Monday, August 13, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 10

The Problem of Universals. Rand wrote (in an oft-quoted passage here at ARCHN):

To negate man's mind, it is the conceptual level of his consciousness that has to be invalidated. Most philosophers did not intend to invalidate conceptual knowledge, but its defenders did more to destroy it than did its enemies. They were unable to offer a solution to the ‘problem of universals,’ that is: to define the nature and source of abstractions, to determine the relationship of concepts to perceptual data—and to prove the validity of scientific induction.... The philosophers were unable to refute the witch-doctors claim that their concepts were as arbitrary as his whims and that their scientific knowledge had no greater metaphysical validity than his revelations. [FTNI, 30]

What evidence does Rand provide for this view? No relevant evidence. Only an obscure quote from an obscure historian of pragmatism:

All knowledge is in terms of concepts. If these concepts correspond to something that is to be found in reality they are real and man's knowledge has a foundation in fact; if they do not correspond to anything in reality they are not real and man's knowledge is of mere figments of his own imagination. [Edward C. Moore, quoted by Rand, IOTE, 1-2]

Note that Moore says nothing about the problem of universals and its relation to concepts. That connection Rand made on her own. I'm not aware of any major modern philosopher who has ever suggested that the failure to solve the problem of universals invalidates conceptual knowledge. Most modern philosophers ignore the whole issue. If they discuss the issue of universals at all, it is only in passing.

More to the point, I'm not aware of any major philosopher who would endorse the view that conceptual knowledge is invalid for any reason whatsoever. Hume and Kant were considered great sceptics in their day; but neither philosopher ever claimed that all conceptual knowledge was erroneous or untrue. Indeed, both regarded the charge of being great sceptics as unfair. Hume added a pragmatic refutation of extreme scepticism in his Enquiry on Human Understanding, and Kant added a proof of realism to the second addition of the Critique. Idealist philosophers like Berkeley and Hegel, far from denying the validity of conceptual knowledge, regarded knowledge of concepts as the only true knowledge. Rand's assertion, therefore, that conceptual knowledge has been invalidated by the failure of modern philosophers to solve the problem of universals is blatantly false. Who doubts the truth of all conceptual knowledge because of the problem of universals? Can Rand (or any of her disciples) provide a single example? Most people have never even heard of the problem of universals. Nor do most people regard their conceptual knowledge as "invalid."

For the reasons outlined above, IOTE attempts to solve what, from a practical point of view, is a trivial or non-existent problem. This is the first great defect of Rand's tract. A second defect is that she does a poor job of explaining how her solution actually solves the so-called problem. Rand's solution (to be discussed in more detail in future posts) consists largely of her theory of concept formation. By showing how concepts are formed, Rand believed that she had solved the problem of universals. Unfortunately, she does not do a very good job of connecting the dots: she fails to provide an adequate explanation of how her theory of concept formation, by "solving" the problem of universals, manages to "validate" conceptual knowledge. The closest she comes to providing an explanation is in the following passage:

Now we can answer the question: To what precisely do we refer when we designate three persons as “men?” We refer to the fact that they are living beings who possess the same characteristic distinguishing them from all other living species: a rational faculty—though the specific measurements of their distinguishing characteristic qua men, as well as all their other characteristics qua living beings, are different. (As living beings of a certain kind, they possess innumerable characteristics in common: the same shape, the same range of size, the same facial features, the same vital organs, the same fingerprints, etc., and all these characteristics differ only in their measurements). [IOTE, 17]

The claim here is that Rand's measurement omission principle of concept formation (to be discussed in a future post) solves the problem of universals. But does it? What if we ran across a "man" who, because he was insane or mentally retarded, did not have a rational faculty? Would he still be recognizable as a man? Here we run into an issue that is at the very heart of the "problem of universals" but which Rand does not broach at all: the issue of "natural kinds." To this problem we will turn in my next post.


Rey said...

Non-philosopher here, so I'm curious -- what is a "universal"?

