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Ladder of Abstraction: Definition & Example

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  • 0:02 The Ladder of Abstraction
  • 1:34 The Bottom Rung
  • 2:14 The Second and Third Rungs
  • 3:14 The Top of the Ladder
  • 4:00 Using the Whole Ladder
  • 4:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Derek Hughes
The ladder of abstraction is a concept used to describe and define the development of thought and language from concrete to abstract. This lesson provides a definition of the ladder of abstraction and several examples of movement up the ladder.

The Ladder of Abstraction

S.I. Hayakawa, in his book Language in Thought and Action, described what he called the ladder of abstraction. The ladder of abstraction is an image and concept used to illustrate how language and reasoning evolves from concrete to abstract. It's important to know that the ladder should be viewed as ascending, with simple, concrete concepts at the bottom and abstract concepts at the top; the number of 'rungs' can vary from case to case. This lesson will more clearly define several stops (or rungs) and provide some examples, since the ladder of abstraction can be applied in various disciplines.

An Example Ladder

Before going into each rung, it might be helpful to see a full ladder of abstraction using a single concept. In this example, the concept will be that of a teacher, Mr. Hughes. Using Mr. Hughes as a base, you will see how concepts and ideas change when moving up the ladder.

In this example ladder, Mr. Hughes's name is at the base because it is the most concrete way to identify him. Moving up, the next rung is his job title of elementary school teacher, which is slightly more abstract, but still fairly concrete. Above that is the idea of the teaching profession as a whole. Finally, at the top, is the broad concept of education in general.

Now that we've discussed this generally, let's go into more detail with another example of how the ladder of abstraction functions. We'll examine how a child named Chloe climbs the ladder; you'll note how her language and reasoning skills change as her ideas become more abstract.

The Bottom Rung

Chloe is a young child who is acquiring new vocabulary at a rapid rate. However, most of the words she is learning are used to identify things she sees or hears about in her environment. For example, one day, Chloe learns to identify several of the things and people around her house, including an oven, her dog Spot, and her mom.

Most of the words Chloe learns are concrete words that exist on the bottom rung of the ladder of abstraction. These are words that Chloe uses to identify things and people around her. The category on the bottom rung consists of the words people use to identify and think about concrete objects and people and are the least complex words we use.

The Second Rung

Climbing up the ladder, Chloe will eventually reach the second rung. This rung consists of words and ideas that are slightly less concrete and more abstract than the bottom rung. On this rung, instead of thinking about or talking about the very concrete concept of an oven, Chloe will begin to think about cooking or meals in a more broad sense.

Another example would be how Chloe thinks about her dog. At the bottom rung, she only thought about and referred to her dog as Spot. Now, her thinking is becoming more abstract, and she might think or talk about dogs in general.

The Third Rung

As Chloe continues to climb up the ladder of abstraction, she will reach the third rung, which is even more abstract than the previous. This rung will help Chloe think and talk about things in a much more broad sense.

For example, instead of thinking about just dogs, Chloe might think about pets in general, including more animals than just dogs. Also, instead of thinking about meals or ingredients, she will think about cooking as a hobby or profession.

The Top of the Ladder

Finally, Chloe will reach the top of the ladder, which is characterized by the ability to use words used to discuss and think about abstract ideas. These are words she can use to discuss and think about ideas that don't have clear images or definitions. It's important to note, however, that ideas discussed or described at this highest level should really be supported by words and ideas based in other rungs.

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