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Background

By "communication" in the title question I am referring to the message that a person creates in an attempt to convey information to another person. Such communications or messages can be verbal (e.g., spoken or written words) or non-verbal (e.g., gestures). For simplicity, I wanted to focus in this question on the meaning of verbal communications of conceptual ideas, which I will simply refer to as "communications" hereinafter.

When one person attempts to communicate with another, they first must have some idea in their mind that they want to convey to the other person. Generally, this idea will be held in the first person's mind as a collection of concepts grouped together as a sentence (see Peikoff's lecture on Grammar). The first person then creates a message that is intended to convey the idea in their head to the second person by conveying the words that the first person uses to denote the concepts making up the idea (e.g., they speak aloud the words of the sentence that corresponds to the idea in their mind)--this is sometimes referred to as "encoding" the idea. The second person receives the message (e.g., hears the spoken words), and then converts the message into an idea in their mind by calling up their own concepts that are denoted by the words that they received--this is sometimes referred to as "decoding" the message.

encoding transmission decoding
Idea in Mind of P1(concepts) ----------> Message Generated by P1 (spoken words) ---------------> Message Received by P2 (heard words) ----------> Idea in Mind of P2 (concepts)

Question in Detail

Once someone creates a message in an attempt to communicate, does that message have an objective meaning?

Specifically, the meaning that the receiver of the message obtains when they "decode" the message may not necessarily match with the meaning of the idea that the sender of the message had in their mind. Moreover, the meanings in both the sender's and receiver's minds might be different from what the majority of people might ascribe to the message or from what a hypothetical "ideal" man might ascribe to the message. Can we say that one of these meanings is the objectively "right" meaning and that the others are "wrong"?

The meanings ascribed to the message may differ from sender to receiver, for example, if the sender and the receiver do not use the same word to denote the same concept. I am not merely alluding here to different languages--even people who speak the same language may use the same word to denote subtly (or not-so-subtly) different concepts. This may be true even if both sender and receiver have formed their concepts objectively, and is even more likely to be true if one of the sender and the receiver was not objective in forming their concepts.

Some answers to the question of what a communication means include:

(1) The meaning of the message is the meaning ascribed to it by the sender (i.e., the meaning of the idea in the sender's mind that the message was intended to convey);

(2) The meaning of the message is the meaning ascribed to it by the receiver (i.e., the meaning of the idea in the receiver's mind upon decoding the message);

(3) The meaning of the message is the meaning that hypothetically would be ascribed to it by a hypothetical receiver, such as an "ideal" person who had a maximum knowledge for the era (similar to Rand's discussion of philosophically objective value, which uses such a hypothetical ideal person as a measuring stick).

(4) The meaning of the message is the meaning that a majority of persons in the given society would ascribe to it.

The answer to this question has serious real-word consequences, especially in the field of law. Laws are nothing other than communicated ideas (generally written texts)--i.e., they generally communicate what is forbidden and what the consequences of breaking the law will be. In order for the government to apply the laws objectively, they must know what the laws objectively mean, which is to say what the communications embodied by the laws objectively mean.

asked Oct 15 '14 at 11:39

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦
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edited Oct 16 '14 at 18:23

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦
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Laws are nothing other than communicated ideas (generally written texts)

I don't think I can agree with that. Even if we limit the term "laws" to "statutes", and even if we consider just a single statute, it almost surely hasn't been written by a single person, so it isn't simply communicated ideas, it's something more complicated than that. (In practice the authors don't even have identical, and often have quite opposite, intentions.)

With that said, I don't think that precludes statutes from having objective meaning. That's what objective rules of statutory interpretation are for.

(Oct 15 '14 at 16:40) anthony anthony's gravatar image

(3) The meaning of the message is the meaning that hypothetically would be ascribed to it by a hypothetical receiver, such an "ideal" person who had a maximum knowledge for the era (similar to Rand's discussion of philosophically objective value, which uses such a hypothetical ideal person as a measuring stick).

Something along these lines is probably the most promising.

I think there are a lot of lessons from Rand's discussion of subjective/intrinsic/objective value to help in coming up with a theory of objective (as opposed to subjective or intrinsic) meaning.

