From the Latin abstractio, the concept abstraction is linked to the verb abstraer (to separate the properties of an object through a mental operation, to stop paying attention to the sensible world to focus on a thought). Abstraction, therefore, is one of these actions or their effects.
For philosophy, abstraction is a brain activity that allows us to isolate, on a conceptual level, a certain quality of something with the intention of giving ourselves up to reflecting on it without considering the rest of the properties of the object in question.
When, thanks to these thoughts or the action of comparing between different things, it is noticed that the isolated quality is common to several, the object subjected to abstraction is said to be a universal. The discipline that is dedicated to investigating the existence, or not, of universals separated from their reflection, is metaphysics.
On the other hand, it is known as abstract art, the style that does not try to reproduce the forms of nature or other models, but focuses on the characteristics of the structure, shape and colors of the work itself. This style developed as a kind of opposition to realism and photography.
Within abstract art, it is possible to highlight abstract expressionism, a painting movement that had its origin in the 1940s in the United States. Among its main characteristics, its preference for oil (and not for canvas) and large formats can be noted.
In art, abstraction arises in the 20th century when a new trend begins in which new forms are explored. Until then, works of art imitated nature with its landscapes, people and objects that inhabit it; it was believed that the more a painting resembled reality, the more perfect it was. The abstract painting is based on the elements of nature but not governed by any standard; the artist manifests his inner world and art becomes absolutely subjective. In this period art is characterized by transmitting feelings, using the mixture of unlimited colors and in the same way geometric shapes, in a word, art is liberated.
In 1964, post-pictorial abstraction appeared in the United States, as a successor to abstract expressionism. The first to mention the term was Clement Greenberg, to describe an artistic style that rejected gestures and applied color uniformly, but with no desire to convey a message a priori. Furthermore, painting occupied very large surfaces and should not be justified with ideas or feelings, it was itself its own justification. From this trend, minimalism subsequently emerged, seeking a more basic formal and chromatic approach than previous trends.
Different levels of abstraction
Regarding abstraction as reasoning capacity, it is the one that allows objects to be separated into parts and to understand the essentials of each one. According to Jacques Maritain, to understand the fundamentals of the speculative sciences, it is necessary to investigate the dominance of the sciences in their hierarchy and divisions, which can be differentiated according to the degree of intelligibility (what can be understood) that the objects of knowledge.
For his part, Saint Thomas Aquinas was convinced that intelligibility develops in parallel with immateriality, and that is why things of a material nature are more understandable than spiritual ones; Despite this, the higher questions of knowledge have to do with spiritual knowledge.
Abstraction constitutes a process that develops on three levels:
First degree abstraction: It is known as formal abstraction. It allows to know the mobile and sensitive matter that forms abstract objects and to capture them in a broad way. At this level intelligence understands the essence of the object, its matter (with rare exceptions, all things are made of matter). In ancient times this part of the process was called phisica, that is to say physical.
Second degree abstraction: Known as the abstraction of sensible matter. Analyze the number, quantity, or extent of matter that makes up the object; it is imaginary and necessary to understand how the object works. The difference between this degree and the first is found in the immateriality of the second. It is the world of extension and it is solved through numbers, that is, mathematics.
Third degree abstraction: Known as abstraction of all matter, that which is separated from matter and from the numerical in an object. This level is about “being as such,” that is, about the world of Being and non-material realities, such as spirit. It could be said that this essence takes advantage of matter and its numerical qualities to manifest itself and that this aspect of essence can only be understood through metaphysics.