The Nature of Abstractions: Dealing With Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis, Dualisms, and Golden Means
There are a few theories that deal with the nature of abstractions including: Dialectics and the Golden Mean theory. We offer a “synthesis” of these theories.
An Introduction to the Dialectic Method and the Golden Mean Theory as it Relates to Abstraction
Our main goal will be to use the “the art of abstraction” (the dialectic method, the related golden mean theory, and other related theories) to create “paradigms” that can illustrate positions on key concepts (terms) related to “the basic categories of human understanding” in “the social, political, economic, and other spheres.”
Or, in other words, we will take a single thesis (take the 1), abstract an antithesis (abstract the 2), find a golden mean between (find the 3), then consider the spectrum of possibilities created from this (and then define the resulting fractal using categorization).
This exercise in logic and reason will help us to better understand and compare terms, especially in metaphysics and the social sciences where we are dealing with abstract thoughts rather than physical objects (all though we can apply it to both the physical and metaphysical and everywhere in between).
To do this we’ll use a synthesis of Hegelian Dialectics (his concept of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis based on Plato’s Dialectic), Plato’s Dialectic (his concept of logic and skepticism in general, but specifically his concept of non-being, being, and becoming AKA change and difference; or, more simply, his concept of drawing contradictions from definitions), Aristotle’s Golden Mean Theory (which shows the “mean between” two antitheses abstracted from a single thesis; generally applied to virtue theory), and other related theories that deal with dualities (including other theories from Plato and Aristotle; Aristotle’s categories for example, this is all an aspect of “the Categories“).
Or, in the words of the Tao:
When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.
Being and non-being create each other.
[and knowing this we can practice the arts of abstraction, deduction, induction, combining, comparison, contradiction, etc either starting with the empirical and working up to the metaphysic, or starting with the metaphysic and working down to the empirical]
In plain english, we’ll explain how to find the antithesis of any term that has one (not all terms are of the same “category”) and make tables like the one’s below to find both sides of an argument, to better define principles, to categorize knowledge, to find desirable means, and then to induce or deduce more information (helping us to better understand causes, effects, reactions, and change).
Simple Hegelian Paradigm Example Pertaining to the “Physical” Category Height:
|Concept||Difference||Opposite of the Concept|
|Ex. Short||Average Height||Tall|
Simple Golden Mean Paradigm Example Pertaining to Physical Height:
|Thesis||Antithesis of Deficiency||The Golden Mean||Antithesis of Excess|
|Concept||Antithesis 1||Synthesis||Antithesis 2|
|Ex. Height||Short||Average Height||Tall|
TIP: Imagine a conversation about height. One person in the conversation only knows tall, they have no concept of short, thus they have no concept of average height. We cannot have a proper conversation with this person unless we “enlighten them”. We can’t force enlightenment, so we instead will use questions to force them to abstract the concept of short from height. We can then, with short and tall defined, have a conversation about the ideal average height. By taking the thesis of height, and then abstracting short, average height, and tall, we have created a space in which we can properly deal with the concept of height. That simple physics example hardly needed to be said, but when we move onto concepts like moral goodness or justice, the tactic will be vital to understand. See Plato’s Theory of Forms for some related thinking.
The Logic Behind Abstractions and Dualities: Hegelian Dialectics and Greek Dialectics
The logic works like this:
Dialectic: Dialectic is the name given to the study of abstractions and dualities. It is the discourse between two or more points of view (a thesis and antithesis), which creates at least one “third” balanced point (a synthesis). Those are Hegel’s terms, but the general theory can be understood in Plato’s terms, in Aristotle’s terms, in Taoist terms, in Hegel’s terms, or other terms (although it can, we are going to “synthesize” all of these theories).
