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gurugeorge

Is this about right?

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Hey folks, I'm not an Objectivist but I've always been mentally friendly towards Objectivism.  I actually hung around here some years ago, but I hadn't thought much about Objectivism since then.  I recently got into discussion with a critical philosopher where I was defending Objectivism and I ended up doing a sort of summary of how I understand some key elements of Objectivism.  I'm quite pleased with it and I think it's pretty decent, but I'd like a reality check from experienced Objectivists here, to see whether I'm along the right lines or not.  Here goes:-

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Rand rejects apriori reasoning as a source of knowledge.  For her, all knowledge is gained empirically, including conceptual knowledge, so the tabula rasa concept fits well enough. 

You have to understand that she's an Aristotelean, so she works with essences and natures, like Aristotle or Aquinas.  She doesn't agree with the idea that concepts are intrinsically detached from perceptions, like random puzzle pieces or algorithms that could happen to fit or not fit with reality.  IOW, she doesn't understand conceptual thinking as being like a set of intrinsically meaningless symbols plus rules for their manipulation, which must then be given an interpretation to connect them to reality (or not) and make them meaningful.  With that view, the only logical necessity is in the rules for pushing the symbols around.  In her view, the logical necessity is in the essence or nature of the object itself.  It's a bit of a strange way of thinking to us nowadays (essence/nature is way out of fashion, especially since the later Wittgenstein), but it makes sense in its own terms.

This is the mistake that most hostile interpreters of her make who are blind to this aspect of her philosophy because they're so steeped in post-Fregean analytical philosophy.  If you argue with Objectivists you'll always be pointed at and laughed at for not getting this fundamental point: when you perceive or conceive of an object without error, you are grasping its essence or nature, and that's where the logical necessity comes in (A=A).  A thing is what it is, its nature and behaviour is always logically consistent, and that consistent nature/behaviour is what you're getting a glimpse of of via perception, and grasping the whole of via concept (which sums up all your perceptions).

And that's also why she doesn't hold with the is/ought dichotomy.  Since our essence is to be rational animals, but rational animals whose exercise of rationality is a free choice, the LOGICAL NECESSITY to choose to survive and flourish in order to actually survive and flourish via our only means of surviving and flourishing (our perception/reason - especially with respect to the time-binding nature of conceptual reasoning, on account of our having grasped an essence that is the same in all times and places) is part of our nature, and actually making that choice is what she calls "moral", whereas the choice to not act rationally (i.e. to not grasp and act upon, and in conformity with, our own nature and the natures of things around us) in order to survive and flourish, is what she calls "immoral". 

Because that choice is part of our nature, then both the moral AND the immoral options are inherent in our nature.  The only problem is that the less we exercise our rational faculties, the more they atrophy.  We become something else, something less than human, with a stunted, slightly different nature.  Eventually we lose even the capacity to choose and we become subhuman, living at an animal, perceptual level only.  We become a thing whose nature is more or less simply animal and reflexive, and we are at the mercy of reality, no longer its master, aware only of present perceptions (having lost our ability to grasp essences, time-bind and predict, etc.) and subject to random whims, pursuing momentary pleasures.

But note that we only come to understand what our nature is through the perceptual/conceptual knowledge-gathering process itself: at some point we come to maturity, reflect on and realize what sort of thing we are, then we have the choice to act in conformity with our nature or sabotage ourselves.  The prior choice to be and act rationally that enabled us to discover our true nature, supposing we did in fact make it, is then retrospectively understood to have been a moral choice, and we understand that we're perpetually on the hook for that same moral choice now that we've woken up to our true nature.

For her, education is supposed to give us a "helping hand" to get to the stage of self-realization, to nudge us in the direction of (effectively) choosing to understand our nature and live full lives.  That's why she was incredibly angry at the state of education, which she saw as a form of child abuse and mental torture, because it doesn't encourage us to come to our natural inheritance, it doesn't draw out (educare, root of "educate") what's innate and natural to us.

It prevents children who aren't strong enough in intellect and courage to go through this process themselves from becoming fully human (analogous with foot binding - she uses a Chinese "making a man in the shape of a jar by keeping a child in a jar until they've grown into that shape" example from Victor Hugo). 

Incidentally, this is an example of the fact that while she isn't altruistic, she is fundamentally compassionate - although she is on the whole more concerned about the right conditions for the best of us to fulfill our natures, that's partly because movers and shakers' doing well is a precondition for everyone to be able to fulfill their natures, and while the main benefit of that, in her view, is that it reflects benefit back to the movers and shakers themselves (because of human co-operation and interdependence), there are lots of examples in her work where she vividly paints the horror of how the failure of intellectuals to take responsibility for their specialty inexorably results in tremendous suffering for ordinary/weak people who don't have the intellectual's gifts.  She wishes everyone well on their own trajectory, so to speak - to the degree that they are able and willing, and to the degree their capacities allow.
 

