This article describes the concept of Ladder of Abstraction in a practical way. After reading you will understand the definition, meaning and basics of this powerful communications skills tool.
What is the Ladder of Abstraction?
The American linguist S. I. Hayakawa is the creator of the Ladder of Abstraction. He explains how it works in ‘Language in Thought and Action’, published in 1939. The basic principle is that humans have the ability to reason at four language levels. These language levels range from concrete words at the base of the ladder to abstract words at the top. That is why, according to Hayakawa, the ladder must be understood in ascending order. In his book, he talks about Bessie the cow, who is also discussed in this article.
Ladder of Abstraction: eight levels
The Ladder of Abstraction describes the way in which people think and communicate. This occurs at different levels of abstraction. A description such as ‘blue winter coat’ is much more concrete than descriptions such as ‘nice and warm’ or ‘good quality’, while both of these descriptions apply to the ‘blue winter coat’. In his book, Hayakawa described the difference between these concepts on the basis of a single cow called Bessie. Bessie is seen differently in different contexts. The farmer’s children think of the cow with a bell around her neck, while their father sees Bessie as part of his livestock, expressed in monetary terms.
Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa thereby distinguishes eight levels:
1. Process level
The lowest rung on the Ladder of Abstraction This concerns the most concrete definition of who or what Bessie is: various atoms that, together, form a cow.
This is the second rung on the Ladder of Abstraction: the atoms form ‘something’ that can be described as a quadrupedal mammal with an udder, and black and white mottled coat. Based on sensory experiences, it becomes clear that this is a cow.
This is no longer just about the cow, but about the specific recognition of Bessie. She has characteristics by which she can be recognised, such as the colour of her coat, her sleeping/waking rhythms and, for example, her temperament. Hereby, Bessie can be distinguished from the rest of the cows.
The higher the rung on the Ladder of Abstraction, the more abstract the description of Bessie becomes. This means that, at this level, she loses her identity and specific characteristics and becomes just one of the cows found on a farm.
We are even higher on the Ladder of Abstraction, where Bessie is only referred to as ‘livestock’. There are no more specific characteristics, and there are only characteristics that are the same as those of pigs, sheep, goats and the like.
6. Corporate assets
Here, we go one step further, where Bessie is part of the farm’s assets, and has been translated into milk, beef or sales proceeds.
On this penultimate rung, Bessie has lost almost all of her characteristics. She is part of everything that has value on the farm.
This is the highest rung on the Ladder of Abstraction, and thereby also the most abstract description: wealth. Wealth is a rather subjective description, and is hard to grasp or pin down. The fact is, however, that the more cattle the farmer has, the wealthier he is.
At the base of the Ladder of Abstraction is concrete thought. When they are approximately eight years old, children are able to concretise and name things around them. This means that they are perfectly able to differentiate a cow from a bull. As children become older, they become increasingly good at abstract thinking. The higher one climbs on the Ladder of Abstraction, the better one is able to think in abstract or even philosophical terms. In this way, ‘war’ can be described in concrete terms on the lower rungs of the Ladder of Abstraction, while on the highest rungs the question ‘what causes war’ is probably addressed.
Abstract thinkers usually express themselves in complex terms, and are able to communicate by means of comparisons and parallels. They are thereby more focused on broader, more abstract topics and question them. This means that good storytellers are able to effectively jump from one rung to another on the Ladder of Abstractions. As a result, their stories are attractive, in-depth and the storytellers are able to pull their audience into the story using examples. They are able to give both concrete descriptions and abstract depictions.
Now it’s Your Turn
What do you think? Is the Ladder of Abstraction concept applicable in your daily work? Do you recognize the practical explanation or do you have more additions? What are tip for improving your communication skills?
Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.
- Doblin, J. (1980). A structure for nontextual communications. In Processing of visible language (pp. 89-111). Springer, Boston, MA.
- Hayakawa, S. I., & Hayakawa, A. R. (1990, 1939). Language in thought and action. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
- Munson, B., Edwards, J., & Beckman, M. E. (2012). Phonological Representationsin Language Acquisition: Climbing The Ladder of Abstraction. In The Oxford handbook of laboratory phonology. Oxford University Press.
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