(Oct 15 '14 at 17:41) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Does being written by more than one person preclude a law from being a communication? I don't think so. In addition, my statement does not apply only to statutes---the rulings of a judge are also communications, both verbal and written. Obviously "laws" are different from generic communications in that they communicate commands that are enforced by the might of the government.

(Oct 16 '14 at 09:44) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Does being written by more than one person preclude a law from being a communication?

No, but it precludes it from being "nothing other than" a communication.

Now that the word "communications" in the title was changed to "messages", I understand the question. Probably you should change it throughout the question.

Something written by more than one person definitely can be a "message".

(Oct 17 '14 at 10:08) anthony anthony's gravatar image

I see you've (*) changed "communication" to "message".

Thanks, that helps a lot.

The "two key points" below, as of the time I write this, are something I agree with 100%. In particular, "A message can be objective even if no one else understands it." Whereas, if no one understands a message, that message is not a communication.

(*) Edit: Oh, it was Greg Perkins.

(Oct 17 '14 at 10:39) anthony anthony's gravatar image

In addition, my statement does not apply only to statutes---the rulings of a judge are also communications, both verbal and written.

If you decide to post a further question about applying the answer below to "laws", probably we need a definition of "laws", as well as an explanation of your position on legal positivism.

I'm not sure that a purely positivist approach can work, or even completely make sense. (Which is not to say that legal realism is any better. What probably still needs to be built is a philosophy of law based on Objectivist moral philosophy.)

(Oct 17 '14 at 10:59) anthony anthony's gravatar image

In order for the government to apply the laws objectively, they must know what the laws objectively mean, which is to say what the communications embodied by the laws objectively mean.

Thinking about this a bit with "laws" being defined as the messages (as opposed to the practices):

Yes. In particular, the government can and should refuse to apply non-objective "laws" at all. Hence "void for vagueness", the rule of lenity, etc.

(I had to put "laws" in quotes because the way I generally use the term "law" I would consider an unconstitutional statute to not constitute a "law" at all.)

(Oct 17 '14 at 12:54) anthony anthony's gravatar image

In one sense, law refers to the substance of a "rule" or "policy" established by the government (e.g., a rule that theft is illegal); in another sense, law refers to the message that conveys that rule/policy to the public (e.g., statutes, judicial ruling, executive order, etc.). Clearly I am speaking about the latter sense when I state that laws are communications. It is the underlying substantive rule that we are attempting to get to when we try to ascertain the "meaning" of the law. In other words, we want to know what idea (i.e., rule) a legal communication is attempting to convey.

(Oct 20 '14 at 09:29) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

As for legal positivism, I do not agree with everything associated with that theory. However, I do have some points of agreement with them. First, I think that "the law" in a given society is exactly what the government of that society says it is--i.e., "the law" is a human construct. I mean this for both senses of law noted above. A substantive rule/policy can be "the law" only if the government says it is so in an official communication of the law, and contrariwise, if the government says a rule/policy is "the law" in an official communication, it is "the law", period.

(Oct 20 '14 at 09:43) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Of course, this does not address the issue of validity. A law is valid if the proper, legally established, procedures for passing the law were followed and the substance of the law does not contradict other previously established laws (including the constitution). I consider it a marginal semantic issue whether we should consider invalid laws to be "laws", albeit invalid ones, or not laws at all (maybe "attempted law"?). I come down on the side of calling them "invalid laws", but I wouldn't die on the ramparts defending that choice because, like I said, it is a marginal semantic issue.

(Oct 20 '14 at 09:53) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Whether the rule/policy established by the government as a law is just is an entirely separate issue from whether the rule is, in fact, "the law". Unjust rules can be established as "the law", and just rules may fail to be established as "the law." The goal of a proper government is to establish only just laws, whereas one of the hallmarks of a corrupt government is the establishment of unjust laws. I regard the claims by many opponents of "legal positivism" that only just laws can truly be called "law" to be unpersuasive.

(Oct 20 '14 at 10:01) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

The primary reasons I have encountered for why people might claim that only just rules may be properly called law are: (1) a mystical belief that God is the ultimate source of "law", which requires expulsion of unjust rules from the category of "law", since God would not be the source of unjust rules (Thomists, for example, often espouse this), and (2) a belief in the theory that is sometimes called "formal rule of law" or "strict rule of law" , which requires strict obedience to all laws. The belief in strict rule of law theory often leads people to claim that only just laws are truly laws...

