Jump to content
Objectivism Online Forum
DPW

The Nature Of Broken Units

Rate this topic

Recommended Posts

These three concretes have something important in common:

(1) A baby born without a rational faculty

(2) A dog with no sense of smell

(3) A flat tire

They are all broken units. “A unit,” according to Rand, “is an existent regarded as a separate member of a group of two or more similar members” (ITOE 6). This particular chair I’m sitting on, for example, is a unit of the concept chair. A broken unit, then, is a unit that lacks a characteristic shared by the other units of the concept of which it is a member. The characteristic may be any characteristic, including the distinguishing characteristic of that concept.

One might object at this point: “A dog that lacks a sense of smell is of a different kind than a baby who lacks a conceptual faculty. Man is the rational animal; a dog is not the smelling animal. A brainless baby lacks the distinguishing characteristic of the concept 'man'; a non-smelling dog lacks an incidental characteristic. A brainless baby is not a man; a non-smelling dog is still a dog.”

This objection can be refuted very simply: by pointing out that in raising the objection, one concedes that we are able to identify the brainless baby as a baby. But how? How we can identify a brainless baby as a unit of the concept “man”? A concept whose definition is, “rational animal”?

To fully understand the nature of broken units, and to understand why this objection does not hold water, one observation is crucial: a concept is not interchangeable with its definition. Man is not merely a rational animal – “rational animal” is the definition by which we retain the concept “man” and differentiate it from all our other concepts. “Man” means its referents – it means every man who has existed, who exists, and who will exist. If a ten-legged creature from Mars arrived on earth and happened to have a conceptual faculty, we would not say, “Ah, he is a rational animal, and therefore a man!” Rather, we would recognize that “rational animal” no longer serves to differentiate the units of the concept “man” from all other existents. Man would still be a rational animal, but “rational animal” would no longer distinguish man from the other existents he knows. “Man is the rational earthling,” we would probably say.

But this raises a problem. If a concept does not mean its definition, but its referents, including all the characteristics of its referents, then how can we define man as a rational animal when some men lack a conceptual faculty? And how can we make general claims, such as, “Man sees color,” when some men can’t see at all?

The answer, the key to defending the objectivity of concepts, definitions, propositions, and therefore all of knowledge, is to be found in the concept of broken units.

Let us return, then, to our three examples:

(1) A baby born without a rational faculty

(2) A dog with no sense of smell

(3) A flat tire

What do these concretes have in common? The first two refer to living entities; the latter, to a man-made object designed to serve a human purpose. A purpose is a type of goal – a goal conceived by a conceptual consciousness. Living entities are also goal directed – a goal established by their survival needs.

A goal serves as a standard of evaluation – it is because purposive actions and actions of living entities aim at a certain end that we can evaluate those actions as good or bad. Furthermore, since only living entities are goal-directed, it is only in relation to living entities that things can be evaluated as good or bad (“purposive actions” being a subset of actions of living entities).

This leads to a major identification: only life makes the concept “broken unit” possible. One cannot conceive of a broken rock or a broken cloud or a broken ocean or a broken star. If any of these entities lacked a characteristic shared by the other units of their respective concepts they wouldn’t be units of that concept. If one dries up a puddle, one does not have a dried puddle – there is no longer a puddle. Likewise, if one chops a rock in half, one does not have two halves of a rock, but two rocks. On the other hand, if one chops a puppy in half, one does not have two puppies. One has two halves of a puppy.

This isn’t an issue of how complicated the entity or system is. If powerful forces tore a solar system apart, the resulting dispersal of stars, planets, and moons would not be “pieces of a solar system” in the same sense that one would have pieces of a chopped up puppy.

But why? Because a broken unit is not simply a unit that lacks a characteristic shared by other units of the concept of which it is a member. Instead, a broken unit is a unit that lacks a characteristic that is proper for its survival qua the entity it is. Or, in the case of non-living entities designed to serve a human purpose, a broken unit is a unit that lacks a characteristic that is proper for its functioning given its intended function (a function supplied by man). A broken unit, in other words, is one that lacks a characteristic it should have but doesn’t [1].

