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Where is "existence" in the hierarchy of knowledge?

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Nate T.
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"Existence" is an axiomatic concept that has as its referents everything that exists, right? So that includes all of the concepts you've made so far-- and as such, "existence" ought to be at the top, what with it subsuming everything else in your hierarchy of knowledge as its referents.

On the other hand, Rand states repeatedly that these axiomatic concepts form the base of all knowledge-- and "existence" can only e defined ostensively. This suggests it's at the base of your hierarchy of knowledge, since you can't analyze it in terms of simpler concepts.

Which is it? My head is hurting from thinking in circles about it. :dough:

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"Existence" is an axiomatic concept that has as its referents everything that exists, right? So that includes all of the concepts you've made so far-- and as such, "existence" ought to be at the top, what with it subsuming everything else in your hierarchy of knowledge as its referents.

It's wide, but it is not a high-level concept.

From OPAR:

The concept of "existence" is the widest of all concepts. It subsumes everything—every entity, action, attribute, relationship (including every state of consciousness)—everything which is, was, or will be.

On the other hand, Rand states repeatedly that these axiomatic concepts form the base of all knowledge-- and "existence" can only e defined ostensively. This suggests it's at the base of your hierarchy of knowledge.

Right.

In OPAR, Peikoff refers to "existence" as the:

first concept at the base of knowledge

Which is it? My head is hurting from thinking in circles about it. :dough:

"Existence" subsumes everything. It is not a high-level concept (or at the "top" as you say) in the hierarchical chain.

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How concepts are grasped and how they are defined are two very different things. Also, axiomatic concepts are unique in that they have certain characteristics that distinguish them from all other concepts.

Existence is the broadest concept epistemologically because it subsumes all entities that exist. At the same time, however, existence is an axiomatic concept because of certain essential characteristics, one being that it can only be defined ostensively.

Qua concept, existence is hierarchical, and, in fact it’s the highest (or broadest) concept on a very long conceptual chain. Concepts are *grasped* along a conceptual hierarchy through a process of abstraction, differentiation and integration. Higher level concepts are abstracted and formed by integrating essential characteristics which differentiate lower concepts along the conceptual hierarchy. The child learns that this particular furry and playful thing is a puppy. By gradually abstracting essential characteristics and differentiating these from those of other existents, the child learns that this puppy is a dog, this dog a mammal, this mammal a vertebrate, this vertebrate an animal, this animal a living organism, this living organism an existent.

But while the concept “existence” is *explicitly* grasped only after a long process of abstracting, differentiating and integrating many, many lower level concepts, it must be and is *implicitly* assumed during this entire process. The infant, when it first begins to form its earliest perceptions from sensory data grasps that *something* exists, but only much, much later does the same individual grasp the idea of being qua being, that the word “existence” has as its referent *everything* that exists. The implicit *foundation* for all knowledge is that something exists, in other words, that existence exists.

The process of forming formal definitions, however, is something altogether different. A definition is formed only after one has already formed the concept—the child can point to Lassie and say “dog” long before it can give you a formal definition for the term “dog.” Axiomatic concepts can only be defined ostensively because they always have to be presupposed in forming any definition—you cannot define any existent (dog, tree, house, man, etc.) without presupposing that something exists.

So when referring to concepts, axiomatic concepts, foundation, hierarchy and definitions it is important to specify the context while keeping in mind that, while certainly related, these are all different things.

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Thanks for your responses, everyone.

softwarenerd,

When you use the terms "base" and "top" as two directions along some dimension, what dimension is that? For instance, if one were to take "vertebrate" and "poodle", which one is above and which one below, and in what sense?

Distance from the perceptual level. Since the concept in question is "existence", which isn't a subdivision of another concept, I measure distance from the perceptual level in this case by the number of entities subsumed under the concept. By this measure, I would consider "vertebrate" to be farther from the perceptual level than "poodle", since you can get "poodle" pretty directly by observing a number of different types of dogs, which are more or less perceptual entities, as opposed to understanding the concept "vertebrate" which requires having seen a very large number of species of animals that both do and do not have backbones and enough study of biology to recognize the distinction as important.

intellectualammo,

It's wide, but it is not a high-level concept ... In OPAR, Peikoff refers to "existence" as the "first concept at the base of knowledge."

I agree that it's a wide concept, but it seems like the explicit grasp of "existence" requires a huge number of observations and a context in which you're thinking about philosophy, which already requires extensive knowledge. If I'm taking "base of knowledge" to mean the base of the hierarchy of knowledge, then it can't be true that you have to explicitly grasp the concept of "existence" before grasping anything else.

RichardParker,

But while the concept “existence” is *explicitly* grasped only after a long process of abstracting, differentiating and integrating many, many lower level concepts, it must be and is *implicitly* assumed during this entire process. The infant, when it first begins to form its earliest perceptions from sensory data grasps that *something* exists, but only much, much later does the same individual grasp the idea of being qua being, that the word “existence” has as its referent *everything* that exists. The implicit *foundation* for all knowledge is that something exists, in other words, that existence exists.

So the sense in which "existence" as an axiomatic concept is the base of knowledge is not that it is a first-order concept (since it can't be if it requires so much knowledge to even justify forming), but that it is implicit in all other concepts and needs to be implicitly recognized for the advancement of knowledge to proceed? I do remember a passage in IOE in which Rand states that the importance of the axiomatic concepts are that they provide much-needed correction for a fallible volitional conceptual consciousness.