(Oct 20 '14 at 10:28) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

because the thought of having to strictly obey unjust laws is too galling. To avoid this problem, they simply exclude unjust rules from the category of "law", and hence relieve themselves of the obligation to obey the rule. I think it is much better to simply acknowledge that unjust rules may indeed be "the law", but that I do not necessarily have any moral obligation to follow any unjust law.

(Oct 20 '14 at 10:38) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Personally, while I wouldn't "claim that only just laws are truly laws," I also wouldn't say that every government proclamation of "the law" (be it a statute, regulation, court decision, etc.) necessarily "is 'the law', period."

If I did so, I would have to simultaneously say that "same-sex marriage is illegal, period" and that "same-sex marriage is legal, period," to use a single example out of the countless instances where "the law" is currently unclear/unsettled.

(Oct 21 '14 at 09:52) anthony anthony's gravatar image

I left out "Constitution" above, but I suppose even the US Constitution has purported rules which are de facto ignored. For example, the Guarantee Clause ("The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government"). I'm not sure if that should be considered "the law" or not. I'm not even sure if the various theories of law would consider that to be part of "the law".

Saying that the Guarantee Clause "is 'the law', period" would at the very least be to end one's sentence prematurely.

(Oct 21 '14 at 09:56) anthony anthony's gravatar image

I'm not sure I understand your objections. To me, the fact that a government does not consistently enforce a law (or does not ever enforce it for that matter) does not render the law "not the law". People often distinguish between "de jure" and "de facto" law, but I thought from the context it was pretty clear I was discussing de jure law.

(Oct 22 '14 at 09:10) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Which "objection" do you not understand? I might be able to explain myself further if you point out what it was that you didn't understand.

(Oct 22 '14 at 16:26) anthony anthony's gravatar image

To me, the fact that a government does not consistently enforce a law (or does not ever enforce it for that matter) does not render the law "not the law".

And to me, when the Supreme Court announces that a statute is not to be enforced (e.g. because it is unconstitutional, or because it is superseded by a later statute), that renders the statute "not the law".

I think you said you see that as a "marginal semantic issue", though.

(Oct 22 '14 at 16:42) anthony anthony's gravatar image

For a really specific example, the opinion in Lawrence v. Texas was June 26, 2003. If, on June 27, 2003, you told a client that sodomy was in violation of "the law" in Texas, you were wrong, despite the fact that a statute quite clearly said otherwise.

If you want to call that statute "a law", fine. But to say it is "the law" is wrong, and to say it is "the law, period" is doubly wrong.

(Oct 22 '14 at 20:03) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Anthony, I am not sure if you realize that you have a very confrontational tone. I wanted to let you know how you are comming across in case it was unintentional.

(Oct 23 '14 at 10:38) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

As far as the Supreme Court declaring laws unconstitutional, I don't see the issue. I never claimed that the law could not change---what was once the law may, at a later date not be the law. The law may be changed, repealed, or superceeded by another law. Taking Lawrence as an example, the Texas sodomy statue WAS the law in Texas untill the SCOTUS ruling. When the SCOTUS ruled, the statue ceased to be law. So what?

(Oct 23 '14 at 10:52) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

As far as what I consider to be a marginal semantic issue, perhaps I was too hasty and should clarify. Once a law that was invalid is legally recognized as such, for example by being repealed, superseded, overruled, declared unconstitutional or the like, then at that point it is no longer the current law and is not binding in any way.

(Oct 23 '14 at 11:27) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

However, before the law is actually legally recognized as invalid, what do we call it? In one sense, it is not the law because it is, in fact, invalid. However, until it is legally recognized as invalid, it still has many of the attributes of the law (for example, you will go to jail for violating it), and thus there is some semantic value in calling it an "invalid law", because that conveys the fact that it is still in force even though it shouldn't be in force.

(Oct 23 '14 at 11:30) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

So, what I was referring to as being a semantic issue is what we call laws that are, in fact, invalid, but that have not yet been determined to be invalid by an objective legal process. However, once that objective legal process has played out and the law is invalidated, then that is it is clearly no longer the law.

(Oct 23 '14 at 12:21) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

And to me, when the Supreme Court announces that a statute is not to be enforced (e.g. because it is unconstitutional, or because it is superseded by a later statute), that renders the statute "not the law".

