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Thought's Living Existence

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Thought’s Living Existence

This essay is a companion to “Your Love of Existence.”* We saw there that for Aristotle the true or false “is in the same province with what is good or bad” (DA 431b10–11). I want to add to what I said there about how this general state of affairs is reconceived by Ayn Rand.

Rand proclaims that the root of her moral code is “the axiom that existence exists. / Existence exists—and the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms: that something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists” (Rand 1957, 1015).

What is the sense of exists in the phrase “that one exists possessing consciousness”? Immediately it is that one is an existent among other existents in general and that one is an existent conscious of other existents. On the following page of Atlas Shrugged, we are told that consciousness is identification. So exists in “that one exists possessing consciousness” means furthermore that one exists as an identifier of existents. This much goes to the side of us concerned with the true or false, or the cognitive.

There is a further sense of exists in the phrase “that one exists possessing consciousness.” That sense has been prepared by text preceding our quotation on 1015. In the preceding pages of Galt’s radio speech, Rand had outlined the place of the mind in human survival and in moral virtue. This outline had been dramatized in the final scene between Rearden and Tony just before the radio-speech scene (Rand 1957, 989–95). The sense of exists in the corollary axiom “one exists possessing consciousness” is living existence. One is implicitly conscious of oneself as a living identifying existent in one’s grasp of the statement existence exists (see also Rand 1969–71, 252). The normative side of us is joined to the cognitive at the deepest level of our conscious existence.

Grasping the statement existence exists is the grasp by a mind mature enough to be understanding Atlas Shrugged. Therein such a mind can learn that life, living existence, is the metaphysical foundation of normativity, of values.

Four years later, we find Rand adding: “In what manner does a human being discover the concept of ‘value’? By what means does he first become aware of the issue of ‘good or evil’ in its simplest form? By means of the physical sensations of pleasure or pain. Just as sensations are the first step of the development of a human consciousness in the realm of cognition, so they are its first step in the realm of evaluation” (1961a, 17). The fact of the pleasure and pain mechanisms of the human body is essential to valuation on Rand’s understanding of the human being. Pleasure and pain are mechanisms necessary for human survival, and the experience of them is epistemologically foundational for moral concepts. To this view of Rand’s, there is a precursor in Aristotle. “To feel pleasure or pain is to act with the sensitive means [in contrast to intellectual means] towards what is good or bad as such” (DA 431a10–11; also 431b2–9).

Rand continued to elaborate the tie between the cognitive and the evaluative.

While cognitive abstractions identify the facts of reality, normative abstractions evaluate the facts, thus prescribing a choice of values and a course of action. Cognitive abstractions deal with that which is; normative abstractions deal with that which ought to be (in the realms open to man’s choice). (Rand 1965a, 18)

The process of a child’s development consists of acquiring knowledge, which requires the development of his capacity to grasp and deal with an ever-widening range of abstractions. This involves the growth of two interrelated but different chains of abstractions, two hierarchical structures of concepts, which should be integrated, but seldom are: the cognitive and the normative. The first deals with knowledge of the facts of reality—the second, with the evaluation of these facts. The first forms the epistemological foundation of science—the second, of morality and art. (Rand 1965b, 145)

There are many special or ‘cross-filed’ chains of abstractions (of interconnected concepts) in man’s mind. Cognitive abstractions are the fundamental chain, on which all the others depend. Such chains are mental integrations, serving a special purpose and formed according to a special criterion.

Cognitive abstractions are formed by the criterion of: what is essential? (epistemologically essential to distinguish one class of existents from all others). Normative abstractions are formed by the criterion of: what is good?” (Rand 1966, 36)

In Aristotle’s conception, “soul is in some sense the principle of animal life” (DA 402a7). Soul is “that by which primarily we live, perceive, and think” (414a13). Its relation to the body: “The soul cannot be without a body, while it cannot be a body; it is not a body but something relative to a body. That is why it is in a body, and a body of definite kind” (414a19–21).

Like Descartes and Spinoza and moderns generally, Rand held to the contrary that understanding natural life and its place in existence requires no appeal to soul or final causation, which the ancients had writ into life beyond the life that is thought-consciousness (a, b). However, Rand and we contemporary thinkers view the relation of thought-consciousness to the body as like the relation Aristotle had articulated in broad terms for the relation of soul (with ancient scope) to its animal body.

