Equivocating on Dialectics

Chris Matthew Sciabarra has achieved some herostratic fame by claiming that Ayn Rand – her own protestations to the contrary notwithstanding – was a “dialectical thinker”. What does he mean by “dialectical” here? I will let him speak for himself:

Throughout the history of philosophy the term “dialectics” has been used in many different senses. Aristotle recognized dialectic and rhetoric as counterparts of each other; for him, rhetoric was the art of public speaking, or the “faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion”, whereas dialectic was the art of logical discussion and argumentation. In dialectic, the interlocutor proceeds from accepted (or specific) propositions and argues toward a more basic (or general) conclusion. Although mastery of this dialectic technique was the hallmark of Socratic and Platonic philosophy, Aristotle argued that it was insufficient for establishing scientific truth. Nevertheless, he valued the dialectic because it demanded the study of questions from multiple vantage points. It is for this reason, perhaps, that Marx, Engels, and Lenin recognized Aristotle as the father of dialectical inquiry. Engels, in fact, called Aristotle “the Hegel of the ancient world”, who “had already analyzed the most essential forms of dialectic thought”. And Lenin argued that within Aristotle lies “the living germs of dialectics and inquiries about it”. (Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, p. 15f.)

Now, Plato’s philosophy is called “dialectic” simply because it was presented in the form of dialogues. And Sciabarra immediately forgets the truth he spoke in the first sentence: that the term “dialectics” has been used in many different senses – or else, he thinks that all those different senses are actually the very same sense. He continues:

More than two thousand years after Aristotle’s death, Hegel developed a conception of dialectics as an ontological and historical process. Hegel’s dialectical method affirms the impossibility of logical contradiction and focuses instead on relational “contradictions” or paradoxes revealed in the dynamism of history. For Hegel, opposing concepts could be identified as merely partial views whose apparent contradictions could be transcended by exhibiting them as internally related within a larger whole. From pairs of opposing theses, elements of truth could be extracted and integrated into a third position. Other philosophers saw this form of dialectics as a triadic movement in which the conflict of “thesis” and “antithesis” is resolved through “synthesis”. Dialectical materialists place this process on an economic foundation and used it as the basis for a philosophy of history. (Ibidem, p. 16.)

Now, this is a widely different sense from both Plato’s and Aristotle’s.

Hegel begins his dialectics by analyzing the widest possible of all concepts, namely “being”. To be is to be something: a thing may be red or blue or some other color; it may be quiet or noisy; it may be large – such as a solar system, a galaxy or the entire universe; or it may be small – as a speck of dust, an atom or an elementary particle; etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitum. When we form the concept “being” – says Hegel – we abstract away from all those qualifications, until there is nothing left. Then the concept “being” turns into its opposite, the concept “nothing”. And then – lo and behold! – those concepts merge into the concept “becoming” – where “nothing” turns into “something” (or “something” turns into “nothing”).[1]

And what on earth does this have in common with Aristotle?

Aristotle called an argument, or a line of reasoning, demonstrative, when the premises are certain, and dialectical, when the premises are uncertain or disputed. In his own words:

Now a deduction is an argument in which, certain things being laid down, something other than these necessarily comes about through them. It is a demonstration, when the premisses from which the deduction starts are true and primitive,[2] or are such that our knowledge of them has originally come through premisses which are primitive and true; and it is a dialectical deductions, if it reasons from reputable opinions. Things are true and primitive which are convincing on the strength not of anything else but themselves; for in regard to the first principles of science it is improper to ask any further for the why and wherefore of them; each of the first principles should command belief in and by itself. On the other hand, those opinions are reputable which are accepted by everyone or by the majority or by the wise – i.e. by all, or by the majority, or by the most notable and reputable of them. Again, a deduction is contentious if it starts from opinions that seem to be reputable, but are not really such, or again if it merely seems to reason from opinions that are or seem to be reputable. For not every opinion which we call reputable actually is reputable. (The very beginning of Topics, p. 167 in The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. by Jonathan Barnes, Vol. 1; translated by W.A. Pickard-Cambridge; also available on the web.)

Aristotle being a reputable philosopher, we can at least argue dialectically with him! Hegelians ­– and Marxists – on the other hand are impossible to argue with, since they will turn everything one says into its exact opposite; hoping – I presume – for some synthesis to come out of it.

But the point is that Aristotle’s dialectics and Hegel’s have only the name in common. Sciabarra’s whole reasoning is based on an enormous equivocation or package deal.

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What, then, did Ayn Rand herself have to say about dialectics? Not much. The only thing that comes to my mind is that Floyd Ferris, in Atlas Shrugged, once accused Fred Kinnan of being unable to think dialectically. And – in case you have not read the book – Floyd Ferris is one of the worst villains, while Fred Kinnan is the best of the villains.

She certainly opposed Hegel’s philosophy – this is almost a “true and primitive” statement.. Not that she ever read him – she once wrote:

And no one has ever read Hegel (even though many have looked at every word on his every page). (Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 143; italics mine.)

Well, I have not looked at every word on his every page; but I have read what he wrote about “being”, “nothing” and “becoming”.[3]

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I have not thought about Sciabarra for ages. The reason I do it now is a couple of Facebook discussions about a comment on his book, written by Anoop Verma.

My Swedish readers may recall that I wrote some criticisms of Sciabarra in the late 90s. If you happen to know Swedish, you may read Nattväktaren, årgång 2, nr 6, årgång 2, nr 9, årgång 3, nr 7 och årgång 3, nr 10–11.

For another critical appraisal, read James G. Lennox’s review. John Ridpath also wrote a highly critical review in The Intellectual Activist, but only a short summary is available on the web.

And here is a comment on Facebook by Brad Aisa, with which I concur:

That book is intellectual claptrap. The first, largely biographical section was interesting. But once he gets into the meat of his thesis it breaks down utterly. His entire schtick is taking two things with an inessential common attribute, then trying to claim fundamental parity. The sundry ideologies he tries to claim formed a basis for Rand’s own ideas are utterly opposite of Objectivism in every important way.


[1] In case you wonder what is wrong with this reasoning, I refer you to Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology:

A widespread error […] holds that the wider the concept, the less its cognitive content – on the ground that its distinguishing characteristic is more generalized. The error lies in assuming that a concept consists of nothing but its distinguishing characteristic. (P. 26 in the expanded second edition)

[2] ”Primitive” here means ”primary”.

[3] You can read what he writes in an English translation here.

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.

Immanuel Kant on this, that and the other thing …

… as they are in themselves and as they appear to us.

Leonard Peikoff once asked Ayn Rand why she was so vehement in denouncing Immanuel Kant’s theories, and she answered (according to Peikoff) in essence:

When someone says that reality is unreal or that reason is subjective, he is, admittedly or not, attacking every conviction and value I hold. Everything I love in life – my work, my husband, my kind of music, my freedom, the creativity of man’s life – all of it rests on my perception of reality; all of it becomes a delusion and an impossibility if reason is impotent.

And Peikoff adds:

If you went up to an ordinary individual, itemized every object and person he cared for, then said to him seriously: “I intend to smash them all and leave you groveling in the muck”, he would become indignant, even outraged. What set Ayn Rand apart from mankind is the fact that she heard the whole itemization and the intention to smash everything in the simple statement that “reality is unreal”. (“My Thirty Years With Ayn Rand”, The Voice of Reason, p. 337.)

And where, in the collected works of Immanuel Kant, does one find the statement that “reality is unreal”?

Or is it the case that, although he did not say or write this, he actually meant this? Is this something we can read between the lines in Kant’s works?

The basis for believing so is, of course, Kant’s distinction between “things in themselves” (or “noumena”) and “things as they appear to us” (or “phenomena”). Only those “things in themselves” represent “true reality”; but it is impossible for us to gain true knowledge of them; they are forever hidden to us.

But did Kant ever say that those “appearances” that surround us all the time are unreal? Not to my knowledge. All he said is that they are not the whole truth about reality – and that this “whole truth” is inaccessible to us.[1]

But all Kant can validly claim is that the “appearances” – the material provided us by the evidence of our senses – do not represent omniscience; and that, no matter how much more we learn, we will never reach omniscience.

An example of this is when we observe a tree. We only observe the outside of the tree – that is how it appears to us. When we saw through the tree, we also see the inside of it, and we notice the rings. As our knowledge grows, we learn that those rings tell us the age of the tree; thus we call them “year rings” or “annual rings”. Then we learn that the tree is built up by molecules, and those in turn by atoms, and the atoms by elementary particles.

Or take a house: we first observe it as it appears from the outside; we then walk into the house and visit the apartments; we then also know the house as it appears from the inside. And we look into every nook and cranny, but no matter how hard we look, we never become omniscient about this house, much less then about every house in the world.

Or take an animal or human body: we do not see how it appears from the inside until we perform a dissection; and even then, there is much more to be learned.

No matter what, there is always more we can learn about the tree, the house and the body. And this is true about everything we observe: we only observe what we observe; but there is always more to observe.

But this does not justify Kant’s conclusion that there is some kind of gulf between what we experience through our senses and what the things are “in themselves”. Everything about a thing is an aspect of the thing, or an attribute or a property of it. The fact that we do not know all those aspects or attributes, and may never come to know them all, does not mean that we do not know what we actually know.

Kant also claims that – although the “things in themselves” are unknowable – we can at least know that they exist. His argument for this is that there could not be appearances without the things that appear.

