Monday, June 25, 2012

A Dead Fish Rots from the Head Down: The End of Objectivist Epistemology

What follows is a work-in-progress. 

Alisa Rosenbaum's brief "Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology" has too many errors, contradictions, non-sequiturs, and loose ends to critique concisely in a single post. Instead, I will focus on individual premises and post intermittently on the subject.

I begin with her concept of "unit" since that lies at the heart of her ideas regarding the structure of concepts and how a conceptual consciousness proceeds to form them. If her idea of "unit" is found wanting — or, as I see it, found to be unintelligible — much of the system of epistemology that depends on that idea will collapse.

My reference is her "Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Expanded Second Edition, Edited by Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff," published by Meridian in 1990.

On Units

Rosenbaum writes:

"A unit is an existent regarded as a separate member of a group of two or more similar members. (Two stones are two units; so are two square feet of ground, if regarded as distinct parts of a continuous stretch of ground.)" [ppg 6-7]

This is her definition of unit, though she spends the next paragraph on additional explanation. Before attending to that, however, we'll look first at the definition itself, especially the beginning in which she claims that a unit is an existent.

If we check what Rosenbaum means by "existent," we find the following:

"The building-block of man's knowledge is the concept of an 'existent', of something that exists, be it a thing, an attribute or an action." [ppg 5-6]

An "existent" is a thing, an attribute of a thing, or an action of a thing. That's certainly a clear enough position. She then writes:

"Since it [i.e., 'existent'] is a concept, man cannot grasp it explicitly until he has reached the conceptual stage. But it is implicit in every percept (to perceive a thing is to perceive that it exists) . . ." [pages 5-6]

That statement, I submit, is gibberish. A human consciousness doesn't grasp the idea of "implicitness" until, again, it has reached the conceptual stage. So the statement that a concept is "implicit" in a percept before one has reached the conceptual stage, is (among other things) blatant concept-stealing: a human consciousness at the conceptual stage can grasp the notion of "implicitness" and claim that, upon perceiving something, the concept "existent" or "it exists" is implicit in its perception of it; one cannot, however, take one's existing consciousness — including ideas about "implicitness" — and turn back the clock to infancy, a time when one did not have a conceptual consciousness — and still claim that any idea or concept is "implicit" in a mere percept.

"Percept" and "implicit concept" are mutually exclusive. nothing is "implicit" in a percept qua percept. A percept merely is.

When you look through a camera at an object — a tree, for example — and carefully focus and adjust your exposure, you — the adult photographer with the conceptual consciousness — might implicitly realize that to see the tree is to also admit that "it exists"; but the camera itself — as an analogy to a human infant who, presumably, only perceives — has nothing to do with "implicitness." Whether the lens of a camera, or the lens of a human eye, "perceiving", per se, is all about the explicitly given of the perception; there's nothing implicit about the percept, per se. 

Observe how idiotic Rosenbaum's position is: if the concept "existent" is implicit in the simple perception of a tree, qua percept, then it must also be so for a non-conceptual consciousness, like a squirrel's. A squirrel perceives the tree, just as the child perceives the tree (how the image of the tree appears in a squirrel's mind is, of course, an unknown, but it most certainly perceives the tree on which it climbs up and down). Would Rosenbaum claim that the concept "existent" is implicit in the percept of the tree in a squirrel's mind? We hope not, because it's a foolish position to hold. Why, then, would she claim that a concept is implicit in the percept of a tree in a human infant's mind? If she is indeed claiming the latter, then it must be because the child is potentially capable of grasping concepts at a certain point in its growth. So, is Rosenbaum saying, therefore, that to a potentially conceptual consciousness (such as an infant's) concepts as such are implicit in percepts as such? If so, is this true for all of its percepts, or only some of them? If true for only some of them, why? If she's going to assert that the concept "existent" is implicit in every percept of a not-yet-conceptual human consciousness, then why not other concepts as well? Why not the concept "generates a gravitational field"? That's a sophisticated higher-order concept — the idea that all masses have the attribute of gravitational attraction — and, of course, we wouldn't expect any consciousness to grasp that concept until it was both conceptual, and had received a good deal of training in physics. But since it is true, is it not also true that it is implicit in the infant's perception of a tree?

What Rosenbaum is doing here is very similar to what she did with the characters of Dagny, Francisco, and Eddie, when she portrayed them as children in Atlas Shrugged; and it shows, among other things, that the method she chose to investigate the subject of epistemology was the method of the creative writer, not the method of the diligent scholar. In Atlas Shrugged, she first conceives of these characters as adults for the sake of her characterizations; then she simply turns back the clock until they become children, but apparently with all the same attributes of adults except they appear "in miniature".