The Supreme Court does not announce that a statute is "not to be enforced"---the Supreme Court announces that the law in question is no longer the law(e.g., unconstitutional, superseded, etc.). It is because it is no longer the law that it is no longer enforced, not the other way around.

(Oct 23 '14 at 12:28) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Moreover, my reference to unenforced laws was directed to laws that have not been invalidated, but are simply not being enforced for one reason or another (e.g., because of prosecutorial discretion). For example, in many states adultery is still illegal, but rarely is anyone charged for it. It is such unenforced laws that I assumed you were referring to as well, since you brought up the Republican Guarantee clause, which as far as I know has not been legally repealed or invalidated. Instead, it is often mocked because it either is not or cannot be enforced. This does not make it not the law.

(Oct 23 '14 at 12:35) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

I think this makes it sound much more neat and clean than it is. Take Lawrence v. Texas, where the Supreme Court ruled that "The Texas statute making it a crime for two persons of the same sex to engage in certain intimate sexual conduct violates the Due Process Clause." You concede that from the ruling date forward, the "Texas statute making it a crime for two persons of the same sex to engage in certain intimate sexual conduct" was not the law. What about the Louisiana statute prohibiting slightly different intimate sexual conduct? What about the Florida statute prohibiting cohabitation?

(Oct 23 '14 at 12:57) anthony anthony's gravatar image

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/04/21/12-states-ban-sodomy-a-decade-after-court-ruling/7981025/

"A dozen states still have anti-sodomy laws on the books 10 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled they are unconstitutional."

Do these "laws" constitute part of "the law"?

It's not a simple question, and that's why I objected to "if the government says a rule/policy is 'the law' in an official communication, it is 'the law', period."

(Oct 23 '14 at 13:39) anthony anthony's gravatar image

The making of the law is a political process. While a high-school or grade-school textbook is going to teach it as a simple "the legislative branch makes the law, the judicial branch interprets the law, and the executive branch enforces the law", the reality of the matter is much more complicated. All three branches participate in making the law, and often there are political disputes between them as to what the law actually is.

On top of that, you have three branches of federal government plus three branches of state government. And none of those six players consist of a single person.

(Oct 23 '14 at 13:48) anthony anthony's gravatar image

I think I see where your objection is coming from now, and I can commiserate with it. You are correct that the law can often be messy, and that it can often be difficult to determine what is and is not currently “the law” at a given time in a given jurisdiction. I agree with you that there may be multiple sources of law in any given jurisdiction (constitutions, statutes, court rulings, administrative rules, etc.), and that there may even be multiple jurisdictions governing the same geographical region (federal, state).

(Oct 27 '14 at 14:15) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

In addition, the law in any given jurisdiction can change over time. Thus, things can get very complex. That is why we often need to hire lawyers to figure out what the law is on a given topic.

However, I do not think that the messiness of the legal landscape negates the principle that the law is what the relevant government says it is. Yes, it can often be a bugger to figure out just what the government is actually saying on a given subject, but to the extent that you are able to figure that out, then you know what the law is.

(Oct 27 '14 at 14:17) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

In addition, please note that when I say that “if the government says a rule/policy is 'the law' in an official communication, it is 'the law', period” I am speaking in essentialized terms, omitting various caveats and explanations for the sake of having a concise statement of my view of the source of law. Since there appears to be some confusion, let me point out some of these caveats/explanations.

(Oct 27 '14 at 14:18) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

First, what the government “says” about a rule/policy may change over time. The “period” in my statement was merely meant to imply that there is not another source of law besides the government’s official communications, but not that any given instance of communication (e.g., a given statute) is set-in-stone forever and cannot be changed/superceded. In addition, when I say that the government “says a rule/policy is 'the law'”, I am not necessarily referring to one instance of communication (e.g., one statute), but rather I am referring to all of the relevant communications on the issue.

(Oct 27 '14 at 14:22) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Second, when I say “in an official communication”, I was trying to get across the idea that the communication was in a context appropriate for law creation, by a party authorized to create law, and procedurally proper. This was meant to distinguish, for example, mere statements by an official or government body outside the legally established context for law making, communications made by those who do not have the authority to create law vis-à-vis the issue in question, and communications that were made in circumvention of established procedures.

