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Abstract Words

Abstract Words
Abstract Words

    Some of the most serious dangers and confusions in our thinking are due to the fact that we use abstract words: words like 'beauty', 'crime' and 'average'. Abstract words are of course very convenient. If I say of a person, ' She has great beauty', it is easier and quicker than if I say, 'Her hair is thick, silky and flowing; her cheek-bones high and strong; her eyes nut-shaped, quick and vivacious; her figure slim and moulded in light, firm curves; the contemplation of all of which excites and delights me. 'However, when we say the first, it is probably something like the second that we mean. The danger lies in the fact that the word 'beauty' need not always mean exactly this ـــdifferent people use it to mean rather different things ـــ and when using it we may think we are communicating what is in our mind to somebody else, when in fact we are not doing so at all. The person we are speaking to may be a lover of flowers, and for him the word 'beauty' may suggest not feminine characteristics, but the purple glow of violets, and the bloom heaped above bloom of the hollyhock. He may never have noticed closely the look of a woman's face; so that when we think he is seeing vividly what we see in our mind's eye as we say' beauty',
he may in fact be trying to connect up* his idea of beautiful flowers with the idea of a woman, and not getting any clear impression at all.
   The existence of the word 'beauty' may also lead to confusion if it leads us to ask, 'What is beauty? 'If we ask, 'What is a pencil? we can probably get an answer which will enable us to understand all the situations in which we ever see or hear the word 'pencil' used. This may make us think that if we ask, 'What is beauty? We can get the same kind of answer. But in fact there is no good reason to believe that this is so. As we have seen, for different people the word may Have quite different associations; so the only questions to which we can get practical answers are: * What does A mean when he says " beauty "?', *What does B mean when she says "beauty"?' and so on. There will certainly be some
Degree of similarity in the answers, but it may only be a very small one.
      Similar sorts of danger arise with the word 'crime'. Nowadays the word 'crime' generally refers to any of a certain number of acts that are forbidden by law. Anyone who commits such an act is, strictly speaking, *a 'criminal'. In the public mind* the word 'crime' is associated mainly, however, with serious offences such as armed robbery and murder; and the common idea of the 'criminal' is of a dangerous land of man very different from the rest of us. However, a girl of seventeen whom in a moment of temptation, *takes something off a shop-counter is also, strictly speaking, a criminal. This does not mean that we ought to feel the same things about her that we might feel about a man who had been knocking people on the head and stealing their money for years. But a malicious man may, not inaccurately, *speak of such a young offender as a 'criminal', and make people more hostile than they should be towards the unfortunate girl, simply because the word 'criminal' fills them with distrust and fear.
Here, once again, we see how an abstract word can make a misleading impression, simply because it is rather broad in its range of reference, * and it is possible to associate different ideas with it.
     If 'beauty' is an aesthetic abstraction and 'crime' a legal abstraction (with popular overtones), 'average' is a statistical abstraction. It, too, may mislead the unwary.
Imagine a town where two races of people are found living together, one race rather tall and the other race rather short, and neither race much given to* intermarriage. Let us suppose that half of the population of the town consists of "people about 185- cm tall, and the other half of "people about 160 cm tall. The average height of the people in. that town will be 173 cm. But a person simply reading that figure may get a totally false impression of the height of the people there. He may think that the majority of people there are about 173 cm tall. If he goes there he will get a great surprise: everyone will be far taller or far shorter than he has expected. But if they had all been 173 cm tall, the figure for the average height of the people in that town would have been exactly the same. In other words, to know the average height of all the people in a town is to know nothing at all about any of the individuals actually living there.
    We may conclude therefore that abstract ideas, and the words that express them, are very useful things, but always to be watched with a suspicious eye. If we find somebody else using them, we must hesitate before deciding whether we know what he is really saying.
And if we find that we want to use them ourselves, we must make sure that we too know exactly what we want to say and that it will be clear, in spite of our use of abstractions to our readers or listeners.
(about 950 words)


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