More on abstracting

January, 2001


The following thread of interactions began with the gs-list group and some interchanges involving Milton Dawes uses of "conscious abstracting" and "consciousness of abstracting", which appeared to be somewhat at odds with my understanding of Korzybski, and my analysis of the notion of "abstracting" itself.  As the thread develops, I provide compelling reasons why Korzybski characterization of "abstracting" is inadequate.  But, begin with Milton's discussion to establish the context.

Milton Dawes at 01/01/13 1026

If you and Barry interpret-evaluate "conscious abstracting" ( not the words but the action represented by the words) as being the same as "consciousness of abstracting" ( not the words but the action represented by the words), then I propose that you are both responding based on word analysis, more from a semantic framework, more as philosophic exercise, and not from your experiences related to the actions the words represent. I suggest. The phrases will likely be seen as tautology, hazardous word play, etc., if one interprets them semantically, philosophically, and so on. Actions, behaviors are not usually considered in terms of tautology. I am concerned with the behaviors. The words I hoped would work as pointers. But some seem to get stuck with the words; like a car stuck in an icy snow bank with a driver who persists in pressing hard on the gas pedal and spinning the wheels. I have seen this. And usually the car sinks deeper and deeper in the snow. (Apply relative invariance principle here).

"Conscious abstracting", as I use the phrase, involves a way of behaving. "Consciousness of abstracting" as I use the phrase, involves a way of behaving. We can practice conscious abstracting. I assume this for others, based on the fact that I do. And some others seem to have no trouble understanding how to do this when I suggest ways. We can practice consciousness of abstracting. I do. And I assume others could. In my opinion serious students of general semantics do not persist on focusing on words, forgetting that the words were meant to refer to some process, thing,. activity, etc., and not to other words.

The article "Conscious Abstracting and a Consciousness of Abstracting" can be found at [] I doubt that Barry has read this. But Barry might not consider reading and working at understanding, and doing, important as bases for his disagreements and uninformed suggestions for improvements. Have you read the article? Do you understand any of what I proposed? Have you practiced conscious abstracting?

Ralph Kenyon at 01/01/13 18:52

Milton quotes S&S in defining "consciousness of abstraction" as "Awareness that in our process of abstracting we have left out characteristics". This could be paraphrased as being aware that our knowledge of any particular situation is incomplete. We aren't seeing it all. We're missing stuff. There's holes in our map. Etc..

I tend to think of this phrase as having more substance that just the "left out" part. If we are "conscious of abstracting", for example, when we read a newspaper, we are aware that the words we are reading have been edited and modified by an editor who may have had some particular slant when he or she was chopping up, reducing, expanding on, altering, what was supplied to him by a reporter, who, in the simplest of situations, arrived on the scene, saw some things through his or her own conscious (and unconscious) filtering, interviewed people who also saw things through their own unconscious (and sometimes conscious) filtering, and consciously tried to put together a story, phrased in ways to attract the interest of readers as he or she through his or her "culturally expected way of 'thinking'" led him or her to expect them to be responsive. Television has similar things going on - and these are just the news programs. Consider all the manipulation that goes into an infomercial. "Consciousness of abstracting" includes, to my way of thinking, an awareness of our theory of how the nervous system functions, and that what we experience as a result of this functioning not only "leaves things out" (abstracting), but it also tends to evoke past associations such that we can actually see what we expect to see when "it really isn't there". The reporter in question, in looking to put together a "good" story, may easily be misled into "seeing" relations that aren't present. Consciousness of abstracting involves being immediately aware that what I am experiencing right now in the way of any kind of information input from my direct sensory inputs to the symbolic sources of some of those inputs has undergone many levels of both neurological and verbal level processing which includes abstracting as Milton defined it above as well as other kinds of modification. In keeping with our understanding of the nervous system's function I have used the term abstracting in a somewhat more general sense.

Abstracting cannot be a simple "leaving out" as Korzybski originally defined and as Milton quoted. Here's an example of why.

