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Boydstun

About Those 'Floating Abstractions'

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I've recently had an informative exchange with a Facebook friend who is a serious student of philosophy. I need to keep that person's identity anonymous, so I'll just here name him Fellow. He posed the following question. I'll try to post installments of our exchanges in the next few minutes in this thread. Some digging has gone into this. And perhaps participants here will have some further thoughts.

FELLOW - Stephen, I am contacting you with a question regarding an important idea that, as far as I am aware, is the product of Ayn Rand: floating abstractions. I chose to reach out to you specifically because I have run across some of your work (e.g. “Universals and Measurement”) and I judged that you might be able assist me given your knowledge of philosophy, and in particular Rand’s philosophy. I am interested in reading something relatively comprehensive on the subject of floating abstractions, and I was hoping you might be able to direct me to a resource which deals with floating abstractions in some detail. There is a section in Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (p. 96) which describes what a floating abstraction is; yet, while it does bring some clarity to the subject, I still find the notion of a floating abstraction a bit murky and difficult to apply. For example, what about certain concepts in mathematics that seem to have some sort of use (e.g. transfinite cardinal numbers, or geometric points)? They seem to meet Peikoff’s description of floating abstractions as “concepts detached from existents”.

STEPHEN - I'm inclined to think that in pure mathematics there is always connection to reality in that we reach a concept such as transfinite numbers and accept it only by it satisfying the requirements mathematicians have over centuries refined to qualify as a legitimate mathematical concept, with its connections to more elementary mathematical concepts and its emerging connections to other areas of mathematics. That is, for my part, there are binds of accepted mathematical concepts to reality and to our abstractive and inferential processes themselves other than the binds of such concepts when we do find them appropriate for application to empirical situations. Another thing I think good to remember is that there are apparently things concretely real that we access only by abstraction. Such would be an electron or a geometric point. That is not to say every validly established concept or theorem in mathematics having physical instance will have causal powers, such as an electron has. But things such as geometrical points might be also instanced physically (which Euclid, Descartes, and Newton inclined to take them to be), themselves be part of physical process and part of our empirical experience, yet not themselves possess causal powers. / I imagine my conceptions expressed in this note have some deviation from the picture Rand had so far as she got and some variance from the pictures reached by others who are intellectually indebted to her.

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FELLOW - That seems like a reasonable way to understand such concepts as geometric points. What do you think about something even more abstract, like merely possible objects? They might be said to exist, in the broadest sense (some philosophers have used the term 'subsist' to account for such things), but not in a narrower sense of the term 'exist' which only covers actual things. I'm trying to pin down just what sorts of things are ruled out as floating abstractions and which are not.

STEPHEN - I do not myself allow as cognitive possibilities alleged possibilities that have nothing to suggest how they could be realized from the potentials of existing things. To be a cognitive possibility in my book, an idea has to do more than be merely not self-contradictory. There are other kinds of possibilities such as for our entertainment in fiction. But possibilities aiming to be cognitive, such philosophical reflections, yet which are not specifically grounded in potentials of actuals, are floating abstractions. 

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FELLOW - To be clear about your view, you are saying that for something to be a genuine possibility, rather than a floating abstraction, it must be realizable through the potential contained in actual existents. So, rather than a groundless ontological ensemble of possible beings awaiting actualization, the possibilia are always contained in, as potential, actual beings and, in that way, await actualization. Prima facie, I have some sympathy for your view. What do you make of claims that the initial conditions of the world/universe/existence (though not the fundamental axioms) could have been otherwise than they were? The idea, I gather, is that many different sets of initial conditions were logically possible, though only ours was actualized. If those counterfactual claims can be assessed as true, it would seem that there would be no actual objects in which their possibility could have been grounded as potential.

