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The ascent of the abstract to the concrete
> … it is the word that constitutes the foundation, the skeleton of inner life.
What is meant by abstract and concrete?1 We find the roots of these, respectively, are ‘drawn from’ and ‘grown together.’ The initial movement of man in the development of self-consciousness has been that of abstraction, that the universal is drawn from the particular in which it was previously embedded. The self is understood not in its actual movement but as a separate reality, as the self in general. This process has been scaffolded by language, for it is the sign which renders a thing general; whereby a thing becomes at once itself and other.
I am a man, and at once I am this thing and its other. I am the particular which completes the universal, for I am its sign; but I am not the universal. The mountains before me are blocked by cloud and hidden in the dark, still I see them there: “I see the mountains; I see that they are not mountains; therefore, I see the mountains anew.”
The mountains emerge from nothingness, the mountains are nothingness emerging from itself; its own other. There is nothing between myself and the mountains, nothing on either end. There is nothing.
There is something—how is it to be expressed? The abstract notion stands alone, a lifeless pedicle emerging from the gloom. This is the form of the thing in general considered as such; it is the City rendered static, a word apart from the world.
The body is quantitatively delimited, a spatial arrangement of matter; it is a bounded entity. This is the body as abstract notion, a form of cold purity akin to the mathematical or geometric. Where else is the body, when else? The body is a corpse, an infant, a mother, a father; a line from the beginning of the universe all the way to its end. The body is a man, a chicken, cauliflower, a cup of milk tea, a cow, grass, water, rain. Qualitatively considered, the body is an undivided wholeness in flowing movement; it cannot be separated from the realm around it, can only be thought thus.
The body considered concretely is a web of contradictions, that I am at once man and chicken; that the chicken is at once itself and its own other, me. I have eaten the chicken, it has become me. The chicken writes these words. They say much the same is possible of a stone, that it might be ground down and consumed; the stone is then conscious: an aspect of my body, of my thought.
This same thought turns now to consider the world beyond it, turns to consider itself; here I find my limits. These limits define me, that by their dissolution I would cease. Some say this is the end of life, it is certainly its end. Lenin will melt away eventually alike with all of us. He will at last return to his mother as all will, as the whole red line of Adam has and must evermore.
There is no exit even at the edges, an end ineluctable waits to consume us all. The beginning and end are one, in this there is an absolute contradiction; such is the nature of existence. Some say there is another, a more principled place; it is nothing but a dream, worse yet a delusion.
There was once a caterpillar that dreamt it was a butterfly, or was it a butterfly that dreamt itself a caterpillar; it was one of these, it was both, neither—what difference does it make?
This dialectic cannot be defined, it must be danced out; and we must dance it out ourselves, that words at best may take our hand to lead us a little while. This way requires a movement from within, cannot be taken by instruction but must be found in play. The dialectic is the play of finite and infinite, being and becoming; a flying fish leaps time and again to revel in the sun. This fish cannot remain aloft, knows as much; neither can we contain in thought its fundament.
There are those that speak of another way, that thought may be transcended; or is it a going under? The way is inward, plainly that, but up or down who knows. There is no up or down, only inward—and which way is that? There are three dimensions, what here the fourth? This is not time, inward is neither ahead nor behind; there must be a fifth dimension. Here the place where we are found in truth, and what is outward then? It is the first dimension and the last.
“If I am successfully understood, my listener will have acquired the benefit that his life will have been made significantly more difficult for him than ever before, and therefore I will not urge anyone to accept this invitation.”
Ilyenkov, The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital.