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What makes a concept invalid?

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Hal
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(The key IOE passage here seems to be pg 70-71)

Ayn Rand writes that "the requirements of cognition forbid the arbitrary grouping of existents". What would constitute arbitrary here?

Lets take a fairly extreme example to explain what I'm getting at. Imagine a fictional totalitarian country called Libonia, currently perishing under the cruel tyranny of King Asbad. Asbad, never widely praised for his mental stability, has an intense dislike of red things, banjos, and hats that are over 3 inches tall. In fact, he dislikes them so intensely that his secret police have been instructed to execute anyone found to be displaying one of these objects in public. After numerous people have been killed, the residents of Libonia form the concept "things King Asbad dislikes", which has the aforementioned referents "red objects, banjos and big hats". They invent a name for this concept, lets say "asbadphobians", and start to use it in daily conversation. Now, would this concept be valid?

The question seems to rely on whether a concept formation solely involves qualities that are objectively 'present' in entities, or whether it can be also be based on their functional properties - the roles they play in our day to day life. Although asbadphobians have nothing in common which could be found by an outside observer simply looking at them, or by a scientist studying their molecular properties, they undoubtably have a strong significance in the life of Libonians. So significant, in fact, that if they forget which objects are asbadphobian they are likely to end up dead. In this sense, the concept is in no way arbitrary.

In IOE, Ayn Rand gives the example of the steps involved while forming the concept 'table', and I disagree with part of this. Her claim is that the concept of 'table' is first formed based on a perceptual similarity of shape - tables are flat round objects with supports. I would claim that the concept of 'table' is first formed by looking at functional properties - a table is just 'any object people put their food on while eating regardless of shape'. We can imagine a street where every household has tables which are completely different shapes from the other households (maybe they are all big fans of modern art and like triangular tables, and so on), and yet I doubt a child would have any difficult whatsoever in forming the table concept. He will see people eating from these tables and will hence recognise the role they play in life, regardless of whether they have anything intrinsically in common. The same thing applies to chairs - chairs come in all shapes and sizes (stools, kitchen chairs, beanbags, armchairs, etc etc) all of which have pretty much nothing in common, yet they are united purely by their functional properties - a chair is something which people sit on. Even if I'm wrong here, Ayn Rand's claim is by no means obvious and really lies in the domain of emprical psychology rather than philosophy.

I would say that as long as a grouping of objects plays some role in the life of a person, an integration of that grouping into a concept will be valid regardless of whether these objects actually have anything in common. I'm not sure to what extent Ayn Rand would have agreed or disagreed with this, and cant really find anything in her work where it is discussed.

Edited by Hal
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Just my preliminary thoughts on this:

Trying to die this example down to reality, it seems highly unlikely one word would be made as the descriptor, but an adjective in front of the noun.

Take the examples of "scheduled substances" or "illegal drugs."

I'm sure it's quite possible to combine the two into one word referrent, but that won't change that the word will indicate both a modifier and the concept.

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Ayn Rand writes that "the requirements of cognition forbid the arbitrary grouping of existents". What would constitute arbitrary here?

How did you come up with your grouping of red things, banjos and certain hats in your example?

The question seems to rely on whether a concept formation solely involves qualities that are objectively 'present' in entities, or whether it can be also be based on their functional properties - the roles they play in our day to day life.
One can group existents based on similar relationships to one or more other existents. The concepts "property" and "weight" rely on groupings of existents based on their relationships to individuals and earth, respectively. These relationships, however, are real and observable.

In your example citizens group existents based on their relationship to the king. This grouping is not arbitrary but still I wonder why anyone would form such a concept. What is the advantage of having a separate concept for things that the king does not like?

I would say that as long as a grouping of objects plays some role in the life of a person, an integration of that grouping into a concept will be valid regardless of whether these objects actually have anything in common.

In front of me there is my credit card and my monitor. Both objects play "some role" in my life. Would it make sense to group these two concretes into a single concept, therefore? If so, why?

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Just my preliminary thoughts on this:

Trying to die this example down to reality, it seems highly unlikely one word would be made as the descriptor, but an adjective in front of the noun.

Take the examples of "scheduled substances" or "illegal drugs."

I'm sure it's quite possible to combine the two into one word referrent, but that won't change that the word will indicate both a modifier and the concept.