Rand’s concept of living thought-existence differs from Aristotle’s importantly in that Aristotle held it to be free of identity other than its capability of becoming identical with the thinkable identities, the universal forms and essences, of any and all existents (DA 429a10–430a26). Of course “it is not the stone which is present in the soul but its form” (431b29).

Though Aristotle conceived of thought as requiring imagination, and imagination bodily sense (DA 427b14–15), he held sensation to be yoked to the body, and in this, sensory perception is profoundly different from thought (429a29–b5). Then too, sensory perception “is of things in their particularity, whereas thought is of things in their universality” (417b17–27). He reasoned that if thought were itself tied to the body, its perfect identity with every possible intelligible object would be spoiled. The mind must lie ready to receive any characters, like a clean writing tablet lies ready to receive writing (430a1–2).

Grasping the characters the intellect has received, indeed becoming them, requires not only capability for their reception, but capability for an active internal lighting of them. This latter feature, which has come to be called agent intellect or active intellect, can exist separately from the rest of our cognitive system. It is in fact necessarily immortal and eternal. We cannot remember it as since always because with it alone a human being could have thought nothing. We cannot think anything without the passive, receptive, and mortal component of human mind (DA 430a10–26; see also Gerson 2004).

Intellective cognition is an immaterial reception of forms. In becoming in an immaterial way the forms and essences of its objects, the intellect comes to exist actually. It then is a type of being and truth. When intellect is thinking a form that is not a composite of still other forms, it has become a truth in which no bit of falsehood is possible. This is Parmenides’ existence view of truth incorporated in a circumscribed way into Aristotle’s system,* where it portends Plotinus’ identity theory of truth* (see further, Pritzl 2010a, 22–39). Parmenides had maintained: “The same thing is for thinking and [is] that there is thought” (F8L34, quoted in Gallop 1984, 71).

Aristotle said “being and not-being in the strictest sense are truth and falsity” (Met. 1051b1–2). With regard to incomposites in particular, it is not possible to be in error. “They all exist actually, not potentially; for otherwise they would come to be and cease to be; but, as it is, being itself does not come to be (nor cease to be); for if it did it would have come out of something. About the things, then, which are essences and exist in actuality, it is not possible to be in error, but only to think them or not to think them” (1051b28–32; cf. DA 430b27–33; An.Post. 100a15–b8; see further Pritzl 2010a, 22–39; Salmieri 2008, 71–122, 158–83, 201–18).

In Rand’s view, existence of thinking consists in the identity of thinking; it consists in the specific forms in which thought is a living identifier of existents. Rand held that thought functions by identifying existents and identifying as same existents and their identities, rather than as same thought and those identities. She conceived of identification by thought as having its distinctive forms: thought is conceptual and is capable of attending all one’s modes of consciousness (Rand 1957, 1015; 1961b, 17). She understood thought and conscious self, like all consciousness, to be supported entirely by mortal organic activities. “You are an indivisible entity of matter and consciousness” (Rand 1957, 1029).

Rand rejected the idea that the intellectual essence of anything is received. Essential characteristics are found only by active thinking about differences, similarities, and causal dependencies (Rand 1966–67, 42, 45–48, 52; 1969–71, 230–31; Kelley 1984; 1988, 19–22, 39–40; Peikoff 1991, 97, 99–100; Gotthelf 2007).* All natures can be found out by mind with its definite nature (Rand 1966–67, 79–82).

As with distinctively human value, in Rand’s account, truth lies in a relation between subject and object. Rand’s most elementary sense of the concept objective is the sense of ordinary parlance. This is the sense she talked of when explaining why she had chosen Objectivism as the name of her philosophy. She credited Aristotle as the first to correctly define “the basic principle of a rational view of existence and of man’s consciousness: that there is only one reality, the one man perceives—that it exists as an objective absolute (which means: independently of the consciousness, the wishes, or the feelings of any perceiver)” (Rand 1961b, 22).

