To exist is to be something, as distinguished from the nothing of nonexistence, it is to be an entity of a specific nature made of specific attributes. Centuries ago, the man who was—no matter what his errors—the greatest of your philosophers, has stated the formula defining the concept of existence and the rule of all knowledge: A is A. A thing is itself. You have never grasped the meaning of his statement. I am here to complete it: Existence is Identity, Consciousness is Identification.
Identity is the most equivocal of Rand's axioms. The equivocation centers around the word is. The phrase A is A and A thing is itself do not necessarily use the term is in the same sense. A is A merely illustrates the identity of a term of thought with itself. It is unproblematical and obvious because it is tautological. If by a "thing" we mean an object in reality, the identity of thing to itself is not entirely unproblematic. In noting that a A is A, you are merely noting an obvious identity of an essence or a sense-datum with itself. In noting that a thing is itself, you are going beyond the simple identity of terms of thought to making assertion about both existence and the qualities of the existing thing. The phrase A is A is not equivalent to the phrase a thing is itself. They do not describe the same type of identity. A term of thought is always and eternally identical to itself. Not so with a thing, which exists in the flux of nature and is subject to changes in its material constitution, even to the point of destruction. When one asserts a thing is itself, one is not asserting pure identity; on the contrary, one is both asserting the existence of the thing and predicating its attributes. These are very different matters from asserting the identity of a term of thought with itself.
Rand's error stems from conflating various meanings of the word is. When former President Clinton noted "It depends on the meaning of the word is," people laughed, because he was obviously trying to equivocate his way to a dishonest end. But philosophically, his statement was not absurd. The philosopher George Santayana identified at least seven meanings of the word is, and assumed there might be many more. Santayana's seven meanings are as follows:
Now it is my contention that Rand and her disciples confuse identity with predication and existence (in other words, Rand confuses A is A with A is B and A is). Consider the following statement, from Galt's speech:
Whatever you choose to consider, be it an object, an attribute or an action, the law of identity remains the same. A leaf cannot be a stone at the same time, it cannot be all red and all green at the same time, it cannot freeze and burn at the same time. A is A.
While it is true that a leaf cannot be a stone "at the same time," this truth is neither self-evident nor a consequence of A is A. The fact that a term of thought is equal to itself has nothing to do with whether a stone can be a leaf "at the same time." The judgment about stones and leaves involves several important presuppositions that, while true, are not logically irrefutable or "self-evident." To understand that a stone cannot be a leaf at the same time one needs to assume the existence of time and change, both of which rely on the trustworthiness of memory (which, of course, is not entirely unproblematic or "axiomatic"). Once time and change are understood, it is easy to infer that a stone cannot be a leaf at the same time, because the phrase at the same time precludes change of any sort, and freezes every object into an instant of eternity. Yet because the world of nature exists in time, this observation is rather trivial and not terribly useful. In the flux of nature, the material substance in a stone may become the material substance used in the constitution of a leaf, so that a stone may in fact become a leaf if enough time is allowed to effect the process. The process of change tends to be far more relevant to understanding the real world than do assertions about the identity of an object to itself at "any given instant in time."
The identity of a term of thought is simple and unproblematical. Not so the "identity" of an object like a leaf or a stone existing in the flux. When we "identify" a leaf or a stone as a leaf or a stone, we do so by noting the attributes of the leaf and stone, which are predicated of the object, and by presuming the object's existence. In other words, such "identification" involves predication and existence, rather than Rand's simple A is A identification.
Even more objectionable, in this context, is a statement by Leonard Peikoff. "A characteristic is an aspect of an existent," he writes. "It is not a disembodied, Platonic universal. Just as a concept cannot mean existents apart from their identity, so it cannot mean identities apart from that which exists. Existence is Identity." If by characteristic Peikoff means something like color or texture, his verbiage here is complete nonsense. A color or a texture is not an aspect of an existent: it is a mental datum that symbolizes a property of the existent. Mental data are "disembodied" (i.e., non-material), Platonic universals! (Of course, such universals don't have the metaphysical powers Plato ascribed to them, but that's a separate issue.) Since such datum can be used as descriptions of properties of other existents, they are indeed "apart" from that which exists. Yellow can be used by the mind to describe both the sun and a buttercup. It can even be contemplated as an object of the "mind's eye," as when we imagine a yellow patch. This yellow, while perfectly identical to itself, is not identical to the property it symbolizes in reality (which is the manner in which an object reflects light). Since knowledge is fundamentally representational, identity is largely irrelevant. Knowledge is not a mirror. A concept or a name is not identical to the object or property which it points to and represents. The concept of a cat is not identical to the existing cat, nor is the name Barack Obama identical to the 44th President. What we seek for in knowledge is not identity, but appropriate representation. Knowledge does not reduplicate existents, it describes them. This description assumes (1) the existence of the object and (2) the reality of the properties that are predicated of the object. Existence, therefore, is not Identity. When I acknowledge that an individual of my acquaintence is John Smith, I'm not claiming that either the name John Smith or my idea or concept of John Smith is identical to the real John Smith. I'm merely noting a naming convention that allows me to be understood when I state my opinion about John Smith to other people. That opinion, even if true down to the minutest detail, will nevertheless not be identical with the real John Smith in the A is A sense of identity. It will be a veracious description, nothing more.
Therefore, when Rand berates her ideological opponents for evading "the fact that A is A," she means something different from what is encaspulated in her axiom of identity. Her opponents, even when wrong, are not guilty of evading A is A. Who denies that a term of thought is equal to itself? If her opponents have evaded any facts of reality, they are guilty of two possible errors: (1) of denying the existence of something that really exists; or (2) denying that some existent has a specific property. In other words, they are guilty of evading, not identity, but either existence or predication (i.e., they are guilty of evading A is or A is B).