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The Nature Of Broken Units

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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.

Before buying into the notion that this illusory article is a major achievement you should read the more extensive discussion in this Forum thread where it is further contrasted with Ayn Rand's Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.

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Before buying into the notion that this illusory article is a major achievement you should read the more extensive discussion in this Forum thread where it is further contrasted with Ayn Rand's Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.

I specified what I found of value.

What is essential is contextual. A broken unit appears when what is essential differs between contexts, and a particular referent lacks the essential characteristic of one context. This is entirely consistent with Rand's treatment of qualified concepts and borderline cases, it just draws attention to the case where it is the essential that is qualified.

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DPW's article is interesting; thanks for reminding me it existed. Most of the objections raised on the Forum are pretty bad, though. It'd be nice to see an Objectivist who knows what he's talking about critique it.

Edited by Atlas51184

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Before buying into the notion that this illusory article is a major achievement you should read the more extensive discussion in this Forum thread where it is further contrasted with Ayn Rand's Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.

Um, actually this article and his other work in the same area are one of the major reasons why Don Watkins is now working for the Ayn Rand Institute.

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There were a few objections raised in the linked thread. I couldn't understand what some of them meant, but the one that was coherent was Stephen's; coherent, but wrong. TommyEdison explained why. I didn't read past that point. Put simply, DPW's article is a chewing of the Analytic-Synthetic dichotomy, while Stephen's objection is support for the dichotomy.

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To return to the content of the article, bypassing the condescending and logically irrelevant "uhm" sarcasm. The article does not require extensive analysis. The concept "broken" is valid, and it is a valid endeavor to analyze it. That does not make "broken units" a fundamental issue of epistemology. The article's major claims that "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" and "without omitting broken units, we could not define our concepts, let alone know anything about their referents" are both preposterous.

Even the article recognizes that "broken units" are "derivative concepts". But it doesn't require an extensive essay to understand the "hierarchy" in identifying that "broken" is relative to the "normal".

Further, a "broken" inessential has no bearing on concept formation and application, while a missing essential puts the matter squarely into the realm of the methods Ayn Rand described under the topics of borderline cases. Neither that nor the use of abstractions from abstractions were mentioned at all in the article. There are other errors in elevating the status of "broken units", such as the claim that "medicine is a science devoted to the study of broken units"; medicine studies the means of curing and preventing illness based on a scientific study of the normal and how it functions, it is not a study of "broken units".

It is good to see someone who writes well, and who has an understanding of many elements of IOE and an ability, at least in large part, to apply it, but the article is not without major errors. I hope that the author keeps thinking about and continues to explore Ayn Rand's epistemology because almost no one else is and it is very important. But while the article itself would be an interesting student exercise showing a good degree of understanding, ability and potential, it is not what it claims to be in its major theses, and while it is an interesting attempt at application, but not extension, using several important elements of Ayn Rand's epistemology, anyone who understands IOE should be able on his own to understand the issues raised in the article without having to contend with the article's distracting errors. This is not a criticism of the author -- I wish him the best, partly because he has potential -- just see the article for what it is.

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What is essential is contextual. A broken unit appears when what is essential differs between contexts, and a particular referent lacks the essential characteristic of one context. This is entirely consistent with Rand's treatment of qualified concepts and borderline cases, it just draws attention to the case where it is the essential that is qualified.

To expand on the idea a little further:

When there are two contexts applicable one will seem to be dominant. A dominant context is one which is automatized, usually because it is lower level relative to the other context. For example, one can hardly resist identifying an anacephalic baby as a baby because it looks like a baby, an automatized application of a first level concept. The essential distinguishing characteristic of an adult level definition of man is invisible to the eye, applying that definition requires overriding an automatized identification with an abstraction. Some people won't do that because of psycho-epistemological habit or explicit subordination of ideas to emotions or intuitions.

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To return to the content of the article, bypassing the condescending and logically irrelevant "uhm" sarcasm. The article does not require extensive analysis. The concept "broken" is valid, and it is a valid endeavor to analyze it. That does not make "broken units" a fundamental issue of epistemology. The article's major claims that "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" and "without omitting broken units, we could not define our concepts, let alone know anything about their referents" are both preposterous.

