Concepts – formed or found?

The other day I found the following in a debate on Facebook:

Forming new concepts requires the active, volitional use of measurement-omission (remember that forming concepts is literally a volitional, not automatic process).

This was part of an answer to the following paragraph from David Kelley’s book The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand: Truth and Toleration in Objectivism:

If someone claimed to have evidence against the law of non- contradiction, we could be sure in advance that the evidence is mistaken. If that law is not an absolute, then there is no such thing as evidence, truth, or facts. One cannot claim to know that a principle presupposed by any possible knowledge is false. Suppose, by contrast, that we found certain concepts to which the theory of measurement-omission seemed inapplicable. Here we could not take the same approach. Because the theory explains so much, we would not give it up lightly. We would first try to show that the evidence is mistaken. But we could not be certain of this in advance, as we were with the law of non-contradiction. As an inductive hypothesis about the functioning of a natural object—the human mind— the theory of measurement-omission is open to the possibility of revision in the same way that Newton’s theory of gravity was. And the same is true for the other principles of Objectivism. [My italics.]

And here is the full rejoinder:

I’d like to ask him how on earth would he “find” (pay attention to his wording, he doesn’t say “form”, he says “find”) any concept to which measurement-omission “doesn’t apply”.

Does he think that one learns about measurement-omission and goes about in life trying to “see how it fits” with already formed concepts? As if it was some hypothetical prediction that for confirmation requires us to go around and try to make it “fit in” with concepts out there in nature??

If that’s what he thinks, he’s utterly wrong. Forming new concepts requires the active, volitional use of measurement-omission (remember that forming concepts is literally a volitional, not automatic process) . We might even say that it’s presupposed by all subsequent forming (not finding) of concepts, just as he says it’s not.

Now, let me see if I can get heads or tails of this controversy.

The picture I get is David Kelley – or anybody who has read Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology – facing a bunch of scattered concepts. He picks one of them up and says: “This concept must have been formed by measurement omission.” He does the same with a second and a third and a forth and an n-th concept and says the same. But since every language contains literally millions of concepts (or words denoting concepts), it is hard to be sure that one will not encounter some concept that is formed by another method than measurement omission.

The upshot of this is that David Kelley does not know how to form concepts, since he has never formed one himself. He merely investigates concepts formed by others. With regard to concept formation, he is an abject second-hander. Ayn Rand had to tell him how concepts are formed.

But aren’t we all in the same predicament as Kelley here? None of us knew about measurement omission until we read ITOE. (If you did know, raise your hand and go to the head of the class.)

Speaking for myself. I have no slightest recollection of how I formed my first concepts as a young child. This may be because I, like David Kelley, is an abject second-hander with regard to concept formation, but somehow, I doubt it. (Again, raise your hand if you aren’t, and go to the head of the class.) Nevertheless, I managed to become quite proficient in Swedish (and fairly proficient in English). I learned and came to use one concept after another without giving a single thought to the measurements I omitted; and I did it quite effortlessly.

Now recall the first quote I gave:

Forming new concepts requires the active, volitional use of measurement-omission (remember that forming concepts is literally a volitional, not automatic process). [Emphasis added.]

How on earth did I learn to speak and write, if I did not actively and volitionally omit measurements? Yet, this very text proves that I did learn to speak and write.

One striking feature of man’s language development is the immense speed with which a child learns his first language – and also, how fast it moves from one level of abstraction to the next. Just one example:

Very young children do not use pronouns like “I” – they refer to themselves by their given name. But this is a very short transitional stage. And if you study children, you can certainly find more examples of this. (For example, using Ayn Rand’s own example, how long does it take for a child to move from the first level concepts “table”, “chair”, “bed”, etcetera, to the second level concept “furniture”?)

Learning a second language later in life (or a third or an umpty-first) takes more of a conscious, volitional effort. It takes more time. Some people do it with greater ease than others, but no one does it as easily as they learn their first language. Again, taking myself as an example, I took English for eight years in school; but those eight years did not make me master the language. If I master it now, it is because I have read many books in English, I have lived among English speaking people, I have written quite a lot in English, and I have made translations from English into Swedish. Now I know English well enough to see the shades of difference between English and Swedish.[1]

(I also took German, French, Latin and ancient Greek in school, and later I learned a smattering of Spanish. But I certainly do not master those languages. It is a matter of actually using the languages.)[2]

But back to measurement omission.

