Definitions 4: Doctrine of Definitions as Platonic Ideas.
While Rand did not explicitly believe that definitions were analogous to platonic Ideas, her contention that definitions can be true or false implies that definitions are thoroughly platonic and exist as a kind of disembodied reality.
Definitions can either be regarded as defining the "true" meaning of words (as Rand regards them) or as defining what people mean by the words they use (which is how dictionaries regard them). Now for Rand's view of definitions to be true, words must have meanings independent of the meanings people intend to convey when using them. An individual may be trying to convey meaning X by using word A. But if the "true" definition of X is B rather than A, then the individual actually means B rather than A, irrespective of his intentions. This doctrine is, of course, absurd, yet it is one that Rand appears to have embraced. Consider the most notorious example, from the introduction to The Virtue of Selfishness
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.
How can the "popular meaning" of a word be "wrong"? Don't people mean what they mean? (Rand's implicit answer is: no, they don't
.) Rand's contention that the exact meaning of the dictionary meaning of selfishness is "concern with one's own interests" is misleading. That may be one
of the definitions of selfishness. But there are multiple definitions of the word. Merriam Websters provides three:
- concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself : seeking or concentrating on one's own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others
- arising from concern with one's own welfare or advantage in disregard of others
- being an actively replicating repetitive sequence of nucleic acid that serves no known function ; also : being genetic material solely concerned with its own replication
If definitions can be true or false, how can we explain the fact that most words have multiple definitions? The only way Rand could explain this is either (1) only one
of a word's definitions is "true"; (2) definitions apply only to concepts rather than words, so that a word with multiple definitions actually applies to several concepts. I would venture to guess that Rand would rely upon the second explanation.
Are definitions applicable to concepts rather than words? No, they are not. Dictionaries define words, not concepts. But even if definitions did apply to concepts, this would not justify Rand's doctrine of definitions. Let's go back to the Rand's claims about the word selfishness. Rand insists that the "the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word" is: concern with one's own interests. By Rand's own epistemological theory, her contention here is inaccurate. If we take Rand's view about definitions applying to concepts at face value, then we must assume that she is not talking about the "word" selfishness, but about one of the concepts symbolized by the word. If so, then we must assume as well that other concepts may also be symbolized by the same term; and that these concepts may be defined just as truly as Rand's own special version. However, if words can correspond to multiple concepts, then Rand's contention that any term has a "true" meaning is wrong even on her own premises. Since a term can symbolize many meanings, no term can have a single "true" meaning.
To be sure, Rand's assertion that definitions apply to concepts, not words is mere window dressing. It is one of those doctrines that is more honored in the breach than in the observance. In practice, the distinction between concepts and words will be forgotten, and the belief that every concept has a true definition will metamorphise itself into the doctrine that every word has a true definition. We see this plainly in Rand's discussion of selfishness. When she writes about the definition of selfishness, she uses the phrase "definition of word," not "definition of concept." Definitions define what people mean by the words they use. Definitions merely connect words to meanings. Even Rand understood this, although she contradicts it in her epistemology.
If a word could have a "true" definition, then the "true" meaning and intended meaning of the words people use would not diverge. But they obviously do. This is no where better illustrated than when people misuse terms: that is to say, when individuals use words that, in common usage, diverge from the meanings they are trying to express. What is interesting about these situations is that it is possible to understand what these people mean, even though they are using the wrong terms to express that meaning. The following are a couple of quotes from Dogberry in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing
One word, sir: our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two aspicious persons, and we would have them this morning examined before your worship.
Is our whole dissembly appeared?
Dogberry is an example of someone using the wrong words to express what he means. That's the humor of it. But to get the joke, the audience must understand what Dogberry really means. When Dogberry says that his watch has "comprehended to aspicious persons," we know he really means "we apprehended two suspicious persons." When he says "our whole dissembly," we know he really means "our whole assembly." Now if words can have meanings independent of what people mean by them, how could we explain (1) the divergence between "real" meaning and intended meaning; and (2) the fact that we can sometimes understand what a person really means, even when they use the wrong words. The humor arising from verbal gaffes is only explicable on the view that definitions define word usage, rather than the "true" meanings of words (or the concepts the words symbolize). Words do not have "true" meanings; they are merely vehicles to convey the intended meaning of those using the words. It's the intended meaning, not the "true" meaning, that counts.