(Oct 27 '14 at 14:23) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Thanks. I'm sorry it took so long for me to make it clear what I was trying to say.

I think the upshot of this is that, while an unjust law can exist, the task of interpreting the law cannot (or, at least, should not) be removed from the task of seeking justice.

(Oct 29 '14 at 11:36) anthony anthony's gravatar image

For one of the easier examples, take the Fourth Amendment's restrictions on "unreasonable searches and seizures". I believe that the correct meaning of "unreasonable" in that phrase is not necessarily the meaning ascribed to it by the sender, nor necessarily the meaning ascribed to it by the receiver, nor necessarily the meaning ascribed to it by a majority of individuals in society.

(Oct 29 '14 at 11:36) anthony anthony's gravatar image

The correct meaning of it is, at least as a first pass shot at a definition which borrows many of your words, the meaning which would be ascribed to it by an ideal person with maximum knowledge. In one sense that is likely "the meaning ascribed to it by the sender," in that I believe the authors of the Constitution intended for us to use our present-knowledge in discovering what is reasonable. On the other hand, it's not that meaning in the sense that the authors of the Constitution assigned at least some incorrect concretes to the abstract concept of what is reasonable.

(Oct 29 '14 at 11:37) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Now with many non-Objectivists such a comment as the one I just made would be immediately objected to on the grounds that a term like “reasonable” is inherently non-objective.

(Oct 29 '14 at 11:38) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Indeed, the highly-influential Oliver Wendell Holmes, whom Rand said had “the worst philosophical influence on American law,” (Objectively Speaking: Ayn Rand Interviewed, p. 60) justified the separation of what is legal and what is moral on the moral-nihilist grounds that it was improper to “consider the right or the duty as something existing apart from and independent of the consequences of its breach” (The Path of the Law, 10 Harv. L. Rev. 457, 458).

(Oct 29 '14 at 11:38) anthony anthony's gravatar image

That isn't an objection which would be raised by an Objectivist, though, and really I can't think of what would be one. Rand herself even said that “[t]he concept of law is inextricably tied to the concept of rights, without which no rule of law is possible.” (Objectively Speaking, p. 59, emphasis mine).

(Oct 29 '14 at 11:38) anthony anthony's gravatar image

A transcript of a portion of an interview with Rand in which she discusses "Objective Law" is in Objectively Speaking: Ayn Rand Interviewed, pages 59-65. In it she references the philosophical influence of Oliver Wendell Holmes, whose works, including The Path of the Law, are an important read for someone interested in the philosophy of law (for the same reasons as those discussed in http://objectivistanswers.com/questions/8365/is-studying-other-philosophies-evil).

(Oct 29 '14 at 11:54) anthony anthony's gravatar image

A transcript of a portion of an interview with Rand in which she discusses "Objective Law" is in Objectively Speaking: Ayn Rand Interviewed, pages 59-65. In it she references the philosophical influence of Oliver Wendell Holmes, whose works, including The Path of the Law (available online at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2373/2373-h/2373-h.htm), are an important read for someone interested in the philosophy of law (for the same reasons as those discussed in http://objectivistanswers.com/questions/8365/is-studying-other-philosophies-evil).

(Oct 29 '14 at 11:55) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Another Objectivist criticism of Holmes is available at https://ari.aynrand.org/issues/government-and-business/individual-rights/Justice-Holmes-and-the-Empty-Constitution

"The Holmes model" is also discussed briefly at https://ari.aynrand.org/issues/government-and-business/individual-rights/Elena-Kagan-Could-She-Defend-the-Constitutions-Purpose (ascribing to Holmes, and current Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, the "view that the individual rights venerated by the Founders have no objective validity and therefore no role in discerning the Constitution’s meaning.").

(Oct 29 '14 at 11:55) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Interestingly, while searching for a link to that quote from Rand ("[t]he concept of law is inextricably tied to the concept of rights"), I came across this quote about Ronald Dworkin: "Mr. Dworkin, who also taught for many years at the University of Oxford in Britain, went against a century of legal thinking[. He held that] law and morality were inextricably linked, which was a subtle twist in legal thinking." (http://tinyurl.com/mof4s6n)

I don't know enough about Dworkin to comment much on that. Maybe someone else does.

(Oct 29 '14 at 12:53) anthony anthony's gravatar image
showing 2 of 44 show all

The question states (underline emphasis added):

Do communications [original title wording] have objective meaning? ...

