Monday, August 27, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemolgy 12

Essences as "epistemological." Rand explains this rather odd juxtaposition of terms as follows:

Let us note . . . the radical difference between Aristotle’s view of concepts and the Objectivist view, particularly in regard to the issue of essential characteristics.

It is Aristotle who first formulated the principles of correct definition. It is Aristotle who identified the fact that only concretes exist. But Aristotle held that definitions refer to metaphysical essences, which exist in concretes as a special element or formative power, and he held that the process of concept-formation depends on a kind of direct intuition by which man’s mind grasps these essences and forms concepts accordingly.

Aristotle regarded “essence” as metaphysical; Objectivism regards it as epistemological.

Objectivism holds that the essence of a concept is that fundamental characteristic(s) of its units on which the greatest number of other characteristics depend, and which distinguishes these units from all other existents within the field of man's knowledge. Thus the essence of a concept is determined contextually and may be altered with the growth of man's knowledge. [IOTE, 52]

The so-called "problem of universals," which Rand's Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology attempts to resolve, is far more inextricably connected with the issue of essences than with theories of concept formation and measurement-omission. Hence Rand's alleged solution to this problem arises more from her position on essence than it does from her measurement-omission hypothesis. Wikipedia defines essence as "the attribute or set of attributes that make an entity or substance what it fundamentally is, and which it has by necessity, and without which it loses its identity." The problem of universals could easily be recast as the problem of essences; because a specific view of essence will entail a specific view of universals. Universals are known through their essence: that is to say, the essence defines the universal. The term puppy, taken as a universal term (i.e., as a term that can cover multiple particular instances of puppies) is determined and/or defined by its essence. Puppies are distinguished from other living creatures because they all share the essence of puppiness. What, however, is this "puppiness"? What does "puppiness" refer to in reality? How is it identified? How is it known?

Aristotle's solution appears to be something along the following lines: there is a property of puppiness that determines whether a living creature is a puppy or not. Once this property is identified, the idea or concept of a puppy can be formed.

Aristotle's theory is rather crude; but that doesn't mean there might not be an important truth engrained within it. We find in reality classes of things which, as far as we can tell, have an independent existence, not merely as particulars, but as an independent, "objective" class. As I noted in my previous post, some groups of particulars do seem to be grouped together by something more than just "fundamental characteristics." There are, it would seem, in reality, various natural kinds, such as chemical elements or biological species, that exist as a real set, rather than merely as a group of things lumped together for the convenience of cognitive processing (as Objectivism implicitly assumes). While there might not exist any literal, simple essence (or essences), this does not mean that natural kinds do not exist or that they are difficult to identify. I suspect that most people recognize that human beings, dogs, cats, elephants, etc. all exist as natural kinds. Children can recognize these natural kinds, and biology can explain their rational basis. Therefore, Aristotle was at least partially correct: essences do in fact refer to something "in" reality; and in that sense some essences may be described as "metaphysical." There may, of course, also exist essences that do not refer to natural kinds, but are developed for the convenience of cognition, as Rand implicitly assumes.

If there is a single thread running through the Objectivist philosophy, it is Rand's horror of the arbitrary. She hated the arbitrary in all its forms: arbitrary political power, arbitrary moral pronouncements, arbitrary cognitive judgments. She equated the arbitrary with the subjective and the unreal. This being the case, it is odd to find Rand adopting a view of universals that opens herself to very same charge she so recklessly leveled against positions she differed with. Under Rand's view, an essence of a concept "is that fundamental characteristic(s) of its units on which the greatest number of other characteristics depend, and which distinguishes these units from all other existents within the field of man's knowledge." What do concepts refer to in reality? Not to any distinct class or natural kind. No, they only refer to groups of objects classed on the basis of a "fundamental characteristic." But how are such "fundamental characteristics" first noted? The infant or child gazes forth and sees a bewildering array of characteristics. How does he know which characteristics are fundamental and should be used to form concepts, and which are not? Rand insists that a "fundamental characteristic" is the one on which the other characteristics "depend," and which is most helpful in distinguishing one class of objects from others. But if there are no classes of objects recognized as being real classes, how can this fundamental characteristic ever be discovered in the first place? Hasn't Rand placed the cart before the horse? If there is any such "fundamental characteristic" of a concept, as Rand avers, wouldn't we need to first formulate and recognize the concept before its fundamental characteristic could be identified? In other words, musn't essences be metaphysical before they can be epistemological? And if essences are only and always epistemological, then doesn't this imply that there is nothing in reality (i.e., nothing "metaphysical") that justifies their existence? If essences are "epistemological"; if all they refer to is some "fundamental characteristic," then doesn't this raise questions as to their objectivity? How can we be sure that a "fundamental characteristic" actually refers to something "non-arbitrary" in reality?