Because Rand assumed that words had a true meaning independent of what people intended when using them, she often struggled to understand other point of views. She would read her own meanings into the words other people used and wind up distorting what others meant. There's ample evidence of this in her marginalia, and in her treatment of rival points of view. At times, it is as if Rand assumes that people say what they don't mean, that their words have a reality independent of their intent. Words, Rand suggested, when strung together into premises, could actually change an individual's personality. Ideas could become integrated into the subconscious, and from that vantage point work all kinds of mischief.
Rand's views on these issues would be bad enough even if they were mere speculative theories serving no other purpose than to rationalize an ideological agenda. But when taken seriously and applied in practice, these views can easily take a malicious turn. It's bad enough to put words in people's mouth; but even worse is putting meanings into their thoughts. The belief that concepts
have true meanings, in practice, leads to the belief that words
have true meanings; and that belief in turn leads not merely to senseless arguments about the meaning of words, but to the denial and/or evasion of what people mean by the words they use. To repeat again what I have said: It's the intended meaning, not the "true" meaning, that counts. To insist on a separation between intended and true meaning can only lead to misinterpretation and misunderstanding of what other people mean by the words they use. At it's very best, its bad manners to insist that people don't mean what they do in fact mean; at its worst, it's downright malicious.
"Words, Rand suggested, when strung together into premises, could actually change an individual's personality. Ideas could become integrated into the subconscious, and from that vantage point work all kinds of mischief."
Here's were Rand veers from definitions being akin to Platonic ideals to language itself being a sort of virus*, the DNA of which she and on she can unlock.
Re: Shakespeare: Well *of course* Shakespeare plays fast and loose with real true definitions! The man suffered from Malevolent Universe Syndrome! And anyway, Rand had a rather stormy relationship with the concept "humor."
*The phrase "language is a virus" comes from a William S. Burroughs novel where otherworldly alien forces seeking bring about humankind's self-destruction infect us with language, specifically, a language they control so that they can manipulate our thoughts and actions to bring about their ends. Rand, by insisting that there are "true definitions" that, conveniently, magically, she is able to discern, is playing the part of the malevolent aliens.
@Greg: If definitions can be true or false, how can we explain the fact that most words have multiple definitions? The only way Rand could explain this is either (1) only one of a word's definitions is "true"; (2) definitions apply only to concepts rather than words, so that a word with multiple definitions actually applies to several concepts. I would venture to guess that Rand would rely upon the second explanation.
I don't recall Rand addressing this issue, but Peikoff has.
Back in my ARIan days, an astute Objectvisit noticed that many key words (or concepts) of Objectivism seemed to have two definitions. For instance, Rand defines "value" as (1) "that which one acts to gain and/or keep." But elsewhere she says that some of the things people are observed acting to gain and/or keep are not really values, suggesting that the correct definition of "value" is more like (2) "that which a rational man acts to gain and/or keep." The observer asked: How can any word -- especially such an important one as "value" -- have two definitions? Which one is true?
Debate raged on e-mail lists and other forums for several months, until Peikoff finally resolved it in his "Unity and Epistemology" lectures, delivered at one of the summer conferences. He concluded that "a certain category of philosophic term requires not one, but two definitions." (Quote from the blurb for this course at Peikoff.com.)
The explanation turns out to be basically Greg's option (2), but with an interesting twist: somehow it's not really two different concepts but one concept with two senses. I'm too lazy to reconstruct the explanation myself, but not too lazy to find an outline of it.
What jumps out at me now is that Peikoff is trying to construct a mountain of verbiage to bury the massive equivocation between "survival" and "Man Qua Man" that plagues the Objectivist meta-ethics. It's further evidence for Greg's theory that the real purpose of Rands's epistemology is to justify her ethics.
The explanation turns out to be basically Greg's option (2), but with an interesting twist: somehow it's not really two different concepts but one concept with two senses.
