The great Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert Lewis Dabney has been mentioned a number of times on this site. It is a very telling indication of our times that such a visionary man is so little known, and usually slandered when mentioned at all. You can find the entire collection of his written works at the Dabney Archive, all of which are well worth reading. However, such a massive undertaking can be a bit overwhelming, and so on Sundays I have begun posting bite-sized excerpts from Dabney’s works with perhaps a little bit of my own commentary. This will be done in hopes of promoting wider readership for this great man. You can find links to all the previous “Dabney on Sunday” posts at the bottom of this post.
The following excerpt is taken from an article Dabney wrote for the Presbyterial Critic, published in June 1855 and entitled “Abstractionists“:
There are two ways at reasoning about human affairs. One is, to bring measures to the test of fundamental principles, and abide by their decision firmly. The other is, to inquire: “What is the dictate of policy, of expediency, of present utility?” There are two classes of minds in the world: the speculative, and the practical. The former seeks to analyze its objects of thought, to arrive at ultimate truths, and from those truths, to deduce its practical conclusions. The other only considers propositions, in the light of their practical consequences as perceived by itself. The former looks at general laws: the latter at immediate results.
Now the latter class of ‘people have applied to the former, in these days of ours, a name, which is at least new in its present sense: abstractionists. . . . An abstraction, properly understood, means, a proposition considered as naked and general, stripped of all the accidental circumstances which belong to any individual case under it. But the idea which some of those seem to have, who use the word as a term of contempt, is that it is just something which is abstruse. Those who know what they mean by it, if there are any such, probably intend by abstractions, speculative principles, as opposed to practical conclusions. . . .
The term is intended to be one of contempt. It is supposed to describe something uncertain, vague, devious, sophistical: as opposed to that which is positive, sensible and reliable. The “abstractionist” is represented as a man, fanciful and unreliable; who pursues the intangible moonshine of metaphysical ideas, until he and his followers “wander, in devious mazes lost.” . . .
And we assert, as an offset to this reproach, that no truths can be general, except those which are abstract: for by the very reason that concrete propositions are concrete, they must be particular, or individual; and therefore no deduction made from them, can have any certainty when it is attempted to give it a general application. The concrete is best for illustration, but for general reasoning it is useless: and all gentlemen who are accustomed to boast, that they are not “abstractionists,” thereby confess that their arguments are only illustrations. . . .
For every man of information ought to know, that abstractions are the most practical things in the world. His reading ought to remind him how directly the most abstract truths have led on to the most practical conclusions; how inevitably they work themselves out into practical results, and how uniformly the most practical truths depend for their evidence on those which are abstract. There is no branch of human science, which does not teem with illustrations of this. . . .
Latent caloric strikes us as a rather abstract thing: a something which no human nerve ever has, or ever will feel, and which the most delicate thermometer does not reveal. And about this shadowy something, a very shadowy proposition has been proved by your contemptible abstractionists: namely, that in certain cases, sensible heat becoming latent, increases elasticity. This is the abstraction which revealed to mankind the secret steam engine; and which now propels our boats, spins our cloths, grinds our flour, saws our lumber, ploughs the ocean with our floating palaces, whirls us across continents in the rail-cars, and sometimes scalds or cripples us by the score. A rather practical thing, is this abstraction. . . .
Or, let us take illustrations from the moral sciences. . . . Whether what we call causation is a real and necessary connexion, or merely an observed sequence of events, is a very abstract question: but it makes all the difference between a God and no God: yea, all the difference between the blessings, civilization, wholesome restraints and happiness of religion, and the license, vice, atrocity and despair of Atheism. Indeed your thorough Atheist, is the only true and consistent anti-abstractionist. . . . Can human merit be imputed to another human being, in God’s government, as it is in man’s? “A very useless, unpractical question,” you say. “I don’t care to speculate in such unsubstantial merchandise.” Well, from the affirmative answer to that question Thomas Aquinas deduced the grand system of Papal Indulgences. Here is an abstraction out of which grew a good many important matters: such as a good many millions of crowns transferred out of the pockets of good Catholics, into those of “his Holiness the Pope”;—the zeal of Luther against Tetzel, and thence the Reformation—with English liberty and through that, American; with a good many other very practical affairs. . . .
But the serious and lamentable point about all this decrying of abstractions is, that where it is intelligently and deliberately uttered, it is thoroughly profligate. What is it all, but a demand that principle shall give way to expediency? All the principles of morals, in their last analysis, are abstractions. The distinction between right and wrong is an abstraction, as pure and disembodied as was ever presented by metaphysics. And in short, the difference between an honest man and a scoundrel, is but this: that the former is governed by a general principle, which is an abstraction, in opposition to the present concrete prospect of utility; while the latter is governed by his view of present expediency, in opposition to the general principle. What else do we mean by saying that a man is unprincipled? In the eyes of such a man, the restraints of a constitution which he has sworn to support, are abstractions, whenever they seem to oppose the present dictates of expediency. All those broad and wise considerations, which show how much more important is a consistent adherence to general principles, than the gain of a temporary and partial advantage by their violation, are but abstractions.
Times have changed and such principled people are contemptuously labeled as “idealists” now instead of abstractionists, but it amounts to the same thing.
Previous Dabney on Sundays: