Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 42

Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy 15: Concepts as Theories. In a previous post, I criticized the Objectivist view that concepts constitute the principle unit of knowledge. Although Rand argued that concepts contain an "implicit" proposition indicating that the referents of the concept exist, she is not on record as endorsing the view that there may be many implicit propositions lurking inside concepts. Yet the doctrine that concepts contain many propositions is strongly implied by what Peikoff writes in his essay on the Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy:

The epistemological basis of [the logical-factual dichotomy] is the view that a concept consists only of its definition. According to the dichotomy, it is logically impermissible to contradict the definition of a concept; what one asserts by this means is "logically" impossible. But to contradict any of the non-defining characteristics of a concept's referents, is regarded as logically permissible; what one asserts in such a case is merely "empirically" impossible.

Thus, a "married bachelor" contradicts the definition of "bachelor" and hence is regarded as "logically" impossible. But a "bachelor who can fly to the moon by means of flapping his arms" is regarded a "logically" possible, because the definition of "bachelor" ("an unmarried man") does not specify his means of locomotion. [IOTE, 115]

Implicit in this criticism is the view that concepts include all the characteristics of a concept's referent. In practical terms, that means all proposotions about a concept, including theories, would presumably be included in the concept. For Objectivism, a concept is not a symbolic meaning used to represent something outside itself; it is, rather, a container which includes everything known (or potentially knowable) about the concept's referent. As Peikoff puts it, "the concept 'man' ... includes all the characteristics of the 'man.'" [115]

I've criticized this view in another post. Here I wish to focus on the Objectivist conflation of logical identity with predication. At the core of the Objectivist epistemology is a confusion between identity and understanding. Human knowledge is fundamentally representational and symbolic. If these symbols are to be used to convey truths about reality, a certain logical consistency in the use of the symbol becomes necessary. It would be confusing to define bachelor as an "unmarried man," and then turn around and apply the identical symbol to women or married men. However, the fact that a symbol has a specific meaning does not in itself constitute knowledge. It is possible to have symbols that have little or no reference to reality, such as phlogiston, griffen, kryptonite, centaur, etc. Whether a specific symbol actually represents something real is not discovered exclusively by logic, but mainly through observation. Hence the origin of the so-called logical-factual dichotomy. This dichotomy does not so much separate logic and fact as it distinguishes them, while more clearly defining their extent. Logic is applicable to our symbols. However, it provides no necessary guarantee of truth. There are an infinite number of possible logical syllogisms; but only a finite number of those will be true of empirical reality. In his criticism of logical-factual dichotomy, Peikoff seems to be oblivious of the fact that logical validity does not guarantee factual truth.

While identifying a symbol with its referent in reality involves some level of knowledge, that level is rather superficial. It doesn't require much knowledge to identify and name entities in reality. Understanding things, processes, and events in reality takes considerably more knowledge and acumen. A person may be able to identify an elephant in the sense he knows what to call it when he sees it; but he may know nothing about elephants. Identity does not guarantee understanding. Rand had no trouble identifying men and distinguishing them from other creatures. But many of her chief notions about men were exaggerated and flawed. Identity is, cognitively speaking, relatively easy. Understanding tends to be more difficult; sometimes much more difficult.

In an earlier post, I criticized the Objectivist view of concepts for its quasi-Platonic implications. I also noted the confusion of identity and understanding. To conclude this post, I wish to offer a few more elaborations of this criticism, tying it to earlier post criticizing the Objectivist view of identity . In that post, I argued that there were several types of identity: logical identity (Rand's A is A), the identity of the symbol with something real (A is), and the identity of characteristics (A is B). Now the tendency of Objectivism is to conflate these types of identity under a single concept. As Peikoff puts it, "All truths are the product of a logical identification of the facts of experience." Knowledge, for an Objectivist, is identification all the way through. You identify existing entitites and you identify their characteristics and that's how you go about creating the concept. And all these identifications are basically of the relatively simple, unproblematic, A is A, logical type of identity.

