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How do you personally ground your abstractions?

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I took the course when it was originally given some years ago, but I have recently purchased Objectivism Through Induction (OTI) and I am doing the course again. I found OTI fascinating then and I am finding it even more fascinating this time around. OTI's basic purpose is to get you to see principles as "summaries of concretes."

I would like to learn how you fight floating abstractions in your own thinking. What techniques have you found useful? How do you identify those abstractions which are floating in your mind? And once you have identified them, how do you ground those abstractions?

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Rand's Question is very useful: "What are the facts of reality that give rise to the need for this concept?" Always, when analyzing an argument, drive the key concepts back to concretes.

One psychological observation I've found useful for identifying floating abstractions is the rise of disproportionate anger or anxiety when attempting to argue a particular point. That's usually a sign that there's something in the argument I don't fully understand, and taking a step back and asking Rand's Question is often fruitful in such cases.

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I would like to learn how you fight floating abstractions in your own thinking. What techniques have you found useful? How do you identify those abstractions which are floating in your mind? And once you have identified them, how do you ground those abstractions?

Wow, great question. First of all, anyone worried about rationalism should also invest in Peikoff's "Understanding Objectivism" course.

That aside, I'm very good at dealing with floating abstractions, but very bad at identifying them. Usually I don't realize I've slipped into rationalism until I try to write on a topic. Usually I find writing easy and enjoyable: if I don't, either I'm trying to write about something I don't want to write about, or I'm guilty of rationalism to some degree.

What to do? Well, there's a simple answer and a helpful answer - they are not the same answer. The simple answer is: chew the idea. The helpful answer is much more complex. I'll try to go into it in more depth later.

For now, one piece of advice that I'm big on is: re-trace the definition process. Anytime you accept a definition second hand (which is not by itself a bad thing), you must re-trace the definition process, as if you were the first one to form the concept. If you don't do that, your concepts *will* be floating.

Some other quick points:

  • If your mind isn't flooded with examples when discussing a concept or idea, it's probably a floating abstraction
  • If you're dealing with a subject about which you have very little factual knowledge, be watchful of rationalism
  • Passive voice is a favorite weapon of rationalists
  • Be wary of arguments that begin with a definition(s) [see my recent posts on anarchism]

(Note to self: If there is ever a market for Objectivist stand-up comedy, you might want to do a "You might be a rationalist..." routine.)

(Note to Stephen: I corrected a spelling error in the above post.) :(

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Much of what has been described above is called Reduction to reality. You reduce your abstractions to the concretes in reality that gave rise to the abstraction. This entails more than merely defining the abstraction, since a definition involves only the essence of a word or term. While you are still dealing in essences, it is a much broader form of definition.

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[*]Be wary of arguments that begin with a definition(s) [see my recent posts on anarchism]

Most of Rand's arguments begin with definitions. Do you consider Rand a rationalist? I think it is rather good to always define your terms. Because many arguments often arise that will never be solved because people are arguing over different definitions of a word. For instance, if someone were to think that egoist was the same as egotist (as Rand once got those confused) then an argument could arise from that confusion.

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Some other quick points:
  • If your mind isn't flooded with examples when discussing a concept or idea, it's probably a floating abstraction




  • If you're dealing with a subject about which you have very little factual knowledge, be watchful of rationalism




  • Passive voice is a  favorite weapon of rationalists




  • Be wary of arguments that begin with a definition(s) [see my recent posts on anarchism]

This is an excellent list. Note to nimble: stating a fact is different from arbitrarily defining a term. For example Rand begins ITOE ch 2 with:

A concept  is a mental integration of two or more units which are isolated according to a specific characteristic(s) and united by a specific definition.

This is different from saying "In this work, concept will be defined to be a mental integration of two or more units which are isolated according to a specific characteristic(s) and united by a specific definition." With the way that Rand did it, you can argue "No, that's just not true" if the statement is wrong; but with the "In this work, we shall arbitrarily define X as Y" approach, you can't argue that they are wrong -- they did say, here is how we've decided to redefine the word.

Also watch for verbs with dummy subjects -- "it seems / appears that...".