Similarly, in her system of epistemology, she starts with an adult conceptual consciousness that grasps the idea of "implicitness" — an implicitness that is a function of its own thinking about a percept, not an implicitness that is part of the percept itself qua percept — and capable of understanding that when one perceives a tree, there is much more than just pure perception occurring, but also lots of implicit thinking about the tree; thinking that is on the subconscious or unconscious level and can be brought to light either by personal effort, or through an outside agency (like a teacher) making clear and explicit to the perceiver what he may not have noticed about his own thinking about the percepts. Then she simply runs the clock backward and assumes that this same sort of unconscious or subconscious thinking/processing of percepts is occurring in a purely perceptual consciousness assumed to be the normal waking state of an infant. This procedure is a form of concept-stealing: you cannot take an adult conceptual state of awareness that is also aware of the notion of "implicitness" and run it backward in time by assuming that it exists also in a state of awareness that by definition is "perceptual only"; i.e., non-conceptual

If it isn't concept-stealing, and Rosenbaum is claiming that the "implicit concepts" are somehow inherent in percepts qua percepts, then it strikes me as a form Platonism: conceptual knowledge reaching us by way of perception rather than some special mode of intuition. The error here would be in assuming that conceptual knowledge is dormant, sleeping — i.e., "implicit" — within percepts qua percepts. Nothing is implicit in a percept, and nothing is objective about it, either. The fact is, nothing is more subjective than a percept: my percept of a tree is mine; an image that falls on my retina and is transmitted to my visual cortex where it displays in my consciousness. Your percept of a tree is yours: a separate image that falls on your retina and is transmitted to your visual cortex where it displays in your consciousness. There's precisely zero "public verifiability" here. There's nothing objective about a percept qua percept, since the entire process of perception takes place within one's subjective self.

Rosenbaum writes the following:

"A unit is an existent regarded as a separate member of a group of two or more similar members"

We've already seen that a "unit" is NOT an existent; at least, not according to the way Rosenbaum defines "existent", which is an entity, an attribute, or an action. A "unit" is a relation between consciousness and existents. Without consciousness, there's no such thing as a unit.

Rosenbaum parenthetically cites examples of what she means by units:

"(Two stones are two units; so are two square feet of ground, if regarded as distinct parts of a continuous stretch of ground.)"

As a kind of afterthought, she tepidly admits that "unit", indeed, requires an "act of consciousness" but that it is not an "arbitrary" act of consciousness. Her idea, apparently, is that since one actually perceives the attribute of length of an existent — the attribute being objective, existing independently of consciousness — any unit of length that consciousness might invent, though optional (i.e., the foot, the meter, the yard, the inch, etc.), is nevertheless rigidly determined by the objective nature of the attribute itself. And I suppose the idea here is that whatever applies to the attribute "length", must also apply to a unit of length.

It is trivially true that what applies to "time", per se, applies to any unit of time; what applies to mass, per se, applies to any unit of mass; etc. And although trivially true, Rosenbaum unwittingly brings up a point that undercuts much of her theory about units, and therefore, of concepts, and therefore, finally, of her entire epistemology.

To understand why this is so, a brief digression into grammar is necessary.

There's a lot of misunderstanding about a construction we all know as the "prepositional phrase". Most of us were taught that it comprises a preposition — e.g., "over" — and the noun or pronoun coming after it, called the object of the preposition — e.g., "rainbow". A preposition, however, is a kind of connecting word, similar in certain ways to a conjunction ("and", "or"), and to understand fully a phrase with a conjunction requires that we acknowledge the terms on both sides of it, and not just the term appearing after it; i.e., "bacon and eggs", not just "and eggs." Similarly, we need to be aware of both terms that are being related to each other by means of the preposition. So the full prepositional phrase is not just "over the rainbow" because we don't know what word "over" is connecting to its object "rainbow." The complete, intelligible phrase is "Somewhere over the rainbow." "Somewhere and "rainbow" are brought into relation with each other by means of the preposition "over," which specifies how the two terms are to be understood together.

And to be perfectly clear about it, we can call the word that comes before the preposition, the "antecedent", and the term that comes after it (usually called the "object of the preposition"), the "consequent."

Thus, in "Somewhere over the rainbow," we have:

antecedent = "somewhere"

preposition = over

consequent = the rainbow

Very often, one and the same preposition may be used with very different meanings, depending on the terms being brought into relation with each other. Take the preposition "by", for example:

"He walked by the lake."

"He read a novel by Hemingway."