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So the sense in which "existence" as an axiomatic concept is the base of knowledge is not that it is a first-order concept (since it can't be if it requires so much knowledge to even justify forming), but that it is implicit in all other concepts and needs to be implicitly recognized for the advancement of knowledge to proceed?

Yes. In order to reach the conceptual level at which you can *explicitly* grasp the axiomatic concept 'existence', and that existence refers to all things that exist, you have to have already grasped many, many lower level concepts. But the very process of conceptualization *implicitly* presupposes that something exists. The important thing to keep in mind is that there is a distinction between the *explicit* grasp of a concept and presupposing it *implicitly* during conceptualization. You were already abstracting, differentiating and integrating long before you could explicitly identify the process of conceptualization. Similarly, you were already presupposing existence long before you could explicitly grasp that existence exists.

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intellectualammo,

I agree that it's a wide concept, but it seems like the explicit grasp of "existence" requires a huge number of observations and a context in which you're thinking about philosophy, which already requires extensive knowledge. If I'm taking "base of knowledge" to mean the base of the hierarchy of knowledge, then it can't be true that you have to explicitly grasp the concept of "existence" before grasping anything else.

Correct, "existence" can be grasped implicitly first, and then it can be explicated later on.

Keep in mind that the further away that you get from the perceptual level of awareness, the higher the concept or abstraction. The axiomatic concept "existence" is formed directly from the perceptual level of awareness implicitly at first, yes, but even when it becomes explicit later on...all that is happening is that it is becoming more and more broad, wider, not higher on the conceptual hierarchical chain, as I understand it.

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Distance from the perceptual level. Since the concept in question is "existence", which isn't a subdivision of another concept, I measure distance from the perceptual level in this case by the number of entities subsumed under the concept.

Number of entities subsumed under the concept and distance from the perceptual level are not even close to being related. Distance from the perceptual level is how many levels of *abstraction* lie between the concept and being able to point at some object. There may be billions of insects and only a few thousand concretes subsumed under an abstraction like "system", but insect is smack on the perceptual level (you can point at a bug), whereas "system" is off there in the stratosphere somewhere.

Now, regarding the abstract-ness of "existance":

It's important in these types of discussions to remember that a word (especially in English, mother of all contextual languages) may denote more than one concept in different usages.

If you are using the term "existance" in the same sense that you'd use the term "universe", it's not actually a concept, because a concept is an integration of two or more units. You can't integrate two or more everythings, hence the word has the same status as a proper noun in that there's only one "everything".

Now, if you're using it as a quality of things that exist, I *think* you could rightfully call it a concept in the same way you would call any quality (like "red" or "volitional") a concept. In that case, it's a first-level abstraction because you can (sort of) point to it.

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Number of entities subsumed under the concept and distance from the perceptual level are not even close to being related. Distance from the perceptual level is how many levels of *abstraction* lie between the concept and being able to point at some object. There may be billions of insects and only a few thousand concretes subsumed under an abstraction like "system", but insect is smack on the perceptual level (you can point at a bug), whereas "system" is off there in the stratosphere somewhere.

Now, regarding the abstract-ness of "existance":

It's important in these types of discussions to remember that a word (especially in English, mother of all contextual languages) may denote more than one concept in different usages.

If you are using the term "existance" in the same sense that you'd use the term "universe", it's not actually a concept, because a concept is an integration of two or more units. You can't integrate two or more everythings, hence the word has the same status as a proper noun in that there's only one "everything".

Now, if you're using it as a quality of things that exist, I *think* you could rightfully call it a concept in the same way you would call any quality (like "red" or "volitional") a concept. In that case, it's a first-level abstraction because you can (sort of) point to it.

JMeganSnow,

Good point-- I shouldn't have phrased it using the term "subsumed." I was trying to get across the following idea: in order to create an abstract concept, you ultimately need to have seen a whole lot of concretes, namely all of the concretes needed to form all of the concepts below the abstract concept in question in the hierarchy. These concretes aren't subsumed under the concept, as you noted, but they do rest upon it in the sense that without those concretes, the abstract concept would not have been possible. The more abstract the concept, the more concretes it rests on in this sense. Is this an okay way to think about how abstract something is?

Regarding "existence" though, it's been mentioned in the thread that existence is actually a fairly abstract concept, since you have to be reasoning way up at the level of philosophy to explicitly identify it, even though you've been implicitly recognizing it the whole time. So even though referents of "existence" are literally everywhere, you wouldn't regard them as such since you wouldn't have a reason to consider them in that light until you're already pretty advanced.

Edited by Nate T.
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..in order to create an abstract concept, you ultimately need to have seen a whole lot of concretes, namely all of the concretes needed to form all of the concepts below the abstract concept in question in the hierarchy.
A "whole lot".... typically yes (in the sense of "enough"). However, one does not have to have seen all concretes, nor formulated all the concepts that would be narrower than the one you are currently formulating. Suppose dogs only existed on some remote undiscovered island. You could still form a concept "vertebrate" even if you've never seen a dog in your life, i.e. without having formed the concept "dog".

Typically, the way one learns concepts is to start with the grouping that is the simplest and most useful to grasp at that point in one's life. This is not necessarily the concept at the lowest-grained level-of-detail. From that initial point, one might re-group certain things into wider concepts or break them down further into narrower concepts.

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If you are using the term "existance" in the same sense that you'd use the term "universe", it's not actually a concept, because a concept is an integration of two or more units.

*cough* actually on further thought, this is not quite accurate: existance in this sense IS an integration of two or more units where you retain the similarities while ignoring the measurements: it subsumes *All* the individual things that exist while ignoring all their other qualities. Hence it's still a concept. *cough cough*

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