Monday, February 04, 2008

"What does a rational person do in regard to anti-concepts?"

The Ayn Rand Institute's Harry Binswanger, he also of the HBL, drops by the ARCHNblog to comment on "anti-concepts", and exactly what should be done about these pesky critters.
An example of an anti-concept

An "anti-concept," as Ayn Rand identified and defined this perversion, is "an unnecessary and rationally unusable term designed to replace and obliterate some legitimate concept."

She identified the following as anti-concepts: "consumerism," "duty," "ethnicity," "extremism," "isolationism," "McCarthyism," "meritocracy," "polarization," and "simplistic."

To that roll of dishonor, I would add "socialization." This term is used, ostensibly, to refer vaguely to the process by which a child comes to adopt the elements of civilized existence in society. A definition I found on the web states:

"Socialization is the process by which culture is learned; also called enculturation. During socialization individuals internalize a culture's social controls, along with values and norms about right and wrong."

oregonstate.edu/instruct/anth370/gloss.html

A definition given at a medical dictionary site is more explicit, and therefore uglier:

"the process by which society integrates the individual, and the individual learns to behave in socially acceptable ways."

http://www.mercksource.com/pp/us/cns/cns_hl_dorlands.jspzQzp
gzEzzSzppdocszSzuszSzcommonzSzdorlandszSzdorlandzSzdmd
_s_14zPzhtm


Right there, you can see the incredible package-deal the term is trying to put over on us. The first part of the definition speaks of society acting upon the individual, as if society were an entity and the individual a lump of clay, waiting to be molded by it. The second part of the definition refers to learning. (And even with regard to that the definition's author felt the need to add "socially acceptable" into the mix.)

"Socialization" packages together rational learning and mindless conformity.

The purpose of the package is to eliminate from the user's mind the idea that there is such a thing as rational learning. Note, in regard to this purpose, that the two parts of the second definition are joined by "and"—as if there is always an element of second-handedness in a child's acceptance of morality, etiquette, etc.

But there is no more fundamental difference in a child's development than that between first-handed and second-handed functioning.

Both Howard Roark and Ellsworth Toohey came to hold moral (or, in Toohey's case pseudo-moral) principles. But the difference in how this happened is the difference between . . . well, it's the difference between Roark and Toohey. Packaging both their developments into one concept, "socialization," is designed to obliterate this difference, to make the idea of Roark unthinkable—by implying there is no essential difference between Roark's mental processes and those of Toohey and Keating.

Indeed, the anti-concept "socialization" is aimed at wiping out the very idea of a mental process, suggesting that everyone is molded unconsciously by "society," passively absorbing his conclusions, his convictions, his standards, from his interactions with others.

Note that the first definition says "individuals internalize social controls." You "internalize" the food you eat. If you are simply eating up the "values and norms" tossed to you by others, there's something very wrong.

The term "socialization" has currency because it resonates with the experience of second-handers. To the extent one has not engaged in rational learning, and has passively absorbed his ideas from others, he has difficulty even conceiving of an alternative. People who blithely write about society "integrating" the individual—without shuddering at the implications for how they themselves developed— are either unaccustomed to applying ideas to their own lives or confessing so thorough a second-handedness that they have lost the idea of rational learning altogether. Or both.

What does a rational person do in regard to anti-concepts? First, he doesn't allow them into his own thinking. He refuses to use words such as "socialization," consigning them to oblivion. Second, he doesn't give them further currency in communication with others; where appropriate, he unmasks them for the mind-busters that they are. Which is what this post has been designed to do for "socialization."

Harry Binswanger, HBL

25 comments:

Jay said...

Harry,

Excellent analysis of anti-concepts.

Indeed, the anti-concept "socialization" is aimed at wiping out the very idea of a mental process, suggesting that everyone is molded unconsciously by "society," passively absorbing his conclusions, his convictions, his standards, from his interactions with others.

I happened upon a similar example in my literature class this afternoon. The teacher said "We don't see the world as it is, but as we are." Now in a certain sense our values and priorities do color what we see. But the way she insisted on it seemed to eliminate the possibility that one person's view might be closer to the truth than another's, or even that there is such a truth to use as a frame of reference.