Clarifications: The concept can be applied in a variety of ways to find new concepts, or to find hidden truths, or to find contradictions with logic and show falsehoods. With that in mind, we’ll start with the Hegelian Dialectic (the philosophy of the duality of thesis and anti-thesis). The Hegelian form seeks to find truths, not to solely to draw out a contradiction or inconsistency like Socrates would have done with his questioning in Plato’s dialogues (from which the concept originates in the West).
Hegelian Dialectic + (Hegelian Dialectic with a few considerations): A thesis, gives rise to its reaction, an antithesis. The antithesis then contradicts or “negates” the thesis. Then, the tension between the two is resolved by means of a synthesis (a mean or balance). This is a simple version of what is really happening and is more useful when paired with other theories, but it is a great starting point.
Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis, Abstraction
Thesis: A thesis is any concept. So let’s use the example liberty (one of the two main theses or virtues behind the political ideologies Democracy and Liberalism, liberty and equality; we could easily use a physical and not conceptual thesis, or a thesis from any sphere of human understanding, we just aren’t here).
Antithesis: At least one anti-thesis can be abstracted from any thesis. So for liberty, an equal opposite is anti-liberty AKA authority. In cases where we are unsure of an opposite, it may be that we are dealing with two or more opposites. For example, from the concept individualism we can create the paradigms “individualism vs. anti-individualism” and “individualism vs. collectivism” (where anti-individualism is not “exactly the same” as collectivism, but both are “opposites” of individualism).
Synthesis: Once we have a thesis and anti-thesis we can abstract one or more syntheses. The synthesis of the ideology of liberty (liberalism) and the ideology of authority (conservatism) is what we can call Republicanism (it is an ideology that appreciates order and authority, liberty and equality, it seeks a mixed form of temperance). For another example if we have truth and anti-truth (AKA a lie), then in the middle we have half-truth. We can then look at types of half-truths to see there is a spectrum of possibilities. There is at least white lies and blue lies, and from a more broad perspective there is concepts like lies of omission and commission, and misinformation, disinformation, marketing, etc.
Abstraction: In this sense, abstraction is the art of deducing antitheses and syntheses from theses (or of deducing theses and anti-theses from syntheses; any term can be a starting point once we have defined it). Beauty creates ugly, and we can call the root thesis beauty (so that works with our dialectics and semantics). However, short and tall are both abstractions of the concept of length (here length is a sort of thesis, and both short and tall are both antitheses, and at best a synthesis is simply middle-size). This brings us to the Golden Mean theory of Aristotle and the idea of spheres, first some notes on the above.
Complexity and Notes Before Moving on
Adding Complexity: One reason we want to pair Hegel’s theory with other theories is that we can abstract more than one type of antithesis and synthesis from a thesis. Thus, things are a little more complex than just “negating” or just “being an opposite” or just “being a difference”. The more complex the starting term, the more ways we can go with this. Consider the thesis collectivism, anti-collectivism is its opposite, but individualism illustrates a difference. A strict theory might say we should only consider individualism, but our theory wants to find all opposites of a thesis and consider each. Likewise, we want to find all shades in between (even if we do this by defining a single term). More on that below.
Notes on Dialectics and Socialism: This concept is used in Socialist philosophy, for example by Marx. Marx’s Dialectics start with empirical concepts, and Hegel’s start with ideas. Marx thought Hegel was wrong to consider metaphysics (in the fashion of Plato’s forms) as real. I personally think Marx was missing a giant part of the whole theory I am putting down, but to each their own. We will kindly borrow both theories (as they are, for me, mutually dependent; i.e. we can and must move from metaphysics to physics and back again, even if we have to trade between the formal and material) and consider theses of physics, logic, ethics, and morality (crossing forks between these categories of knowledge whenever we can). I suggest you don’t let the proximity of dialectics and Historic Materialism (the theory behind Communism) throw you off. Each philosopher uses this fundamental truism to their own ends. The general concepts works for most any concept (after-all it is a theory of concepts, not politics). Dialectics is all about finding “extreme opposites” or “polar opposites” to define “the bounds” of a concept and to detect middles (or defining middles and working back to find extreme opposites, as we’ll see with the Golden Mean; i.e. we will use analysis and synthesis in our theory of abstractions). Socialism is a rejection of the system that came before it, so it is an anthesis in action, likewise liberalism was an anthesis of the system before it (this is only one of many levels we can apply these ideas).