That concepts are formed by some characteristics being retained and others omitted is not new with Ayn Rand – what is new is that it is specifically measurements that are omitted. The “pre-Randian” idea is that the essential characteristics are retained and the non-essential or accidental ones are omitted. “Essential” here means those characteristics that make a thing what it is and separates it from all other things.

Take for example the concept “coffee”[3]. What are the essential characteristics of coffee? Well, its color – black or dark brown –, its taste – which distinguishes it from tea, milk, sugar, etcetera –, and the fact that you have to make it by pouring water, preferably boiling water.[4] What is omitted are such things as whether the beans were grown in Brazil or some other country (on the principle that they have to be grown somewhere but may be grown anywhere, within certain climatological limits). We also omit that some people take it straight, while others add sugar, milk or cream: it is still coffee, although the color may change. But the only measurement omitted is whether it is strong, weak, or something in-between.

But on Ayn Rand’s theory, only the strongness/weakness of the coffee would be significant. Or?

Let us see how Ayn Rand derives her theory:

Let us now examine the process of forming the simplest concept, the concept of a single attribute (chronologically, this is not the first concept that a child would grasp, but it is the simplest one epistemologically) – for instance, the concept “length”. If a child considers a match, a pencil and a stick, he observes that length is the attribute they have in common, but their specific lengths differ. The difference is one of measurement. In order to form the concept “length”, the child’s mind retains the attribute and omits its particular measurements. Or, more precisely, if the process were identified in words, it would consist of the following: “Length must exist in some quantity, but may exist in any quantity. I shall identify as ‘length’ that attribute of any existent possessing it which can be quantitatively related to a unit of length, without specifying the quantity.”

But no child goes through this rigmarole – certainly not with every new concept it forms or encounters. Ayn Rand, of course, is aware of this, so she continues:

The child does not think in such words (he has, as yet, no knowledge of words), but that is the nature of the process which his mind performs wordlessly. And that is the principle which his mind follows, when, having grasped the concept “length” by observing the three objects, he uses it to identify the attribute of length in a piece of string, a ribbon, a belt, a corridor or a street. (ITOE, p. 11 in the expanded second edition.)

Fair enough. But how could this wordless process (which I think would take place in a split second[5]) be an active, volitional process, requiring some conscious effort – as my first quote suggests?

Chronologically, this is not the first concept a child learns (or forms, or grasps). Children learn the names (or forms or grasps the concepts) of entities first. And I think a child would learn (form, grasp) the concepts “long” and “short” before the slightly more abstract “length”.[6]

But one thing should be noted: “length” is itself a measurement concept. So of course measurements are omitted when it is formed. What else is there to omit?

But Ayn Rand’s theory is that this applies to all concepts. Her next example, with which you are certainly familiar, is the concept “table”. This is formed by noticing its shape: “a flat, level surface and support(s)”. But is “shape” a measurement? Well, one could say that a common rectangular table has four side and four corners, a triangular table has three sides and three corners, and a circular or oval table has only one side and no corners at all. And most tables have four legs or supports, but they may actually have any number of legs/supports without ceasing being tables. Tables are also distinguished from other objects by their function: “to support other, smaller objects”, but it does not matter what number of other objects.

There are countless concepts to which measurement omission certainly applies. Take emotions: the concept “anger” covers everything from mild irritation to complete rage; the concept “fear” everything from mild nervousness to dreadful anxiety, etcetera. Or take thought processes: one may think hard about a subject or barely give it a thought. Love and hatred may be more or less intense; friendships more or less close; and you may think of more examples (many, or just a few).

Or take social (or political) systems: capitalism is characterized by private property, socialism by public property. But since, in today’s world, we have neither, but mixed economies of various mixtures, there is a graduated scale from “pure capitalism” to “pure socialism”, and we speak of more or less capitalism, more or less socialism.

Now some cases that at first glance appear to be hard:

“Here” and “now”, “there” and “then” are concepts that nobody has the slightest difficulty understanding.[7] But those are either–or concepts: an event happens here and now, or it happens there and then; there is no third possibility. So unless you count “one” and “zero” (or “yes” and “no”) as a measurement, there seems to be no measurements omitted or retained.