STEPHEN - Before addressing that, let me add a further point I forgot mention in the previous note. My conception about actuals, potentials, and possibilities does not pertain to purely formal realities such as pure mathematics. I mean that the actual-potential concepts do not pertain to them. Possibilities of course are entertained in mathematics based on previously established results shown to be true or false (or undecidable) with an aim to establishing new results. / But to your present question, possibilities of characteristics of those alternative to those that obtained at the initial singularity would seem grounded and cognitive provided they are specific and tied to established other physics. The physicists are talking specifics and have guide rails from other established physics in their papers on such alternatives. They have reasons (hard-won reasons) for saying that at the initial singularity its mass-energy, charge, and total angular momentum were the same as they are now. It would seem to me a sensible question to then ask What if the value of total mass-energy of the universe were not constant but instead oscillated in a simple harmonic way? The experts would know far better whether it was yet specified enough to be truly a grounded possibility. (Oh, I should have mentioned that the initial singularity is not no object.) / That sort of reasoning about alternatives was important in Newton's PRINCIPIA. He was able to show that if a central force had strength falling off as the inverse square of separation distance, a freely orbiting body would have and elliptical orbit; whereas, if the strength fell off as the inverse cube of separation distance, a freely orbiting body would have another perfectly specific shape of orbit, not an ellipse; and so forth. His physical assumptions and the mathematics for these conditionals are very specific and explicit. And there was light. 

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FELLOW - I gathered as much; considered as formalisms, or even as eternal abstracta, the actual-potential distinction simply doesn't seem to apply. You wrote that “the experts would know far better whether it was yet specified enough to be truly a grounded possibility.” If we are discussing the point at which actuality had its genesis, then I worry that whatever grounded possibility there might be, it will not itself be grounded in anything actual, but will merely be a logical possibility that is grounded insofar as it is not self-contradictory. Did Newton discuss what grounds the possibility of such forces being different than they actually are? I am not familiar with Newton, but I conjecture it would be grounded in the will of God to bring forth a world with different physical laws.

STEPHEN - Newton first established his bare mechanics, like what we call now his three laws of motion. He then argued the nature of central force in general within that framework for the orbits of bodies and showed that different dependence of the strength of force from the central area (such as falling off from the inverse cube versus falling off from the inverse square) leads to specific different shapes of orbits of bodies about such candidate centers. Then he can use Kepler et al. observations to say, well since the actual orbits of the planets about the sun have the shape of ellipses, the attracting force must be strong inversely to the inverse square separation. That candidate is the winner in the real world. That is then part of his formula for the force we call gravitation. It must have power of accelerating distant bodies with a strength falling off with inverse square. That then, is one specific form of force that he can fit into his second law of mechanics. So on the left of our equation, we put his expression for force in general (say, mass times acceleration, be a little too simplistic) and on the right we put the formula of the specific kind of force we are concerned with, such as the gravity force. Those are differential equations, and the solutions satisfying the equations give us the time course of the bodies in their paths in space. / In Newton's larger theological and metaphysical picture, he had space as co-eternal with God. As I recall, he had time beginning with God's creation of the material world in space, and in that part his was the usual view.

PS - That space was 3D and Euclidean of course. Also, I meant to include that I'd wager he'd think God could have chosen inverse cube, say, rather than inverse square for the character of gravitation. For that matter, I don't know as he would have a reason for thinking God had to make a material world such that it had such a thing as gravitational force. Although without something like that, it becomes hard to imagine what humans, with their material character would be like. [Pretty floaty now I think of it.]

