Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Intellectual Sources of Rand's View of Universals

"Most philosophers did not intend to invalidate conceptual knowledge, but its defenders did more to destroy it than did its enemies. They were unable to to offer a solution to the problem of universals." --Ayn Rand

Where did Rand acquire this odd notion that the so-called failure to solve the problem of universals has brought about a major crisis in Western Civilization? Consider the following take on universals:
"A 'universal,' to philosophy, is our conceptual categorization of a thing. Is there, for example, such a thing as Apple? We know the things so categorized... But does Apple have a real existence? Occam said no, won the debate, and put Western Civilization into reverse gear... It is very difficult to see where [Occam] erred.... The mistake was incredibly subtle. To deny 'Apple' is, in the end, to deny the reality of human concepts. It is to deny the workings of the human mind..."

Sounds suspiciously similar to Rand. Is this perhaps by one of her less orthodox followers? No, not at all. It's by George Roche, former President of Hillsdale College and someone who despised and probably never read Rand. So where did Roche get this notion that the ills of Western Civilization can be traced to the philosophical issue of universals? Roche's source is Richard Weaver's book Ideas Have Consequences, published in 1949. Is it possible that Rand's original inspiration for blaming the problem of universals for crisis of Western Civilization also came from the same source? But where else could it have come from? Rand is not known to have been widely read in philosophy. She only, we have been told, read synopses. She was, it is true, a history major, but she got her degree at a Soviet University, and if her philosophical writings are any indication, she does not appear to have had more than a superficial knowledge of history. So once more the question arises: where else but from Weaver could she have gotten her odd notions about the problem of universals? It is entirely conceivable that one of her conservative acquaintences brought up the Weaver's thesis during one of Rand's intellectual bull sessions; that from hence, Rand absorbed the thesis and integrated it into her own philosophy, altering it somewhat in the process but not substantially changing it; and then she introduced it to the world in her essay "For the New Intellectual," published in 1961. Weaver's thesis clearly would have appealed to Rand, because it gives importance to an issue that hardly anyone has cared about since the age of scholasticism, when the philosophy of Aristotle, Rand's master of masters, dominated the intellectual scene.


Daniel Barnes said...

The idea is also appealing to Rand's campy, melodramatic tendencies - that disaster awaited all mankind should her lone mission to fight the Forces of Philosophic Evil fail. Peikoff (mostly mouthpiecing for Rand) makes similarly apocalyptic claims for another philosophical dogma, the Analytic/Synthetic Dichotomy, calling it the "epistemological black plague" that "penetrates every corner of our culture, reaching, directly or indirectly, into every human life, issue and concern." Apparently "it is deadly", a "death carrier" and results in "the self-liquidation of philosophy". Etc.

It is also perhaps a predictable result of an egoist philosophy that you get egotistical philosphers, who are so enthusiastic to place themselves - and their literal "realm" - at the centre of human achievement and even human survival itself.

Neil Parille said...

Part of the problem is that Rand didn't distinguish between universals and concepts.

Another problem is that I suspect Rand may have been misled by some of the writing on the realist/nominalist debate. At times authors will say that according to nominalists, abstract terms are "arbitrary". But by arbitrary they don't necessarily mean "no connection to reality." Locke's version of nominalism (or conceptualism) is similar to Rand's

David said...

My background is in literature and the arts and my knowledge of philosophy and science is strictly avocational.

Could someone explain (non-snarkily, for the sake of clarity) what Rand meant by "universals" and "concepts" and what those terms traditionally have meant in philosophy or in the Popperian/Empirical tradition.

Perhaps a "brief history" of universals and concepts would help for those of us not intimately familiar the finer points of philosophy.

gregnyquist said...

David: "Could someone explain (non-snarkily, for the sake of clarity) what Rand meant by "universals" and "concepts" and what those terms traditionally have meant in philosophy or in the Popperian/Empirical tradition."

By "universals" or "concepts," Rand simply meant any term of thought that can be expressed in an idea or word. Hence the term house expresses the concept or idea of a house. It is also a universal because it can be applied to every particular house that exists or is an object of thought. Rand believed that all words except proper names are concepts—i.e., any word that can stand for more than one perceptual concrete. (This, incidentally, is an error, because proper names are universals as well, because they apply to particular concretes over a period of time.)

Rand believed that the universality of concepts, the fact that one word can be used to describe an unlimited number of concretes, was valid in the sense that universal terms really do refer to an unlimited number of particulars. In other words, there no cognitive distortion or error is introduced by reducing an unlimited number of concretes to a single idea. There is nothing problematic in calling a house a house, even if the houses are particular things and the concept of house is a universal. Hence, people can use concepts to attain certain knowledge about reality.

The Popperian/empirical tradition believe that all universals (and hence by implication all concepts or ideas) are theory laden: that is, they suggest various hypotheses, many of them unprovable, about aspects of reality. Hence under this view, people cannot use concepts to attain certain knowledge about reality. Under this knowledge, all knowledge is ultimately conjectural and must constantly tested to prove its mettle.