What did Ayn Rand Know About Adverbs?

The reason I ask this question is the following excerpt from Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology:

Adverbs are concepts of the characteristics of motion (or action); they are formed by specifying a characteristic and omitting the measurements of the motion and of the entities involved – e.g., “rapidly”, which may be applied to “walking” or “swimming” or “speaking”, etc., with the measurement of what is “rapid” left open and depending, in any given case, on the type of motion involved. (ITOE, p. 16f.)

If this is meant as a definition of “adverb”, it is far too narrow. Yes, it applies to the example of “walking (swimming, speaking) rapidly”; but the vast majority of adverbs in the language have nothing to do with the velocity of motion or any other characteristic of motion. Let me give some examples:

“Here” and “there”, “now” and “when” are adverbs; but they have very little to do with motion. Take the simple sentence “I sit here now (in front of my computer).” But “sitting” is not a motion, it is an absence of motion, a state of rest. Well, I sit here typing, and I can type slowly or rapidly, but the “here” and “now” still do not apply to my speed of typing, nor to how well or badly I type, or to any other imaginable characteristic of typing. They apply solely to my location in space and time: when and where do I type?.

In modern English, the words “here” and “there” signify either location (“I sit here”, “I was there yesterday”) or direction (“I came here”, “I will go there tomorrow”. – Incidentally, in Swedish we have different word for location and direction; we still make the distinction between “here” and “hither”, “there” and “thither”, which seems to have been lost in modern English.

Or take the sentence “I’m thinking about adverbs, therefore I write about adverbs”. “Therefore” is an adverb answering the question “why?”. But is it about motion? Well, maybe the motions inside my mind. – And I might as well say “I write this for a reason”. “For a reason” is not an adverb but an adverbial phrase and serves the same function as the single adverb “therefore”.

So what is an adverb? – I was taught in school many years ago that an adverb answers (or asks) certain questions, such as “where?”, “when?”, “how?”, “why?”, “to what degree?”, etc. (They don’t ask or answer the questions “who” or “what”; nouns or pronouns answer those questions.) A more precise definition (taken from a dictionary) is:

1. A part of speech, comprising a class of words that modify a verb, adjective or other adverb. 2. A word belonging to this class. (The Heritage Illustrated Dictionary of the English Language.)

Most often, an adverb modifies a verb (this is why it is called an “adverb”). It may modify an adjective, as in the phrase “she is very beautiful”, where the “very” tells you the degree of her beauty. (You may think of your own examples. If you think really hard, you will find that “hard” modifies “think”, telling you the degree of intensity of your thinking, and that “really” in its turn modifies “hard”, telling you more about how hard you think.)

“Yes” and “no” are also adverbs – at least they are classified as adverbs in the dictionaries. They answer such question as “Is this true or not” or “Do I agree with this or not.” But there connection to motion is tenuous, at the very least.

What measurements are omitted when we form a concept that is an adverb? That is fairly easy to answer. “Here” must be some place, but it could be any place. “Now” must be some point in time, but it could be any point in time. “Therefore” must be some cause or reason, but it could be any cause or reason. “Yes” and “no” must be the answer to some question, but it could be the answer to any question.

“Well” is an adverb that is often used as a preamble to a sentence (“Well, I don’t think so” or “Well, you may be right”) and may be said to modify the whole sentence rather than some single word. But here, I simply cannot put my finger on what is the exact meaning of “well”, much less then what measurements are omitted.; I have to confess it eludes me. (In Swedish we have a whole host of such adverbs – something that I think gives translators headaches.)

I hope this is enough to show that Ayn Rand’s definition is far too narrow (“far” and “too” being adverbs modifying the narrowness of the definition but having nothing to do with motion or any characteristic of notion).

The adverbs I have mentioned this far are adverbs “in their own right”, but there are also adverbs that are derived from adjectives, turning an adjective into an adverb. In English, this is done by adding a “-ly”; Romanic languages typically add a “-ment” or “mente”, and in Swedish we add a “-t”.  – Also, in those cases, it is easy to re-write the sentence and turn the adverb back to an adjective; e.g. “I think slowly”; “I am a slow thinker” or “Ayn Rand writes beautifully”: “Her writing is beautiful”. One cannot do this with “here” and “now” and those other adverbs I mentioned. – But his does not change anything in my reasoning; it is just an interesting observation.

Quibbling and nit-picking? Maybe – but I get frustrated when I discover a mistake in Ayn Rand’s writings, and I have to get if off my chest. And grammar is a subject I know fairly well.

