Friday, August 31, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 13

Universals, definitions, and morality. In the 1949 book Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver advanced the following rather unusual argument:

Like MacBeth, Western man made an evil decision, which has become the efficient and final cause of other evil decisions. It occurred in the late fourteenth century, and what the witches said to the protagonist of this drama was that man could realize himself more fully if he would only abandon his belief in the existence of transcendentals. The powers of darkness were working subtly, as always, and they couched this proposition in the seemingly innocent form of an attack upon universals. The defeat of logical realism in the great medieval debate was the crucial event in the history of Western culture; from this flowed those acts which issue now in modern decadence. [2-3]
Although Weaver's argument is phrased in platonistic terminology, in practical terms, it is not much different from Rand's:

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.
The differences in these two arguments is mostly terminological. Weaver seems more focused on the relation between universals and what he calls "transcendentals," by which he means, moral law. Rand, on the other hand, stresses the link between universals and knowledge in general, particularly "scientific" knowledge, which she contrasts with religious revelation. However, when we examine IOTE more closely, we find that Rand shares Weaver's passion for moral universals. The attack on universals, for both Rand and Weaver, is primarily an attack on the moral foundations of Western society.

Rand makes a lot of noise about conceptual knowledge and the validity of concepts, but if we examine Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology more closely, we notice a distinction which its author makes between various types of concepts. There are concepts that refer to "perceptual concretes," such as table, alligator, book; and then there are more "abstract" concepts, such as justice, selfish, and altruism. When Rand talks about the "concerted attack on man's conceptual faculty," I suspect she means not man's entire conceptual faculty, but only that portion of the faculty that involves high-level abstract concepts. After all, Rand acknowledges that most (if not all) men can grasp concepts that refer to "perceptual concretes." Consider the following passage:

After the first stage of learning certain fundamentals, there is no particular order in which a child learns new concepts.... His full, independent conceptual development does not begin until he has acquired sufficient vocabulary to be able to form sentences -- i.e., be able to think (at which time he can bring order to his haphazard conceptual equipment). Up to that time, he is able to retain referents of his concepts by perceptual, predominantly visual means; as his conceptual chain moves farther and farther away from perceptual concretes, the issue of verbal definitions becomes crucial. It is at this point that all hell breaks loose.

In other words, regardless of modern philosophy's "concerted attack on man's conceptual knowledge," human beings can still distinguish a hawk from a handsaw. But when they enter the lofty realm of pure abstraction, away from the relative safety of "perceptual concretes," "all hell breaks loose."

Rand continues her onslaught against good sense with the following:

Apart from the fact that educational methods of most of his elders are such that, instead of helping him, they tend to cripple his further development, a child's own choice and motivation are crucial at this point. [Here Rand is trying to have it both ways: she wants to blame the educational system without in any way mitigating the moral responsibility of the child. However, if the child's motivation is so "crucial," then it's difficult to see how the educational methods of his elders should be worth even mentioning.] There are many different ways in which children proceed to learn new words thereafter. Some (a very small minority) proceed straight on, by the same method as before, i.e., by treating words as concepts, by requiring a clear, first-hand understanding (within the context of their knowledge) of the exact meaning of every word they learn, never allowing a break in the chain linking their concepts to the facts of reality. Some proceed by the road of approximations, where the fog deepens with every step, where the use of words is guided by a the feeling: "I kinda know what I mean." Some switch from cognition to imitation, substituting memorizing for understanding, and adopt something as close to a parrot's psycho-epistemology as a human brain can come -- learning, not concepts nor words, but string of sounds whose referents are not the facts of reality, but the facial expressions and emotional vibrations of their elders. And some (the overwhelming majority) adopt a precarious mixture of different degrees of all three methods. [IOTE, 20-21]
If you want to know why Rand considered epistemology important, this passage is the best explanation you'll likely ever find. Although she doesn't say so explicitly, what she is attempting to explain is why most people don't agree with the Objectivist views on ethics and politics. Rand acknowledges that everyone is capable of forming concepts of perceptual concretes. They all know what milk, chimney, and car refers to in reality. It's when it comes to higher level concepts, "abstractions from abstractions," that they lose their way. Which abstractions does she have in mind? Although she doesn't make this explicitly clear, it's primarily the moral and political abstractions that she cares about. After all, we don't find Rand complaining about people's conceptual views of cooking or sports. Kant's influence does not extend to our high-level abstractions concerning pie-baking or baseball. It's morality where, for Rand, "all hell breaks loose."

