Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 16

Definitions 1: The Doctrine of Immaculate Definitions. For Rand, the basic unit of human knowledge is the concept, which she defined as follows:

A concept is a mental integration of two or more units which are isolated by a process of abstraction and united by a specific definition. 

Note the phrase "united by a specific definition." According to Rand, definitions are a necessary component to conceptual knowledge:

Words transform concepts into (mental) entities; definitions provide them with identity. (Words without definitions are not language but inarticulate sounds.) [IOTE, 11]

Here Rand commits an error that it as the core of her view of definitions. She confuses definitions with meanings. While definitions state the meaning of words, they are not identical with that meaning. They cannot be identical because, as even Rand admits, definitions are condensations of knowledge. The meaning of most words is far too complex to be summed up in a brief definition. That is one reason why it is possible to know the meaning of a word without being able to provide its definition. Rand, however, insists that people must be able to define their abstract concepts if their knowledge is to be "valid." She (implicitly) denies that people can know even when they can't define their terms. This view, however, does not accord with experience. A definition merely states the meaning of one word in terms of other words. It's a way of saying the same thing with different words. The ability to define one's terms measures, not knowledge, but verbal fluency. An articulate person can describe the same thing in a variety of different ways, using different terms. That's all a definition is: saying the same thing using different words. The purpose of definitions is to establish common usage in the words people use, so they know what they mean when they write or speak. Definitions connect meanings (i.e., concepts) to words. Definitions have nothing to do with concept formation. Concepts already express meanings: it's a built-in feature. A concept without a meaning would not be a concept. Definitions merely connect concepts to conventions of word usage. For communication purposes, it is useful that we ascribe similar meanings to identical words. Otherwise, we will never understand one another.

When declaring that words "without definitions" are "inarticulate sounds," Rand misses the point. What she should have said is that words without meanings are inarticulate sounds. Words can only be defined in terms of other words. In the end, there must be a meaning separate from the word itself.

What I have satirically called the "doctrine of immaculate definitions" involves the following premises:

  1. that definitions define concepts, not words
  2. that definitions can be true or false
  3. that the truth or falsity of a definition depends on whether the definition's concept was formed "properly"

Rand explicitly accepts the first and second of these premises, and strongly implies the third one.

(1) Do definitions define concepts, rather than words? How can they? Concepts are self-defining. They need no definition. To know a concept is to know its meaning, even if you can't provide a verbal definition.

Part of Rand's confusions arise from her belief that words are a necessary part of concept-formation: "The process of forming a concept is not complete until its constiuent units have been integrated into a single mental unit by means of a specific word." [IOTE, 19] While words, for Rand, don't precede concepts, they do "complete the process." This view of the matter, however, does not accord with experience. It fails to explain, for example, how it is that sometimes people are at a loss for words: they know what they mean, but they just don't know what words to use to express that meaning. Under the Objectivist view, it becomes impossible to explain this phenomenon.

As a world-famous writer, Rand was far more articulate than most people. She seems to have assumed that the process of articulation was equivalent to the process of understanding. If a person couldn't express what they meant, this was taken as evidence of improper concept formation and false definitions, rather than merely a poor facility for expressing oneself.

(2) Can a definition be true? Can it be false? It can be neither (at least not in the sense meant by Rand). Definitions describe the meaning people ascribe to the words they use. If a definition fails as a description of what a person means, then the definition is incorrect or inadequate, not false. To repeat what I said earlier: definitions merely connect meanings to words. They define word usage, which, in a social context, is a mere convention. When Rand insists that definitions can be true or false, she resembles the German lady who said that, while Englishmen called a certain object bread, and Frenchmen called it pain, "in reality" it was Brod. The actual words we use to convey what we mean are entirely arbitrary: they are social conventions, and different peoples often use entirely different words to mean the same thing. How do Objectivist fail to understand something so simple? (Answer: a superstitious fear of the word arbitrary.)

If definitions could be true or false, what would a "false" definition look like? Rand never explains her view in a satisfactory manner. Usually when people talk about the truth or falsity of definitions, they mean the truth and falsity of their definitions. But in so much as an individual defines his own terms, he is only explaining what he means by the words he uses. He cannot, however, dicate how others use those words. There's no "true" or "false" way of using words; only the ways established by "common usage." Generally speaking, it is best to use words in the same way as most people use them; that is to say, one should follow common usuage as much as possible. If you insist on redefining words in a unique way to yourself, you're bound to be misunderstood.

Sometimes when people say a definition is "false," what they really mean is that the definition describes something that doesn't correspond to reality. For example, let us consider a Marxist definition of capitalism. Rand would almost certainly describe such a definition as "false." However, in describing it as false Rand is confounding meaning with referent. Anyone, even a Marxist, can define terms in whatever way he pleases. If, when using the term capitalism, the Marxist means it in a Marxist way, then his marxist definition of capitalism truly describes what he means when he uses the term. The fact that his meaning of capitalism may not refer to anything in reality is irrelevant. After all, would Rand insist that the common definition of a unicorn was false because unicorns don't exist? An individual, whether he is a Marxist, an Objectivist, or Scientologist, means what he means, and there's an end to it. Whether those meanings refer to anything in reality is a separate question. A meaning, a concept, an idea, in and of itself, cannot be true or false. It's only when concepts are combined into assertions, theories, hypothesis that the question of truth enters the arena.

(3) Does the "truth" of "falsity" of a definition rest on whether a concept is formed "properly"? Of course not. Since definitions can neither be true nor false, how they (or the concepts they describe) are formed is utterly beside the point. Moreover, since most concepts are formed largely by unconscious cerebrations, it's a false ideal to insist that they be formed "properly." How a person forms their concepts is largely irrelevant. It's what he asserts about those concepts that matters.

1 comment:

Anon69 said...

The entire purpose of Rand's Doctrine of Immaculate Definitions is to justify statements like this one:

"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."

That is not actually true, but by crafting a baffling epistemology shrouded in fog, Rand can make such claims with the proof supposed to exist while the actual lack of support remains hidden behind a cloud.

Rand's epistemology is the weakest part of Objectivism. As epistemology, it is easy to dispense with: all one has to do is apply it to see that it doesn't work. It also helps to know why Rand needed to create it in the first place: to defend her propaganda. It is impossible to take her epistemology seriously when its entire content is transparently geared towards solving her polemical problems.