Marks on paper reflect light waves (corpuscles) that interact with the eye. Those marks don't contain any meaning. Neither does the light. When the nerve impulses are processed in the brain, associations of the "identification" of these marks as "letters" and as "words" are ADDED to the incoming processing. Further associations of "meanings" of these "words" are ADDED to the processing. By the time a person is able to sub-vocalize or "talk to himself" about what he or she is "seeing" the process has become much more than simple subtracting at each level.

A simple way of looking at this is that certain marks are "looked up in a table" and translated to "letters". The "letter combinations" are looked up in another table and translated into (visual) "words". The words are looked up in another table and translated into "meanings" . The meanings are based upon our own individual history of experiences. In our "abstracting" process, we have brought our own experiences to construct a "map" of what we have read about. Even things we directly see are subject to similar associations. The visual patterns are looked up in a table of previous experiences and then words previously associated with those previous experiences are used to "identify" what it we are seeing. With "silent level training" we can try to get to a level of experience prior to the associations with words, but we will still have the associations with prior visual experiences. (Zen masters may be able to get past this level.) With indexing training we can help to associate many different word descriptions and meanings with the visual experiences. We can learn to delay our evaluation reaction as to what these visual experiences "mean". (I have used visual experience in a very general way. It could apply to a very small portion of the visual field for a small amount of time, or to a whole scenario over an extended period of time - or any combination between and beyond.)

For a more in depth discussion in a more formal way, see Abstraction.

So, "abstracting", the way our nervous system does it, cannot be a simple process of "leaving out" characteristics from one level to another, although that is a significant factor. There must also be a process of adding associations at many levels. (Associations which may be wrong.)

Milton defines conscious abstraction as follows

"Conscious abstracting involves doing whatever we happen to be doing, consciously, deliberately, attentively. "

In his article, Milton states

"Practicing conscious abstracting.
Without conscious abstracting or abstracting consciously, we cannot go on to remember that our 'thought's 'feelings', plans, decisions, opinions, criticisms, expectations, and so on does not include all. "

This is simply not true a true conditional. Once we have been exposed to the general semantics idea that we "don't see it all" and subsequently accept that idea, we realize that any time we remember anything at all, whether we consciously tried to remember it or not, our memory cannot be complete, whether it refers to thoughts, feelings, plans, ... etc. We do not have to have been consciously abstracting to know, after the fact, that we may not have a good picture of what went on. If we "consciously abstract" we are paying strict attention to what we are doing, and that does not guarantee that we will remember it.

In his article, Milton uses the above "claim" as a lead-in to the idea that self-improvement depends upon self-awareness. It certainly makes the job easier, but there are certain kinds of self-improvement that just cannot be achieved through self-awareness at the level of the process itself. I can be aware that a physical skill needs improvement, and I can improve it just by practice, but I am not aware of the process in such a way that I can consciously affect the learning curve. I just have to do the practice, and I will get better at it. Perhaps through the process of the practice itself, I can eventually become aware of things that gave results, but this is after the fact rather than before the fact.

In many human interaction process, however, Milton's suggestion has great value. It just isn't true for everything.

What is the "standard" sequence?

Milton said

I propose that we cannot be conscious of our abstracting, if we do not consciously abstract.

I called this a tautology.

If we treat the meanings in my sense, in which to consciously abstract is to abstract with an awareness of the way the process of abstraction works, then it is indeed a tautology.

But, If we plug in Milton's own definitions, the claim becomes

"I propose that we cannot be aware that we have left out characteristics if we do not do whatever we happen to be doing, consciously, deliberately, attentively."

This has the logical form ~A -> ~B, where A is doing consciously and B is aware of leaving out characteristics.

This is logically equivalent to A or ~B, and the negation of this is ~A and B.

An instance of a counter-example would be observed cases of ~A and B - not doing consciously while still being aware of leaving out characteristics.

In other words, the simple counter-example to this would be someone not paying attention, but, never-the-less, aware that he or she left out characteristics.

Often times when my wife speaks to me while I am writing these replies, I am fully aware that I have missed things she said that I was not paying great attention to. So I am conscious of abstracting without consciously abstracting.