Without omitting broken units, one can only apply the idea of an essence in a fuzzy, approximate fashion and not seriously as a literal universal and logical necessity. So, it does defend objectivity.

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There were a few objections raised in the linked thread. I couldn't understand what some of them meant, but the one that was coherent was Stephen's; coherent, but wrong. TommyEdison explained why. I didn't read past that point. Put simply, DPW's article is a chewing of the Analytic-Synthetic dichotomy, while Stephen's objection is support for the dichotomy.

Stephen did not support the ASD either explicitly or by implication. Neither did anyone "explain why". TommyEdison raised a question based on a misunderstanding, which Stephen subsequently answered. But as you acknowledge, you didn't read that.

DPW's article is not "chewing the ASD".

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Without omitting broken units, one can only apply the idea of an essence in a fuzzy, approximate fashion and not seriously as a literal universal and logical necessity. So, it does defend objectivity.

This reference to "defending objectivity" is what is fuzzy and approximate. He wrote:

"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"

and

"without omitting broken units, we could not define our concepts, let alone know anything about their referents" are both preposterous.

Ayn Rand would have been quite surprised to "learn" that she had not already explained the key to objective concepts and that she had somehow overlooked that it really depended on the derivative, negative concept of "broken".

[edited to fix typo in spelling]

Edited by ewv

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Stephen did not support the ASD either explicitly or by implication. Neither did anyone "explain why". TommyEdison raised a question based on a misunderstanding, which Stephen subsequently answered. But as you acknowledge, you didn't read that.

DPW's article is not "chewing the ASD".

Speicher equates a concept with its definition in this post. By implication, therefore, he supports ASD. In this post, he complains about qualified instances of a concept, and thus misses Don's whole point. A qualified instance of a concept is still an instance of the more general concept; a severely retarded man is still a man. Hence Don's problem: in some cases, an instance of a concept can lack the (currently) defining attribute of units of that concept. (As Grames said, this issue only seems to arise only in biological context (I can't think of a non-biological example). So maybe the importance of Don's paper is exagerated. Even if it is only an issue for philosophy of biology, it's still a problem). Speicher doesn't know what he is talking about.

Ayn Rand would have been quite surprised to "learn" that she had not already explained the key to objective concepts and that she had somehow overlooked that it really depended on the derivative, negative concept of "broken".

Argumentum ad Randium.

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Speicher equates a concept with its definition in this post. By implication, therefore, he supports ASD. In this post, he complains about qualified instances of a concept, and thus misses Don's whole point... Speicher doesn't know what he is talking about.

Stephen Speicher never said anything even remotely like equating a concept with its definition in that post or anywhere else, nor did he say anything supporting the ASD, nor did he "complain" about qualified instances. This jumping between out of context links to statements, misdescribing them without quoting them, is a misrepresentation and is not making a case trying to discredit him. Anyone who reads what Stephen wrote throughout the thread can see that he clearly describes concepts as referring to their units, not their definitions. He said that an entity without the essential characteristics used in forming a concept is not an instance of that concept, which is true. Essential means essential. Distinguishing between essential versus non-essential characteristics is not the ASD either explicitly or by implication. If it is necessary to include other entities in a grouping, a higher level of abstraction is required for the classification. (This use of higher levels of abstraction is one of the key ingredients omitted from the original article.) Furthermore, none of this discussion, let alone the misrepresentations of Stephen Speicher or the personal, gratuitous nonsequiturs claiming he "doesn't know what he is talking about", supports the original article that is the topic of this thread.

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Argumentum ad Randium.

This does not address what was said. If this cryptic snide comment was intended to claim that anyone has argued for a position because "Ayn Rand said so", with no explanations for the position, then have the courage to say so openly rather than leave the falsehood to sneering implication.

