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.

When it comes to essences and definitions, Rand generally follows Aristotle, although, here and there, she adds her own little wrinkles. Rand defines the "essence of a concept" as "that fundamental characteristic(s) of its units on which the greatest number of other characteristics depend, and which distinguishes these units from all other existents within the field of man's knowledge." [IOTE, 52] Here we find Rand echoing, in her own terms, Aristotle's distinction between essential and accidental properties. Rand also imagines knowledge as a kind of integrated encyclopedia cataloguing the entire "hierarchy" of knowledge:

Truth is the product of the recognition (i.e., identification) of the facts of reality. Man identifies and integrates the facts of reality by means of concepts. He retains concepts in his mind by means of definitions. He organizes concepts into propositions—and the truth or falsehood of his propositions rests, not only on their relation to the facts he asserts, but also on the truth or falsehood of the definitions of the concepts he uses to assert them, which rests on the truth or falsehood of his designations of essential characteristics. [IOTE, 48]
And Rand concludes, ominously:
The truth or falsehood of all of man’s conclusions, inferences, thought and knowledge rests on the truth or falsehood of his definitions. [IOTE, 49]
Where Rand appears to differ from Aristotle is when it comes to issue of how essences are discovered and identified. Rand rejects Aristotle's "intellectual intuition" in favor of what she calls "reason." While this "reason" always remains scandalously vague, Rand did provide a bit of hint on how one goes about discovering essential characteristics (i.e., essences):

Now observe . . . the process of determining an essential characteristic: the rule of fundamentality. When a given group of existents has more than one characteristic distinguishing it from other existents, man must observe the relationships among these various characteristics and discover the one on which all the others (or the greatest number of others) depend, i.e., the fundamental characteristic without which the others would not be possible. This fundamental characteristic is the essential distinguishing characteristic of the existents involved, and the proper defining characteristic of the concept.

This is as detailed an explanation that Rand ever bothered to provide on how to identify essences. For Rand, thinking in essentials involves observing relationships among various characteristics and discovering the one on which most of the others "depend." This dependence Rand describes as "the fundamental characteristic without which the others would not be possible." This, however, is an intolerably vague standard. Rand attempts to defend it by showing how the essence of man is discovered. Since "rationality," according to Rand, "explains" more characteristics of man than any other characteristic, rationality is therefore the essence of man. If this seems like special pleading, well, that is what it amounts to. It is not even clear that "rationality" would be the essence of man according to Rand's own theory of essence. There is a large body of evidence compiled by social thinkers like Pareto, by evolutionary psychologists like Steven Pinker, and by social psychologists like Jonathan Haidt which challenge the Rand's touching faith in man's rationality. But it hardly matters in any case. Rand's method of thinking in essentials is merely a rationalization of her own unique brand of rationalism. In practical terms, Rand's essentialism is merely thinking in terms of vague generalizations, which are arbitrarily regarded as "essential." It is the method of an inveterate rationalizer. It is not a method used in science or in any field of inquiry where truth takes precedence over ideology.

Leonard Peikoff, in his brief memoir "My Thirty Years with Ayn Rand," not only praises Rand for "thinking in essentials," but credits Aristotle for pioneering the intellectual tools required to develop this methodology:

The concept of "essential" was originated by Aristotle in connection with his theory of definitions. He used the term to name the quality that makes an entity the distinctive kind of entity thing it is, as against what he called "accidental" qualities. For example, having a rational faculty is essential to being a man. But having blue eyes rather than green is not; it is a mere detail or accident of a particular case. Ayn Rand's commitment to essentials grew out of this Aristotlean theory, although she modified the concept significantly and expanded its role in human thought.

For Ayn Rand, thinking in essentials was not restricted to the issue of definitions. It was a method of understanding any complex situation by deliberately setting aside irrelevancies — such as insignificant details, superficial similarities, unimportant differences — and going instead to the heart of the matter, to the aspects which, as we may say, constitute the distinctive core of the situation. This is something Ayn Rand herself did brilliantly. I always thought of her, metaphorically, as possessing a special power of vision, which could penetrate beneath the surface data that most people see, just as an X-ray machine penetrates beneath the flesh that meets our eyes to reveal the crucial underlying structures. [VOR, 342]

Two questions immediately arise from Peikoff's effusive praise. Peikoff describes Rand's "thinking in essentials" as "a special power of vision, which could penetrate beneath the surface data that most people see." What is the difference between this "special power" and Aristotle's "intellectual intuition"? Furthermore, if Rand was so brilliant at going "to the heart of the matter," why was she so wrong about human nature, the history of philosophy, and the role of ideas in history? Assuming that Rand did in fact follow some special method of thought derived from Aristotle (an assumption almost certainly false), we can only judge the efficacy of the method by the quality of its conclusions. We have extensively documented at ARCHN Rand's innumerable errors of logic and fact. If there was a method to all this madness it must be a very bad method. Thinking in essentials sounds great as a catch phrase. But no method of thought works well in practice unless its conclusions are rigorously criticized and tested by experience. Rand loathed criticism of her ideas and treated anyone who dared to challenge her with hostility and contempt. Her method of thinking in essentials could therefore only serve to confirm her errors; and that seems to be its main function in her philosophy.