Notes on Plato’s Being, Not Being, and Becoming (Difference): Before getting back into Hegel, I want to introduce Plato’s related theory (as it comes before even Aristotle’s). In Plato’s Sophist (and other works like the Republic) he lays the groundwork for Hegelian Dialectics. Plato’s definition is good, but very broad (he uses the metaphor to explain not only how to abstract, but how to argue). For our purposes the theory works best when we synthesize Plato’s theory with the others. For Plato, being and not-being are used as the main examples of a thesis and antithesis (in a larger discussion of categorizing knowledge and knowing truths). For Plato, Being (that which is), Not-Being (a state of not being that which is), and becoming (AKA “difference”) are our thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Plato eludes that being and not-being are not true opposites or contradictions, but rather two related states that together form a duality. This is just another way to look at the same concept already presented, but notably, this is the tactic Plato’s Socrates uses to argue (he detects a thesis and then makes the other person in the conversation abstract an antithesis via a line of questioning, so they can discuss a synthesis, a “golden mean” of sorts… which leads to more questions). With that in mind, let’s move on to Aristotle’s Golden Mean theory.
TIP: We can muse, “did the egg come first or the chicken?” Or, we can take the taoist approach and consider Yin and Yang as two parts of a whole. Figuring out order of existence is a different subject. Likewise, we can easily consider the nothingness out of which something comes to be a “a thing”. When we move from being to not being we the changing of states is a difference. We can use this analogy to look at truth, things are either true or not, or we can move from “not knowing” to “knowing”… but these are all side conversations.
Spheres and the Golden Mean Theory
Spheres: Any of these models can exist in what we can call spheres. This is like the overarching subject that we are consider the dialectic paradigm in. For example we can consider left-right social issues, in the political sphere, and then consider a liberty paradigm in the liberty “sphere” (by placing a paradigm in a sphere it helps give it context and meaning). That will make sense in one second when we look at the Golden Mean theory.
The Golden Mean Theory: The Golden Mean theory of Aristotle accounts for what the simpler theory above does not, although there is still some complexity to consider beyond this. Aristotle defined vice and virtue as: vice is an excess or deficiency (not one, but two extremes) of virtue, and virtue is the mean between two accompanying vices that exists within a “sphere of action”. For example, in the sphere of “getting and spending”, “charity” is the virtuous mean (the balance) between “greed” and “wasteful extravagance”. If we inherit a fortune, this simple theory tells us that virtue isn’t found in hoarding or wasteful spending, but in a charitable moderation. Thus, if we can define a sphere of action, vice, or virtue we can use this model to fill in the blanks and detect the correct moral behavior. Likewise, we can apply this method to spheres outside of morality (such as governments; see an essay on the types of governments for examples)…. and that is exactly what we are doing here. Ignore the virtue theory for a second, and consider our concept of liberty again (in the charts below).
How is the mean theory like dialectics? If we start with a deficiency or excess (an extreme), we can call it a theses and then detect the anti-thesis and then the “mean” is our synthesis. So in that way the Golden Mean and Dialectics are synonymous. However, if we treat our “sphere of action” as the thesis, then we can say we have derived two extreme opposites from a single thesis, and thus the Golden Mean considers an extra element. I am of the mind that the Golden Mean is the best theory for some terms, and binary dialectics the best for other terms. In other words, they aren’t as “different” as they are two ways to look at the same sorts of problems. By looking at a given problem in more than one way we get different “frames of reference” and avoid overly simply conclusions.
