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Objectivsm holds that a concept is all of the concretes it subsumes, past, present, and future; That the meaning of a concept consists of its units. Both Rob Bass and Michael Huemer claim this is flawed because it confuses meaning with reference, or fails to distinguish sense and reference.

For example, Rob Bass says this leads to the mistake that a concept must be based on two or more instances, which he says is a mistake because it rules out a concept of something that has only one instance or is unique, like a black hole, if there only turned out to be one, or a singular instance of a rock. Bass also says quote: "It also runs into problems with theoretical concepts from the sciences, such as black holes (again) or neutrinos, which were formulated before any instances were known".

Bass also says this is flawed because it can't account for concepts that have no referents like mermaid or centaur's, or Unicorn's.

Huemer has some confusing Oedipus, Jocaste thing, but I guess it can be summed up by his saying: "Thus, where Rand says, "a concept means all the concretes it subsumes..." I say, "a concept refers to all the concretes it subsumes."

How would you answer this challenge?

asked Feb 10 '14 at 16:50

KineticPhilosophy's gravatar image

KineticPhilosophy
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edited Feb 11 '14 at 00:07

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦
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Bass and Huemer are basically begging the question. They're saying that Rand's theory is wrong because it doesn't jive with their own theory.

I'd say they're doing so dishonestly, too, because there are plenty of philosophers throughout history who have challenged Frege et. al.

(Feb 10 '14 at 19:22) anthony anthony's gravatar image
1

It is getting rather annoying seeing these types of questions which have a similar theme; namely, the questioner is RELAYING "challenges" from third party sources without any sign that he understands the Objectivist position.

(Feb 18 '14 at 22:51) Andrew Dalton ♦ Andrew%20Dalton's gravatar image

@Dalton

No need to get upset. I'm just sharing some questions, concerns and refutations of Objectivism from others that I happen to be aware of so they can be addressed by people who are either sympathetic to Obejectivism, or have specialized expertise in Objectivism.

This is the appropriate place to present these because it allows people who are pro Objectivist to give an account, and have their voices heard on criticism's and refutations of Objectivism from people around the Internet, so they can know, and these other people can know, if it can stand up to such scrutiny.

(Feb 18 '14 at 23:33) KineticPhilosophy KineticPhilosophy's gravatar image

It would be far more productive if you could distill these issues yourself into a small number of questions regarding some central ideas in Objectivism (e.g., concept-formation, capitalism). Sure, you can post others' objections as illustrations of things that you are unclear on. But the way you're doing it now, it's a piecemeal, "What about this? What about that?" This is a disintegrated approach that, frankly, is not very motivating for me (and probably others) to respond in a detailed way. After all, will you post a zillion more questions that are a variation on the same theme?

(Feb 19 '14 at 00:29) Andrew Dalton ♦ Andrew%20Dalton's gravatar image

Also, posting unsourced quotations and asking for rebuttals leaves people little to go on. For example, what does Huemer mean by "sense" and "reference"?

(Feb 19 '14 at 00:46) Andrew Dalton ♦ Andrew%20Dalton's gravatar image

@Dalton

"After all, will you post a zillion more questions that are a variation on the same theme?"

The above doesn't make sense based on the facts of reality. All my questions are either unique or differentiated. For instance, the four questions asked so far have been different. Not variations on the same theme. One was on Popular Culture, another on A-priori, another on Minarchism, and another on Political Rights.

(Feb 19 '14 at 00:56) KineticPhilosophy KineticPhilosophy's gravatar image

@Dalton

"It would be far more productive if you could distill these issues yourself"

I distill them as much as I can. But often, it's best said in the words of the person making the objection to begin with.

(Feb 19 '14 at 00:57) KineticPhilosophy KineticPhilosophy's gravatar image

"is not very motivating for me (and probably others) to respond in a detailed way"

For all intents and purposes, there is really only one person answering questions at this point, and that's ideasforlife. I must say he is doing a great job, I appreciate his feedback, and I appreciate the long responses he often gives. No complaints have come from him thus far, to me.

And I should think not. This is a question and answer site. Questions are its life blood, as well as "answerers". Without both, the site stagnates and dies due to lack of traffic and activity.

(Feb 19 '14 at 01:02) KineticPhilosophy KineticPhilosophy's gravatar image

@Dalton

And actually, to be frankly honest, I call myself trying to be helpful here by asking these questions at all, since again, this is a question and answer site, asking questions and having people who answer them, are the life blood of it. Without both, the site stagnates and dies.

I call myself trying to give it some activity with new fresh question content. So you can imagine my irritation when a person like yourself not only refuses to answer, but rather takes time to complain about questions being asked on a question site. Small wonder the participation here is so extremely poor.

(Feb 19 '14 at 01:07) KineticPhilosophy KineticPhilosophy's gravatar image

The answer to your title question is "no".

I'm not sure how this improves the site, but there you go.

I originally wrote this (on February 19), and have deleted it.

I don't know if I was answering the original question or the edited question or what.

(Mar 02 '14 at 08:35) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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The way in which this question is framed provoked some strong and completely warranted backlash in the comments. While I agree with the complaints about the framing of the question, I would like to elaborate a little on the following conclusion (posted 2/19/14):

The answer to your title question is "no".

I'm not sure how this improves the site, but there you go.

The title form of the question as of the fourth edit (2/11/14) is: "Does Objectivism's theory of concepts fail to distinguish meaning and reference?" Answering "no," then, would mean that Objectivism does not fail to differentiate between meaning and reference, i.e., Objectivism does differentiate. The original 2/10/14 title was: "Is Objectivism's theory of concepts fundamentally flawed?" -- to which "no" would mean (correctly) that Objectivism isn't fundamentally flawed. Moreover, the text of the question states:

Objectivsm[sic] holds that a concept is all of the concretes it subsumes, past, present, and future; That the meaning of a concept consists of its units. Both Rob Bass and Michael Huemer claim this is flawed because it confuses meaning with reference, or fails to distinguish sense and reference.