Jay said...

Or, a better way of saying it. She seemed certain that we couldn't, by our very nature, see the world "as it is."

Anonymous said...

I doubt that HB himself would deign to grace this forum with his comments. Probably that comment came from an HBL subscriber, who reproduced one of HB's posts (probably in violation of the stipulations of HBL policy). Whoever you are, stop it.

Behemoth said...

Kudos to Dr. Binswanger for participating and attempting to further the discussion. His input is appreciated.

However, I must say that the examples presented strike me as quite absolutist and reactionary (at the risk of using anti-concepts myself). HB appears to interpret "socialization" as a complete abdication of an individual's self-determination: "passively absorbing his conclusions, his convictions, his standards, from his interactions with others." Is "socialization" really this extreme? Does adopting some of society's norms mean one must "eliminate from the user's mind the idea that there is such a thing as rational learning"?

Take, for example, picking one's nose in public. Nobody's rights are being violated by such an action, and doing so makes the picker more comfortable; it's an objectively justifiable action. But our society generally considers it gross, and societal disapproval keeps people from doing it. A wide variety of other behaviors are considered appropriate or inappropriate to a varying degree by culture: burping, forming a queue vs. forming a mob, gratuities at restaurants, nude sunbathing... all of this is learned through "socialization" -- a process of assimilation by learning the norms of society. Does HB really reject this whole idea outright?

I understand concerns people may have on to what extent these norms should be legislated; a debate could certainly be had about the appropriateness of, say laws about public lewdness, or what should qualify. But the outright rejection of "the process by which ... the individual learns to behave in socially acceptable ways" as an anti-concept is too black-and-white a position for me to accept.

Jay said...

Behemoth,

I think you and Dr. Binswanger have different ideas of socialization in mind. He seems to be referring to socialization a la John Dewey. Dewey believed that socialization should be the chief goal of education (knowledge, he literally said, was unimportant.) The individual is merely a cog in a greater machine. The public school system has followed this doctrine through and through for decades, with obvious and deplorable results.

You're talking more about customs we all observe out of common decency. I guess that could be called socialization, but it's quite different.

Wells said...

Harry Binswanger is wrong as usual.

Remember people; unlike adults and older children, younger children do not have any basis to reject anything their parents or teachers say as false. If you don't know anything, you don't know that the opposite is not true. To say that certain aspects of socialization is not exactly rational is common-sense.
We're adults or near adults here so let's be serious, How is someone who has a 0th grade education, knows nothing they've haven't been told by their mom and dad, and depends on said mom and dad to get fed every day supposed to think anything different then what their parents say? By the time someone has been around long enough to have something to compare what authority figures say to, they have been taking the word of said authority figures for quite some time.

Moony said...

Could someone please check my understanding here? There are evil people who spend time inventing misleading, essentially meaningless, concepts with which to replace 'real', meaningful concepts in order - I'd guess - to win debates by trickery?

Moony said...

Jay

She seemed certain that we couldn't, by our very nature, see the world "as it is."

On the basis of personal experience I suspect she's right. In fact my guess is that the only way to see the world as it is to stop creating mental models of it, in other words to stop thinking.

dragonfly said...

Why would "simplistic" be an anticoncept? It is a perfectly valid concept, meaning that a theory or a description is too simple to be valid, as it ignores one or more factors that are too important to be left out. As Einstein said: "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler". I suspect Rand didn't like the term while it was used by critics of some of here theories, in which she tried to reduce everything to simplistic black-and-white schemes.

dragonfly said...

Here is another example of what Rand called an anti-concept: polarization (in the political sense). Again this is a perfectly valid concept. Her argument is that people use it as a pejorative term, but that doesn't invalidate the concept itself! Many people use "capitalist" also as a pejorative term, but does that make "capitalist" an anti-concept?

Another one: duty. What is wrong with that concept? You may violently disagree with someone about what is a duty and what not, but does that invalidate the concept itself?

Jay said...

In fact my guess is that the only way to see the world as it is to stop creating mental models of it, in other words to stop thinking.