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I would like to learn how you fight floating abstractions in your own thinking. What techniques have you found useful? How do you identify those abstractions which are floating in your mind? And once you have identified them, how do you ground those abstractions?

My problem is just the opposite of a Rationalist. I absolutely cannot hold onto a floating abstraction and trying to scares me so much I have to quit thinking about it. If I go one step beyond what I know first hand or see clearly and not just approximately, panic sets in. Long before I studied epistemology, I had a name for that feeling -- my "I'm about to walk off a cliff" feeling.

When I learn a new and complex subject, I have to start on the perceptual level and/or with knowledge I already have firmly established. I can't seem to manage "Assuming X is true then it follows that ..." kind of thinking. I first must establish that X IS true and solidly ground my thinking, or I can't go on.

When I learned math, I always wanted to know WHY we solved a problem a certain way and WHY it was the best way to do it. I couldn't just "shut up and compute." When anyone tries to teach me or persuade me, I am constantly asking, "Is this true," until I am absolutely satisfied that it is. Until then, I am very unhappy and uncomfortable. One of my favorite high school teachers picked up on this and, seeing the troubled expression on my face, would stop her lecture saying "I had better go over this again. Betsy doesn't understand it."

Needless to say, most people aren't like me and it's something I would like to understand. How can you "walk off a cliff?" How can you accept ideas you don't fully understand and move on with them? Doesn't it bother you? Just a little? When do you notice that your abstractions are floating and what makes you aware of it? How did things go that far without you noticing it? What other considerations or goals make it possible?

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Most of Rand's arguments begin with definitions. Do you consider Rand a rationalist? I think it is rather good to always define your terms. Because many arguments often arise  that will never be solved because people are arguing over different definitions of a word. For instance, if someone were to think that egoist was the same as egotist (as Rand once got those confused) then an argument could arise from that confusion.

In addition to what Dave said, please note that my language was exact. I said be wary of such arguments. In my view, Rand is the last person in history who could be accused of rationalism.

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Betsy, even I am the type that has to understand the base concretely before moving on. And because of this I could be quite a nuisance in school. More often than not I used to see the logic of doing something a particular way, so I didn't trouble my teachers too much. I actually had pretty good maths teachers and they were very helpful!!

Around 6-8 months back, I realised that if there's anything I don't fully understand and am slightly moving to a rationalization, I start to define that concept in a very vague usage of the english language and my english isn't all that bad. Hence I was able to stop and say "Something's screwy here!!". This helped me to re-trace the thought process. Atleast for me, this proved to be a very potent discovery, cause thence I have been able to identify the arbitary pretty easily. I just recite in my mind the definition of the concept. If it's very vauge, I know I have made a mistake somewhere.

Dinesh.

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Most of Rand's arguments begin with definitions. Do you consider Rand a rationalist?

With all due respect, this is rationalism. DWP's statement is clear and precise. He meant an argument based on a definition, in which the definition is part of the syllogism itself. I think the following is a good example of what he meant:

A "drug" is something which affects the body's metabolism. Sugar affects the body's metabolism. Marijuana affects the body's metabolism. Therefore, drinking a Big Gulp or smoking a pipe full of weed while driving a car are no different.

I actually encountered this online once(!)

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Oh Betsy, your post was like an echo from my own passt. It also explains why you are so good at the practical side of things. I, too, was that way; it was what made a good nurse. :) I'm too out of the world these days to be up on things the way I used to be, however.

I had very few teachers who were willing to explain the whys and wherefores. As a Navy brat, I went to 14 grade-schools, which didn't give me a very sound grounding in the basics. I did have two things going for me: I was (and am) an avid reader, and I had a father who insisted that I use my head for something other than a hatrack. :) I learned to answer my own whys when a teacher dismissed my questions. That taught me more than any teacher ever did.

Like you, though, I cannot rest until I KNOW. I've never understood how a person could be any other way.

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Like you, though, I cannot rest until I KNOW.  I've never understood how a person could be any other way.

Let me start by saying that I am unfortunately not like Betsy and you in this regard. I have very many bad psycho-epistemological habits (which I don't mind saying since I am aware of them and know how to keep them at bay).