“Should” implies “goal.” To say an entity should have X is to say X is a means of achieving some goal. Only living entities have goals. Putting aside for the moment the issue of human purposes, the goal that directs all living action is the survival of a living entity as the kind of entity it is. This last part is important – although it might perhaps be beneficial for a gorilla to be able to conceptualize, his survival qua gorilla is not dependent on conceptualization. Therefore, it makes no sense to say a gorilla should have the ability to conceptualize. Only man, who survives by his use of reason, should – in the relevant sense – have a conceptual faculty [2].

As for human purposes, these may be or may not be directed at man’s survival needs. That is relevant only insofar as one is evaluating the purpose itself. What matters here is that non-living objects can be evaluated in terms of whether they serve their intended purpose, which is supplied by man.

This, then, is the key to conceptualizing broken units. Broken units are not fundamental – they are derivative concepts. One cannot form the concept “flat tire” or “brainless baby” until one has first conceptualized “tire” and “baby”. But once one has formed the relevant concepts, one can identify broken units that logically depend on these prior concepts (but which aren’t sub-categories of them in the way that, say, “coffee table” is a sub-category of “table”).

For example, a man forms the concept “table” by observing several tables and differentiating them from, say, a chair. He retains this concept by means of a definition: a table is an item of furniture, consisting of a flat, level surface and supports, intended to support other, smaller objects. But suppose one Sunday he goes to a flea market. “Buy this coffee table – one dollar!” a salesman shouts. The man looks and sees a flat surface, but it is not level. One of its supports is missing. He does not look around in bewilderment, wondering where is the table the salesman spoke of. He says, “That table is broken. It should have another support so that it will be flat and level, and able to support other, smaller objects.”

By the same token, if this man wanders upon a plank of wood, he will not say, “Ah, here is a broken table. It should have supports!” The plank of wood isn’t intended to be a table – that (presumably) isn’t its purpose (yet).

It might be argued that what exists is not a table, and that the identification of it as such is an error. After all, one’s knowledge about tables wouldn’t apply to this particular object. Or would it? Holding concepts for broken units is not an arbitrary decision – there is a cognitive reason to retain such concepts as separate categories of the concepts from which they are derived. An example will make this clear.

“Deaf” does not mean simply, “non-hearing.” A rock is non-hearing, but it is not deaf. “Deaf” means, “Should be able to hear but can’t, given the nature of the entity.” Man has two ears and can hear – such is good for man’s survival qua man. But some men are deaf. The concept “deaf men” integrates the relevant broken units and enables us to design a visual form of communication (sign language), to look for means of restoring their hearing (cochlear implants), and to warn motorists to be on the lookout for deaf children (Deaf Children At Play street signs). All these things are possible because broken units aren’t just broken – they share similarities, not just with the units of the concept from which they are derived, but with other broken units of the same type [3]. Because we have a concept for the broken units “deaf men,” we are able to study the deaf as such, and apply this knowledge to all the units of the concept “deaf men.” In the same way, we cannot regard a broken table simply as a non-table – it can be repaired, and knowledge of how to repair it follows only if we first grasp that this is a broken table.

Notice that the latter concept is just as important as the former – deaf men are not simply deaf; they are deaf men. All our knowledge about man applies to deaf men except knowledge of a particular kind, just as all our knowledge about tables applies to broken tables except knowledge of a specific kind: all our knowledge about the referents of a concept applies equally to that concept’s broken units with the exception of those facts that are dependent on or follow from the broken characteristic.

Everything we know about man applies to deaf men, except that which follows from man’s ability to hear. A deaf man, for instance, has rights because rights follow from man’s conceptual capacity, and not his ability to hear. Equally, a flat tire isn’t edible because the edibility of a tire is not dependent on whether or not the tire retains compressed air. A brainless baby, on the other hand, has no rights, because rights follow from the characteristic which, in him, is broken, i.e., non-existent – a rational faculty.