This seems more ike a cultural/linguistic peculiarity than an aspect of human psychology/epistemology. I've no idea if this is how you'd handle it in languages other than English.

In any case, monitor is a valid concept even though we could have called it a 'computer television'. 'Garage' is a valid concept even though it could have been "car house". And so on.

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How did you come up with your grouping of red things, banjos and certain hats in your example?
I thought up 3 random objects, but this isnt relevant. It wouldnt be an arbitrary grouping for the residents of Libonia.

One can group existents based on similar relationships to one or more other existents. The concepts "property" and "weight" rely on groupings of existents based on their relationships to individuals and earth, respectively. These relationships, however, are real and observable.
There is nothing real and observable that a beanbag and a sofa have in common other than the role they play in our lives. Yet they are both chairs.

In your example citizens group existents based on their relationship to the king. This grouping is not arbitrary but still I wonder why anyone would form such a concept. What is the advantage of having a separate concept for things that the king does not like?
Because unless you know what the king doesnt like, youre likely to get killed. Compare it to 'poisonous snakes'.

In front of me there is my credit card and my monitor. Both objects play "some role" in my life. Would it make sense to group these two concretes into a single concept, therefore? If so, why?

A credit card and a monitor both play different roles in your life. All the referents of asbadphobia play a similar role (dont have them in public or you'll die), as do the referents of table (you put your plates on them) and poisonous snakes (dont get bitten by one).

Edited by Hal
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What Makes A Concept Invalid?, Functionality vs intrinsic properties

.....

Ayn Rand writes that "the requirements of cognition forbid the arbitrary grouping of existents".  What would constitute arbitrary here?

.....

Asbad ...  has an intense dislike of red things, banjos, and hats that are over 3 inches tall. In fact, he dislikes them so intensely that his secret police have been instructed to execute anyone found to be displaying one of these objects in public.

"Asbadphobian" is only slightly arbitrary -- it is a union of three valid concepts: red; banjos; and tall hats. Something quite arbitrary would involve say separately flipping a coin for each object to decide whether it is included or not.

"Asbadphobian" is not a general concept like "gold" or "table". It is more like "King Asbad" (a proper name) which has a merely local meaning.

It might be considered to be PART of a general concept -- things which are considered provocative by the local authority.

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I thought up 3 random objects, but this isnt relevant. It wouldnt be an arbitrary grouping for the residents of Libonia.

So you do know the difference between an arbitrary and a non-arbitrary grouping. :D

There is nothing real and observable that a beanbag and a sofa have in common other than the role they play in our lives. Yet they are both chairs.
I can sit down on my bed but that doesn't mean that my bed is a chair... But let's ignore the issue of whether a beanbag is a chair or not for the moment. Do you think that relationships between entities in general and between the human body and a sofa in particular are real?

Because unless you know what the king doesnt like, youre likely to get killed. Compare it to 'poisonous snakes'.

I haven't made up my mind yet whether it is justifiable to form the concept "asbadphobians". But I do think that one can know the things the king doesn't like without forming a new concept.

A credit card and a monitor both play different roles in your life. All the referents of asbadphobia play a similar role (dont have them in public or you'll die), as do the referents of table (you put your plates on them) and poisonous snakes (dont get bitten by one).

What I wanted to get at was that the citizens in your example should not form a concept that exclusively referred to red things, banjos and certain hats.

Instead, as you wrote, they would form a concept whose referents would be all the things the king dislikes (including, for example, the citizens who display such things in public. And if the executions are held in the public, the king would also have to dislike himself because he displayed things he didn't like in public. :) ).

An arbitrary grouping would consist of grouping exclusively the three types of objects that you mentioned and claiming that this grouping is a concept.

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The question seems to rely on whether a concept formation solely involves qualities that are objectively 'present' in entities, or whether it can be also be based on their functional properties - the roles they play in our day to day life.
Absolutely. Consider abstractions such as "beauty" or "crime".You can't describe "crimes" in terms of the physical nature of the act, only in terms of the functional property of violating law. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and again the concept is not defined in terms of what the external object looks like, but on the functional of what the object does for you. See ch. 2, where function plays a role in defining "furniture".

As for tables, shape and function are both relevant; questions of what comes first in the acquisition of the concept are outside the domain of philosophy. However, I suspect that her intuition is correct. Your triangular examples are not problematic for a shape-based story, in fact many tables are triangular. What they aren't is concave or convex (you may argue that this is for functional reasons, but then you'd need to construct a functional, misshappen table to do the test).

