Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 33

Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy 6: Identity, Understanding, and Platonism. Where do concepts exist? Where do they reside? In his essay on the Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy, Peikoff makes the following assertion:
What, then, is the meaning of the concept "man"? "Man" means a certain type of entity, a rational animal, including all the characteristics of this entity (anatomical, physiological, psychological, etc. as well as the relation of those characteristics to those of other entities) --- all the characteristics already known, and all those ever to be discovered. Whatever is true of the entity, is meant by the concept.
It follows that there are no grounds on which to distinguish "analytic" from "synthetic" propositions. Whether one states that "A man is a rational animal," or that "A man has only two eyes" --- in both cases, the predicated characteristics are true of man and are, therefore, included in the concept "man." [IOTE, 100]
I have already criticized this view of meaning on the assumption that a person can only mean what he knows. It could also be criticized for assuming that people always mean what is "true of the entity." What if they mean something else? What if they intend to use words to deceive or to rationalize? But there's another criticism I would like to introduce in this post, one which I have previously broached but which needs to be explained in more detail. Peikoff speaks about the concept "man." This concept, he says, includes "all the characteristics already known, and all those ever to be discovered." Now the concepts that people actually have in their minds don't, as far as we can tell, include "all the characteristics known and to be discovered." How could they? An individual's conception of something can only include what he knows of it. Peikoff, however, writes of concepts as if they are some sort of supra-human thing, identical in all respects regardless of where they might reside.

Keep in mind, Objectivists claim that concepts are "produced by man's consciousness in accordance with the facts of reality, as mental integrations of factual data computed by man --- as the products of a cognitive method of classification whose processes must be performed by man, but whose content is dictated by reality." [IOTE, 53] If concepts are produced by man's consciousness from "mental integrations," how can they include information that was in fact never observed, perceived, remembered and integrated by any mind? The actual concepts produced by an individual's consciousness (assuming, per implausible, that consciousness does in fact, solely by its own resources, produce concepts) cannot possibly be the concepts imagined by Rand and Peikoff. An individual's concept of man cannot possibly include things he doesn't know and has never experienced. So if there is such a concept that does include "whatever is true of the entity," whether known or unknown, where does that concept reside? In whose mind or brain does it linger?

The insistence that concepts including everything about their referents has led not only this critic, but others as well, to conclude that Objectivists have unwittingly turned concepts into "quasi-Platonic entitites." The actual conceptions that people have of things, being produced, as Rand insists, by their own minds, can hardly contain information that is "unknown." Information that is unknown is information that has never been held in someone's mind; for if it had been held in someone's mind, it would have been known at least in that one instance. A concept containing unknown information must therefore exist outside of the mind. Where, then, can this non-mental concept exist, if not in some quasi-Platonic realm?

Obviously Rand did not intend to embrace a quasi-Platonic view of concepts. The fact that her theory implies such a view mostly like arises from a confusion between identity and understanding. Each person has their own conceptions of things; but these concepts, although unique to each individual, refer to common sets of objects that are given the same names. To decorate her concepts with an aura of objectivity, Rand sought to downplay the unique, personal nature of concepts. She tacitly assumed that for a concept to be "objective," it had to be the same for everyone. If the concept of man were not identical for every individual, then how could people communicate? After all, wouldn't the concept have to be identical if it were referring to the same thing?

What Rand failed to fully grasp is that a concept could be the same in so far as it referred to the same set of objects, and yet be different in in terms of its depth of understanding, the amount of information it contained, and the degree of truth and falsity which it exhibited. Everyone could know what a man is, yet have different notions of the nature of men.

At times, Rand seems to suggest that misunderstandings arise often (if not solely) from some sort of misidentification or confusion over what a thing is or what it should be called. As Rand herself puts it, the people she dislikes (and they constitute a very large group) are guilty of denying that "A is A." Oddly enough, she provides little if any specific examples of this, other than a few vague suggestions based on various misreadings of Kant, Hume, and other modern philosophers. Generally speaking, errors and falsehoods arise, not from misidentification or mislabeling, but from mistaken notions about the referents of concepts. People usually know what things are (in the sense that they can name them and distinguish them from other objects). Where they lapse into error is in the predications: in their notions of the characteristics of things. For example, a person may entertain false notions concerning human nature. Rand herself was guilty of that. Yet these false notions don't prevent them from being able to distinguish human beings from other animals. There's no evidence that Rand, despite her erroneous views about human beings, ever had trouble distinguishing a man from an ape or any other animal.  Grasping that a given object belongs to a specific class of things turns out not to be very difficult or controversial. We usually know how to name and group objects into classes. It's our assertions about these classes of objects where the trouble begins. Rand somehow failed to grasp this distinction.

