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"The fallacy of the "floating abstraction" is Ayn Rand's term for concepts detached from existents, concepts that a person takes over from other men without knowing what specific units the concepts denote." Source -- no Lexicon reference available.

A blind person may use equipment that emits different tone base on the color spectrum reflected by particular surfaces. However, since he is unable to experience "redness" directly, how would he "know" what the specific units are for the concept red?

asked Nov 27 '12 at 19:52

Humbug's gravatar image

Humbug
5181285

I don't see how "red" meets the definition which you gave (unfortunately the link is broken, but presumably the source is listed below, and it apparently is Leonard Peikoff's definition and not Ayn Rand's).

One need not "directly experience" something to know what units are denoted by a concept.

Is "ultraviolet" a floating abstraction to everyone, because no one can see ultraviolet light?

(Jan 06 '15 at 10:18) anthony anthony's gravatar image

I don't think ultraviolet light is in the same category as red. That is, red refers specifically to a form of perception. Ultraviolet light refers to light whose wavelength is within a particular range. While light give rise to color I don't think you can understand what color is unless you can directly perceive it.

(Jan 08 '15 at 05:04) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

Red light refers to light whose wavelength is within a particular range.

(Jan 08 '15 at 09:48) anthony anthony's gravatar image

I don't think you can understand what color is unless you can directly perceive it.

And by "directly perceive it" you mean, I assume, see it with the naked eye.

I think that's a faulty premise.

But moreover, I think there are lots of things that can't be directly perceived by any of our senses, and yet the concept of them is not a floating abstraction.

(Jan 08 '15 at 09:53) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Red is not the same thing as red light. Red light may not be a floating abstraction (like ultraviolet light) but I'm pretty sure red is.

(Jan 08 '15 at 10:05) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

Red is not the same thing as red light.

No, it isn't, and I was going to mention that, but I thought it might be seen as nitpicking.

Ultraviolet light is not in the same category as red. Ultraviolet is in the same category as red.

The naked human eye can't see ultraviolet. (The naked eye of the honeybee can.) (And apparently the naked eye of some humans can, too. See http://www.theguardian.com/science/2002/may/30/medicalscience.research ) That doesn't mean ultraviolet is a floating abstraction (to people not suffering from aphakia).

(Jan 08 '15 at 10:14) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Red light may not be a floating abstraction (like ultraviolet light) but I'm pretty sure red is.

You should provide an answer to your question which explains why, then. Maybe as an addendum to the question?

In it you should explain what "knowing what specific units the concepts denote" has to do with directly perceiving those units. I know what specific units are denoted by lots of concepts despite not having ever perceived those specific units. Do I really need to give (more) examples? I'm sure you can think of many if you try.

(Jan 08 '15 at 10:34) anthony anthony's gravatar image

I'm confused by this statement

"Ultraviolet light is not in the same category as red. Ultraviolet is in the same category as red."

Question: Do you distinguish between the light itself and the form in which the light is perceived? That's why I say red light <> red.

(Jan 09 '15 at 14:33) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

I'm confused by this statement

"Ultraviolet light is not in the same category as red. Ultraviolet is in the same category as red."

I'm not sure what's confusing about it. Ultraviolet is a color. You understand that, right?

What if I said, "Blue light is not in the same category as red. Blue is in the same category as red." Would you understand that?

Do you distinguish between the light itself and the form in which the light is perceived?

Of course.

That's why I say red light <> red.

And likewise, ultraviolet light <> ultraviolet.

(Jan 10 '15 at 10:01) anthony anthony's gravatar image

For some reason I didn't see "light" in your first use of ultraviolet. Anyway, the question of is ultraviolet a floating abstraction to a normal person is quite different than the question of is red a floating abstraction to a blind man. In one case, a normal man can perceive the color of some light but not all light. In the other case, a blind man cannot perceive ANY color at all.

The question of is ultraviolet a floating abstraction to a normal person is a question that I will have to think about.

