Objectivist epistemology

Objectivist epistemology

Objectivism's epistemology, like the other branches of Objectivism, was present in some form ever since the publication of "Atlas Shrugged". However, it was most fully explained in Rand's 1967 work "Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology". Rand considered her epistemology central to her philosophy, once remarking, "I am not "primarily" an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not "primarily" an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows."

According to the Objectivist epistemology, through sensory perception and a process of reasoning, man can achieve absolute knowledge of his environment. Objectivism rejects skepticism. As a corollary, it also maintains that anything that is not learned by objective, rational means is not true knowledge, rejecting faith as a means of attaining knowledge.

From sensations to concepts

Sensory perception is considered axiomatically "valid" on the grounds that it is self-contradictory to deny the efficacy of the senses as sources of genuine knowledge. (Objectivism argues that such an assertion implicitly relies upon the validity of the senses, since the senses are the only possible source of the alleged knowledge of their invalidity.) Some animals other than human beings operate at the level of sensory perception and thus possess a measure of knowledge.

Sensation, or awareness of raw sensory data, counts as knowledge in a limited way. However, sensations as such are not retained by the mind and so cannot provide guidance beyond the present moment. Perception extends the awareness of the objects of sensation over time, a "percept" being a group of sensations that is automatically retained and integrated by the mind. Some animals can apprehend reality on a perceptual level, and humans definitely can.

Since Rand considered perception to be simply sensation extended over time, she limited the scope of perception to automatic, pre-cognitve awareness. Thus, she categorized so-called "perceptual illusions" as errors in cognitive interpretation due to complexity of perceptual data. She held that objective identification of the values of attributes of existents is obtained by measurement, broadly defined as procedures whose perceptual component, the comparison of the attribute's value to a standard, is so simple that an error in the resulting identification is not possible given a focused mind. Therefore, according to Rand, knowledge obtained by measurement (the fact that an entity has the measured attribute, and the value of this attribute relative to the standard) is "contextually certain."

Human beings are unique in possessing another, higher level of cognition: the conceptual level. According to Objectivism, the human mind apprehends reality through a process of reasoning based upon sensory observation, in which perceptual information is built up into concepts and propositions.

However, humans are not guaranteed to achieve this level of consciousness, instead possessing a "volitional consciousness", reaching the "conceptual level" only by an act of volition to which no one can be led or forced from the outside. All humans by definition have the potential to achieve the conceptual level, but some may fail to actualize this potential—and some may lapse from the conceptual level by practicing either "drift," by which is meant a failure to actively work to see, or by evasion, by which is meant evasion of reason, a deliberate, selective abandonment of focus with respect to a specific object or issue.

Any mind, human or nonhuman, can explicitly hold only so many perceptual units in conscious focus at a time. But the human mind is able to extend its knowledge over a wide range of space, time, and scope by organizing its perceptual information into classifications.

Concept formation

A concept is just such a classification: a mental "integration" of at least two existents that share a common attribute or set of attributes (perhaps in different measures or degrees) which distinguish them from all other existents, and each of which is for this purpose regarded as a unit of the concept. Once a concept is formed, it is given a specific definition and assigned a word; thereafter, it can be treated almost as a perceptual object, containing (or otherwise linking to) a wealth of identifying information not explicitly stated in the definition.

These concepts are formed by means of "measurement omission". Concepts are formed by isolating specific attributes of two or more similar concretes (such as tables, to use Rand's example), and omitting the particular measurements involved. The concept of table, therefore, is formed by isolating the attributes (Rand's "Conceptual Common Denominators") that constitute "table-ness"—i.e., support(s) and a flat surface upon which items may be placed—and omitting the specific measurements involved; height, weight, color, number of supports, diameter of surface, etc. Once a concept is formed, it is defined by identifying its "essential" characteristic(s); that is, the characteristic or characteristics on which, within the context in which the concept is being formed, the most other characteristics depend.

