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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 Edit
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.
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 practising evasion, by which is meant evasion of reason, a deliberate abandonment of the rational consciousness.
Any mind, human or nonhuman, can explicitly hold only so many perceptual units 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 Edit
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), 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 implicit knowledge that need not be held explicitly in consciousness.
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"----ie, 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.
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, one's later definitions will not contradict one's earlier ones.
What is the role of reason in this process? Reason consists in forming concepts through the use of logic, what Objectivism defines as "the art of noncontradictory identification".
Objectivism denies that the proposition is the fundamental unit of knowledge, arguing instead that concepts themselves constitute the building blocks of knowledge. 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 Edit
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.
Apparent concepts that are not formed in accordance with these rules or principles are considered "anti-concepts" and are said to represent failures of integration. A major concern of the Objectivist epistemology is the identification and avoidance of such "anti-concepts", which are regarded as mental monstrosities that do not succeed in referring to any external reality whatsoever. Objectivism also opposes what it calls "floating abstractions", or concepts formed without proper connection to their concrete foundations. In all cases, the application of "Rand's Razor" is warranted; this razor states that all concepts must be resolved into their irreducible primaries.
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.
The analytic-synthetic dichotomy Edit
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 nine 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 constrast, 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 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 possible worlds. Objectivism would reply that the second proposition is just as "necessary" as the first: if the atomic mass differed, the substance in question would not be hydrogen. Objectivism recognizes no legitimate meaning of "necessity" other than this one.
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. 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) and similarly it is in the nature of the weather that it has the potential to produce rain. Objectivism analyzes counterfactuals, e.g., "If I had dropped this glass, it would break," in similar terms. Objectivism does not insist, as many contemporary philosophers do, 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 Edit
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 Edit
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, seeks to give reason its due as well.
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