This leads to an important point: when we make statements about the nature of a concept, we omit the broken units relevant to that statement, not on the premise that the broken units do not exist, but on the premise that they are non-essential in this context. For example, when we say, “Man can see color,” we omit from that identification men who cannot see and men who cannot see color because those are broken units with regards to man’s ability to see. They should be able to see, given their nature as men, but can’t. We do not, however, omit deaf men – their status as broken units does not derive from their capacity for sight. Deaf men, too, see color.

It might be objected that we are arbitrarily omitting relevant facts in order to make the false, true. But this objection is entirely backwards. The reason we omit broken units is precisely because doing so enables us to gain knowledge. Without omitting broken units, we could not define our concepts, let alone know anything about their referents.

Since conceivably every particular characteristic about man, for instance, could be broken in one unit or another, without omitting broken units, we would be unable to define “man” and thus retain the concept. Is man a rational animal? Some men are born without a rational faculty. Is man a thumb-possessing animal? Some men have no fingers at all. Is man an animal who walks on two legs? Some men can’t walk and have no legs. Without omitting the relevant broken units, our ability to conceptualize would be paralyzed.

It must be noted that broken units are not omitted in the same way measurements are. When we omit measurements, we do so on the premise that the measurements must exist in some quantity but may exist in any quantity.

When we omit broken units, what we are saying is, in effect, “An entity of this nature should have this characteristic, as determined by its goal(s) or intended purpose(s); those that don’t I will regard as non-essential unless I am dealing specifically with facts that follow from their lack of this characteristic.”

To fully understand the nature of broken units, let’s look at a complicated example.

“Man has two eyes and can see.” This is a true statement – man, by nature, does have two eyes and can see. In stating this truth, we omit the category of broken concepts that includes men who do not have eyes or who have eyes but are blind, because we have identified that man’s having eyes and his ability to see are proper for his survival qua man.

“Men should look both ways before they cross the street.” This is also true, but since it is a derivative of the fact of being able to see, it does not apply to the blind. So, for example, we would not pass a negative judgment on a blind man for crossing the street without looking, because he is a member of the class of broken units defined by their inability to see. Because he is blind he is not to be judged by this particular principle.

“Man has individual rights.” This is a true statement. Since rights are not derivative of the ability to see, whether or not one is a member of the class of broken units defined by their inability to see is irrelevant in this context.

A broken unit, then, is a unit that lacks a characteristic shared by other units of the concept of which it is a member. A broken unit is to be regarded as a unit of the concept from which it is derived is because it should have the characteristic it lacks, as determined by its goals or purpose. Broken units are essential tools for conceptualization, because they allow us to omit contextually non-essential units which would otherwise wipe out the possibility of defining and conceptualizing facts about living organisms and man’s purposive creations.

*************************

[1] “Should”, in this context, is not meant to imply “choice” - rather it means, "proper, given its goal or purpose."

[2] It must be stressed that “broken” does not mean simply, “different from the norm.” The standard for what is or is not a broken unit is its relationship to the goal it is intended to serve, given its nature. For example, if all cars were black, and I painted my car white, that would not by itself make my car a broken unit – the color of a car is not relevant to the purpose it is intended to serve – although in some contexts it might be.

[3] In this sense, medicine is a science devoted to the study of broken units.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

It's interesting that in the new artificial language called "Lojban," a corpse is regarded as a human with the attribute "nonliving." Languages can validly do that--create grammatical structures which we know are not to be interpreted literally, but I think the Lojban people are actually trying to create a language that doesn't create such structures, so they've made a mistake there.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

PS A friend tell's me that there's no official Lojban rule on the word for corpse, and that there's another way to express it, which is hard to translate but is something like "a person who has completed their existence as a person."

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
A great essay, Don!

Thanks.

I have one question, though: Since man should think, but some men choose not to think, would that make non-thinking people broken units of the concept "man" ?

I hadn't thought of that question. Offhand I would not, because when we speak of man's volitional elements, we have to deal with chosen purposes rather than unchosen goals. Since nothing in reality mandates that a man choose to think, we cannot properly regard a non-thinking man as a broken unit. Great question, though.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

That was a valuable essay. The concept “broken-unit” at first seemed foreign to my subconscious but as I read further, I was able to assimilate it. I can certainly use it as a guide in my future learning. And it could be very fruitful in polemics. The last line was beautiful.