By "communication" in the title question I am referring to the message that a person creates in an attempt to convey information to another person. Such communications or messages can be verbal (e.g., spoken or written words) or non-verbal (e.g., gestures). For simplicity, I wanted to focus in this question on the meaning of verbal communications of conceptual ideas, which I will simply refer to as "communications" hereinafter....

Once someone creates a message in an attempt to communicate, does that message have an objective meaning?

I see two key points here:

  • A message does not become objective merely because someone creates the message. The objectivity of the message depends on the methodology of the message creator. (See below for further discussion.)

  • A message can be objective even if no one else understands it. Being able to understand a message depends on knowing the context which the message presupposes. All messages presuppose a context; Objectivism regards all knowledge as contextual.

For a concise survey of Objectivism's view of objectivity, refer to the topic of "Objectivity" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon. Also refer to OPAR, Chapter 4, "Objectivity," especially the subsection titled, "Objectivity as Volitional Adherence to Reality by the Method of Logic." That title very concisely describes what objectivity is, but OPAR needs roughly five pages of discussion (pp. 116-121) to explain it fully. The following excerpt from the Lexicon topic summarizes objectivity succinctly:

Metaphysically, it [objectivity] is the recognition of the fact that reality exists independent of any perceiver’s consciousness. Epistemologically, it is the recognition of the fact that a perceiver’s (man’s) consciousness must acquire knowledge of reality by certain means (reason) in accordance with certain rules (logic).

The OPAR chapter goes on to point out and explain, in the next subsection (pp. 121-128), that knowledge is contextual, but that this does not make knowledge subjective. Refer also to the topic of "Context" in the Lexicon, which explains, in part:

In regard to any concept, idea, proposal, theory, or item of knowledge, never forget or ignore the context on which it depends and which conditions its validity and use....

This does not mean that conceptualization is a subjective process or that the content of concepts depends on an individual’s subjective (i.e., arbitrary) choice. The only issue open to an individual’s choice in this matter is how much knowledge he will seek to acquire and, consequently, what conceptual complexity he will be able to reach.

Objectivism also strongly advocates "objective law," which basically means "knowable law." The Objectivist literature cites the antitrust laws as a notorious example of non-objective law, because businessmen cannot know in advance what specific actions are legal or not, or even whether actions held to be legal in the past will still be legal under the same law in future cases. Refer to "Antitrust Laws" in the Lexicon and the discussion of objective law in OPAR, pp. 364-365.

Update: Meaning and Objectivity

There have been a great many comments on this question -- 44 so far on the question itself, plus an additional 10 comments on my Answer. The comments have included some good discussion of issues in the law and philosophy of law. There is, however, one philosophical issue that was raised very directly in the original question and reiterated in the comments, which may need further emphasis: the fact that all knowledge is contextual and how knowledge can still be objective nonetheless.

The original question expresses this issue as follows:

Once someone creates a message in an attempt to communicate, does that message have an objective meaning?

Specifically, the meaning that the receiver of the message obtains when they "decode" the message may not necessarily match with the meaning of the idea that the sender of the message had in their mind. Moreover, the meanings in both the sender's and receiver's minds might be different from what the majority of people might ascribe to the message or from what a hypothetical "ideal" man might ascribe to the message. Can we say that one of these meanings is the objectively "right" meaning and that the others are "wrong"?

The original question ends with special focus on the issue of objective meaning in the field of law and its practice. A comment by the questioner further explains:

In every day life it seems that most people's concepts are similar enough that people understand each other and thus this problem is not a large issue--however, I gave one example where determining the exact, objective, meaning of communications is key: the law.

This formulation answers the question of how knowledge (including understanding "messages") can be contextual yet still objective. People can understand each other because there is enough similarity for it in their respective cognitive contexts of knowledge, and also because humans have the capacity to acquire additional context when needed. If there is something they don't understand about a "message," they can inquire further, initially in their own independent thinking about the concepts involved and what they mean (or might mean), and also by asking others and/or the originator(s) of the message to elaborate.

