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 or 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.

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Two Observations on Definitions

Adapted from a Swedish blog post.

The purpose of a definition is to distinguish a concept from all other concepts and thus to keep its units differentiated from all other existents. – Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, the first page of the chapter “Definitions”.

There are cases where correct definitions are extremely important and wrong definitions create havoc. There is for example all the difference in the world whether one defines “capitalism” as “a social system based on the private ownership of the means of production” or “a social system based on exploitation of the working people”. Another example is the concepts “inflation” and “deflation”; if one defines those concepts as “rising/falling prices” rather than “expansion/contraction of the money supply”, one gets completely wrong. [1]

And if you define “selfishness” as “trampling on other people” rather than “concern with one’s own interests”, you of course get completely wrong (it implies that there is no other way of concerning yourself with your own interests than precisely trampling on other people, i.e. that “man is man’s wolf”[2]).

And if one introduces a new concept, it is of course important that one defines if, so that people know what one is talking about.

But does this mean we have to define every single word we use or every single concept they stand for? If so, we would never have time for anything else!

Words/concepts on the lowest level of abstraction – i.e. those that stand for concrete, observable things, attributes/properties and relationships – are formed ostensively: one simply point at a table or something blue or something standing on a table or under or beside a table (for special relationships), and that is enough. They can be defined (as Ayn Rand does with “table” in her book), but it is not necessary and would be a waste of time, if one does it for every word on this level of abstraction.

The moral of this is: Don’t belabor your brain with “definition exercises” – except when it is necessary!

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A definition consists of a genus and a species. What differentiates one species from others under the same genius is called “differentia”. A genus may be on a lower or a higher level of abstraction. Genus for “table”, for example, is “piece of furniture”, and then “man-made object”, and finally “object” or “entity” in general. Genus for “dog” is “animal” and then “living organism” (or just “organism”, since all organisms are alive until they die) and finally “entity” again. (One could put “mammal” between “dog” and “animal”, but this is a concept a child does not form until it has learned some biology in school.) Genus for “blue” is “color”, and genus for “color” is “attribute” or “property”.

Now observe one thing: Genus in a definition is always, grammatically, a noun. The species also is often a noun, but also often an adjective (e.g. “blue” and all the other colors, while “color” is a noun). No problems this far.

But what about other parts of speech?

Take interjections – such “oh!”, “ouch!”, “hooray!”, “damn it!”, etc. What is the genus of those words and expressions? There is no interjection that is more abstract than other interjections. And what do they actually mean? “Oh!” expresses surprise, “ouch!” expresses pain or displeasure, “”hooray!” expresses pleasure or approval. To that extent they perform the same function as all other concepts: they condense information. But a definition in terms of genus, species and differentia cannot be given. (And what measurements are omitted? Well, the degree of pain or pleasure/displeasure and approval/disapproval.)

Someone will of course object and say that one may define those words precisely as interjections. But the word “interjection” is not an interjection; it is a noun! So this “definition” is not a definition, but a description of the grammatical function of the word/concept.

Adverbs I have written about before, but let me say something about them again. An adverb does not have another adverb as its genus. Take those small words that we fill out our language with, both in speech and in writing, such as “well”(or “why” in certain expressions, such as “Why, this was odd”)[3]. What on earth[4] would be a more abstract adverb that subsumes them? And if one defines them as “adverbs”, this is merely a “grammatical definition”; one does not define them, but gives a description of their grammatical function.

The best definition of “adverbs” I can come up with is that they are modifiers of qualifiers: they modify or qualify another word, a clause or a sentence. (The same is true of adverbial phrases.)

The words “yes” and “no” are sometimes classified as adverbs, sometimes as interjections, and sometimes as either-or, depending on context. (This seems to depend on what dictionary one is consulting.) I personally would reject calling them adverbs, since they do not modify or qualify anything; they merely confirm or deny something someone has said or written. The best definition was given in a Swedish grammar book, which classifies them as a sub-group under interjections and calls them “answering words”. But the point here is that there is no “answering word” that is more abstract and may serve as genus; the definition “answering word” is merely a description of a grammatical function.

The same is true of other parts of speech. The is no more abstract preposition to subsume other prepositions, no more abstract conjunction to subsume other conjunctions; but their grammatical function is easy to describe.

