Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 35

Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy 8: Propostions Redux. One attractive feature of Peikoff's essay on the Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy is that it contains several unequivocal statements about some of Rand's more controversial opinions. Hence we find in the essay the clearest expression of Rand's views about the relation between concepts and propositions:

Without a theory of concepts as a foundation, one cannot, in reason, adopt any theory about the nature or kinds of propositions: propositions are only combinations of concepts. [IOTE, 97]

This view is manifestly false. Indeed, it's so palpably erroneous that one wonders why Rand adopted it. Perhaps she considered it necessary to nip the horrors of linguistic analysis in the bud. If so, she chose a cure that was worse than the disease.

That propositions are more than just combinations of concepts can be observed from how propositions affect and even create meaning. The meaning of words (which for Rand symbolize concepts) changes depending on how they are used in propositions. And many words have no meaning at all if used by themselves. Objectivists seem to be guilty of the fallacy that, merely because each word has a dictionary meaning, that words (and by implication concepts) mean something when used outside of propositions. However, most words convey no meaning when not used in a proposition.

Assume that a stranger shouted at you "Broccoli!" Would you have any idea what he meant? You would not. If instead he shouted "I like broccoli" or "I hate broccoli" you would know immediately what he meant. But the word by itself, unless used as an answer to a question (e.g., "What vegetable would you like?"), conveys no meaning

Some words do convey meanings by themselves, such as "Help!" "Damn!" and "Idiot!" These words convey meaning because we assume "help" means "I need help," "Damn" means "I'm frustrated," and "Idiot!" means "You are an idiot." These words imply propositions, which convey meaning. If they did not imply a readily understood proposition, these words, when uttered by themselves, would be as meaningless as utterances of "Broccoli" or "Triceps." To convey meaning you have to say something about an idea, or express an emotion, or attempt to attract attention.

Propositions affect meanings of the words. A proposition is simply not the sum of its meanings. How words are combined, the syntax of the sentence, affects individual meanings. Consider the following propositions.


  1. Scientologists hate cats.
  2. Cats hate scientologists.
  3. Scientologists hate the cat.
  4. Scientologists hate a cat.


Propositions 1 and 2 use the exact same words, yet they don't mean the same thing. How words are combined is at least as important as the words themselves. Yet there is more to it than that. The meaning of these sentences is also affected by the overall context in which they are used and even by the tone in which they are expressed. Note as well how the meanings of the words are altered by adding the and a in propositions 3 and 4.

Yet this is not all. The meanings are affected by the context in which the propositions are expressed. If a stranger came up to you and said "I hate the cat," you wouldn't be sure what specific cat he might be referring to. But if you knew the person had a cat named Felix and assumed that the phrase "the cat" meant Felix, then you would know "precisely" what was meant by "the cat." Note, however, that the precision derives, not from a clearer definition of the terms the or cat, but from greater information of the context in which the phrase is uttered. Knowledge derives from knowledge about things, not from "knowledge" about the meanings of words. Words merely express and communicate claims about matters of fact. They are not facts in and of themselves.

As I have repeatedly emphasized, words have no meaning independent of the meanings those who use them wish to convey. Therefore, there is no such thing as "true" meaning: there is only the meaning than a given individual is attempting to express. That meaning might be well or ill expressed; but the point is to try to understand what a person actually means, rather than merely interpreting (or, rather, misinterpreting) the words they use. We want to know, not what words mean, but what people mean by the words they use. This is an important distinction that Rand refused to grasp.

Suppose two individuals, Peter and Paul, both announce, "I hate cats." Do the words mean the same thing in both instances? Not necessarily. Let us suppose Peter enjoys torturing, dismembering, and butchering cats. Paul, on the other hand, owns a couple of cats and generally treats cats well. This being the case, can we conclude that Peter and Paul mean the exact same thing by the words I hate cats?

Obviously not. We have every reason to believe that Peter is telling the literal truth. Paul, however, is either lying or he is being sarcastic. He might really mean, "I like cats, but sometimes they get on my nerves." Much would depend on how Paul enunciates the phrase I hate cats. If he speaks in a tone that's clearly sarcastic, it will be obvious that he doesn't really hate cats. A proposition can mean something entirely different, perhaps even opposite of the literal meaning of the words, depending on the tone with which the words are enunciated.

