Mental Abstractions

The Primacy of the Abstract is a talk given by the economist F. A. Hayek in 1969. It discusses the relationship between concrete and abstract mental phenomenon. In this post we summarize the main points made in his talk. Here are a few main points:

  • Mental abstractions are the cause of concrete perceptions. In other words, abstractions can exist without concrete percepts, but concrete percepts can’t exist without abstractions.

  • Particular behavioral outputs are the result of many mental abstractions jointly constraining the organism to perform that behavior

  • New mental abstractions cannot be designed in a top-down fashion, and are instead chosen from pre-existing abstractions that are found to be useful

  • The unconscious is more abstracted than the conscious—it is super-conscious.


The phrase primacy of the abstract sounds like a paradox. In a more standard view of the abstract (perhaps one emphasized in mathematics), the abstract arises by finding patterns and generalizing concrete examples. From this perspective the concrete is the primary phenomena from which the abstract is derived.

Hayek takes the contrasting viewpoint: what if those mental constructs (sensations, perceptions, images, etc.) that feel primary, are actually the result of multiple abstract classes “superimposing” together to select a single concrete mental object? Hayek explores the consequences of this framework, ultimately making a compelling case.

In Hayek’s view the abstract is causally primary. The abstract comes before and ultimately creates the low-level percept. He says,

in the mind the abstract can exist without the concrete, but not the concrete without the abstract.

This is certainly not how I tend to think about how my mind works. I imagine that I experience a vast array of particular sensory experiences, and the abstractions that I have developed allow me to classify and operate on them as abstract entities: couch, classical music, addition, etc. From Hayek’s perspective my abstractions are exactly what give my sensory experience any richness, any specification, any particulation. Without my abstractions, everything would appear to me as distinct as television static. The primacy of the abstract also applies to motor output—particular motor outputs are caused by abstract mental entities.

This perspective isn’t as novel or unintuitive as it may seem. In Helmholtzian perceptual inference, a perception is a function of previous (often abstract) knowledge. In linguistics, humans speak according to highly complex grammatical rules, without being consciously aware of them. Hayek shares a passage by Adam Ferguson:

The peasant, or the child, can reason and judge, and speak his language, with a discernment, a consistency, and a regard to analogy, which perplex the logician, the moralist, and the grammarian, when they would find the principles upon which the proceeding is grounded, or when they would bring to general rule, what is so familiar, and so well sustained in particular cases.

The child’s speech output is caused by abstract rules of which the child is not conscious.

Behavior and the abstract

Let’s explore this idea in more detail for the case of behavior. Consider a lion chasing a gazelle. The relative position of the gazelle determines a class of appropriate motor commands for the lion to take. The hardness of the terrain determines a different class of appropriate behaviors, and the health and state of the lion’s leg yet another class. There are other conditions, both in the external world, and in the lion’s internal state, that each constrain the class of appropriate motor commands in different (but overlapping) ways.

How are these constraints represented in the lion’s mind? Hayek thinks of these representations as dispositions, which is an inclination towards certain motor commands. For instance, the representation of the relative location of the prey is a disposition towards motor commands that turn the lion towards the prey. In this way a disposition is an abstract connection between classes of sensory inputs and classes of behavioral outputs. Hayek says:

It will be these capacities to act in a kind of manner, or of imposing upon the movements certain general characteristic adapted to certain attributes of the environment, which operate as the classifiers identifying certain combinations of stimuli as being of the same kind.

In other words, the mind is able to classify particular combinations of stimuli being of the same kind. This is usually how we think of an abstraction: a particular cow and a particular bird are both of the kind “animal”. But Hayek thinks that abstractions, not particular combinations of stimuli, are primary. In his view, it is precisely that an abstraction predisposes the organism to certain kinds of behavior (not a specific one) that give abstractions the capacity to classify particular sensory inputs into abstract kinds.

Another common way to think about an abstraction is as a choice of what to remember and what to forget. From this perspective a disposition is an abstraction because it is a “recognition” of certain features of the environment that excludes particular details. For example, a choice to remember the average slope of the terrain but to forget its color and the nuances of the surface’s texture. Both traditional dispositions (e.g. feelings of love, joy, or frustration) and traditional abstractions (e.g. mathematical concepts) can be interpreted through this lens.

  • Frustration is the inclination to yell, to turn red, to huff and puff. It classifies particular sensory inputs—unexpected traffic, an empty bottle of milk, dirty dishes in the sink—as of the same kind. It is a recognition of a large (infinite) class of states of the world in which you perceive yourself to be slighted.

  • Addition is the inclination to respond to “1+1” with “= 2“. It classifies particular sensory inputs, independent of the particular problem (be it “1+1” or “102 + 43”) and independent of the presentation of the problem (be it oral, written on a whiteboard, or even subconsciously at the grocery store), as of the same kind. It is a recognition of a class of states of the world to which the pattern of addition applies.

Abstractions in the mind

If we believe, in opposition to Hayek, that the concrete is primary, then the following story makes sense:

A newborn experiences a vastness of particulars but has no organizing principles. As she develops, her mind forms abstractions from these concrete experiences.

However, if we believe that the abstract is primary, we must tell an alternate story.

The baby—having few abstractions—does not experience particulars. To her, every visual experience is as uniform and as devoid of detail as static on television. Only by the formation of abstractions does her sensory experience gain richness.

This formation is not intentional. It is not something the mind does, but rather something that happens to her mind. In fact, it creates her mind. Importantly, this means that an abstraction cannot be instantiated top-down, but must be cultivated and nurtured. We don’t generalize from particular experiences, like a commander aggregating the ebbs and flows of a battle and then acting with deliberate precision. Rather, we literally “play” and test out different action patterns. Those that are useful are selected for and so a disposition towards that action pattern emerges. In essence, dispositions to action patterns arise via natural selection.

Abstractions are super-conscious

There is a tendency to think of conscious experience as the highest-order mental formations. Everything unconscious is lower-level and classified as the “sub-conscious”. The primacy of the abstract reverses this narrative. Our unconscious experience is composed of high-level abstractions. Our conscious experience consists merely of the intersection of many such abstractions. In this way, abstractions are really super-conscious, since they govern our conscious experience.

Can we ever be conscious of these higher abstractions? Hayek posits “no”. In order to think about an abstraction, we often pick out a representative from the class to operate on. For example, try to contemplate an abstract animal. When I try this exercise, the animal has particular detail. It’s a mammal with four legs. It’s brown. Without other abstractions to constrain my conscious experience, it is as though my mind has selected a representative from the available conscious experiences constrained by the super-conscious abstraction “animal”.

If at all, we might experience these super-conscious phenomena as our feelings (or perhaps more accurately Gendlin’s felt sense). Feelings are an abstraction already guiding the operation of the system albeit at a super-conscious level. It is no wonder that Hayek uses dispositions to refer to abstractions. By placing importance on abstractions as super-conscious and primary, he also elevates the role of feelings in sense-making and intellectual processing.

The point which the lawyers have yet to learn is that what is ‘felt but not reasoned’ is not, as the word ‘feel’ might suggest, a matter of emotion, but is determined by processes which though not conscious, have much more in common with intellectual than with emotional processes.