I may return to other aspects of Ayn Rand’s theory of concept formation later, because I have some question marks that I would like to straighten out.

(For Scandinavian speaking readers, I write about this in Filosofiska smulor; you have to scroll down a bit to find it. Also, I take up some of those other question marks I have.)

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Update May 2015: Further examples:

“Yes” and “no” are adverbs (at least they are classified as adverbs in dictionaries). They perform the function of condensing information – like “I agree/don’t agree” or “It is so/not so”. But they say nothing about the speed with which one agrees or disagrees.

Even the simple “not” is an adverb; it qualifies the sentence in which it occurs.

Anyone can find further examples. Just mark all the adverbs you find in a text, look them up, if necessary, and check what they have to do with velocity. You will find that only a minuscule number of them do.

I hate to find fault with Ayn Rand, but sometimes (an adverb) I just (an adverb) have to.

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Update August 31, 2015: There is a group of adverbs that denote frequency: “always”, “often”, “sometimes”, “seldom”, “never”. (There are also adverbial phrases, such as “now and then” or “once in a blue moon”.)

What measurements are omitted when forming those questions? Well, things can happen more or less often, or more or less seldom. But there is no more or less regarding “always” and “never”.

Just a thought …

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Update October 29, 2015: I cannot get this issue out of my head. Whenever I see an adverb, I say to myself: “What on earth (or even in hell) does this have to do with speed or velocity?” (For example “whenever” in the preceding sentence.)

The issue is not important enough to occupy my mind like this. Ayn Rand makes a relatively minor mistake, and I cannot stop thinking about it.

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Update November 3, 2015: It is actually doubtful whether “yes” and “no” are adverbs. Some dictionaries in different languages that I have consulted call them “adverbs”, others call them “interjections”, and still others say they can be both, depending on context.

My own best definition of “adverbs” is that they are modifiers or qualifiers: they modify or qualify a word, a clause or a sentence. (Wikipedia agrees with me here.) But “yes” and “no” do not modify or qualify; they affirm or deny what somebody has said or written.

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Update September 19, 2016: If you do not believe me, then go through a text and underline each adverb you find. (If you are uncertain whether a particular word is an adverb or something else, then look it up in a dictionary.) I would be surprised if more than one in a thousand of them has anything to do with speed or velocity. Or underline every adverb you find that actually signifies speed or velocity; there would be very few words underlined (and leaves open what the rest of the adverbs are, if they are not adverbs).

A commenter suggested that Ayn Rand did not intend to give a definition of “adverb” but merely to illustrate the process of concept formation. Fine – but then, why didn’t she say so?

That “rapidly” or “slowly” are adverbs is undeniable. But it is equally undeniable that the vast majority of adverbs are not in this rapid/slow category.

And compare what she says about adverbs to what she says about adjectives and prepositions:

Adjectives are concepts of attributes or of characteristics.

Prepositions are concepts of relationships, predominantly [but not, I might add, exclusively] of spatial or temporal relationships, among existents. (P. 17.)

But this is true af all adjectives and of all prepositions. You would look in vain for an adjective that does not refer to an attribute or a characteristic, or for a preposition that does not refer to a relationship of one or another kind. The only mystery here is why we would need an Ayn Rand to point this out to us.

Nouns may also refer to attributes or characteristics, but almost exclusively they are formed from adjectives by adding a suffix to them – a “-ness” or a “-hood” or an “-ity”. (The only exception I can think of in English is “beauty”, where the adjective “beautiful” is formed from the noun. But if you look at the etymology, you will find that it was originally formed from the French “beau”, to which a “-ty” was added to make it a noun.)

One nit-picking objection one might raise is that a large number of prepositions are about other relationships than spatial or temporal ones – for example, “about” in this very sentence, or “from” in the paragraph above. But I do not have the space or time to go into this at length to find out what kind of prepositions are predominant; neither do I see the necessity of it.

Anyway: With regard to adjectives and prepositions Ayn Rand states something that it would be a contradiction in terms to deny; but with regard to adverbs she states something that is only true for a slight sliver of adverbs. With regard to adjectives and prepositions, she says something that everybody knows anyway; with regard to adverbs, she says something that nobody knows, for the simple reason that (in most cases) it isn’t true.

Why she did so remains a mystery to me. It is even more mysterious that none of her detractors have ever taken her to task for it.

But then, none of her detractors read her carefully. If they read her at all.

What makes a ball roll?

