Thursday, September 14, 2006

What's the problem?

In the 'Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology' Ayn Rand contends that the famous 'problem of universals' is the great question that has lead to today's corrupt anti-reason philosophies, and that unless it is solved civilisation is toast.

But does she know what she's talking about?

Here's 3 issues that immediately stand out:

1) Is this such a potentially apocalyptic problem as she makes out? Nyquist argues persuasively that the claim that civilisation hangs in the balance is absurdly exaggerated.
2) It is not clear that Rand solved, or even really understood the problem of universals - which can be put simply as "how can different things still be similar?" For while admittedly the ITOE is anything but a coherent or systematic presentation, from what can be made out her ideas like "Conceptual Common Denominator" simply beg the question.
3) If universals are the problem, what has this got to do with Rand's obsession with Kant? Kant was replying to a very different problem: Hume's "problem of induction", which is a far more likely candidate for influencing the state of modern philosophy. Of course, Rand admits that she has not solved the problem of induction (on page 304 or 5 of the ITOE, from memory), and unintentionally also reveals she doesn't get this one either, as she says that one day some 'scientist' will solve it. But the problem of induction is not scientific; it is a logical problem.

Any thoughts?


Steve Jackson said...

A few thoughts.

1. I don't think it is the apoclyptic problem Rand makes it out to be. Even mystics of the muscles and Atilas are capable of forming concepts and often are better at it than the rest of us.

2. Rand's approach strikes me as a version of resemblance nominalism. While some concepts may be formed by a process of measurement omission, I've never seen an Objectivist explain how conjunctions, numbers, ideas such as "justice", etc. are formed.

3. Does anyone even know what Kant's view of universals was? I'm familiar with almost all the published Objectivist literature (at least in book form) and haven't come across this.

Daniel Barnes said...

>I've never seen an Objectivist explain how conjunctions, numbers, ideas such as "justice", etc. are formed.

I've asked this question many times, and usually get either a)no response, or once in a while b) that concepts such as "problem" are the result of so many intricate preceding abstractions it would be impossible to describe them all. Which is really just another version of a).

Likewise with the oft-cited "files and folders" analogy for Rand's theory of concept formation. To which I've asked: can anyone show me a so called 'file' which is not also a 'folder'? If they can't, it would indicate her theory is infinitely regressive. Once again, I've never had any response, so if anyone knows the answer to this one let me know.

Greg Nyquist said...


Kant is usually regarded as a "conceptualist" (as is Rand, though not by Rand herself), but there is some debate about this. Kant is not terribly clear on this issue: it's not something he covered in detail. Indeed, the whole problem of universals really belongs to the scholastic period of philosophy. The moderns tended to ignore it, because it just didn't interest in them. They were more interested, not in whether universals are rule, but whether matter is real.

D. Martin said...

Steve Jackson, I too don't see how the Randian position differs from nominalism (although, I'm not educated on philosophy). Nominalists don't deny that universals are epistemological tools we use, they just deny that universals have a seperate existence.