Although I could very easily leave the question and backlash comments as is, as a sufficient answer, it might leave other readers in a lurch as to exactly what Objectivism does or does not say.

Some further background on the distinction between meaning and reference can be found in the Wikipedia article on "Gottlob Frege" (see the subsection titled, "Sense and Reference") and another Wikipedia article titled, "On Denoting," linked by the Frege article. It turns out that the issue of meaning versus reference was also a significant topic of discussion in the epistemology workshops with Ayn Rand in 1969-1971, as transcribed in ITOE2 in the section titled, "Meaning and Referent" (pp. 235-238). There is also an informative topic in The Ayn Rand Lexicon, "Meaning (of Concepts)." The opening excerpt in the Lexicon topic is:

A word has no meaning other than that of the concept it symbolizes, and the meaning of a concept consists of its units.

The context of this formulation is the nature and role of definitions (ITOE2, p. 40). Refer to the Lexicon topic of "Definitions" for an expanded formulation from the opening paragraphs of ITOE Chapter 5.

A concept has both immediate "units" which the concept subsumes and integrates, and ultimate referents in directly perceivable concretes in existence. As concepts become more and more abstract, the immediate units become more and more abstract, as well -- more and more distant from perceptual concretes ("distant" in the number of levels of conceptual integration involved). An excerpt in the Lexicon topic of "Meaning" explains:

To know the exact meaning of the concepts one is using, one must know their correct definitions, one must be able to retrace the specific (logical, not chronological) steps by which they were formed, and one must be able to demonstrate their connection to their base in perceptual reality.

When in doubt about the meaning or the definition of a concept, the best method of clarification is to look for its referents -- i.e., to ask oneself: What fact or facts of reality gave rise to this concept? What distinguishes it from all other concepts?

(See also "Unit" and "Hierarchy of Knowledge" in the Lexicon.)

Early in ITOE, Ayn Rand discusses four traditional views of the nature of concepts, one of which is "nominalism," for which the key excerpts can be found in the Lexicon topic of "Nominalism." Here is a sampling:

The "nominalists" ... hold that all our ideas are only images of concretes, and that abstractions are merely "names" which we give to arbitrary groupings of concretes on the basis of vague resemblances....

The following statement by Huemer, quoted in the question, sounds like an expression of nominalism:

...where Rand says, "a concept means all the concretes it subsumes..." I say, "a concept refers to all the concretes it subsumes."

In other words, "meaning" is largely illusory, and concepts primarily just denote loose groupings of concretes without any other specific meaning.

The Lexicon excerpts in the topic of "Nominalism" continue:

Denying that concepts have an objective basis in the facts of reality, nominalists declare that the source of concepts is a subjective human decision: men arbitrarily select certain characteristics to serve as the basis (the "essentials") for a classification; thereafter, they agree to apply the same term to any concretes that happen to exhibit these "essentials," no matter how diverse these concretes are in other respects....

[On a rational view of definitions, the] purpose of a definition is to keep a concept distinct from all others, to keep it connected to a specific group of existents. On the nominalist view, it is precisely this connection that is severed: as soon as a concept is defined, it ceases to designate existents, and designates instead only the defining characteristic.... Definition, the very tool which is designed to promote conceptual integration, becomes an agent of its destruction, a means of disintegration.

The question lists some specific examples of allegedly "problematic" cases:

  • "a concept of something that has only one instance or is unique, like a black hole, if there only turned out to be one, or a singular instance of a rock."

  • "black holes (again) or neutrinos, which were formulated before any instances were known"

  • " concepts that have no referents like mermaid or centaur's, or Unicorn's. "

A single unique existent does not normally lead to a valid concept, unless one has evidence to indicate that other instances may also exist even if not presently known. A unique existent can just be given a proper name and a descriptive identification in terms of other concepts. Note that "black hole" is actually an expression comprised of two concepts: an adjective and a noun, although physicists probably intended it to be an idiomatic expression, with some "poetic license" in describing a massively dense, dark object as a "hole" (in "space-time").

"Neutrino," in my understanding, was predicted by mathematical physics, and (to my knowledge) is a perfectly valid conceptual identification of something that was predicted to be theoretically possible to find in existence if one looks for it in the right way using the right tools of observation. "Neutrino," at that stage of man's knowledge, is a very abstract concept, not a first-level concept referring directly to perceptual concretes that have actually been observed.

Likewise, "mermaid," "centaur" and "unicorn" all refer to products of human imagination, often expressed in the form of art. They all represent rearrangements of elements that actually do exist and have actually been observed by man, but in combinations that do not exist (and possibly with mystical powers that are not actually found in existence). Their referents are their constituent elements and their concretizations in artistic works created by man.

The foregoing barely scratches the surface of the vast and rich range of insights that one can find in the literature of Objectivism. As always, the original sources should be consulted for fuller understanding.

answered Mar 01 '14 at 18:06

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦
467718

The title form of the question as of the fourth edit (2/11/14) is: "Does Objectivism's theory of concepts fail to distinguish meaning and reference?" Answering "no," then, would mean that Objectivism does not fail to differentiate between meaning and reference, i.e., Objectivism does differentiate.

Good catch. That actually makes that part of the question somewhat interesting.

(Mar 02 '14 at 08:55) anthony anthony's gravatar image

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Asked: Feb 10 '14 at 16:50

Seen: 1,359 times

Last updated: Mar 02 '14 at 08:58