That said, one of the reasons people slip into rationalism in my view is because they have a desire to know. But since there is so much to know, rather than stick with something until they really get it down to the root, they delve into something, they say "Good enough," and move on to the next thing.

Notice that modern education feeds this "method of learning." In college, students are given survey course after survey course in subjects outside their major. When they ask, "What's the point?" they're told it's to make them well-rounded. Of course, it does nothing of the kind, and the student is either left confused, or left to suffer from the illussion he isn't.

The problem, then, is not that people prone to rationalism don't want to *know* - the problem, in my view, is that they don't know when they don't know! They don't experience that panic Betsy talks about and so they have to learn to detect any hints of rationalism consciously. If they do that, eventually they will automatize the process and develop into good "Betsy-like" thinkers. :)

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Around 6-8 months back, I realised that if there's anything I don't fully understand and am slightly moving to a rationalization, I start to define that concept in a very vague usage of the english language and my english isn't all that bad. Hence I was able to stop and say "Something's screwy here!!".

When you start getting beyond what you clearly understand, do you begin to feel fearful, confused, and lost the way I do? Do you have a similar dramatic "epistemological emotion" (Harry Binswanger's term for it) or are you just aware that your ideas are vague and "screwy" without it disturbing you all that much? Does it bother you just when you become aware that you HAVE done it or WHILE you are doing it?

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Oh Betsy, your post was like an echo from my own past.  It also explains why you are so good at the practical side of things.  I, too, was that way; it was what made a good nurse. :pimp:   

[...]

Like you, though, I cannot rest until I KNOW.  I've never understood how a person could be any other way.

Dr. Peikoff has noted that men tend to be much more prone to rationalism than women --- and this is additional confirmation. For the past two decades I have been trying to figure out is why. So far I have two hypotheses, but there may be other things involved, too.

One is that people who become rationalists may not feel or be as sensitive to the "epistemological emotions" I feel when I lose my mental grounding in reality. Women have been shown to be more sensitive to pain and more aware of their feelings than men.

Another may be that women have a smaller "crow" than men do and can't hold too many units in mind without either attaching them to reality of integrating them into concepts. I have been gathering anecdotal evidence which supports this for a long time. My standard "crow measuring" question is, "If you are going to a store to buy a number of totally unrelated items, how many can you remember without having to write them down?"

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When you start getting beyond what you clearly understand, do you begin to feel fearful, confused, and lost the way I do? Do you have a similar dramatic "epistemological emotion" (Harry Binswanger's term for it) or are you just aware that your ideas are vague and "screwy" without it disturbing you all that much? Does it bother you just when you become aware that you HAVE done it or WHILE you are doing it?

When I first realised what I was doing, frankly, I was irritated with myself, thinking that I should have known better or atleast found out about this earlier. And then after that, I couldn't help but wonder what other things I had defined in a similar way. That got me a bit worried. But nonetheless, the discovery was a good one for me, I have been very careful thence.

If I do come across things that have been stored in my mind the same way, now my reaction is not quite as intense and I just go about correcting it.

When I get beyond that which I understand, I try to view it as an oppurtunity to learn new things. I don't really fear that which I don't know, the feeling is closer to curiousity. Ayn Rand once wrote, "The greatest feeling of existence is not to trust but to know" (I think the form in which she presented it was different). That encapsulates exactly what I feel, and thats what I look forward to when I encounter the unknown. I think of what can be found at the other end of that dark tunnel. Thats enough to drive me on!

I assume that you asked those questions as to ascertain which of your two theories I came under, hence I replied as much as I could.

About the "crow" question: Though my mom does most of the grocery shopping, I am usually called on to run quite a few errands. After hearing my mom out about what she wants me to buy, I just make a mental note about the no. of Items to be bought. Once I go out, I just count down on that number. Incase I forget, I think of the sequence in which my mom rattled out instructions, I don't think of "What all I had to buy?" but I think in terms of "What came after the eggs when mom was talking?". And those two things (a count and the sequence) have helped me through quite a few long lists of items :P

Dinesh.

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Betsy Speicher writes:

Dr. Peikoff has noted that men tend to be much more prone to rationalism than women --- and this is additional confirmation.  For the past two decades I have been trying to figure out is why.  So far I have two hypotheses, but there may be other things involved, too.

