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Paper: Ayn Rand on Concepts


abanger
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Ayn Rand on Concepts: Another Approach to Abstraction, Essences, and Kinds

Abstract

The following paper was prepared for another occasion. In my session I intend to summarize key aspects of it that relate to some of the issues of our conference. Although issues concerning (natural) kinds and their essences have long been thought to be primarily metaphysical, the work of some of our conference’s participants suggests (if only implicitly) that an understanding of the nature of kinds requires a theory of the nature of concepts, one which could provide norms governing their formation and use. I support this suggestion, elaborating on the sort of theory required, and argue that such a theory is already available. It was developed over forty years ago by Ayn Rand, in work that is still little known among professional philosophers.

The paper presents an overview of Rand’s theory of concepts and essences. In the session I’ll highlight the theory’s most radical aspects: (i) its account of abstraction as “measurement-omission,” an account which is not vulnerable to the familiar objections to abstractionism; (ii) Rand’s view that essences are “epistemological,” which allows her to accommodate changes in definition as knowledge grows; and (iii) her thesis that concepts and essences (and kinds) are “neither intrinsic nor subjective but objective.” At the heart of this theory is an analysis of similarity in terms of commensurability, and an account of how this relation grounds our integration of similar particulars into a concept. Rand shares the common view that concept-formation (beyond the simplest level at least) also involves a grasp of common causes underlying many other characteristics. She insists, however, that there is no place in metaphysics per se for a concept of essence: a feature is designated as essential insofar as it plays a certain “unit-economizing” role by condensing of our knowledge about the individuals grasped via a concept. This does not, as I’ll explain, make an essence subjective or merely pragmatic. Concepts and essences depend, as I say in the paper, “in part on reality (for instance, mind-independent commensurability and causal relationships) and in part on the requirements of a conceptual consciousness (for instance, the need to integrate via measurement-omission and the need of unit-economy).” Rand designates this status with the term “objective”, in opposition to “intrinsic” (in reality independent of consciousness) and “subjective” (in consciousness independent of reality). I will elaborate on this conception of objectivity, discussing its relation to the goals for the sake of which knowledge (scientific and otherwise) is sought, and its application to the issue of kinds.

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Thanks for posting. Now I eagerly await the opportunity to read the cited paper entitled “Justification as an Aspect of Conceptualization: How Rand’s Theory of Concepts Provides ‘A New Approach to

Epistemology’” by Dr. Gregory Salmieri. I wonder what that title means... (w00t)

Edited by Anintegrate
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Gotthelf says Rand's view of essence is epistemological. He alludes to a role in unit-economy, and he distinguishes it, as achieving objectivity, in contrast to instrinsicism and subjectivism.

I am familiar with these claims, but I do not think unit-economy address essence on a par with instrinsic or subjective theories of it. Fundamentality is the more apt criterion, I would think. Still, fundamentality, being a relative characteristic, may not suffice.

Besides the claim that objectivity is achieved when the individual follows a certain process, the process claimed to result in objectivity needs justification, or an explanation of its claim to yield valid concepts. Unit-economy will not do this.

Mindy

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I am familiar with these claims, but I do not think unit-economy address essence on a par with instrinsic or subjective theories of it. Fundamentality is the more apt criterion, I would think. Still, fundamentality, being a relative characteristic, may not suffice.

Do you agree that unit-economy is the purpose of concepts?

I need to read Gotthelf's paper before commenting more, but as I see it, fundamental characterstics apply to the process of defining a concept which is already formed. Man is the "rational animal", because his rational capacity is responible for the greatest number or most important characteristics that separate him from other animals and therefore "rationality" serves as the proper defining characteristic. However, as described in ItOE, a child does not need to understand rationality in order to understand the concept "man" nor to be able to identify its referents (men). Definitions may change with time, because the context of knowledge about a given set of units may change, thus changing the fundamentality of a given characteristic. The meaning of the concept (its referents) doesn't change.