“What kind of question is that?” you might ask. Isn’t that self-evident? Pushing it or kicking it is the obvious answer. And what makes a ball bounce? Dropping it to the floor or kicking it through the air, obviously. What makes a ball do other strange things, such as deflating? Pricking a ball with a needle would do the trick. But what could possibly make a ball sing? I will return to this question later – although the obvious answer is that balls don’t sing.

I much appreciate David Harriman’s book The Logical Leap, and I appreciate Leonard Peikoff’s lecture series on which the book is based.[1] I know too little about physics or about the history of science to be able to judge the objections that have been raised by John McCaskey; but I do know what makes balls roll and what makes paper burn and many other examples of “first-level generalizations”. I write this mainly to test my own understanding.

Harriman writes:

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 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”. (The Logical Leap, p. 22.)

Let me take this one step further. The toddler may go to the beach and observe that the ball rolls slower on sand; and he may take the ball into the water and observe that it does not roll at all on water; he has to push it constantly to make it move at all. Does this invalidate his initial generalization? Certainly not! What he has to do with his first “first-level generalization” is merely to modify it in view of the wider context. This is how knowledge grows.

Harriman himself has another example to demonstrate the same point:

A child learns, for example, that pushing a ball makes it roll. Later he discovers that this does not happen if the ball reaches a certain weight, or if it is glued to the floor, or if it is made of iron and sitting on top of a strong magnet. None of this overthrows the initial first-level generalization. On the contrary, the latter is necessary for anyone to consider subsequent qualifications. One cannot reach or validate “Pushing moves a ball only under X conditions” until one has first grasped the elementary fact that “pushing moves a ball”. (P. 20.)

One can take other examples to illustrate the same point. (Of course, they are all very “childish”.) Take the example that fire makes paper burn. The toddler may observe this only to later observe that if one puts a soaking wet newspaper into the fire, it does not catch fire or at least takes longer to catch fire. This does not invalidate the toddler’s knowledge; it expands it; he knows it does not apply the same way to wet paper as it does to dry paper. (The same would go for wood: the dryer the wood, the more easily it catches fire.)

Or take the first-level generalization that water extinguishes fire. It does not take too long to realize that the amount of water and the size of the fire are important factors here. A small fire may be extinguished by a glass of water, but a big fire would not.

Some mistakes may be possible even on this very elementary level. Say the toddler mistakenly makes the generalization that liquid (any liquid) extinguishes fire. He is in for a very unpleasant surprise, if he tries to extinguish a fire with petrol. (Admittedly, this is a rather contrived example.)

But back to the question of singing balls. Balls don’t sing. So what could possibly make it sing? Well, this is what Travis Norsen writes in his Amazon review of Harriman’s book:

But take another example: say, a ball (containing batteries and appropriate electronic circuitry) that, when squeezed, plays a little song. Now, there is some sense in which a child who squeezes this ball and hears the song is perceiving causation: he is perceiving an entity acting in accordance with its identity, and that, according to Objectivism, is what causality is. But here, it seems to me that — unlike the case of the rolling ball — the specific features of its identity which underwrite the action in question are not relevantly available in perception. So presumably it would be wrong for a child to generalize, in this case, to “balls sing when you squeeze them” or just “balls sing” for short.

Is this a valid counter-argument? I don’t think so. It is even more contrived than the petrol example I gave above. Why on earth would anyone construct such a ball (or such an argument, for that matter)? In order to fool little kids into making the false generalization that “balls sing when squeezed”? Well, even if one were to succeed in fooling some kid this way, the kid would soon correct his mistake: he would encounter several balls that don’t sing at all when squeezed, and he would realize this was a very exceptional experience.

I asked Harriman on his blog what he thinks about this counter-example, and he answered:

What would a toddler’s response be to a ball that sings when he squeezes it? The child would laugh with surprise, because he knows that squeezing doesn’t cause singing. Anyone who can’t see the difference between the pushing/rolling example and the squeezing/singing example has spent too much time with professors and not enough time with children.

I agree.

And for another example of what kinds of misunderstanding surround this book, see A Weird Confusion about Concept Formation.


[1]) I have some serious disagreements with Leonard Peikoff, above all his unjust treatment of me. But I have to admit he has done a good job on the issue of induction.

Who Makes What Happen?

The following statement by Barack Obama is currently making the rounds on Facebook (and on the Internet in general):

If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that – somebody else made that happen.

OK, say you have got a business, and you have built it up from scratch. Your business needs customers, otherwise you will go out of business. Does this mean your business was built by your customers?

