different areas of the “same” field.

In contrast to the abstract world, the world of the concrete is inherently inclusive and edifying. Feeding another person; caring for another's wounds; dressing a child; all of these actions belong in the real world, and are inherently for people. Real people. I do not believe it is coincidence that one of the most basic and successful social gatherings is a shared meal. In the act of eating together we find universal common ground. Diet restrictions aside, when we eat together we recognize that each of us are alike in that we need food to live and we find the experience pleasurable. Likewise, things like food or clothes are some of the most common gifts because of their universal applicability. Everyone is a partaker of these things in some form or another.

Though there is admittedly some abstract influence in the way we live in the concrete world, the final product or result is always something appreciated and understandable to all. I do not know all of the knowledge necessary for the construction of a well-designed and stable house, but I can still appreciate the finished product. As someone who lives in a house, I find relevance in the discipline of home-building. It includes me. This home fulfills a need, a need that most would argue to be universal.

In summary, the divide between abstract and concrete is a divide between alienation and edification. Things that alienate are abstract, and things that relate to people in a physical way are concrete. Though abstract occupying spaces does not necessarily prevent our social interaction, it is its inherent nature to be exclusive in some way and necessarily excludes to someone. The extent of its exclusiveness depends on its distance from the concrete world and its distance from common abstract space. Concrete things, in addition to satisfying the demands of survival, have greater potential to fulfill social needs and desires because of their universality and thus, inherent inclusiveness. Like Dorothy said, there is, quite literally, no place like home.