Binary example: To bring things back to “simple” for a second: In binary things are either on (1) or off (o) or on/off (01). This is a simple dialectic and simple golden mean, two extremes and one mean, and from that we can create everything we create with computers. There is infinite possibilities between on and off, but we can use just three terms as a foundation.
A Thesis Sphere Example (one of many ways to illustrate this using semantics and symbols):
|Sphere of political action (Thesis)||Conservative Right-Wing (Antithesis of Deficiency)||The Left-Right Balance (Golden Mean / Synthesis)||Liberal Left-Wing (Antithesis of of Excess)|
|Liberty||Favors Authority (Classical Conservatism) – Not Enough liberty. Deficiency of Liberty.||Balanced Liberty||Favors Freedom (Classical Liberalism) – Too much liberty. Excess of liberty.|
|Equality||Favors Individuals (Social Conservatism) – Not enough equality. Deficiency of Equality.||Balanced Equality||Favors Collectives (Social Liberalism) – Too much equality. Excess of equality.|
Paradigms and charting qualities: We can call each row of the charts above a paradigm, these paradigms can then be compared and plotted on tables and charts and the tables and charts themselves can then be analyzed and synthesized.
Terms, Qualities, Properties, and Virtues: All the factors above, in any of their forms, can be called qualities, properties, terms, or virtues (these are all semantic names for elements of a system).
Paradigms and AntiThesis and Synthesis Paradigms: We can then use the above terms to create an “antithesis” paradigm (where in this example we place our Thesis/Antithesis of Deficiency in its own paradigm. You can see how this takes a concept that would be very hard to visual in our heads and turns it into a nice little chart that we can use as a model/a theory.
An AntiThesis Sphere Example:
|SPHERE OF ACTION||Not Conservative Enough / Too Liberal||The Liberal-Conservative Mean||Overly Conservative / Not Liberal Enough|
|Authority||Overly Liberal||Correct Authority||Overly Authoritative|
|Hierarchy, Order, and Tradition||Extreme equality||Correct Hierarchy, Order, and Tradition||Extreme Inequality|
Our Synthesis in the paradigms above as a concept: Each of the “sphere of action” boxes above can be treated as a thesis, and then each single thesis gets two synthesis (a two-way abstraction), and then our “mean” or “balance” boxes can be treated as a synthesis (alternatively we can consider one of the antitheses a thesis, the other an antithesis, and ignore the sphere). Looking at things this way is more complex than a simple abstraction, but it is much more useful in cases where there is simply more than one extreme of a single concept. We can then pair syntheses to do something really magical. We can abstract or synthesize from this a good ideology, we can from this distill Republicanism from the terms liberty, equality, authority, and Hierarchy, Order, and Tradition with more confidence. We can also see how the syntheses Socialism and Fascism (the extreme responses to liberalism) arose as antitheses reacting to the inequality of the liberal state with extreme equality and extreme authority respectively (TIP: The reality is if you really want to get the political theory behind this this you should check out our page on left-right, this is just laying some groundwork with examples here; we consider maybe 30 different paradigms on our left-right page to examine real in-action political ideologies, and even that list isn’t exhaustive).
Moving Forward: Using Charts and Adding Complexity
Creating spectrums: If we have one position, we can abstract its antithesis, if we have that (with most terms) we can find at least a single mean. However, for more complex terms we can define a large range of means. This range of means is a spectrum! When we compare many related paradigms within a bounded system, we can end up with many complex and related spectrums to consider (this is how it is with left-right). From the simple, arises the complex and we can use analysis to help us move between systems and their properties, simple and complex.
