Saturday, September 29, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 17

Definitions 2: Doctrine of Concepts as the Principle Unit of Knowledge. This doctrine is expounded in Rand's Epistemological workshops:

Prof F: My question is about the relationships between concepts and propositions. Concepts are logically prior, aren't they?
AR: Yes.
Prof F: If every concept is based upon a definition, isn't that definition itself a proposition?
AR: Oh yes.
Prof F: Well then, the concept is in this case based on a proposition.
AR: No, but the first concepts are not. First level concepts, concepts of perceptual concretes, are held without definitions.... They are held first without definitions, mainly in visual form, or through other sensory images. By the time you accumulate enough of them, you can progress to propositions, to making use of concepts, organizing them into sentences which communicate something. And the concepts you form from then on, which are abstractions from abstractions, those you couldn't hold visually; they require formal definitions. By the time you get to them, you are already capable of forming abstractions.
And observe that that's true even by simple empirical verification: if you see how a child learns to speak, he doesn't start by uttering sentences. He first utters single words, and then after a while, when he has enough of them, he begins to try to communicate in sentences....
Prof B: It is still true that every concept is prior to any proposition that contains the concept. You have to have the concept before you can use it in a proposition....
Prof F: Yes.
AR: There is something I would like to add. There is a passage in the book where I said every concept stands for a number of implicit propositions. And even so, chronologically we have to acquire concepts first, and then we begin to learn propositions. Logically implicit in a concept is a proposition, only a child couldn't possibly think of it. He doesn't have the means yet to say, "By the word 'table' I mean such and such a category of existents [with all their characteristics]." [IOTE, 177-178]

The theory limned in these remarks could be reduced to the following:

  1. Logically, concepts are prior to propositions.
  2. Empirically, concepts are prior to propositions because concepts are learned first (that is, children spouts words before they spout propositions).
  3. This implies that concepts are the basic unit of knowledge. If your concepts are screwed up, it doesn't matter how you use them in propositions, your knowledge will be compromised.
  4. Nonetheless, propositions are logically implicit in concepts.

I will counter these four propositions with the following five conjectures:

  1. Concepts are not logically prior to propositions.
  2. The fact that children speak in single words before they speak in sentences is irrelevant to the question of whether concepts or propositions are the basic unit of knowledge.
  3. Neither conceputalization nor the ability to name things constitute knowledge in the realist sense of the term.
  4. Knowledge can only be expressed in propositions.
  5. Propositions constitute the basic unit of knowledge, not concepts.

Let's flesh out these five conjectures:

(1) Strictly speaking, concepts are not logically prior to propositions. Temporal priority in no way establishes logical priority. Logic applies to arguments and propositions, not concepts or words. Concepts are neither logical nor illogical, valid or invalid. Propositions may depend on concepts in the sense that a proposition is made up of concepts. But that dependence is not strictly logical. The logic arises from the relation of individual concepts to other concepts. A = non-A is a contradiction because two diametrically opposite conceptions are involved and placed within a proposition. A concept by itself cannot contradict anything.

(2) When a child utters his first words, is he forming concepts or is he merely learning the names of things? Unless a definite, fact based answer to this question can be founded and defended (using peer reviewed research), it is pointless to insist that, merely because children learn words before they develop the ability to speak in sentences, that this means that concepts are the principle unit of knowledge or the source of cognitive mischief in anyone who disagrees with Rand's definitions.

(3) If you believe in realism (i.e., that both matter and consciousness exist, and that knowledge involves a conscious mind understanding a substantive world), then familiarity with words, concepts, ideas, essences and other mental arcana do not constitute knowledge. Conceptual knowledge is hence a contradiction in terms. On realist premises, knowledge is not made up of concepts or ideas, but rather on what we assert about our concepts and ideas; and assertions always involve propositions. Knowledge is fundamentally propositional, not conceptual. A concept by itself tells us nothing. It conveys no information about reality. Until one asserts something of a concept, it remains little more than a mental figment. Concepts only convey knowledge when they are assumed to symbolize some object, property, or process in reality; and that assumption involves making a tacit assertion about the concept in question. The concept table, in and of itself, conjures up merely the mental object of flat objects with legs. Only when we begin to assert that tables exist does the concept become a vehicle for knowledge.

(4) To circumvent the rather obvious fact that no knowledge can be conveyed by concepts alone, Rand introduces the notion that propositions are "logically implicit" in concepts. What sort of propositions does Rand have in mind? She gives one example, the proposition "logically implicit" in the concept table: "By the word 'table' I mean such and such a category of existents." What Rand is here suggesting is that conceptualization involves assertions of existence. When you form a concept "properly," you assume that the concept refers to something that exists. Hence all "valid" concepts provide information about reality.

The problem with this way of conceiving concept-formation is that it doesn't square easily with concepts of fictional or even hypothetical phenomenon. What of such concepts as unicorn, griffen, centaurjaberwocky? or infinity, eternal, ever-lasting, after-life? Or philogestin, aether, tachyon? Rand would have to consider many of these concepts as "invalid," which seems to suggest that something went wrong when they were formed. But is this really true? Are these concepts "invalid" because they were formed improperly, or is it merely certain assertions made about them that are "invalid"? If I say, phlogiston exists, I am saying something that is untrue and (in keeping with Objectivist word usage) "invalid." But if I say, phlogiston does not exist, I am uttering something that is true. It is a strange conceit to assume that a concept is "invalid" merely because the referent of the concept does not exist (or hasn't been proved to exist). It is even stranger to imply that such invalid concepts are the consequence of "improper" concept-formation. If the implications of Rand's views on concept are taken to be credited, the only "proper" concepts are those that relate to "such and such a category of existents."

Such implications are so absurd that even Rand shrunk from explicitly embracing them. But they remain a festering wound in the fabric of the Objectivist epistemology all the same.

(5) If we merely assume that all knowledge, in the sense that it can be communicated and consciously thought about, is fundamentally propositional, all the absurdities of Rand's concept-centered view of knowledge instantly vanish like a bad dream. We can then entertain all concepts, whether they refer to anything real or not. Concepts are descriptions; and why should we banish descriptions of the unreal and the unproven? They have a place in story-telling, hypothesis, and counter-factuals. Rand's belief that concepts constitute the principle unit of knowledge leads, in practice (as it must inevitably), to senseless quibbles about the meaning of words. But nothing is more futile than to argue about the meanings of words. Far more fruitful to argue about whether this or that assertion about matters of fact is true!

1 comment:

Rey said...

"Far more fruitful to argue about whether this or that assertion about matters of fact is true!"

Indeed, contra Objectivists' belief that "A is A" is some profound, earth-shattering insight original to Rand, the real issue is (and always has been) to figure out the best ways are to determine A's characteristics. "A is A" assumes not only that A is wholly knowable, but that it is already wholly known. I don't see any room for creativity or discovery in any system founded on such a proposition.