That unit-economy is the purpose of concepts is why I agree with Don Watkins' (DPW) old thread in which he shows that brainless babies are still babies (i.e. young instances of the concept "man"), even though they lack a rational faculty.

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Gotthelf says Rand's view of essence is epistemological. He alludes to a role in unit-economy, and he distinguishes it, as achieving objectivity, in contrast to instrinsicism and subjectivism.

Rand's view of essence is epistemological. Gotthelf doesn't state that unit-economy alone achieves objectivity.

...the nature and formation of a concept depends in part on reality (for instance, mind-independent commensurability and causal relationships) and in part on the requirements of a conceptual consciousness (for instance, the need to integrate via measurement-omission and the need of unit-economy).

For Rand, then as Peikoff summarizes, "To be objective in one's conceptual activities is volitionally to adhere to reality by following certain rules of method, a method based on facts and appropriate to man's form of cognition."

As you can see, objectivity is achieved through adherence to reality, including adherence to the requirements of cognition. Unit-economy falls into the "requirements of cognition" category; it is not the sole requirement of objectivity.

I am familiar with these claims, but I do not think unit-economy address essence on a par with instrinsic or subjective theories of it. Fundamentality is the more apt criterion, I would think. Still, fundamentality, being a relative characteristic, may not suffice.

The principle of unit-economy tells us that we should define concepts using an essential characteristic. Reality (causal relationships) determines what that essential characteristic is.

And we have seen the principle of unit-economy at work in guiding the formation of definitions: the essential characteristic (or characteristics) of a concept condenses into a single mental unit our knowledge of all the many distinguishing characteristics.

Gotthelf is saying here that definition via essentials accomplishes unit-economy, not that unit-economy determines the essence. Determination of the essence is described earlier:

The essential characteristic is the fundamental distinguishing characteristic - that is, the distinguishing characteristic or characteristics that are responsible for (and thus explain) the greatest number of other distinguishing characteristics.

I don't understand your differentiation of "essence" and "fundamentality" in the context of Gotthelf's paper. A characteristic’s "fundamentality" is the nature of its causal relationship to other characteristics which makes it the proper choice as the "essence" in the process of definition.

(Note: “essential characteristic” and “essence” have been used interchangeably for syntactic ease.)

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Do you agree that unit-economy is the purpose of concepts?

That unit-economy is the purpose of concepts is why I agree with Don Watkins' (DPW)

The topic isn't concepts, but essence. What has more commonly been termed the problem of universals.

Mindy

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The answer to the "problem of universals" lies in Ayn Rand's discovery of the relationship between universals and mathematics. Specifically, the answer lies in the brilliant comparison she draws between concept-formation and algebra. <OPAR Pg. 90>

Edited by dream_weaver
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The answer to the "problem of universals" lies in Ayn Rand's discovery of the relationship between universals and mathematics. Specifically, the answer lies in the brilliant comparison she draws between concept-formation and algebra. <opar_90>

I know what your point is, but it won't go the distance, because you have to answer the question for mathematics also. Secondly: mathematics, counting, measurement, etc., are all secondary to qualitative concept-formation. There is no establishing even a one-to-one correspondence without being able to recognize what counts as "one of them."

Math is probably an exemplary case of concept-formation, but it can't be the original case.

Mindy

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The topic isn't concepts, but essence. What has more commonly been termed the problem of universals.

Mindy

I don't see how you separate the two. Essence arises through concept formation and the "problem" of universals deals with validation of concepts. How do you talk about essence without concepts?

I ask this, not as an insult or pseudo-argument, but to protect my time (and yours):

Have you read OPAR or ITOE (recently)?

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I don't see how you separate the two. Essence arises through concept formation and the "problem" of universals deals with validation of concepts. How do you talk about essence without concepts?

I ask this, not as an insult or pseudo-argument, but to protect my time (and yours):

Have you read OPAR or ITOE (recently)?