27 comments:

ungtss said...

“What Rand failed to fully grasp is that a concept could be the same in so far as it referred to the same set of objects, and yet be different in in terms of its depth of understanding, the amount of information it contained, and the degree of truth and falsity which it exhibited. Everyone could know what a man is, yet have different notions of the nature of men.”

She grasped that:).

From ITOE:

"Concepts are not and cannot be formed in a vacuum; they are formed in a context; the process of conceptualization consists of observing the differences and similarities of the existents within the field of one’s awareness (and organizing them into concepts accordingly). From a child’s grasp of the simplest concept integrating a group of perceptually given concretes, to a scientist’s grasp of the most complex abstractions integrating long conceptual chains—all conceptualization is a contextual process; the context is the entire field of a mind’s awareness or knowledge at any level of its cognitive development.
This does not mean that conceptualization is a subjective process or that the content of concepts depends on an individual’s subjective (i.e., arbitrary) choice. The only issue open to an individual’s choice in this matter is how much knowledge he will seek to acquire and, consequently, what conceptual complexity he will be able to reach. But so long as and to the extent that his mind deals with concepts (as distinguished from memorized sounds and floating abstractions), the content of his concepts is determined and dictated by the cognitive content of his mind, i.e., by his grasp of the facts of reality.

What you're running up against here is semantics. She's differentiating between "The Concept" and "The Complexity of the Concept." The Concept itself is simply the entity. But the Complexity, Consistency, Integration, Understanding, etc. of the Concept is one's degree of knowledge -- or mistake -- about the entity.

gregnyquist said...

What you're running up against here is semantics. She's differentiating between "The Concept" and "The Complexity of the Concept."

Is Rand differentiating between the two, or is she contradicting herself? Is she aware that she uses the term concept in two different senses, one Platonic and the other naturalistic? I suspect she was not aware of that. Furthermore, can a concept be both naturalistic and platonic? Isn't that a contradiction? Now if Rand is guilty of a contradiction, quoting one side of the contradiction can't refute criticism of the other side.

Nor do I think that quoting what Rand writes concerning the "content" of concepts solves the problem of where "The Concept" (in the platonic sense) resides. If there is a concept that contains "whatever is true of the entity," where does that concept exist? If it does not exist in any mind, then what type of object is it? Is it mental (but how could it be?), supra-mental, divine, physical? Why shouldn't we regard such an object as quasi-Platonic? After all, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, shouldn't we call it a duck? In the same manner, if a concept doesn't reside in an actual mind yet nevertheless exists, isn't it Platonic?

ungtss said...

"Is she aware that she uses the term concept in two different senses, one Platonic and the other naturalistic?"

You make a good point -- there's an ambiguity there that she doesn't seem to have explicitly resolved -- at least not anywhere i've seen.

As I've come to interpret her idea, though, i don't think she's talking about concept in two different senses so much as talking about two different aspects of concepts: their referent, and their relationship to other concepts.

For instance, when my daughter and I talk about dogs, we're both talking about the same class of entities. Even though I know more about dogs than she does. We're still talking about the same thing.

My knowledge _about_ dogs is composed of conceptual links between my concept of dogs and _other_ concepts. for instance, the knowledge that "dogs have hearts" is a link between two concepts -- dogs and hearts.

my concept of "dog" is unchanged. i'm still referring to the same class of entities as my 3-year-old.

what has changed is that i have drawn a connection between that concept and another concept -- added complexity to the concept -- integrated it into a wider web of understanding.

but again, this is just my personal interpretation, based on my personal experience. i don't know what she personally would say to clear up the ambiguous usage of "concept" in this concept. i just know what i do.

Anonymous said...

A concept contains the yet unknown, simply means that concepts are open ended , that newly aquired information or integrations concerning a specific class of entity can be subsumed under the original concept without having to form unique concept that does contain the new information. It is apparent in the whole of work that this is what she 'meant'

Ken said...

