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Abstract Ideas: Meaning & Examples

Abstract Ideas: Meaning & Examples

 

What are abstract ideas?

An abstract idea is one that lacks concrete physical details, things you cannot touch but that you know exist.

World peace is something that everyone can understand as a concept but there is no physical object that is “world peace” that they can touch. Human minds tend to think in abstract terms.

This is one of the traits that separates humans from other sentient creatures. We can conceive of things that we cannot touch, smell, taste, hear, or feel!

 

Where does the idea of abstract thought originate?

While humans have been having abstract thoughts for as long as we have existed as a species, it was not until the 17th century that philosopher John Locke very clearly defined the idea of abstract vs. concrete thinking.

Some do draw parallels between Locke’s theories and Plato’s concepts of Forms and Sensibles with the key distinction that Locke’s concept of abstract ideas was intended to describe everyday things and Plato was primarily concerned with academic ideas.

An abstract thought is something that humans can understand as existing but that does not have a material component.

Concrete thinking, therefore, is the inverse.

 

What are some examples of abstract ideas?

The Number Seven

Think of the number seven. You know what seven means and you can apply that understanding to other aspects of your life.

This is an example often used in philosophical discussion to demonstrate abstract vs. concrete thinking is this: most humans, even children, understand that the number seven exists.

We know where it falls in numerical sequence, we know what it means, and we know how to apply the idea.

However, there is no “seven” that we can touch, so the number seven is an abstract concept. In fact, it is arbitrary. It is solely based on human convention and could be called differently.

“Seven” only has a meaning because we humans chose to give it that very meaning. 
When the abstract concept “seven” is turned into a concrete idea its meaning becomes very obvious. 

For instance, with your understanding of seven, you can pull seven pens out of your desk and set them out.

You can count them, touch them, and know that there are seven of them.

You have taken the abstract idea of the number seven and turned it into a concrete idea.
 

Emotions vs Actions

Emotions are another example of abstract thinking. Anyone can tell you that human emotions are very real things. Everyone has experienced being happy at some point in their life.

They can describe how being happy makes them feel but they cannot hand “happy” to someone so that they can experience it with their five senses.

However, the actions that being happy might lead to are not abstract ideas.

If someone is happy, they might smile or laugh or dance.

All of those things can be experienced physically and are not abstract ideas.
 

Compassion, Honor, and Peace

Another way to think of abstract thinking is to look at broad concepts that may have different meanings to different people.

Most ideals such as compassion, honor, and peace are abstract not only because they lack physical forms but because their definitions can differ from person to person without being wrong.
Imagine that there are ten people sitting in a room together. Each person is asked to define what the term peace means.

While there may be similarities in their answers (“no wars”, “an absence of fighting and conflict”, “quiet and serenity”) there is no one single answer that is more correct than the others.
 

Conclusion

While an individual abstract idea might be difficult to define, the concept of an abstract idea is simple. Most things that humans think of begin as abstract ideas before they become concrete.

Humans have a long history of invention, creativity, and complex ideologies that all depend on our ability to engage in abstract thinking.