Abstraction

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Abstraction is the process or result of generalization by reducing the information content of a concept or an observable phenomenon, typically to retain only information which is relevant for a particular purpose. For example, abstracting a leather soccer ball to a ball retains only the information on general ball attributes and behaviour. Similarly, abstracting happiness to an emotional state reduces the amount of information conveyed about the emotional state. Computer scientists use abstraction to understand and solve problems and communicate their solutions with the computer in some particular computer language.

In philosophical terminology, abstraction is the thought process wherein ideas are distanced from objects.

Abstraction uses a strategy of simplification, wherein formerly concrete details are left ambiguous, vague, or undefined; thus effective communication about things in the abstract requires an intuitive or common experience between the communicator and the communication recipient. This is true for all verbal/abstract communication. Something as simple as a newspaper might be specified to six levels, as in Douglas Hofstadter's illustration of that ambiguity, with a progression from abstract to concrete in Gödel, Escher, Bach (1979):

(1) a publication

(2) a newspaper
(3) The San Francisco Chronicle
(4) the May 18 edition of the Chronicle
(5) my copy of the May 18 edition of the Chronicle
(6) my copy of the May 18 edition of the Chronicle as it was when I first picked it up (as contrasted with my copy

as it was a few days later: in my fireplace, burning)

An abstraction can thus encapsulate each of these levels of detail with no loss of generality. But perhaps a detective or philosopher/scientist/engineer might seek to learn about some thing, at progressively deeper levels of detail, to solve a crime or a puzzle.

Bibliography

  • Eugene Raskin, Architecturally Speaking, 2nd edition, a Delta book, Dell (1966), trade paperback, 129 pages
  • The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd edition, Houghton Mifflin (1992), hardcover, 2140 pages, ISBN 0-395-44895-6
  • Jung, C.G. [1921] (1971). Psychological Types, Collected Works, Volume 6, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-01813-8.

See also