If the concept of man were not identical for every individual, then how could people communicate?

And as we're all aware, no-one has ever misunderstood anything said by anyone else. All communications are perfect meetings of the minds, and show how we all mean exactly the same thing by such words as "mother", "patriotism", and "green".

(If you're wondering about "green", there's some fascinating work on color perception; basically any given individual doesn't even perceive colors consistently, so it's impossible to claim that two different people would.)

Bokata said...

Greg,

Thanks for your thoughtful reply to my last post. Will get back with you on Aristotle's notion of concepts. Meanwhile...

A is A. Existence exists. Ergo existence is identity. So, Is Pluto a planet or not? There seems to be some controversy as of late on this score. Was Iraq a sovereign nation or an outlaw state from 1980 to 2003? The State Department changed policy in this regard around 1990, although Iraq was the same country with the same leadership for the duration. Was Ulysses' oar a winnowing fan once he had walked far enough inland? Is man a machine, or a rational being with agency and free will? If we're rational creatures, why are so many of us impervious to reason in whatever guise?

In their attempt to do away with the analytic-synthetic distinction, Rand and company are attempting to make their truth claims appear to be self evident when they are anything but. The same applies to their semantic manipulations. Once you've hijacked logic and linguistics, the truth is bound to fall out where you want it to.

ungtss said...

"So, Is Pluto a planet or not?There seems to be some controversy as of late on this score. Was Iraq a sovereign nation or an outlaw state from 1980 to 2003?"

All of your definitions run backwards -- defining a particular entity in terms of a broader categorical concept.

thus the ambiguity in definition is in the definition of "planet," not in the concept "pluto." and it's in the definition of "sovereign state," not in the concept "iraq."

this is critically important, because the definition of "Iraq" is not ambiguous. it's defined geographically, politically, and personally in terms of particular concretes.

the definition of "sovereign state," however, is ambiguous, because the one does not have a clear understanding of what we mean by "sovereign."

similarly, the definition of "planet" is ambiguous, because we're playing with abstract categories. but the concept "Pluto" is not ambiguous. It's a particular thing that can be seen through a telescope, and whose motion can be predicted.

etc.

your confusion is a result of a failure to identify where the ambiguity in your definitions is. it's not in the particular concept. it's in the broader category.

ungtss said...

to the extent we argue about whether "Pluto is a planet" or "Pluto is a dwarf planet," we're not really arguing about what pluto is. We're arguing about what a planet is.

to the extent we use the shorthand "Pluto is a dwarf planet," we're really using "dwarf planet" as a placeholder for all the characteristics that have been loaded into the definition "dwarf planet." Thus if "Dwarf planet" means "rock in space with X,Y, and Z characteristics," then "Pluto is a dwarf planet" simply means "Pluto is a rock in space with X, Y, and Z characteristics."

There's no ambiguity there. The only ambiguity is in what labels and sublabels we choose to apply as placeholders to different sets of characteristics.

Bokata said...

Ungtss,

How can a definition run backward?

Also...
'There's no ambiguity there. The only ambiguity is in what labels and sublabels we choose to apply as placeholders to different sets of characteristics.'

Unintentional irony?

And, regarding an earlier post you stated 'language is a particular.'

Seems you've got the definitions down pat.

ungtss said...

Bokata,

Look after the two dashes.

"All of your definitions run backwards -- defining a particular entity in terms of a broader categorical concept."

Your definition is vaguer than your word. For example, "2 is a number." "Number" doesn't define 2. 3 and 4 and 5 are also numbers.

What you're really doing when you say "2 is a number" is, "whatever a number is, 2 is one of them." then you have to define "number."

defining an entity as a number of a broader class of entities is not a conceptual definition of the individual entity. it's a statement that whatever the broader category of entities is (and it hasn't been defined), the individual entity falls within that undefined category.

ungtss said...

a proper definition of "2" would be something like "the integer between 1 and 3." or "the sum of 1 and 1." or something similar. you're not defining a number when you note that it's a member of a broader class. you're just asserting that whatever it is, and whatever the broader class is, the individual falls within the broader class.

Bokata said...

For a non-English speaker, it might help to explain that it's a number, then provide all the detail necessary. Or use 'integer' if you like. Unintentional irony again?

ungtss said...

