Wednesday, December 05, 2007

ARCHN Quote Of The Week 5/12/07

"As far as I'm concerned, the problem of universals is not really a problem at all. It is simply one of those manufactured problems that philosophers have created to give themselves something to cavil about." - Greg Nyquist, ARCHN

24 comments:

Ellen Stuttle said...

Well, if it was "manufactured" by philosophers, a whole lot of research psychologists have been fooled into considering the problem.

Coincidentally, here's a post which appeared just today on Atlantis_II, from Dan Ust, a frequent A2 poster. 1966 is after I'd finished my undergraduate work, and I don't recall that book. The definition used is intriguingly close to Rand's:

Lyle E. Bourne's 1966 book _Human Conceptual Behavior_, a work on experimental psychology, offers the following definition for concept:

"As a working definition we may say a concept exists whenever two or more distinguishable objects have been grouped or classified together and set apart from other objects on the basis of some common feature or property characteristic of each." (p1)

This is almost Rand's definition reworded.* How far were her views from the mainstream at the time? What mainstream thinkers informed them? (I'm assuming Bourne was in the mainstream. Bourne is cited approvingly in Michael W. Eysenck's _Principles of Cognitive Psychology_, part of the "Principles of Psychology" series from the early 1990s. This makes me believe Bourne is not viewed as an outlier.) I'm not sure she bothered to read Bourne's book, but it could be that many of these ideas were floating around and that Peikoff and her other contacts act as conduits...

BTW, both Bourne's and Eysenck's books are short and easy to read.

Comments?

Regards,

Dan

* "A concept is a mental integration of two or more units possessing the same distinguishing characterist(s)..." p13 of ITOE 2/e


Ellen

Daniel Barnes said...

1966, two years before the ITOE was published. Does this mean that Lyle E. Bourne is now the greatest epistemologist of all time?...;-)

Ellen Stuttle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ellen Stuttle said...

(There was an error in the deleted post above; I misadded the number of installments; this is corrected.)

Daniel wrote:

1966, two years before the ITOE was published.

No, it wasn't two years before ITOE was published. ITOE was published in 8 installments from July 1966 - February 1967 in The Objectivist.

She gives two, very similar, definitions, the first referring to the role of definitions, the second not. Both are in the first installment.

The first definition reads:

"A concept is a mental integration of two or more units which are isolated according to a specific characteristic(s) and united by a specific definition."

The second definition is the one Dan quoted:

"A concept is a mental integration of two or more units possessing the same distinguishing characteristic(s), with their particular measurements omitted.

Her italics in both versions.

I'm curious to find out what was the month of publication of the Bourne book.

Ellen

Michael Prescott said...

Although it doesn't keep me awake at night, the problem of universals seems real enough to me - though it should probably be called the "problem of properties." Scott Ryan's book Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality goes into exhaustive detail about the ramifications of this knotty issue. Ryan also shows how poorly Rand understood the problem and how thoroughly she failed to solve it. Along with ARCHN, Ryan's book is the best critique of the content of Rand's philosophy, I think. (The Ayn Rand Cult, by Jeff Walker, is the best critique of the Rand movement, IMO.)

Ellen Stuttle said...

She gives two (at least) earlier (before ITOE) definitions of "concept," which differ somewhat in details. Probably especially significant is that between the first and second she started using the term "units."

I have lots to say on the subject of AR on both perception and concept-formation, as I'm working, slowly, on an essay about that. But...I haven't time to be commenting at length now. (Hint: She started with an incorrect theory of perception; increasing problems follow thereafter.)

Here for the record is the sequence of (at least) four definitions of "concept" (two of them in the first installment of ITOE). All italics hers:

(1) From "The Objectivist Ethics," speech delivered February 9, 1961:

"A 'concept' is a mental integration of two or more perceptual concretes, which are isolated by a process of abstraction and united by means of a specific definition."

(2) From "The Psycho-Epistemology of Art," April 1965:

"A 'concept' is a mental integration of two or more units which are isolated by a process of abstraction and united by a specific definition."

And then the two in the first installment of ITOE, July 1966:

(3) "A concept is a mental integration of two or more units which are isolated according to a specific characteristic(s) and united by a specific definition."


(4) "A concept is a mental integration of two or more units possessing the same distinguishing characteristic(s), with their particular measurements omitted."