I believe, however, that there are internal inconsistencies in Kant’s view. He claims that we only perceive reality as “filtered” through the categories. Those categories only apply to the “appearances”, not to the “things in themselves”. But one of those categories is “reality” (which he contrasts to “negation” and “limitation”). So how can he claim anything about the reality of the things in themselves? And another category is “existence” (contrasted to “possibility” and “necessity”). How then can he claim that those things in themselves actually exist? And, if causality does not apply to the “noumenal” realm of “things in themselves”, how is it possible for those things in themselves to give rise to appearances?

Kant on space and time

Apart from the categories, our experience (according to Kant) is also filtered through space and time. He calls them “forms of appearance” or “Anschaungsformen” in German. They are provided, not by external reality or by our senses, but by our own minds. They are not experience, but “a priory” conditions for having experience at all.

This is really odd. Take the statement: “Immanuel Kant lived in Königsberg in the 18th and early 19th centuries; while I live in Sweden in the 20th and early 21th centuries.” Is this a statement about how it really is – about Kant in himself and me in myself? Or is it only a matter of how my mind brings order in the relationship between me and Immanuel Kant? And how would this account for the fact that I was born 218 years later than he? If time were merely a “form of appearance”, this would be a piece of cake: Kant would simply pick me (or what I have written about him) from the manifold of appearances and place me at this point in the future. If time is an aspect of the real world, this would be … well, not quite that easy.

Kant actually claims that the senses are valid (although they only give us knowledge of appearances, not about things as they really are). But space and time, he claims, are not provided by our senses.

But – just like all our abstractions – our concepts of “space” and “time” derive ultimately from sensory experience. For example, I observe that the computer is on the table, that there is a door to the left of me and a window to the right of me, that there are a couple of pictures on the wall in front of me, and (if I turn around) that there are book shelves behind me. I observe that the distance to the door is shorter that the distance to the window. Outside of the window there is another house; somewhere inside my apartment my lady-friend is watching the television; etc., etc. Likewise with time: the sentences I write come before and after one another; dawn comes after night time and dusk before night time; seasons come and go in a regular succession; and Usain Bolt traverses short distances in a shorter time period than anyone else has done before and that only he, himself, has done afterwards. – “Space” and “time” refer to the sum of all those relationships.

The “a priori” and the “a posteriori”

Kant claims that there are three kinds of statements:

  1. Analytical statements a priori – i.e. statements that are true “by definition”. For example the statement that baldheaded men (or women) lack hair. We do not have to conduct an investigation – go out and check every baldheaded person to see if he has hair or not.
  2. Synthetic statements a posteriori – i.e. statements that do require such an investigation. For example the statement that Usain Bolt holds the world records for 100 and 200 meters. It is not part of the definition of “Usain Bolt” that he holds those records; we have to actually see it (or at least read about it in the papers.). They are “synthetic” because they combine (“synthesize”) two or more facts (such as the facts that Usain Bolt exists and that he runs short distances faster than everybody else).
  3. Synthetic statements a priori. Those are statements that are not true by definition; but neither are they true by experience (by actually conducting an investigation), but true nevertheless.

Kant has some rather odd examples. For example, he claims that there is nothing about the concepts of “5” and “7” that necessitates the concept “12” when they are combined by using the concept “+”. Nevertheless, it is true the “5+7=12”. He also claims that, although it is true by definition that objects have extension, it is not true by definition that they have weight; yet it seems preposterous to conduct an investigation and weigh all objects to ascertain that there are no weightless objects. It is part of the definition of “object”, he says, that they have at least some extension; but it is not part of the definition that they can be light or heavy.

Do you notice what is missing here? There is no mention of statements that are analytical a posteriori. And I would claim that most true statements are just that: analytical a posteriori.

Take Kant’s own example. How so we know that objects have extension? By observing objects! And how do we know they have weight, that they are more or less heavy? Again, by observing them. The only difference here is that we observe extension by sight, but we observe weight by trying to lift the objects. Kant’s distinction is arbitrary: he might as well define “object” as having weight, and then claim that their having extension is a “synthetic a priori”.

More generally: What are we actually doing with the things we observe? We form concepts; we combine our concepts into sentences; we build theories (or make hypotheses); we make up whole systems of philosophy or science. Some of this is synthesis, but a lot of it is analysis of our observations. And the observations always come first: they are what is properly speaking ”a priori”.

Take such a simple statement as “this food tastes good”. It is synthetic in that it combines the food with the taste (and adds the value judgment “good”); but it is also an analysis of the meal one is eating!

Did Kant deny knowledge?

The line from Kant that is most often quoted by Objectivists is this one (from the preface to the 2nd edition of Critique of Pure Reason):

I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.

Seems clear enough. But in the original German, Kant does not use the German word for “deny” (“verneinen” or “verleugnen”); he says “das Wissen aufzuheben”. And the closest English equivalent to this expression is “to suspend knowledge”.[2]

You may say that suspending knowledge is not much better than denying knowledge; but there is a difference. Suspending may be temporary. “Suspending knowledge” does not necessarily mean closing the door on knowledge forever, which “denying knowledge” would mean.

