Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Cognitive Revolution & Objectivism, Part 5

Wittgenstein's "family resemblance." A philosophical idea that has proved influential in cognitive science is Wittgenstein's "family resemblance" critique of the classical view of concepts (of which Objectivism is a variant):
Consider for example the proceedings that we call "games." I mean board games, card games, ball games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? Don't say, "There must be something common, or they would not be called 'games' " - but look and see whether there is anything common to all. For if you look at them you will not see something common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don't think, but look! Look for example at board games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. Are they all "amusing"? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear. And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.
Now consider Rand's "essentialism" (i.e., her belief that all concepts have essential characteristics):
When a given group of existents has more than one characteristic distinguishing it from other existents, man must observe the relationships among these various characteristics and discover the one on which all the others (or the greatest number of others) depend, i.e., the fundamental characteristic without which the others would not be possible.
This view gratuitously assumes that all of reality is easily categorized into objects that have easily identified essential characteristics. But why should this be so? Was reality created for the convenience of the human mind? The Randian view not only oversimplifies reality to the point of serious distortion, it also seriously underestimates the ability of the mind (particularly the unconscious mind) to handle complexity. The mind has no difficult grasping the idea of games, even if it can' t explain why.

9 comments:

Jay said...

Where did Rand say that the essentials of all concepts are "easily identified?"

What's more likely is she said they were identifiable, but that's not the same thing. In fact, it's a world apart.

Neil Parille said...

Jay,

I think you are correct that Rand never said that the fundamental characteristic of a concept had to be "easily identifiable."

It may even be possible to come up with a definition that covers all of Wittengstein's games.

The problem as I see it for Rand is that she talks frequently about the need for definitions (our truth of our knowledge depends on them) but goes on to say at (p. 50.) in her notorious jab at Russell that it really doesn't matter if the average Joe can't define the most basic concepts he is using.

Or maybe only the elite need to master concepts?

anon57 said...

Nyquist alleges Rand's view: "This view gratuitously assumes that all of reality is easily categorized into objects that have easily identified essential characteristics."

Jay and Neil are correct. She didn't say it. Another straw man. Moreover, she covered "borderline cases".

Neil Parille said...

Anon57,

Greg said "assumed" and I think one can make the case that Rand did assume this (at least in certain places).

Wells said...

Can you give a definition of 'game' that is inclusive of everything that is a game, exclusive of everything that isn't a game, and isn't as long as a list of all possible games? Probably. The definition would probably be something like 'Something is a game if it does B or C or D or ect' rather than something like 'Something is a game if and only if it does F'

Do you need this definition enough to go and try to think up one? Probably not. I don't know what a game is, but I can still play them and make them.

gregnyquist said...

Anon57: "Where did Rand say that the essentials of all concepts are 'easily identified?'"

No, she didn't say that. But unless it is assumed, her position becomes problematic. If essentials aren't easy to identify (because, say, some categories don't have essentials — in which case they wouldn't be even identifiable), then the pursuit of the essential becomes a wild goose chase.

Keep in mind, that essentials are often used in Objectivism as a short-cut to knowledge. Since the essential (allegedly) explains most of the other characteristics of the concept's referent, the unstated implication is that all you need to know is the essentials of something. This is a very bad view to have, because it implicitly denies the importance of mastery. We know about the claims that Objectivists have made on behalf of philosophy against science. Physicistdave's well documented complaints about Objectivism's attack on his specialty, physics, immediately comes to mind. Mastery of any complex subject cannot be attained through knowledge of "essentials." When you're trying to understand human nature, relativity, quantum mechanics, economics, and other thorny subjects, "thinking in essentials" simply won't do: family resemblance problems will cause you to miss salient details every time. Now I don't need Anon56 to remind me that Rand never explicitly said that mastery of a subject can be attained through knowledge of essentials. To make such a point is to miss the point. Rand tacitly assumes throughout her philosophy. Her penchant for reasoning on the basis of vague generalizations has no credibility at all without it.

anon57 said...