By the presence of this counter example, Milton's claim is worse than a tautology. It is false.

Milton Dawes at 01/01/15 1434

Ralph in the piece above, has represented some of the "left out" in our abstracting from a newspaper story. But I see this as "elaboration", "expansion", "specification", lower order abstractions, etc. -- examples of some of what we can include as being left out. Korzybski formulated some principles. He might have written a book with lots of examples. I wonder how many would bother to lift it, so much more to read it. I have a feeling that general semantics might have had more exposure if those practicing or reading about the discipline, in their writings, gave more credit to the formulator of the discipline. I have written over 30 articles elaborating on some of gs. principles. I consider them elaborations not anything with more substance, or beyond Korzybski as some have claimed. ( Not that we can't go beyond Korzysbki's propositions.) To use a mathematical analogy: I ** view ** "left out" as a set, and what Ralph mentioned as members of this set. So I will ask Ralph "In what sense do you propose more substance?"

Here again I propose that serious students of general semantics through visualization will 'see' that one cannot elementalistically "leave out" without **first** "selecting". One cannot do leaving out. Try it. Imagine it. We select: and in selecting we leave out. And Korzybski might have originally defined abstracting as "simply leaving out". But I invite you to read the chapter "Abstracting" in "Science and Sanity" and see if you evaluate what you read about abstracting as "simply leaving out".

In the piece I wrote "I propose that we cannot be aware that we have left out characteristics if we do not do whatever we happen to be doing, consciously, deliberately, attentively."

Note the past tenses in this account. "said", "was not paying attention to". And suppose we modify ( for more accuracy of representation) "I am fully aware" to "I am **now** fully aware". So we get "I am **now** fully aware that I ** have missed** things she **said** that I **was not** paying great attention to. So I am **now** conscious of abstracting without ** having been** consciously abstracting". Note also: "Often times when my wife speaks to me while I am writing": From this I imagine Ralph was **aware** that his wife was speaking at those times. Now if you find you can't follow this or find it confusing, I invite you to view this experience as an example of some of what goes on when we give higher priority to our logic and philosophy, and put more value on words than we put on words as pointers, instead of first heuristically applying what we understand of a gs. principle.

Last night the car indicator lights stopped working, front and back, both sides, and also on the dashboard.. To resolve my discomfort driving around with no indicators, I decided to put on the hazard lights. Now the hazard lights are the same set of lights used by the indicators, front, back, sides and on the dashboard. If I had been logical I might have concluded that if the indicator lights don't work, then the hazard lights also won't work. But I was not being logical, I was concerned to relieve a discomfort, so I pushed the hazard light button. Things came back to normal. My point. We could exercise great care when applying our logic. Things, maybe except for computers, don't usually operate based on our logic.

Consciousness of abstracting as a way of describing an awareness, in my experiences, takes place in a present instant. I do not arrive at, and am not conscious of abstracting as a result of logical analysis or philosophical exercise. I am not likely to say "So therefore I was conscious of abstracting, if I was not reporting on a moment in time when I was actually conscious of abstracting **and conscious that I was**. " When I **remember** that in the process of abstracting, I have left things out, that remembering, that awareness takes place in a present moment. My focus and emphasis when I write about my experience of consciousness of abstracting, is about that tiny moment of awareness. So the **awareness** reported on in the form and with a content "I was not paying great attention", can be taken as **an example** of what I label conscious abstracting. And "I am fully aware that I have missed things she said" that awareness represents for me, an instance of consciousness of abstracting related to the awareness (conscious abstracting) reported on with "I was not paying attention". Ralph, I imagine, was paying attention to the fact that he was not paying attention. Awareness of a particular kind, whether we label some instances "consciousness of abstracting" and others "conscious abstracting", others "I was not paying attention", exist as awareness.

Complicated. Yes. That's one reason I propose we apply heuristically what we understand of gs. principles. When we apply logic, we are very likely to miss out. And more words tend to make matters worse for us. As Korzybski warned: "If they (the methods of general semantics) are not applied, but merely talked about, no results can be expected."

