Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 46

Cognitive Role of Concepts. In her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Rand sought to solve the "problem" of universals, which she decided involved the issue of what concepts refer to in the real world. This issue is inextricably connected to the issue of classification. Concepts, for Rand, refer to classes of "units." Rand's "problem of universals" resolves ultimately into the issue of how the data of sense is classified under various concepts.

Essentially, Rand provides a two part answer to this question. Concepts are classified (1) by their distinguishing characteristic(s), with their "measurements omitted"; and (2) concepts are classified in terms of "essential characteristics," which renders them cognitively efficient. In my last two posts, I refuted the first part of this answer. In this post, I will examine the second part.

In the chapter "The Cognitive Role of Concepts," Rand wrote:

It is the principle of unit-economy [i.e., cognitive efficiency] that necessitates the definition of concepts in terms of essential characteristics.

Typical for Rand, she here introduces a genuine insight, only to muddle it with one of the worst elements of her philosophy. She is correct to note the importance of cognitive efficiency. Where she goes astray is when she suggests that cognitive efficiency is a product of "proper" definition (and, ipso facto, of "proper" concept formation). In short, she has reversed cause and effect. Classification, she claims, arises from proper concept formation (which involves defining concepts in terms of essential characteristics). It's a conscious process. The individual must focus on the task at hand, and carefully guide the formation of what will eventually become "automatized":

Learning to speak is a process of automatizing the use ... of concepts. And more: all learning involves a process of automatizing, i.e., of first acquiring knowledge by fully conscious, focused attention and observation, then of establishing mental connections which make knowledge automatic. [IOTE, 65]

Why did Rand insist that concept making must be a fully conscious process? In the vast majority of instances, it clearly is no such thing. Many concepts are learned very early on, in the earliest years of childhood, well before schooling in logic or advanced thinking. Toddlers are not known for being especially careful or deliberate thinkers; they don't even have a particularly strong sense of reality. They often believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Rand's theory, on the face of it, seems grossly implausible. So why did she persist in it?

The most plausible explanation is that Rand wanted to make individuals solely (or at least largely) responsible for their development of their own "conceptual knowledge." The most important doctrine of Rand's epistemology derives from Rand's myth of the self-made individual, forming his knowledge and character on his own initiative, with little if any assistance from outward sources. If we stick closely to the logical implications of Rand's doctrine, we find ourselves confronted by the strange notion that every human being must recreate concepts, all on his own, from scratch. To be sure, Rand admitted that adults "could lend a helping hand." But given that "reason" can only be utilized by an individual mind, each individual has to do the lion's share of the cognitive leg work for himself.

It might be argued that Rand didn't mean any such thing. Admittedly, the doctrine she advanced is a bit vague. However, the implications are there in the doctrine for all to see. "There are many different ways in which children learn words," she explained. "Some proceed .. by treating words as concepts, by requiring a first-hand understanding of the exact meaning of every word they learn.... Some proceed by the road of approximations.... Some switch from cognition to imitation, substituting memorizing for understanding." [20-21]

Here Rand seems to be acknowledging  that an individual could learn (or at least memorize) concepts without creating them from scratch. But she immediately condemns such an approach, calling it a "parrot's psycho-epistemology." People are merely learning the words, she insists, not the concepts underlying them. Is this really true? Remember, concepts are merely meanings; words are auditory symbols (as even Rand recognized) expressing those meanings. When children learns words, they ipso facto learn meanings (and therefore concepts). Are we really supposed to believe that some children use words without trying to express some sort of meaning? that when they speak they are merely uttering meaningless sounds?

These absurdities arise from regarding concepts (i.e. meanings) as knowledge. As I have repeatedly argued throughout this series on the Objectivist Epistemology, concepts are not knowledge. When concepts are regarded as knowledge, this implies that any concept without a real referent, such as unicorn or honest politician, is little more than meaningless gibberish and/or an inarticulate sound.

More important in the context of this post is Rand's implication that the each individual must form his own concepts. This view is almost certainly false. The words (and hence the meanings/concepts) that children learn are ready-made for them. Children learn all (or at least nearly all) of their meanings from the words spoken around them. We know this is true because the rare child who is isolated from all human intercourse fails to learn how to speak. Language, therefore, is a social product. But this does not mean, as apologists for Rand might maliciously assume, that knowledge is social as well. Not in the least. It is Rand who has (unwittingly of course) adopted the social view of knowledge. For if knowledge, as Rand contends, really were "conceptual," it would be "social," rather than individualistic. Ironically, Rand, in choosing concepts as the principle unit of knowledge, has (unwittingly) adopted a social view of cognition.