Also, there is a double meaning to the German “aufheben” (as also to the Swedish counterpart “upphäva”): apart from “suspend” it can also mean “lift up” or “raise to a higher level”.

And you should actually know this. Leonard Peikoff has lectured on Hegel’s philosophy, and this double meaning of the word “aufheben” is a corner stone of Hegel: when a thesis turns into its antithesis, both the thesis and the antithesis are “aufgehoben”, i.e. both “suspended” and “lifted up” or “raised up” into the synthesis.

Kant, of course, wasn’t Hegel, so I do not know whether he, too, was playing on this double meaning. But it is a possibility.

Be that as it may; but we must also ask what knowledge Kant wants to suspend. Is it the knowledge that grass is green, or that the earth revolves around the sun, or that the square of the hypotenuse equals the sum of the squares of the other two sides? No, it’s not. If you just read the preceding sentences, you will find that it is knowledge of God, freedom of the will and immortality. Those are the things Kant claims we have no certain knowledge of and have to suspend this knowledge in favor of faith. (Earlier philosophers, such as Leibniz, had claimed that those things could be proven; and this is what Kant turned against. And before Kant woke up from what he called his “dogmatic slumber”, he was an adherent of Christian Wolff, who in turn was an adherent of Leibniz.)

Update March 31: Here is the whole paragraph from the preface to the 2nd edition:

The positive value of the critical principles of pure reason in relation to the conception of God and of the simple nature of the soul, admits of a similar exemplification; but on this point I shall not dwell. I cannot even make the assumption—as the practical interests of morality require—of God, freedom, and immortality, if I do not deprive speculative reason of its pretensions to transcendent insight. For to arrive at these, it must make use of principles which, in fact, extend only to the objects of possible experience, and which cannot be applied to objects beyond this sphere without converting them into phenomena, and thus rendering the practical extension of pure reason impossible. I must, therefore, abolish knowledge, to make room for belief. The dogmatism of metaphysics, that is, the presumption that it is possible to advance in metaphysics without previous criticism, is the true source of the unbelief (always dogmatic) which militates against morality.

Here ”aufheben” is translated as “abolish”, but I still think “suspend” is more accurate. But it shows what kind of (alleged) knowledge Kant wanted to do away with.

The translation is published by Project Gutenberg.

This leads us to:

Kant on free will

I won’t bother with Kant’s views on God and immortality, since I believe in neither, anyway. But I sometimes hear that Objectivists should not be too harsh on Kant, since he shares with us the conviction that man has free will.

Now, the alleged “problem” with free will is that it is seen as an exception to the law of causality. But (qua Objectivists) we know that this is not the case at all. It is not an exception, but a special kind of causation. Nathaniel Branden (who at that time was speaking for Ayn Rand) explains it very well:

{The] freedom of choice is not a negation of causality, but a category of it, a category that pertains to man. A process of thought is not causeless, it is caused by man. The actions possible to an entity are determined by the entity that acts – and the nature of man (and of man’s mind) is such that it necessitates the choice between focusing and non-focusing, between thinking and non-thinking. Man’s nature does not allow him to escape this choice, it is his alone to make: it is not made for him by the gods, the stars, the chemistry of his body, the structure of his “family constellation” or the economic organization of his society.

If one is to be bound by a genuine “empiricism” – meaning: a respect for observable facts, without arbitrary a priori commitments to which reality must be “adjusted” – one cannot ignore this distinctive attribute of man’s nature. And if one understands the law of causality as a relationship between entities and their actions, then the problem of “reconciling” volition and causality is seen to be illusory. (“Volition and the Law of Causality”, The Objectivist, March 1966.)

Kant, on the other hand, does see our free will as an exception to causality, and his attempt at “reconciling” this illusory dilemma is as follows:

Causality is a category that only applies to the world of appearances or phenomena in which we live; it does not apply to the “noumenal” world of “things in themselves”. But man has a twofold nature: he is part of the world of phenomena but also part of the world of noumena. Conclusion: As a “phenomenon” or “appearance” man is totally determined – he can only act as mechanical causes force him to act – but as a “noumenon”, as he is in himself, he is totally free. Not much of an explanation, unless one accepts Kant’s premises. Leonard Peikoff has this to say:

The classic expression of this [the mystical] viewpoint is the disastrous Kantian slogan: “God, freedom, and immortality”, which has had the effect of making “freedom” laughable by equating it with two bromides of supernaturalism. What reputable thinker cares to uphold volition if it is offered under the banner, “ghosts, choice, and the Pearly Gates”? (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 72.)

Kant understood that without free will, ethics would be meaningless, which leads us to:

Kant’s ethics

What is the central concept in ethics? According to Objectivism, it is “value”, and a value is that which furthers our life and well-being. This is also implicit in Aristotle’s ethics: the term “εὐδαιμονία”, commonly translated as ”happiness”, covers such things as health and success in life.