Human nature and human society are two very complex realities. They cannot be mastered merely through "proper" concept formations, "proper" definitions, and thinking in terms of essentials and the "rule of fundamentality." They can only be mastered through extensive immersion in the subjects themselves, coupled with intense self and peer criticism. When going through Rand's writings on politics and psychology, one is constantly struck by the sheer ignorance of the woman. She often seems way out of her depth, not because of any lack of intelligence, but simply out of a lack of mastery of the subject at hand. Her essentialism consists in little more than ignoring inconvenient facts (e.g., the role of desire in human motivation) or concealing her ignorance in generalities (e.g., her remarks about Kant, Hume, Russell, etc.). She is too ignorant to even be aware of her ignorance; and therefore her writings suffer from what can only be described as deep rooted pretence of knowledge.


Rey said...

"When going through Rand's writings on politics and psychology, one is constantly struck by the sheer ignorance of the woman."

I once leafed through an Objectivist friend's copy of Ayn Rand's Marginalia and shocked at how maliciously, willfully ignorant she seemed to be, how she displayed a perverse impulse to misread and a misrepresent others' words such that she wasn't just interpreting them in the worst possible light, she was simply fabricating views that the authors' didn't hold and were not in any way present in the relevant passages.

My friend's marginalia of her marginalia specifically and embarrassingly identified the most egregious examples such bad faith as prime examples of "thinking in essentials," "cutting the Gordian knot," "penetrating insight," and other gushing phrases.

(This is the same friend who told me that when he comes across a one of Rand's more "counter-intuitive" pronouncements, his "job" as an Objectivist is to reason backwards from her conclusion to show how it connects with Objectivist premises.)

Kelly said...

I once was involved in a argument with an objectivist about the benefits of a standardized education in public schools. He kept telling me that he thought in essentials as he demanded to know how my position was any different than that of the soviets. Thinking in essentials allowed him to view a public education system with set curriculum the same as a dictatorship. He was really good in an argument, much better than me. Oh, well. It's a shame, he was young and intelligent, and he wasted it on Bbjectivism.

Echo Chamber Escapee said...

Ah yes ... the "essential characteristic" of man is rationality. Rand insists that "rational animal" is the correct, objective definition of "man," "according to all the relevant knowledge available at [this] stage of mankind's development."

When I started subjecting Objectivism to reality (instead of the other way around), I realized that rationality doesn't even meet Rand's own what-depends-on-what criterion for being "essential."

Man has a number of distinguishing characteristics relative to other known primates, among them full bipedalism, fully opposable thumbs, relative hairlessness, larger eyes and smaller mouth, bigger brain, more elaborate social structures, more sophisticated tool use, spoken languages, ability to reason abstractly, and some differences in DNA (roughly 1% as I recall). Rationality can explain some of these differences, such as the relative sophistication of our tools, languages, and social structure. But rationality does not explain opposable thumbs, bipedalism, or hairlessness. Nor do these characteristics depend on rationality. In fact, some evolutionary biologists have theorized that it's more nearly the other way around: the evolution of thumbs and bipedalism created a survival advantage for bigger brains, which in turn made thumbs and bipedalism even more advantageous ... in a feedback cycle that eventually led to a brain capable of abstract reasoning.

And of course the fact that abstract reasoning ability depends on big brains, combined with the fact that brain size depends on DNA, suggests that if you want to identify an "essential" characteristic of man "in the widest context available," it would be that man has human DNA.

Good luck using that essential characteristic to reach any moral conclusions!

Lloyd Flack said...

So shr though that belonging to any category ultimately depended on on crucial characteristic. No place for decidong group membership on the basis of overall similarity. No comparing a large number of characteristics and deciding on group membership if enough of them have certain values but not deciding on any particular characteristic. In fact allowing group memberisp if any characteristic is a missfit so long as enough others are a fit.

And no categories which have fuzzy boundaries. In fact no categories like species of organisms because they are categories such as I just decribed.

SRegan said...

Kelly - I find Objectivist opposition to a standardised education system utterly bewildering. If there is one objective truth, and all statements can be evaluated by the true-false binary, and it is evil (anti-reality, etc.) to accept as true statements which are false, then it is evil to teach your children that which is false.

