12 February 2013


Abstraction is a necessary process in human thought.

Abstraction literally means “from-pulling.” The human mind pulls information from a source. Let us take an example:

I am in a room looking at a table, which has some cheese on it. My mind is directed towards the cheese on the table and is picking up the visual sense data. Of course, the mental representation in my head contains far more information than the simple fact that the cheese is on the table: for instance, I know that the table is round not rectangular. Yet, using some principle of selection, plus pre-existing concepts in my mind (cheese, on-ness, table), I can abstract that single piece of information, namely, the cheese is on the table. And using linguistic terms which correspond to the concepts in my mind, I can form the proposition: “The cheese is on the table.”

The proposition, “The cheese is on the table.” is an abstraction from a perception. It is, by necessity, quite different from its source, even if it is dependent on its source for its existence and truth value. Let us look at three points:

1. The abstraction is based on the exclusion of information (e.g. the table is round). The decision of what to include in the proposition depends on a principle external to both the observation and statement.

2. The abstraction relies on concepts (e.g. cheese,on-ness, table), which are external to the observation.

3. The statement, “The cheese is on the table.” can be understood but not accurately visualised by a listener or reader. He knows what the proposition means, but he cannot visualise a table without knowing its shape, colour, etc.

Secondary abstraction

Secondary abstraction involves the extraction of information from one statement and the creation of another. A simple example would be: “The Gouda cheese is on the round table” and deriving “The cheese is on the table.”

7 February 2013

Conversations with Stalin by Milovan Djilas

Milovan Djilas gave us a clear-sighted assessment of the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin.

Conversations with Stalin, originally published in English in 1961, is a wonderful piece of literary memoir and political analysis, which is still valuable reading over a half century after its appearance.

Milovan Djilas (1911-1995) was one of the four high-ranking communist leaders of the Yugoslav Communist Party, whose partisans overthrew the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia. At the end of the Second World War the establishment of a communist state in Yugoslavia did not wholly fit with Stalin’s plans for two main reasons. First Stalin feared that the early appearance of communist states in eastern Europe would unsettle the West and risked sparking a conflict; and second, Stalin feared the development of centres of communist power, which remained outside his control.

Starting from a naive and idealistic appreciation of Stalin, Djilas recounts his several visits to the Soviet Union to negotiate with Stalin and the Soviet government. He tells of his exhilaration as his plane flies over Soviet territory for the first time, then recounts his experiences and how his initial enthusiasm is dimmed by an accumulation of events.

Of most interest are his vivid accounts of meetings with Stalin and his foreign minister and sidekick Molotov. Djilas describes the aura of submissiveness and adoration that surrounds the old man, along with Stalin’s theatrical explosions of outrage (e.g. when Djilas complains about the behaviour of the Red Army in northern Yugoslavia) and his indulgence of his guests at alcohol-saturated dinner parties.

The book concludes with a brief assessment of Stalin, his crimes and achievements, and pointing out how Stalin’s legacy continued to affect his successors.

For writing this memoir, Djilas was imprisoned in Yugoslavia for betraying state secrets, though the only secret of substance communicated in the book is, in effect, Stalin’s offer that Yugoslavia could “swallow up” Albania in exchange for political and economic subservience to Moscow.

DJILAS, Milovan, Conversation with Stalin, Pelican 1969

1 February 2013

ROSTEN, Leo - The Joys of Yiddish

Penguin 1968

This is definitely a book to have on the bedside table and to dip into from time to time rather than something to read from beginning to end. The combination of language instruction, cultural etymology and humour sustain the interest.

Rosten's claim that Yiddish is a language which is better than any other at expressing the emotions must remain suspect. Is it really the case that Swedes or Greeks are less able to bend and inflect their languages to express what they really feel? Nonetheless, it is possible that Rosten is right in arguing that Yiddish has a disproportionally large vocabulary to express types of human behaviour.

Rosten probably also makes the mistake of exaggerating the extent to which Yiddish has penetrated the English language, or British English at least. Words like kosher, glitch, schmuck may have made it, but the vast majority are not even understandable. (Some, though, are identical or similar to German and can be understood that way)

Before Zamenhof published Esperanto in 1887, he had worked out a simplified version of Yiddish written in the Latin alphabet which he intended to be used as a lingua franca. Had that language taken off, had the Holocaust not happened and had Israel not adopted modern Hebrew as its state language, the role Yiddish plays today might be so much greater.