In ‘Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View’ (1798), an oeuvre featured in my late father’s oak bookcase in Geneva, Immanuel Kant identified various mental skills, including abstraction.
Abstraction is ‘a real act of the cognitive faculty of stopping a representation of which [one is] conscious from being in connection with other representations in one’s consciousness.’ It is ‘[a] far greater faculty than that of paying attention to a representation, because it demonstrates the freedom of the faculty of thought and the authority of the mind, in having the state of one’s representations under one’s control.’
Abstraction single-handedly captures the ability to put things in perspective, to set aside distracting representations, and to focus on what matters when considering a core set of values and objectives. According to Kant, abstraction represents what it takes to achieve self-control and self-determination.
At Ditchley’s 58th Annual Lecture yesterday, The Right Honourable Tony Blair made a remarkable speech I had the chance to attend. He portrayed the Western world as being in an unsustainable situation and at an inflection point, in dire need for a ‘new governing project’ driving both domestic politics and geopolitics, ‘something which gives direction, inspires hope, is a credible explanation of the way the world is changing and how we succeed within it.’ Abstracting will be essential.
Later he said: ‘After ten years of being British PM, and now 15 years of experience working with governments around the world, I have learnt one thing. It’s all about delivery. […] That is what sustains leaders and systems or undermines them. The challenge of democracy is efficacy. The political discourse often makes it all about transparency, honesty, authenticity. These things are important. But they don't beat delivery.’
For now, I propose to add another term to Kant’s vocabulary: extraction. It could be defined as the mental ability to take a voluntary break from abstraction to preserve self-controlled efficacy and delivery in the long-term. I will not miss the opportunity to do so in the coming weeks.