Concrete vs. Abstract Thinking: Overplayed and Pernicious Dichotomy

“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 did.

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.