What Is the Ladder of Abstraction?


S.I. Hayakawa is attributed with popularizing the ladder of abstraction. The central premise behind the ladder is that humans have the ability to achieve four levels of language and reasoning starting with very concrete words at the bottom of the ladder ascending to abstract words at the top rungs. For example, children first learn concrete words for physical objects, such as cup, before comprehending and using abstract words. The ladder can be a simple way for individuals to analyze language use and more effectively communicate with others in oral and written form.

S.I. Hayakawa

  • S.I. Hayakawa thoroughly explained the ladder of abstraction in his book, "Language in Thought and Action." According to Hayakawa, the ladder should be understood in ascending order. The writer gives an example of Bessie the cow who lives on a farm with other cows and animals. While the concept begins with a specific concept, Bessie, it ends on a broad note with a discussion of wealth and livestock in general. The central goal in the ladder of abstraction as illustrated by Hayakawa is for the first concept to ignite interest that leads to a complete analysis of a general subject.

Beginnings: Concrete Thinking

  • At the bottom of the abstraction ladder is concrete thinking. Upon reaching the age of eight or nine, humans tend to question concrete or factual happenings in the world. A child within these age brackets may ask a parent where their baby brother or sister came from, or why the wind blew the tree over. Such inquiries are evidence of concrete thinking and imply that the individual has begun climbing the ladder of abstraction. As time passes, individuals begin to broaden their horizons when thinking until they finally reach abstraction.

At the Top: The Abstract Thinker

  • Abstract thinkers are at the top of the ladder. Such individuals do not specify matters when thinking on them, but rather express themselves in complex terms. An abstract thinker may question the reasoning behind violence in the world. While such a concept is broad and should be answerable, it becomes rhetorical when an individual considers differences in cultures throughout the world. Abstract thinkers are more focused on broad subjects such as life and love, and less on specific concepts like Aunt Mabre's pie.

In Writing: Storytelling

  • While good storytellers are those who can effectively fluctuate on the ladder of abstraction, average storytellers make abrupt shifts between the different levels of reasoning. A good storyteller will begin at a specific concept like Joe's new car in one paragraph or sentence, and move to a broad subject like wealth in the next. Although an average writer may also make similar moves in his story, the transition will not be as smooth. Instead of connecting the new car with lavish living in the same paragraph, an average writer will make Joe's car and lavish lifestyles into two separate paragraphs. It will then be the reader's responsibility to make the connection.


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