Rand's "Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology" is easily the worst thing she ever wrote. Rambling despite its brevity, almost comically incoherent despite its air of supreme intellectual confidence, and shamelessly fact-free despite its high-toned talk about grounding knowledge in observed reality, that she could consider the epistemological theories therein the "solution" upon which "the fate of human societies, of knowledge, of science, of progress and of every human life depends" is a testament to both her alarming overestimation of her abilities and the uncritical groupie-bubble Rand seems to have lived much of her later life in.
While there are boners on pretty much every page of the ITOE, they fortunately boil down to a smaller number of key fallacies. One of the most central is her notion that concepts must be as precisely constructed as mathematical equations. She makes much rhetorical hay over this alleged precision, and the equally alleged "disasters" that will result if anything so horrendous as an approximation creeps into man's automatized conceptualising. She claims that the validity of man's conceptual knowledge "depends on the precision of his concepts, which require as strict a precision of meaning...as the definitions of mathematical terms." (ITOE, 65, emphasis mine).
This supposed precision of concepts leads to the demand for similar exactitude in the symbols that represent them i.e. words.. Words, Rand insists, must be properly treated "as concepts" with "exact meaning...never allowing a break in the chain linking their concepts to the facts of reality." (ITOE, 20-21). Thus the writer or speaker should use words as precisely as a mathematician uses his numbers or algebraic symbols.
But this results in a basic fallacy, for Rand doesn't seem to realise that words and numbers are two very different things. Words cannot have anything like "as strict a precision of meaning...as the definitions of mathematical terms." This is because unlike words, numbers are almost entirely empty of content. This is their great benefit; as a trade-off for this lack of content we gain total precision and the ability to apply them to almost anything. Words, on the other hand, are content-rich, saturated in millenia of cultural development which has left them full of ambiguities, shades, hues, meanings and histories of meanings. The trade-off for this richness, however, is a concomitant loss of precision.
But don't take my word for it - the difference between the two can be easily demonstrated. If I give you a number you've never encountered before - say, 73647789990.871001 - you don't even require a definition to know what it means. It is precise, but empty.
However, should I give you a word you've never encountered before - say, "passalorynchite" - you will need to look it up in a dictionary if you are to have any hope of knowing its meaning. While it certainly refers to something, its meaning is far richer, and thus more layered and complex. As Karl Popper remarks, words are always "necessarily vague" to a greater or lesser degree, and instead of expecting exact precision when using them, we should be careful to remain "within their penumbra."
Thus the belief that words can, in effect, have "as strict a precision of meaning...as the definitions of mathematical terms" is a fundamental error. This error is part and parcel of another fundamental error, Rand's view of definitions, which we will examine in a later post.