Nyquist,
Your penchant for vague generalizations (usually with distortion) about Ayn Rand's philosophy lacks credibility.
Mastery of any complex subject cannot be attained w/o knowledge of the essentials. How you distort this and stuff it in Rand's mouth is astounding.
Your uses of "unstated", "implicit" and "tacit" are worse than Rand's.
You: "If essentials aren't easy to identify (because, say, some categories don't have essentials — in which case they wouldn't be even identifiable), then the pursuit of the essential becomes a wild goose chase."
It's hard to discern what "they" means. If it means essentials, then your assertion is a tautology, an empty verbalism. If it means categories, it's wrong. In order to identify anything, one recognizes attributes. For example, a child can identify attributes of trees w/o being able to say what the essential (most important) attributes of trees are.

Robert Campbell said...

In his Logic course, back in 1974, Leonard Peikoff went through an exercise in defining "game" and, so he claimed, refuting Wittgenstein's notion of "family resemblances." I don't recall his answer in detail--would have to dust off an old notebook, if I still have it. But I recall, anyway, that he had to distinguish more than one sense of "game" before proceeding to offer a definition of each. (That doesn't necessarily disqualify his answers, but a later-Wittgensteinian would have an obvious counterargument...)

Rand definitely did not present essential characteristics as easily identifiable. I think it's appropriate to criticize Aristotle for supposing that essences are pretty easy to recognize. But Rand thought of definitions as changing with the growth of knowledge--indeed, as necessarily changing with the growth of knowledge. Not the same thing at all.

Now what Rand privately thought about her personal ability to ferret out essentials is another matter. Maybe after a while she started thinking that she, uniquely, had come into the possession of some "MRI power" (the kind that her sycophant Jim Valliant attributes to her, but not restricted to other people's motives) that would promptly disclose essential characteristics to her without having to conduct organized observations, do experiments, develop, revise, or even discard theories, and all that hard work. But that's not what her formal epistemology says is possible.

A number of Rand's most flagrant moves violate her own stated principles:

-- Her attempts to prescribe to physics violate her stated rejection of cosmology (as well as her concession that matter might ultimately consist of non-spatial non-temporal something or others)

--Her review of a book by John Rawls, which proudly proclaims that she hadn't read the book and didn't intend to, is a violation of several of her stated epistemic principles (including one I seem to recall about "first-hand knowledge"

--Her put-down of Bertie Russell for "perpetrating" violates her stated prohibition against arguments from intimidation. (By the way, I don't quite agree with Neil's interpretation of this passage. I don't think Rand was saying it was OK for average Joes not to be able to define "number.")

When Rand acted in violation of her stated principles, you do of course have to ask whether her disciples are inclined to do as she said or to do as she did. But that's quite a bit different from concluding that Rand's efforts at epistemology were an attempt to rationalize her a priori prescriptions for physics, or her wish to review books she didn't want to read, or her eagerness to slam opponents without explaining what was wrong with their views.

Robert Campbell

gregnyquist said...

Robert: "Rand definitely did not present essential characteristics as easily identifiable."

Well perhaps "easily" is to strong a word. The point I was trying to make is that Rand definitely does not regard the identification of essentials as deeply problematic. Two rational, intelligent people with the same context of knowledge will identify the same essentials.

Robert: "When Rand acted in violation of her stated principles, you do of course have to ask whether her disciples are inclined to do as she said or to do as she did. But that's quite a bit different from concluding that Rand's efforts at epistemology were an attempt to rationalize her a priori prescriptions for physics, or her wish to review books she didn't want to read, or her eagerness to slam opponents without explaining what was wrong with their views."

Issues of motives are, to be sure, complicated. But I still have difficulty believing in the view that Rand was a dedicated, passionate, and sincere truth seeker in her epistemology, and that her main problem was that she didn't consistently follow her principles in other areas of her philosophy. That's not to say that she wittingly rationalized. She may have believed herself to be trying to get at the truth, and there may be sections of her epistemology (her unit-economy, for example) that stem from a clear, honest, and genuine insight. But she obviously thought very highly of her own reasoning abilities and her ability to figure things out through thinking alone, and this bias, I conjecture, helps explain why the classical view of reason, in its Aristolean form, appealed to her, and why she promoted it, with a few of its metaphysical baggage swept off, in her own philosophy.