Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy 5: Meaning, Intention, and Truth. In my last post, I criticized the Objectivist theory of meaning for being both quasi-Platonist and quasi-positivist. However, that only skims the surface of what is wrong with the theory. There is a much more serious problem with the Objectivist theory of meaning, which is this: it is not true. As a theory of meaning, it is inextricably incoherent. It confuses meaning and truth. If taken to its ultimate, logical conclusion, it would assert that all meaning is true, which would imply that no one could ever mean something that was false. In practical terms, it encourages Rand's followers to become obssessed with how conclusions are made, rather than with whether such conclusions can be tested. Such are the fruits of Rand's attempt to build a theory of definitions and concepts on the out-moded and anti-scientific views of Plato and Aristotle.
Peikoff declares that "a concept means the existents which it integrates." [IOTE, 98] Meaning, however, doesn't work like that. An individual, particularly an egotist, may presume he means, when using some word, all the "integrated" existents; but really he only means what he asserts of it. If a man believes that, in speaking of something, he means everything about it, he is obviously deluded; for he cannot possibly know everything about an object; nor would it be a cognitive ideal worth striving for, since most knowledge is trivial and not worth knowing at all. What people mean when they say something or think about something is merely their conception of the things they are speaking or thinking about. Such a conception, to the extent that it contains true information about matters of fact, is always partial and inadequate. Knowledge is not a mirror: it does not exhaustively describe, or minutely characterize, its objects. It doesn't have to. Human beings only require enough information to survive and procreate.
There are Objectivists who, while admiting that knowledge is not a mirror, nevertheless refuse to accept the inevitable consequences of this premise. They are caught up in Rand's conspiratorial theories about the history of philosophy. Rand contended that philosophers were engaged (whether wittingly or not) in a "concerted" attack on man's mind. To prove this absurd contention, Rand, like any birther of 9ll truther, began hunting for "evidence." This she achieved by maliciously misinterpreting the views of various philosophers concerning words and definitions. Since the Middle Ages, philosophers had grown tired of arguing about words. In scholastic philosphy, words had meanings independent of the speaker's or thinker's intentions. Since words actually don't have meanings independent of what people intend by them, this led to senseless arguments about the "true" meanings of words.
Rand tried to revive the old scholastic tradition. She thought she could avoid the worst implications of this doctrine by suggesting that only concepts have "true" meanings, while words are merely symbols. But in practice this turns out to be a one of those "distinctions without a difference." A concept is a meaning. Declaring that some concepts have "true" meanings while others have false is to engage in senseless patter. I've covered all this in a previous post; but since Rand's followers and apologists seem incapable of understanding it, it bears repeating: a concept expresses whatever meaning it was meant to express. There are no "true" or "false" meanings, there is only the meaning that the individual is in fact trying to express.
Since concepts are meanings, they don't need definitions. Indeed, for a concept, a definition is redundant. Definitions define word usage, and therefore apply only to words. Meanings are what they are regardless of whether a word exists to express them. It is believed that human beings deal with as many as two million distinct meanings; yet the vocabularly of the average individual is less than 10,000 words. Therefore there are meanings (and ipso facto concepts) that are not attached to words or verbal definitions (and all defintions are verbal!). Words merely express meanings in a form that can be communicated and dealt with consciously. Definitions merely express those meanings in other words. The actual meanings (or concepts) exist independently of the words and their verbal definitions, and would exist whether there were any words to express them.
Having decided that every concept has a true meaning, Rand now had at her disposal a powerful verbal cudgel with which to beat her adversaries. Instead of trying to establish her assertions about matters of fact on the basis of peer reviewed research and experimentation, Rand chose to base her philosophy on her rather eccentric definitions, which were arbitrarily declared as "true." While such a procedure failed to establish the veracity of any of Rand's doctrines, it did have a powerful effect in another, more sinister direction. Being under the illusion that truth is determined by the accuracy and precision of one's definitions and (what perhaps amounts to the same thing) on "proper" concept formation, Rand's followers adopted the practice of defending Objectivism, not with scientific evidence or peer reviewed research, but with long and futile arguments about words. The Objectivist assumes that only he has access to the "true" meanings of words, and that everyone else is using words (and the concepts the words represent) "improperly." According to Objectivism, without "true" meanings and "proper" definitions, no assertion of the truth is "valid." False meanings lead to false propositions, which in turn lead to false conclusions.
The practical consequence of this theory of meaning is that it leads Objectivists to waste time attempting to evaluate the cognitive process leading to a given conclusion, rather than merely testing it against reality. If you're primarily concerned with rationalizing your beliefs, there is much to be said for the Objectivist way of evaluating conclusions. If you're engaged in rationalization, the last thing you want is to have your conclusions tested against reality. Much better to argue about whether one's definitions are "true" or whether one's concepts were formed "properly." But if you care more about truth than rationalization, then you will find arguments about words and concepts to be a waste time. It's not words or concepts that are important, but the things they represent. Nor is it important how a conclusion is reached, but rather, whether the conclusion can be corroborated via empirical evidence. If someone declares that there is a naked woman in his apartment, the best way to test this claim it is to go to the individual's apartment and see if there is in fact a naked woman lounging therein. Very little can be discovered by examining whether the claim is based on concepts that were formed "properly" or whether the individual's definitions are "true," "precise, " and "accurate."