What is the role of reason in this process? Reason consists in forming concepts through the use of logic, which Objectivism defines as "the art of noncontradictory identification," with certainty. In Rand's procedural logic, a concept is formed by omitting the variable measurements of the values of corresponding attributes of a set of instances or units, but keeping the list of shared attributes—a template with measurements omitted—as the criterion of membership in the conceptual class. When the fact that a unit has all the attributes on this list has been verified by measurement, then that unit is known by logic, with contextual certainty, to be a unit of the given concept.

The reference to "context" here is crucial. Since every concept is formed in a specific context, every definition is therefore contextual. If concepts are properly formed, then even though additional knowledge may require changes to one's definitions, the later definitions will not contradict the earlier ones.

Objectivism denies that the proposition is the fundamental unit of knowledge, arguing instead that concepts themselves constitute the building blocks of more complex knowledge, including propositions. So, in their way, do percepts, which consist of the knowledge "that" something exists. Concepts, however, consist of knowledge of "what" exists.

Errors of concept formation

Not all supposed concepts represent genuine knowledge. In order to constitute knowledge, concepts must be formed validly, in accordance with certain non-arbitrary rules which must be adhered to if we wish to reach valid conclusions. These rules include the laws of identity, noncontradiction, and causality, as well as various principles intended to prevent pseudoconceptual groupings of entities that are not genuinely or relevantly similar.

Words that represent attempts to integrate errors, contradictions, or false propositions are invalid concepts. A major concern of the Objectivist epistemology is the identification and avoidance of "anti-concepts", deliberately equivocal terms without specific referents which can mean anything to anyone, such as "extremism," "McCarthyism," and "isolationism." Objectivism also opposes what it calls "floating abstractions", concepts that one takes over from others without knowing what specific units the concepts denote; they are detached from reality and invalidate every proposition or process of thought in which they are used as a cognitive assertion. The test of any invalid concept is that it cannot be reduced to the perceptual level.

It is also an error to identify a concept too fully with one of its referents, i.e., to fail to generalize properly. In the Objectivist view, one who is thus "concrete-bound" (i.e. whose thinking is fixed at the level of concrete entities) is unable to use concepts properly. To be concrete-bound is to fail to achieve a fully conceptual consciousness.

Objectivism refers to any attempt to apply a concept outside its proper scope as "context-dropping." One form of context-dropping is considered a major and dangerous fallacy: the "fallacy of the stolen concept." The stolen concept fallacy consists of invoking a concept while denying the more fundamental concepts on which it depends. Much like the classical logical fallacy of "assuming what you are supposed to prove", the stolen concept fallacy is a fallacy of "assuming what you overtly deny."

While many fallacies are mere errors worthy of no ethical attention, any deliberate commission of a rational error, or the deliberate refusal to abide by reason, is called "evasion"—evasion, that is, of reason. Evasion is considered grossly immoral by Objectivism, as it is a deliberate abdication of the capacities of the human person and a volitional desire to live at a subhuman level.

Logic and errors of logic

As noted above, Objectivism defines "logic" as "the art of noncontradictory identification" with certainty. Rand noted that knowledge is contextual: a concept is only known to be valid within the range of the measurements by which it was validated. It is an error to assume that a concept is valid outside this range, which is its (contextual) "scope." It is also an error to assume that a proposition is known to be valid outside the scope of its concepts, or that the conclusion of a syllogism is known to be valid outside the scope of its premises. Rand ascribes these errors, sometimes called "scope violations" by contemporary Objectivists, to epistemological "intrinsicism" [Rand, Ayn. "Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology," Mentor, New York 1967/1979, p.106.] [Peikoff, Leonard. "Objectivism, the Philosophy of Ayn Rand," Meridian, New York 1991/1993, p.142.] .

