In 1893, Lewis Carroll, of Alice in Wonderland fame, imagined a 1:1-scale map in his book, Sylvie and Bruno, and others have riffed on the idea, including Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges and American comedian Steven Wright. Here’s the passage from Carroll:
“And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!”
“Have you used it much?” I enquired.
“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”
Well, actually, it doesn’t do nearly as well, and Borges imagines more of the problem in his 1954 essay, “On Exactitude in Science.”
“In time, . . . the cartographers guilds struck a map of the empire whose size was that of the empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following generations, who were not so fond of the study of cartography as their forebears had been, saw that that vast map was useless, and not without some pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the inclemencies of sun and winters. In the deserts of the west, there are tattered ruins of that map, inhabited by animals and beggars, in all the land there is no other relic of the disciplines of geography.”
The point is that useful maps rely upon a level of abstraction, without which you would have to simply look to the ground in front of you to see what was next, though you would scarcely know where you were. A sense of location would demand context, generalization, and simplification.
The same goes for all theoretical thinking, including science and philosophy. You can’t count each individual phenomenon and person as sui generis (“in a class by itself”), for then you couldn’t speak meaningfully about anything. There were be no adjectives, no collective terms, such as ‘child,’ ‘blue,’ or ‘forest’ – only this thing, that thing, and the other thing, for there is an infinite variety of each. You couldn’t categorize them, respectively, as creatures, colors, or forms of vegetation, for those, too, are abstractions.
Instead of representing all rivers by a uniform blue line on your map, you would need to make the lines wider and narrower depending on the distance between banks in the various sections. But even when you do that, as on the 1:50,000 military topographical maps, such as those we used to study the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War, you still rely on blue to stand for rivers, even though most aren’t so blue. The same goes for maps of Khartoum, Sudan, where the darker Blue Nile, rushing down from the Ethiopian highlands, meets the languid (and muddy) White Nile coming up from flatlands to the south. In a sense, the blue notation is a lie, for neither of the feeder Niles is really blue, but that’s not the point. You don’t need to know the pigmentation of this stretch or that as much as whether or not there’s a river before you, to travel or cross or tap for water.
And so we abstract. But what do we make of the status of those abstractions? And how do they relate to the specifics on the ground? Philosophers speak of these matters in terms of “universals” (general terms) and “particulars” (specific things). Nominalists (name-only people, like Hume) say that universals are just useful fictions. Realists say they’re real, as the name implies. Conceptualists say they’re real, but only as concepts in the mind.
And the breakdown continues: Plato and Aristotle were both Realists, but for Plato, the universals (such as friendship and horseness) were “transcendent,” existing independently in an immaterial realm all their own. For Aristotle, they were immanent, written into the very creatures we see on earth, e.g., horseness in Seabiscuit. And how exactly does this happen? What are the mechanisms for “participation” of particulars in the universals? And what are the proper boundaries of application? When, for instance, does a river become a creek or an estuary?
For my money, conceptualism, with the universals residing in the mind of God, who creates and sustains all the particulars, makes the most sense. And thus one aims to not only “think God’s [propositional] thoughts after Him,” but also to wield in reflection and discourse God’s exalted universals (Imago Dei; anointing) along with his more mundane ones (lamb; sea), and even the dark ones (sin; delusion). Of course, if you don’t believe in God, then things get trickier, more metaphysically daunting. If you take this tack, then, as my daughter says, “Knock yourself out.”