Monday, February 25, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 30

Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy 3: Definitional Arguments. One of the principle philosophical vices of Objectivism is a mania for rationalizing on the basis of tautologies. Closely associated with this is a concomitant mania for rationalizing on the basis of definitions. This in large measure explains Rand's doctrine of immaculate definitions (i.e., her belief that definitions can be true or false). The problem with definitional reasoning is that it begs the question. Instead of basing arguments on facts, it bases it on definitions; and definitions, which only define word usage, are "arbitrary."

In the opening of his essay on the analytic-synthetic dichotomy, Peikoff provides the following anecdote about a discussion he had with a professor which illustrates how Objectivists use definitions and logic to evade facts while assuming the very point at issue:

Some years ago, I was defending capitalism in a discussion with a prominent professor of philosophy. In answer to his charge that capitalism leads to coercive monopolies, I explained that such monopolies are caused by government intervention in the economy and logically impossible under capitalism.... The professor was singularly unmoved by my argument, replying:

"Logically impossible? Of course -- granted your definitions. You're merely saying that, no matter what proportion of the market it controls, you won't call a business a 'coercive monopoly' if it occurs in a system you call 'capitalism.' Your view is true by arbitrary fiat, it's a matter of semantics, it's logically true but not factually true. Leave logic aside now; be serious and consider the actual empirical facts on this matter."

Doubts arise, of course, as to whether Peikoff has accurately related the professor's argument. But even if this professor said what Peikoff claims he said, the professor nonetheless has a point. Objectivists do in fact tend to resort to definitional arguments. Such arguments suffer from the fallacy of begging the question. Grant someone's definitions, and the rest follows, logically. But since definitions merely establish what one means by the words one uses, this is not enough.