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1 hour ago, gurugeorge said:

Rand rejects apriori reasoning as a source of knowledge.  For her, all knowledge is gained empirically, including conceptual knowledge, so the tabula rasa concept fits well enough. 

This is accurate, although it is odd to say that tabula rasa "fits well enough" since it is literally her position, as she repeated countless times.

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You have to understand that she's an Aristotelean, so she works with essences and natures, like Aristotle or Aquinas.  She doesn't agree with the idea that concepts are intrinsically detached from perceptions, like random puzzle pieces or algorithms that could happen to fit or not fit with reality.  IOW, she doesn't understand conceptual thinking as being like a set of intrinsically meaningless symbols plus rules for their manipulation, which must then be given an interpretation to connect them to reality (or not) and make them meaningful.  With that view, the only logical necessity is in the rules for pushing the symbols around.  In her view, the logical necessity is in the essence or nature of the object itself.  It's a bit of a strange way of thinking to us nowadays (essence/nature is way out of fashion, especially since the later Wittgenstein), but it makes sense in its own terms.

This is a very dangerous way of explaining Objectivism. Aristotle and Aquinas held that essences were intrinsic in things, metaphysically, whereas Rand held that they were epistemological. This is a critical difference between Objectivism and Aristotelianism and absolutely has to be included in any comparison of the two philosophies.

Also, you say "it is a strange way of thinking to us nowadays," implying that you disagree. Can you explain why?

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This is the mistake that most hostile interpreters of her make who are blind to this aspect of her philosophy because they're so steeped in post-Fregean analytical philosophy.  If you argue with Objectivists you'll always be pointed at and laughed at for not getting this fundamental point: when you perceive or conceive of an object without error, you are grasping its essence or nature, and that's where the logical necessity comes in (A=A).  A thing is what it is, its nature and behaviour is always logically consistent, and that consistent nature/behaviour is what you're getting a glimpse of of via perception, and grasping the whole of via concept (which sums up all your perceptions).

I've never seen an Objectivist point and laugh at someone for not understanding the Objectivist view on essences. I have also never seen an Objectivist make quite this claim about grasping essences and natures - do you have a source?

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And that's also why she doesn't hold with the is/ought dichotomy.  Since our essence is to be rational animals, but rational animals whose exercise of rationality is a free choice, the LOGICAL NECESSITY to choose to survive and flourish in order to actually survive and flourish via our only means of surviving and flourishing (our perception/reason - especially with respect to the time-binding nature of conceptual reasoning, on account of our having grasped an essence that is the same in all times and places) is part of our nature, and actually making that choice is what she calls "moral", whereas the choice to not act rationally (i.e. to not grasp and act upon, and in conformity with, our own nature and the natures of things around us) in order to survive and flourish, is what she calls "immoral". 

This isn't a particularly accurate presentation of the Objectivist argument for egoism, which is not directly connected to the Objectivist view on essences. Where did you get this idea?

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Because that choice is part of our nature, then both the moral AND the immoral options are inherent in our nature.  The only problem is that the less we exercise our rational faculties, the more they atrophy.  We become something else, something less than human, with a stunted, slightly different nature.  Eventually we lose even the capacity to choose and we become subhuman, living at an animal, perceptual level only.  We become a thing whose nature is more or less simply animal and reflexive, and we are at the mercy of reality, no longer its master, aware only of present perceptions (having lost our ability to grasp essences, time-bind and predict, etc.) and subject to random whims, pursuing momentary pleasures.

To my knowledge, Rand never claimed that intellectually lazy people lose their free will.

 

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Thanks for your response William O, it's helpful, I'll get back to this when I've sourced a few references. 

As a start: the tabula rasa thing was in response to my interlocutor saying that it's an inappropriate term for Ayn Rand to use because it had a fairly specific meaning in Locke that Rand doesn't seem to intend, because for Locke only the senses give us knowledge through experience, and conceptual reasoning doesn't, whereas I think Rand intended that both senses (or rather perception) AND concepts give knowledge through experience, so concepts have contact with reality via perception just as the senses do, only it's mediated by the process of concept formation, which is built wholly on the material from the senses, and doesn't get any alien material from elsewhere for the construction.  I think since Rand bundles senses and reason together to give a complete understanding of reality via experience, it's fair enough for her to use Locke's concept in an adapted way.

Edited by gurugeorge

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For a summary, by someone who doesn't consider himself an Objectivist and which is a not a formal presentation of the philosophy, I agree it is pretty decent.   Specifically concur with your point on tabula rasa.

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Hi Grames, thanks for your comments.  

