Saturday, November 13, 2010

QUOTES: "To generalize means to think"

In our current intellectual climate, where
nominalist thinking has triumphed and is
proudly celebrated by "deconstruction," the business of seeing similarities and relationships is regarded with suspicion. I remember one interchange with a librarian (!) who was perfectly happy to have his living depend on classifying books and other materials, but who resisted attempts to generalize about theological or historical matters. Why was that? Perhaps he thought that the only way to generalize was to impose arbitrary,  socially-constructed categories upon things, much the same way that he saw the Dewey Decimal mode of classification, or the Library of Congress mode of classification imposed upon the works around him.  
      But are all generalizations "useful fictions?"  Are some generalizations actually products of a process of abstraction from forms which are not imposed by us, but which exist independently of our minds, in things themselves? Is there no way to compare our generalizations, and judge which of them captures more of what is real, making that generalization closer to the truth?

"...when we apply categories and classifications to the progression of history, we are challenged to remember that classification and categorisation always relies, to some extent, on generalisation; and generalisation is a dangerous game. When William Blake wrote that 'to generalise is to be an idiot', he was perhaps too harsh. George Bernard Shaw shared his pessimism, though in less alacritous terms: 'Crude classifications and false generalisations are the curse of organised life'. But life mandates, at times, precisely this curse. So Georg Hegel: 'An idea is always a generalisation, and generalisation is a property of thinking. To generalise means to think'. " --M.C. Steenberg,

To put it in premodern language, a generalization can refer either to a universal, or to propositions we make involving universals. We are created in such a way that our minds soak up universals, or "forms" from the world around us. These universals become the concepts which fill our minds, as we grasp what kind of thing we are in relationship with. For example, we  might entertain the concepts "Chair," "Table," "legs" and "four."

We then combine those concepts to form propositions, uniting or dividing them. Thus, we might  combine concepts and make the following statements, or propositions:

        “The chair has four legs.”  or “The table has four legs.”

Or we might "divide" the concepts, and make the following propositions: 

          "The table does not have four legs.”   or  “A chair is not a table.”

Finally, we can use propositions  to make arguments, linking them together according to the rules of logic. Depending upon how we do it, and how well we do it, our arguments will be sound or not; or cogent or not. For example,

                    The chair has four legs.
                    The table has four legs.
                    Therefore the chair is a table.
                    If this is a chair,  I can use it to sit on.
                    This is a chair.
                    Therefore I can use it to sit on.

God has given us a great gift: "ratio," our ability to abstract concepts, to relate them in propositions, and to create arguments. I don't often find myself in agreement with Hegel, but on this he is correct:  'An idea is always a generalisation, and generalisation is a property of thinking. To generalise means to think.' Of course, the  activities of discursive reason do not exhaust all the intellectual gifts that he has given us. Intuition (or "intellectus,") --that immediate, personal, non-discursive apprehension of what is real and therefore true, good, and beautiful--is another incredible gift.  Let us not fear or neglect either way of thinking.


Kent W. said...

Beth, when are you going to write your book??

Ann said...

I agree w/ Kent! :)

BTW, I thought your use of the graphic illustration of the snowflakes went brilliantly with your question: "But are all generalizations 'useful fictions?' Are some generalizations actually products of a process of abstraction from forms which are not imposed by us, but which exist independently of our minds, in things themselves?"

Time to think, consider, meditate & contemplate -- how precious it is!

Beth B said...

Kent, thanks, but everything I've written has been said before--and with greater precision and grace-- by good Thomists. It's simply what I soaked up from hanging around the Jesuits in the '70's. ;)

Ann, thank you for noticing that illustration. I spent some time trying to come up with one that would underscore these ideas.

Kent and Ann, I treasure your friendship for many reasons; and among them is the way you both maintain a wonderful balance of your left brain ("ratio") and your right brain ("intellectus")!

Brad Boydston said...

Thomism for Dummies

Kent W. said...


I agree with Brad. As I said Sunday morning, your gift is not that you know stuff that nobody else knows, it's that you know how to tell the story in a way that gets us average types wanting to know more. I mean, what everyday Evangelical even knows what a "Thomist" is, or would ever dare to read the works of a Jesuit?