Saturday, April 20, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 36

Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy 9: Thinking in Essentials Redux. Peikoff resumes his jihad against nominalism with the following bit of libelous persiflage:

On a rational view of definition, a definition organizes and condenses — and thus helps one to retain — a wealth of knowledge about the characteristics of a concept's units. On the nominalist view, it is precisely this knowledge that is discarded when one defines a concept: as soon as a defining characteristic is chosen, all the other characteristics of the units are banished from the concept, which shrivels to a mere definition. For instance, as long as a child's concept of "man" is retained ostensively, the child knows that man has a head, two eyes, two arms, etc.; on the nominalist view as soon as the child defines "man," he discards all this knowledge; thereafter, "man" means to him only: "a thing with rationality and animality." [IOTE, 104]

Note the complete absence of empirical examples to support Peikoff's contentions: which nominalists, after all, believe the people discard knowledge after defining words? Is it too much to ask for names, followed by documented evidence? This absence of evidence is not only intentional, but necessary: there can be no examples because it's unlikely any nominalist ever held the position attributed them by Peikoff in this passage. What Peikoff and other Objectivists still can't seem to grasp is that definitions define words, not concepts. The definition explains how a particular word is to be used. It gives the meaning of the word in different terms. Neither Rand nor Peikoff ever bothered to provide evidence for the assertion that definitions organize and condense knowledge about the characteristics of a concept's units. Since definitions only express the same meaning in different words, they add no knowledge about external matters of fact (other than knowledge about word usage).

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 35

Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy 8: Propostions Redux. One attractive feature of Peikoff's essay on the Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy is that it contains several unequivocal statements about some of Rand's more controversial opinions. Hence we find in the essay the clearest expression of Rand's views about the relation between concepts and propositions:

Without a theory of concepts as a foundation, one cannot, in reason, adopt any theory about the nature or kinds of propositions: propositions are only combinations of concepts. [IOTE, 97]

This view is manifestly false. Indeed, it's so palpably erroneous that one wonders why Rand adopted it. Perhaps she considered it necessary to nip the horrors of linguistic analysis in the bud. If so, she chose a cure that was worse than the disease.

That propositions are more than just combinations of concepts can be observed from how propositions affect and even create meaning. The meaning of words (which for Rand symbolize concepts) changes depending on how they are used in propositions. And many words have no meaning at all if used by themselves. Objectivists seem to be guilty of the fallacy that, merely because each word has a dictionary meaning, that words (and by implication concepts) mean something when used outside of propositions. However, most words convey no meaning when not used in a proposition.