The point is that it's the detail that makes the definition, not the vague, overarching category. to define "iraq" as "sovereign state" is to say nothing about what either is, exactly that whatever they both are, you think "iraq" is an example of a "sovereign state."

the reason you don't think definitions can be clear is because your process of definition is -- quite simply -- nuts.

ungtss said...

to think like an intelligent, rational human being, you'd have to define iraq in terms of essentials -- geographic, political, legal, ethnic, or what have you. you'd then have to define "sovereign state" in terms of essentials -- "what is a state? what are the conditions of sovereignty? what is the moral status of a sovereign state?"

but if you did that, you'd be rational. not a very popular approach. much more fun to run around spouting off without knowing what you mean by your words.

Bokata said...

Iraq had the same essentials as you say in 1988 as it did in 2003. So did Pluto for that matter. Only in each case, they fell under very different broad, overarching categories over a matter of years. In other words, I don't recall making any definitions beyond paraphrasing the one you gave about the number two. So, just what is my approach to definitions?

While you're at it, your definition of language as a 'particular' has me intrigued. Or was that a definition?

gregnyquist said...

to think like an intelligent, rational human being, you'd have to define iraq in terms of essentials ... but if you did that, you'd be rational.

Would you really be rational if you went around redefining the words people were using "in terms of essentials," or would you merely be tiresome and pedantic? Isn't the "rational" approach to attempt to understand what people actually mean by the words they use, rather than attempting to impose "proper" meanings on those words irrespective of intentions? Aren't you the least bit interested in what people actually mean with the words they use?

much more fun to run around spouting off without knowing what you mean by your words.

Do people really not know what they mean? Perhaps they don't express themselves well, but that doesn't indicate they don't know what they mean.

If a person is having difficulty expressing what they mean, definitions might help him choose words that more aptly express the intended meaning. But the definitions that will be of use are those to be found in a dictionary; they can't be definitions he has come up on his own. Indeed, defining your own terms is usually the worst thing you can do, since no one but you will know what those definitions are. If you wish to be understood, you have to accept common usage, irrespective of whether you regard such usage as "rational" or not. The point of using words is to be understood, not to be "proper."

Bokata said...

Greg,

I hope you're not suggesting that I express myself in a less than felicitous manner.

ungtss said...

“Iraq had the same essentials as you say in 1988 as it did in 2003. So did Pluto for that matter. Only in each case, they fell under very different broad, overarching categories over a matter of years. In other words, I don't recall making any definitions beyond paraphrasing the one you gave about the number two. So, just what is my approach to definitions?”

Again, you’re defining Pluto in terms of whether it’s a planet or not. Then, when scientists change the definition of “planet,” adding a subcategory of “dwarf planets,” you say the definition of pluto has changed.

But what has really changed is the definition of “Planet.” Not the definition of Pluto.

Ultimately, because Pluto is a real entity in the real world, the definition of Pluto is ostensive. in other words, to define pluto, you pull out a telescope, point to a particular spot of light, and define Pluto as “That Thing.” If somebody pulls out a telescope and points to Venus, you say "Not That Thing."

Thus when scientists decide that Pluto does not fall within a revised definition of "Planet" anymore, the issue is not a change in the definition of “Pluto,” but a change in the definition of “Planet.” The definition of “Planet” is what changed. Specifically, a subcategory of planets was created, known as “dwarf planets.” And these dwarf planets.

“Would you really be rational if you went around redefining the words people were using "in terms of essentials," or would you merely be tiresome and pedantic? Isn't the "rational" approach to attempt to understand what people actually mean by the words they use, rather than attempting to impose "proper" meanings on those words irrespective of intentions? Aren't you the least bit interested in what people actually mean with the words they use?”

It would be rational to both understand what other people mean by their words, understand what I mean by my words, and understand the reasons for and implications of the differences.

“The point of using words is to be understood, not to be "proper."”

I guess I’d counter that the point of words is both to be understood, and to express and absorb coherent information. In other words, I don’t think being “understood” and being “proper” are mutually exclusive.

Bokata said...


I'm going to try this one more time.

a) I didn't define anything. That means I made no attempt to provide a definition for Iraq or Pluto. Heads of state and astronomers determine the status of nations and astral bodies based on their own set of definitions.

b) I was, however, pointing out that perspectives and understanding of things change over time.