If it is also intended as an acknowledgment that you think that the original article corrects an error in Ayn Rand's epistemology by identifying the negative, derivative concept of "broken" as "the key" requirement for objectivity, which she overlooked, then have the courage to say that, too, which would at least be relevant to the topic and acknowledge to readers that at least one strong defender of the original article intends it in opposition to what she wrote, i.e., Objectivism.

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.. at least one strong defender of the original article intends it in opposition to what she wrote, i.e., Objectivism.

Who would that be, and what is the opposition?

Personally I think Ayn Rand omitted broken units all the time but she did not bother to tell us about it because "the essence is contextual" covers the issue. "Broken units" is a helpful elucidation for the rest of us.

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Who would that be, and what is the opposition?

Personally I think Ayn Rand omitted broken units all the time but she did not bother to tell us about it because "the essence is contextual" covers the issue. "Broken units" is a helpful elucidation for the rest of us.

The context, being your statements, makes it clear that it is you. You are replacing Ayn Rand's explanation of objectivity in concept formation with "broken" as "the key". That is not an elucidation, it is a replacement contradicting her explanation. It is not what she described as essence being contextual. There is no evidence whatsoever that she just "didn't bother to tell us" that she was really invoking "broken units". You can believe anything you want to, but it is not Objectivism and should not be presented as such.

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Stephen Speicher never said anything even remotely like equating a concept with its definition in that post or anywhere else, nor did he say anything supporting the ASD, nor did he "complain" about qualified instances. This jumping between out of context links to statements, misdescribing them without quoting them, is a misrepresentation and is not making a case trying to discredit him. Anyone who reads what Stephen wrote throughout the thread can see that he clearly describes concepts as referring to their units, not their definitions. He said that an entity without the essential characteristics used in forming a concept is not an instance of that concept, which is true. Essential means essential. Distinguishing between essential versus non-essential characteristics is not the ASD either explicitly or by implication. If it is necessary to include other entities in a grouping, a higher level of abstraction is required for the classification. (This use of higher levels of abstraction is one of the key ingredients omitted from the original article.) Furthermore, none of this discussion, let alone the misrepresentations of Stephen Speicher or the personal, gratuitous nonsequiturs claiming he "doesn't know what he is talking about", supports the original article that is the topic of this thread.

Yes, he does. "An entity lacking a rational faculty, or, as is the case for a newborn, the potential for a rational faculty, strictly speaking, would not be man." Following this, a severely retarded man is not a man. But he is. Speicher's position amounts to (implies!) equating a concept with a definition.

You say "essential" means essential. We'll, I don't know what that is supposed to mean. Essence is epistemological, not metaphysical. The "essence" is just that feature which best picks out the referents at a given stage of knowledge. We group things together as "men" because they are importantly similar to each other, rationality being the most important attribute in most contexts. As Don points out in his essay, there are cases in which that most-useful-for-classifying characteristic is absent, but the other existing similarities still warrant grouping the things together as a concept. In the instance of a severely retarded man, his genetic constitution and biological origin is sufficiently similar to yours and mine to make necessary his grouping together under one concept, "man," along with us. Speicher thinks this isn't a problem, because he wants to stubbornly deny that men without a rational faculty aren't "strictly speaking" men. Well, this is like me saying, "The defining characteristic of being a bird is feather-having, so plucked chickens aren't strictly speaking birds." If I said something like that, I wouldn't know what I was talking about, either.

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To return to the content of the article, bypassing the condescending and logically irrelevant "uhm" sarcasm.

Wow, projecting much? I think I can see your brain up your nasal passages. I'm sure Mr. Watkins will be thrilled to hear that you think he has "potential"--since he's the editor of Impact and a contributor to The Objective Standard. Granted, this does not necessarily mean that all of his work is of exceptional merit, but his article on Broken Units really helped me to clarify some bits of epistemological confusion I was having. Elaborating on logical ramifications for those of us who may not have discovered ALL of them for ourselves is the JOB of intellectuals, so it makes absolutely no sense to complain that Mr. Watkins was simply elaborating on what Ayn Rand already wrote.

Heck, Ayn Rand herself criticized this idea quite severely in The Art of Non-Fiction via a hilarious reductio ad absurdum where she declared that if you take this attitude, no one could say anything new after Aristotle figured out that A is A, because everything is included within the law of Identity.