Verbs can actually be defined in terms of more abstract verbs. The genus for “walk”, “stroll”, “jump”, “gallop”, etc. may be “move”: the genus of “stand”; “sit”, “lie”, etc. could be “be in a certain position” (although there seems to be no single word for this concept).

Bur then there are auxiliary verbs. Examples are “do/does/did”, “have/had/had” “will/would”, “shall/should”, “may/might” and many more. Those words/concepts again can only be “defined” by describing their grammatical function.

And there are such words as the infinitive marker “to” and the word “it” in phrases like “It is raining (or snowing or whatever). What is this “it” that is raining of snowing?

Don’t wreck your brains too much over this issue! It is enough that I have wrecked my own brain over it.

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PS November 15: There is a simpler way to explain all of this:

There is a difference between defining the thing and defining the word. The thing we call “table” is defined by giving the common, essential characteristics: a flat surface, one or more supports, the function (to put other, smaller objects on it) and omit non-essentials (such as whether the table is made of wood or some other material); and it is easy to state its genus, “furniture” or “piece of furniture”. But the word “table” is defined as a noun, and the wider concept subsuming nouns is “part of speech”. And a part of speech certainly isn’t a piece of furniture, nor vice versa. We may then subdivide “noun” into e.g. countable or uncountable and say that “table” is a countable noun, as opposed to e.g. “water” or “money” or, for that matter “furniture”. We may talk about its syntactic function; it may appear as either the subject or the object in a clause or sentence. Adjectives and pronouns can also be analyzed this way.

But with adverbs, conjunctions and interjections we cannot give a definition in terms of genus and differentia – for there is no thing¸ no object or entity, or any attribute, quality or property, to define. But the words can always be defined in terms of parts of speech.

What about prepositions? The simplest propositions (such as “in”, “on”, “over”, “under”, “above”, “below”, “before”, “after”) can be defined ostensively, i.e. by pointing to the relationships they stand for (like pointing to a book that is on the table, or an event that happens immediately before or after another event); but it is impossible to find another preposition that stands as the genus of those ostensive definitions. But it is very easy to define the words as “prepositions”.[5]

I have not mentioned numerals before. When we have learned the first numbers and grasped the principle of how they are formed (e.g., that “twenty one” stands for “20+1”), we understand all numbers. When we now that “a hundred” or “a thousand” stands for groups of 1000 or 1 000 of objects or other phenomena, we have no problem grasping what for example “one hundred and twenty million five hundred thousand two hundred and twenty three”. So there is no scarcity of referents in reality. But in grammar we define as “numerals”.

What I could add is that it is only the very first numerals that we can grasp and define ostensively. We can see, without having to count, that we have five fingers on each hand. If we had ten fingers on each hand, it would be much harder, maybe impossible, to see it without counting. And if we look at both hands, we do not see “ten”; we see “twice five”. (How many one can see without counting probably varies from person to person, but it can hardly be many more than five.) – Ayn Rand exemplifies this in ITOE:

… project the state of your consciousness, if I … proceed to give you [a] sum by means of perceptual units, thus: ||||||||| … etc.

Enough grammar for now!


[1]) In this case, the correct definitions go to the root cause of those phenomena, while the incorrect one only names one of the consequences of the expansion or contraction of the money supply. It is an example of “definition by non-essentials”.

To define “deflation” in terms of just “falling prices is actually even worse than defining “inflation” in terms of just “rising prices and wages”, since it leads one to confuse falling prices due to increased production (a god thing) with falling prices due to a sudden contraction in the money supply (a very bad thing). See on this this essay by George Reisman.

[2]) ”homo homini lupus” in Latin.

[3]) Those “small words” differ a lot from language to language. Some of the examples I gave in my Swedish blog post have no exact counterpart in English. And there are many such “small words” in ancient Greek (probably in modern Greek, as well). I took some ancient Greek in school, and we were advised to simply skip those words when translating.

[4]) This is another example of how different languages may differ. In my Swedish blog post, I wrote “what seventeen?” – which would be completely incomprehensible in English. We take the numeral 17 and make an adverb out of it.

[5] Possibly, one might use the prepositional phrase ”in relation to” as the genus of prepositions.

What Comes First, the Concept or the Word?

Words stand for concepts. Typically, nouns stand for entities or things; adjectives for attributes or properties; numerals (of course) for numbers (ordinal or cardinal), verbs for motions, actions or states, prepositions for relationships.

Often, a noun also stands for an attribute, but then it is typically formed from an adjective – e.g., “length” from “long”, “breadth” from “broad”, “happiness” from “happy”, etc.

