A Weird Confusion about Concept Formation

(This is another blog post I write mainly to get something off my chest.)

A former friend and “comrade-in-arms” of mine, Henrik Unné, has written an extremely negative review on Amazon of David Harriman’s The Logical Leap. (He has also posted it on his own blog.) The gist of Henrik’s criticism is that Leonard Peikoff and David Harriman have departed from Ayn Rand’s own writings on concept formation. (He draws out some implications of this with regard to the future of the Objectivist “movement”, but for the moment I will focus on the issue of concept formation.)

Here is what Henrik writes:

Ayn Rand stated clearly in her seminal work on Objectivist epistemology – titled Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology – that only concepts of entities could be first-level concepts. There is no way that Ayn Rand can be taken, by anyone who is both honest and can attach meanings to words, to have admitted even the possibility that concepts of actions or concepts of metaphysical abstractions could be first-level concepts.

Yet David Harriman writes, on page 19 of TLL, – “A first-level generalization is one derived directly from perceptual observation, without the need of any antecedent generalizations. As such, it is composed only of first-level concepts; any form of knowledge that requires the understanding of higher-level concepts cannot be gained directly from perceptual data”. Later, on page 22, Dr. Harriman presents a concrete example of a first-level generalization – “A toddler, say, pushes a ball and it rolls away. How do we formulate (in adult, conceptual terms) what the child actually perceives here, without the benefit of language? Here are three formulations: `I rolled the ball by pushing it’; “`My pushing it made the ball roll’; `I caused the ball to roll by pushing it.'”

Now, all this means that Dr. Harriman claims on page 19, that first-level generalizations are composed only of first-level concepts. Yet, on page 22, he claims that “I caused the ball to roll by pushing it” constitutes an example of a first-level generalization. So, according to Dr. Harriman, such concepts as “roll”, “pushing” and “caused”(!) are first-level concepts!

This is a brazen contradiction of a position which Ayn Rand herself took in a question which belongs to the science of philosophy. Ayn Rand was very clear in ITOE – her conviction was that only concepts of entities could be first-level concepts. And Dr. Harriman is equally clear in his book TLL. He holds that even concepts of actions (such as “roll”) and concepts of metaphysical abstractions (such as “caused”) can be first-level concepts.

Well, Dr. Harriman is free to disagree with Ayn Rand on any philosophical issue he wishes to. But then he has no right to call himself an Objectivist any longer. Ayn Rand insisted on her “property right” to the “brand-name” Objectivism. She created Objectivism. Objectivism is her philosophy. Nobody else has a right to call his philosophy “Objectivism” – if is something other than Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Because it is in fact not “Objectivism” if it is something other than Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

The issue here is honesty. If anyone holds a philosophy which is not Ayn Rand’s philosophy, then that philosophy is not Objectivism. And if that person then proceeds to claim that he is an “Objectivist” nevertheless – then he is, strictly speaking, lying (unless he does not know what he is talking about – in which case he is “merely” shooting his mouth off).

Henrik here saddles Ayn Rand with a manifest absurdity. Let me try to explain:

Here is what Ayn Rand actually writes in ITOE:

The first concept man forms are concepts of entities – since entities are the only primary existents. (Attributes cannot exist by themselves, they are merely the characteristics of entities; motions are motions of entities; relationships are relationships among entities.)

In the process of forming concepts of entities, a child’s mind has to focus on a distinguishing characteristic – i.e., on an attribute – in order to isolate one group of entities from all others. He is, therefore, aware of attributes while forming his first concepts, but he is aware of them perceptually, not conceptually. It is only after he has grasped a number of concepts of entities that he can advance to the stage of abstracting attributes and forming separate concepts of attributes. The same is true of concepts of motion: a child is aware of motion perceptually, but cannot conceptualize “motion” until ha has formed some concepts of that which moves, i.e., of entities.

Yes, she says that concepts of entities are the first concepts to be formed by a child. (And I think that anyone who has a toddler of his own can verify that such is the case.) But does she say that only concepts of entities are first-level concepts? No, she does not. All she says is that concepts of attributes, motions and relationships come slightly later. (I believe that a study of language development in children would verify this, too.)

So, what is actually the difference between a “first level” concept and a “higher level” concept? Well, higher level concepts are formed by “abstraction from abstractions”. First level concepts are not – which leaves only one possibility: that they are formed directly from sense perception. Some examples:

With regard to entities, I can simply use Ayn Rand’s own example: One would have to form the concepts “table”, “chair”, “bed” (and, perhaps, some more), before one could form the concept “furniture”. Or one would have to form some concepts like “dog”, “cat”, “horse”, “bird”, “snake”, before one could form the concept “animal”.

What about attributes? One example should suffice: One would have to form the concepts “red”, “blue” “yellow”, “green”, before one could form the concept “color”.

And what about motions? A toddler would first form some concepts like “walking”, “running”, “swimming”, “flying”, “riding” in order to arrive at some higher level concept, such as “transportation” or “locomotion” (or, simply, “motion”).

This is pretty straightforward, don’t you think? But on Henrik’s interpretation of ITOE, a concept like “blue” or “walking” are formed by a process of abstraction from abstractions! I don´t know what to say about this, except that it is ludicrous.

Was Ayn Rand not clear enough in ITOE? The book was written in 1966. How could she possibly have foreseen that such a weird misinterpretation of her words would crop up in 2011?

(David Harriman himself has answered this kind of objection in a blog post called What Do We Mean by “Level” in Epistemology? So perhaps my blog post was unnecessary.)

Update December 2011: Henrik has now removed his post on his own blog, but it is still on Amazon.


4 Responses to A Weird Confusion about Concept Formation

  1. To prove that attributes or motions can be first-level concepts is the simplest thing in the world. We observe them around us all the time. To point at something and (explicitly or implicitly) say “that ball is red” or “that ball is rolling” (or, for that matter, “that red ball is rolling”) doesn’t require abstracting from abstractions. You don’t have to be an expert on epistemology to understand that many attributes or motions are directly observable. All you have to do is observe.

    I write this mostly to profess my disagreement with Unné.

  2. Pingback: What makes a ball roll? « The House at POS Corner

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  4. Pingback: What Concepts Are First Level? | The House at POS Corner

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