Are broken units fundamental? Certainly not as fundamental as, say, measurement-omission. However, it does help to make a bridge between what might be described as "pure conceptualization" and actual use of language, whereby a brainless baby (or a brainless adult) is nevertheless referred to as a man (or a human) in common parlance. Knowing that these broken units DO in fact fall under the purview of the concept (they fit in the "file folder") even though they lack an essential characteristic is important to understanding the precise operation of the conceptual faculty. Precise understanding of this operation is vital to being able to defend the Objectivist Epistemology. So I hardly think this is unnecessary even if it isn't some sort of major innovation.

However, if this is all so "illusory" and unworthy in your mind, perhaps you'll provide us with some valuable article YOU'VE written elaborating a salient point of epistemology instead of just going around belittling other people's work.

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Yes, he does. "An entity lacking a rational faculty, or, as is the case for a newborn, the potential for a rational faculty, strictly speaking, would not be man." Following this, a severely retarded man is not a man. But he is. Speicher's position amounts to (implies!) equating a concept with a definition.

Atlas51184's "amounts to" is his own repeated misrepresentation of Stephen's statement, with or without the rest of the context of Stephen's statements that Atlas51184 continues to ignore and which further contradicts Atlas51184's false restatement. Even selectively taken out of context, as he has done here, the statement that 'an entity that lacks the essential characteristic used in forming a concept is not the meaning of that concept' obviously does not mean or imply that a concept is being "equated with its definition". Claiming that it "amounts to that" is a gratuitous restatement with no regard for what has been said.

You say "essential" means essential. We'll, I don't know what that is supposed to mean. Essence is epistemological, not metaphysical.

The essential must be there. It distinguishes an entity that is referred to by the concept with everything else. That does not mean that the concept is the definition or is the essential characteristic(s) alone, and does not mean that essences are "metaphysical".

The "essence" is just that feature which best picks out the referents at a given stage of knowledge. We group things together as "men" because they are importantly similar to each other, rationality being the most important attribute in most contexts. As Don points out in his essay, there are cases in which that most-useful-for-classifying characteristic is absent, but the other existing similarities still warrant grouping the things together as a concept. In the instance of a severely retarded man, his genetic constitution and biological origin is sufficiently similar to yours and mine to make necessary his grouping together under one concept, "man," along with us. Speicher thinks this isn't a problem, because he wants to stubbornly deny that men without a rational faculty aren't "strictly speaking" men. Well, this is like me saying, "The defining characteristic of being a bird is feather-having, so plucked chickens aren't strictly speaking birds." If I said something like that, I wouldn't know what I was talking about, either.

Defining characteristics are not arbitrary and the definition of a bird is not "feather-having" alone. Nor can the nature of an entity across time (with changes, such as losing feathers) be ignored. An entity referred to by a concept is not an entity at a single instance of time, arbitrarily selected, as if it were not the same unit before and after and no connections between them.

Furthermore, borderline cases, qualified instances, and other uses of classifications and grouping in different circumstances cannot be dealt with without regard to first having the base concept(s), then only afterwards taken together with the use of higher levels of abstraction and more advanced knowledge in a hierarchy, all of which was ignored in the original article -- even though the article clearly (and properly) recognizes that "broken units" is derivative, which requires that. The cognitive necessity for such processes and more complex classifications of even simple ideas does not justify the "broken unit" theory as "the key" to objectivity in concept formation. I think that the attempt to deal with more complex needs for classification involving exceptions, etc. without regard for cognitive mechanisms beyond first level abstractions was a major source of the error in the chain of reasoning leading to the article's main thesis of claiming that "broken units" is "the key", which conclusion on the face of it is preposterous and contrary to Ayn Rand's own explanations. It was not an 'elucidation', it was an attempt at 'improvement' -- through a substitution that I reject for reasons previously outlined -- and which substitution has not been defended on this thread, certainly not by the personal polemics here and the misrepresentations of Stephen Speicher.