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FELLOW - Do you think that, without God to ground these other ways the world could have been, that such conjecture would be reduced to floating abstractions? / That said, if we could return more specifically to the topic of floating abstractions, I still suspect that I do not have a firm grasp on what they are. Peikoff, in OPAR, defines a floating abstraction specifically as "['Floating abstraction'] is Ayn Rand's term for concepts detached from existents, concepts that a person takes over from other men without knowing what specific units the concepts denote. A floating abstraction is not an integration of factual data; it is a memorized linguistic custom representing in the person's mind a hash made of random concretes, habits, and feelings that blend imperceptibly into other hashes which are the content of other, similarly floating abstractions. The 'concepts' of such a mind are not cognitive devices. They are parrotlike imitations of language backed in essence by patches of fog" (96). With this in mind, I take it that floating abstractions are not cognitively meaningless, since they will derive meaning from “random concretes, habits, and feelings” (perhaps use as well?) even though they have no objective referent. So, a floating abstraction does not have an objective referent, I gather—which I might put in other terms by saying that the concept does not refer to anything with ontic status. Peikoff seems to want to say that these are concepts in name only—inauthentic concepts—which cannot be put to any use in attaining knowledge. A system of floating abstractions might then be said to constitute a mere game of language. I am reminded of Bishop Berkeley’s remarks about theoretical mathematics, as opposed to applied, “The Theories therefore in Arithmetic, if they are abstracted from the Names and Figures, as likewise from all Use and Practice, as well as from the particular things numbered, can be supposed to have nothing at all for their Object. Hence we may see, how entirely the Science of Numbers is subordinate to Practice, and how jejune and trifling it becomes, when considered as a matter of mere Speculation” (Principles, §120)—regardless of whether you think he is correct, he seems to me to speak of floating abstractions, just in his own terms.

Edited by Boydstun

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STEPHEN - Yes, the Berkeley idea seems the same, but in other terms. And a lot of Objectivist types when thinking about the nature of mathematics come down rather like Berkeley. I disagree with them both on the mathematical situation. We do have physical applications of complex numbers. But we did not have any such applications (i.e., physical structures known to coincide with the structure of complex numbers) at the time complex numbers were first thought up. They were never ungrounded in rationally grasped realities, even before physical application was found for them. And there are other things mathematically sensible that to this day we’ve found no physical instantiation of, and perhaps there is no such instantiation.

Rand wrote against the idea of a system of free-market private protective agencies replacing government in the primary functions of the latter: “Nor can one call it a floating abstraction, since it is devoid of any contact with or reference to reality and cannot be concretized at all, not even roughly or approximately.” Here she seemed to think of floating abstractions as having some weak connection to reality. Although, presumably, that could still leave them of limited use and even detrimental for knowledge.

On the NOT side, it occurs to me that I’ve NOT noticed any Objectivist writings taking Platonic Ideas as floating abstractions. The fact that such Ideas have regular relations to concretes may perhaps be enough to save them from being the sleaze of floating abstractions, even though we do not obtain them by abstraction from concretes perceived by the senses.

In the 1960’s while articulating Objectivism, together with Rand and others, Barbara Branden gave a lecture series called “Principles of Efficient Thinking.” Therein she spoke in a kind of psychological-type way of persons who characteristically think in terms of floating abstractions. She said they don’t see the trees for the forest. There’s “nothing in his head but floating abstractions—that is, abstractions which he’s unable to concretize, which he believes, without any idea of what they would actually mean in reality. / An example of this kind of thinking is a meeting at which a political candidate declares that he stands for a balanced budget, decreased taxes, and increased government spending; and his audience bursts into applause. No one who understood concretely what these abstractions meant could possibly applaud. / A man who holds floating abstractions understands words not in terms of what they denote, but in terms of what they connote. Words connote things to him. They call up pleasant or unpleasant emotions, associations, memories. They suggest; they do not denote. His abstractions float in space, untied to meanings, to facts, to reality.” (Transcribed on p. 178 of the book THE VISION OF AYN RAND.)

In the 1980’s Leonard Peikoff gave a lecture series called “Understanding Objectivism.” I notice there that he thought of Leibniz, and presumably Rationalists more generally as dealing in floating abstractions (which is rather the idea you get of Rand’s view of Rationalism in her “For the New Intellectual” even though she doesn’t use the name ‘floating abstraction’ there so far as I’ve found). Peikoff mentions a type of psychosis “which has some elements of being concrete-bound, and has some elements of floating abstractions (certain schizophrenics will build castles in the air), but still they are crazy, and Leibniz wasn’t.” (Transcribed on p. 265 of the book UNDERSTANDING OBJECTIVISM.)