One is that people who become rationalists may not feel or be as sensitive to the "epistemological emotions" I feel when I lose my mental grounding in reality.  Women have been shown to be more sensitive to pain and more aware of their feelings than men.

This is an interesting possibility.

Another may be that women have a smaller "crow" than men do and can't hold too many units in mind without either attaching them to reality of integrating them into concepts.  I have been gathering anecdotal evidence which supports this for a long time.  My standard "crow measuring" question is, "If you are going to a store to buy a number of totally unrelated items, how many can you remember without having to write them down?"

I don't think so. I know my crow is as small as they come. Give me a list of three things, ask me to repeat them, and I'm sure to tell you, "Uh...there were three of them." That hasn't saved me from periodic bouts of rationalism.

Let me tell you why I think there is a larger proportion of men who suffer from rationalism.

One of the major causes of rationalism is what I call hierarchy jumping. It's dealing in higher levels of abstraction than one is prepaired for. Now, when men come to Objectivism, they usually come to it with an intense interest in intellectual debate. They see that Objectivism gives reasons for all its principles, all the way down to its axiomatic starting points, and they think, "This is great! Now I'll be able to defeat any intellectual opponent!" Thereafter, they want to know the answer to every possible objection to Objectivist ideas. They have to know the answer, because their biggest fear is getting into a debate and encountering an argument to which they can't respond.

You'll notice that a lot of questions at Objectivist conferences go something like this: "How do you answer the claim...?" They then proceed to ask a question that would only be raised by a philosophic enemy, a question that would not arise outside the context of polemics. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but the point is that many Objectivist men are overly concerned with being able to answer opposing arguments.

The result, very often, is that ideas become floating chess peices used to counter polemical arguments - even the Objectivist idea that ideas shouldn't be floating chess pieces become floating chess pieces!

I'm not saying that Objectivist women don't like to debate ideas (although a number of them don't). I'm saying that when women debate, they don't generally have the same intense need to win, and therefore they don't have the need to be able to answer every possible objection NOW!

By the way, I'm also not criticizing men who are interested in debating ideas, and interested in winning those debates. That's perfectly healthy. I'm simply pointing out that I think those healthy desires put one at risk for rationalism.

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[*]Passive voice is a  favorite weapon of rationalists

Could you give some examples?

The most common thing I've noticed with rationalists is the inability to keep context. Every definition or principle must for them apply to *everything without exception* and one can therefore deduce all of one's conclusions with total absolutism, even in the face of absurd implications. This is typically combined with approaching Objectivism in an authoritarian or dogmatic manner.

So by such a process one will start with, "Ayn Rand said...." and then proceed to deduce conclusions from it.

An example: "Ayn Rand said: all property should be privately owned...and since "all" means "all", that means the gov't should be privately owned...hence, anarchism."

Or: since Ayn Rand said no one may initiate force against anyone else, if your boat sinks on a lake and you are swimming to shore to save your life, you can't climb out anywhere before first asking permission of the owners. And if they deny the permission, tough, you'll just have to drown.

The general answer to this approach is to grasp that principles arise from the facts of reality (which is how Ayn Rand did it) - not simply because Ayn Rand declared it - and that one cannot be expected to apply a principle in a situation where its application would defeat the very purpose of the principle.

Fred Weiss

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when i first read your post Fred, I was scared. I thought you were saying that principles shouldnt be applied to all, but once I read your examples they clarified what you meant. I was just going to add, that logic is an all or nothing kinda thing. Lets look at math. If you declare "a=b, b=c, therefore a=c" this declaration to be logically true (like all other principles) must apply to ALL!! But your examples showed that thats not what you meant, which is good.

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Fred Weiss writes:

Could you give some examples?
See my discussion of anarchism a few days ago, specifically, the posts to which I responded. If it still isn't clear, I'll dig them up for you.

The most common thing I've noticed with rationalists is the inability to keep context. Every definition or principle must for them apply to *everything without exception* and one can therefore deduce all of one's conclusions with total absolutism, even in the face of absurd implications. This is typically combined with approaching Objectivism in an authoritarian or dogmatic manner.