Thanks. I think you may have prevented some agonizing questions for my next read of ITOE.

Americo.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
A great essay, Don!

I have one question, though: Since man should think, but some men choose not to think, would that make non-thinking people broken units of the concept "man" ?

Reality simply orders that man choose to either think or not think. Which he chooses is completely up to him. He is fully capable of living qua man. If he were somehow unable to choose either one because of a lack of some attribute/characteristic, then he would be "broken".

BTW,

That was very good essay Don--it answered a lot of questions I had after reading ITOE for like the fourth time. Thanx :lol:

Now I just need more time to absorb it and think about it some more.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
That was very good essay Don--it answered a lot of questions I had after reading ITOE for like the fourth time. Thanx :lol:

A historical footnote: part of the inspiration for this essay was Peikoff's wonderful essay, The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy. How, I wondered, could one say things such as "man has two eyes" when some men have no eyes? The other inspiration was a commen Andrew Bernstein makes in the Q&A to his abortion speech. He said that a baby born without a brain is still human and thus has rights. As I explain in "The Nature of Broken Units," a baby without a brain is still a man but does not have rights.

In any case, thank you everyone for your kind comments. I look forward further input.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Building on what the other Tom said, I think it's important to distinguish broken units from abnormal units.

By the phrase "abnormal unit", I mean a unit which lacks a metaphysically-given characteristic statistically predominant among the units subsumed by the concept of which it is a member.

Broken units are not merely abnormal.

Humans lacking a certain part of the cerebrum also lack the rational faculty. They are abnormal because they genuinely lack a faculty overwhelming predominant among their bretheren. They are also "broken" because they lack something they are supposed to have per the definition of man.

At this point, one might be tempted to classify broken units under the more general category abnormal-units. However, humans who choose not to use their rational faculty still possess it, so they are not broken per se.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Don, both you and Bernstein are wrong. A baby born without a brain is a tragedy. (... and doesn't have rights.)

Tom, that's all PC-speak about "abornmal". To rephrase a popular idiom, if you need to fix it, it's broken.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Ayn Rand discussed this issue in her theory of borderline cases in IOE (which are not restricted to concepts of living beings), where she described the possibilities for categorization based on different purposes.

A dog born without the ability to smell would be regarded conceptually as a dog because that is still its essence. A baby born without a rational faculty would be regarded for some purposes as a baby, but in a special category for others, such as legal considerations (except of course by those who would lump us all in with embryonic cells, but that is based on a false definition using a mystical essence).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Ayn Rand discussed this issue in her theory of borderline cases in IOE (which are not restricted to concepts of living beings), where she described the possibilities for categorization based on different purposes.

Well, yes, but my explanation gives a clearer picture of in what way these are boarderline cases.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

A very good essay, Don.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't Ayn Rand's explanation of borderline cases in ITOE refer to when it is optional to make concepts denoting specific items? I'm recalling where she explains about the "hanging table" . . . that it's a borderline case that may not require its own concept. You could create one, or you could create a sort of subdivision under the concept "table", or, if you don't encounter so many that they need a quick-reference mental slot, you could just use a descriptive phrase.

If I understand this correctly, then, broken units are NOT borderline cases in the sense that it's optional to create an entirely new concept denoting them . . . this would lead to too much mental repitition, I think, and that sounds like what Don is pointing at in his essay. They become, at best, a subdivision under the main concept, because you have to refer to the main concept ALL THE TIME in order to be able to use the broken unit, correct?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
If I understand this correctly, then, broken units are NOT borderline cases in the sense that it's optional to create an entirely new concept denoting them . . . this would lead to too much mental repitition, I think, and that sounds like what Don is pointing at in his essay.  They become, at best, a subdivision under the main concept, because you have to refer to the main concept ALL THE TIME in order to be able to use the broken unit, correct?

With exceptions. For instance "deaf."

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Meaning what, Don? Yes, you form a concept that covers the idea of something that should hear but can't. But you don't form an entire concept to cover only MEN that should hear but can't, as you said. "Deaf men" is not a concept, it's two concepts that modify each other.

