Sunday, September 23, 2007

Response to "Anonymous" about Randian Hierarchy of Knowledge

An anonymous poster has provided to reply to my previous attack on the Objectivist hiearchy of knowledge, as advanced by Van Damme in her polemic against classical education. Since this response is by far the best challenge we have ever received at ARCHNblog, I think my response deserves a separate post.

Against my criticisms of the Objectivist hiearchy of knowledge, Anon's main point is that "AR did not think that the most basic concepts were the narrowest possible." This is a entirely valid contention, and will help clarify my criticism of Rand's theory. Although my criticism did focus on the issue of narrowness, that's because that was the thrust of Van Damme's argument. But the broader issue was whether there exists, as Van Damme inserts, a proper order in which concepts should be taught, and, most critically, whether its the width or narrowness of a concept, rather than the complexity of the concept's referents (i.e., the complexity of the subject matter) that determines that order. I can agree with the former, but not the latter contentions. The degree of width of a concept, or the abstractness of it, is an entirely adventitous notion. Where would you place, in your hiearchy of knowledge, the concepts of quantum mechanics? Are they wider or narrower concepts? Why does it even matter? It is enough to know that subject matter of quantum mechanics is immensely complicated, and thus must only be taught to very mature and advanced students.

It is important to understand that when Rand admits that individuals "may learn ... concepts in different orders," she is in effect undermining the relevancy of her theory. If "basic" (or "first level") concepts can exist in different places within the hierarchy, why is the hierarchy so important? A Rand quotation provided by Anon supplies the answer: note the distinction Rand makes between "objects you perceive directly in reality and can point to, and [objects] which you have to differentiate by means of other concepts." In other words, Rand is contending that some concepts are grasped by pointing at something in reality, while other concepts are only grasped through other concepts (by a process of thought or by "reason"). The purpose of this theory, I strongly suspect, is to justify philosophical speculation. Rand is contending that, provided that your concepts are "correctly" integrated within the hierarchy of knowledge, it is possible to attain certain knowledge merely by reasoning about "second level" concepts. This is really the ultimate raison d'etre of the Randian hierarchy of knowledge: to demonstrate the cognitive efficacy of philosophical speculation. Unfortunately, since there is no reliable test for distinguishing between "properly" integrated conceptual knowledge and "misintegrated" knowledge, the theory is merely an invitation to arrogant, dogmatic rationalism.

The most impressive part of Anon's reply is where he cites a couple of cognitive scientists to try to support his case, Eleanor Rosch and Jeremy Anglin. That's what most impresses us here—scientific evidence! But is this evidence germane to the issue at hand? Well, I'm not so certain. I rather suspect that Rosch's work is of little use for Rand's case, since her cross cultural work seems to buttress my contention that it is the concept's referents, rather than the concepts position in a typological hierarchy, that is most important. And while Anglin's work in child development may have reached some conclusions that coincide, in a vague sort of way, with some Rand's speculations in that department, I doubt whether any of this bears on the point at issue. Keep in mind: I don't deny the existence of Randian hierarchies of knowledge between "wider" and "lower" concepts or that learning begins somewhere within the hierarchy (as it must begin somewhere within it). I'm merely questioning whether a concept's position within the Randian hiearchy (as Van Damme insists) is the critical factor in the cognitive development of children, rather than the degree of complexity of the concept's referents.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, Same Anon here:

You write:

"But the broader issue was whether there exists, as Van Damme inserts, a proper order in which concepts should be taught, and, most critically, whether its the width or narrowness of a concept, rather than the complexity of the concept's referents (i.e., the complexity of the subject matter) that determines that order. I can agree with the former, but not the latter contentions."

I don't know who you take yourself to be disagreeing with here. The whole point of my first post was that in Objectivist epistemology, the width or narrowness of concepts *has nothing to do with* their hierarchical order. And I don't know why you say Van Damme's article suggests this. Yes, she gives an example in which the hierarchically prior concepts *happen* to be narrower. It's an easy example to use to illustrate her point, and I'm sure that's the only reason she gave it.

Now as to the question of the relevance of hierarchy if some concepts can be learned in different orders. The issue of chronological vs. hierarchical order is discussed at length in ITOE, particularly in the appendix. I can illustrate the relevance of hierarchy by illustrating the difference between chronology and hierarchy as follows:

Suppose that I grow up in a house with dogs and cats, and I learn the concept "animal" only after learning "dog" and "cat." But suppose someone in Australia learns "animal" only after learning "kangaroo" and "koala"--and then learns "dog" after having already learned "animal." So in one example, "dog" is learned before "animal," while in the other it's vice-versa.

This is an example of a difference in chronological order of learning that does not affect the fact that "dog" is hierarchically prior to "animal." The person living in Australia didn't *need* "animal" to learn "dog." He could have learned "dog" on its own because dogs are perceptually less different from each other than the different types of animals are. The fact that he learns "dog" only later is an accident of his circumstances.

The point is that some but any first level concepts are necessary before forming "animal," whether they're "dog" or "kangaroo." To be a first level concept is to be a concept of the sort of perceptually similar object that can and must be learned in advance of other concepts.

Even consider the example of "table" and "furniture." Rand speculates that a child growing up in a furniture store might have learned "furniture" before "table." But in that case, he would learn it only in an woozy, half-baked way. To understand "furniture," he would really need to learn instances of "furniture" first, instances like "table" and "chair." The differences among types of furniture are perceptibly bigger than those among types of tables and chairs, and so their similarities are not as obvious. Whether or not concepts need to be learned first has nothing to do with the "complexity of the referents." Chairs are quite complex on the quantum mechanical level, I'm sure. Rather, the concepts we need to learn first are just the ones whose referents have the most obvious perceptual similarities. It is a function of the nature of the objects in relation to the nature of human perceptual capacities.

I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about when you say that the purpose of the theory of hierarchy is to "justify philosophical speculation." The point of hierarchy is to justify a theory of *justification*, not to justify unjustified speculation. The point is to show how one can claim to have justified or proved one's knowledge claims if and only if one is able to show how one's higher-level concepts (and associated propositions) derive from lower-level concepts. That is, to show how abstract reasoning connects to perceptual evidence. That's not just something demanded of philosophical reasoning, but of any kind of reasoning worth its salt, scientific or commonsense.

So looking at the actual scientific evidence, I highly recommend checking out Rosch's essay "The Principles of Categorization." There is some discussion of culture here, but the most salient aspect is her discussion of basic level concepts, which she characterizes (as I do) as involving the highest level of generality at which similarity is maximized. In my memory, she doesn't seek to explain what accounts for maximum similarity, but then that is a job for the psychology of perception.

If you want a psychologist's theory of perception that matches Rands pretty well, look to the works of J.J. Gibson. In a recent work on concept empiricism, Jesse Prinz even connects the work of Gibson and Rosch in a way that would exploit Gibson's theory to explain the Roschian basic level.