Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 15

Definitions: Introduction. The heart and soul of Rand's Introduction to Objectivism Epistemology is the chapter on definitions. I have already suggested that Rand's view of essence is far more important to her epistemology than her much heralded (by Objectivists) hypothesis of measurement-ommission. The problem of universals can easily be recast as the problem of essences. For Objectivism, essences constitute the essential distinguishing characteristic of a concept's referents, and the "proper" defining characteristic of that concept. I'll get into the details of Rand's view of such arcana as "fundamental characteristic" and "essential characteristics" and a later time. What is important now is to appreciate the importance of essences and definitions to the Objectivist Epistemology. Following Aristotle, Objectivism contends that definitions refer to the essence of a concept. Aristotle considered these essences as metaphysical; Objectivism considers them "epistemological."

Given the intimate relation of essences to definitions, it could easily be contended that Rand's problem of universals is tantamount to the problem of definitions. In any case, that is the practical upshot of the Objectivist Epistemology. The first four chapters of IOTE, which discuss concept formation, are without practical consequence. Concept formation is in fact much more complicated process than Rand's speculative musings about it would suggest; and moreover, as I contended in earlier posts, since so much of the work of concept formation is done by the cognitive unconscious, reading the first four chapters of IOTE will not improve your ability to form concepts. The mind simply does not work as Rand contends. Knowing about measurement-omission and conceptual common denominators is quite irrelevant to forming concepts. Rand's theory of concept formation is mere window dressing. Only when we come to her chapter on definitions (the longest chapter in IOTE) do we find doctrines that have any practical import. It is for this reason that I regard the chapter as constituting the heart and soul of the Objectivist epistemology. Essentially, Rand believes in the doctrine of immaculate definitions. For Rand, "The truth or falsehood of all of man’s conclusions, inferences, thought and knowledge rests on the truth or falsehood of his definitions." This doctrine is not only false, it's exceedingly mischievous and even malicious. If taken to heart, it becomes a solvent which disorganizes the mind and renders rational thought very difficult.

Rand's contention that definitions can be true or false rests or is implicated in the following doctrines (not all of which are consistent with one another or consistently adhered to by Rand and her orthodox disciples):

(1) Doctrine of Immaculate Definitions: definitions do not, according to Rand, establish word usage, but are necessary to the "proper" formation of concepts.

(2) Doctrine of Concepts as the Principle Unit of Knowledge: a concept stands for a number of "implicit" propositions.

(3) Doctrine of Anti-Concept and Invalid Concept: concepts, like definitions, can be true and false. Some concepts are even "anti-concepts"!

(4) Doctrine of Definitions as Platonic Ideas: words can have a meaning independent of what people mean when they use them; that is to say, the "true" meaning of the word (i.e., the "true" definition of the concept which the word symbolizes) trumps the intended meaning of the person using the word.

(5) Doctrine of Essence: the essence of a concept is the fundamental characteristic of the concept's referent upon which the greatest number of other characteristics depend and which distinguishes the referent from other referents in its class.

(6) Doctrine of Essentialism: defining concepts via their "essential" characteristics is critical to accurate, clear, and insighful thinking. Thinking in terms of essentials is a powerful way of cutting straight to the heart of the matter.

(7) Doctrine of the Contextuality of Definitions. definitions and essences are "contextual."

(8) Doctrine of Hiearchy of Knowledge: concepts and their essences exist in a hierarchy which connects even the most abstract conceptions to reality.

(9) Doctrine of Verbalism: clear thought depends on the truth and clarity of one's definitions.

(10) Doctrine of Ostensive Definition: definitions of concepts start with pointing at things and saying, "I mean that!"

In the next posts, I will examine each of these doctrines, showing how each is either explicitly or implicitly held by Rand and her disciples and how each creates hosts of insoluble problems.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...