The field of law, as I understand it, especially the common law (case law, developed on a case-by-case basis with reliance on precedent whenever possible), has developed numerous principles for defining how much "context" a "reasonable and prudent man" should be expected to possess. No philosophy, Objectivism included, can be a substitute for detailed case studies and inductive evolution of objective precedents over time. That task belongs to the special science known as law (or the philosophy of law). The most that Objectivism can do is offer broad general guidelines about what constitutes an objective conceptual formulation and what doesn't.

For further clarification of the meaning of "objective" (in its adjective usage) in Objectivism, a case-by-case study of how Objectivism uses the term "objective" may be helpful. I made an initial attempt to list a wide range of examples of how Objectivism uses "objective" in various issues and contexts by surveying several key reference works in Objectivism, primarily FNI, ITOE2, OPAR, RM, VOS, and VOR. (Refer to The Ayn Rand Lexicon for a listing of book abbreviations used in references.) There are references in CUI, too, but they largely duplicate the usages that I found in the main books. The comments have also pointed out an entire chapter in Objectively Speaking: Ayn Rand Interviewed titled, "Objective Law" (Chapter 10). (The book was edited by Marlene Podritske and Peter Schwartz, and published in 2009.) The total number of distinct usages of "objective" that I found was nearly a hundred (all similar but not exactly identical), far too many to list individually here; but they all exemplify and reinforce the following key formulation from OPAR (p. 117):

To be "objective" in one's conceptual activities is volitionally to adhere to reality by following certain rules of method, a method based on facts and appropriate to man's form of cognition.

OPAR describes this as Ayn Rand's definition of objectivity, in Leonard Peikoff's words. Note that objectivity has both a metaphysical aspect (identification of facts of reality) and an epistemological aspect (adhering to the rules of cognition required by the nature of man's conceptual faculty for accurately apprehending reality).

Additional noteworthy references to "objective" include the following:

  • "People often speak of 'objective reality.' In this usage, which is harmless, 'objective' means 'independent of consciousness.' The actual purpose of the concept, however, is to be found not in metaphysics, but in epistemology. Strictly speaking, existents are not objective; they simply are. It is minds, and specifically conceptual processes, that are objective—or nonobjective." [OPAR p. 117]

  • From OPAR p. 243, regarding "objective values":

The term "objective," let me stress here, does not apply to all values, but only to values chosen by man. The automatic values that govern internal bodily functions or the behavior of plants and animals are not the product of a conceptual process. Such values, therefore, are outside the terminology of "objective," "intrinsic," or "subjective." In this regard, automatic values are like sense data. Sense data are neither "objective" nor "nonobjective."
  • "An objective art work respects the principles of human epistemology; as a result, it is knowable by the normal processes of perception and logic. The nature and meaning of such art is independent of the claims of any interpreter (including the artist himself). Objective art is not necessarily good; but it is graspable by a rational being." [OPAR p. 445] Note that when a work of art is created, it can have an objective meaning that may differ from (or go beyond) what the artist consciously understood and/or intended. This is true specifically of art, but not necessarily for all "communications" or "messages."

  • An artist's "primary purpose is to bring his view of man and of existence into reality; but to be brought into reality, it has to be translated into objective (therefore, communicable) terms." [RM p. 35] Art concretizes reality -- selectively, according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments (his view of what is metaphysically important to man).

Of course, the comment by the questioner excerpted above calls for a definitive application of "objectivity" to the field of law, especially written statutes. But there is no substitute for case-by-case studies of actual cases. The process is essentially inductive. Objectivism can provide a philosophical context (broad general guidelines), but the study of actual cases is still essential, comparing and contrasting them to each other and to the broader philosophical guidelines. In the case of statutes, my understanding is that appellate courts can and do look closely at what the legislature intended, insofar as that can be determined, when applying statutes in specific cases where there is ambiguity; and legislatures may often include statements of their intent as preambles to the statutes. The courts can and do "throw out" laws that are judged to be too vague or unintentionally "unjust," taking into account the actual context of the case and the specific alleged wrongdoer's situation as well as general standards that have evolved over time pertaining to what a "reasonable and prudent man" would supposedly understand and do in such a situation. No philosophy can be a substitute for the intellectual work of studying a wide range of actual cases inductively and integrating appropriate principles of law accordingly.

answered Oct 16 '14 at 23:52

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦
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edited Nov 01 '14 at 11:00

Thank you for your answer Ideas. While there is some good information in there, I think my main question remains unanswered. In partiucular, the way I read your answer it seems to be directed toward the objectivity of the idea that the communicator is attempting to convey, whereas my question is about the meaning of the means of communication, which I have refered to in the question as the "communication" or the "message". I understand that "message" may, in one sense, be used to refer to the underlying idea being communicated, and hence some confusion may arise.

