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Concepts, Definitions, & Objectivism. Diana Mertz Hsieh Arizona Objectivists 21 February 2004. The Goal. The goal is to understand the proper relationship between concepts and definitions so as to avoid the error of “floating definitions” in abstract reasoning.

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Concepts, Definitions, & Objectivism

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Concepts definitions objectivism l.jpg

Concepts, Definitions, & Objectivism

Diana Mertz Hsieh

Arizona Objectivists

21 February 2004


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The Goal

  • The goal is to understand the proper relationship between concepts and definitions so as to avoid the error of “floating definitions” in abstract reasoning.

  • The topic is fairly technical, but with plenty of real-life implications.


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The Plan

  • Contrast the Objectivist theory of concepts to “conceptual reductionism.”

  • See the reductionist error in practice in one approach to the argument for life as the standard of value.

  • Consider whether the reductionist error is also at work in David Kelley’s “open system” view of Objectivism.

  • Some practical advice for avoiding conceptual reductionism.


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Conceptual Reductionism

  • Conceptual reductionism is an idealized version of a common view of the relationship between concepts and definitions in philosophy.

  • The basic idea is that a concept is nothing over and above its definition, i.e. that a concept can be reduced to its definition.

  • Widespread and often implicit view in contemporary analytic philosophy.


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Objectivism on Concepts

  • The metaphor of concepts as file folders:

    • The whole folder is the concept.

    • All the items in the folder (past, present, and future) are the referents or units.

    • The ID number is the word.

    • The short description of the contents is the definition.


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The Meaning of a Concept

  • In Objectivism, the meaning of a concept is the stuff in the folder, i.e. the referents.

    • “The meaning of a concept consists of the units—the existents—which it integrates” (IOE 98).

    • Water = All the liquid H20 in the world with all of its properties

  • In reductionism, the meaning of a concept is the description on the folder, i.e. the definition.

    • Water = The abstract property of H20


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The Non-Defining Properties

  • In Objectivism, the non-defining features are included in the concept.

    • “The meaning of a concept consists of the units—the existents—which it integrates, including all the characteristics of these units” (IOE 98).

    • The purpose of the defining characteristic is to explain as many of the other features as possible.

  • In reductionism, all non-defining features are omitted from the concept.

    • Would a functional equivalent of water on Twin Earth (chemical XYZ) be water or not?

    • Are triangles three-sided plane figures or three-angled plane figures?


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Advances in Knowledge

  • In Objectivism, new knowledge about the referents of a concept may require us to refine our definitions, but the concept itself remains the same.

  • In reductionism, any substantial growth in knowledge is a cognitive revolution demonstrating our past ignorance.

  • Example: Classifying elements based upon atomic number rather than chemical properties.


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Relationship to Reality

  • In Objectivism, definitions help us keep our concepts tied to reality.

    • “The purpose of the definition is to distinguish a concept from all other concepts and thus to keep its units differentiated from all other existents” (IOE 40).

  • In reductionism, concepts and definitions “float” disconnected from reality and connected only to other concepts.


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The Basic Difference

  • In Objectivism, the meaning of a concept is its referents, meaning that all the properties of the referents are included.

  • In reductionism, the meaning of a concept is its definition, meaning that only the essential properties of the referents are included.

  • Because definitions are such a helpful condensation of knowledge, they can be misused, even in attempting to understand Objectivism.


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Existence Versus Non-Existence

  • The “The Objectivist Ethics,” Ayn Rand claims that only living organisms face the alternative of existence versus non-existence.

  • But don’t inanimate objects face the same alternative?

    • Throw Joe from the roof of a 30 story building, he ceases to exist as a man

    • Throw a statue of Joe from the roof of a 30 story building, it ceases to exist as a statue.

      (Example from Leonard Peikoff’s Understanding Objectivism.)


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The Problem

  • The basic error is that these entities are narrowly equated with their definition.

    • Man qua living organism = Entity capable of self-generated and self-sustaining action

    • Statue = Structure of in shape of a man

  • Focus is far too limited and narrow. Vast range of differences between man and statue are forgotten.

