Mar 092003

Roderick Long posts an excellent two-part series (here and here) on Ayn Rand’s epistemology and its resemblance to Wittgenstein’s, of all people. Objectivist epistemology has never quite satisfied me. Rand rightly rejects the false dichotomy of nominalism and essentialism, and I can go along with concept-formation as selective attention, but she loses me, and Long, with her claim that all concepts involve measurement omission, particularly since she never supplies an example of how one might measure a highly abstract concept like justice or, to set the bar even higher, existence. (Peikoff, in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, recognizes the difficulty. He has a crack at “thought,” which he supposes to be measurable by its content, intensity, effort and clarity, among other things, but he is not notably persuasive.) Rand gets entangled in one of the classic utilitarian problems: if we’re going to measure, or in this case omit to measure, we need units. Sometimes they’re available, sometimes not.

(Update: Ian Hamet comments.)

  11 Responses to “Sunday Epistemology”

  1. When I was an undergaduate at Berkeley, majoring in philosophy, my advisor, Wallace Matson, used to maintain that Rand’s epistemology could be much improved by substituting the word "concept" for the word "word." He maintained further that this would take objectivism quite close to Wittgenstein. Didn’t make that much sense to me at the time, given that I was, after all, a "movement" objectivist. It makes somewhat more sense to me now.

  2. I think you mean the other way around, substituting "word" for "concept." But I take your point.

  3. The concept of "thought" is not very high up on the scale of abstraction, Aaron, but, as a concept of consciousness, it is based on introspection. When we see or think or remember or feel, we are aware not just of the object of external perception to which we react, but also that something is going in us–seeing, thinking, feeling, etc. These two things are simultaneous. We are as directly and immediately aware of this as we are of the external object of awareness. An emotion has a self-evident "intensity," thought and memory a "content," as directly perceived as the color of my couch. We all know perfectly well the difference between memory, sight and grief, just as directly as we see the difference between the shape of a tree and that of a dog.

    Aaron, your strange bias against introspection is showing, again.

  4. This is all beside the point. I don’t object to thought having content, intensity, etc.; I object to the suggestion that one can derive the concept strictly through measurement omission. Measurement is not just ordinal, but cardinal; and the cardinality of things like intensity of thought is undemonstrated by Peikoff and seems dubious to me.

    I picked on a concept of consciousness only because it was Peikoff’s example, not from any special bias against introspection.

  5. It is hardly beside the point since you chose that sort of concept as an example–while also conceding (privately to me) that you view introspection "more skeptically than the evidence of the senses because it is more prone to error." You confused two issues in your original post for that reason. "Thought" was the example you said Peikoff took a "crack at," as an example of something "highly abstract." It is not. Until you understand the issue of introspection, Aaron, you can’t get there from here.

    Now, as to those concepts which actually are "highly abstract," if you really do see that lower level concepts are the product of measurement omission, a means of unit-economy and, in effect, measurements themselves, then it is hard to escape the conclusion that all refinements and relationships established between those concepts won’t also be in effect measurements. Justice, too, is a measurement, it exists along a graded scale, and it is only commensurate with others in the category of ethical judgments. You are just plain wrong if you think that a cardinal measurement needs to be "demonstrated" to know that something is ordered by quantity. I can see more/less without knowing the "how much" with much precision. That’s just dumb.

  6. "1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things."

    Could Rand agree with this proposition? I think not. It is too bloodless even for her. "Existence exists" does not denude the world of things. Since this is a fundamental proposition of the Tractatus-period Wittgenstein, then their epistemology is not materially [pun intended] similar.

    They would agree that (4.211) "it is a sign of a propositon’s being elementary that there can be no elemenyary proposition contradicting it."

    Very Hilbertian that. Very pre-Godel.

  7. "Thought," unfortunately, is the only example Peikoff gives in OPAR of deriving a concept by omitting measurements. (Perhaps he thought that deriving something like "justice" or "evil" would have been too elementary, but it certainly would have helped me.) "Thought," at least, is more abstract than "table," which is Rand’s example from Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, and that’s why I chose it. Yes, it’s a concept of consciousness, but that’s not germane to the discussion.

    I’m perfectly willing to accept cardinality in principle without exact quantities. I’ll settle for commensurable units. Your argument from extension founders, I think, on the proposition that lower-level concepts are "in effect, measurements themselves." I fail to see how that follows from measurement-omission.