(Oct 22 '14 at 09:15) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

In other words, your answer appears to me to be directed toward the objectivity of what’s in the communicator's head, whereas I am asking about the meaning of the communicator’s attempt to convey what’s in his head by physically instantiating it (e.g., speaking words allowed)--it is the meaning of the physical instantiation (e.g., the spoken words) that I am asking about.

(Oct 22 '14 at 09:20) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

In ITOE, Rand explained:

"Since a word is a symbol for a concept, it has no meaning apart from the content of the concept it symbolizes. And since a concept is an integration of units, it has no content or meaning apart from its units.

The meaning of a concept consists of the units—the existents—which it integrates, including all the characteristics of these units."

Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, page 50.

This makes perfect sense within the confines of your own brain--you assign a word to a concept, and henceforth the meaning of that word to you is the content of the concept.

(Oct 22 '14 at 09:31) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

However, when you start to communicate with another person, there is no guarantee that you both assigned the same word to the same concept (or that you even have the same concepts at all in the first place). Thus, the question arises, when you speak aloud a word or series of words, does that communication itself have an objective meaning? It clearly has a meaning to you--the meaning being the content of the concept(s) you have associated with the word(s). It clearly has a meaning to the listener--the meaning being the content of the concept(s) the listener has associated with the word(s)...

(Oct 22 '14 at 09:37) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Additional meanings could also be considered, such as a meaning that would be assigned by a majority of the society (e.g., "public meaning"), or a meaning assigned by an ideal man. Are any of these the correct meaning of the communication? Are they all correct meanings? Does which meaning is correct depend on the contex? In every day life it seems that most people's concepts are similar enough that people understand each other and thus this problem is not a large issue--however, I gave one example where determining the exact, objective, meaning of communications is key: the law.

(Oct 22 '14 at 09:45) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Thus, the question arises, when you speak aloud a word or series of words, does that communication [by which you apparently mean "message" and/or "attempted communication"] itself have an objective meaning?

Seems to me that the answer given was "maybe". A message may have an objective meaning, or it might not. That was what I got out of the "two key points".

I guess alternatively you could limit the term "message" to only refer to a word or series of words that does have an objective meaning, but probably you didn't mean that as it'd beg the question.

(Oct 22 '14 at 17:09) anthony anthony's gravatar image

A communication is a transfer of information from one person to another. If there's no match between the meaning of the message ascribed by Person A and that ascribed to it by Person B, then a communication hasn't occurred.

If you really do mean "communication" and not "message", then I guess the "meaning of the communication" is whatever was communicated (to the extent "meaning of the communication" makes sense at all, anyway).

(Oct 22 '14 at 17:13) anthony anthony's gravatar image

I disagree that "a communication" is only present if the meaning ascribed by the receiver perfectly matches the meaning ascribed by the sender---if so, I doubt anything aside from perhaps the most simple ideas could qualify as a communication. In this context, I don't see a relevant difference between "a communication" (noun) and "a message". Do you deny that the meaning ascribed by the parties can (and does sometimes) differ? Do you deny that people can use the same word for different concepts?

(Oct 23 '14 at 10:50) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

I disagree that "a communication" is only present if the meaning ascribed by the receiver perfectly matches the meaning ascribed by the sender

A communication is only present if information is transferred from one person to another.

I never said the meaning ascribed by the sender and receiver have to perfectly match. They have to overlap, I guess. But they don't have to perfectly match.

(Oct 23 '14 at 13:15) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Do you deny that the meaning ascribed by the parties can (and does sometimes) differ?

No.

Do you deny that people can use the same word for different concepts?

No.

My apologies for being confusing, by using the word "match" above ("If there's no match..."). The word "overlap" would have probably been more clear. If there's no overlap between the meaning of the message ascribed by Person A and that ascribed to it by Person B, then a communication hasn't occurred.

(Oct 23 '14 at 14:50) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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Asked: Oct 15 '14 at 11:39

Seen: 1,292 times

Last updated: Nov 01 '14 at 11:00