Concepts are often compared to file folders. Ayn Rand herself writes:

Concepts represent a system of mental filing and cross-filing, so complex that the largest electronic computer is a child’s toy by comparison. (ITOE, p. 69.)

The idea is that once you encounter (for example) horses, you make a file folder marked “horse” (or “häst”, “Pferd”, “cheval”, etc., depending on your native language). All the information you will ever acquire about horses then gets stuffed into this folder. If you are a hippologist, or work professionally with horses, the folder will be quite voluminous; but – since the folder is mental – there are no physical limitations to be considered. Everything that has ever been known, or will ever be known, about horses will fit into the folder. And the folder, or concept, itself will remain the same.

Now you encounter mules, so a new folder will be created. But, since quite a lot of what we know about horses and donkeys will also apply to mules, information will be copied from their folders and stuffed into the “mule” folder. And now you encounter centaurs (highly unlikely in real life, but they exist in mythology): you will copy information from the “horse” folder and the “man” folder and stuff it into this new folder.

Neither, since the folders are mental, does it pose any problem to stuff the folders into larger folders, such as “mammal” or “animal” or “organism” or “entity”.

And an orderly filing system means an orderly mind; a filing system in disarray means a mind in disarray.

But what about the folders marked “here” and “now”? Everything that happens at some point happens here and now, so those folders would literally contain everything. Or else, those folders would be immediately emptied and all their content moved over to the opposite folders, those marked “there” and “then” – and then, those folders would literally contain everything.

But having given it some further thought (and after a good night’s sleep), I came up with the following:

When I say “here”, I can mean: here, in front of my computer (as opposed to the bedroom, the living room, the kitchen or the bathroom); or here, in my apartment (as opposed to the street outside), or here in town (as opposed to out of town), or here in Sweden (as opposed to all other countries) or here on earth. Or even here in the Solar System, here in the Milky Way, here in the universe. (Only in this last case, there is no “there” to oppose it, since there is nothing outside the universe.)

Similarly with “now”. I could mean now, this moment, or now, today, this week, this year, this century.[8]

Another hard case I thought about is prepositions. Expressions like “the cup is on the table” or “I am sitting in the room” appear to be either–or propositions: either the cup is on the table, or it is not. But what is omitted here is where on the table the cup is situated, and where in the room I am sitting. It has to be somewhere, but it may be anywhere. “To” and “from” have to be to or from somewhere, but may be to or from anywhere. “Above” and “below” do not specify the distance, but it has to be some distance. (And you can go through the rest of the prepositions yourself.)

Another hard case it interjections. What measurements do we omit, when we say “ouch!” or “hooray!” or greet someone with a “hello”. I really don’t know. But Ayn Rand states:

Every word we use (with the exception of proper names) is a symbol that denotes a concept, i.e. that stands for an unlimited number of concretes of a certain kind. (ITOE, p. 10.)

Every word, mind you. And interjections are not proper names!

Concepts perform the function of condensing information. So it may be said that “ouch!” condenses the information “it hurts”, “hooray!” condenses “I have achieved a value and fell happy about it”, and that “hello” condenses “I have recognized you and want to communicate this fact to you”. But where are the measurements omitted? Or are we to call it a measurement omitted that we have to say “hello” to some person, but may say it to any person?

And what about conjunctions – words that join clauses together in a sentence? I see no measurement in the word (or concept) “that”; all the measurements are in the clauses joined together. And what about the infinitive mark – “to” in English? It merely serves to indicate that the verb that follows is in the infinitive form. There is no “more or less” involved here. And what about the definite and indefinite articles?[9]

Verbs (which denote concepts of actions/motions or states) do involve measurements omitted – for example, “walk”, “run”, “swim”, “fly”, which do not specify the speed; or “sit”, “stand”, “lie”, which do not specify the length of time. But what about auxiliary verbs – such as “do” in this very paragraph[10], or “have” in “I have said it before”, or “is” in “he is running” – which perform only a grammatical function?

And do those words – that have a merely grammatical function and have no meaning outside their grammatical context – stand for concepts? Well, Ayn Rand said that every word (except proper names) stands for a concept. But – as Craig Biddle has pointed out – “Ayn Rand said” is not an argument.

