On Abstract Thought and Feeling Dissuaded

by Geneva Hutcheson, Writing Fellow ’17

I am often impressed by those who think in the abstract rather than concrete. As someone who can only think in the concrete, in language, and, even more specifically, in English, I sometimes feel trapped by words. It will be as though I feel an emotion or conclusion, but when I begin to prod at that feeling, it slips away. It’s like Pandora’s box, and I begin thinking, “No, not that. That is too big a concept; I will have to do something about it later.”

In the back of my head, cold water spills down like some hundreds of half-opened thoughts too big for me to finish, and they remain; under the cold water, they freeze. Sometimes these thoughts come back to me in pieces. I remember last week, walking under the bridge connecting EC to main campus, it occurred to me… something about Ancient Greeks and time (perhaps whether they thought they had magic, or whether, like us, they imagined someone before them had magic and they lost it—although probably not that, as it was something I could not research the answer to). I remember feeling that thought was too big for the linguistic confines of my mind, and then I shut it down. Even after shutting it down, that thought haunted me. It tasted like hope, and in closing myself off from it, I kept myself from feeling something good. Often these thoughts are personal: I may begin to realize there is something off in my life, and then, when that sensation begins, I learn to hold the two things in my head at once, and I close the thought. I tell myself that language is no space for gray area—words are clearly delineated. Meaning can be found, and seldom is the connotation positive and negative.

So, when a friend said that she, an abstract thinker, is frustrated when she can draw a form to show what she means but cannot write or say it, her words took me aback. I assumed that abstraction is freedom. That if only I could escape words, those rotten things, then I would be free to comprehend my emotions, but with comprehension comes a barrier. If you truly understand your own sentiment, if you fearlessly open the box of complex and contrary emotions, of ideas that deserve form but are not concrete, you become isolated. Communication is difficult (that is why Writing and Speaking Fellows exist), but communication of concepts requiring abstraction is even more difficult.

So. How does one communicate ideas that exist beyond language? Perhaps I, a concrete thinker, am not best to attack this problem as I often shy away from the grayer parts of thought. But for the sake of those thoughts I previously discarded, I will consider the problem.

It is true, yes, language has limits. It is the game of language: to find its bends and breaks, to see the gaps between words, the spaces we have not yet reached. So I propose not disentangling the abstract thought—but prodding it like you would a painting (figuratively, of course), or music, or a poem you do not yet understand. Apply a word to that abstract thought. How does that word fit, what does it hide, where does it fail, how can you qualify its failures, and how can you highlight its successes?

Now apply another word to fit between that word and the abstract meaning still hidden. Think of it as a piecemeal process. For me, I quit when I grow frustrated with the words in my head, worse when I must hold all the inadequacies of those words in my head as well. Write those words and their inadequacies down. Write down what works—and what doesn’t.

If you cannot find the words to express the thing, then write down what that thing is not. Perhaps, like music, the meaning will finally arise in the negative spaces.

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