Yeah it's an odd thing with me and Objectivism.  I'm someone who's always had an amateur interest in philosophy (I'm 57), and I've been round the houses many times with many philosophical positions in the course of my life.  I've always thought of Objectivism as a strong, if idiosyncratic contender, and to my mind most of the criticisms of it do miss the point, e.g. often they're just arguments from authority ("that's not how we do things around here", as it were) - as if the whole point of what Rand was doing wasn't to positively challenge the received wisdom!

But lately, I've really been going through a major revulsion against the representationalism that's been so captivating for most of my philosophical life, and getting more and more into the "swing" of Objectivism and starting to think of it as an example of a thin but strong line in philosophy - starting of course with Aristotle, but going through flashes of prominence like Bacon, Thomas Reid, even Pierce (his pragmatism was quite a different beast from what eventually got called that name), etc. (Incidentally, I think of all the philosophers between Aristotle and Rand, Reid is probably the closest to Rand, if you look at what he says about Common Sense, it's sometimes uncannily close to what Rand says about the axioms.)  The more I understand Objectivism, the more I see that while Rand as a philosopher definitely didn't speak the approved "lingo", and might have benefited from more engagement with philosophers like you see at the end of ITOE, she is subtler and deeper than the received wisdom would have it.  

And actually from my observation, I think the academy's gradually swinging round to similar lines of thought.  The kinds of philosophy Rand excoriated 30 years ago (e.g. Logical Positivism) are now not very highly thought of in the academy either. The names that seemed so "big" then have faded (who remembers Donald Davidson? ;) ).  There's renewed interest in Aristotle, particularly in ethics, there's exploration of things like Direct Realism, and I think actually that even Externalism (e.g. of Putnam's semantic kind, or Dennett's cognitive kind) are also somewhat friendly to this approach (there's a logical link between J. J. Gibson's view of perception, which is itself akin to a form of Direct Realism, and Dennett's cognitive externalism).

There's actually nowhere else to go.  An amusing side-light on this is how the later Wittgenstein once lamented the irony that he was a professional philosopher who didn't know any Aristotle.  But the double irony is perhaps that what he was doing towards the end of his life (particularly in On Certainty) was tending towards Direct Realism.  Once you step outside the representationalist problematic (as Witty did in his own way), there aren't many options other than Direct Realism, and I think the academy will eventually catch up to Rand. 

In the long view, it's really only been a tiny blip of time (relative to the millennia humans have been rational animals) since philosophy (guiding life by means of reason rather than faith) started, it's understandable that with such difficult problems we've sometimes veered off into blind alleys.  The cost has been horrendous, but there have also been huge gains.  It's still all to play for and the fat lady hasn't even gotten out of her taxi yet.

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On 8/11/2016 at 3:57 AM, gurugeorge said:

But lately, I've really been going through a major revulsion against the representationalism that's been so captivating for most of my philosophical life, and getting more and more into the "swing" of Objectivism and starting to think of it as an example of a thin but strong line in philosophy - starting of course with Aristotle, but going through flashes of prominence like Bacon, Thomas Reid, even Pierce (his pragmatism was quite a different beast from what eventually got called that name), etc.

I've have recently (in the last couple of years) become interested in what I perceive to be similarities between William James's ideas regarding sensation/percept/concept formation, essence, etc., - as put forth in various essays (ex The Sentiment of Rationality) and his monumental work/text book, The Principles of  Psychology.  I'd love to get my hands on the following paper.  And even though I first read the Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology decades ago, I never really paid attention to the following from the Introduction until recently:

"All knowledge is in terms of concepts.  If these concepts correspond to something that is to be found in reality they are real and man's knowledge has a foundation in fact; if they do not correspond to anything in reality they are not real and man's knowledge is of mere figments of his own imagination" (Edward C. Moore, American Pragmatism: Peirce, James, & Dewey, New York: Columbia University Press, 1961, p. 27).  From the Introduction to IToE.

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Binswanger in his book How We Know, also addresses the problems with Representationalism, and how he is incorporating the ideas of Gibson.  Lee Pierson, who's abstract I provide a link to in the above post was, by the way, a grad student of Gibson.  And Gibson's was a student of E.B. Holt who was, in turn, a student of James.  Binswanger credit's Pierson with having introduced him to Gibson, and the problems with Representationalism.

Interesting times in Objectivism....  I'm interested in seeing what direction this line of inquiry takes.

Here's an link to some people exploring non-Representationalism/non-Computationalism and the ideas of Gibson and others, that you might find interesting.

Edited by New Buddha

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I think while affordances are a useful psychological concept, but I find it's a bit too non-computational to be correct. As I understand JJ Gibson, an affordance is the way the external environment provides content as is, without any mental intervention. This is great for a few reasons. For one, perception is a given, there is no "manufacturing" or a "veil" to get to the world as is. The problem though is that it doesn't really provide a way to explain how it is one is able to perform operations on perceptual content.