Ellen

Neil Parille said...

Ellen,

According to Riachard Lawrence's webstie, ITOE wasn't published in book form until 1979. Is that correct?

I think the problem of universals is real enough. I think you could argue that some philosophers such as Rand have exaggerated the importance of this question. If you take Rand seriously, you might conclude that knowledge isn't possible until one gets the right theory of concepts.

Neil Parille said...

I don't know if I've posted this before, but this is from John Dewey's 1910 book How We Think. There are similarities and difference with Rand. As a theory of how children form concepts, it seems more accurate than Rand.

_________________

Conceptions are not derived from a multitude of different definite objects by leaving out the qualities in which they differ by retaining those in which they agree. The origins of concepts is sometimes described to be as if a child began with a lot of different particular things, say his particular dogs; his own Fido, his neighbor’s Carlo, his cousin’s Tray. Having all these different objects before him, he analyzes them into a lot of different qualities, say (a) color, (b) size, (c) shape, (d) number of legs, (e) quantity and quality of hair, (f) digestive organs and so on; and them strikes out all the unlike qualities (such as color, size, shape, hair), retaining traits such as quadruped and domesticated, which they all have in general.


As a matter of fact, the child begins with whatever significance he has got out of the one dog and has seen, heard, and handled. He has found that he can carry over from one experience of this object to subsequent experience certain expectations of certain characteristic modes of behavior – may expect these even before they show themselves. He tends to assume this attitude of anticipation whenever any clue or stimulus presents itself’ whenever the object gives him any excuse for it. Thus he might call cats little dogs, or horses big dogs. But finding that other expected traits and modes of behavior are not fulfilled, he is forced to throw out certain traits from the dog-meaning, while he contrasts certain other traits are selected and emphasized. As he further applies the meaning to other dogs, the dog-meaning gets still further defined and refined. He does not begin with a lot of ready-made objects from which he extracts a common meaning; he tries to apply every new experience whatever from is old experience will help him understand it, and as this process of constant assumption and experience is fulfilled and refuted by results, his conceptions get body and clearness.
______________

gregnyquist said...

Ellen: "Well, if it was 'manufactured' by philosophers, a whole lot of research psychologists have been fooled into considering the problem."

I realize that the problem of universals has made a bit of come back in philosophy, with Armstrong et al, but I wasn't aware that psychologists are now banging their heads against it. But what exactly are they doing? Are they actually trying to "solve" the problem, in the philosophical sense of the term solve (i.e., trying to prove or disprove the existence of "real" universals, or trying to show how several individual objects can have a universal property?), or are they merely doing experimental studies on how people recognize relevant similarities? My dismissal of the problem of universals as a philosohical problem is motivated by my anti-foundationalism. In other words, I'm suggesting that (1) No reason-based, "provable" solution exists to the problem; and (2) This doesn't matter.

Robert Campbell said...

Richard Lawrence's site is (uncharacteristically) in error. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology was first published as a paperback in 1967, by The Objectivist Inc. It went through six or seven printings before being replaced by the Mentor paperback in 1979. (The first printing must be quite valuable now, because it is the only version not to have a reference to Nathaniel Branden airbrushed out of it.)

It is highly unlikely that Rand ever heard of Lyle Bourne's book, or that Bourne had ever heard of her epistemological efforts. Bourne was working in a research area that had been well established in American academic psychology for about a decade, and had been a topic of occasional interest a good deal longer.

In my undergraduate cog psych course (this was 1973, when such courses were still novel), the professor referred to the authors of our textbook (Bourne, Ekstrand, and Dominowski) as "neo-behaviorists." I wouldn't go that far, but they were rather conservative in their overall orientation to psychology.

Rand got heavily filtered second-hand reports about the work of George Miller and Jerome Bruner, who were both prominent early cognitive psychologists. She eventually acquired some first-hand knowledge of the work of Noam Chomsky. It was the use that Rand made of a few ideas from the "cognitive revolution" that explains any similarities between her definition of "concept" and Bourne's.

Robert Campbell

Ellen Stuttle said...

Robert wrote:

She eventually acquired some first-hand knowledge of the work of Noam Chomsky.

Of what Chomsky work in particular, do you happen to know? I thought the only work of his she read was something of his criticizing Behaviorism. Any details you have on the issue of what specifically she might have read of Chomsky's, I'd appreciate hearing. (via PM on OL is fine)

Ellen

Dragonfly said...

