Concept formation

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The first step in concept formation, called differentiation, is to isolate two or more things as belonging together, as units of the same class. While many theories of concept formation hold that such isolation begins by noticing degrees of similarity, Objectivism holds that it starts by noticing degrees of differences. At the perceptual level, everything is different; however, somethings are more different from others. The difference between two tables, for instance, is less than the difference between a table and a chair. Because two tables are less different from one another when contrasted against a third object, we group them together as units, as members of a group of similar objects.

Ayn Rand defines similarity as: the relationship between two or more existents which possess the same characteristic(s), but in different measure or degree. Similarity is a matter of measurement. Going back to the table versus chair example, the difference between tables is a quantitative one-we can easily stretch one table into another, so we call them similar. The difference between tables and chairs, on the other hand, is qualitative, so we distinguish between these as belonging to another group. Of course, at a broader level, even the difference between tables and chairs is quantitative-with enough stretching and pulling one could turn a chair into a table as well. However, the point is that the table-to-table stretching is much less than the table-to-chair stretching, so we consider one quantitative and the other qualitative.

The second step of concept formation, integration, is based on a process Ayn Rand called measurement omission. In this step, we combine or integrate the units into a new, single mental unit by omitting the quantitative differences between the two units. We retain the characteristics of the units, but we omit the particular measurements-on the principle that these measurements must exist in some quantity, but may exist in any quantity. For example, when forming the concept table we retain the distinguishing characteristics-a flat, level surface and supports-but omit the particular measurements of those features.

Based on this two step process, Ayn Rand defined concepts as: a mental integration of two or more units possessing the same distinguishing characteristics, with their particular measurements omitted.

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.

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.

Epistemology Topics
Senses | Consciousness | Volition | Concepts: Unit, Concept-Formation
Objectivity | Knowledge: Context, Hierarchy | Reason: Certainty, Truth, the Arbitrary | Emotions