Let say person A form the concept of a unicorn as a mythical creature by reading books that says that it is mythical but is composed out of a horn, something that exists in reality, and the body of a horse, also something that exists in reality.
Let say person B form the concept of a unicorn as a real creature by reading books that says that it is real but is composed out of a horn, something that exists in reality, and the body of a horse, also something that exists in reality.
Is person A holding the concept as a valid concept that is anchored in reality because they do not automatically take parts that do exist and create something out of it from which no direct evidence is available?
Is person B holding the concept as a floating abstraction because, while the parts do exist in reality, the only reason why they consider the combined parts to be real is due to the opinion of other people?
It depends on how the person formed and uses the purported concept. A concept is floating if it is not tied to reality in the person's mind--if the units of the concept are not real existents that the person has actually observed.
I disagree with Ideas' assertion that the concept does not have to refer to entities that really exist in order to not be floating. If the units of the concept are not actual existents observed by the concept's owner, then the concept is floating. However, this does not mean that all concepts of mythological/fantasy creatures are floating. The question is what are the units of such concepts, have they been observed in reality? Two different answers to this question will be discussed below.
(1) The Concept "Unicorn" refers to a Type of Actual Creature
If the person thinks that "unicorn" refers to a type of actual creature, then the concept is floating, because the person has never observed any such actual creature. The units of such a concept of "unicorn" would have to be actual creatures, but the owner of this "concept" has never observed any such creatures in reality. Thus the concept is floating.
(2) The Concept "Unicorn" refers to a Type of Fictional Creature
If the person thinks that "unicorn" refers to not a type of actual creature but rather a type of fictional creature, then the concept might not be floating. The units of such a concept would be those representations of the fictional creature that the concept's owner has observed. For example, descriptions of unicorns in stories and images or sculptures of unicorns would be such representations, and if the concept's owner has encountered some of these representations than they would be in a position to integrate these various representations into a concept. The concept would not be floating because the representations exist in reality, and the concept's owner has in fact observed them. Just because the representation depicts something fanciful does not mean that the representation itself is any less real. However, what was integrated by such a concept is the observed fictional representations--not any actual creatures--and therefore the resulting concept refers to the fictional creature that is depicted in the observed representations and not to an actual creature.
I do not believe that the analysis has anything to do with whether the mythological creature is composed of parts that can be found in reality (e.g., horse + horn = unicorn). Indeed, there is no mythological creature you can come up with that doesn't have some sort of connection to observed reality, since the nature of human imagination is that we can only imagine things that are based in some way on things that we have observed. We may alter things we have observed in our imagination in such a way that the result is something we have never seen before (as in the case of Unicorn), but the result is still based on something seen before.
answered Jan 09 '15 at 16:24
All knowledge is contextual. What is the context for "unicorn"? The question describes two possible but very different contexts. Which context is under consideration? If the answer is both, then I serioiusly doubt that the mythical context would arise in the form in which we know it, since the alleged "mythical" creature would no longer be a myth. The question does a good job of providing an objective understanding of "unicorn" based on mythology instead of actual existence of such creatures in reality (apart from mythology).
Update: Abstraction from Abstractions
In the comments, the questioner asks for further elaboration without specifying which aspect should be elaborated upon. Without an indication of what is preventing the questioner from comprehending my Answer, I wouldn't know what to elaborate. Still, it has occurred to me, from this question and other recent questions relating to floating abstractions, that the questioner may, perhaps, be puzzled as to how a concept referring to something that doesn't exist can be an objective concept. But that is an issue that applies to a great many higher level abstractions, especially as the level of abstraction increases. In ITOE, Ayn Rand explains how higher level abstractions can be objective. Chapter 3 discusses "Abstraction from Abstractions" in detail. For example:
[As a child's] conceptual chain moves farther and farther away from perceptual concretes, the issue of verbal definitions becomes crucial.... Some (a very small minority) proceed straight on, by the same method as before, i.e., by treating words as concepts, by requiring a clear, first-hand understanding (within the context of their knowledge) of the exact meaning of every word they learn, never allowing a break in the chain linking their concepts to the facts of reality.
(From ITOE 2nd Ed., pp. 20-21hc.) The chain linking "unicorn" to reality is the fact that "unicorn" involves real elements imagined as combined in a non-existing manner, and the fact that "unicorn" is a term from mythology. Such imagination is, in fact, the foundation of creativity in works of art and practical inventions. The "chain" does not require that all concepts of entities must refer to entities that actually exist. A "unicorn," for instance, is simply "a mythical horse-like animal with a single horn in its forehead." (This is an actual dictionary definition from Webster's New World Dictionary, pocket-size edition, 1958.) In my understanding, it is a perfectly intelligible definition that can readily be applied to any actual animal and any depiction of an animal in a work of art or other drawing or verbal description, to judge whether or not the entity in question qualifies as an instance of "unicorn."
If it is objected that "unicorn" is a concept referring to a potentially perceptual entity, then consider an even more abstract concept such as "justice." What would be the meaning of saying that justice "exists" (or does not "exist") in a particular case? Ayn Rand provides a detailed description of how the concept of "justice" is formed in ITOE Chapter 5, "Definitions."
ITOE and OPAR also discuss "objectivity," another very abstract concept that one cannot simply point to as a perceptual concrete in reality.
Update: What makes an abstraction "floating?"
There has been considerable confusion in the comments about what a "floating abstraction" is and how it relates to whether or not one has personally observed actual instances of an abstraction, and, indeed, whether actual instances exist at all. ("Exist" here means in reality apart from consciousness.) Perhaps another recent question specifically on "floating abstractions" can help to clarify the issues (link).
I have already indicated how I would apply the idea of a "floating abstraction" to "unicorn." If one forms one's concept objectively (i.e., unicorn as an imaginary, mythical animal), then it isn't floating. If one merely adopts the abstraction from others without tying it to reality in any way in one's own independent rational judgment, then it is thereby "floating" in one's mind.
Essentially the same considerations (in principle) also apply to "sasquatch," "Loch Ness monster," etc. Dinosaurs and kangaroos are different in that they aren't mythical, but they, too, could also be floating abstractions if held that way in one's mind, or objective concepts if one forms one's concepts of them objectively. For more on "Objectivity," refer to that topic in The Ayn Rand Lexicon. Floating abstractions are a form of non-objectivity, but not the only form of it. Refer also to OPAR, Chapter 4.