According to Kant, it is “duty”. Duty is a matter of unquestioning obedience to some authority (be it one’s parents, one’s teachers, one’s superiors, the law and the lawmakers, bishops and popes, or God). In Kant’s case, it is obedience to an inner authority, one’s conscience.

Kant contrasts “duty” with “inclinations”, i.e., our own wants and desires. Insofar as we pursue our own values, this is outside the province of ethics; whenever there is a conflict or clash between our pursuit of values and our duties, and we nevertheless choose to pursue those values, we are immoral. Putting the pursuit of values above duty is what Kant calls the “radical evil” of man.

It is quite obvious that Kant’s ethics is sadistic. Take the often quoted example of a man, whose life has become unbearable and abstains from suicide out of duty alone. (Kant himself says that this man has been overcome with sorrow, but it is equally applicable to someone who has a painful and incurable disease.) Leonard Peikoff was right in dubbing it “the ethics of evil” (in The Ominous Parallels).

It might seem that Kant shares Ayn Rand’s view that man is an end in itself, since one of his formulations of the “categorical imperative” is:

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

But in the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals this is immediately followed by the example of a man contemplating suicide. If he takes his own life because of unbearable pain, then he uses his own person, not as an end in itself, but as a means to the end of escaping pain!

Also, Kant actually did not regard the individual man as an end in himself, only the humanity that this individual represent. In a short piece titled Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View, he argues that the ultimate end is the perfection of society, to which end, of course, every individual must contribute. And he argues that, since it is impossible for an individual to achieve perfection in his own short life span, the ultimate end must lie somewhere in the distant future.

Kant’s “Copernican Revolution”

According to the correspondence theory of truth – and according to plain common sense – our cognition should conform to the objects of cognition. Kant is supposed to have performed a “Copernican revolution” by claiming the opposite: that the objects should conform to our cognition. Here are his own words:

It appears to me that the examples of mathematics and natural philosophy, which, as we have seen, were brought into their present condition by a sudden revolution, are sufficiently remarkable to fix our attention on the essential circumstances of the change which has proved so advantageous to them, and to induce us to make the experiment of imitating them, so far as the analogy which, as rational sciences, they bear to metaphysics may permit. It has hitherto been assumed that our cognition must conform to the objects; but all attempts to ascertain anything about these objects a priori, by means of conceptions, and thus to extend the range of our knowledge, have been rendered abortive by this assumption. Let us then make the experiment whether we may not be more successful in metaphysics, if we assume that the objects must conform to our cognition. This appears, at all events, to accord better with the possibility of our gaining the end we have in view, that is to say, of arriving at the cognition of objects a priori, of determining something with respect to these objects, before they are given to us. We here propose to do just what Copernicus did in attempting to explain the celestial movements. When he found that he could make no progress by assuming that all the heavenly bodies revolved round the spectator, he reversed the process, and tried the experiment of assuming that the spectator revolved, while the stars remained at rest. We may make the same experiment with regard to the intuition of objects. If the intuition must conform to the nature of the objects, I do not see how we can know anything of them a priori. If, on the other hand, the object conforms to the nature of our faculty of intuition, I can then easily conceive the possibility of such an a priori knowledge. Now as I cannot rest in the mere intuitions, but—if they are to become cognitions—must refer them, as representations, to something, as object, and must determine the latter by means of the former, here again there are two courses open to me. Either, first, I may assume that the conceptions, by which I effect this determination, conform to the object—and in this case I am reduced to the same perplexity as before; or secondly, I may assume that the objects, or, which is the same thing, that experience, in which alone as given objects they are cognized, conform to my conceptions—and then I am at no loss how to proceed. For experience itself is a mode of cognition which requires understanding. Before objects, are given to me, that is, a priori, I must presuppose in myself laws of the understanding which are expressed in conceptions a priori. To these conceptions, then, all the objects of experience must necessarily conform. Now there are objects which reason thinks, and that necessarily, but which cannot be given in experience, or, at least, cannot be given so as reason thinks them. The attempt to think these objects will hereafter furnish an excellent test of the new method of thought which we have adopted, and which is based on the principle that we only cognize in things a priori that which we ourselves place in them. (The Critique of Pure Reason, preface to the 2nd edition, 1787.)

Clear enough – except that it is impossible to make heads or tails of this paragraph.

It must be passages like this that made Ayn Rand write:

The entire apparatus of Kant’s system, like a hippopotamus engaged in belly-dancing, goes through its gyrations while resting on a single point: that man’s knowledge is not valid because his consciousness possesses identity. (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 80 in the expanded 2nd edition.)

Was Kant an emotionalist?