  • Man is not just a self-generated and self-sustaining statue.


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The Solution: Step One

  • Consider the full range of differences between living organisms and inanimate entities, not merely those found in the definition

  • Imagine that Joe in example is Stalin.

    • Man: mass murderer, paranoid, communist, fought Hitler during WW2, shaped by genetics, diet, and exercise

    • Statue: immobile, shaped by sculptor from stone, no mind, fought no one


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The Solution: Step Two

  • Noticed that huge gulf between living organisms and inanimate objects. Fundamental divide in the world.

  • The alternative of existence versus non-existence simply recognizes that gap.

    • If statue is smashed, then it is no longer a statue but it is still inanimate.

    • If man is smashed, then it is no longer a man and it is no longer a living organism.

  • Living organisms must take proper actions in order to remain living organisms.


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The Same Problem

  • Propose that the same basic problem is found in David Kelley’s “open system” view of Objectivism.

  • Objectivism is equated with its definition, i.e. a set of fundamental principles.

  • The practical consequences are seen at TOC.


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The Basics of the Open System

  • In Kelley’s open system, Objectivism is defined by its fundamental principles.

    • Includes concepts as “integrations of particulars on the basis of their similarities” but no details of the theory of concepts

    • Includes rationality, justice, productiveness, and independence, but not honesty, pride, or integrity

    • Includes importance of productive work, not romantic love

    • Excludes benevolent universe premise, evils of compromise and appeasement, the whole of aesthetics, and so on

  • The non-fundamentals may be debated, refined, altered, reorganized, and even rejected within the bounds of Objectivism so long as a person "defends his view by reference to the basic principles" (T&T 69).


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The Purpose of the Fundamentals

  • The core serves three basic purposes:

    • "distinguish Objectivism from every other viewpoint” (T&T 69)

    • "identify the boundaries of the debate and development that may take place within Objectivism as a school of thought” (T&T 69)

    • differentiate Objectivists from non-Objectivists (T&T 69)

  • They are the distinguishing characteristics of a definition of Objectivism. (They are the differentia, with "philosophical system" or "school of thought" as the genus.)


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Two Preliminary Problems

  • Some problems with the “open system” definition of Objectivism:

    • Cognitively unwieldy due to length. (Definitions should condense knowledge of the referents, not exhaustively list their distinguishing characteristics.)

    • A-contextual because any future philosophy consistent with it would be a form of Objectivism. (Definitions should be refined when discover new existents that fit definition yet still fundamentally different.)


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The Meaty Problem

  • The “open system” treats Objectivism as equivalent to the principles in the definition. All else is optional.

  • That some principles are more distinctive than, logically prior to, better developed than, or more central than others does not render the rest expendable.

  • The concept ‘Objectivism’ refers to the whole rich system of philosophy, not merely some selected aspects thereof.


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The Case of Humility

  • Consider an argument for humility (i.e. a commitment to a low assessment of one’s own worth) as a Objectivist virtue.

  • Kelley: Only consideration is that it would contradict the fundamental principle of “man as a heroic being.”

  • Hsieh: If look at whole system, find at least two additional reasons for rejecting it:

    • Well-developed negative view of humility in Objectivist literature.

    • Contradiction between humility and cardinal value of self-esteem.


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The Open System in Practice

  •  The open system minimizes the importance of the wide range of insights, applications, principles, methods, arguments, and logical connections found in the full and rich system of philosophy developed by Ayn Rand.  So…

    • No need to study Objectivist literature deeply.

    • Casual revisions and superficial criticism just fine.

    • Ayn Rand’s philosophic achievement just okay.

  • Views commonly seen in both academic and advocacy sides of TOC.


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Avoiding Floating Definitions

  • The basic advice on how to avoid floating definitions (from Peikoff):

    • When you begin attempting to understand some philosophical or abstract issue, allow your mind to range over a representative sample of instances for each key concept, considering the full range of properties.

    • Later on, continue to oscillate between the definition of a concept and its referents.

    • Beware of deductions from definitions!


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