Consider the following passage:

The meaning ascribed in popular usage to the word “selfishness” is not merely wrong: it represents a devastating intellectual “package-deal,” which is responsible, more than any other single factor, for the arrested moral development of mankind.

In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.

Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests.

This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions.

Rand insists that the popular usage of the word selfishness is wrong. But how can a meaning be wrong? Meaning, like Rand's favorite mantra, A is A, is tautological: a person means what he means. There is no right or wrong about it. Now a person's meaning, when it asserts something about reality, may be untrue and/or confused, but he still means those untrue or confused assertions; and so the meaning, taken in and of itself, is neither right or wrong, it just is. The primary goal of Rand's Objectivist epistemology, it's raison d'etre, is to circumvent these obvious facts about meaning. Rand wants to assert that only her meanings are "right" and "true," and that everyone who disagrees with her is wrong and confused. Why are non-Objectivists wrong and confused? Because they haven't formed their concepts "properly." They failed to grasp the "exact" meaning of every word they learned; they relied too much on mere "imitation," instead of understanding; and they wound up taking the wide, bland "road of approximations," instead of the steep, narrow, winding path of exactitude. If people, as children, had merely been more attentive, more focused, more vigilant in how they formed concepts; if they had made certain of the precise chain that connected their concepts with reality; then they would accept Rand's definitions of moral and political abstractions. And once the basic moral and political definitions of Objectivism are accepted, the rest follows.

Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, despite its formal subject matter, is not primarily, at its core, a book about epistemology. On the contrary, it is a book about morality. The Objectivist view of concepts, essences, and definitions is an argument for morality by other other means. Rand had a moral and political agenda that constitutes the very heart and life blood of her philosophy. In the absence of this agenda, she would never bothered her head about problems of universals and the "validity" of conceptual knowledge.

Rand had always argued that her morality was connected to the facts of reality. Her epistemology is supposed to establish this connection. But does it? In my next post, I will examine Rand's attempt to connect moral concepts with reality.


Anon69 said...

Rand's political agenda boils down to the noninitiation of force principle. Her argument seems to consist of granting the Aristotelian definition of man coupled with a screwy notion of how the mind works (or ought to work). If man is rational, which entails freely choosing, then initiating physical force contra another's free choice would be an epistemological error, as though were one to hold the proper definition one would find it cognitively impossible to initiate force. Human beings are not so naïve. No one thinks "how could I possibly initiate force, after all, it would violate the concept of 'man'!" The question is not whether someone is capable of choosing but whether his choices ought to be respected, and it is not cognitively impossible to consider that question. Rand's epistemology fails again.

Samadhir said...

What I find interesting here is how, when Rand attempts to describe what is popularly meant by the term "selfishness", she describes the image of a "brute" who cares for nothing but the "gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment".

Now, that CAN describe what is popularly meant by "selfishness", but why does she think it necessarily refers to a mindless brute? Why not a coldly efficient psycopath who meticulously gets rid of anyone standing in his way in order to increase his own power according to carefully thought-out, long-term goals? Both of these would be fitting images of the "evil" kind of selfishness.

I think it stems from a problem that Rand shares with many other "ethical egoists": the attempt to explain why, even though you should live for your own happiness and not for the sake of others, it's wrong to do so through means we generally regard as evil, like murder, theft, slavery etc. In her case, she tries to cast all such "evil" behaviour as the exclusive province of the irrational, mindless and stupid, as if all such acts come merely from following immediate "whims" (one of her favourite terms of disparagement). Even if someone would appear to be cold and rational in his corpse-trodding and even if he does appear to achieve his goals through such methods, he has to be "irrational" on the inside. This also has the added benefit of being able to say that such acts aren't "truly" selfish - after all, if they're the province of stupid brutes, they can't lead to any long-term success and therefore are merely self-destructive.

I think the real explanation for her opposition to these acts is simpler - like most human beings, she did have basic standards of decency and morality, and therefore couldn't bring herself to be consistently selfish, or advocate for it.