Ayn Rand thought so. In the title essay of Philosophy: Who Needs It, she writes:

Have you ever thought or said the following? […] “I can’t prove it, but I feel that it’s true.” You got it from Kant. (P. 5,)

In fact, Kant said the exact opposite. In his Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der bloßen Vernunft), one finds the short and simple sentence

Emotions are not knowledge.

And one thing Kant was very much opposed to was “Schwärmerei”, a word that has no exact counterpart in English, but may be translated as “excessive emotion” or “mad enthusiasm”.

So much for Kant’s alleged emotionalism. Whatever else is wrong with his philosophy, he was not wrong on this.

Kant’s influence

Should everything bad that happens in the world be blamed on Immanuel Kant? Leonard Peikoff certainly thinks so:

[Ayn Rand] held that Kant was morally much worse than any killer, including Lenin and Stalin […], because it was Kant who unleashed not only Lenin and Stalin, but also Hitler and Mao and all the other disasters of our disastrous age. Without the philosophical climate Kant and his intellectual followers created, none of these disasters could have occurred; given that climate, none could have been averted. (“Fact and Value”, The Intellectual Activist, May 1989.)

This is only partially true. The greatest threat to our civilization today is Islam; and I don’t think Kant has had even the slightest influence in the Muslim world.[3] On the other hand, the West’s weak response to this threat can be blamed on Kant (although by a rather circuitous route).

Or take the genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994 – or the fact that many children in Africa are forced to become child soldiers. How is this to be blamed on Immanuel Kant? Kant influence in Africa has to be negligible.

Also, many bad things (such as the Thirty Years’ War and … well, the examples are too numerous to itemize) happened before Kant was even born. Should we blame them on other philosopher, like Plato and Augustine? But bad things also happened before the time of Plato.

The main theme of The Ominous Parallels is that the philosophers (mainly Kant and Hegel, and before them Plato) are responsible for the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust. Does this mean that Immanuel Kant, if he were to be magically brought back to life in the early 1940’s to see what was going on at Auschwitz, Treblinka and Soribór, would have said: “Finally the world has come to understand my ideas!”? I think not.

There are other areas where one can find the bad influence of Kant. David Harriman, in his lecture series “The Philosophic Corruption of Physics” argues that physics nowadays is not looking for actual physical causes and settle for mere mathematical descriptions of the appearances, which of course stems from their acceptance of Kant’s idea that causality does not apply to “things in themselves” – so why bother to look for actual, physical causes?

Kant on the swathing of infants

You probably did not know this, but Kant was opposed to the custom of swathing infants:

It is simply for the sake of our own convenience that we swathe our children like mummies, so that we may not have the trouble of watching them in order to prevent their limbs from getting broken or bent. And yet it often happens that they do get bent, just by swathing them. Also it makes the children themselves uneasy, and they are almost driven to despair on account of their never being able to use their limbs. (Kant on Education, published in 1803.)

A complete moral monster would not have written this. Which leads us to the question:

Was Kant really “the most evil man in mankind’s history”?

I think this is an exaggeration – I think the Prophet (damned be his name!) was even more evil – but I will not spend time and effort investigating every evil person in the history of mankind. Instead, let me ask what Kant would have thought of Ayn Rand.

Self-love, according to Kant – especially putting self-love above duty – is the “radical evil” of man. Men should fulfill their duties, not pursue their happiness. Ayn Rand formulated an ethics of selfishness, of selfishly pursuing one’s values and one’s happiness. She said that

… the achievement of his own happiness is man’s highest moral purpose. (“The Objectivist Ethics” in The Virtue of Selfishness; emphasis in the original.)

The conclusion is inevitable: Kant would have regarded Ayn Rand as “the most evil person (man or woman) in the history of mankind”.


[1] The German word for ”appearance” is “Erscheinung”. This is akin to “Schein”, which means “illusion”. In his Prolegomena Kant goes to some length explaining that he does not mean “Schein” when he writes “Erscheinung”.

[2] The German language has the habit of sticking the infinitive mark “zu” into the middle of compound words like “aufheben”; thus “aufzuheben”, not “zu aufheben”.

[3] Apart from the Prophet himself (damned be his name!), the main bad philosophical influence is al-Ghazali (ca 1058–1111). See on this my blog post Islam versus Reason and Logic.

Can Values Be Measured?

That depends on what we mean by “measurement”. They cannot be measured the way we measure physical object – length, weight, etc. But they certainly can be ranked.

Ayn Rand, in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, calls this “teleological measurement”. We rank values according to their relation to a goal or an end. So, for example, food, clothing and shelter have to be highly valued, since they are necessary for the mere preservation of life. Friendship, a happy marriage and a rewarding career are valued because they enhance our life and well-being. (You can think of other examples yourself.) But they cannot be measured with ordinal numbers; they have to be measured by cardinal numbers You can say that one value is more valuable than another, but you cannot express that numerically.