The upshot of all this is that “measurement omission” is virtually self-evident with a concept like “length” (or “width” or “weight”), which is already in itself a measurement concept. But it becomes harder and harder with other concepts, and with some concepts it is virtually impossible.

And finally: If measurement omission is “active and volitional”, then what about all those millennia that have passed from pre-historic times, when the first man formed the first concept, up to 1966–1967, when ITOE was first published? Everybody who has formed (or grasped or learned) a concept would simply know what had been going on – so why did Ayn Rand have to write a book about it? It would be like writing a treatise on how children learn to walk – interesting, but it would add very little to our knowledge.

Ayn Rand was not the first one to write about concepts, but she was the first one to give serious attention to the formation of concepts. At least, to my knowledge.[11]

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More on concept formation in What comes First, the Concept or the Word? Or search the tag concept formation. Scandinavian speaking readers may also read Vad ska vi med begrepp till? (i.e. What are Concepts For?).

[1] One such difference is that we do not use the expression “make heads of tails of”; we use expressions such as “make some sense of”. For other examples, see my blog post on the subject.

[2] There are some people – comparatively very few – who speak around thirty or more languages fluently. One of them was HS Nyberg, who was a professor of Semitic languages at the University of Uppsala. He was reportedly speaking 28 different languages – until somebody reported that he also spoke Yiddish to his barber. Another one was Ferdinand de Saussure, the famous linguist. A third one was another Swedish linguist, Björn Collinder, who was a professor of Finno-Ugric languages. And I once met a person, who is not famous and whose name I have forgotten, who told me that if he spent two weeks in a foreign country, he managed to learn the language. To me, who can only master two languages, this sounds like magic. But there has to be an explanation of the phenomenon, although I don’t know it.

[3] I thought of this when I poured my first mug of coffee this morning (or early afternoon, rather). If you drink tea, it would not change much.

[4] I have never tried making coffee by pouring cold or lukewarm water; but something tells me it is not advisable.

[5] I assume it is instantaneous or almost instantaneous, because if a child goes through this procedure with every new concept he encounters, he would not have the time to learn very many concepts, and language development would be very slow, which it certainly is not.

[6] I think this can be verified by closely studying the language development of children.

[7] An exception is St. Augustine, who famously claimed that as long as he does not think about time, he understands it, but as soon as he starts thinking about it, or explaining it, he has no clue. (Book 11 in Confessions.)

[8] St. Augustine, by the way, got into his trouble with time by only considering the fleeting moment as “now” – a “now” that immediately passes into the past..

[9] Some languages, like Latin, do not even have those parts of speech. “To be” in Latin is just “esse”, and Latin makes no distinction between “a house” and “the house”. Ancient Greek at least has a definite article. But the modern languages with which I am familiar do have them.

[10] The “do-construction”, by the way, does not exist in other languages than English. The “have-construction”, on the other hand, is common to many languages. Latin and ancient Greek don’t have them, but use inflections instead.

[11] Plato had the idea that our concepts are recollections of a former existence in the “world of forms”. Aristotle, I believe, was the father of the distinction between “essential” and “accidental” characteristics. The medieval scholastics did write about concepts, and so did John Locke. Immanuel Kant merely pressed all concepts into his scheme of twelve categories. But no philosopher before Ayn Rand, as far as I know, addressed the issue of how concepts are actually formed.

On the Origin of Ethics

Facebook note from September 2010.

What is the central concept of ethics? There are two answers to this question: Immanuel Kant makes “duty” the central concept; Ayn Rand makes “value” the central concept. This, in a nutshell, explains why Objectivists cannot stand Kant; it also explains why so many people cannot stand Ayn Rand; they are simply too steeped in a deontological view of ethics (and Kant was not the only deontologist in the history of philosophy).

How do Rand and Kant arrive at those widely diverging fundamental concepts? I do not know about Kant – he seems to have simply taken it for granted – but Ayn Rand tells us. I won’t repeat her derivation of “value” from “life”, because you are already familiar with it. But she also has something to say about the formation of the concept “value” in a child:

Now, in what manner does a human being discover the concept of “value”? By what means does he first become aware of the issue of “good or evil” in its simplest form? By means of the physical sensations of pleasure or pain. Just as sensations are the first step of the development of a human consciousness in the realm of cognition, so they are the first step in the realm of evaluation. (From “The Objectivist Ethics” in The Virtue of Selfishness.)