Adding Complexity: So if we use Hegel’s theory and Aristotle’s theory together (sometimes only using one, sometimes applying both as needed) we get a really workable foundation, but there are a few extra notes. First off, to restate this, there is not a finite number of antitheses or syntheses that can be abstracted, and there isn’t really a rule that says we can’t consider mixes in a sort of complex metaphysical alchemic mix. Again, with the example about, if we start with “individualism” we will probably end up abstracting a number of different paradigms, some will be Hegelian, most will be golden means, but we will end up with multiple paradigms (of different types!) to consider. However, when we chart them, even these complex things really end up being pretty simple to work with. What is so hard about looking at the tables above? Nothing, then we just plot them on an XY axis and compare. Like this:
Empirical “cheating” and the spheres of human understanding: We can’t touch a liberty, but we can use the process above to find shadows of it on the cave wall. If we know the properties of a thing, we can know a thing, even if we can’t hold it in our hands. When we know properties we can predict reactions, when we know reactions, we can detect properties (we can use analysis and synthesis, deduction and induction). We can both take the empirical and build a “backwards ladder” to better understand logical, ethical, and metaphysic concepts, and we can take intangible concepts and engineer a “forwards ladder” too (taking moral principles and looking for physical, logical, or ethical manifestations). Semantics: Maybe the are both “backwards ladders”, that is just a metaphor anyway.
NOTES: The “four fundamental principles [or spheres, or categories] of human understanding” are: physical (empirical, what is), logical (reason, logic-and-ethics in-thought), ethical (morals-and-ethics in-action), and metaphysical (pure metaphysic morals, or pure philosophy, what should be). When we consider theses, we generally must consider a these that relates to one or more of these categories. We can then consider mixes, for example economy is a mix of the physical and logical spheres, but has ethical implications. If I consider liberty in the economic sphere, it is different than considering liberty in the moral sphere. We hardly need every qualifier noted above to reason simple abstractions… but when you dive into things like left-right politics, you are forced to consider categories, spheres, and other sorts of relations.
Hume’s fork and Kantian Relations: From here it helps to understand different aspects of how things relate to each other. Immanuel Kant laid the “groundwork” for understanding relations between theses in the categories of understanding (or well, the Greeks laid the groundwork, Kant laid the modern groundwork). If you get the basics of Hume’s fork, and then consider how we can relate that beyond just the physical and logical, then you’ll get the basics of how we can understand the relations between concepts (relations like contingent and necessary). That in itself is an essay, so check our our page on Hume’s Fork.
So the above isn’t perfect, but what I haven’t said the Tao, the Greeks, and the Enlightenment philosophers basically have already (so its as simple as reading all the history of philosophy and synthesizing it; :D).
Anyway, with the idea that this page needs refinement in mind, we can say.
- Take a single concept (a thesis).
- Then one or more anti-theses can be abstracted (an extreme of excess and deficiency within a single paradigm, or even multiple Hegelian or Aristotelian paradigms that mix spheres and have complex relations for a single term).
- From the anti-theses, one or more syntheses can be made (consider there is infinite fractal dimensions, theoretically between the numbers 0 and 1; that is the “change” Plato and Aristotle talked about, the “difference” between being and not-being, we can express this in logic as 0 and 1 and physics as the nature of particle physics; a golden mean can be expressed as “01”, but the reality is there are infinite terms between (0…1) (see also fractal dimensions and how quantum physics works).
- We can display our above findings as paradigms, denoting the categories in which these paradigms exist, and considering other spheres and complex relations. This helps give a visual model.
- We can than compare, contrast, analyze, and synthesize paradigms, creating charts, comparing charts, and synthesizing that.
- We can use this to learn more about incorporeal forms from the four areas of human understanding. Where we can’t have certainty, for example in the ethical and metaphysics spheres, we can approximate and use analogies. We don’t have to know something for 100% certain to have useful knowledge that works… that is sort of what the whole scientific method is about.
TIP: A good example of that semi-word salad is our theory on left-right politics, as we essentially use this method to define what I consider to be a fairly upstanding left-right spectrum. Want to see another example of what this sort of thinking can create? We use it liberally on our site, so there are many examples, but see “Progressive Centrism” for a specific example.
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- What are some examples of dialectical thinking?