The analytic-synthetic dichotomy

Objectivism explicitly rejects the analytic-synthetic dichotomy. This dichotomy—which stems from the views of David Hume and Immanuel Kant—is the view that there is a fundamental distinction between statements that are true in virtue of meaning, alone, and statements whose truth depends upon something more (usually, upon the way the world is). Rand rejected the view that there is any such fundamental distinction, because she accepted that the meaning of a word is its referent, including that referent's every attribute. Consequently, any true proposition is in a way true in virtue of meaning, while its truth simultaneously depends upon the way the world is. In specific, Rand holds that the meaning of a non-singular term is the concept associated with that term, while this concept somehow includes or subsumes all the particulars of a given class, including all the attributes had by these particulars. Which particulars a concept subsumes, according to Rand, depends upon what the concept-coiner was discriminating from what when he or she formed the concept (this appears to be how Rand accommodates Gottlob Frege's insight that there are different "modes of presentation" of the same content). This view is a version of content externalism, similar in certain ways to the views of Hilary Putnam and Tyler Burge.

The analytic-synthetic dichotomy is intimately related to the distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge, as some philosophers believe that analytic truths are known a priori (i.e., they are justified independent of any experience), while synthetic truths are known a posteriori (i.e., they are justified in virtue of experience). Rand rejects the view that there is any a priori knowledge. All knowledge, she holds, including mathematical knowledge, is about the world (though possibly at some very high level of abstraction or quantization). Justification always terminates in the evidence of the senses.

The analytic-synthetic dichotomy is also related to the alleged distinction between necessary and contingent truths, i.e., the claims of a distinction between truths that could not have been otherwise and truths that could have been otherwise. Many contemporary philosophers believe that mathematical truths such as "2 + 2 = 4" are necessary (could not have been otherwise) while statements such as "There are eight planets in our solar system" are contingent (could have been otherwise). These notions of contingency and necessity have led many contemporary philosophers to elaborate metaphysical systems-building. In contrast, Objectivism holds that there is no distinction between necessary vs. contingent facts in the natural world (that is, all natural facts are necessary) and that the concept of "contingent" applies exclusively to the results of human choice (that is, there is a fundamental distinction between the metaphysical and the man-made). All facts hold in virtue of the natures or identities of the entities involved. Man-made facts hold in virtue of actions that were initiated by volitional beings ("I went to the grocery today" is a man-made fact, because I could have done otherwise). Metaphysical facts, by contrast, hold without reference to any action of a volitional consciousness. Objectivism regards any claim that a "specific" (single-instance) non-man-made fact "could have been otherwise" as incoherent, since the only coherent meaning of "possible" is "possible in reality," and "possible in reality" can only be demonstrated by actually measuring (or logically deducing from other known facts, as in the case of human action) at least one instance of the allegedly "possible" category of facts.

Objectivism holds that, in a sense, all facts are "necessary": all knowledge is knowledge of identity, i.e., a statement that an entity (or aspect, potentiality, condition etc. of an entity) is what in fact it is. Many contemporary philosophers claim that, while the proposition "1 + 1 = 2" is "necessary" because true in all possible realities, the proposition "the atomic mass of hydrogen is 1" is "contingent" because it is not constant across all possible realities. Objectivists would reply that the assertion, that "other realities" are possible, is incoherent: the assertion that some category of facts is "possible" requires knowledge of at least one instance of that category, but if an instance were known, then it would be a fact of "this" reality.

Additionally, Objectivism also accepts so-called "nomological" possibility and necessity. Statements of nomological possibility say that certain states-of-affairs are in accordance with natural reality in the sense that they reflect the potential of an entity to act in a certain way. Objectivism considers "nomological" possibility and necessity as knowledge that a potential fact belongs to a category of facts that are possible (because at least one fact in that category is known, and no contradicting facts apply to the instance under consideration) or necessary (because the contrary would require a contradiction). For example, consider the propositions, "This glass could break" and "It could rain this weekend." These report truths, because they say that, it is in the nature of glasses that they can break given the right circumstances (other glasses are known to have broken) and similarly it is in the nature of the weather that it has the potential to produce rain (rain is known to have occurred in the past). Objectivism analyzes counterfactuals, e.g., "If I had dropped this glass, it would have broken" in similar terms. Objectivism does not insist that there must be some fact in another possible world for this proposition to correspond with, in order for it to be true. Objectivism also rejects the now-popular view that these nomological facts should be analyzed using a "possible worlds" framework that builds on a distinction between the necessary and the contingent.