Thinking and mental models are the only way to see the world as it is. One great example is the recent emergence of sabermetric analysis in Major League Baseball. Unsubstantiated or purely sentimental dogmas (the supreme importance of batting average, for example) are being demolished by statistical modelling and analysis.

Of course, the high preists of the status quo in the "Old" orthodoxy despise this new school of thought. But would you really claim that they see baseball "as it is" and not those subjecting it to rigorous empirical scrutiny?

Jay said...

Dragonfly,

Why would "simplistic" be an anticoncept? It is a perfectly valid concept, meaning that a theory or a description is too simple to be valid, as it ignores one or more factors that are too important to be left out.

"Oversimplified" is the proper term for that. "Simplistic" is a smear against simplicity as such. It's way for critics to demean something without any substantive argument or specific line of reasoning.

Moony said...

Jay

I'll get back to you on that. I have no idea what sabermetric analysis is and - to be honest - only a vague idea of what baseball is.

Dragonfly said...

Jay: "Oversimplified" is the proper term for that."

Who decides what a "proper" term is? According to all the dictionaries that I've consulted these terms are synonyms.

Jay: ""Simplistic" is a smear against simplicity as such. It's way for critics to demean something without any substantive argument or specific line of reasoning."

You mean, just like terms as "irrational", "subjectivist", "whim-worshiping" or "rationalist" that Objectivists like to use to demean something without any substantive argument or specific line of reasoning?

The fact that some people like to use pejorative terms without argument does not imply that those terms are invalid. "Simplistic" is not a "smear" against simplicity, it is a criticism against too much simplicity, which can be a completely valid criticism.

Jay said...

Moony,

It breaks down like this. It used to be that baseball people (managers, scouts, etc.) judged the value of players on stats, but more on sentiment and guesswork. In the worst case scenario, teams signed players who merely "look" like ballplayers, ie, they are well-built and clean cut.

In the 70's, a man named Bill James said "wait a minute. Teams are spending a ton of money on ballplayers whose value they don't even really understand." He began self-publishing a book that analyzed ballgames and players with more accurate statistical models and equations. How much was a run worth? How much, precisely, does a strikeout detract from a team's likelihood of scoring a run? These were some of the questions he set out to answer. His work attracted a small following and eventually blossomed into a very prominent circle within baseball itself. Today, a new generation of Ivy League educated general managers (like Theo Epstein of the Boston Red Sox) will not spend a dime without consulting what math and stats have to say about ballplayers.

Point being that those guys are seeing reality more clearly than scouts who gush about a player's good looks and say "Shucks, he looks like he'll be a star someday." The reason? The "mental models" that enable them to see past the surface.

Jay said...

Dragonfly,

Good point about pejorative uses. Maybe it's more accurate to say those uses are anti-conceptual, rather than the words themselves. I'm glad you mentioned capitalism as a pejorative term, because I think that provides a shining example.

Last week a socialist buddy and I were having a friendly argument about capitalism vs. socialism. He was upholding Cuba as a moral ideal other nations should follow. Naturally, I used criticisms premised on the degradation of individual rights (universal healthcare, children thrown in labor camps in Cuba, etc.) In other words, my criticisms were conceptually valid. However, he used arguments like government favoritism toward corporations, saying in effect "How about that, Mr. Capitalist?" Problem is, that is a result of statism, not capitalism. His use of capitalism is anti-conceptual because it bundles individual self-assertion and profit seeking with arbitrary political force.

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>"Oversimplified" is the proper term for that. "Simplistic" is a smear against simplicity as such.

Who says? "Oversimplified" can be used pejoratively too, just like "simplisitic". Look, you're in the grip of Rand's version of a very central and ancient fallacy here, Jay. In fact, there are no "true" meanings of words, in the sense that their truth exists objectively and can be discovered like a scientific law or a new planet. Yet Rand made out that there was; that the philosopher's Job No.1 was to uncover these true meanings using reason (i.e. logic), and reveal them to the masses who used false, "second-hand" or conventional definitions, and were thus misguided.