Now, here's one that I thought of: is the concept "slave" a conceptualization of a broken unit? (I.e. a man without rights.) I think it's a necessary separate concept because a.) slavery was so prevalent in the past and, sadly, is coming back into existence and b.) there are many more included factors in the concept "slave", such as the man was deprived of his rights by force, he is owned by someone else, etc.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Now, here's one that I thought of: is the concept "slave" a conceptualization of a broken unit? (I.e. a man without rights.)

I would not think that slave would qualify as a broken unit. The fact that someone ignores someones rights does not mean that he does not have them. The analogy would be a table that is being used as a bed. The fact that someone decides not to treat the table as if it were a table does not mean it is not a table.

Please correct me if that does not follow.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Copied from another thread....

But a human being is defined as having a brain. I don't consider this a "broken unit" scenario. A baby born without arms is still human. It still has the capacity to think and make decisions. Someone born with holes in their heart is still human. But without a brain, a human being isn't...well, a human being. It is not a dog or cat or any other animal that is defined as having a brain. It is a true anomaly. It cannot be considered a human. It is at the level of a simple prokaryote who acts automatically. Because a human being requires a brain to function properly, it will, of course, die.
The definition is secondary to the conceptualization. It might tell us "what's in and what's out", but it's really there not to tell, but to remind. So, for instance, we might conceptualize "computer" and its referents are all the various computers, past, present and future. We come up with a definition that best describes this. Let's say that we are not including older, mechanical devices in our concept. So, we might settle on "An electronic, digital device that stores and processes information".

Now, with that conceptualization, when my computer blows a capacitor and I take it to the shop, I think of it as taking my computer to the shop, even though it does not currently have the capacity to process information. Even if I leave it out for the garbage guys, they're hauling away a computer (a non-working computer).

Could I create my concepts differently? Yes, most definitely. If I ran a computer store, I might coin up a term like "dud" and define it as "a non working computer", and I might coin some other term for "working computer". What is right depends on my purpose and needs. However, if my needs for concepts in this area is ordinary: where I simply want a word to refer to devices of a certain type, then I can still use the definition above. I don't have to enhance it to: "An electronic, digital device that stores and processes information, whether operational or not". This is because the definition just needs to act as a reminder, it is not supposed to tell you everything about the concept's referents.

In ordinary usage, when we say "human" (or the sex-neutral "man") we're speaking of a particular type of biological species. To ask if a particular entity is a human or man, in the ordinary sense, is to ask if it is homo sapien.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
In ordinary usage, when we say "human" (or the sex-neutral "man") we're speaking of a particular type of biological species. To ask if a particular entity is a human or man, in the ordinary sense, is to ask if it is homo sapien.

Also, I'd like to add that Dr. Peikoff goes further into this concept of "man" (read: human being) in that podcast #2 that I had mentioned before on his site.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Hello everyone, Finally back here on this forum for something other than lurking. :D

I was wondering if anyone is willing to explain the 'Broken Unit' as Ayn Rand or Objectivism defines it? Or can point me to some reading material where I can study up on it.

I ask because I notice a number on 'Abortion issue' threads on the forums, and I believe knowing the Objectivist definition of the broken unit will help me sure up some things I have rattling around in my head. I'd elaborate a bit more, but then I'd make this thread another 'Abortion issue'. and that's kinda outside the scope of what I had planned for tonight ;)

Also, any personal musings on the subject of Broken units would also be appreciated.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
This, then, is the key to conceptualizing broken units. Broken units are not fundamental – they are derivative concepts. One cannot form the concept “flat tire” or “brainless baby” until one has first conceptualized “tire” and “baby”. But once one has formed the relevant concepts, one can identify broken units that logically depend on these prior concepts (but which aren’t sub-categories of them in the way that, say, “coffee table” is a sub-category of “table”).

I like this essay and the concept of broken units. What particularly stood out for me were identifications are that only a teleological context makes a broken unit possible, and the hierarchical dependency.

The concept of broken units applies to values which fail to be rational or life-affirming, but are merely the objects of actions.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

×