I am separating them just as Gotthelf did.

Mindy

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I am separating them just as Gotthelf did.

Why bother replying if you're not even going to try to answer the question posed?

Yes, "concept" and "essence" are distinct concepts. I discussed both, and you stated that the topic was essence not concepts - a non-sequitur response. I asked how you can discuss essence without concepts/concept-formation, and you reply with a single-sentence non-answer. I was in no way belligerent in my posts, and took time to analyze your post, re-read Gotthelf's paper, and provide supporting quotes. I did this in good faith that you posted with the interest of discussing the topic. Apparently, I wasted my time.

If you would like to respond sincerely and with content, I'd be glad to continue the discussion.

I've seen this sort of response numerous times, and I just don't get it. I've decided to call it the "fallacy of the flippant non-answer".

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Gotthelf appears to separate the theory of concept and essence in the Abstract.

Is he looking to separate concept and essence, or theory of concept and theory of essence?

He starts by making the distinction between the "object of thought" and the "grasp of the object of thought" for the term "concept" and spends about two-thirds of the article providing a brief overview of concept-formation as promised.

It is in the third section that he gets into definitions and essences.

In the fourth section it is the essences that provide the most efficacious definitional fodder, refining the 'grasp of the object of thought' to better serve the fundamental human need of unit-economy.

While properly formed concepts can be validated, it is properly forming the concepts that Gotthelf addressed.

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Gotthelf appears to separate the theory of concept and essence in the Abstract.

Is he looking to separate concept and essence, or theory of concept and theory of essence?

He starts by making the distinction between the "object of thought" and the "grasp of the object of thought" for the term "concept" and spends about two-thirds of the article providing a brief overview of concept-formation as promised.

It is in the third section that he gets into definitions and essences.

In the fourth section it is the essences that provide the most efficacious definitional fodder, refining the 'grasp of the object of thought' to better serve the fundamental human need of unit-economy.

While properly formed concepts can be validated, it is properly forming the concepts that Gotthelf addressed.

Yes, the issue of the relation between the object of thought and the grasp of the object of thought is the issue of essence or universals. The "grasp" is abstract as compared to the object. This difference brings up all the classical problems concerning universals.

Mindy

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Gotthelf appears to separate the theory of concept and essence in the Abstract.

Is he looking to separate concept and essence, or theory of concept and theory of essence?

I don't see how you inferred that from the abstract. The OP posted the complete abstract, so I will only post snippets of it here:

... an understanding of the nature of kinds requires a theory of the nature of concepts...1

...

The paper presents an overview of Rand’s theory of concepts and essences.2

...

She insists, however, that there is no place in metaphysics per se for a concept of essence: a feature is designated essential insofar as it plays a certain “unit-economizing” role by condensing of our knowledge about the individuals grasped via a concept.3

...

Concepts and essences depend...4

1He states that understanding essences (or kinds) requires a theory of concepts.

2He's presenting Rand's theory of concepts and essences. (2 ideas, 1 theory)

3Essence is epistemological. Specifically, it arises from the need of unit-economy while defining a concept in order to complete the concept-formation. (No concept-formation -> No essences).

4Concepts and essences both depend on reality and the requirements of consciousness.

Where is the separation? In fact, he's presenting Rand's unique integration of essences and concept-formation.

In the fourth section it is the essences that provide the most efficacious definitional fodder, refining the 'grasp of the object of thought' to better serve the fundamental human need of unit-economy.

Yesbut:

She insists, however, that there is no place in metaphysics per se for a concept of essence: a feature is designated essential insofar as it plays a certain “unit-economizing” role by condensing of our knowledge about the individuals grasped via a concept. This does not, as I’ll explain, make an essence subjective or merely pragmatic.

bold mine

I would just note that the principle of unit-economy dictates that essences are not merely the most efficacious definitional fodder; they are the only proper defining characteristics.

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