But...slight problem: unfortunately there is no way of logically determining the truth or falsity of definitions. This logical point is clearcut, and slices clean through all the intimidating Randian rhetoric on this subject. Rand's claim - to the vague extent that she outlines it at all - simply does not work as advertised! The Popper essay "Two Kinds of Definition", which we regularly refer to on this site, outlines the situation. (although I have come to think the two or three basic arguments might be condensed into a more concise form). Read and re-read it till it suddenly clicks into place...;-)

The closest thing we have is conventional meanings, which we then use creatively, sometimes with neologisms to help, to express our individual point of view.

Daniel Barnes said...

Mr Binswanger,

Thanks for your comment (if it is in fact you who posted this). However, there are some obvious criticisms which I might put to you.

Firstly: it appears the whole idea of an "anti-concept" rests on Rand's belief that there are objectively "true" and "false" definitions of words. However, it turns out that this is a fallacy - that there is no logical way of determining this truth or falsity. Surely if there are, therefore, no objectively false meanings - as opposed to merely unconventional meanings - there are no "anti-concepts."

Secondly, you write re socialization:" Note that the first definition says "individuals internalize social controls." You "internalize" the food you eat. If you are simply eating up the "values and norms" tossed to you by others, there's something very wrong."

Now this seems to be simply a vast exaggeration. For it is undoubted that we inherit almost all our knowledge, including our social knowledge, from other people. Take that most distinctively human trait; language. Did I invent it? Obviously not. If not, from where did I get it? Answer: from other people. If I use the English language (or any other) as my fundamental form of communication, this makes me to an inescapably large extent a second-hander. The same goes with our values and norms, which we, being mammals, largely absorb as other mammals do: through imitation. Anyone who has had children knows this.

The extent of our collective cultural inheritance is vast, and inescapably comprises an enormous part of who we are. Further, it is hardly "very wrong" that this is so. We get a huge amount of useful stuff, and less fortunately, a huge amount of useless and even dangerous stuff too. Hence you are right to a degree, in that it is important that we should approach our cultural inheritance critically. But given its sheer vastness, I put it to you that it is impossible for any individual to do as you suggest: verify every part of that inheritance "first hand"; even where that verification is even logically possible, such as in my first point. Thus, while we certainly accept our individualism, we must also accept that we are "second-handers" through and through; the positive benefits from the enormous creative efforts of our ancestors and contemporaries hopefully outweighing the negatives.

Douglas Lucas said...

Hairy Binswarian wouldn't post here. Not only would he consider doing so an immoral "sanction" of his enemy, he's also much too busy running Binswanger Glass.

:-p

So, somebody's pirating HBL posts.

Daniel Barnes said...

Yes I thought it a little odd. But as the immortal philosopher Fats Waller said, "One never knows, do one?"

Jay said...

http://objectivistcenter.org/showcontent.aspx?ct=433&printer=True

With Valentines Day fast approaching, I challenge someone to tell me just what is so contemptible about this article...;)

Daniel Barnes said...

It's a romantic manifesto!...;-)

Daniel Barnes said...

Nothing "contemptible" at all about such sentiments, incidentally. Even we at the truculently realistic ARCHNblog do not have hearts of stone.

Moony said...

Jay

Sorry about the delay. The promised response is in the form of a post on my blog (http://themoonmanredux.blogspot.com/).

I don't think you'll like it, but at least I kind of kept my promise!

Best wishes

Moony

Jay said...

Moony,

I appreciate the response. What I was trying to do is offer an example of what abandoning "mental models" actually means. Like Greg and Daniel, I too dislike vagueness when specific answers and examples are available. The reason I chose the example of stats vs. gut feel in baseball is because, in many ways, it mirrors the larger philosophical debate of the same issue. In baseball, there are the "purists" who scoff at examining numbers and holding pet theories up to examination, and there are "stat heads" who try to analyze the game in a deeper, more meaningful way. What's significant about this is that slowly but surely, teams who employ stats in their scouting and operations are winning. Teams who struggle to objectively assess the talent pool are outperforming richer teams who use conventional wisdom. Point being that there is a truth to most situations and we would do well to pursue it rather than give up the quest because "we all see things differently."

It was also an easy example because baseball is an interest of mine. I apologize if I misapprehended your point.