The fact that concepts are largely social products, learned from exposure to language, provides us with a far more plausible solution to the problem of classification than the one provided by Rand. Articulated concepts arise in the give and take of human interaction, in which there is a sort of Darwinian process of selection which favors cognitively efficient concepts over cognitively inefficient ones. Thus articulated concepts, although the product of human thinking and action, are not the product of design or specific conscious intention. Nor does each human being have to work out his own set of concepts, as Rand's theory implies. He just makes use of the ones that have been formed long before he was born and proceeds to use them to  make conjectures about the real world.

Rand's insistence that cognitive efficiency must be achieved through  "fully conscious, focused attention and observation" leads her to some rather glaring absurdities. In IOTE, we find her condemning cognitively unjustified concepts:

In the process of determining conceptual classification, neither the essential similarities nor the essential differences among existents may be ignored, evaded or omitted once they have been observed. Just as the requirements of cognition forbid the arbitrary subdivision of concepts, so they  forbid the arbitrary integration of concpets into a wider concept by means of obliterating their essential differences --- which is an error (or falsification) proceeding from definitions by non-essentials....

Cognitively, such an attempt would produce nothing but a bad hash of equivocations, shoddy metaphors and unacknowledged "stolen" concepts. Epistemologically, it would produce the atrophy of the capacity to discriminate, and the panic of facing an immense, undifferentiated chaos of unintelligible data -- which means: the retrogression of an adult mind to the perceptual level of awareness. [71-72]

Is it really true that defining by non-essentials leads to a full state of panic? If so, would it be too much to ask for some documented examples? Curiously, Rand provides the following two examples of cognitively inefficiency: (1) forming a concept to designate beautiful blondes with blue eyes, 5'5" tall and 24 years old; and (2) regarding running as the essential characteristic of man. The problem with these examples is that they are completely fictitious. Who has ever formed a concept designating 24 year old blondes of a certain type? And who has ever claimed that running is the essential characteristic of man? We just don't find in practical experience examples of gross cognitive efficiency in the use of concepts. The meaning of terms used in common speech have been refined through centuries of trial and error. They are, in fact, far more efficient than concepts formulated through conscious attention (e.g.., concepts found in abstruse philosophical disquisitions). Classification is a very complex process. No human being, and certainly no child, would be capable of classifying the data of sense in an efficient manner solely on his own cognitive resources. Rand has here adopted an implausible approach. The concepts/meanings people use tend to be efficient from the get-go. They don't require any special formulation process, guided by "reason." They simply require being adopted and used.

Concepts are efficient because they are social. But even if man's concepts were not efficient, this would not have the the dire consequences that Rand moralizes about. Inefficient concepts would merely constitute a waste of cognitive effort. They would not lead to equivocations, shoddy metaphors, stolen concepts, or sheer panic. Once again, Rand is guilty of over-dramatizing an epistemological issue. Inefficient concepts (which essentially means: inefficient classification) are like a poorly written book. Bad writing is painful to read, but that doesn't that necessarily make a tedious book untrue or full of errors. Cognitive efficiency has little if anything to do with truth. A cognitively inefficient concept is merely a meaning that is difficult to use and comprehend. It's comparable to a convoluted sentence or a tedious, long-winded paragraph. It is much preferable to say more with fewer words. That is what cognitive efficiency amounts to in the end: saying more with less. But  one could just as easily say more that is false with fewer words, or less that is true with more. Cognitive efficiency, in short, while eminently desirable, is no guarantee of truth.


Gordon Burkowski said...


Thanks for this latest analysis. Inducing a state of philosophical hypochondria is one of Rand's favourite tactics and your last paragraph does a good job of dealing with one example of this tactic in action.

I gather you are coming to the end of your articles on Rand's epistemology. I hope that either you or Daniel Barnes will have a few things to say about David Harriman's book "the Logical Leap".

gregnyquist said...


You're right to assume that I'm (thankfully!) coming to the end of the epistemology series. And while it would be appropriate to cap it off with a discussion of Harriman's "Logical Leap," since I haven't yet had the opportunity of reading Harriman's tract, that will have to wait for a later date. I do know, however, that Harriman attempts to "solve" the problem of induction by relating it to Rand's theory of concepts. Harriman's view of induction, as far as I can make it out, seems to rely heavily on Rand's conflation, at the very heart of her view of concepts, of meaning and theory. Harriman seems to be suggesting that if your concepts are formed properly (by which I assume he means your theories?), then you have a "green light" to proceed making inductive generalizations. Having not read Harriman's book, I'm not sure how all this is fleshed out. The devil's in the details!