Hey, I want to know it too! Did she really read a book?

Neil Parille said...

Michael,

I like Jeff Walker's book, but it has to be used with a fair amount of caution.

Cavewight said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cavewight said...

Who says that Ayn Rand tried to solve the problem of universals? From my reading of ITOE it appears that she changed the subject to concept-formation, bringing up the problem of universals only to revile those schools of thought that took it seriously (realism, nominalism, etc). Rand interpreted the problem of universals in terms of "finding the manness in men," which she took to be a statement of skeptical rebuke against reason. Her theory of concept-formation rejects the formulation of the problem (as she stated it) along with the skeptical attitude she thought underlay it. Her theory of concept-formation was her proof and promise that reason is an effective means toward gathering knowledge despite the skeptic's false problem.

But changing the subject to concept-formation does not solve the problem of how knowledge is acquired, it only deals with how concepts are formed from knowledge she assumed, by petitio, as true.

Cavewight said...

Greg Nyquist wrote: "As far as I'm concerned, the problem of universals is not really a problem at all."

Oh yes, it is a problem, once the problem is properly formulated. Rand failed to do so, the questions she submitted in the Foreword as reflecting the problem amount to little more than straw men. The closest she came was the question about 'finding the manness in men.'

(She also mentioned, at the end of ITOE 2nd edition, p 307, the question of finding the roseness in roses.)

The question involves the correspondence relationship between a pure concept such as 'roseness' and an actual entity such as a rose. But perhaps the simplest way to pose this problem is with the example of a straight line, and how the ideal of a straight line, which is purely intellectual, corresponds to what we call a straight line in reality. Because when you look closely at a straight line you will not find straightness, but something only approximating to an ideal you have about what straightness should look like in reality.

If Rand attempted to answer the problem of universals, it was by petitio; that is, she assumed the knowledge she tried to derive through explaining concept-formation.

If she did not try to answer it, then she was doing cognitive psychology, and so there was not a single epistemological statement in a work with 'epistemology' in its title.

gregnyquist said...

Cavewight: "Oh yes, it is a problem, once the problem is properly formulated."

Well, this depends on what is meant by "problem." By "problem," I had in mind some issue that has real, practical consequences if it is not solved. If, however, one means by "problem" any sort of mere intellectual curiousity, then of course it is a problem.

Cavewight: "If she did not try to answer it, then she was doing cognitive psychology, and so there was not a single epistemological statement in a work with 'epistemology' in its title."

I have almost the opposite view, because I see very little cognitive psychology in IOTE. A little smattering here and there in terms of a slight echo of Piaget and a few other early cognitive thinkers; but otherwise mostly speculative epistemology.

It should also be noted, in passing, that traditionally the problem of universals was seen as a metaphysical issue. But Rand had little understanding of the historical aspects of the problem.

Dragonfly said...

But I still don't see what the "problem" is. For example the straight line: we may observe in reality things that can be approximated by the abstract notion of a straight line if the deviations are small enough for practical purposes. Where is the problem in that?

merjet said...

The "problem" in "problem of universals" is one of explanation. In my view the explanation was largely given by John Locke about 320 years ago. What many call "universals" and Rand called "concepts", Locke called "general terms" . His explanation is in ECHU, III, iii.
http://enlightenment.supersaturated.com/johnlocke/BOOKIIIChapterIII.html
Ayn Rand's idea of measurement omission is a very tiny part of the whole and hugely exaggerated.

Daniel Barnes said...

Thoughtful and interesting comments all. Merjet, as it happens, has written a detailed paper on Rand's "measurement-omission" which those looking to dig a little deeper may care to check out.

Cavewight said...

I see that Greg and Dragonfly both chimed in with the same kind of "practical" response.

Rand might have reiterated the following passage in her response:
'If, in the light of such "solutions," the problem might appear to be esoteric, let me remind you that the fate of human societies, of knowledge, of science, of progress and of every human life, depends on it. What is at stake here is the cognitive efficacy of man's mind. As I wrote in For the New Intellectual: "To negate man's mind, it is the conceptual level of his consciousness that has to be invalidated".' (ITOE2, 3)

It seems that Rand's admonition regarding the "cognitive efficacy of man's mind" carries weight only insofar as its exaggeratedness is believed in. Or was it an exaggeration?