It seems like Peikoff has come up with something I could never anticipated, for the simple reason that I could never have thought of anything so half-baked. This demonstrates to me that Objectivists don't understand the relationship between concept and meaning. A concept is it's meaning. So it would be absurd to say that a concept can have two senses. Even "philosophical" concepts aren't so puissant as to enjoy that capability.
I was going to write my own recollection of the two senses thing from Peikoff's lecture but this explains it perfectly: Is an irrational value a value?
When I first heard that part of the lecture in my car, I wanted to eject the tape and throw it out the window. To my simple mind, this is having your cake and eating it too.
Anything can be a value if it's important to you, even if it's "irrational." That's all that "value" means. Until you don the straightjacket of Objectivism.
Was Rand familiar with any languages other than English? Presumably she was born into a Russian-speaking family; her strong foreign accent certainly suggests that English wasn't her first language even if it came to be the one in which she worked and was most articulate.
Given her genius I'm sure objectivists will tell you that she mastered English and knew it better than her native tongue.
@A: Was Rand familiar with any languages other than English?
She knew at least two others: Russian (her native language) and French (which she could at least read).
One would think that being multilingual would have made her more aware of how humans use language ... but that doesn't seem to have happened.
Here is an interesting story which says that in Australia some dictionary is going to define "misogyny" to include having a more traditional view of women.
Consider the word "homophobia." 99% of the people about whom this word is used have no phobia towards homosexuals, they just don't agree with the conduct.
Rand was on to something, even if as always she was a bit exaggerated.
The Macquarie Dictionary is saying that usage has broadened to include a second meaning "entrenched prejudice against women" and that they should amend the definition to cover this. I would not describe this as "having a more traditional view of women". That does not necessarily have any implication of ill will or lack of respect and misogyny still does.
@Neil: That "homophobia" in most cases is not a phobia in the classic psychological sense doesn't invalidate the term. Today the ending "-phobia" is often used to indicate some specific aversion. Just like the ending "-gate" in many cases doesn't refer to any real gate, but to some big (government) scandal, inspired by the term "Watergate".
Neither is for example the term "atom" "wrong", even if we now know that it isn't indivisible as the name would indicate. Etymology doesn't determine the "correctness" of words, common usage does.
A word can have multiple meanings and different connotations in different contexts.
Say I oppose shoplifting. A shoplifter claims that my opinion is irrational and caused by "kleptophobia." I'm not entitled to say that the person is misusing language?
Neil, a shoplifter is stealing, i.e., taking something without the consent of the owner.
Someone having consensual sex with another person of the same gender neither breaks your leg nor picks your pocket. If very idea bothers you, tough shit. It is none of your business.
Someone marrying another person of the same gender neither breaks your leg nor picks your pocket. If the very idea bothers you, tough shit. It is none of your business.
If you can't see the difference between stealing and sex between consenting adults, then that's your problem. Don't make it anyone else's just because you don't like what they do in the privacy of their own homes.
Whst does that hsve to do with my point?
Neil: "Say I oppose shoplifting. A shoplifter claims that my opinion is irrational and caused by "kleptophobia." I'm not entitled to say that the person is misusing language?"
He isn't so much misusing language as presenting a bad argument, of the type of Molière's "virtus dormativa". "Kleptophobia" may further well exist as a specific phobia - an irrational fear - for stealing; however, it won't be used by many people in a metaphorical sense, as most people are either against stealing or won't admit openly that they are not against stealing.
Therefore in that sense the word would be unusual, as the metaphorical use of the suffix "phobia" in general has a negative connotation. But for some people the term expresses the idea that an aversion against stealing is a negative trait. If you disagree, you should argue why it is not a negative trait, but not argue that it is bad language, that would be putting the cart before the horse.
The word "homophobia" has come to mean, within the larger English-speaking culture, a negative perception of homosexuals, and has become somewhat disconnected from the clinical definition of the term "phobia".
You may wish to correct people for using the word, but I suspect you would get the same response as you would if you reminded them they are not actually "dialing" their phones when placing a call.
Common usage does matter.
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