Rectifying Misplaced Concreteness

The fallacy of misplaced concreteness, whereby we mistake an abstract concept to be the concrete reality it points to, can be understood to be both the foundational basis, and exemplary case, of idolatry: it is the first to give birth to the icon and the last to remain upon its death.

Key to note is that misplaced concreteness is not simply a reflective, intellectual exercise that “happens in the head,” but most importantly, it is established as a consequence of a pre-reflective or pre-thematic bodily process based on an “ignorance” or cognitive exclusion of the differences between particular things that do not readily fit into the frame of the general aim under which that process was conducted; the process happens “behind our backs,” as it were, without our knowing it.

Both the fetishism of religious artefacts and the fetishism of commodities are forms of misplaced concreteness, and both are the consequence of a pre-reflective activity driven by ignorance. They both involve a self-estrangement of the mind, where the mind forgets (is alienated from) the fundamental role that it plays (the labor that it expends) in the constitution of its object, while projecting that object out externally as if it had discovered it as naturally existing with the abstract qualities that are imputed upon it rather than it having been fabricated through a complex, socially mediated process of production.

The rectification of this fallacy would involve a (continuous) re-cognition of the role that the mind plays in constituting its objects, not simply at the level of conscious reflection (like in philosophy) but at the level of pre-reflective, pre-thematic embodied praxis. On one level, this can be done individually through basic practices such as mindfulness meditation but also through more advanced, tantric practices like generation and completion stage yoga. These practices help us become deeply intimated with the nature of the mind, how it functions and what role it plays in the constitution of the objects of its awareness.

Yet we would be mistaken to think that only individual practice of this nature would be sufficient. Of course, since the locus of experience is always one’s own mind, individual practice is a necessary condition for the rectification of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness through the extrication of its operating basis from one’s mental continuum. Yet, since the consequence of misplaced concreteness is that the world itself starts to become molded in its image, the operations by which misplaced concreteness constantly reasserts itself is eminently social, economic and even ecological in character. In fact, a world created by misplaced concreteness is a major part of the set of conditions that puts pressure on the individual, at a pre-reflective level, to see things in terms of misplaced concreteness! This vicious circuit of misplaced concreteness re-creating the world in its own image is how it consolidates its own existence and makes it immensely difficult to break free from.

So individual practice, while necessary, is not sufficient for complete emancipation from this fallacious way of experiencing and being in the world. Complete emancipation will have to be a collective, social process, even if, in the last instance, emancipation can only be concretely experienced by oneself.

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