Cavewight said...

I have this theory regarding the merjet article.

Rand's idea of a child's implicit concept, or a child's implicit measurement, was based on little more than her projection into a child's mind of her own explicit knowledge of these things. The whole "implicit" idea was a cop-out, a way of avoiding the hard work of actually explaining these issues, which would constitute a real epistemology, and not the basis for mere concept-formation which should properly come after the problem of how knowledge is learned or acquired has been solved. Concept is formed from knowledge, concept is not equivalent to knowledge.

Rand failed to distinguish properly between 'knowledge' and 'concept'. An "implicit measurement" is just the ability to measure perceptually without any cognitive ability actually present yet. Thus Rand equivocated between perceptual "knowledge" and conceptual knowledge. Rand failed to recognize that conceptual knowledge is just knowledge held in concept form, and that it is not necessarily "gained" (ITOE2, 1) in that form. She believed and possibly misinterpreted Edward C. Moore, who vaguely declared that "All knowledge is in terms of concepts." (Quoted at ITOE2, 1; Rand was an infamous yet ingenius misinterpreter of the writings of others.)

I can find very little to recommend about that book, except as a concrete example of the practice of petitio principii. "Reason is instincts made conscious." (First Philosophic Journal, 73; Journals of Ayn Rand.)Rand had a definite instinct for knowing how much sloppy thinking she could get away with, and pass it off as reason.

Cavewight said...

Dragonfly:

I would like to respond to your question with a question which is related to the issue of practicality. What was the practical purpose in geometricians hemming and hawing for centuries over Euclid's fifth postulate?

I think you know the answer to that; in the long run, it was of grave practical importance.

I don't believe that any question regarding the mind or its products can amount to mere esoterica.

So to make the present question more practical for you, solving philosophical puzzles about human cognition can aid cognitive science research and, even more practically, the quest for artificial intelligence.

The problem is bound up with the hierarchy of general human knowledge. Starting at the apex of human thought, theories can and will filter down to the less generalized and more specific sciences.

I'd say that it has something to do with what Rand called the "fate of human societies, of knowledge, of science, of progress and of every human life," although perhaps not in the sense that without an answer (particularly, Rand's answer) civilization is doomed.

Cavewight said...

Gregnyquist: "I have almost the opposite view, because I see very little cognitive psychology in IOTE."

ITOE covers various fields of interest found in cognitive psychology, such as the nature of perception, but it mostly discusses concept-formation. Link to
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki
/Cognitive_psychology
Under the heading, "Major research areas in cognitive psychology,"
you will find the sub-categories "similarity," "conception formation," and "general perception."

Those are only three categories out of many. So as you can see, cognitive psychology covers a wide range of territory. Rand barely scratched the surface. But one thing she did not do in a work with "epistemology" in the title, was epistemology, which is theory of knowledge (she got that part right). The question "how concepts are formed" has only an indirect relation to the epistemological questions "what is knowledge, and how is it acquired?" Claiming (which was really assuming by petitio) it is acquired in conceptual form, as Rand did, does not answer the question.

Neither does a theory of concept-formation even possibly constitute an introduction to epistemology. It is, at best, a result of such a theory. It shouldn't surprise you that Rand assumed a lot of such answers by petitio upon which she based ITOE, primarily by not bothering to analyze her previously accepted truths or "instincts." As you said in your book, Rand was not questing for knowledge, but only trying to justify truths which she already held.

As she stated in an early journal entry, "All instincts are reason, essentially, or reason is instincts made conscious." Rand was primarily focused on explicating her 'instincts' in philosophical form, and eventually reifying them into a vast social restructuring
called laissez-faire capitalism.

For those who might think Rand's statement about instinct was merely speculation, here is an instance of such thinking which spells out Rand's intent --

'Some day I'll find out whether I'm an unusual specimen of humanity in that my instincts and reason are so inseparably one, with the reason ruling the instincts. Am I unusual or merely normal and healthy? Am I trying to impose my own peculiarities as a philosophical system? Am I unusually intelligent or merely unusually honest? I think this last. Unless—honesty is also a form of superior intelligence.'
Ayn Rand
May 15, 1934

"Am I trying to impose my own peculiarities as a philosophical system?" Yes, Miss Rand, you are.