I must emphasize that all the above is just to say that I have a different way of practicing consciousness of abstracting and conscious abstracting than Ralph.

Ralph Kenyon at 01/01/17 20:34

The answer to this question was provided in the post that was being quoted from.

However, here it is again - with more amplification.

If we are to use the word "abstracting" as a label for the process the nervous system engages in, then its meaning can be found by scientific study and observation. Such a "meaning", in fact, turns out to be quite different from the traditional "verbal formulation" provided. The traditional definition, provided by Korzybski, and quoted by Milton, can be extracted from the following quote

Milton quotes S&S in defining "consciousness of abstraction" as "Awareness that in our process of abstracting we have left out characteristics".

Since 'consciousness of' and 'awareness of' are synonymous, by parallel construction,

"Abstraction" is defined in this sense as "leaving out characteristics". The phrase "in our processes of abstracting" just indicates that "consciousness of abstraction" is to be interpreted as a present tense activity. (Milton's focus.)

Defining 'abstracting' as "leaving out characteristics" is not consistent with our understanding of the process that the human nervous system goes through, because, as I said above, there is "more substance" than a mere "leaving out of characteristics".

There is more structure in the process we study and observe than that provided for in the definition.

Korzybski was big on using the term abstracting from event, to object, to verbal levels.

Consider the simple act of selecting the word that stands as the name of some, say, for example, flower, fruit, tool, etc., that we might see.

The nervous system abstracts, in the sense of leaving out, at every level, but it also adds to the result at most levels. By the time the human being utters a sound, he or she has not only abstracted characteristics from his or her sensory responses to the environment, he or she has also made associations, identifications, guesses, etc., to produce a verbal label, which, in itself, has absolutely no characteristics in common with the original stimulus. As we've said before many times, "the word ain't the thing". "Abstracting" from the 'thing' to the "word" cannot be just a process of leaving out characteristics, because the original thing has no "letters" in it; it just has a pattern of frequency reflections/emissions in the em spectrum.

In our nervous processing we compare the sensory experience to our memory of past sensory experiences and "identify" one categorization. We then exchange that categorization with a label that we have associated with those past experiences. When we have selected such a word to "think", utter, write, etc., we have taken something from our memory that was not part of the immediate sensory response. We have ADDED to the incoming "abstractions" from our sensory experience. When we switch to the word and "experience now" the "higher" (verbal) level of abstraction, we have even left out the original sensory experience.

So "abstraction" as defined by Korzybski and Milton is just a leaving out of characteristics.

But "abstraction" as the process by which our nervous system functions includes not only the leaving out of characteristics, but the adding to of different characteristics taken from our memory.

(This is absolutely necessary for time-binding.)

So, Milton, if your "abstracting", is just a leaving out, then where did you (or Korzybski) get the words when you "abstracted" from non-verbal to verbal levels?

In my paper on abstracting, I provided a somewhat formal model that includes both the leaving-out and the adding-to structures in offering a more up-to-date and technical definition for abstracting.

It comes down to this. Our verbal definition of the term 'abstraction' is not consistent with the process, as we know it, that we intend to apply this term to, namely, the way the human nervous system works.

From a rigorous theoretical perspective, "abstraction" cannot be defined as a "mere" leaving out of characteristics. Korzybski needs updating in this respect.

From a general principle, if we are to empirically determine the "meaning" of a term, we cannot also give it a formal (intensional) definition. Korzybski asked us to be "extensional", so I should think we would lean in the direction of choosing an extensional description of a process (subject to updating) whenever such was offered. But giving a "definition" of the term is intensional.

The best of both worlds is to try to create a good intensionally defined model of the process that captures as much structure as possible and "accounts" for observation.

Thomas Johnson at 01/01/18 00:14

You have not once mentioned below the m.o. character of 'abstracting', and I think it is imperative to address this since it means different things at different levels. When our cells 'abstract' from the light that hits them it is not the same as when our visual cortex 'abstracts' from the signals which is not the same as when we 'abstract' with our language, etc. The common denominator in these activities it that something, but not everything, is obtained from the stimuli. This is what I got from Korzysbki's original work.

