Sometimes we wonder...
Objectivists often contend that Ayn Rand's critics do not or cannot grasp her philosophy's fundamental principles like, for example, the 'law of identity'. Thus they are simply unable to comprehend the epochal innovations in the fields of epistemology, ethics, politics, aesthetics and so forth that follow inexorably as a result of Rand's application of these principles. Rand, it is also alleged, wrote clearly and precisely, so if you can't understand them you must be either a)stupid or b)evading or c)both. And perhaps this is the case.
But how good is Rand with these fundamentals herself, even at the level she considers her greatest innovation, in epistemology? Let's take a look. First, we'll invoke her fundamental axiom "Existence exists". We'll call this her Parmenidian axiom, as she derives from it a second postulate which is "Non-existence does not exist", or "there is no such thing as nothing". This seems to leave us with the ancient idea from Parmenides that the existence is "full", with no gaps of "nothing" in its structure. Then we'll take another fundamental axiom: that is, the Law of Identity which can be put as follows: "for a thing to exist, it must have an identity". This we'll call her Aristotelian axiom, as this is to whom it is generally attributed.
We'll then apply these axioms to what Rand considered her most vitally important intellectual work, her theory of Concept Formation in the "Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology".
In Chapter 1, 'Cognition and Measurement', she lays out her theory, starting with the "building block of man's knowledge", the concept "existent". This is what she calls an implicit concept - as opposed to later explicit concepts and which, we presume, are so named because Rand says they require language to be properly formed.
The "implicit" concept "existent" resides even at the level of sensations: for Rand tells us that "A sensation is a sensation of something, as distinguished from the nothing of the preceding and succeeding moments." Of course alert readers will have spotted right away that Rand seems to have blithely violated her Parmenidian axiom, as of course there is no such thing as "nothing" to be 'distinguished' from 'something' in the first place! So her theory is off to a highly questionable start.
Things get substantially worse however as she moves to describe how this 'building block' develops. She describes 3 distinct stages. Stage 1 is the child's awareness of objects, of things, which "represents the (implicit) concept 'entity'" (ITOE, 6). Stage 2 is the "second, and closely allied stage" which is "awareness of specific, particular things which (the child) can recognise and distinguish from the rest of his perceptual field". This stage, Rand tells us, is the implicit concept "identity". Now, alert readers will no doubt have noticed that once again, Rand has forgotten her own fundamental axiom, this time the Law of Identity. For if this law is correct, and an entity without identity cannot exist, there can be no Stage 1. (1)
Stage 2 is clearly just the Law of Identity all over again, so Rand can hardly take credit for this. Stage 3, the final stage, gives us the concept "unit" and consists apparently of "grasping similarities and differences" between identities. But we seem to have already done this in Stage 2, for we are already recognising and distinguishing "specific" things in our perceptual field - and in order to do this, we will surely have to realise that these things are similar to and different from each other. So we can assume there is no Stage 3 either.
Thus, embarrassingly, the very "building block" of Rand's proudest intellectual achievement kicks off with obvious violations of two of her own cherished fundamental axioms, and a redundant restatement of one of them. All that remains of her theory so far is just the Law of Identity (ie:Stage 2), an already well-known logical rule. And of course if you state that a rule is the basis of your system, and violate it at the same time, it tends to indicate you don't understand it in the first place.
1. I do not think attempts to argue that Rand might perhaps be speaking 'epistemologically' instead of 'metaphysically' (as Objectivists call it) succeed, as of course human knowledge is subject to the LOI just like anything else.