The problem of universals

Objectivism offers the foregoing account as the solution of the problem of universals. This problem has throughout the history of philosophy been regarded as a problem of metaphysics, but Objectivism asserts that its proper resolution lies in epistemology. Traditional solutions to the problem divide generally into realism and nominalism. Objectivism regards the first as "intrinsicism" (the view that universals are "intrinsic" to reality) and the second as "subjectivism" (the view that universals are arbitrary creations of the human mind). The proper resolution, Objectivism says, is that universals are concepts, created to meet the unique cognitive needs of the human mind, but objective so long as they are validly formed.

Objectivists contend that this solution is in the tradition of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. But it is akin to ideas found in many other sources, including The Principles of Psychology by William James, who was not seen as a precursor at all by Ayn Rand.

Objectivism, classical rationalism, classical empiricism

There are many notable differences between Objectivist epistemology and classical rationalism. While a classical rationalist would defend a "thick" conception of reason that includes "a priori" knowledge and the grasp of relations of necessity, Objectivism defends a "thin" conception that denies the possibility of "a priori" knowledge, tends to treat the grasp of necessity as something akin to mystical insight, and relegates reason to the role of classifying and organizing the information provided by sensory perception.

This should all come as no surprise: though Rand described herself as "primarily an advocate of reason," she steadfastly rejected "intrincism," under which she included traditional rationalism. For Rand, reason processes the evidence of the senses and nothing else, since on the Objectivist view, all knowledge of any sort is reached either by perceptual observation or by a process of reasoning based on such observation. For traditional rationalists, such as Plato, Descartes, Leibniz, Malebranche, Gottlob Frege, and G.E. Moore, reason is a faculty that provides knowledge over and above the knowledge (if any) which comes through sensory perception. For such thinkers, reason is a kind of intuition by which one grasps facts not available through the senses—for example, logical truths (or, as in Plato's case, eternal Forms or Universals). Such thinkers have held (with significant variations) that the mind can in some manner directly comprehend or intuit some truths, especially those of mathematics and logic. Rand rejected this view: she thought that logic and mathematics were merely the most general sciences about empirical reality. In its acceptance of sensory perception as the sole means of knowledge (and also in its acceptance of the view that the human mind is a "tabula rasa" prior to sensory experience), Objectivism is firmly on the side of empiricism.

However, Rand ostensibly rejected classical empiricism at least as represented by e.g. Hume (and his modern logical positivist heirs, such as Rudolf Carnap and A. J. Ayer). These philosophers were denigrated by Rand as "subjectivists" on account of their acceptance of descriptivist or purely linguistic theories of meaning and reference and their concomitant failure, from the Objectivist point of view, to recognize an important role for concepts in the acquisition of knowledge. Rand held that such thinkers could not account for the full content of our concepts or the progress of science. (Rand also rejected a number of outlooks broadly associated with empiricism, e.g., eliminativist materialism, behaviorism, reductionism, the idea that physical phenomena are "more real" than biological or psychological phenomena, representationalist theories of perception, the distinction between truths that describe "matters of fact" and those that describe "relations among ideas", and emotivism in ethics.)

Rand sought to formulate an alternative to both of these traditions, similar in spirit to the programs of such philosophers as Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and John Locke. Each of these philosophers, like Rand, has a broadly empiricist tenor (and Locke in particular is generally regarded as an empiricist), but each of them, in his way, assigns reason a significant positive role in dealing with sensory information. In this respect, Objectivism, though "empiricist" in the strictest sense, breaks with the empiricist tradition by integrating sensory perception with measurement and logic, and insisting that knowledge formed by their integrated use is contextually certain, and capable of progress.


^ 1967 - Rand, Ayn; "Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology", Edited by Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff. Expanded 2nd Edition, 1990, ISBN 0-452-01030-6.


ee also

* Ayn Rand
* Objectivist philosophy
* Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology

External links

* [http://www.importanceofphilosophy.com/Epistemology_Main.html The Importance of Philosophy] and [http://www.importanceofphilosophy.com/Irrational_Main.html] : sections on Objectivist epistemology

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