What is the Ladder of Abstraction? Part 1 by Sandi Somers

When I was teaching, someone pinned on the bulletin board in our staff room this quote by Donald Rumsfeld when he was the US Secretary of Defense.

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.[i]

Beside the quote was a comment: “This doesn’t make sense!”

No, it doesn’t. But when you add a picture or diagram, it suddenly becomes clear.

Rumsfeld was describing an element of the “Johari Window,” a diagram used to help people improve their self-awareness, their communication, and their relationships with others. (By the way, the two psychologists who developed it named it after themselves, Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham.)

What’s happening here? Both Rumsfeld’s words and the diagram illustrate the concept of the ladder of abstraction.

What is the ladder of abstraction?

Our speaking and writing can be compared to different rungs on a ladder. The language of the bottom rungs is concrete—for example, stories, the five senses, and metaphors.

As your words climb up ladder, you increase the abstract language of concepts and meaning.

I’ll illustrate this concept by giving you several examples:

Examples of high abstract rungs on the ladder: While working on this article, I began reading—or tried to begin—a book (which I’ll not name). But I had to start over—and then over again. I still couldn’t understand what the author was trying to say. Then I recognized something: he used vague and obscure vocabulary. “Luminary” instead of sun. “Species” instead of people. He wrote “visual properties” instead of describing what the woman looked like. Then for a person he didn’t like, he substituted “human animal”. (And that’s just a few pages’ worth!)

To illustrate further: think of times when you’ve read or received contracts pertaining to your computer or bank account (and you might not even read the fine print that hides a key piece of information!). Or you might have heard a speaker toss out acronyms that you don’t understand. You scratch your head, trying to decipher the words. These all use abstract language, high rungs on the ladder.

Examples of the low concrete rungs on the ladder: In contrast, think of a child telling what he did that day. Or someone telling a story at a party, engaging everyone’s attention. Or following assembly diagrams on the instruction sheet to help visualize a piece of furniture you’ve purchased. These all focus on giving you[SS1] concrete details, low rungs on the ladder. 

So how do you use the ladder of abstraction in your writing?

It’s important to write in concrete language to help readers understand it.

  • Stories: People become engaged with stories, remember them, and often glean meanings from them. It’s what they remember.
  • Specific details from the five senses: Show, don’t tell. This gives the reader the feeling of “you are there”.
  • Concrete nouns, verbs, ­­­or modifiers
  • Similes and metaphors.
  • Examples
  • Charts, diagrams and pictures
  • Statistics

How do you wisely use the abstract?

  • Reflections: What have you learned? What meaning do you give to your readers? 
  • Patterns and trends
  • The wider context: gives the readers/listener the bigger picture.
  • Summaries and conclusions
  • values

To do:

Review a paragraph or section of your w-i-p. Where is it concrete? Where is it abstract? How do you move from an abstract concept to an example, story, or metaphor? Or in reverse, where do you move in the opposite direction?

In Part 2, we’ll go into greater depth in this discussion.

(By the way, Rumsfeld’s comment earned the 2003 Foot in Mouth Award for “a baffling comment by a public figure”.)[ii]

[i] Donald Rumsfeld, https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/donald_rumsfeld_148142.

[ii] Wikipedia, “Foot and Mouth Award”,  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foot_in_Mouth_Award



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1 comment

  1. Barb says:

    This is so helpful! Thank you, Sandi. I actually used the phrase “you don’t know what you don’t know” in a recent blog so I think I know what you are saying. Looking forward to Part 2!

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