Since knowledge is symbolic through and through, identity is not a very apt way of describing the ideal of knowledge. The symbol is really nothing like its object, nor is knowledge a mirror. When Rand wrote of "unit economy" and cognitive efficiency," she seemed at least to imply, if not explicitly avow, that knowledge is not identical with its object. But in other parts of her epistemology, she forgets all about her unit economy and reverts to a crude literalism, where the tautology A is A becomes the catch phrase for all types identity, in defiance of logic and good sense. But logical identity is not identical with either the identification of objects or the characteristics of objects. Knowing what a symbol is and what it stands for in reality is not knowledge in the deeper sense of the word. It's merely knowledge of symbols and/or knowledge of naming conventions. Nor is logical identity fully compatible with predication (i.e., knowledge of characteristics). As I noted in my post about identity, while blood is blood and red is red, and while red can be predicated of blood, red is not identical to blood nor is blood identical to red. A is A is not logically compatible with A is B. These are different forms of identity and it will not do to conflate them. Concepts are meanings; and in that sense, one could say that a concept is its definition. Predications are not further elaborations of a concept; on the contrary, they are merely assertions about a concept, stated in terms of propositions and theories. Although this distinction is not mandatory, it does clear up many of bogs and swamps that infest the Objectivist epistemology and opens the way for a proposition-centric, theory-centric approach to philosophy that is more in keeping with the sort of empirical responsbility that should be the ideal of human cognition. Let's concentrate on facts and theories, not words and symbols. Is that too much to ask for?


Bryan M. White said...

Yeah, I'd have to say that Peikoff is way off base here. A "bachelor who can fly to the moon by means of flapping his arms" is physically impossible, not logically impossible.

He sounds as if he believes that all physical impossibilities are already covered as logical impossibilities, and he dares anyone to say otherwise at the risk of emasculating logic. If this were true, it would certainly make the job of science a whole lot easier. They wouldn't have to bother with experimentation at all! They could just sit around and subject their hypotheses to logical scrutiny and see if they hold up.

Amazingly, embarrassingly, bad.

Bryan M. White said...

I agree with what you say about how he gets there, as well.

Objectively speaking, I suppose one could say that a basketball is everything that a basketball is. But Piekoff wants to take this a step further and reduce everything about everything to a syllologism. He's trying to say that every possible attribute, consequence, and ramification of a basketball is already covered by the WORD "basketball", and thus making everything a matter of a contradiction of terms. As you point out, this involves a gross misunderstanding of words and how they're used.

QuantumHaecceity said...

Bryan, why don't you fetch Nyquist his slippers and pipe too while you're proverbially kissing his butt so much.

Bryan M. White said...

@QH: The level of maturity with which you approach a philosophical conversation is inspiring.

Bryan M. White said...

@QH: Do you actually have an objection of any SUBSTANCE to make?

QuantumHaecceity said...


Your obsequious fawning and yes-man sycophancy to Nyquist's attacks is also inspiring.

Inspiringly pathetic.

( Me being Bryan M. White)

"Yeah Nyquist, Rand is wrong, and Peikoff is wrong, and oh my God, what Peikoff said is amazingly and embarrassingly bad, and what Peikoff said involves gross misunderstanding of blah, blah, blah. I agree with you about that too Nyquist, and you're right about this too Nyquist.

And Peikoff is way off base here and blah, blah, blah."


Bryan M. White said...

Look at it like this:

Suppose I were to say that a man could use his third arm to scratch his head while the other two are holding a cigarette and a copy of Atlas Shrugged. As I understand what Peikoff is saying here, he would contend that this third arm violates one of the non-defining characteristics of the concept "man", and he would object to those who contend that such a thing is only "empirically" impossible and not "logically" impossible are part of some shadowy cabal out to discredit logic.

And yet, we know such a thing isn't impossible at all, neither logically or empirically. We've seen people born with extra limbs. We've seen it empirically, so we know it exists.

"Ah," you say, "but there's a certain latitude in the concept 'man' that allows for these aberrations." Fine, but once you open THAT door, you also have to admit that the concept "man" also allows for the logical possibility of a man who could fly to the moon under the strength of his own arms, because that wouldn't violate the core, defining, attributes anymore than the third arm does. Otherwise, you're simply taking it for granted that we've encountered the one aberration and not the other.

