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Rand on Discernment of 'That' and 'What'

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Rand on Discernment of That and What

Nathaniel Branden: “Percepts constitute the actual starting-point of human knowledge, in the sense that percepts are man’s first fully aware cognitive contact with the world” (c.1968, 38).  The term percept is from Peirce and his contemporaries (see Moore 1961, cited in Rand 1966–67, 2; further, Wilson 2016, 190–95, 204–5).

Rand had written in the 1957 exposition of her philosophy: “The task of [man’s] senses is to give him the evidence of existence, but the task of identifying it belongs to his reason, his senses tell him only that something is, but what it is must be learned by his mind.” She defined man’s reason as “the faculty that perceives, identifies and integrates the material provided by his senses.” (Rand was still using that definition in her 1960.)

She took human knowledge to run part-and-sum “from the first ray of light you perceive at the start of your life to the widest erudition you might acquire at its end” (1016). “Sensations are . . . an automatic form of knowledge” (1961a, 18). A sensation is “a sensation of something, as distinguished from the nothing of the preceding and succeeding moments” (1966–67). Rand took knowledge broadly enough at times such that sensation, which informs perceivers only that something exists, not what exists, counts as some knowledge. Knowledge for humans would be, in full, “a mental grasp of a fact(s) of reality, reached either by perceptual observation or by a process of reason based on perceptual observation” (1966–67, 45; further, 1970, 84–87).

Rand had taken all consciousness fundamentally to be identification (1957, 1016). So all perception, even perception of a first ray of light in infancy, would be an identification. It is therefore not surprising that in her later articulation of Objectivism she would contract her definition of reason to simply: “the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses” (1961a, 20) in place of “perceives, identifies and integrates . . . .”

Rand had it that “sensations are integrated into perceptions automatically by the brain of a man or of an animal” (1961b, 14). Those perceptions in humans are volitionally integrated into conceptual comprehension by reason. Sensations are transitory identifications, not identifying what, only that. Unless a sensation is itself focused upon—say, in neuropsychology—it is not, in Rand’s meaning of the concept sensation, retained in memory, which I cash to mean specifically not retained in working memory or in episodic or semantic memory (i.e., retained only in iconic memory). 

Conceptualization, conjecture, and inference come under the name reason for Rand by falling under the volitional identification and integration of material from the senses. In Rand’s view, as with Reid and Peirce, the conscious uptake from the senses for the makings of reason is sensory information already automatically integrated into percepts. (See further, Kelley 1986, 31,  44–51, 141–74.) “A percept is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain. It is in the form of percepts that man grasps the evidence of his senses and apprehends reality. . . . Percepts, not sensations, are the given, the self-evident” (1966–67, 5). Animals capable of percepts, perceive entities, in Rand’s categoreal sense of that term. Percepts and their objects are susceptible to retention in memory.

Peirce had stressed that sense impressions are not first in our knowledge. We are not shut out from the external world,


informed only by sense impressions. Not at all! Few things are more completely hidden from observation than those hypothetical elements of thought which the psychologist finds reason to pronounce "immediate," in his sense. But the starting point of all our reasoning is not in those sense impressions, but in our percepts. When we first wake up to the fact that we are thinking beings and can exercise some control over our reasonings, we have to set out upon our intellectual travels from home where we already find ourselves. Now, this home is the parish of percepts. (1901, 62)

Once Rand had taken on percept and its position in cognition from sensation to reason, I think she really needed to do a little refinement on her 1957 statement that it is only by reason that we discern what an existent is. Animals capable of percepts have some of what a perceived thing is and what actions a thing affords right there. So do we. It remains, of course, that with reason we grasp more, much more, of what a perceived thing is.

Additionally, by now it is overwhelming in the neurobiological evidence that into neural activity streams feeding into a percept is a good deal of what a thing is.* None of that formation is volitional, and all of it remains as the given, for conceptualization and reasoning on it. That is, such rich percepts, giving some what in addition to that, can remain first cognitive, aware, contact with the world and sound foundation for knowledge.

When we have a percept, it includes places, motions, and some temporal relations in a scene. Are these part of the what a thing is? Or are they only part of the that a thing is?

In Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, she articulated some additional metaphysics, and among these additions was the thesis that no existent is without relation to other things. A thing purported to stand in no such relations would be nothing (ITOE 39). That is, there are no concrete existents that do not stand in some external relations. That tunes well with Aristotle: Things “are not such that nothing that pertains to one kind is related to another, but there is some relation” (Metaphysics, 1075a16–17).

External relations are there, ready for conscious recognition in percepts and concepts and predications. I suggest that in Rand’s metaphysics and her concept of percepts, her system needs a minor repair by acknowledgement that wheres and whens are within percepts, delivered as aspects of concrete existents, delivered both as that and what of existents

*E.g. "Feedforward, Horizontal, and Feedback Processing in the Visual Cortex" by Lamme, Supèr, and Spekreise in Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 1998, 8:529–35.

(I'll try to list the References in a later post.)

Edited by Boydstun
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Branden, Nathaniel. c.1968. Basic Principles of Objectivism, in The Vision of Ayn Rand (2009). Gilbert, AZ: Cobden Press.

Hauser, Nathan, ed. 1998. The Essential Peirce. Volume 2. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Moore, Edward C. 1961. American Pragmatism: Peirce, James, & Dewey. New York: Columbia University Press.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1901. Pearson’s Grammar of Science. In Hauser 1998.

Rand, Ayn. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House.

——. 1960. Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World. In Rand 1982.

——. 1961a. The Objectivist Ethics. In Rand 1964.

——. 1961b. For the New Intellectual. Title essay of For the New Intellectual. New York: Signet.

——. 1964. The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: New American Library.

——. 1966–67. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. 2nd ed. H. Binswanger and L. Peikoff, eds. 1990. New York: Meridian.

——. 1970. Kant versus Sullivan. In Rand 1982.

——. 1982. Philosophy: Who Needs It. New York: Signet.

Wilson, Aaron Bruce. 2016. Peirce’s Empiricism: Its Roots and Its Originality. New York: Lexington Books.

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Certainly there is a spectrum between pure "that" and a complete "what".

I am reminded of Peikoff speaking of disembodied sensations (or attributes?) in the context of a cigarette or something... the light, the heat, and that they are not received or processed separately ... we could add motion and touch and sound and smell (not the best of senses for a human but)... 

In my own thinking, the number and nature of these correlated "Thats" can sometimes mean an impressively developed "What" is formed pre-cognitively as a kind of complex familiar "Those/That" kind of "Whatness".

Edited by StrictlyLogical
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In his book Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (1991), Leonard Peikoff adds an element of what to the that given in mere perception, without judgment on the perception. That element is similarities and differences given in mere perception:

“The role of the senses is to give us the start of the cognitive process: the first evidence of existence, including the first evidence of similarities and differences among concretes. On this basis, we organize our perceptual material . . . . This whole development depends on the sense organs providing an awareness of similarities and differences rich enough to enable a perceiver to reach the conceptual level.” (Peikoff 1991, 42)

This representation of Rand’s epistemology, amending Rand 1957, is also adopted in Salmieri 2016.


Peikoff, Leonard. 1991. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Meridian.

Salmieri, Gregory. 2016. The Objectivist Epistemology. In A Companion to Ayn Rand, edited by Allan Gotthelf and Gregory Salmieri. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell.

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