Brexit: the abstract and the actual

This blog is likely to get a little, well…abstract. But bear with me, please. This is important. Its importance concerns not just philosophy, but also politics. And it’s very important in relation to the Brexit crisis we seem to have found ourselves in.

Michel Serres, the French philosopher who has been a great influence on my thinking over the years, describes, in his book The Five Senses, looking through his window at the effects of the sun twinkling “with a hundred sparkling stars through the moving branches of the wind-tossed apple tree”. He attempts, in words, to describe an actual lived experience. The point he goes on to make is that: “Deprived of all its subtlety, the body, blinded, flees towards the abstract, in painting or in geometry. It invents black and white graphics, colourless and formless concepts, consciousness or demonstration, it escapes into inner worlds.” [p249]

Humanity has always had the problem of capturing the complexity of real lived experiences in such a way that they can be discussed or otherwise communicated to others. Arguably artists, whether they be painters or poets, have faired best in this enterprise, often managing to capture something of their experience that defies explanation. But when it comes to the world of ideas, to complex concepts, the degree of abstraction from the world of actual lived experiences often becomes extreme. And whilst we may think that the concepts that we construct (and we do construct them) are complicated and obscure, they have none of the real complexity of the actual circumstances or events that they refer to.

The problem for philosophy has been that many its most influential proponents (and I’m thinking primarily here of Plato) have regarded this move away from lived experiences towards abstract concepts as a move towards the Truth, as a move towards some timeless and universal essence that is the source and true reference point of all that there is in the world. I would like to think that we have moved well passed this ancient way of thinking, not least because it is the complete opposite of the world as described by modern science, particularly complexity science. But I fear that many residues of this thinking remain.

The problem is best demonstrated by our legal system. We have laws that make certain acts illegal and subject to punishment. These laws have been made in response to the experienced unfairness that people have directly felt over the course of our social evolution when subject the behaviour of others – to theft or assault for example. Our experiences and responses have been codified, they have been turned into abstract concepts such that they can be discussed and re-applied to other, similar circumstances. This is unavoidable if we want to discuss any generalisation – any idea that is wider or more far reaching than an actual event. In fact, due the sheer complexity of even relatively straightforward events, some degree of abstraction is necessary in order to have any meaningful discussion at all. But even codified laws or complicated legal contracts have a degree of ‘actualness’ about them compared to the totally abstract idea of say ‘justice’. At least a contract can be printed, circulated and be subject to debate regarding its meaning.

And so, eventually, to Brexit. Whatever the actual lived experiences of all of us who voted in the 2016 referendum, however we voted, at least those experiences were real – even if I cannot agree with how many of those experiences have been interpreted. But the further we move away from the richness of our lived experiences, the further we move towards the world of “black and white graphics, colourless and formless concepts”, the more we escape into our inner worlds. And these inner worlds, if not repeatedly subject to repeated attempts to be re-applied to the world of lived experience, soon become rarefied utopias of impossible realisation – worlds so mystified and mysterious that even the inhabitants get lost in the fog.

The various Brexit worlds that have formed during and following the referendum often approach becoming such extreme abstract concepts. They have elements, phrases that, in isolation, can be given a degree of meaning, but when taken as whole they have no coherent meaning. They cannot have – they are far too abstract to have any real, actual meaning. As the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid said on the radio this morning (03.12.18): “the truth is that after that referendum no one really knew what type of Brexit it would be”. Nobody could know. It was far too an abstract idea. To have some degree of knowledge of it would require it to gain some degree of actualisation. At least the PM’s ‘deal on the table’ is actual to the degree it can be meaningfully discussed and debated. People can assess, to some degree, how it fits with their own, actual lived experiences. This is a big improvement on the totally abstract option of ‘Leave’ but requires being put to the electorate to approve or reject.