In 1965 Rand published two refinements of her concept of objectivity. Early in the year, she distinguished a metaphysical from an epistemological aspect of objectivity (Rand 1965c, 18). Later that year, Rand refined her concept of objectivity further. She introduced her distinction of the intrinsic, the subjective, and the objective. This was in application to her theory of the good and its relationship to other theories of the good (Rand 1965d, 21–26).

By the following year, it was clear that Rand envisioned a broadened role for the intrinsicist-subjectivist-objectivist way of locating her philosophic theories in relation to others. She applied the tripartition to the theory of concepts and universals. Rand’s conception of concepts and her conception of the good can be rightly characterized as (i) objective with Rand’s metaphysical-epistemological faces of the objective relation and, at the same time, as (ii) objective within Rand’s intrinsicist-subjectivist-objectivist tripartition. She remarked that “the dichotomy of ‘intrinsic or subjective’ has played havoc with this issue [of universals] as it has with every other issue involving the relationship of consciousness to existence” (Rand 1966–67, 53).

The thinker who innovated on Aristotle by defining truth as adequation of thing and intellect was probably Arabic. Thomas Aquinas adopted this as his preferred definition of truth. It stresses the mutual relation of thing and intellect in any occasion of truth (Aertsen 2010, 136–40; Milbank 2010, 279–84).

Rand writes “Truth is the recognition (i.e., identification) of the facts of reality. Man identifies and integrates the facts of reality by means of concepts” (Rand 1966–67, 48). Concepts are rightly understood as objective,

as neither revealed nor invented, but as produced by man’s consciousness in accordance with the facts of reality, as mental integrations of factual data computed by man—as the products of a cognitive method of classification whose processes must be performed by man, but whose content is dictated by reality. (Rand 1966­–67, 54)

Man identifies and integrates the facts of reality by means of concepts. . . . He organizes concepts into propositions—and the truth or falsehood of his propositions rests, not only on their relation to the facts he asserts, but also on the truth or falsehood of the definitions of the concepts he uses to assert them.” (Rand 1966–67, 48; see also Peikoff 1991, 137–39)

Identifications asserted in a proposition depend importantly on the identifications made by the concepts composing the proposition.*

“Truth is the recognition of reality” (Rand 1957, 1017). So it is, and so we are.


Aertsen, J. A. 2010. Truth in the Middle Ages: Its Essence and Power in Christian Thought. In Pritzl 2010b.

Aristotle c. 348–322 B.C. The Complete Works of Aristotle. J. Barnes, editor. 1984. Princeton.

Gallop, D. 1984. Parmenides of Elea – Fragments. Torronto.

Gerson, L. P. 2004. The Unity of Intellect in Aristotle’s De Anima. Phronesis 49: 348–73.

Gotthelf, A. 2007. Ayn Rand on Concepts – Another Approach to Abstraction, Essences, and Kinds.*

Kelley, D. 1984. A Theory of Abstraction. Cognition and Brain Theory 7:329–57.

——. 1988. The Art of Reasoning. Norton.

Milbank, J. 2010. The Thomistic Telescope. In Pritzl 2010b.

Peikoff, L. 1991. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. Dutton.

Pritzl, K. 2010a. Aristotle’s Door. In Pritzle 2010b.

——., editor, 2010b. Truth – Studies of a Robust Presence. Catholic University of America.

Rand, A. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. Random House.

——. 1961a. The Objectivist Ethics. In The Virtue of Selfishness. 1964. Signet.

——. 1961b. For the New Intellectual. Title essay. Signet.

——. 1965a. The Psycho-Epistemology of Art. In Rand 1975.

——. 1965b. Art and Moral Treason. In Rand 1975.

——. 1965c. Who Is the Final Authority in Ethics? In The Voice of Reason. L. Peikoff, editor. 1990. Meridian.

——. 1965d. What is Capitalism? In Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. 1967. Signet.

——. 1966. Art and Sense of Life. In Rand 1975.

——. 1966–67. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. H. Binswanger and L. Peikoff, editors. Meridian.

——. 1969–71. Transcript of Ayn Rand’s Epistemology Seminar. In Rand 1967–71.

——. 1975 [1971]. The Romantic Manifesto. 2nd ed. Signet.

Salmieri, G. 2008. Aristotle and the Problem of Concepts.*

Edited by Boydstun
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