Neil Parille continues his exploration of Ayn Rand's much vaunted originality as a philosopher.
Ayn Rand is an epistemological realist. She believes that the mind perceives the external world, a world of individual entities. Orthodox Objectivist Allan Gotthelf explains that Rand is a “direct” realist. We are directly aware of people, trees, cars and the like. (Gotthelf, On Ayn Rand, p. 54.)
Gotthelf discusses the most common objection to direct realism: the problem of seemingly false perceptions. The classic example is perceiving a stick in water as bent when it is straight. Doesn’t this prove that we are not in contact with entities “as they really are”? Gotthelf responds that perceptions don’t deceive us because perceptions must be interpreted by the mind. The mind, applying reason to concepts, determines whether judgments are correct. (Id., pp. 54-55.) Frederick Wilhelmsen said the same thing years before. “[P]erceptions always represent what is perceived. Falsity results from faulty judgments made about perception.” (Wilhelmsen, Man’s Knowledge of Reality, p. 31.)
Skepticism Is Self-Refuting
Rand argued that skepticism is self-refuting. “’We know that we know nothing,’ they chatter, blanking out the fact that they are claiming knowledge . . . .” (Rand, For the New Intellectual, p. 154.) Non-skeptics often argue that skepticism is self-refuting in many ways. (See John Greco’s Putting Skeptics in Their Place.)
Concepts Are Objective
Rand defends at great length the claim that concepts are objective, almost implying that she is alone in this. John Dewey (1859-1952) wrote, “[m]eaning is objective and universal . . . . It requires the discipline of ordered and deliberate experimentation to teach us that some meanings, as delightful or horrendous as they are, are meanings communally developed in the process of communal festivity or control, and do not represent the polities, and ways and means of nature apart from social control . . . the truth in classical philosophy in assigning objectivity to meanings, essences, ideas remains unassailable.” (Dewey, Nature and Experience, pp. 188-89.)
Concepts are Mental Integrations Based on Common Properties
According to Rand, "[a] concept is a mental integration of two or more units possessing the same distinguishing characteristic(s) . . . ." (Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2d Ed., p. 13.)
Lyle Bourne said something similar in 1966:
"As a working definition we may say a concept exists whenever two or more distinguishable objects have been grouped or classified together and set apart from other objects on the basis of some common feature or property characteristic of each." (Lyle Bourne, Human Conceptual Behavior, p. 1.)*
Correspondence Theory of Truth
According to Leonard Peikoff, Rand embraces “the traditional correspondence theory of truth.” (Peikoff, OPAR, p. 165.)
Stolen Concept Fallacy
Objectivists make frequent use of what they call the “stolen concept fallacy.” According to Peikoff, “The ‘stolen concept’ fallacy, first identified by Ayn Rand, is the fallacy of using a concept while denying the validity of its genetic roots, i.e, of an earlier concept(s) on which it logically depends.” He explains in more detail:
“Observe that Descartes starts his system by using ‘error’ and its synonyms or derivatives as ‘stolen concepts.’"
“Men have been wrong, and therefore, he implies, they can never know what is right. But if they cannot, how did they ever discover that they were wrong? How can one form such concepts as ‘mistake’ or ‘error’ while wholly ignorant of what is correct? ‘Error’ signifies a departure from truth; the concept of ‘error’ logically presupposes that one has already grasped some truth. If truth were unknowable, as Descartes implies, the idea of a departure from it would be meaningless.”
“The same point applies to concepts denoting specific forms of error. If we cannot ever be certain that an argument is logically valid, if validity is unknowable, then the concept of ‘invalid’ reasoning is impossible to reach or apply. If we cannot ever know that a man is sane, then the concept of ‘insanity’ is impossible to form or define. If we cannot recognize the state of being awake, then we cannot recognize or conceptualize a state of not being awake (such as dreaming). If man cannot grasp X, then ‘non-X’ stands for nothing.”
(Binswanger, ed., Ayn Rand Lexicon, pp. 478-79)
Wilhelmsen’s description of this “fallacy” is almost identical. He writes:
“At this point the idealist and the skeptic . . . usually advance the problem of hallucinations, pathological sense states, and dreams. Because there are false perceptions such as hallucinations, so goes the objection, I could never be certain that there were any true perceptions. How can I know that what I perceive really does exist and that I am not dreaming or imagining, etc. This position . . . . is a painful sophistry. How can I even speak of false perceptions unless I can measure their falsity by a true perception? . . . . The fact that I can even raise the problem of false perceptions indicates that there are true perceptions and I know them to be true. The false can only be measured by the true.” (Wilhelmsen, Man’s Knowledge of Reality, pp. 31-32.)
The stolen concept fallacy didn’t begin with Wilhelmsen either. He acknowledges his indebtedness to a 1947 work of Etienne Gilson (1884-1978).
*According to Dan Ust via Ellen Stuttle