The quotation on floating abstractions you found in Peikoff’s OPAR is helpful. Thanks. There he seems to be back to thinking about persons not very philosophical in their thinking. (Cf. Rand’s ITOE 75-76; also p. 214 of Harry Binswanger’s HOW WE KNOW.) Gregory Salmieri maintains that floating abstractions are one possible result of not taking the dependency relations of concepts into one’s thinking. He seemed to have in mind the dependency chain of concepts ultimately to “first-level concepts” (presumably elementary concepts of kinds of concretes ordinary in perception). “A floating abstraction is a concept that has become detached in one’s mind from its basis in perception and has therefore lost its meaning (Peikoff 1991, 96).” (p. 71 in CONCEPTS AND THEIR ROLE IN KNOWLEDGE – REFLECTIONS ON OBJECTIVIST EPISTEMOLOGY.)

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There are, in essence, two ways for a concept to be created within a person's mind. The first is by that person reasoning (in the very broadest sense) from his own perceptions to the concept. The second is acquiring the concept without reasoning, as by adopting it from others or by the random associations of his brain. The former is not a floating abstraction, even if the resulting concept is invalid. The latter is a floating abstraction, even if it is otherwise valid.

Why does it matter whether a concept is a floating abstraction, if it doesn't relate to the concept's validity? An error in validating a legitimate concept can be discovered by examining your reasoning. You can't do that with a floating abstraction, since you didn't get it by reasoning.

More formally: A statement that you have under consideration is true if it corresponds to reality. But how do you show the correspondence? You examine how you reasoned from perception to the statement. If the reasoning is valid, you have that correspondence. If it isn't, you don't. But if you didn't do any reasoning whatsoever, if the statement is merely a collection of words in your mind, not derived from perception by reasoning, you have no chain between perception and statement which can be examined to prove (or disprove) correspondence. It would be an error for you to assert that the statement is true or that it is false, not simply because you don't know one way or the other, but because -- until you do the necessary reasoning -- you cannot know one way or the other. Such unvalidatable statements are called "arbitrary".

If you follow a similar line of reasoning, but as applied to concepts, you will end up describing concepts whose validity you cannot know. These are "floating abstractions".

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14 hours ago, Boydstun said:

An example of this kind of thinking is a meeting at which a political candidate declares that he stands for a balanced budget, decreased taxes, and increased government spending; and his audience bursts into applause. No one who understood concretely what these abstractions meant could possibly applaud.


Sometimes I have thought that a floating abstraction is "an abstraction that can be proven not to be instantiable in reality ... but which is treated as if it can be in the conversation". Almost like a metaphor that people treat as real.

In Barabara Branden's example, there is an intent to deceive, isn't there? (The fact is that a balanced budget is not something that can't become real) The person is lying. Or, has he lied to himself and as far as he is concerned he believes that he is telling the truth? What exactly makes it a floating abstraction (intent)?
It could be something that he has repeated to himself so many times, that is has become memorized as obvious. 

Recently I heard the term Marxist Libertarian, here is an attribute that indicates "against property rights" of a political position that "has property rights as its foundation". There are articles in support of this phrase but it evaluates into a contradiction. In this case, ultimately, it may be due to a semantic problem, different definitions (perhaps stolen definitions), but nevertheless, for one who knows the definition of liberty, the phrase Marxist Libertarian is meaningless. So I have wondered if a floating abstraction in many cases is a semantic/definition problem.

There is also the situation of a "norm" that is unexamined as in the concept "egalitarianism" AS the ultimate good. There is also the definition "you are your brother's keeper" of altruism that is considered to be the highest virtue. These are sometimes treated as axiomatic concepts (viewed/defined as virtues).

Now is the understanding that "egalitarianism or altruism" (in context as virtuous) simply wrong, or do each of the concepts seen as virtues also qualify as a floating abstraction?

