Abstract comes from Latin abstractus: abs, from + tractus, drawn. It enters English from late 14c as past participle and then adjective: 1387, “[the authors] from whom thys presente cronicle is abstracte”. With the formation of abstract as a verb, abstracted eventually replaced abstract as participle. The senses of abstract and the noun abstraction (second half of 15c) follow from the Latin etymology, involving ideas of withdrawing, removing, separating from: c1550, “He dois chestee [rebuke] them, be the abstractione of... superfluite”; 1690, “The more abstract we are from the body... the more fit to behold the Rays of the Divine Light”.
Such abstraction could have a more secular context: 1660, “Justice must have abstraction from all affections of love, hate, or self-interest”. It could also refer to mental inattention: 1509, “Their minde abstract, not knowing what they say”. This sense has become common, usually with more or less negative connotations. If Dickens can talk cheerfully of his “habit of easy self-abstraction” (1867), abstraction in Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head (1961) indicates failure of expression or feeling: “she spoke in an abstract tone”; “the abstractedness of his bond [with his lover]”. Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow Line (1917) exemplifies the habitual opposition of abstract and concrete: the command of a ship “is an abstract idea”, which the encounter with its “concrete existence” makes real – “concreting the abstract sentiment”. From early 19c there is a use of abstraction to mean theft: “He robs nothing but the revenue – an abstraction I never greatly cared about” (Charles Lamb, 1828); abstracting electricity is a criminal offence in British law (the offence with which computer hackers were initially charged).
The OED cites an occurrence of “a noun abstract” by1398 and the characterization of certain nouns as abstract, denoting an idea, quality, or state,or concrete, denoting an individual particularity, is established in grammar and logic by 17c: “Let it be considered whether it be a Noun Abstract or Concrete” (Zachary Coke,1653). A similar distinction is made from that time with regard to numbers: “some are said to be abstract, and some concreate” (Thomas Blundeville, 1594). For Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), abstraction is the process “whereby ideas taken from particular beings become general representatives of all of the same kind”. The existence, or not, of such representatives or ‘abstract ideas’ concerned British empiricist philosophers in accounting for knowledge as derived from the senses, and abstractionwas taken generally as epistemologically fundamental, “the first of the scientific processes” (Alexander Bain, The Senses and the Intellect, 1855).
Though abstract is not an entry in Raymond Williams’s Keywords, it is very much a key word in his writing. As to be expected, most Keywords words are abstract nouns of Latin provenance, and are from what Williams will call “the vocabulary of learning and power”. Abstraction could be regarded as a defining human capacity - for Locke “the power of abstracting” marked “a perfect distinction between Man and Brutes” – but also as a social one related to class and education: “the Vulgar have not such Logical Heads, as to be able to Abstract subtile Conceptions” (Robert South, 1690). For George Orwell, “many necessary abstract words” were class-identified and so rejected by the working-class as “public-schoolish” (George Orwell, The English People, 1947). Williams’s stated intention in Culture and Society, from which Keywords derives, was to give people confidence in using such words.
Abstract appears conventionally in Keywords to describe this class of word: communications is ‘the abstract general term’ in 19c for ‘roads, canals, railways’. Though not in that example, itis often distinguished from general: society is “our most general term for the body of institutions and relationships within which a relatively large group of people live” and “our most abstract term for the condition in which such institutions and relationships are formed”. The distinction is important for Williams’ treatment of his key words, critically seen as frequently involving a hardening into abstraction. Progress as ‘forward movement’ has no necessary ideological implication. But there is an ideological abstraction of this movement as ‘a discoverable historical pattern’, linked to similarly abstracted and ideologically deployed formulations of civilization and improvement. Abstract and cognates appear more than four hundred times in Culture and Society, and are essential to its analysis of modes of thought abstracted from a society’s “whole way of life” - thinking not governed by attention to social reality and historical process leads “very quickly to abstraction and unreality”. Culture and Society itself was later faulted by Williams for “a degree of abstraction from history”, making an important distinction between ideology and hegemony. If Marx attacked “the abstract categories of ‘individual’ and ‘society’”, attacked ideology as “abstract and false thought”, Marxism could itself fall too easily into abstraction. Hegemony goes beyond “abstracted ideology”, refuses “to equate consciousness with the articulated formal system which can be and ordinarily is abstracted as ‘ideology”’, and understands “a wider area of reality than the abstractions of ‘social’ and ‘economic’ experience” (Williams, Marxism and Literature).
Tocqueville noted a predilection for “abstract expressions” in “democratic languages”, and a tendency “to sublimate into further abstraction the abstract terms of the language”: “an abstract term is like a box with a false bottom: you may put in it what ideas you please” (Democracy in America, trans. H.Reeve, 1838). Abstract and abstraction, indeed, have been key words in arguments over democracy, notably as regards questions as to its dependence on abstracting from the concrete realities of the individuals within it - democracy as “a dense abstract mass of somebody elses” (Wyndham Lewis, 1927). Demands for women’s suffrage, for instance, could be opposed by women because of their appeal to a collective – abstract - identity ‘women’. Recent feminist thought has opposed abstract individualism: the masking of individual histories and cultural experiences with “the abstract notions of equality that have fuelled change in Western countries” (Marie A. Failinger, 2007). Arguments here crystallize around liberalism and the effects of its perceived basis in a view of “individual human beings as social atoms, abstracted from their social contexts” (Marilyn Friedman, 1989).
The first decades of 20c saw an important concern with abstraction in literature and art. “Go in fear of abstractions” - poetic images “should be ‘concrete’” (Ezra Pound, 1913); this at the same time as the emergence of abstract art, or art moving away from figurative traditions. OED has an instance of abstract painting from 1851, then abstract canvas, 1915; abstraction as opposed to realism, 1909; and abstract expressionism, 1922. Abstract here indicates a crisis of representation, running parallel in this with arguments about political – democratic - representation. On the one hand, there is a movement against abstraction, for a language of the concrete in place of a worn-out language of “abstract counters” (T.E.Hulme, 1909); on the other, abstraction is presented as a throwing off of conventional forms, a struggle for new vision, new language (Virginia Woolf wants a cinema of ‘abstractions’, 1926; and she attempts in To the Lighthouse “the most difficult abstract writing”, 1927).
The history of abstract shows not so much substantial shifts in meaning as shifts in the value attached to Locke’s “power of abstracting”. This is evident in the ways in which the last two hundred years or so have seen the word given both negative and positive values; this above all in thinking about the individual and society, rights and equality – the very focus of Keywords and of Williams’s work overall.