If you you want to get into the physical impossibilities of such a man, that's another matter. THEN you're getting into empirical territory. But Peikoff is trying to say that "moon-flying man" is a contradiction in terms in the same sense as "square circle." He's actually trying to say that "moon-flying man" is impossible -- not because we haven't seen one, not because empirical testing and scientific observation maintains that such a thing isn't possible -- but because the concept itself doesn't allow for it! How could he know for certain, any more than he could know whether it would allow for a third arm until we had seen one?

Bryan M. White said...

@QH: So, in other words, you have absolutely nothing in the way of a counter-argument to offer?

Bryan M. White said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gordon Burkowski said...

It may be time for a quick review of ARCHN’s exchanges with QuantumHacceity over the last 3 months.

1) On the discussion thread for Ayn Rand & Epistemology 39, Q wrote the following on June 20: “Well, I consider myself an expert on Objectivism, so you can run whatever fatal flaws Objectivism is supposed to have by me. I'll try to answer them in "real time"(I.E. in like a day or less, as opposed to say 2 weeks from now).”

2) On the same day, Daniel Barnes posted “An Objectivist Answers”, repeating Q’s assertion and inviting him to begin a serious discussion of Objectivism. He also created an “Open Thread”, to be used for other people who had issues to discuss which weren’t directly related to Q’s views. ARCHN was giving Q his very own forum – and telling others to butt out unless they had remarks directly relevant to what he had to say. In short, Q was being given a courtly invitation to a substantive and civil debate.

3) “An Objectivist Answers” attracted 117 remarks posted over a period of 4 weeks. After the first six days, none of them came from Q.

4) On August 4, in response to Ayn Rand & Epistemology 41, Q reappeared. His two postings including very many dismissals of the arguments presented there – but very little indeed in the way of detailed analysis. Apparently, bald assertions are more than enough. Most striking was a tidal wave of abuse, including such epithets as: “steaming pile of garbage”, “goofballs”, “crap”, “amazingly stupid”, “whining”, “too dense to understand”, “brick stupid”, “clown”. Wow. Is that all you’ve got?

5) Most of Q’s remarks since then have involved trash talk whenever anyone has attempted to engage him in debate. Epithets include: “knuckleheads”, “royal (A)-hole behavior”, “why don't you fetch Nyquist his slippers and pipe too while you're proverbially kissing his butt”, “obsequious fawning and yes-man sycophancy”. Remarkably, this name-calling is combined with objections to people who allegedly abuse and hate Ayn Rand.

Barnes extended an invitation back on June 20 to begin a serious, detailed discussion of Objectivism. That invitation was ignored. Disappointing – but unfortunately not all that surprising.

Daniel Barnes said...

Thanks Gordon.

Samson Corwell said...

Sadly, it seems that many some Objectivists lack the philosophy's meat.

Bryan M. White said...

Sometimes I wonder if some of these people are just trolls, trying to make Objectivism look stupid. Sadly though, that's probably not the case.

At any rate, I think anyone who approaches philosophy with the attitude that it's more important to them to defend some one particular person's ideas rather than just trying to get at the truth, is already going about things in totally the wrong way.

It's like trying to talk politics with someone who is an avowed Democrat or an avowed Republican. They're far more interested in sticking up for their "team", than they are in having an actual reasonable discussion about what's fair and the best course of action.

Neil Parille said...

Somewhat off topic, but I found this article on Rand and concepts interesting --


Samson Corwell said...

In response to Bryan M. white:
"The truth is the truth." — Max Weber's reported last words

The search for the truth is what philosophy's about. Objectivism has good stuff, but it's just, well, tainted by bad stuff. It's reputation for being like Scientology is one of those bad things.

Some Objectivists are just too Goddamn syncophabic to tolerate. Like that John fellow from Pasadena who posted here a few times. He trolls the internet looking for webpages critical of Ayn Rand and then shoots off little tirade in the comments sections.

In response to Neil Parille:
I've read some articles from Reason Papers. Neat little libertarian/classical liberal magazine. I think Tibor Machan is the founder.