Hence, Peikoff's statement is not true. Propositions are much more than a mere combination of concepts. Propositions mean whatever they're meant to mean by those who use them. They are attempts at expression. There is no relevant meaning independent, or contrary to, this intended meaning.






14 comments:

Rey said...

I'm glad you brought up articles. If one looks up the definitions of "the" and "a," one finds descriptions not of what they represent, but of what those words do linguistically. This is because "the" and "a" can add meaning, but they have no meaning in and of themselves. The "meaning" of an article, if it can be said to have one, derives from its relationship to a noun and from the larger context in which they are all used. What's more, not all languages have articles and so rely even more on context to determine definiteness.

ungtss said...

You’re making two mistakes here.

First, you’re assuming that by “concepts” he means only “words.” This is an unwarranted assumption. For instance, when I use the words “blue cat,” there are not only two concepts there, but three – the third concept is the relationship between words that is implied when one places an adjective next to a noun – specifically, “cat THAT IS blue.” So you have two words, but three concepts. The third concept is communicated through grammar, not words.

Nevertheless, even though there are three concepts and only two words, it is still a “combination of concepts.” It’s just a combination of three concepts, expressed by two words in a particular order.

Second, you’re taking his statement out of context. His purpose was to establish that a theory of propositions rationally depends on a theory of concepts, because propositions are composed of concepts. Thus he is saying a theory of concepts is a necessary but insufficient condition of a theory of propositions.

Your argument relates only to whether a theory of concepts is sufficient for a theory of propositions -- not whether it's necessary. But that’s not what he’s talking about. He’s talking about whether it’s necessary. And since propositions contain concepts, a theory of concepts is a precondition of a valid theory of propositions. In order words, it's a necessary but not necessarily sufficient condition.

So you haven’t refuted his point; you’ve simply misunderstood his premise and – even if you’d properly understood his premise – it would not invalidate his conclusion.

gregnyquist said...

First, you’re assuming that by “concepts” he means only “words.” This is an unwarranted assumption.

No, I make no assumptions about meanings, I'm more focused on practical consequences. Peikoff, when wrtting about concepts, probably does have in mind the Objectivist distinction between words and concepts, but this is a distinction that can only be maintained by ignoring it. Propositions are, after all, made up of words, not concepts; and if you insist on calling the words that make up propositions "concepts," than you are merely playing games with words. Rand tried to tie words to concepts by insisting that a concept is not fully formed until a word is devised to represent it. But this is not a plausible theory. Concepts are meanings; and there are far more meanings than there are words (which means there are far more concepts than words).

Second, you’re taking his statement out of context. His purpose was to establish that a theory of propositions rationally depends on a theory of concepts, because propositions are composed of concepts. Thus he is saying a theory of concepts is a necessary but insufficient condition of a theory of propositions.

No, he's saying more than that. He's defending the view that the concept is the principle unit of knowledge. I'm arguing that concepts don't constitute knowledge at all, and that only propositions can express knowledge.

The larger point at issue is whether, as Rand and Peikoff both contend, the problems of the world stem from improper concept formation or, as I contend, from the fact that most human beings are wired in such a way that they can't help evolving dysfunctional social structures. Rand and Peikoff believe you can get people to act more "rationally" (or more like Rand and Peikoff imagine they want them to act) by getting them to form their concepts "properly." Peikoff's view that propositions are merely combinations of concepts stems from epistemological commitments he is forced to make as a result of this theory of human nature. Once you decide that the problems of morality and politics stem from improper concept formation, you are forced to make a number of assumptions about concepts and knowledge that do not accord with reality. Above all, you are forced to believe that concepts (and therefore, in praxis, words) are the principle unit of knowledge. But concepts are merely constituents of descriptions. They do not represent knowledge. Knowledge emerges from propositions, theories, descriptions of facts. How the concepts used in those theories and descriptions are formed is irrelevant.

ungtss said...