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Invictus, where you say “random associations” wouldn’t it be enough to just say “associations”? If I understand you correctly, your contrast is with rational derivations and cognitive connections to reality, especially concrete perceptual reality, and that sort of derivation and connection is in contrast to associations even if we can see the association is not random. I mean our most basic meaning of the concept ‘breakfast’ could sensibly be “meal following pretty closely a pretty full sleep.” One could have associations with ‘breakfast’ such as what kinds of foods are typical at that meal or the association of ‘breakfast’ with its typically being in the morning. We can see why those associations get attached, they’re not random, and it’s enough to contrast associative connections with reasoned ones.

I take it that when you talk of adopting a concept from others, you mean adopting it without understanding it very far. I can get a square concept of ‘mineral’ from geology class.

Your analysis strikes me as landing pretty well on Rand’s concept of a ‘floating abstraction’. I mention Rand because this error and its name were formulated by her. She gets a monopoly on it, so to speak. Similarly, with Whitehead and the fallacy of ‘misplaced concreteness’. With the general, long-standard fallacies and their names, such as the fallacy of ‘hasty generalization’, there too, it’s good to stay fixed on the exact concept defined and not simply presume what it is that the name is suggesting without official definition. I mention this for all of us.

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ET, I agree about the deceit in that example used by B. Branden. It came up very prominently again this year, with the big spending bill following on the tax cuts. It would be often claimed that, well, the tax cuts (and regulation removals) would be so tremendous, the economy would boom so much, and the income tax receipts would be so great that there won’t be a deficit. It sounded to me very much like a sop thrown to those really concerned with a balanced budget, a smokescreen for what had really been decided: the interest in a balanced budget lost to other interests, and more debt is the reality.

My inclination on your closing question would be: both. By the time I was a senior in high school, I’d become a Christian Socialist. That was for the simple reason that I’d concluded that private property should be abolished because it allowed people to be selfish, and selfishness was wrong. Altruism was right, and it was the focus of what moral virtue consisted of. But if such a young man were willing to really begin to cash out all those ideas and ideals in terms of practical reality and practical connection to other ideals also held (such as individual liberty), they begin to wither as ideals.

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There is an example of feeble thinking Rand gives that seems to me to be an excellent case of what she called ‘floating abstraction’ though she doesn’t call that out in her presentation of this case. That example is a use of the abstraction ‘truth’. I want to quote three paragraphs before that truth-paragraph too. I think her concern expressed here fits the weight of attention Objectivist writers, including Rand, have tended to give to everyday trip-ups by floating abstraction, in comparison to diagnoses of floating abstraction in the ‘castles-in-the-air’ of Rationalist philosophers.

“There is an old fable which I read in Russian . . . . A pig comes upon an oak tree, devours the acorns strewn on the ground and, when his belly is full, starts digging the soil to undercut the oak tree’s roots. A bird perched on a high branch upbraids him, saying: ‘If you could lift your snoot, you would discover that the acorns grow on this tree’.

“In order to avoid that pig’s role in the forest of the intellect, one must know and protect the metaphysical-epistemological tree that produces the acorns of one’s convictions, goals and desires. And, conversely, one must not gobble up any brightly colored fruit one finds, without bothering to discover that it comes from a deadly yew tree. If laymen did no more than learn to identify the nature of such fruit and stop munching it or passing it around, they would stop being the victims and the unwary transmission belts of philosophical poison. But a minimal grasp of philosophy is required in order to do it.

“If an intelligent and honest layman were to translate his implicit, common-sense rationality (which he takes for granted) into explicit philosophical premises, he would hold that the world he perceives is real (existence exists), that things are what they are (the Law of Identity), that reason is the only means of gaining knowledge and logic is the method of using reason. Assuming this base, let me give you an example of what a philosophical detective would do with some . . . catch phrases.

