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From: Bruce S.
Date: Sunday, March 2, 2008, 2:15 PM
Subject: Abstraction/generality/inclusivity
ID: 259930

A few days ago, I received an email mentioning an article I had written a few years ago. I was excited to see this email, since it is not everybody who can speak with such clarity on these subjects. I sent a reply, and today, I got an answer.

On the strength of this interesting connection, I thought I would place this conversation into the context of this forum, and hope that a few others might find some of this worth pursuing.

I will post here the initial letter I received, followed by my reply.

And in a following email, I will log in to this system under Patrick's account, and post his most recent email to me, to which I anticipate replying.

From Patrick Kinsella:

Date: Fri, 29 Feb 2008

Hi Bruce,

I have just read your excellent piece "THE UNIVERSAL HIERARCHY OF ABSTRACTION".

I particularly liked the idea that all conceptual structure and logical processes can be seen as organized through a single hierarchical framework.

This idea reminded me of the work of David Ausubel who argued that all knowledge was stored hierarchically in cognitive structure. I am just curious about one thing. Do you see concepts as having levels of generality, inclusiveness and abstraction?

How do you differentiate between these levels?

For me these terms are often taken as synonyms of each other.

I suppose the confusion comes about from my understanding of abstraction, namely the process or result of generalization by reducing the information content of a concept or an observable phenomenon. This is done in order to retain only the information which is relevant for a particular purpose/objective. An example would be abstracting a black cimmaron 1984 Cadillac to CAR retains only the information on general CAR attributes and behaviour. I would be interested in your thinking with regard to these ideas.

Thanks for your time

Pat Kinsella
School Of Computing and Intelligent Systems
Faculty of Computing and Engineering
University of Ulster
Northern Ireland
Bt48 7JL

I was happy to get this evocative message, and I promptly sent back the following reply:

Hi, Pat.

Thanks for your note.

Actually -- these themes are coming to the foreground for me now -- I am starting a new project along these lines called "the Bridge Across Consciousness" -- which does have its own very modest site --

And a discussion forum is beginning to emerge, on a system I have been building lately, called "LightPages"

But to respond to your question

"Do you see concepts as having levels of generality, inclusiveness and abstraction?"

The answer is most certainly yes...

I think we could say that "all concepts can be organized within a taxonomy" -- the basic dimension of which would be something like "level of abstraction"

So -- "the more general, the more abstract, the more inclusive" -- the higher this level...

Of course -- the idea that this "taxonomy" is some rigid structure that is true across all occasions of usage -- would be very misleading. It seems to me that misunderstandings on this point have often caused researchers to suppose that "strictly hierarchical models" are thereby invalid. The key seems to be in recognizing that the definitions of concepts are only approximate, and that "exact meanings" tend to be ad hoc, stipulative, and local to some specific instance of usage...


It is interesting that you would comment on this right now.

I was just about ready (right this minute, today) to start putting together a modest reading list and set of references, taken from Wikipedia -- where there are some great articles on subjects like "ontology" and "taxonomy" and "epistemology".

The thing about this emerging new discussion forum is - it is linked to a very "spiritually-oriented" system of networks and relationships -- it's my attempt at a "right brain / left brain bridge".

But if you have any interest in pursuing this -- I would be very pleased to welcome you into this at-the- very-beginning new discussion forum. I would be excited by questions and insights from a professional researcher in these areas.

On abstraction - I came across a very interesting review of the concept, in a programming text book by Grady Booch, entitled "Object Oriented Design, with Applications" (this may date me, it was published in 1991). He has an extensive discussion of the concept of abstraction -- and he mentions the author Ayn Rand -- a surprising reference, perhaps, in a technical context. She describes abstraction in terms of "measurement omission" -- which, I think, is exactly the idea you are describing in your Cadillac example.

- Bruce Schuman
Santa Barbara
Interspirit Foundation --

I am going to log in under Patrick's account on LightPages, and post his reply to my last message -- and then give all of this a little time to soak in before I respond.


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