I came to think about this when reading Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk’s Basic Principles of Economic Value. He writes:

… let us imagine a small boy who wants to buy fruit with a small coin in his possession. He can buy either one apple or six plums. Of course, he will compare the eating pleasures afforded by both kinds of fruit. To make his decision, it is not enough to know that he prefers apples over plums. He must decide with numerical precision whether the enjoyment of one apple exceeds the enjoyment of six or fewer plums. To approach the situation from a different angle, let us consider two boys, one with the apple and the other with the plums. The latter would like to acquire the apple and, therefore, offers his plums in exchange. After deliberating on his eating pleasures, the former rejects four, five, and six plums for his apple. But he begins to waver when seven plums are offered, and finally makes the exchange at a price of eight. Doesn’t his trade reveal a numerically conclusion that the pleasure of one apple exceeds that of a plum at least seven times but less than eight times?

I laughed when I read this – not because there is anything wrong with it but because it is ingenious. (Böhm-Bawerk is often ingenious!)

Well, in this case there is a possibility to numerically fix values and to do it by ordinal numbers. But it cannot be as exact as when we measure length or weight. It is an approximation, although within strict limits; in this example between seven and eight. It hardly applies to the values I mentioned in the beginning. Actually, it applies only to values that are exchanged, i.e. economic values. (Friends and spouses are not bought and sold!)

It does apply when it comes to budgeting our money – choosing what food or clothes to buy or what house or apartment to live in. Here we do reason the way the boy in Böhm-Bawerk’s example reasons, weighing for and against and arriving at a price we can afford for whatever alternative suits us best.

And there may be other implications that I haven’t been able to figure out yet. So take this post only as a stray observation!

(See also Ayn Rand and Böhm-Bawerk on Value.)

What Concepts Are First Level?

(A fairly unnecessary blog post.)

A while ago I wrote a blog post called A Weird Confusion About Concept Formation (a blog post that shouldn’t be necessary, except for the fact that someone was confused about it). Someone claimed that only concepts of entities are “first level” concepts, and that concepts of attributes, motions and relationships must be “higher level” concepts. (He even invoked Ayn Rand’s authority for this view, but that was based on a misreading of her.) But in fact, a first level concept is simply one that can be formed from direct sense experience, and that is certainly the case of many concepts of attributes, motions and relationships as well.

To repeat this point with slightly different words, a simple way to determine whether a concept is first level or higher level is to ask oneself: can the concept be defined ostensively, i.e. by simply pointing to an instance of the concept?

Certainly, simple concepts like “table”, “chair”, “bed”, etc. can be defined ostensively, while “furniture” or “object” cannot. (For simplicity’s sake I am using Ayn Rand’s own examples, but you can make up your own examples, if you like.)

But this is as true about simple attributes as about simple entities or objects. “Red” can be ostensively defined simply by pointing at a red object, and “blue” by pointing to a cloudless sky. And simply by listening to a dog barking, one can ostensively define the sound concept “barking”. Same with motions: “walking”, “running” etc. are ostensively defined simply by observing someone walking or running (do I need to repeat the “etcetera”?). Same with relationships: one can ostensively define what is meant by “above”, “below”, “to the right/left of” and many others.

True, those concepts can also be given a formal, genus-differentia definition. For example, Ayn Rand herself writes:

An adult definition of “table” would be: “A man-made object consisting of a flat, level surface and support(s), intended to support other, smaller objects”. (ITOE, P. 12.)

But this adult definition is certainly not needed to understand what a table is! Furthermore, the definition contains a couple of concepts that cannot be first level: “object” and “man-made”.

The same is true of “red” and other color concepts. “Red” can be formally defined as:

Any of a group of colors that may vary in lightness and saturation whose hue resembles that of blood.

Or:

The hue of the long wave-end of the spectrum.

Or:

One of the psychological primary hues, evoked in the normal observer by the long-wave end of the spectrum. (The American Heritage Dictionary.)

But nobody needs those definitions to grasp the concept “red”! (Well, except if one is blind.) And you certainly do not need to study optics and learn what is meant by “the long-wave end of the spectrum” to form the concept “red”; quite the opposite: you have to know the colors before you can even begin to learn what a spectrum is and what it has to do with wave-lengths.

The same holds true for simple concepts of consciousness that have to be formed by a process of introspection. If you have ever been thinking about something, you know what a thought is. If you have ever experienced an emotion – anger, or joy, or even boredom – you know what anger, joy and boredom are. And if you have ever made a choice or a decision, you know what they are. (The same, of course, is true about sensations, like “pain” or “tooth-ache”. Or about sexual satisfaction. How would you know anything about this without having experienced it?)

All this is virtually self-evident. So why do I even have to write about it? Well, take it as an exercise in conceptual entertainment.