The first "by" makes reference to a spatial relation between "walked" and "lake"; the second, an authorial one between "novel" and "Hemingway."

Now, the preposition "of" is quite interesting in that it has many meanings:

"A chain of gold" means, A chain made of the metal gold. The "of" connects "chain" and "gold" by means of the idea of "material composition."

"An age of reason" means, An age whose distinctive and memorable quality was that "reason" was the guiding cultural idea.

"A symphony of Beethoven" means that Beethoven composed the symphony. "Of" connects "symphony" and "Beethoven" by means of the idea of creator.

"A quarter of the population" means a certain part considered apart from the whole.

This last example is of special relevance to this discussion. The preposition "of" is said to be partitive in this construction; i.e., it considers the whole of something to be, for example, a pizza pie, which appears to the right of the preposition as its object; the individual slice appears to the left of the preposition, and represents the part. The part is then grammatically related to the whole by means of the preposition "of" according to the schema,

antecedent / preposition / object


antecedent / OF / object

For example:

Slice of pizza;

Piece of pie;

25% of the population;

or more generally,

Part of the whole

Now, we see that this grammatical construction shows the logical relation between the antecedent and the consequent (i.e., the prepositional object). And in the partitive relation, it is always the case that the antecedent is of the same "stuff" as the consequent. In other words, a slice of pizza is itself a little piece of pizza; a piece of pie is itself a little bit of pie; a quarter of the population is itself a little population; etc. If we apply this same schema to the idea of a unit, we get:

"A meter of length" or "A lightyear of distance."

A meter is itself length; a lightyear is itself distance.

"A liter of volume"

A liter is itself volume.

"A gram of mass."

A gram is itself mass.

"A second of time."

A second is itself time.

Now, this all becomes extremely relevant when applied to Rosenbaum's statement above. To repeat:

"(Two stones are two units; so are two square feet of ground, if regarded as distinct parts of a continuous stretch of ground.)"

We see at once that her second example, "two square feet of ground", fits the partitive schema above, and exhibits the same logic as "Slice of pizza", "Piece of pie", "A second of time", and "A gram of mass." (To be precise about it, instead of "two square feet of ground," we ought to say "Two square feet of area" instantiated in, or mapped to, "a continuous stretch of ground.") So far, so good.

But her first example doesn't apply at all. If "Two stones" are two units, then we must be able to put the phrase into the usual partitive phrase schema as above with the preposition "of":

"Two stones of ____"

"Two stones" are two units of what?

A unit of length must itself be a length; unit of time must itself be time; a unit of mass must itself be a mass; etc. If "two stones" are "two units", then it follows that "one stone" is "one unit", and again we must insist that Rosenbaum or her acolytes answer the question: "a stone" is a unit of what? Of itself? Can we say, "A stone is a unit of a stone?" That's gibberish. We would never claim that "A foot is a unit of a foot."

Rosenbaum is either using the word "unit" in a highly idiosyncratic way, and then immediately using it in the standard way when speaking of "two square feet of ground" (indicating an equivocation on her part within that sentence), or she was just plain wrong.

To give her the benefit of the doubt, what she appeared to have in mind was the idea that the divided concept — the object of the preposition "of" — was the general idea of "stone"; the antecedent partitive concept to the left of the preposition was "a stone"; thus, "a stone of stone." Meaning, an individual, concrete instance of a general concept.

If this is what Rosenbaum intended by her statement that "Two stones are two units", then she is confused. "Two stones" are not two units of "the general concept stone"; they are concrete instances, or instantiations, of the general concept "stone." She has confused the idea of a "concrete instance", or the concept of "instantiation" of a general concept, with the idea of "unit."

The relation between "an individual physical stone" and "the general concept of stone" is not the same as the relation between "an inch" and the general idea of "length". An inch is itself length. "Inch" is an abstract idea; "length" is an abstract idea. "Inch" is a creation of consciousness by means of considering the abstraction "length" combined with abstractions like "limit" and "convenience " (an "inch" is "length limited for convenience" to a certain arbitrarily small size.). "Inch" is then instantiated in a physical medium (e.g., notches on a piece of wood). "Stone" is an abstract idea, but "A stone" is not. "A stone" is not "stone" considered in a certain way by a consciousness. "A stone" is not a creation of consciousness by considering "stone" in a certain way.

In fact, even according to Rosenbaum's own theory of concept formation, it's the other way around: she claims that the general concept of "stone" is arrived at by first observing and considering concrete stones, and then integrating them to form the general concept. By her lights, the concrete particulars come first; the abstract concept comes later. There's nothing wrong with that assumption; but if we tentatively accept it as true, then we must also accept that it is the exact opposite of the partitive relation that applies to units; for in such a relation, the whole pizza pie comes first; its division into slices or "units" ("Slice of pizza"; "Piece of pie"; "Gram of mass"; Year of time; etc.) comes later. 

