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I'm having trouble understanding the meaning of the word unit in the Objectivist theory of concepts.

Is it a unit in a mathematical sense, such as seconds, kilometers, etc. ?

Or is it a unit in the sense of components ? Such as "There are ten laptop units in the shipping container". In this sense, "unit" is the same thing as "item". Does unit then mean a concept (a subconcept) ?

Finally, a third meaning is "Our local firemen unit is very quick". I don't think it is every used in this sense in the theory of concepts.

Objectivism sais that a concept has units. For example, if I understood correctly, the concept of table has as its units coffee tables, dining tables etc. These are the tables that had to be differentiated and integrated according to measurement omission, and which share a commensurable characteristic. The commensurable characteristic is the dimension on which all the tables can be compared, which in this case is their size and shape. Is there a place here to understand the unit as delimiting the commensurable dimension, as some kind of analogy to centimeters ?

Also, what would "unit-economy" mean ? Does it mean that we don't need to invent "inch" to measure length if we already have centimiters ?

Finally, does the concept of unit reduce to mathematical units for mathematical concept such as length or speed ? Does the concept of length has as its units centimeters ? Only centimeters, or all kinds of mathematical units, such as meters, inches, etc. ?

asked Jul 09 '13 at 23:35

Bop's gravatar image

Bop
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edited Jul 10 '13 at 00:45

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦
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It is not clear from this question where the questioner learned about the Objectivist view of concepts. The most definitive reference is Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Expanded 2nd Edition. Key excerpts on epistemology can also be found in The Ayn Rand Lexicon under topics such as "Concepts," "Concept-Formation," "Unit," "Measurement," "Numbers," "Unit-Economy," "Integration (Mental)," and others.

Is it a unit in a mathematical sense, such as seconds, kilometers, etc. ?

No, but certainly related. The "mathematical units" mentioned several times in the question seem to refer to units of measurement, which are a specific type of units, for a specific purpose (namely, measurement).

Or is it a unit in the sense of components ? Such as "There are ten laptop units in the shipping container". In this sense, "unit" is the same thing as "item". Does unit then mean a concept (a subconcept) ?

"Component" is a good analogy, as in part of a larger whole. It may be helpful to think of the units of a concept as equivalent to members of a type or kind, like members of a species. Not just any old "items" thrown together arbitrarily, nor items of the same type arbitrarily boxed together for shipping, but items that all have something in common with each other and with all other items of the same "type," and which are simultaneously different from items that are not of that type (apples versus oranges, as one might say).

Finally, a third meaning is "Our local firemen unit is very quick". I don't think it is every used in this sense in the theory of concepts. [sic]

Actually, the firemen may be referred to as a "unit" because they are all part of a small, special-purpose group, and the group is part of some larger entity such as a battalion or department. The group is a unit of the larger whole. In that sense, it's actually a good example of "units" of a concept.

[T]he concept of table has as its units coffee tables, dining tables etc.

The concept 'table' includes all tables, not just the differentiated subcategories such as coffee tables, dining tables, etc. The concept 'table' had to be formed first, before the more specialized subcategories could be differentiated within it.

Is there a place here to understand the unit as delimiting the commensurable dimension, as some kind of analogy to centimeters ?

A measuring unit doesn't delimit the dimension that it measures; it quantifies it. Any quantity is possible, within the range of measurements defined by the concept. A measuring unit provides a standard by which (quantitatively) to compare units of a concept having different amounts or quantities of the measured parameter.

Does the concept of length has [sic] as its units centimeters ? Only centimeters, or all kinds of mathematical units, such as meters, inches, etc. ?