Does this sound like hedonism? Well, we know Ayn Rand was “profoundly opposed to the philosophy of hedonism”. And we know why: pleasure could not possibly be a standard of value. Neither could happiness: one’s own happiness is the proper goal of morality, but it is not the standard.

But “life as the standard” is too abstract for a small child to grasp. For one thing, the child does not yet know about death, and so cannot grasp the fundamental alternative of “life or death”. It only knows “pleasure or pain” and can then proceed to the slightly more abstract “happiness or suffering”.

An implication of this is that a child starts out as a hedonist: “pleasure” is the implicit standard. As his knowledge grows, he becomes an eudaemonist: “happiness” becomes the implicit standard. And finally, when he grasps that it all has its roots in the alternative of “life or death”, he becomes an Objectivist. (But he probably would have to read Ayn Rand to arrive at this stage.) And from this it would also seem that hedonism is closer to the truth than a deontological ethics.

How would a child form a deontological or “duty-centered” ethics?

What is “duty”? Essentially it is obedience to some authority. For a small child, the authority would be his parents, so it is his duty to obey them. Later come the duty to one’s country, or to God, or whatever. (Immanuel Kant would object to this and say it is a matter of obeying one’s own conscience – but to untangle this, I would have to write an essay on Kant’s distinction between the “noumenal” and the “phenomenal” self.)

Now, children do obey their parents (and later their school teachers) to a large extent. And so long as parents and teachers are rational, I see no harm in this. To use a phrase from Cesar Millan (“the dog whisperer”), children, as well as dogs, need “rules, boundaries and limitations”. The child will discover on his own the reasons for those rules, boundaries and limitations; and he will object to them only if and when he finds something wrong with them. (Of course, this last point is not applicable to dogs.) (And it goes without saying that the matter is very different, if or when parents and teachers are irrational.)

The reason I started thinking about this is that somebody recommended that I read Jean Piaget. I have read one of his essays, though unfortunately in a Swedish translation, so I cannot give any quotes. But the point is that Piaget writes that “pleasures” and “duties” sometimes conflict; and if I understand him correctly, he thinks that “duty” takes precedence over “pleasure”; it is a sign of maturity in a child when he subordinates a temporary pleasure to some duty. This is hardly the Objectivist view…

Piaget spent most of his life studying the cognitive development of children and adolescents and developed an extensive and rather complex theory about it. It was based, as all good theories should, on observation. This “pleasure/duty” clash is one such observation. But it is hard to reconcile with Ayn Rand’s view. But she might answer that it is actually a clash between “short-term pleasure” and “long-term happiness”. An example of this is that it may be painful to go to the dentist; but we do it anyway, since not doing it will impede our future happiness.

Some further observations

(Added 2016.)

In the period preceding Kant, it was customary among rights philosophers to distinguish between three kinds of duties: duties to God, to society (or one’s fellow human beings) and to oneself.[1] Immanuel Kant, to the best of my knowledge, makes no such distinction.

Kant famously argued that man has a duty to preserve his life, even (and especially) when life has become so painful as to be unbearable. Is this a duty to God? Why should God even care, unless he were a sadist? Is it a duty to one’s fellow men? But why would they want you to suffer? Is it a duty to oneself? Hardly. No, it is just duty for the sake of duty, with no visible beneficiary.

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A famous Objectivist once said in a courtroom speech:

Man’s first duty is to himself.

He obviously had not read Ayn Rand’s essay “Causality versus Duty”, where she dismisses the very concept of duty.[2]

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Aristotle’s ethics if of course value-centered, in that it has a specific aim: the achievement of ευδαιμονια, i.e. happiness or flourishing. There is no talk in Aristotle about obedience to some authority, whether outer or inner. The same of course is true about any form of eudaemonism or hedonism.

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Once a long time ago I saw the objection to Objectivism, from an academic philosopher, that there is no duty to act egoistically, just as there is no duty to act altruistically. Abysmal ignorance about Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

Or are we to assume that there is a duty to pursue values? That we should pursue them because some outer or inner authority has commanded us to pursue them?

[1] See for example Samuel Pufendorf, De officio hominis et civis juxta legem naturalem (or On the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law  in English), published in 1673.

[2] I am referring of course to Howard Roark. Don’t take the words “famous Objectivist” too seriously!