“Propositions are, after all, made up of words, not concepts; and if you insist on calling the words that make up propositions "concepts," than you are merely playing games with words.”

You acknowledged that a proposition is more than simply “words” when you said:

“A proposition is simply not the sum of its meanings. How words are combined, the syntax of the sentence, affects individual meanings.”

You’re right there. A proposition is more than words. But it’s not more than concepts. It’s just that there is more than one way to communicate concepts – and grammar is one of those tools.

“and tried to tie words to concepts by insisting that a concept is not fully formed until a word is devised to represent it. But this is not a plausible theory. Concepts are meanings; and there are far more meanings than there are words (which means there are far more concepts than words).”

This is premised on the assumption that all concepts in the human experience are “fully formed.” If they are not, then your evidence does not invalidate her argument. And of course they are not. As you yourself have noted, human communication is typically quite vague.

“No, he's saying more than that. He's defending the view that the concept is the principle unit of knowledge. I'm arguing that concepts don't constitute knowledge at all, and that only propositions can express knowledge.”

All he’s saying, in this context, is that you can’t have a theory of propositions without having a theory of concepts. He may make a broader statement closer to what you’re describing, but he’s not doing it in the section you quoted.

“Rand and Peikoff believe you can get people to act more "rationally" (or more like Rand and Peikoff imagine they want them to act) by getting them to form their concepts "properly."”

On the contrary, everything of theirs I’ve heard or read indicates that they believed that you can’t “get” anybody to reason at all, because reason is inescapably volitional: meaning that proper concept formation is an act of will that can only be chosen and performed by an individual who wants to do it. They’re remarkably consistent on this point.

“The larger point at issue is whether, as Rand and Peikoff both contend, the problems of the world stem from improper concept formation or, as I contend, from the fact that most human beings are wired in such a way that they can't help evolving dysfunctional social structures.”

That’s true, that is the broader point. Objectivism stands for the proposition that humans are not helplessly errant. And all the philosophies opposed to it stand for the exact proposition you’re advancing – that humans can’t help being miserable.

“Knowledge emerges from propositions, theories, descriptions of facts.”

And what are these propositions, theories, descriptions of facts composed of, if not concepts?

Mark Peter said...

Perhaps you can give an example of a proposition that could exist without reference to any concepts. If you can't, that would suggest that Peikoff's formulation is correct.

Michael Prescott said...

"Perhaps you can give an example of a proposition that could exist without reference to any concepts."

I think Greg's point is that concepts are necessary but not sufficient for propositions.

Peikoff says,"... propositions are only combinations of concepts." Greg says, "... propositions are more than just combinations of concepts."

Therein lies the disagreement.

ungtss said...

i don't think the conclusion "propositions are only combinations of concepts" can be drawn from peikoff's quoted statement:

"Without a theory of concepts as a foundation, one cannot, in reason, adopt any theory about the nature or kinds of propositions: propositions are only combinations of concepts. [IOTE, 97]"

that's "necessary but not sufficient." you can't do X without Y. not "there's nothing to X except Y."

Michael Prescott said...

It seems to depend on how we interpret his use of the word "only." He may have meant something like, "After all, propositions are made of concepts." Or he may have meant, "Propositions are simple combinations of concepts, and that's all they are." From the quote, I can't tell.

I don't know if Peikoff or any other top Objectivist is on record clarifying this point.

Echo Chamber Escapee said...

@ungtss: i don't think the conclusion "propositions are only combinations of concepts" can be drawn from peikoff's quoted statement:

"Without a theory of concepts as a foundation, one cannot, in reason, adopt any theory about the nature or kinds of propositions: propositions are only combinations of concepts. [IOTE, 97]"


[emphasis added]

I''m going to assume you're not saying that Peikoff did not hold the view that "propositions are only combinations of concepts." (That would be silly, since he asserted exactly this.)

As near as I can tell, what you are saying is that Peikoff improperly concludes that "propositions are only combinations of concepts" from the idea that a theory of concepts is the foundation for a theory of propositions.

