Concrete vs. Abstract Thinking: Overplayed and Pernicious
“I’m confused. Let’s say my mother had
a toaster that exploded. Now, go! Explain what you just
said about the law using that example.”
No one else at Yale Law School talked that way, but Susan
Is that an example of a brain hopelessly stuck in the
concrete? Unable to engage in abstract thinking?
Well, if “abstract” means theory for theory’s
sake, complex structures that lead to airy conclusions
that are so malleable they support anything and nothing,
yes, Susan hates that kind of thinking. And is proud to
report, she doesn’t do it very well.
But she loves reading Shakespeare, Freud, Kierkegaard,
Rollo May, Ibsen, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickenson,
Melville, Hawthorne and Victor Hugo (not for his “stories” but
for his amazing insight into the social structure and institutions
and mass movements). She loves theory that is connected
to the world, that helps us understand what is real. She
loves theory that unveils the deep structures, the patterns
underneath, the hidden but palpable connections and separations
between and among things, the music of the spheres. She
seeks the elegance that mathematicians and physicists seek.
The dichotomy between abstract and concrete thought breaks
down here. It may not be completely empty, but it is surely
overplayed and being asked to bear more weight than it
can handle. And it brands too easily. To be labeled a “concrete” thinker
is to be relegated to the back of the bus. It is time to
rethink these categories.