So it's the definition of planet that has changed in essentials versus the definition of Pluto. Is this so? Ostensive definitions have their place. However, in the case of Pluto, looking through a telescope alone did not give astronomers an appreciation of its mass. It took extensive mathematical analysis and number crunching to determine its actual size. This had to do with gravitational studies of one of Pluto's moons. Also, prior to 2006, the IAU (International Astronomical Union) had no official definition of planet per se.

Now, mind explaining how 'language is a particular'?

ungtss said...

"However, in the case of Pluto, looking through a telescope alone did not give astronomers an appreciation of its mass. It took extensive mathematical analysis and number crunching to determine its actual size. This had to do with gravitational studies of one of Pluto's moons."

Of course. That's because there's more to an entity than its definition. Its definition is what differentiates it from other entities -- what identifies it -- not every single thing about it. to some extent, that's the difference between a dictionary entry and an encyclopedia entry, although encyclopedia entries are still not comprehensive. the point of a definition is to tell you what a person is talking about. the point of an encyclopedia entry is to tell you all sorts of stuff about it and how it relates to all sorts of other stuff.

But we're not talking about encyclopedia entries here. we're talking about definitions.

I don't understand your point about "language is particular." can you explain what you're talking about, please?

Bokata said...

Online dictionary entry

Pluto

n
(Astronomy & Space / Celestial Objects) the smallest planet and the farthest known from the sun. Discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh (1906-97), it has one known satellite, Charon. Mean distance from sun: 5907 million km; period of revolution around sun: 248.6 years; period of axial rotation: 6.4 days; diameter and mass: 18 and 0.3 per cent that of earth respectively
[Latin, from Greek Plout┼Źn, literally: the rich one]

Notice a reference to mass.

Maybe you should have the entry edited.

ungtss said...

Particular amusing that you pick a definition that defines it as the smallest planet and farthest known from the sun, since it's now considered a dwarf planet and not the smallest or the farthest:).

that's the problem with "defining" things in terms of everything you know about them, instead by what distinguishes them from everything else. you find yourself quoting definitions that are right one day, wrong the next:).

Bokata said...

More up to date:


Pluto
n.
1. Roman Mythology The god of the dead and the ruler of the underworld.
2. A dwarf planet that until 2006 was classified as the ninth planet in our solar sytem, having a sidereal period of revolution about the sun of 248.5 years, 4.4 billion kilometers (2.8 billion miles) distant at perihelion and 7.4 billion kilometers (4.6 billion miles) at aphelion, and a diameter less than half that of Earth. See Usage Note at planet.

Notice the reference to mass, diameter in this case. Also notice that this is not an entry in an encyclopedia. Also notice that it distinguishes Pluto first, by placing it in a general category (dwarf planet) , then by the particulars of its distance from the sun, orbit and size (sic).

Also notice tha this is not an ostensive definition. :-)

ungtss said...

Indeed, it's an "updated" definition. because "updates" are necessary when you define in terms of non-essentials. thus you can define an ungtss as "a human male who is 14 years old and 6'4"", and later as "a human male who is 20 years old and 6'9"." your definition of "ungtss" changes based on my age and height!

better yet, you can define me as "the human who is at work" when i'm at work, and "the human who is at home" when i'm at home.

that's why your definitions constantly change -- because you're defining in terms of non-essentials, and non-essentials always change. so your definitions always change.

the objectivist approach is to define in terms of essentials, so that the definition can remain the same, even as our knowledge about the entity grows. thus i am "an ungtss" from my birth to my death, no matter how tall i am, where i live, what i'm doing, or how i'm feeling. no matter what you know about me, or don't know about me.

your mode of definition doesn't work that way, though. because evidently you use definition to pack in everything you know about me, while i use definition to differentiate a thing from everything else while i continue to learn about it.

Anonymous said...

How would you define Pluto in terms of essentials?

ungtss said...

ultimately, because you're dealing with a unique entity, you define it ostensively: "that thing." this is different from abstract categories like "planet," which integrate several concretes.

ungtss said...

the real work of definitions is of course in defining abstract concepts, not concrete things. Love, Justice, Freedom, State, Man. That's where definition by essentials becomes a very mentally engaging -- and rewarding -- task.