Ralph Kenyon at 01/10/19 19:58

The multiordinal character of abstracting is completely accounted for in my technical model by any multilevel complex device with different media at different levels. Each "device" that "abstracts" from one medium to another is "different" in character than another device when the corresponding input and output media are different, and having multiple devices in a multilevel structure with different media at different levels means that the specifics of "abstracting" is different at different levels. I offered a somewhat formal model that can describe the example you suggest as simply a particular instantiation of the model.

Korzysbki's original work treats "characteristics" as something general that is, in some way, invariant under the abstraction process from one level to another. Korzybski has "characteristics" in the event level that are "abstracted" at the object level, and he has "characteristics" at the object level that are "abstracted" at verbal levels. He shows this in the structural differential as strings going from level to level, and he show some strings as going from the event level all the way through verbal levels. Characteristics at one level correspond to characteristics an the earlier level, but during abstraction, many more characteristics from the lower level are left out at the higher level.

Korzysbki's oversimplification contains a very subtle identification between levels. Whatever is the "characteristic" in the event level that gives rise through abstraction to whatever is the "characteristic" in the object level, and whatever is the "characteristic" that is abstracted in verbal levels is treated by Korzybski as a common thread of invariance from level to level.

The problem with Korzysbki's "characterization" is that he implies or suggests that there is something that is the same from level to level, namely the characteristic that is abstracted, but close examination shows that we have no physical attributes that can be found in even two of the levels. While there may be repeatable correlations between different structures at the input and the output to a level of abstracting, there is nothing actual that is carried in any way from level to level. There are no free photons in the nervous processes. There are no electro-chemical cascade reactions in words.

Studies of animal visual nervous systems have shown repeatable correlations between input stimuli and nerve firing patterns. A line moving at a certain angle and speed correlates (and is believed to cause) certain nerve cells to fire at a certain rate. The fact that these cells are firing means that the cat's visual apparatus has detected a certain orientation and velocity pattern crossing its visual field. But what are the characteristics in that stimulus? Start with the free photons reflected from or emitted by something in the environment. What happens at the retina? Rod and cone cells exhibit potential gradients. What "characteristics" were "abstracted" from the free photons? At the next level optic nerve cells exhibit a firing rate in response to the potential gradients. What characteristics were "abstracted" from the gradients? At higher levels parallel layers of cells respond differently depending upon what input cells were firing and at what rate. In any given cell, what "characteristics" were "abstracted" from the particular combination of input cells that caused it to fire? When words are emitted, what "characteristics" were "abstracted" from the nervous processes? Can you even imagine any "characteristic" that is the same in the photons, and in the gradients, and in the lower level firings, and in the higher level firings, and in the words? If you like philosophical "essences", then you can claim that "appleness" or "chairness" somehow survives all these transformations.

In my model we don't have to have anything "the same" between any two levels let alone from the first to the last.

My model for abstraction has all the generalities needed to capture what we mean if we use the word abstracting as a label for what happens in human information processing. It accounts for what we mean by multi-ordinal, has multiple levels of different kinds of abstracting, and it is technically well defined.

At the risk of being redundant, the reference is Abstraction


The term 'abstracting' as the noun name of the process by which our nervous systems perceive, know, understand, etc., our environment, cannot be understood or "defined" as simply a "leaving out" of characteristics from level to level in the process.  At every level in the process, characteristics not from the stimulus source are added to the characteristics coming from the stimulus.  These "injected" characteristics are taken from our memory and our prior experiences, and in many instances are completely substituted for the characteristics being selected from among those in the stimulus. Nerve responses are substituted for photons.  Words are substituted for nerve responses.  We learn to make associations between the different things at different levels, and we respond in terms of the substituted characteristics rather than any of the original characteristics.  Abstraction as applied in "levels of abstraction" and in "consciousness of abstraction" must be understood to include adding characteristics as well as leaving out characteristics.

Annotated bibliography of general semantics papers
General Semantics and Related Topics
This page was updated by Ralph Kenyon on 2009/11/16 at 00:27 and has been accessed 8971 times at 54 hits per month.