Abstract comes from Latin abstractus: this is the past participle of the verb abstrahere, to draw from, and the elements it is composed of are abs, from, and tractus, drawn. It enters English from lC14 as past participle and then adjective: “[the authors] of whom thys presente cronicle is abstracte” (1475). 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 C15) 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 therefore we are from the Body, . . . the more fit we shall be both to behold, and to indure 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, “Theyr mynde abstract, nat knowynge what they say.” This sense has become common, usually with more or less negative connotations. Charles Dickens talks cheerfully of his “habit of easy self-abstraction” (1867), but abstract 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 eC19 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 offense in British law (the offense with which computer hackers were initially charged).
The OED cites an occurrence of “a noun abstract” by 1398, 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 C17: “Let it be considered whither 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 John 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 abstraction was taken generally as epistemologically fundamental, “the first in order 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. Most Keywords words are abstract nouns of Latin provenance, and come from what Williams calls “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 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” (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 regularly in Keywords to describe this class of word: communications is “the abstract general term” in C19 for “roads, canals, railways.” It is also 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’s treatment of his keywords, critically seen as frequently involving a hardening into abstraction. Progress as “forward movement” has no necessary ideological implication. There is, however, an ideological abstraction of this movement as “a discoverable historical pattern,” linked to similarly abstracted and ideologically deployed formulations of civilization and improvement. Abstract is essential to Culture and Society’s 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,” and Williams used this self-criticism to make an important distinction between ideology and hegemony. Marx attacked “the abstract categories of ‘individual’ and ‘society,’ ” and attacked ideology as “abstract and false thought,” yet 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, 1977).
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, 1840). Abstract and abstraction, indeed, have been key words in arguments over democracy, notably as regards 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). Recent feminist thought has opposed abstract individualism: the masking of individual histories and cultural experiences with “abstract notions of equality” (Marie A. Failinger, 2007). Arguments here crystallize around liberalism, perceived as viewing “individual human beings as social atoms, abstracted from their social contexts” (Marilyn Friedman, 1989).
The first decades of C20 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 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.