  8. That is precisely Rand’s (and Peikoff’s) argument, i.e. that all consciousness is a kind of measurement, a mathematical process, in the broadest sense. (See Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, pp. 81-91, where he explains just this, and where he uses concepts like "length" and "table.") His examples of "higher order" concepts were going from "dog," "cat" and "horse" to "animal" and, then "living organism," to go more extensively, and going from "man" to "doctor" and, then, "surgeon," to go more intensively. No, "thought" was used by Peikoff as his example of a "concept of consciousness," in the chapter section OF THAT NAME, not simply a "higher order" concept. I won’t recapitulate the whole argument that conceptual consciousness is essentially just a mathematical process, but let me suggest that you missed a few things, Aaron.

  9. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes, "thought" is a concept of consciousness and Peikoff also discusses "length" and reprises "table." Sorry.

    Now, would you care to cite the passage from OPAR where Peikoff says lower-level concepts are in effect units of measurement? Even better, would you explain what this means? If we omit "table" to help us derive the higher-level concept "furniture,", what are its units? Table-units? I would also be edified by a complete derivation of, say, "justice," using measurement-omission. Perhaps you can provide one yourself or point me to someone who can.

  10. Okee dokee, you asked for it.

    Perhaps I was unclear. Concept formation involves finding the relationship between concretes which varies only quantitatively, e.g. length. But every determination of length, e.g. this thing is five feet, is a quantitative measurement. Rand implies that the same is true of justice. Instances of justice (or injustice) stretch out along a range that varies only quantitatively. Two book reviews might both be appropriately negative, but one or the other is more "just," say, because it takes into account more factors and tries, at least, to be as sympathetic as it can to the author. But a book review is trivial justice (or injustice), indeed, compared to, say, the acquittal of O.J. Simpson. And, even Mr. Simpson will obviously have to take a bow to Hitler and Co. At the other end, we have the conscientious judge, taking every factor of the accused’s conduct into account. All instances of our concept involve moral and/or legal judgements of a human being, specifically as to his or her actions and character. And identifying one as more or less just or not just at all is simply a measurement, as is the application of any concept to new constituents, according to Rand. Most of thought is this kind of measurement or application, not original concept formation, i.e. the discovery of the "unit."

    The measurements omitted to form "justice" are the wide variety of voluntary actions (and inaction) of human beings. All of them–and each of them–measured by the "unit" of a given standard of morality or law, e.g. "jaywalking" or "lying." All actions are either legal or illegal. All actions are either moral or immoral. All human choices are, therefore, the measurements omitted. The yardstick is the given code of morals or law.

    This is all I meant, but in a very meaningful sense, consciousness is measurement, for even concept formation involves the quantitative reduction to a unit. As a child, our first concept of justice is articulated by the notion of "fairness." The parent or other authority figure has laid out a standard of conduct, e.g. all the kids get "the same" of something valued They have done so by both conduct and word. Johnny notes that Billy got more of some goodie. "Hey, that’s not fair." Johnny has literally measured the current action against the instances of mommy being careful to dole-out equally. This is just as quantitative as his physical count that Billy got more of the goodie. "Justice" assumes a standard of conduct. When we get older we can question a given standard of conduct, and then we discover the truly normative concept of "justice. This LAW (or religious precept) is "unjust." But the measurements dropped are the same, the variety of voluntary conduct. And, the instances of it vary only quantitatively.

  11. Rand was the first conceptual theorist to make the distinction between word and concept. Were she to take Mr. Matson’s advice, it would collapse the distinction between nominalism and objectivism. In epistemology, just as in metaphysics, there exists a trichotomy: intrinsicist (realist) – objectivist – subjectivist (nominalist). Intrinsicism holds that similarities exist in nature, and therefore universals exist in nature. Subjectivism holds that similarities are arbitrary (words are assigned arbitrarily and handed down by society). Objectivism holds that similarities are only made possible by consciousness. Since prepositions (like "to whom" and "by this law" and "by this standard") denote relations and relations (as precisely opposed to what Berty maintained) denote a consciousness conforming to reality (which is what your mind does — it conforms to reality), similarities are not metaphysical.

    For instance, two cups may be similar to the extent that they share the same function–that is, to hold a fluid together–and, while that characteristic is metaphysical and objective, a differentiation and integration must be performed by a consciousness. The ontological characteristics corresponding to the similarities are metaphysical, whereas the similarities are conceptual.

    If Rand’s epistemology were complete, there would be something there about modality. Necessity and contingency are only logical distinctions, as opposed to metaphysical. The proper distinction is a priori vs a posteriori.

    Words (sounds) are arbitrary, concepts are objective, ontology is intrinsic…precisely the distinction nominalists were groping at when they espoused skepticism about the ontological state of universals.

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