All kinds. Many different units of measurement are possible. A unit of measurement merely provides a standard by which to count how many measurement units will most closely match the parameter being measured in an actual instance of the concept. The instance or entity being measured is a unit of the concept, and the unit by which it is being measured allows us to count the number of measurement units we find in the parameter that we are measuring in the unit whose parameters we are measuring. A small block of some reasonably immutable material may serve as a unit of length, allowing quantitative measurement of the length of any unit (instance) of any concept that possesses the attribute of length. (To be useful, the unit usually needs to be smaller than the concrete being measured, so that multiple measurement units can be assembled together to match the concrete that we are measuring. It's a little difficult, for example, to measure the diameter of an atom using a one-inch block of wood. We need to subdivide the block into smaller lengths, such as millionths, billionths, etc., to measure very small objects. In practice, it's not really practical to use big molecules to measure small atoms, except perhaps in reverse, i.e, by asking how many such identical atoms it would take to match the molecule. Then the size of the atom can be stated as some fraction of a specific molecule's size. For greater precision, one might also stack multiple instances of object 'A' end-to-end alongside multiple instances of object 'B', and note the ratio of how many A's it takes to match some other number of B's, like maybe 355 A's to closely match 113 B's. That ratio is very close to pi, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. Archimedes calculated pi by inscribing and circumscribing regular polygons inside and around a circle and noting the perimeters of the polygons as a function of the number of sides, as the number of sides is successively doubled.)

[W]hat would "unit-economy" mean ? Does it mean that we don't need to invent "inch" to measure length if we already have centimiters ? [sic]

As the Lexicon explains more fully, unit-economy refers to integrating multiple similar units (mentally) into a single aggregate unit or concept, so that we can think in terms of entire concepts instead of all the individual units of the concepts. Since the units of a concept are all closely related, we can save much mental work by treating the concept in our minds as if it were a single unit, yet still discern useful insights about the units of our concepts. In that sense, having 'centimeter' as a unit of length certainly reduces the need to invent 'inch,' or vice versa, although there are definite historical reasons for both units of measurement. The question, "Why worry about inches when we can use centimeters," certainly illustrates the principle of unit-economy, i.e., seeking to avoid multiplying differing concepts beyond necessity, and using a more highly integrated concept instead of several different, more concrete concepts when the former is adequate. It must be emphasized, however, that unit-economy refers to reducing the number of separate units we need to consider at one time by integrating similar units into concepts; unit-economy doesn't mean just reducing the number of possible units of measurement, although that, too, can be considered a secondary aspect of the main principle of unit-economy. Note also that a "unit" of a concept basically means an instance of that concept; it doesn't mean a unit of measurement, which is a different (though related) meaning of "unit." Through integration, unit economy allows man to deal with a vast number of concretes using far fewer concepts which man can treat cognitively as if they were single units.

Update: "Concept-Economy"

In a comment, the questioner asks about "concept-economy," an expression created by the questioner apparently by substituting "concept" for "unit" in "unit-economy." To repeat, an excellent initial reference for additional explanation of "unit" and "unit-economy" is The Ayn Rand Lexicon, accessible on-line without charge to anyone who is interested. The closest Objectivist approximation to "concept-economy" that I can think of is "Rand's Razor." Those who are interested in further explanation of what "Rand's Razor" refers to can find it in the Lexicon. For anyone making an effort to read further in the literature of Objectivism, I will be happy to assist (as best I can) with any specific questions about any formulations found in the Lexicon or elsewhere in Ayn Rand's writings.

The questioner also asks for a concrete example illustrating the difference between "unit" and "concept." Numerous examples are readily abundant in the references that I've cited. Ayn Rand discusses concepts such as table, chair, man, and many others. If anyone who has checked those references is still puzzled, I may be able to assist further. Otherwise, all I can do is speculate on what the questioner has been reading but not understanding. For example, if the questioner is assuming that the essences of concepts, including "concept" and "unit," have to be primarily something metaphysical, Objectivism explains the nature of conceptual "essence" (and differentiates it from Aristotle's view), in ITOE. Excerpts can also be found in the Lexicon under the topic of "Definitions." One should be sure to consult the other Lexicon topics I've cited, as well. I have found the Lexicon to be an excellent source of concise and illuminating excerpts from the literature of Objectivism.

answered Jul 11 '13 at 00:08

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦
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edited Jul 12 '13 at 01:14

Can you give a particular illustration (a concrete example) between the difference of unit and concept. Also, what would be different about "concept-economy" in contrast to "unit-economy" ?

(Jul 11 '13 at 10:29) Bop Bop's gravatar image

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Asked: Jul 09 '13 at 23:35

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Last updated: Jul 12 '13 at 01:14