“‘It may be true for you, but it’s not true for me’. What is the meaning of the concept ‘truth’: Truth is the recognition of reality. . . . The same thing cannot be true and untrue at the same time and in the same respect. That catch phrase, therefore, means: a. that the Law of Identity is invalid; b. that there is no objectively perceivable reality, only some indeterminate flux which is nothing in particular, i.e., that there is no reality (in which case there is no such thing as truth); or c. that the two debaters perceive two different universes (in which case no debate is possible).” (“Philosophical Detection” – 1974)

Harry Binswanger points out in How We Know that definitions are the main help in remembering what is the hierarchy of one's concepts which though validly structured in the past, may have faded (214). Rand invokes definitions in the preceding detection.

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3 hours ago, Boydstun said:

Invictus, where you say “random associations” wouldn’t it be enough to just say “associations”? If I understand you correctly, your contrast is with rational derivations and cognitive connections to reality, especially concrete perceptual reality, and that sort of derivation and connection is in contrast to associations even if we can see the association is not random.

Well, sorta.

Consider an infant, operating without benefit of words.  His brain forms associations, which he tests by what we as adults would call experimentation, but which is play to the child.  The mere association would be a floating abstraction, but the repeated testing is a primitive form of reasoning that suffices to remove the resulting concept from the category of "floating abstraction".

Anyway, I was listing examples of what sorts of methods of acquiring a concept would make it a floating abstraction.  Purely undirected (which is what I meant by "random") associations would be floating abstractions.  Other kinds of associations might or might not render the resulting concept a floating abstraction.

4 hours ago, Boydstun said:

I take it that when you talk of adopting a concept from others, you mean adopting it without understanding it very far. I can get a square concept of ‘mineral’ from geology class. 

Adopting a concept without considering the concept's roots in reality renders the concept a floating abstraction.  Because rocks are rather concrete, it would be hard to acquire the concept "mineral" as a floating abstraction, but I suppose it's possible.  The issue of floating abstractions generally arises with concepts further from the concrete, where it is easy to collect the words and imagine that one has actually said something.

4 hours ago, Boydstun said:

With the general, long-standard fallacies and their names, such as the fallacy of ‘hasty generalization’, there too, it’s good to stay fixed on the exact concept defined and not simply presume what it is that the name is suggesting without official definition. I mention this for all of us.

Agreed.  There are all sorts of reasoning (or unreasoning errors), and we can only talk about them sensibly if they're in determinate categories.  "Floating abstraction" is one such category, and we shouldn't try to subsume kinds other errors into that category.

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2 hours ago, Invictus2017 said:

Adopting a concept without considering the concept's roots in reality renders the concept a floating abstraction. 

I have stayed away from using the concept "floating abstraction" in discussions because I think that a person having a good faith philosophical discussion with me, would not know that they are using a floating abstraction.

If I say "you are using a floating abstraction", it simply means, "how does this connect with the rest of your/our knowledge"?

Or "you are wrong, that concept does not have anything to do with reality". (or that I don't see the connection)

I could have simply said, "your statement is false".

Ideally, the intent is to request "Please delve more deeply into the nature of that concept".

The utility that I see is the knowledge that these disconnected concepts exist in the minds of people.

The problem is that using Rand's razor, I want to cut it out. I find it redundant with other fallacies.
This may imply that I don't understand the concept well enough to apply it.
So what am I missing?

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21 hours ago, Easy Truth said:

Or "you are wrong, that concept does not have anything to do with reality". (or that I don't see the connection)

I could have simply said, "your statement is false".

 

Actually, those are two different things.  "True" and "false" are applicable only where there is some connection to reality.  A floating abstraction, not being connected to reality, can be neither true nor false.  But your general point is correct: When talking to most people, merely pointing out that they're employing a floating abstraction is useless.

 

21 hours ago, Easy Truth said:

The problem is that using Rand's razor, I want to cut it out. I find it redundant with other fallacies. This may imply that I don't understand the concept well enough to apply it. So what am I missing? 

There's a difference between erroneous reasoning and no reasoning at all.  A fallacy is an improper method of reasoning.  A floating abstraction involves no reasoning at all.

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