Daniel Barnes said...

Hi Rey,

It's the ancient problem of why different things are similar. Plato, for example, postulated his theory of the forms to explain this.

gregnyquist said...

what is a "universal"?

From Wikipedia:

"In metaphysics, a universal is what particular things have in common, namely characteristics or qualities. In other words, universals are repeatable or recurrent entities that can be instantiated or exemplified by many particular things.[1] For example, suppose there are two chairs in a room, each of which is green. These two chairs both share the quality of 'chairness,' as well as greenness or the quality of being green. Metaphysicians call this quality that they share a 'universal.' There are three major kinds of qualities or characteristics: types or kinds (e.g. mammal), properties (e.g. short, strong), and relations (e.g. father of, next to). These are all different types of universal."

Dragonfly said...

The problem is: what is the problem?

Echo Chamber Escapee said...

@Dragonfly: The problem is: what is the problem?

I think the "problem" seemed real enough in Plato's day, but it has since evaporated in light of advances in understanding how perception and cognition work. For example, Plato had no idea that "green" is a response to photons of certain wavelengths striking the observer's retina. So he was trying to explain how different objects could have the same property of "greenness." If you can mentally put yourself in the sandals of someone who had absolutely no clue about retinas, optic nerves, or even that the brain had anything to do with cognition (which I believe was the case in ancient Greece), you can see how the presence of "greenness" in diverse objects might be a phenomenon in need of explanation.

Now that we understand the process, we understand that a lot of different physical interactions can produce photons of green wavelengths, causing us to see different objects (a leaf, a traffic light, Kermit the Frog) as green. So the problem just goes away.

I think similar things could be said about other types of universals, such as "chairness." The recognition of a particular object as a chair happens somewhere below conscious awareness, so it baffled the early philosophers. Imagine trying to answer a question like "how does the thought 'this is a chair' occur upon encountering a chair?" without knowing anything about how cognition works.

Now we understand that "this is a chair" is an inference our brains make based on observable characteristics like shape, size, etc., as well as whatever prior information we have about chairs. We have a lot to learn about how this process works, but it's become a question of cognitive science, not philosophy. So we don't see any reason to postulate some separate "universal" of "chairness" that we are somehow perceiving through some unknown means.

I'm guessing that's why, as Greg notes in the OP, modern philosophers don't talk much about the "problem of universals" anymore.

gregnyquist said...

I think the "problem" seemed real enough in Plato's day, but it has since evaporated in light of advances in understanding how perception and cognition work.

Yes, that's one reason why the problems seems quaint nowadays. But the problem went away well before any scientific study of perception and cognition was undertaken. It was Copernicus and Galileo that rendered the problem of universals unfashionable, and they did so, not by addressing the problem itself, but by discrediting the philosophy that it had been associated with, namely, scholasticism, that mixture of Aristole and Christian theology that dominated philosophy in the Middle Ages. Scholasticism was overly rationalistic. It attempted to determine matters of fact on the basis of moral, logical, and rhetorical constructions. Galileo, by confirming Copernicus' heliocentric hypothesis via observation, left these rationalistic pretenses of the scholastics in shatters. By demonstrating that no complex fact about the world is discovered through armchair philosophizing, 17th century paved the way for Hume's and Kant's massive broadsides against rationalism. Once scholasticism was discredited, one of its primary philosophical problems, the problem of universals, became discredited along with it.

Curiously, the problem of universals has been brought back to life by contemporary philosophers, most notably, by the Australian philosopher David Armstrong. This is at least partly a consequence of the rise of academic philosophy and the need of philosophy professors to find a niche, a specialty to write about.

Anonymous said...



Most modern philosophers ignore the whole issue. If they discuss the issue of universals at all, it is only in passing.


I disagree with you a little here. Many modern philosophers (by that I mean contemporary) write on the subject. Recent philosophers such as D.M. Armstrong and David Lewis have written a lot.

-Neil Parille