Yes, but I think the inability to keep context is a consequence, not a cause, of rationalism. As a rationalist, they don't like context - to them it sounds like hedging, which of course it isn't.

We also must keep in mind that rationalism comes in many forms and exists in many degrees. Even those with a relatively healthy psycho-epistemology can suffer from rationalism in certain contexts or on a given issue. What you describe is the card carrying rationalist. Usually those are either young people who hopefully grow out of it, or they get frustrated and turn into David Kelley or Malenor! ;)

Usually it isn't that bad. Usually rationalism is the result simply of not grasping the proper method for understanding ideas. Given how radical the Objectivist method is, and given how much it clashes with everything we are taught since birth, it's an admirable achievment even to develop a halfway decent psycho-epistemology in our culture. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't strive to improve. And the great thing is we can improve (except in extreme cases). All it takes is mental effort and a little (a lot of?) help from Ayn Rand!

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When I get beyond that which I understand, I try to view it as an oppurtunity to learn new things. I don't really fear that which I don't know, the feeling is closer to curiousity.

The same for me and my curiosity is VERY intense. What I mean is: do you find following someone else's argument disturbing or confusing when you don't clearly understand what the referents are and you haven't worked all the steps yourself yet, or can you just "go along" and assume things will be proved eventually?

About the "crow" question: Though my mom does most of the grocery shopping, I am usually called on to run quite a few errands. After hearing my mom out about what she wants me to buy, I just make a mental note about the no. of Items to be bought.
That's one unit.

Once I go out, I just count down on that number. In case I forget, I think of the sequence in which my mom rattled out instructions, I don't think of "What all I had to buy?" but I think in terms of "What came after the eggs when mom was talking?". And those two things (a count and the sequence) have helped me through quite a few long lists of items. 

The sequence is also one mental unit because, putting things in a sequence like that is a way of organizing units and wasn't what I mean. What if there is NO connection at all between the items? Do you ever have to write things down because you can't hold them in your head any more? When?

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Betsy-What you have been saying about rationalism really speaks to me!

I used to think I didn't like to debate ideas (especially with Objectivists), but realized the reason was that that most of the people I was debating with were rationalists. Since then, I've learned to walk away if someone is being so rationalistic that they're no longer a value. DPW, do you think frustration with rationalism might be a reason for some Objectivist women who don't want to discuss ideas? Betsy, as someone who really seems to have a handle on this, what do you do in a case where you find you are talking with someone you value highly but is being very rationalistic? I have found no way to get people (even loved ones) out of rationalism. It seems that is something Objectivists can become very invested in, almost as a support to their self esteem. Rationalistic Objectivists seem to be willing to defend their point (very emotionally, sometimes!) to the death, because if they're wrong, they're worried that they are wrong.bad/evil as a person. Strangely, though, this is often the only thing rationalist Objectivists are emotional on. Trendwise, rationalistic Objectivists seem to be very unemotional. Any ideas on the connection there, anyone?

I know I put a lot of questions out, but this is a VERY important subject for me!

Kelly ;)

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Kelly writes:

It seems that is something Objectivists can become very invested in, almost as a support to their self esteem. Rationalistic Objectivists seem to be willing to defend their point (very emotionally, sometimes!) to the death, because if they're wrong, they're worried that they are wrong.bad/evil as a person. Strangely, though, this is often the only thing rationalist Objectivists are emotional on. Trendwise, rationalistic Objectivists seem to be very unemotional. Any ideas on the connection there, anyone?
Keeping in mind that I am not a psychologist:

This is all correct - more than you realize, it seems. In fact, for some rationalists, Objectivism becomes a defense value of sorts. Rather than a set of ideas describing reality, the philosophy acts like a protective shield that gives them a sense of pseudo-self-esteem (see N. Branden's articles in The Objectivist). Threaten that, and they become rather agitated.

DPW, do you think frustration with rationalism might be a reason for some Objectivist women who don't want to discuss ideas?

Sure, and I very often feel the same way. In fact, if you hang around these boards for a while, you will see time and again, long time Objectivists losing their patience when one of these "rationalist Objectivists" starts acting silly. But I know this problem is especially difficult for women, in particular when the rationalist is the man they love. Oh my can it get ugly!

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