OK, perhaps you did not build your business from scratch; it is a family business that you inherited. Somebody else made it happen, namely your father or grandfather or great-great grandfather.

A book needs readers; a painting needs viewers; a piece of music needs listeners. That does not mean the readers built the book, the viewers the painting, or the listeners the music.

But maybe I am quoting Obama out of context here? So let me give some more extensive quotes:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me [that the wealthy should pay more in taxes], because they want to give something back.  They know they didn’t – look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.  You didn’t get there on your own.  I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart.  There are a lot of smart people out there.  It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.  Let me tell you something – there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.

Yes, there are people – even successful capitalists like Warren Buffett – who are mired in the Marxist exploitation theory, who believe their success and their wealth have come at the expense of other people, and that they therefore have a “duty” to “give back” to society. (On this issue I will refer you to George Reisman’s excellent Open Letter to Warren Buffett on the Subject of Class Warfare.)

And yes: “other people” is an important element of life. “Other people” can be of great help. The customers who buy your products (the readers who read your books, etc.) certainly help you succeed in your business. But that certainly does not mean that your customers made your business happen – you did. And your success is yours: if you turned out worthless products, no customer would help you succeed. If you succeed, you deserve every penny you earn. (Hank Rearden said this in Atlas Shrugged.)

Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.

The unbelievable American system was created by the Founding Fathers! And they built on Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke. What has Barack Obama done except undermining the Founding Father’s achievement? (True, he is not alone in this. The vision of the Founding Fathers has been steadily eroding over the centuries.)

Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a business. you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.  The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.  Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

Somebody has to invest in infrastructure like roads and bridges – but does it have to be the government that invests with money taken from the rest of us? I don’t think so; but this is a vast subject that I cannot go into now. But what about this idea that government created the Internet?

It is true that the Internet originally grew out of the ARPA net and was created by the US Department of Defense. But the ARPA net was immensely crude compared to today’s Internet. And every step taken since then have been taken by private, non-government initiative. Think of IBM, Microsoft, Apple, etc. etc. If it had stayed in the hands of government, nothing much would have happened.

Take another example. This blog is powered by WordPress. Does this mean that WordPress is creating this blog? Certainly not: I create it. WordPress has created the precondition without which I could not create this blog. (And WordPress certainly was not created by the government, even though the ARPA net is also a precondition for the existence of WordPress.)

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

Oh yes. This is the kernel of truth around which this web of lies is weaved.

There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own.  I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service.  That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.

This does not mean fire fighting could not be privatized. That something has to be organized does not mean the organizing has to be done by the government.

So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together.

The same kernel of truth as above. There is nothing wrong in cooperation. But we do not want to be one neck ready for one leash:

Remember the Roman Emperor who said he wished humanity had a single neck so he could cut it ? People have laughed at him for centuries. But we’ll have the last laugh. We’ve accomplished what he couldn’t accomplish. We’ve taught men to unite. This makes one neck ready for one leash. We found the magic word. Collectivism. – Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead.

But Obama should have the last word:

That’s how we funded the GI Bill.  That’s how we created the middle class.  That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam.  That’s how we invented the Internet.  That’s how we sent a man to the moon.  We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for president – because I still believe in that idea.  You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.

One neck ready for the one leash.

(The Obama quotes I have taken from here.)

PS. Others have written about this as well. I particularly recommend this article by Michael Hurd. There is also a short guest post by Jeffrey Tucker on Peter Creswell’s blog. (If you read Swedish, also read what Per Nilsson-Menger has to say.)

Update July 22: I also recommend Robert Tracinski’s latest article on RealClearMarkets, King Barack I vs. the American Gospel of Success. (I often recommend Tracinski; he is a very astute observer of the political scene.)

Also, several persons have observed the similarity between Obama’s statement and this diatribe by James Taggart in Atlas Shrugged:

He [Hank Rearden] didn’t invent iron ore and blast furnaces, did he? He didn’t invent smelting and chemistry and air compression. He couldn’t have invented his Metal but for thousands and thousands of other people. His Metal! Why does he think it’s his? Why does he think it’s his invention? Everybody uses the work of everybody else. Nobody ever invents anything.

Update August 2: There is another good article on Pajamas Media by Oleg Atbashian (a new name to me). He points out that

…if all of us can be credited for someone else’s achievement, by the same logic, all of us can be punished for someone else’s failure. Just as all individual credit goes to the society as a whole, so does all the blame.

And:

…if nothing is to your credit, then nothing is your fault.