Daniel Barnes said...

>I hope that either you or Daniel Barnes will have a few things to say about David Harriman's book "the Logical Leap".

Hi Gordon,

Here's some preliminary comments about the book, and some of the fractures in the movement it has already caused.

Neil Parille has also commented on it here:

I began to analyse the book here:

Before being driven to shrill unholy madness I then left the book in a hotel room, and only got around to getting a new copy a few weeks ago.

I will resume the discussion once I get a moment.

Theodore said...

Thank you for explaining what those, so unobjective, "Objectivists" are up to.
It's very helpful, if one runs into one of them.

Theodore said...

I encountered this while googling for recent articles about the adoption of US-born children overseas, mainly in the Netherlands (even more in Canda, but that is hardly an overseas adoption.

Is this normal for an "Objectivist"?

Daniel Barnes said...

Sadly, yes.

Strelnikov said...

I don't know if Mr. Nyquist has heard, but the producers of "Atlas Shrugged" Parts I and II are now on Kickstarter (!), asking for money that they allegedly don't need (but probably do.),103253/

Sunk-cost fallacy much?

gregnyquist said...

but the producers of "Atlas Shrugged" Parts I and II are now on Kickstarter (!), asking for money that they allegedly don't need (but probably do.)

It suggests to me that they've already lost a good sum of money on the first two parts and aren't eager to lose money on the last part. Will kickstarter work? Are there enough people out their willing to throw away money so a third part of Atlas, with yet another whole new cast, can be made? This thing was made under the auspices of the Atlas Society, David Kelley's group. They represent the more reasonable, non-cultish side of Objectivism. But these movies demonstrate that neo-Objectivists can be as afflicted with poor judgment as the worst among the orthodox crowd.

QuantumHaecceity said...

"Are there enough people out their willing to throw away money so a third part of Atlas"

Once again we see the hateful and vindictive mindset that undergird's this website.

I've seen this from Greggy Nyquist a few times now. This vindictive schadenfreude over the Atlas Shrugged movie not doing well at the box office.

Then you have Daniel Barnes making a nice ignorant sweeping generalization that sadly yes, that is normal for an Objectivist. Not sure what that guy was doing wrong, but I guess it need not be said. LOL!

Once again, proof positive that Neil Parille, Daniel Barnes, and Greg Nyquist are royal (A)-holes.

Gordon Burkowski said...

A fine review of the film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged appeared on the Amazon website about five months ago. It comes from a fan of the novel who is understandably devastated by the sheer incompetence of the movie. Here’s one particularly choice excerpt:

“In one scene the tall, ominous shadowy figure of John Galt easily has access to oil and gas fat-cat Ellis Wyatt's unfenced, un-gated, un-patrolled property and his resplendent Victorian mansion nestled somewhere in the Colorado Rockies. Of course, Wyatt answers his own front door in the middle of the night, without looking at a security monitor, without a dog by his side or handgun in his hand. Tall, ominous, shadowy men in trench coats and Fedoras apparently often make the rounds at night to remote Victorian mansions in the Rockies just to talk and spirit rich industrialists away to a land of milk and honey.”

The review is hard to find, as it was soon drowned in the usual flood of mindless 5-star randroid notices in praise of Mr. Aglialoro’s cinematic train wreck. For the rest of the review, see:

Jzero said...

And of course Quantty easily demonstrates with his own actions just what constitutes a "royal a-hole".

QuantumHaecceity said...


"what constitutes a royal a-hole"

Don't forget to include yourself and Burkowski as well, with his childish randroid insult.


Jzero said...

Somehow, I can't picture Quantty typing "lol" with anything beyond the sternest of frowns on his face.

Anyone who gets this worked up over imagined wrongs can't actually ever laugh, can they?

Ken said...

Children learn all (or at least nearly all) of their meanings from the words spoken around them.

I can't find it now, but somewhere I recently read something to the effect of: "Babies are amazing and a little creepy. Every one of them hears people around them making noises, independently invents the concept of language, and deduces the grammatical rules of a language (or several) simply by observation, all by the age of four. You may think all they do is poop, but while you're changing the diaper they're working out subject-verb agreement."

Could be XKCD, sounds like him, but one of the things I'm sure of is the reference to subject-verb agreement and an XKCD search doesn't find it.