Rand defends her view of concepts on the "the requirements of cognition." Reality, Rand strongly implies, is thoroughly particular and determinate. How is the human mind to grapple with such a bewildering layrinth of detail and complexity? Rand answers: by grouping things on the basis of their "similarity" (as defined by Rand via her measurement-omission hypothesis). Why isn't this view of concept formation as "arbitrary" as nominalism? Because, claims Alan Gotthelf, "[Rand] rejects [the nominalist] view that similarity is unanalyzable and that conceptual groupings are either arbitrary or merely pragmatic." But isn't that precisely what Rand's theory amounts to in the end? Concepts, by Rand's account, are formed, not the basis of any objective or "intrinsic" natural kinds, but merely on the basis of the requirements of cognition. Why isn't this tantamount to regarding conceptual grouping as pragmatic or even "arbitrary"?

As we go deeper into Objectivism, it only gets worse. Rand, aware of the improbability that a child could identify the fundamental characteristic of a large class of objects, introduces an even more problematic wrinkle to her theory. She declares "the essence of a concept is determined contextually and may be altered with the growth of man's knowledge." Essences depend, therefore, on the subject's "context" of knowledge. A specific class of objects subsumed under a specific concept may have different essences in the minds of different men. How, then, can they be regarded as "objective"?

Even more to the point: if concepts are defined by their essence, wouldn't a different essence lead to a different concept? In other words, if essences can change within differing contexts of knowledge, then why can't concepts change as well? Perhaps in one context of knowledge, the concept man refers to rational featherless bipeds; perhaps in another, to all bipeds, rational, humanoid, or otherwise. After all, if the context of knowledge helps determines the essence, and the essence defines the concept, then why shouldn't the context help determine the concept as well? And if our concepts depend on the context of our knowledge, how can concepts not be arbitrary?

Rand insisted her concepts were objective because they were "guided by objective criteria":

Objectivity begins with the realization that man (including his every attribute and faculty, including his consciousness) is an entity of a specific nature who must act accordingly; that there is no escape from the law of identity, neither in the universe with which he deals nor in the workings of his own consciousness, and if he is to acquire knowledge of the first, he must discover the proper method of using the second; that there is no room for the arbitrary in any activity of man, least of all in his method of cognition - and just as he has learned to be guided by objective criteria in making his physical tools, so he must be guided by objective criteria in forming his tools of cognition: his concepts.

How, then, are these objective criteria to be formed? Rand might replay: on the basis of reality. However, that doesn't answer our question. What, in reality, is the basis for your objectivity? It can't be on the basis of a natural kind, because, according to Objectivism, only particulars exist. It can't be the fundamental characteristics shared by various groupings of objects, because the characteristic cannot be recognized as fundamental unless it is known to belong to a class, and the class can't be known before the fundamental characteristics are identified. It would appear that Rand, in IOTE, takes the identification of classes of things, of natural kinds for granted. She assumes that the fundamental characteristic of a class of objects can be identified before knowing that they belong to a class. How is this even possible?

One of the objections that Rand poses to the Aristolean view that essences are metaphysical is that such essences are too easy to discover. It makes concept formation "automatic," like perception. But isn't concept formation, in point of fact, more like perception than otherwise? Rand stresses the difficulties involved; and, on her account, concept formation would in fact be very difficult, perhaps even impossible. Trying to form concepts on the basis of "fundamental characteristics" distributed randomly through an enormous array of particular concretes sounds like a task no mind could ever perform. However, if at least some groupings of particulars exist as natural kinds which can be easily identified, then most of the problems related to concepts and their so-called "validity" disappear. If the mind assumes right from the start that objects naturally form into classes, then concepts can be formed from one instance; and the resulting concept could be used as heuristic when confronted by similar objects. Moreover, despite all of Rand's denials to the contrary, concept formation does appear, in most respects, to be "automatic"; which is to say, it happens without any special conscious attention or "focus" being applied.

If concept formation really were so difficult; if it depended on the identification of numerous "fundamental characteristics" running all through the innumerable specific concretes which the mind observes from infancy onward; and if, as Rand contended, many people did not form their concepts in the "proper" way, how is it that most people nonetheless classify most particulars in the same way? Why don't we see the emergence of radically different conceptual schema? Why don't nominalists have one schema, and Objectivists a radically different one? How is it that most concepts are formed in early childhood, before anyone knows anything of fundamental characteristics, essences, conceptual common denominators, and all the other obscure categories of "proper" concept formation?

Rand's view that essences are epistemological simply doesn't make sense when we try to apply it to the real world. It makes or is based on assumptions that do no accord with the facts. The most egregious of these assumptions is that concept-formation is difficult and requires an active process. There is a "proper way" to concept formation which must be discovered. How, or rather why, did Rand come up with such an extravagent notion? This touches upon the entire raison d'etre of the Objectivist epistemology, which I will explore in my next post.

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