I forget where I got this, but it' s a quote from a book Gibson wrote. "The point is that these meanings do not consist of the memories of past manipulation, or of the acquired motor tendencies to manipulate. The acts of picking up and reaching with reveal certain facts about objects; they do not create them."

The issue is a lack of memory here. It doesn't really work well scientifically. It was a good start, I'd say, for better attention towards living in context, as opposed to reacting to stimuli. I suggest reading up on embodied cognition, it's pretty interesting.

Edited by Eiuol

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2 hours ago, Eiuol said:

I think while affordances are a useful psychological concept, but I find it's a bit too non-computational to be correct..... The problem though is that it doesn't really provide a way to explain how it is one is able to perform operations on perceptual content.

What initially ignited my fire, so to speak, regarding non-Representationalism and non-Computationalism, was a post on I made on this forum about Artificial Intelligence.  I posted a link to the robots of Mark Tilden and Rodney Brooks (of the Roomba vacuum cleaner fame).

In trying to invent Robots, the two inventors did not focus on software/programming, but rather on Analog circuit design.

Analog circuity most closely resembles our own sensory mechanisms - meaning that animals with central nervous systems, have sense organs which serve as transducers, which automatically convert light, sound waves, taste molecules, scent molecules and touch (including both mechanical and radiant energy) into bio-electric energy.  These neuronal "signals" are most probably stored by prion like proteins located in neurons (see Eric Kandel).

Our experiences are not "representational" of events, they are Analogs of events.  Our memory of events are not created by "operations" performed on experiences.  Our memory of events are physical analogs of the events which make physical changes to our organism.

Edited by New Buddha

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41 minutes ago, New Buddha said:

In trying to invent Robots, the two inventors did not focus on software/programming, but rather on Analog circuit design.

Right - it works best for primitive creatures. It's not good enough for conceptual content.

Perceptual content isn't representational, I agree. Affordances are what I'd call presentational content, provided through the mechanics of your body interacting with the environment. The issue, though, is how in the world you get to conceptual content. To do that, you need to operate on your presentational content to form concepts or perform measurements. You need a means to work with your non-conceptual content. Gibson's theory (as far as I know) doesn't help us explain or demonstrate how conceptual thought happens. A different presentational sort of theory is needed. (We should make a new thread/ :P )

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2 minutes ago, Eiuol said:

Right - it works best for primitive creatures.

Perceptual content isn't representational, I agree. Affordances are what I'd call presentational content, provided through the mechanics of your body interacting with the environment. The issue, though, is how in the world you get to conceptual content. To do that, you need to operate on your presentational content to form concepts or perform measurements. You need a means to work with your non-conceptual content. Gibson's theory (as far as I know) doesn't help us explain or demonstrate how conceptual thought happens. A different presentational sort of theory is needed. (We should make a new thread/ :P )

I love your response, since it indicates that you and I are on the same (analog?) wave length.  Specifically: "It's not good enough for conceptual content." and "The issue, though, is how in the world you get to conceptual content."

I agree, that it would make a good thread.  Maybe titled Non-Representationalism and Objectivist Epistemology.

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Good stuff.  I think the crucial thing about concepts is that they are (as Piekoff says somewhere) more or less like mental files, and that's what makes them open-ended, and that open-endedness is what makes them time-binding (beyond the range of the present moment) and space-binding (including things not experienced, that may never be experienced, yet about which we can say things with certainty).

In my previous way of thinking, concepts seemed unimportant and merely "psychological", because of the crucial argument that the thought-content of different people using the same word may be different.  That's true in the sense that the mental associations and images they have with a word may be different, but if you think of concepts as mental files, if people (e.g. the paradigmatic developing children) associate the same OBJECTS with the word, then you have the real root of the co-ordination of language, without having to rely wholly on Wittgenstein's idea of shared rules.  IOW, one doesn't need to posit a pre-established harmony of (and therefore thought) at the rule level, as social habits or games of symbol manipulation, in the sense of us all being induced into the same "language games."  Yes that happens, but it happens in conjunction with individual children coming to have the same mental files into which they mentally plonk things in the world around them, because they all (as rational beings) use the same process of sifting the more different from the less different (similar).  They then associate their mental files with the symbol-manipulating games they're given by adults.

IOW, people can be induced to have the same mental filing system just by severally encountering the same reality, so concepts in the good, old-fashioned sense, really are the foundation of thought and language, not the other way round.

There's a bit of an irony here in that the removal of "psychological" considerations from philosophy did contribute to the development of the science of computation (and then a double irony in that, say, Turing, partly based his ideas on a sketch of human psychology!).  But in the long run, I think we've got to reintroduce that psychological element back into philosophy, as Rand did; we have to understand the psychologically-oriented component of philosophy, as being crucially important, for concept-formation, and also for philosophy as a normative discipline (and ultimately good for liberty, as Bacon would have said).

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