Thursday, October 04, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 18

Definitions 3: Doctrine of Anti-Concept and Invalid Concept. In Rand's infamous chapter on definitions in Introduction to the Objectivist Epistemology, we find the following bewildering assertion:
There are such things as invalid concepts, i. e. words that represent attempts to integrate errors, contradictions, or false propositions, such as concepts originating in mysticism -- or word without specific definitions, without referents, which can mean anything to anyone, such as modern "anti-concepts." Invalid concepts appear occasionally in men's languages, but are usually - though not necessarily - short-lived, since they lead to cognitive dead-ends. An invalid concept invalidates every proposition or process of thought in which it is used as a cognitive assertion. [IOTE, 49]

The most astonishing claim in this paragraph is the final sentence. Invalid concepts spread a kind of curse of invalidity upon everything which uses them as a "cognitive assertion." I'll assume that by "cognitive assertion," Rand means, an assertion about reality. If interpreted in this manner, is the statement true? Hardly. I've already, in previous posts, refuted it. Merely because a concept refers to extra-empirical entitites, or to contradictory beliefs, or to the unreal does not invalidate the concept! Nor does using those so-called "invalid" concepts, even in assertions about reality, invalidate those assertions. The concept bandersnatch can be used in "valid" (i.e., "true," "real") assertions about reality, namely: The bandersnatch is a swift moving creature with a long neck invented by Lewis Carroll. Or: The banderstatch does not exist.

Without realizing it, Rand's decision to regard some concepts as "invalid" not only places concepts referring to mythological creatures beyond the cognitive pale, it also casts a shadow of invalidity over concepts that refer to erroneous ideas. After all, should Marxism be regarded as an invalid concept? After all, Marxism integrates errors, contradictions, and false propositions. But if Marxism is an invalid concept, how are we supposed to refer to that body of thought that Karl Marx inflicted upon the world?

The difficulties of Rand's notion of an invalid concept become clearly manifest when she discusses the (allegedly) "invalid" concept of God:

This is precisely one, if not the essential one, of the epistemological objections to the concept "God". It is not a concept. At best, one could say it is a concept in the sense in which a dramatist uses concepts to create a character. It is an isolation of actual characteristics of man combined with the projection of impossible irrational characteristics which do not arise from reality - such as omnipotence and omniscience. [IOTE, 148]

Rand begins by declaring that God is not a concept; then she says God is a concept in the sense of concepts used to create characters in fiction. She will later go on to declare that God is not a concept because God is "sui generis." Rand could have saved herself these equivocations by merely realizing that the category of validity does not apply to concepts.

Rand leaps into an even deeper epistemological mire with her notion of "anti-concepts." Consider the following:

An anti-concept is an unnecessary and rationally unusable term designed to replace and obliterate some legitimate concept. The use of anti-concepts gives the listeners a sense of approximate understanding. But in the realm of cognition, nothing is as bad as the approximate . . . . 
One of today’s fashionable anti-concepts is “polarization.” Its meaning is not very clear, except that it is something bad—undesirable, socially destructive, evil—something that would split the country into irreconcilable camps and conflicts. It is used mainly in political issues and serves as a kind of “argument from intimidation”: it replaces a discussion of the merits (the truth or falsehood) of a given idea by the menacing accusation that such an idea would “polarize” the country—which is supposed to make one’s opponents retreat, protesting that they didn’t mean it. Mean—what? . . . 
It is doubtful—even in the midst of today’s intellectual decadence—that one could get away with declaring explicitly: “Let us abolish all debate on fundamental principles!” (though some men have tried it). If, however, one declares; “Don’t let us polarize,” and suggests a vague image of warring camps ready to fight (with no mention of the fight’s object), one has a chance to silence the mentally weary. The use of “polarization” as a pejorative term means: the suppression of fundamental principles. Such is the pattern of the function of anti-concepts.

Even if Rand's caricature of polarization had merit, it would not justify slandering the term as an "anti-concept." The meaning of the polarization is sufficiently clear to those who use it: "A concentration, as of groups, forces, or interests, about two conflicting or contrasting positions." Why did Rand object to it? Mainly because polarization was one of her principle debating tricks. Rand liked to argue that there were only two stark alternatives, her own and something far worse. Hence we all must choose between the most extreme form of laissez-faire capitalism and the most extreme form of totalitarian communism; between an uncompromising selfishness and complete self-sacrifice; between free will even to the point of choosing one's own personality and total determinism. Rand refused to acknowledge that there might be a middle ground between these opposing extremes. She refused because, once the middle ground is acknowledged, Rand's extreme positions on these issues become very difficult to defend. If we can only choose between laissez-faire capitalism on the one side and totalitarian communism on the other, then of course any sensible person will choose laissez-faire. But there are far more choices than merely these two extremes: choices running from the lightly but intelligently regulated capitalism advocated by conservatives to a more aggressive and intrusive approach to regulation advocated by those on the left. Rand, however, did not want to bother framing arguments against these less extreme positions. So Rand turned to polarization tactics. When she was called out on it, instead of responding to specific criticisms and giving a detailed, reasonable explanation of why an uncompromising laissez-faire would be preferable to even the light-regulated model favored by conservatives, she tried to crush her advesaries by declaring polarization an "anti-concept." No argument, just verbal mumbo jumbo. That is really what Rand's concept-centered, definition-obsessive approach leads to in the end: verbal mumbo jumbo. Instead of honoring what other people mean by the words they use, she arbitrarily declares their meanings null and void, as mere "anti-concepts" not worth even discussing. Her definitions, which often flout and even trample upon the meanings established by common usage, are then declared as the only "true" and legitimate ones, and we all must mean what Rand means, even when we obviously don't. This mode of argumentation was rooted deep within Rand's nature. It prevented her from engaging in any constructive debate with those who disagreed with her. It plagues orthodox Objectivism to this very day. In terms of practical consequence, Rand's belief that some concepts "obliterate" other concepts is merely another manifestation of the sort of senseless scholasticism that, like a noisome disease, infects her philosophy. No progress in knowledge or science can be achieved by arbitrarily asserting that some meanings constitute "anti-concepts," while others are "invalid." All meanings, all concepts, all ideas are justifiable in and of themselves. Their role is to express or describe some entity, process, attribute, feeling, experience, etc.; whether one's meaning refers to something real or fanciful, true or false, inimical to other meanings or not is entirely beside the point. It may be just as important for us to describe our errors, illusions, and mis-steps as it is to describe objective truth. How can we know what is false and/or illusory if we can't describe it?

Rand's attempt to deprive us of words she disapproved of must be considered not merely foolish and mischievous, but sinister as well. There is an Orwellian component to Rand's notions of invalid concepts and anti-concepts that should put us all on our guard. Rand would deprive us, for example, of the words necessary to explain what is wrong with Objectivism. Epistemologically, what could be more sinister than that?


Francois Tremblay said...

Geeze, you sure bring out your politics in this entry. It's kindof getting in the way of your argumentation; this is after all supposed to be about Objectivism, not politics.

Rey said...

See also: Splitting

@Francois: I don't think the politics get in a the way of Greg's argument at all. They're basically illustrative.