"Concept formation" and "unit formation" not only have nothing to do with each other, but in fact, proceed in opposite ways. Concept formation — at least, according to Rosenbaum's lights — starts with individual concrete instances of something and then through a process of differentiation followed by integration, builds an abstract concept; unit formation reveals itself in the partitive phrase "unit of X", where "X" is some attribute that exists first, followed by a limitation of the attribute that is convenient.

(We will leave for a later post a discussion of the intelligibility of Rosenbaum's position that concept formation requires differentiation, followed by integration that blends what was just integrated into a new single whole, and which then must "unite" this new integration by means of a linguistic definition. If something is a "single, blended whole," then there's nothing to "unite" by means of language. Conversely, if one actually does "unite" that which was differentiated, then it proves they could not have been integrated or blended into a single new whole.")

To Summarize:

1. Rosenbaum commits a fallacy of the stolen concept" by starting her psycho-epistemological investigations with an adult, conceptual consciousness (hers, of course), and running the clock backward until she arrives at what she imagines to be the percept-only consciousness of the human infant. She then sneaks into that imagined percept-only consciousness notions like "implicitness", which is a notion that could only exist in a consciousness that is not percept-only, but fully conceptual.

2. If we deny that Rosenbaum is committing the fallacy of the stolen concept, then we must assume that she believed certain concepts (e.g., "existent") were somehow contained "in" a percept qua percept (e.g., "tree"). That's not only wrong but vexing: it suggests that since we all, presumably, perceive the same things in the same ways, and therefore have "access" to the same implicit concepts tucked away in our percepts (because concepts, by her lights, are implicit in percepts), objective truth, by her lights, is "manifest"; it's "objectively out there", just waiting to be acknowledged. And if one doesn't acknowledge these implicit truths when one is able to apply language to them and make them explicit, the reason must be that our thinking has gone awry. The idea that "truth is objectively manifest in perceptual data", and that it simply awaits our conscious acknowledgment upon reaching a certain stage of development, and that failure to acknowledge these truths must therefore be traceable to some deficit of consciousness — bad premises, evil intentions, wrong ideas, bad philosophy, etc. — is truly the basis of rationalism at its worst.

3. Rosenbaum confuses the idea of "unit" with that of "concrete instantiation." That is apparent from her own examples: there is nothing in common between "two stones" and "two square feet." The acid test of this is a simple grammatical substitution: the latter can be put into a prepositional phrase that explicates the partitive relation between the antecedent term and the consequent one: Slice of pizza; Piece of pie; A second of time; A gram of mass; A pound of weight; A liter of volume; a square-foot of area. The former phrase — "two stones" — does not fit into that scheme: "Two stones of _____?" Two stones of what? The grammatical substitution test fails with the phrase "two stones"; ergo, "two stones" are NOT two units of anything. They are concrete instances of a general idea, "stone".

4. Rosenbaum reverses cause and effect within her own theory. She claims that percepts come first and that concepts are built on top of them and derived from them. Thus, according to her lights, first we perceive individual concrete stones; then we can form the abstract concept "stone." Fine. But if "two stones" are, indeed, two units (as she claims), then the consequent term (the object of the preposition "of") must be "stone"; and it must precede its units, just as "length" precedes "inch", "time" precedes "second", and "mass" precedes "gram"; indeed, just as an entity, attribute, or action, necessarily precedes any unit of such entity, attribute, or action.

Though this critique is a work-in-progress, our conclusions so far don't augur well for Rosenbaum's system of epistemology. Randroids venerate her system because they believe epistemology is the "head" of the social organism called "civilization" or "human culture", and that what they claim to see as the latter's corruption must be traceable to thinking errors on the part of non-Randroids (a/k/a normal people). As we see, though, the head of the Objectivist organism (which we compare to a big fish) — Rosenbaum's system of epistemology — is rotten with notions that both confuse and conflate the distinctly different ideas of concept-formation, unit-formation, and instantiation, accomplished mainly by means of a simple equivocation: "two stones are two units; so are two square feet of ground..." If much of the body of Objectivist opinion on cultural matters such as sex, music, painting, literature, psychology, etc., appears rotten to many normal people (perhaps secretly even to a few brave-but-silent Randroids), they'll know that much of it is traceable to her system of epistemology. Once the head of a philosophical system rots, the body inevitably follows.

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