Pronouns are replacement words, replacing either a noun or an adjective. For example, if I say “he”, it stands for the person I am talking about, etc.

Some verbs are auxiliary – like “do” in “do you agree?” or “I do not think so”, or “have” in “what have you done?” or “what has happened?”. In this case, the verb has only a grammatical function.[1]

Adverbs, I would say, stand for modifications, qualifications or specifications – for example, the word “typically” above, which modifies the thoughts I was expressing. Or the difference between “I stand” and “I stand here”, “It happens” and “It happens now”, which specifies the standing and the happening. (There may be some better way to describe adverbs, but this is the best I can think of for the moment.)

And many adverbs are formed from adjectives, like “typically” and “happily”, etc.[2]

Conjunctions are concepts of relationships among thoughts (here, I merely quote Ayn Rand’s definition).

What about interjections, such as “ouch” or “hooray”? What do they stand for? My best guess is that they stand for some kind of evaluation. We say “ouch” to something we don’t like, and “hooray” to something we like quite a lot.

Of course, this was an extremely rudimentary grammar lesson.

In what order does a child form those concepts?

I think it is obvious that concepts of entities (represented by nouns) come first; then probably concepts of attributes (represented by adjectives) and concepts of motions or states (represented by verbs). Certainly, they come before pronouns. A young child beginning to speak does not refer to him- or herself as “I”, it uses its name. “I”, meaning “the person speaking”, and “you”, meaning “the person spoken to” are really a fairly high level of abstraction. Yet, it does not take long for a child to progress from using its name to saying “I”.

Now to the question in the blog post title.

Ayn Rand’s idea (if I have understood it correctly) is that a child perceives two of more concretes (two or more tables, two or more dogs or whatever), notices that they are similar and that they are different from other concretes, and then forms the concept “table, “dog” or whatever. But in order to retain the concept, the child has to choose a word to denote the concept. Thus, the child forms the concept and then, to complete the process, makes up a word for the concept.

But does it make up the word?

Then how come that a child born into an English speaking environment invariably choose the words “table” and “dog” for those concepts, while I, who was born In Sweden, chooses the words “bord” and “hund”, and a French child chooses “chien” for “dog”? (The French word for “table” is the same, although pronounced differently.) A German child says “Hund” for “dog”, and “Tafel” for “table”.

Now, I must have misrepresented Ayn Rand when saying the child “makes up” the words, because it clearly does not. It uses the words already existing in its own language.

But then one may still ask the question whether the concept actually comes before the word or after. Does the child form a concept “table” (for example) and then asks its parents “What is this called?”? Or does it hear the word “table” uttered by some parent or grown-up and then figure out what it stands for?

Well, both those possibilities are possible.

A child learns his first language partly by imitation. But it is not passive imitation. If it were, the child would be a parrot, not a human.

Now I will quote Ayn Rand:

Even though a child does not have to perform the feat of genius performed by some mind or minds in the pre-historical infancy of the human race: the invention of language – every child has to perform independently the feat of grasping the nature of language, the process of symbolizing concepts by means of words.

This is true for both the possibilities mentioned above.

Why do I bother to think about this?

Well, I do not remember the period in my childhood when I learned to speak (I do not think anyone remembers that far back). Thus, I do not remember forming any concepts or choosing words to symbolize them. I did not think I formed any concepts on my own; I thought I was merely taking over (in some second-hand fashion) concepts that had already been formed by others. And I did not think other people are much different from me in this regard. So I drew the conclusion that children do not actually form concepts; they are merely taking over concepts already formed. They do, however, have to grasp those concepts independently. And this grasping of concepts has to be done by the same process as originally forming them.

But I think the Ayn Rand quote above nails the issue.

And somebody must have been the first man (or woman) to form the first concept and give it a name. Somebody must have been the first to put a simple sentence together. Somebody must have been the first to add a subordinate clause to a sentence.

But how this came about, we can only speculate. It is peering into the pre-historical past.

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Another observation is how extremely fast a toddler learns his first language. I have blogged about this too, but in Swedish.


[1]) There are other words that have only a grammatical function. One example is “to” in “to be”, “to talk”, “to run”, etc. It is an “infinitive marker” and only tells that the next word is the infinitive form of the word. I may write about such words later on.

[2]) On adverbs, see also What did Ayn Rand Know about Adverbs?