(Jan 10 '15 at 12:43) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image
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Not necessarily. If you try to use a concept when you have not ever observed any of its units, then the concept is floating to you. Thus, if the blind man tries to use the concept "red" without ever observing any of its units, then it is a floating abstraction to him. If, however, the blind man can observe the units and form a concept by integrating those units, then the concept is not floating to him.

The question then becomes, can a blind man ever observe the units that are integrated by the concept "red" as that concept is formed by most sighted people? If the units of "red" is merely light of a certain wavelength, then clearly a blind man can perceive these units and integrate them into a concept---he will have to perceive them indirectly since he cannot see (your sound machine is a good example), but that is perfectly okay.

If the units are not the light, but rather the state of perception itself, then perhaps the blind person could never observe the units. In that case, the blind person could observe that sighted people report experiencing a state XYZ in response to circumstance ABC, and from that form a concept that integrates these facts. This concept would be related to the sighted concept of "red" because it relates to the same underlying phenomenon, but the units of the blind person's concept may be qualitatively different enough from the sighted person's concept that we would consider them different--albeit related--concepts. In that case, the blind person's concept would be a concept about reported states of perception versus the sighted person's concept that would be about experienced states of perception.

answered Jan 09 '15 at 16:49

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦
944619

Are you using "red" here as a noun or an adjective?

I wouldn't say that the units of "red" are light or states of perception.

Red is an attribute. The units are attributes.

It can be an attribute of light, in which case it refers to the wavelength of the light. Or it can be an attribute of a physical object, in which case it refers to the wavelength of the light which reflects off the object when the object is subjected to normal lighting conditions. (I'm sure there are other definitions too, but I don't think any of them are such that red is light or red is a state of perception.)

(Jan 10 '15 at 10:06) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Yes you raise valid points here. Color is one of the trickiest concepts to talk about, so it is a little funny that it is so commonly used as a supposedly "easy" example. I agree that red is an attribute of objects, and so when I say "red is a wavelength of light" or "red is a state of perception" I am speaking too loosely. What I mean to say is red is the attribute of objects that causes them to (1) reflect light of a certain wavelength, and/or (2) be perceived by humans in a certain way.

(Jan 12 '15 at 10:15) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

If red is the attribute of objects that causes them to reflect light of a certain wavelength, then the blind person can observe these attributes (not by seeing, but by other means). If red is the attribute of objects that causes them to be perceived by normal humans in a certain way, then the blind man may become aware of these attributes but he will have to rely upon reports of sighted persons to arrive at this concept. This would not render the concept invalid or floating, but might make it a subtly different concept from the sighted person's concept.

(Jan 12 '15 at 10:18) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

"The blind man may become aware of these attributes but he will have to rely upon reports of sighted persons to arrive at this concept. This would not render the concept invalid or floating, but might make it a subtly different concept from the sighted person's concept."

How does this not render the concept floating if he cannot independently verify this via some other method? Does this not open up the door for things like ESP to enter the realm of valid concepts?

(Jan 12 '15 at 12:41) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

If the blind person tried to simply take over the sighted person's concept of red, then yes it would be floating. However, when I said the blind person arrived at a concept based on reports of sighted people, I did not mean the person took over the sighted persons concept based on the reports. Rather, I was considering the blind person conceptualizing the reports themselves--i.e., forming a concept along the lines of "red is that thing that causes sighted persons to report this type of perceptual experience." While the blind person may not be able to know if the people are lying in their

(Jan 12 '15 at 13:39) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

reports, he can know that the reports are made in response to the stimulus. He can reason from the uniformity of the reports in response to the stimulus that the reports are likely true. Further, he could pursue alternative means of verification, like noticing that people only report red when certain wavelengths of light are present. Regardless, whether the blind person can trust the reports or not is a different issue from whether the blind person can take notice of the reports (which exist in reality) and conceptualize them based on their similarities and differences.

