Abraham Maslow, Towards A Psychology of Being (1962)
13. There are substantial differences between the cognition that abstracts and categorizes and the fresh cognition of the concrete, the raw and the particular. This is the sense in which I shall use the terms abstract and concrete. They are not very different from Goldstein’s terms. Most of our cognitions (attendings, perceivings, rememberings, thinkings and learnings) are abstract rather than concrete. That is, we mostly categorize, schematize, classify and abstract in our cognitive life. We do not so much cognize the nature of the world as it actually is, as we do the organization of our own inner world outlook. Most of experience is filtered through our system of categories, constructs and rubrics, as Schachtel has also pointed out in his classical paper on “Childhood Amnesia and the Problem of Memory.” I was led to this differentiation by my studies of self-actualizing people, finding in them simultaneously the ability to abstract without giving up concreteness and the ability to be concrete without giving up abstractness. This adds a little to Goldstein’s description because I found not only a reduction to the concrete but also what we might call a reduction to the abstract, i.e., a loss of ability to cognize the concrete. Since then I have found this same exceptional ability to perceive the concrete in good artists and clinicians as well, even though not self-actualizing. More recently I find this same ability in ordinary people in their peak moments. They are then more able to grasp the percept in its own concrete, idosyncratic nature. Since this kind of idiographic perceiving has customarily been described as the core of aesthetic perceiving, as for instance by Northrop, they have almost been made synonymous. For most philosophers and artists, to perceive a person concretely, in his intrinsic uniqueness is to perceive him aesthetically. I prefer the broader usage and think that I have already demonstrated that this kind of perception of the unique nature of the object is characteristic of all peak experiences, not only the aesthetic one. It is useful to understand the concrete perceiving which takes place in B-cognition as a perception of all aspects and attributes of the object simultaneously or in quick succession. Abstracting is in essence a selection out of certain aspects only of the object, those which are of use to us, those which threaten us, those with which we are familiar, or those which fit our language categories. Both Whitehead and Bergson have made this sufficiently clear, as have many other philosophers since, e.g., Vivanti. Abstractions, to the extent that they are useful, are also false. In a word, to perceive an object abstractly means not to perceive some aspects of it. It clearly implies selection of some attributes, rejection of other attributes, creation or distortion of still others. We make of it what we wish. We create it. We manufacture it. Furthermore, extremely important is the strong tendency in abstracting to relate the aspects of the object to our linguistic system. This makes special troubles because language is a secondary rather than a primary process in the Freudian sense, because it deals with external reality rather than psychic reality, with the conscious rather than the unconscious. It is true that this lack can be corrected to some extent by poetic or rhapsodic language but in the last analysis much of experience is ineffable and can be put into no language at all. Let us take for example the perception of a painting or of a person. In order to perceive them fully we must fight our tendency to classify, to compare, to evaluate, to need, to use. The moment that we say this man is, e.g., a foreigner, in that moment we have classified him, performed an abstracting act and, to some extent, cut ourselves off from the possibility of seeing him as a unique and whole human being, different from any other one in the whole world. In the moment that we approach the painting on the wall to read the name of the artist, we have cut ourselves off from the possibility of seeing it with complete freshness in its own uniqueness. To a certain extent then, what we call knowing, i.e., the placing of an experience in a system of concepts or words or relations, cuts off the possibility of full cognizing. Herbert Read has pointed out that the child has the “innocent eye,” the ability to see something as if he were seeing it for the first time (frequently he is seeing it for the first time). He can then stare at it in wonder, examining all aspects of it, taking in all its attributes, since for the child in this situation, no attribute of a strange object is any more important than any other attribute. He does not organize it; he simply stares at it. He savors the qualities of the experience in the way that Cantril, and Murphy, have described. In the similar situation for the adult, to the extent that we can prevent ourselves from only abstracting, naming, placing, comparing, relating, to that extent will we be able to see more and more aspects of the many-sidedness of the person or of the painting. Particularly I must underline the ability to perceive the ineffable, that which cannot be put into words Trying to force it into words changes it, and makes it something other than it is, something else like it, something similar, and yet something different than it itself. It is this ability to perceive the whole and to rise above parts which characterizes cognition in the various peak experiences. Since only thus can one know a person in the fullest sense of the word, it is not surprising that self-actualizing people are so much more astute in their perception of people, in their penetration to the core or essence of another person. This is also why I feel convinced that the ideal therapist, who presumably should be able as a professional necessity, to understand another person in his uniqueness and in his wholeness, without presupposition, ought to be at least a fairly healthy human being. I maintain this even though willing to grant unexplained individual differences in this kind of perceptiveness, and that also therapeutic experience can itself be a kind of training in the cognition of the Being of another human being. This also explains why I feel that a training in aesthetic perceiving and creating could be a very desirable aspect of clinical training.