The meaning of “abstraction”

Even if I don’t believe in the possibility to clarify philosophy as if it is a science or a formal discipline like mathematics, where one can start with the simple things, and then build up to the those which are very complex, still… it seems that I need to explain how I use certain words for better understanding on this blog…

I will try to explain the sense of this word (“abstraction“) which I want to put to attention by referring to few different dictionaries.

Houghton Mifflin Medical Dictionary:

  • Distillation or separation of the volatile constituents of a substance.

In this sense, then, abstraction means that you start with something complex, and then you have way to separate the constituents of that complex.

But this is not precisely the sense of “abstraction” I think of. In this more precise sense, one can say that abstraction means we remove some of the constituents, in order to “be left with” the constituents we are interested in.
Imagine that you have lost a white small button in a pile of rice. One way to find the button is to gradually remove rice until you find it. Maybe this example doesn’t sound much as “abstraction”, but let’s see the next examples from dictionaries:


  • the act of withdrawing or removing something
  • preoccupation with something to the exclusion of all else

We can further say that abstraction, if we think of it in this sense, even if it is simple opperation, does in fact two things… By ignoring/removing/withdrawing/exclusion of other parts of the complex, it concentrates/preoccupates with one specific part.

There is one more thing to keep in mind, when talking about this concept, “abstraction” can mean as explaines both

  • The act of abstracting or the state of having been abstracted.

So, what is left from the process of abstraction can also be called abstraction. This is certainly a problem, as in talking about abstraction, one must always have in mind the possibility of this ambiguity.

Also, one must distinct “abstract from” which would point to what is ignored/removed; and “abstraction of” which points to the resulting abstraction.