I find the kinds of issues that were originally raised in this thread to be very interesting and important, despite the original errors, but this is obviously not the place to try to discuss them.

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The essential must be there. It distinguishes an entity that is referred to by the concept with everything else. That does not mean that the concept is the definition or is the essential characteristic(s) alone, and does not mean that essences are "metaphysical".

A particular essence does not have to be there for certain classes of existents, to summarize the article in a line.

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Wow, projecting much? I think I can see your brain up your nasal passages. I'm sure Mr. Watkins will be thrilled to hear...

Don't let this degenerate into a discussion of epistemology!!! I responded, before immediately returning to the subject, to this:

Um, actually this article and his other work in the same area are one of the major reasons why Don Watkins is now working for the Ayn Rand Institute.

-- a condescending appeal to something other than any discussion of the content of the article in question, nevertheless revived here.

...that you think he has "potential"--since he's the editor of Impact and a contributor to The Objective Standard. Granted, this does not necessarily mean that all of his work is of exceptional merit,

The topic is the article on epistemology. I think that as a fairly recent business school graduate who writes, apparently primarily, political articles, he does have a lot of potential and a promising future, and that his article on "broken units", despite its major errors, indicates that. He is a very good writer and obviously is concerned with aspects of Ayn Rand's epistemology that most are not and do not grasp. Impact has been very well done for many years now and still is. I am glad that he is pursuing what he is. But none of this supports the thesis in the "Broken Units" article or means that its author has reached the culmination of his abilities or yet established a major career beyond what could be possible in a few years out of college.

... but his article on Broken Units really helped me to clarify some bits of epistemological confusion I was having. Elaborating on logical ramifications for those of us who may not have discovered ALL of them for ourselves is the JOB of intellectuals, so it makes absolutely no sense to complain that Mr. Watkins was simply elaborating on what Ayn Rand already wrote. Heck, Ayn Rand herself criticized this idea quite severely in The Art of Non-Fiction via a hilarious reductio ad absurdum where she declared that if you take this attitude, no one could say anything new after Aristotle figured out that A is A, because everything is included within the law of Identity.

No one has complained about elucidating on what Ayn Rand wrote. It is not an elucidation. It has a main thesis that is incorrect and contrary to what Ayn Rand wrote.

Are broken units fundamental? Certainly not as fundamental as, say, measurement-omission.

The article claims that the negative, derivative concept of "broken" is "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" and "without omitting broken units, we could not define our concepts, let alone know anything about their referents". Both claims are preposterous.

However, it does help to make a bridge between what might be described as "pure conceptualization" and actual use of language, whereby a brainless baby (or a brainless adult) is nevertheless referred to as a man (or a human) in common parlance. Knowing that these broken units DO in fact fall under the purview of the concept (they fit in the "file folder") even though they lack an essential characteristic is important to understanding the precise operation of the conceptual faculty. Precise understanding of this operation is vital to being able to defend the Objectivist Epistemology. So I hardly think this is unnecessary even if it isn't some sort of major innovation.

I would not "might describe", let alone describe, Ayn Rand's IOE as "pure conceptualization" versus "actual use of language".

However, if this is all so "illusory" and unworthy in your mind, perhaps you'll provide us with some valuable article YOU'VE written elaborating a salient point of epistemology instead of just going around belittling other people's work.

What is "illusory" about the article is the notion that it is a significant addition to Ayn Rand's IOE. The author's understanding of at least some important aspects of IOE did not lead in fact to a valid conclusion in its major thesis, and his facility in dealing with some elements of IOE should not mislead readers into thinking otherwise. To state this and describe why, in more detail than I originally thought would be necessary, is not "belittling", and certainly dealt with the issue more objectively than the stream of the sarcasm, the polemics and the misrepresentations of Stephen Speicher that have substituted for serious discussion here. This person's false insinuation that I have not explained anything myself somehow means that all I do is "go around belittling other people's work" is either an obvious logical fallacy or merely another resentful sarcastic smear, or both. It does not address the issues I previously tried to seriously raise, but this evidently is not the place for that.