And ends up with the following version of Obama’s speech:

If you have failed, somebody along the line ruined it for you. There was a lousy teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unfair American system that caused you to fail. Somebody benefited from your demise. If you’re a loser, it’s not your fault. Somebody else made that happen. The Titanic didn’t sink on its own. Corporations and insurance companies made a lot of money off of it, so they must be complicit. The point is, when we fail, we fail not only because of our individual shortcomings, but also because others have teamed up behind your backs.

Read the whole article.

Latin and Greek Phrases in Ludwig von Mises’ “Socialism”

(This is something that has bothered me ever since I read Mises’ Socialism some thirty years ago.)

Ludwig von Mises’ epoch-making Die Gemeinwirtschaft from 1922 (2. ed. 1932) was translated into English by J. Kahane and published in 1936 under the title Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis. Enlarged editions have been published later; the last one by Liberty Classics in 1981. I quote from the publisher’s preface to this last edition:

This edition leaves the text as translated by Kahane in 1936 and added to by Mises in 1951 undisturbed. The present publisher has, however, undertaken to add certain features to aid the contemporary reader. Translations have been provided for all non-English expressions left untranslated in the Jonathan Cape edition. These translations appear in parentheses after the expressions or passages in question. (P. xv; emphasis added.)

Well this would certainly aid the contemporary reader, who (one has to suppose) has no knowledge whatsoever of ancient Greek and Latin. There is, however, one big problem: some of those phrases are grossly mistranslated. Here is an inventory:

P. 55: The collective view of history, which is thoroughly asocial, cannot therefore conceive that social institutions could have arisen in any way except from the intervention of a “world shaper” of the Platonic δημιουργός[1] (one who works for the people).

This is not completely wrong, since the original meaning of “δημιουργός” was ”public worker”; but it is still misleading, since what Mises refers to here is Plato’s idea of a “world shaper” or “world creator”. (See the Wikipedia article on “demiurge”.)

P. 188: The great mass of people […] regard the existing state of affairs as eternal; as it has been so shall it always be. But even if they were in a position to envision the πάντα ρεϊ[2] (everything simple or all so easy) they would be baffled by the problems to be solved.

This translation does not even come close to the meaning of the term translated. “Πάντα ρεϊ” is a phrase that is commonly attributed to the philosopher Heraclitus and means “everything flows” or “everything is in a state of flux”. (The phrase itself is not to be found in the surviving works of Heraclitus; but he has said many similar things and it is a good, concise summary of his philosophy.)

P. 259: Evolution from the human animal to the human being was made possible by and achieved by means of social cooperation and by that alone. And therein lies the interpretation of Aristotle’s dictum that man is the ζῷον πολιτικόν[3] (the living body politic).

”Ζῷον πολιτικόν” means ”political animal”! (Or possibly “social animal”; the idea is that man cannot live outside of society and that society has to be organized some way.)

P. 357: Fiat justitia, pereat mundus (let justice be done even though the world be destroyed)…

Yes, this is a correct translation. But Mises has a point, expressed a couple of pages later:

P. 360: [A man] can never reject that which has been recognized as beneficial and reasonable simply because a norm, based on some mysterious intuition, declares it to be immoral – a norm the sense and purpose of which he is not entitled even to investigate. His principle is not fiat justitia, pereat mundus, but fiat justitia, ne pereat mundus (let justice be done, but do not destroy the world).

The conjunction “ne” is the Latin equivalent of the English “lest”, so the translation should be “let justice be done, lest the world be destroyed” (or perhaps “so that the world will not be destroyed”). And this is a profound insight – but it gets completely lost, if the Latin is not correctly translated!

Why those mistranslations? After all, one does not have to be a professor in those languages to spot them. (I took four years of Latin and two years of ancient Greek in school, but that doesn’t mean I master those languages.) And those expressions are by no means obscure: both “πάντα ρεϊ” and “ζῷον πολιτικόν” are well known and often quoted expressions. Your guess is as good as mine, but I would guess they are the result of pure guesswork.


[1]) Transliterated “dēmiourgós”.

[2]) Transliterated  ”pánta rhei”.

[3]) Transliterated ”zōon politikón”.

Two Nightmarish Pieces of Literature

Back in 1979 I took a university course in “creative English”, which resulted in a short story, The Public Sector, and a play, Exit the Dragon.

A word of warning: Both those pieces are indignation pieces and reflect a malevolent view of the world in which we live (or will live in the future, if trends are not changing). This is why I call them “nightmarish”. (There is some humor in them, though.)