If any statement is either true or false, then it also follows that any given proposition as to what should be taught at any given stage in a child's development is not up for debate, or a matter of subjective opinion, but a simple case of right or wrong, good or evil. There is a 'true' curriculum, which is teaching true facts at the right time, and there is a false curriculum (or rather, a myriad false curriculums - as many as there are possible permutations or corruptions of the true curriculum).

Objectivists do believe the law has some purpose - namely, to prevent one person from infringing on another's rights or harming them. Ergo, Objectivism should seek to criminalise those who try to teach children falsehood, as this damages them and causes them to become evil too. The Objectivist state must mandate a curriculum; it follows inexorably from its basic precepts.

I'm honestly not even seeing how freedom of speech can exist in an Objectivist framework; if Rand says that a good man does not read or even look at false material because he knows it inherently to be false and recognises its potential to corrupt him, then 'false speech' is necessarily harmful to others and infringes on the rights of those who hear it by attacking their moral clarity. If all statements are true-false/good-evil binary, then only true-good speech can be allowed.

Daniel Barnes said...

Sregan, I love the line of argument!

Adam Fitchett said...

You are confusing Rand's theory of definitions with her theory of concepts. She was quite insistent, and other Objectivists (especially Peikoff) have been very insistent about not confusing these two things.

Definitions are merely a tool to help us distinguish between concepts. They say very little about the nature of the concepts themselves. (I've always liked Peikoff's analogy that concepts are like folders in a filing cabinet, whereas definitions are like the short labels on the folders).

Thus, we define 'man' as 'the rational animal' because this makes the most sense when we take into account both the nature of human beings AND what practical use we have for this definition in the first place. Defining man as 'animal with 1% DNA difference from chimpanzees' whilst accurate would be rather useless. Rand's 'essentialist' doctrine applies to forming correct and useful definitions, not to forming concepts.

As far as conceptualisation is concerned, Rand says nothing about essences. She says that concepts are formed by differentiation and integration, and that the basis of this process is the quantifiable properties of the things being conceptualised. Her theory, as she and her followers have said, entails optionality in the formation of certain concepts. I like Diana Hsieh's metaphor for understanding this point: 'There are many different ways to cut up a cake, but, however you do it, it's still the same cake'.

Using a wide definition, Rand is in fact a type of nominalist. I know she would abhor such a label, but she does not believe in essences. And, by many definitions, this makes her a nominalist (and most definitely NOT an essentialist).

Daniel Barnes said...

I would agree that there are nominalist elements in Rand's thought, but this is because her system is basically confused. She is, in effect, trying to run her Objectivist software on Aristotle's buggy, antiquated OS - his theory of definitions, which she adopts entirely with the exception of his doctrine of intuiting essences. But of course there is far more wrong with Aristotle's theory than just his intuition, as Popper has explained - for example, there are several basic fallacies. So, in importing Aristotle's OS, Rand imports his errors, which it is clear from her writing she is not aware of, and they naturally render her theory (and the similar theories of the logical positivists, linguistic analysts, etc, who like Rand also draw on Aristotle's theory) defunct as Aristotle's.

Now, as it happens you are correct to say that Rand's theory of definitions is often confused with her theory of concepts. This is because Peikoff and Rand are the source of this confusion along with their followers such as Hsieh!

There is already a classic example of this confusion right in front of us, namely Rand's quote:
The truth or falsehood of all of man’s conclusions, inferences, thought and knowledge rests on the truth or falsehood of his definitions.

Now what does the truth or falsehood of all man's "conclusions, inferences, thought and knowledge" - a massive call - rest on? Is it the truth or falsehood of concepts?Or the concept formation process? No, it is not. It is…drumroll...definitions.

So your claim below:
>Definitions are merely a tool to help us distinguish between concepts. They say very little about the nature of the concepts themselves.

…is clearly incorrect. These are not mere "tools", that say "very little" according to Rand. Actually, Rand claims the truth of all of our knowledge, every little last bit, in fact rests on them!

So actually the confuser-in-chief turns out to be Rand herself.

Daniel Barnes said...

Now it's easy to see how Rand et al would be confused about their own theory here.

One reason is due to Rand's doctrine of concepts being formed in individual minds (rather than being, say, Platonic objects outside of space and time - although in Rand's vast epistemological confusion she ends up making Platonic claims…but I digress). Obviously, if concepts are formed in individual minds, how can we discuss and compare them to ensure we have them right? As we don't have Vulcan mind-meld, really the only way is through language, as ostensive definition (i.e. pointing) will only work at a basic level, and not for higher level concepts, which are "abstracted from abstractions" - which is pretty abstract! So you're going to end up with words as the only physically tractable way of dealing with concepts. Now behind words of course we have definitions which give them meaning, so in practice everything comes to rest on definitions, just as Rand ended up doing herself in her own writing.

Of course this is a naiive theory, as it contains some fundamental logical fallacies, but neither Rand nor Aristotle were aware of their mistakes so the confusions persist.