Beanbag chairs are marginal, since until you get specific instructions, you may think they are pillows. So in terms of what's first, I suspect that the shape facts are primary and the functional definition is secondary. In fact bean bag chairs do not "violate" the rules of shape, they just stretch tem considerably (leg are not essential, it turns out). A bean-filled ball-bag is not considered a "kind of chair" even if a person sits on top of it.

Chairs and stools are in a hierarchical relation: stools are a kind of chair. They all have something in common regarding their shape. It's not a lot, and I agree that the function is primary. The ommon physical properties -- shape -- are because of the function, plus our anatomy.

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In IOE, Ayn Rand gives the example of the steps involved while forming the concept 'table', and I disagree with part of this. Her claim is that the concept of 'table' is first formed based on a perceptual similarity of shape - tables are flat round objects with supports. I would claim that the concept of 'table' is first formed by looking at functional properties - a table is just 'any object people put their food on while eating regardless of shape'.

I basically agree with Dave Odden (as usual), but I wanted to address this point. As adults, "function" plays a crucial role in determining how we hold our concepts of first-level concepts. But there is no way a child could grasp "function", which is a very complex feat of conceptualization, before being struck by the perceptual similarities (the common shape) between tables.

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In this example I would say that the grouping _is_ arbitrary, because ultimately the source of the grouping is arbitrary, i.e., the King's likes/dislikes are arbitrary. Aside from the fact that he dislikes those objects, they are not essentially similar to each other.

Even if observers assigned a word to the list of things the King dislikes, the word wouldn't stand for a concept because ultimately people would simply have to memorize the things in the list. That is not the case for a real concept.

The only thing that gives this example any plausibility is that the number of units is small. Try to imagine what would happen once that list grew beyond the limits of the crow epistemology: few would be able to remember it, and so many people would be executed.

Mark Peters

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As adults, "function" plays a crucial role in determining how we hold our concepts of first-level concepts. But there is no way a child could grasp "function", which is a very complex feat of conceptualization, before being struck by the perceptual similarities (the common shape) between tables.
This is quite correct (truth in degrees??), and this is a point that people sometimes don't fully appreciate about concepts right off the bat. Child cognition is quite different from adult cognition, so ontogeny does not recapitulate phylogeny. Don is right that children have a rudimentary understanding of what things are for, even when they know what they are and what they look like. I have all sort of fun with my 6 year old granddaughter, asking her "What do you do with that?" for familiar objects that she doesn't use, like power tools -- lots of cute answers, not so many correct answers.
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Thanks for the replies, I've been thinking about this some more the last few days but still havent quite managed to clarify things for myself

Absolutely. Consider abstractions such as "beauty" or "crime".You can't describe "crimes" in terms of the physical nature of the act, only in terms of the functional property of violating law. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and again the concept is not defined in terms of what the external object looks like, but on the functional of what the object does for you. See ch. 2, where function plays a role in defining "furniture".
I didnt think of this but you are correct, this would be an analogous case. The reason this question came up for me was because I've recently been reading some research in the psychological foundations of concepts, primarilly the work of George Lakoff (iirc you are a professional linguist; are you familiar with his general ideas?). One of his main claims is that there is that 'abstracting common features' is just one of many different ways that humans form concepts, and that there others which are more based on purely historical/cultural factors, along with uniquely human cognitive processes. From my understanding of IOE, I had the impression that Ayn Rand would have viewed these methods as producing dubious/invalid concepts, but the examples you gave here make it clear this is not the case. I might reread the relevant sections of IOE this coming weekend. Edited by Hal
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I've recently been reading some research in the psychological foundations of concepts, primarilly the work of George Lakoff (iirc you are a professional linguist; are you familiar with his general ideas?). One of his main claims is that there is that 'abstracting common features' is just one of many different ways that humans form concepts, and that there others which are more based on purely historical/cultural factors, along with uniquely human cognitive processes.
Yeah, I know some of his stuff. I have to admit that I haven't kept up since he stopped doing serious work in the profession, but there is some validity to his ideas. My main objection is that he errs way too far on the side of arbitrary cultural relativism. I should probably read the flesh book -- I looked at the metaphors book when it first came out and didn't see anything useful, but that was a quarter century ago, and I suppose I'm more willing to waste a bit of time on technically useless speculation.
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