Monday, November 26, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 23

Definitions 8: Doctrine of the Hierarchy of Knowledge. Rand had the habit of drawing dubious premises from trivial premises. With her doctrine of the hierarchy of knowledge, we find her at her old tricks:

[There is a] long conceptual chain that starts from simple, ostensive definitions and rises to higher and still higher concepts, forming a hierarchical structure of knowledge so complex that no electronic computer could approach it. It is by means of such chains that man has to acquire and retain his knowledge of reality. [RM, 18]
To know the exact meaning of the concepts one is using, one must know their correct definitions, one must be able to retrace the specific (logical, not chronological) steps by which they were formed, and one must be able to demonstrate their connection to their base in perceptual reality. [IOTE, 50]

That some concepts are "wider" than others — that animal, for example, is wider than mammal, and mammal wider than deer — is something so trivial that hardly anyone has bothered making a fuss about it before Rand. But the way some Objectivists talk about the hierarchy of knowledge, you would think that only Rand noticed it, while everyone else is in denial that concepts have any such structure. "Knowledge is hierarchal," Rand's disciples keep insisting; to which the obvious retort is, "So what!" The problem with Rand's hierarchy of knowledge is not that it is wrong but that Objectivists exaggerate its importance.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 22

Definitions 7: Doctrine of the Homogenuity of Reality. The doctrine of essentialism, as Karl Popper has noted, regards knowledge as sort of syllogistic encyclopaedia containing the intuitive definitions of all essences. Rand's view of knowledge is not so very different. She believed that human beings "organize concepts into propositions" and that the truth of these propositions rests on the "truth and falsehood of the definitions of the concepts" used in the propositions, which in turn rests on the truth or falsehoods of the "designations of essential characteristics." Knowledge, Rand insisted, was an integrated whole, tied together by definitions:

Since the definition of a concept is formulated in terms of other concepts, it enables man, not only to identify and retain a concept, but also to establish the relationships, the hierarchy, the integration of all his concepts and thus the integration of his knowledge. Definitions preserve, not the chronological order in which a given man may have learned concepts, but the logical order of their hierarchical interdependence. [IOTE, 40]

Friday, November 02, 2012

Objectivists And Personal Responsibility

In which John Aglialoro, the producer of the double-bomb "Atlas Shrugged" series and David Kelley, founder of the Atlas Society and official script consultant to the project, place the blame for these spectacular failures on everyone but themselves.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 21

Definitions 6: Doctrine of Essentialism. Karl Popper provides the following gloss on essentialism:

Like Plato, Aristotle believed that we obtain all knowledge ultimately by an intuitive grasp of the essences of things. 'We can know a thing only by knowing its essence', Aristotle writes, and 'to know a thing is to know its essence'. A 'basic premiss' is, according to him, nothing but a statement describing the essence of a thing. But such a statement is just what he calls a definition. Thus all 'basic premisses of proofs' are definitions.
...Aristotle considers the term to be defined as a name of the essence of a thing, and the defining formula as the description of that essence. And he insists that the defining formula must give an exhaustive description of the essence or the essential properties of the thing in question; thus a statement like 'A puppy has four legs', although true, is not a satisfactory definition, since it does not exhaust what may be called the essence of puppiness, but holds true of a horse also; and similarly the statement 'A puppy is brown', although it may be true of some, is not true of all puppies; and it describes what is not an essential but merely an accidental property of the defined term.

But the most difficult question is how we can get hold of definitions or basic premisses, and make sure that they are correct - that we have not erred, not grasped the wrong essence. Although Aristotle is not very clear on this point, there can be little doubt that, in the main, he again follows Plato.... Aristotle's view is less radical and less inspired than Plato's, but in the end it amounts to the same. For although he teaches that we arrive at the definition only after we have made many observations, he admits that sense experience does not in itself grasp the universal essence, and that it cannot, therefore, fully determine a definition. Eventually he simply postulates that we possess an intellectual intuition, a mental or intellectual faculty which enables us unerringly to grasp the essences of things, and to know them. And he further assumes that if we know an essence intuitively, we must be capable of describing it and therefore of defining it. (His arguments in the Posterior Analytics in favour of this theory are surprisingly weak. They consist merely in pointing out that our knowledge of the basic premisses cannot be demonstrative, since this would lead to an infinite regress, and that the basic premisses must be at least as true and as certain as the conclusions based upon them. 'It follows from this', he writes, 'that there cannot be demonstrative knowledge of the primary premisses; and since nothing but intellectual intuition can be more true than demonstrative knowledge, it follows that it must be intellectual intuition that grasps the basic premisses.' In the De Anima, and in the theological part of the Metaphysics, we find more of an argument; for here we have a theory of intellectual intuition - that it comes into contact with its object, the essence, and that it even becomes one with its object. 'Actual knowledge is identical with its object.')

Summing up this brief analysis, we can give, I believe, a fair description of the Aristotelian ideal of perfect and complete knowledge if we say that he saw the ultimate aim of all inquiry in the compilation of an encyclopaedia containing the intuitive definitions of all essences, that is to say, their names together with their defining formulae; and that he considered the progress of knowledge as consisting in the gradual accumulation of such an encyclopaedia, in expanding it as well as in filling up the gaps in it and, of course, in the syllogistic derivation from it of 'the whole body of facts' which constitute demonstrative knowledge.