The Concrete as Paintbrush for the Abstract


Herbert Marcuse

Permit me to reword Marcuse’s quote to tout what I see as a central insight pointing in a direction altogether contrary to the point he was probably trying to make.

But first, a preface!

Those of us who love ideas and cling to them as magnifying glasses, as Marcuse clearly did, tend to embrace them with a particular disdain for the example or the illustration. After all, regardless of how vivid an instance may be, it is just that, a narrow slice of life with questionable credentials for useful understanding of the larger world we aspire to appreciate.

So, it is not surprising that one of my colleagues prided himself on “never having used  an example” while teaching. Extreme?  Sure. But I am pretty sure he would have felt warmly toward Marcuse and anyone else whose preferred intellectual device is the abstraction with its broad reach. My colleague did not wish to misrepresent the robustness of reality by limiting the conversation to a single exaample. And he correctly understood that for most of us the concrete will crowd out the abstract unless we are sensitive to that tendency.

Examples are friendly to our minds. We can see them, feel them, smell and taste them with just a little imagination. Consequently, I do not know about you but were I to be so foolhardy as to run for office, my talking points will always come embedded in a series of stories about Mrs. Yolanda Perez and the valiant veteran, Joeseph Nichols.

I think I have given you enough of a taste of my position that I am now ready to reword Marcuse’s quote as I wish he had said it. After I have done so, I want to provide 2 examples that exemplify what I want to say.


We need not strain to recognize what is defective about illustrations and abstractions as the basis for reliable decisions. The first is harnessed by our perceptual infirmities and severe limits to any claimed typicality; the second is inescapably burdened by the imprecision of our language. Anyone doubting the latter must be very confused when leaders of warring factions repeatedly announce their yearning for “peace” or when opposing Machiavelian political partisans voice fervent fidelity to “transparency.”

  1. Imagine you are a sociologist; you have invested a lot of capital in learning and applying dozens of beloved concepts.  With the best of intentions, you want to share the insights you believe you have gleaned from these ideas with your students.  When I originally decided to read Extraordinary GroupsI did so because I am a huge fan of cultural anthropology. This book promised and delivers in that regard. There are chapters about the Amish, the Mormons, Father Divine, Hutterites, Scientologists, WICCA, and the Oneida community, inter alios. But the authors had much more in mind than an ethnographic visit to fascinating cultural groupings.  Each chapter is USED to introduce and apply a specific idea from Sociology. The book is widely used in college classrooms as well it should be because for my money, it understands how to help learners appreciate ideas in sociology in a much more effective way than the conventional delivery method.
  2. Aristotle saw limited value in teaching ethics. Naming virtues and giving arguments on behalf of honesty, moderation, justice, loyalty, or prudence might move the ethical needle for a few, but he and I see modeling as a much more effective teaching approach. Immersion with the life of an unusually ethical person provides a concrete image, against which ethical dilemmas can be examined. Consequently when I am trying to encourage business ethics, I ask my students to watch Becoming Warren Buffett because he is an inspirational and well-known exemplar of a thoughtful and empathetic human being who happens to approach business decisions in a manner quite foreign to how my students understand business practices in a capitalistic setting. If I am intent on sharing Kant, Mill, Noddings or Rawls ideas with my students, I feel I need Warren Buffett’s life as a backdrop for appreciating those ideas. We need not worship Warren Buffett to recognize that most of us would be a better version of ourselves were we to emulate him in several ways.


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