Monday, January 07, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 26

Definitions: conclusion. Rand's theory of definitions constitutes one of the most Aristolean aspects of her philosophy. There are, to be sure, changes (e.g., essences are "epistemological" rather than "metaphysical"), but in the end these changes amount to very little. Objectivism is an essentialistic, definition-based philosophy. As I've noted in earlier posts, definitions are at the heart of Rand's epistemology. Rand suggests that the reason why people disagree with her about morality and politics is that they are guilty of holding "wrong" or inaccurate definitions. If we all formed definitions "properly," we'd all agree with Objectivism.

In this series on definitions, I have sought to show why Rand's theory is erroneous. Rand tacitly thought of meaning as being something different than the concept. So if an individual ascribed the wrong meaning to a specific concept, they were in effect using the wrong definition. However, if I define tomatos as a fruit with an orange rind, I am not actually guilty of using a wrong definition; I'm guilty of improper word usage. Fruit with an orange rind is itself a concept, as is any meaning whatsoever. That's essentially all that a concept is: a meaning. What word is connected to a specific meaning is a matter of convention. A specific meaning can neither be true or false. It merely is. Nor does it matter one jot whether a proposed meaning accords with anything in reality. The meaning/concept of unicorn is every bit as "valid" as the meaning/concept of horse. What is important is what we assert of a specific meaning within the confines of a proposition. The proposition Unicorns exist is false; the proposition Horses exist is true.

Following Aristotle, Rand bases her theory of definition on classical essentialism. But this doctrine has been decisively refuted by Wittgenstien.

Consider … the activities 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 that is 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 ballgames, much that is common is retained, but much is lost.—Are they all 'amusing'? Compare chess with noughts and crosses [i.e. tic-tac-toe]. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience [i.e. solitaire]. 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.

Rand made no effort to respond to Wittgenstein beyond the following verbal perslifage:

As reporters, linguistic analysts were accurate: Wittgenstein's theory that a concept refers to a conglomoration of things vaguely tied together by a "family resemblance" is a perfect description of the state of a mind out of focus. [IOTE, 78]

As a refutation of Wittgenstein's theory, this simply will not do. Rand begs far too many questions. She assumes that unless every word we used can be perfectly summarized in a defining formula, the only alternative is that our minds are out of focus. But this only establishes that Rand did not understand Wittgenstein's theory. If Rand had been serious about refuting Wittgenstein's theory, she would have provided a defining formula for the concept game that was not open to any of Wittgenstein's objections. Since Rand was (apparently) incapable of providing such a refutation, she resorted to her usual ad hominem and ad consequentiam tactics.

If it be argued that the concept game is merely one of those "exceptions that prove the rule," and that, in fairness, one should concentrate on simpler, easier to define concepts, then let us glance at a simpler concept — say, the concept  bachelor. Google defines bachelor as "A man who is not and has never been married." How well does this definition apply in reality?  Hardly with immaculate precision. In some contexts, it begins to break down. Is the pope a bachelor? Is a young man who has been in an irreversible coma since childhood a bachelor? What about a Eunuch? Or an elderly senile gentleman who has never been married? What determines the usage of the word bachelor is far more subtle and nuanced than can be limned in a mere definition.

It would, therefore, appear that Wittgenstein is right: words generally cannot be squeezed into simple, defining formulas. There are no essences defining what a concept is. Language is more complicated than that. The complexity of language is required for the mind to adequately grasp and communicate the complexities and nuances of the real world.


Francois Tremblay said...

Your issues with "bachelor" seem pretty silly. I don't know why anyone would question that the Pope is a bachelor.

A said...

I can see why the pope matches the google definition of a bachelor; but I think Greg's point is that when someone uses the word bachelor one doesn't think of a group including popes/coma patients etc. but instead a much smaller but more complexly-defined kind of person.

Francois Tremblay said...

Oh yes, definitely. I don't know what that's called, but I agree that this is correct.

Gordon Burkowski said...

If you want thousands of examples of the impossibility of arriving at "essential" definitions of words, just check out the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary. As a verb,the word "take" has 93 principal meanings if you count prepositional idioms like "take in" and "take out". As a verb, "run" has 83 principal meanings and many, many more as a noun. "Runs" can of course refer both to diarrhea and scoring at baseball: good luck at finding what "essential" characteristic these have in common.

It's possible, of course, to claim that the same word stands for dozens of concepts; but if that's so, why do we experience no confusion when we use words like "take" and "run"?

The broader problem that is evident here is Rand's belief that intellectual "focus" consists of ignoring complexities instead of carefully and precisely working one's way though them. Scholars take great pleasure in unravelling such complexities; and it is one of the main reasons why so few of them have much time for Ayn Rand.

Jeff said...

The author is trying to use language to dismantle words and their meanings.
Ludwig Wittgenstein seems to have considered language a game. Ayn Rand took language seriously.

Neil Parille said...

In David Oderberg's book Real Essentialism, he references a certain Jesper Juul who he claims has refuted Wittengstein on the game issue.

Here is an essay by Juul.

I think Oderbgerg points out that the concept game is different from, say, cats or dogs because it is "artifactual" and not a "natural kind."

gregnyquist said...

In David Oderberg's book Real Essentialism, he references a certain Jesper Juul who he claims has refuted Wittengstein on the game issue.

Juul, like so many essentialists, confuses attacks on essentialism with attacks on knowledge: "While some writers have claimed that games are forever indefinable or ungraspable..." Who claims that games are ungraspable? The key to understanding Wittgenstein's family resemblance theory is to appreciate that the theory assumes that people know what games are. Wittgenstein takes that for granted. What is at issue is how this understanding is attained. Do we understand what games are beause of some essence, some characteristic common to all games? Or can understanding arise even when there is no meaningful characteristic common to all?

Juul proposes the following definition for games: "The definition proposed here describes games mainly as real rule-based systems that players interact with in the real world." But isn't a judicial system mainly a "real" rule-based system that players interact with in the real world? Is the judicial system therefore a game? How about a church? There we find rules governing how people interact with in the real world? Is going to church a game? Ettiquette itself is a series of rules by which players interact with in the real world. Is society merely a game?

If you are going to define "game" so broadly, then everything involving rule following in the real world becomes a game. However, even if one wishes, perhaps out of satire, to call the judicial system a mere game, it still remains true that chess or football is more game-like than a judicial hearing; so that the family-resemblance theory (or, rather, the prototype theory, which grows out of the F-R theory) is clearly a more adequate description of how language works then what is provided by essentialism.

Francois Tremblay said...

Given how ridiculous and unfair our "justice" system is, I think calling it a game is pretty generous. The rules of games are generally supposed to be fair

Anonymous said...

"Ayn Rand took language seriously."

Correction: Ayn Rand took language too seriously.

Rey said...

I dunno. Can someone who insists that a words means exactly what she (and only she) says it means, no more, no less, common and traditional usage and clarify of communication be damned, be considered as someone who takes language seriously?

Rey said...

"clarify" = "clarity" lol

Spencer Milton said...

The more important claim in this article is that Rand misunderstood the difference between a concept and a definition. The definition proves nothing except how we use the word. But Rand based much of her philosophy on simply how she used words. Rand was selfish and just basically said "I'm going to use the word moral to mean selfish." But her definition proves nothing about reality and is in fact refuted by morality. Most people would say that sacrificing the self for one's child is moral, but she denies this simply because that'snot how she uses the word. It's not that some people are out of focus. It's a word game.

Daniel Barnes said...

Word-games are indeed the way Objectivism operates. We are having real-time demonstration of this over "logic" on another thread....;-)