The Power of Abstract Ideas


No one ever actually drank water. Water is not a real substance. It is a word – a symbol that represents a real substance. (H2O) The same way a map is not the actual territory, nor is it the journey, verbal language is built on abstract representations – symbols that are removed from the actual objects they represent.[1] The words we use to understand ourselves are a kind of economy built on abstract meaning.[2] Each word has a meaning value and collectively words can work together to establish more meaning. While abstractions are symbols that are removed from the objects they represent, this doesn’t mean they have no power to affect our lives.

Abstractions are quite powerful depending on the meaning we assign to them. Some of the things we believe as true are based primarily on a complex structure of meanings that are partially or totally removed from objective reality. For instance; money isn’t money unless we culturally agree to the many abstract notions that make it money. Money is not real because of the physical structure of money. If we made exact replicas of money it would not be considered “real” money, it would be considered counterfeit. Money is “legitimized” as real by beliefs in meaning such as the authority of the issuer of the currency, which is also an abstract notion. Even records of money are also considered money built on mere numbers stored electronically for instance. In order to influence our lives, we must believe in the legitimacy of the abstractions that constitute the value of money. The point is that money (as it exists today) is money only because we agree to call it money and establish a set of standards to legitimize it as money.[3]

Shared meaning within a culture can have a powerful effect on what we experience as life. Think about it; if an economy collapses the same amount of resources exist both before and after the collapse, only the abstract meaning we assign to relationships has changed. By this same principle, we can be deceived into self-destructive acts by the meaning we assign our words. Some of us may allow others to define our value in ways that are destructive to our own state of being. When we examine this economy of meaning closely we see that we are governed by an authority that has only the power that we give to it – even though it can appear that it has authority of its own accord, it is actually us who are the source of that authority.We are the meaning.

We have far more power to define ourselves than we sometimes give ourselves credit for or exercise because we are lost in meanings installed from the outside which can only survive if we give them power. Understanding this fact and learning how to master our own economy of meaning is the real power of abstraction.

[1] Except for perhaps the word “word”

[2] For more information on this, look up the term “semantics”

[3] For more information on this type of cultural phenomena look up the terms John Searle and “collective intentionality”.

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