If that's what you're saying, you have Peikoff's logic backward. "[P]ropositions are only combinations of concepts" is actually a premise, not the conclusion. Peikoff is arguing here that because a proposition is nothing more than a combination of concepts, therefore a theory of concepts is a necessary prerequisite to a theory of propositions.

Now if you want to argue that Peikoff's premise is wrong, well, isn't that what Greg has been saying?

Daniel Barnes said...

Mark Peter:
>Perhaps you can give an example of a proposition that could exist without reference to any concepts. If you can't, that would suggest that Peikoff's formulation is correct.

But if they believe Peikoff's line of argument is right then his defenders must also admit that he missed a vital step.

For according to Objectivist epistemology, properly formed concepts always have a word as a final step in the process.

But words are in turn composed...of letters! They are surely "only combinations" of letters.

Therefore Objectivist epistemology must be inadequate by its own standards, as it has no theory of letters.

Perhaps you could give an example of a word that could exist without any letters ( or perhaps sounds). If you can't, that would suggest Peikoff's theory is inadequate even on its own terms.

ungtss said...

Prescott's got it. As usual. There's definitely an ambiguity there regarding the meaning of the word "only." One of the valuable things about these conversations is learning to identify ambiguities we (i) gloss over. i'm reading it in the sense of "after all." without even realizing it. so much so that i don't even notice that ECE rightly points out how stupid what i wrote looks on the surface:).

the other reason i'm reading it this way is that his conclusion does not depend on a strict "there is nothing in propositions but concepts" reading. you can conclude that a theory of concepts must precede a theory of propositions without strictly believing that there's nothing in a proposition but a concept. all you need to believe is that concepts are a significant part of propositions, such that you can't understand the whole without having some understanding of the parts.

i'm reading a logical analysis into his argument -- asking what it would take to support his conclusion -- and taking his premise only far enough to prove it.

now that prescott's shown it to me, i can see this is pretty sloppy writing on his part. one unfortunately side-effect of becoming a partisan is subconsciously filling in the gaps of my allies' writing and reasoning. as i've clearly done here.

ungtss said...

that said, it's still unclear to me what there is in a proposition other than concepts. the dominant view here appears to be that only words are concepts, such that context and grammar are "more than concepts." i'm taking a broader view of "concepts" to encompass context and grammar as conceptual elements in a proposition. why must these be excluded as concepts? don't they function in exactly the same role, albeit without words?

David said...

This post is typical of the deliberate bad reading at the site--readings that impute something not in the text so there's a straw man to knock over. If you were to ask Peikoff "how do you define 'bat,' " you're saying he wouldn't want to know whether you're talking about baseball or animals?

There isn't any passage in any text anywhere that could survive the typical approach of the blog and the book. If you deliberately set out to misunderstand and distort, you are going to succeed. Read honestly and interpret honestly, then we'll have something to talk about. Otherwise, the purpose of the blog seems to be more to waste time than to illuminate anything.

gregnyquist said...

If you were to ask Peikoff "how do you define 'bat,' " you're saying he wouldn't want to know whether you're talking about baseball or animals?

Talk about "deliberate bad reading"! If someone wants to accuse this blogging, shouldn't they first give evidence that they understand what is being blogged? I'm not saying what is suggested here in this criticism. I'm merely criticizing, in this post, one view, namely, propositions are only combinations of concepts. Philosophical criticism oftentimes involves drawing implications from propositions. You can argue that these implications are or are not logically entailed, but they do not constitute "bad readings" or distortions.

One error that apologists for Rand oftentimes make when they read criticism of Objectivism is they assume that critics are imputing the implications of various Objectivist doctrines to Rand herself. But this is not the case at all. Objectivism contains many implications, both good and bad, that Rand herself would have disavowed. But the disavowal does not get her off the hook; it's indicative of an inconsistency in her doctrine that hasn't been adequately reckoned with.

In this post I'm attacking the view, which seems to be held by Rand and Peikoff, that concepts, rather than propositions, are the unit of knowledge. I've tackled this issue from a number of different angles. Here I'm merely suggested that the Objectivist view that propositions are only combinations of concepts is inadequate to explain the meaning of propositions. I go on to attack Rand's view that meanings (i.e., definitions) can be true or false.