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A particular essence does not have to be there for certain classes of existents, to summarize the article in a line.

It sure does in the base concept.

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It sure does in the base concept.

Ok, I'll bite. What is a "base concept"? Do concepts come in versions such as base and advanced?

Perhaps you will invoke context to defend this idea. Is one context more true than another? Or perhaps you will reach for hierarchy. Is a higher or lower level concept more true?

Edited by Grames

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ewv, you don't seem to be familiar with the basics of the Objectivist theory of concepts, and you seem perfectly happy to use that ignorance to condescend to the other people in the thread, who do know what they are talking about. Enjoy being further confused by Steven Speicher. Conversation over.

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Ok, I'll bite. What is a "base concept"? Do concepts come in versions such as base and advanced?

Perhaps you will invoke context to defend this idea. Is one context more true than another? Or perhaps you will reach for hierarchy. Is a higher or lower level concept more true?

Contexts aren't true or false, they simply are, and higher levels of abstraction are not degrees of truth or falsehood -- I don't know what any of that was intended to mean.

When you have a derivative concept like "broken" it depends on a more basic concept from which you start. There has to be something you are talking about which has changed, broken, etc. or there is nothing to talk about. Without a concept of the normal, the abnormal never comes up. You can conceptualize exceptions, aberrations, etc., and classify them for specific cognitive purposes, but they cannot contradict what you start with and do not change the concepts you start with.

In the case of the "broken units" theory, contrasted with Objectivist epistemology, there is an attempt to include units under a concept that do not have the essential characteristic required to be subsumed in the concept in the first place. Recall that Ayn Rand emphasized, with respect to the process of measurement omission for the distinguishing characteristics for a concept, "Bear firmly in mind that that the term 'measurements omitted' does not mean, in this context, that measurements are regarded as non-existent; it means that measurements exist, but are not specified. That measurements must exist is an essential part of the process" [emphasis in original], and the "basic principle of concept-formation" is that "the measurements must exist in some quantity, but may exist in any quantity" [emphasis in original]. She did not write that the essential characteristic "must exist except when it doesn't". It must be there to have a measurement. Must means must. Essential means essential. The theory that rationalistically concludes that the essential characteristic need not be there after all in some units, and that this is "the key" to objectivity in concepts and "all knowledge", and is necessary for concepts, without which we can't "know anything about their referents", is a contradiction of the starting point and of Ayn Rand's "basic theory of concept formation", not just "maybe an overstatement". Simply observing these conclusions in the article ought to be enough to see immediately that something is very wrong even before going back to analyze where it went off the rails.

You can conceptually deal with borderline cases, aberrations, etc., but that requires additional knowledge at higher levels of abstractions and additional conceptualization. You can't roll it all back into the original (base) concept without regard to that process and hierarchy, and further, contradict the original concept. The article not only concluded with that contradiction -- which is its reductio ad absurdum -- it made no mention or recognition of any of the process of abstractions from abstractions, border line cases, etc. described extensively in her theory. I think that that omission of consideration in the article had a lot to do with how it ended so badly. Ayn Rand discussed 'borderline cases', 'qualified instances', etc. after she described 'abstractions from abstractions', which in turn had to follow the introductory chapters on first level concept formation. These further principles did not fall back and replace the foundation with something else contradicting it. The hierarchy of abstraction must always be maintained.

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This discussion reminds me of Rand's explanation of concepts and their definitions. She describes one possible evolution of the definition of the concept 'man' as a child grows and gains experience. (I think it's early in ITOE, but I'm in an airplane without the book. It would be great if someone would pull the relevant quote.)

She talks about how the definition of 'man' would change from 'things that move and make noise' to 'things that talk' and eventually to 'rational animal'. The key point I understand from her example is that the concept 'man' does not change during this process (and neither do its referents). Only the definition which allows the child to economize his mental energy and hold all referents in his mind changes. She also states that the essential characteristic is an epistemological choice and should be the charachteristic on which the most other common characteristics depend. In this sense 'essential' means 'that which best captures the essence of the referents' commonalities', not 'that which is required for an existent to be a referent of the concept'.

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