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It may sometimes be hard to determine whether a concept is first level or not. Take the concept “coin”. A child may observe two coins and see that they are similar: they are round, flat and fairly small objects. But how does he distinguish a coin from a button? Well, the coin has engravings on it; but how then can he distinguish a coin from a medal? To understand what a coin is, the child will also have to know its function: that it can be exchanged for an ice-cream or some other good. Is seeing an exchange take place also first level? I’m not sure. I think the child’s parents have to explain to him what “buying” and “exchange” are. And for that to take place, the child would have to already have advanced a bit in his conceptual development.

More on concept formation another time.

An Imperfect Analogy

I have long been bothered by the following statement by Ayn Rand on how the “trader principle” applies to spiritual issues:

In spiritual issues […] the currency or medium of exchange is different, but the principle is the same. Love, friendship, respect, admiration are the emotional response of one man to the virtue of another, the spiritual payment given in exchange for the personal, selfish pleasure which one man derives from the virtues of another man’s character. (“The Objectivist Ethics” in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 31.)

But there is one big difference between exchange in the material realm and this “spiritual exchange”. In material exchange, both parties to the exchange are always parting with something. The seller is parting with a good (or service), and the buyer is parting with some money. (In barter, of course, both parties are parting with some good or service, but that does not change the principle.) But this is not true about the spiritual exchange Ayn Rand is writing about here. To love or admire another person, or to show respect for him/her, you do not have to part with anything at all. And so, I find it inexact to call this a payment.

Now, this is hardly some kind of refutation of Objectivism, and I have filed this observation in a folder labeled “nit-picking objections to Objectivism”. And there is another part of this analogy that I find perfectly true:

A trader does not expect to be paid for his defaults, only for his achievements. […] In spiritual issues, a trader is a man who does not seek to be loved for his weaknesses or flaws, only for his virtues, and who does not grant his love to the weaknesses and flaws of others, only to their virtues. (Ibid., p. 31f.)

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There is a similar discussion in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology:

The simplest example of this process [of teleological measurement] […] may be seen in the realm of material values – in the (implicit) principle that guide a man’s spending of money. On any level of income, a man’s money is a limited quantity; in spending it, he weighs the value of his purchase against the value of every other purchase open to him for the same amount of money, he weighs it against the hierarchy of all his other goals, desires and needs, then makes the purchase or not accordingly.
The same kind of measurement guides man’s actions in the wider realm of moral or spiritual values. […] But the currency or medium of exchange is different. In the spiritual realm, the currency – which exists in limited quantity and must be teleologically measured in the pursuit of any value – is time, i.e., one’s life. (ITOE, p. 33f.)

This makes good sense. The more two friends like one another, the more time they will want to spend together.[1] And the less two persons like one another, the less time they wish to spend together. And if we are talking about romantic love, the persons who love one another like to hold hands, hug and kiss, and will even go to such an extreme as wanting to spend their nights together and sleep in the same bed.[2]

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The reason I came to think of this is that Peter Saint-Andre discusses the ITOE quote in the article I mentioned in an earlier blog post. But in this case, Saint-Andre’s objections make no sense.

To the first part of the quote he objects that prices are a “social phenomenon” and a result of “a myriad interactions among buyers and sellers”. True enough; but how does this contradict Ayn Rand’s statement?

Of course, all economic transactions are “social” in the simple sense that more than one person is involved. But the two or more persons involved are still individuals; and each individual has to make the “teleological measurements” she speaks about. That the interactions are “myriad” does not change this. And I think this is a perfect example of people “talking at cross purposes”.

To the second part of the quote he objects that time is “inherently personal or subjective”. But this is nonsense.

If I think about my own life and observe that it has now lasted for slightly more than 70 years, this is not about how I personally or subjectively experience my life; it states an observable and ascertainable fact. And if I say that Usain Bolt has once traversed the distance of 100 meters at 9.58 seconds, it is not about my (or Bolt’s) subjective experience of the race. Time is eminently and objectively measurable.

Or does he mean that time is “personal or subjective” because it is experienced by a person or subject? But then, this is true of all knowledge. There is always “something known” and “someone who knows it”.[3] This is sometimes taken to imply that all knowledge is subjective merely because it involves a subject. But then one could as well say that all knowledge is objective, merely because it involves an object.

So much then about this.

PS. A thought that struck me after I had written this is that one could combine those two accounts by Ayn Rand in the following manner: The time you spend with your friend, or with your lover/spouse, is time that you could have spent on something else (and probably would have spent, if you had no friend or lover/spouse). And then one could say that you “pay” in the form of time spent. There is the old adage that “time is money”, and that might be applicable here.


[1]) Aristotle makes this point in The Nicomachean Ethics. See my blog post Aristotle on Friendship. Or read Aristotle himself.

[2]) What goes on in bed is beyond the scope of this blog post.

[3]) In Ayn Rand’s words:

Existence exists – and the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms: that something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists. (Galt’s Speech.)

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.