(Jan 12 '15 at 13:43) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

So too with psychic phenomenon. We non-pyschics can observe the reports of psychic phenomenon, and from those reports we can form a valid, non-floating concept---namely, the concept "psychic". This concept refers to a type of purported super sensory experience used by charlatans to deceive the gullible. Just because we cannot experience a psychic event (because they are not real) does not mean we cannot observe how the charlatans report these purported events and conceptualize the reports.

(Jan 12 '15 at 13:57) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Of course, in the case of "psychic" we can determine that the reports are false by applying scientific reasoning and experimentation to the reports. The falsity of the reports does not negate the validity of the concept "psychic"--rather it is part of the information contained in the concept. Neither is the concept floating because we have actually observed the charlatan's reports. If, however, our concept of "psychic" referred not to the spurious reports themselves, but rather to the actual experience reported, then our concept would be floating, since no such experience was observed.

(Jan 12 '15 at 14:16) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Does this not open up the door for things like ESP to enter the realm of valid concepts?

One thing I'd like to point out is that not all invalid concepts are floating abstractions. A floating abstraction is a particular type of invalid concept. I think a lot of the comments on this and other questions seem to be missing that point.

(Jan 12 '15 at 19:00) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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The source of the quote can be found in OPAR, p. 96, with a slightly condensed version excerpted in Ayn Rand's Glossary of Objectivist Definitions. Here is the OPAR version:

A concept ... is an integration that rests on a process of abstraction. Such a mental state is not automatically related to concretes, as is evident from the many obvious cases of "floating abstractions." This is Ayn Rand's term for concepts detached from existents, concepts that a person takes over from other men without knowing what specific units the concepts denote. [...]

If a concept is to be a device of cognition, it must be tied to reality. It must denote units that one has methodically isolated from all others.

From this description, I must conclude that "red" qualifies as floating for a blind man who tries to adopt it, because "red" is a very basic concept referring directly to sensations -- visual sensations of colors, which a blind man would have no way to experience, and thus no way to have any idea what people are talking about when they speak of colors. At most, a blind person might be able to conceptualize "seeing" by analogy to some other sensory modality which the blind man possesses. His ability to do this could also be influenced by whether or not he was blind from birth or became blind later in life, after some period (perhaps very brief) of being able to see.

Update: Machines to Extend Man's Senses

The comments mention the Munsell color system, instruments to measure the main attributes of color (hue, value, and chroma in the Munsell system), and the possibility of fitting such instruments with a converter of some kind that would allow a blind person to know the color measurements produced by the instrument, such as by touch (or hearing). This is a very good example of the kind of possibility that I had in mind when I briefly alluded to "red" as a valid high level abstraction for a blind person:

At most, a blind person might be able to conceptualize "seeing" by analogy to some other sensory modality which the blind man possesses.

("Analogy" isn't necessarily the best choice of wording here.) A similar possibility that has occurred to me is a machine that converts a visible color spectrum into a sound spectrum. The sound spectrum might consist of multiple tones of varying amplitudes, with each tone's frequency corresponding to a color, and the intensity of each tone corresponding to the intensity of that color. In effect, a blind person would be able to "hear" (as a sound spectrum) the colors that his instrument is detecting.

In that kind of context, a blind person's concept of "red" could, indeed, be completely objective, yet very different in form from a sighted person's concept deriving from direct perception. A blind person might be able to understand that light exists and has many possible colors, but he would not be able to experience what "seeing" and "red" are like to someone who can see and is not color blind (just as man can only try to project what it would be like to have the sense of smell possessed by dogs and bears, for example, or the sonar perception of porpoises).

answered Nov 28 '12 at 01:44

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦
467718

edited Feb 26 '15 at 00:09

1

Does the fact that there are scientific standards (such as the Munsell chart and standards for petrology) affect this answer? A blind geologist could compare the wavelength of reflected light to that of a standard, and since the standard defines the color, it by definition is red; the wavelength would be the unit of the concept, not the perception. So the abstraction would not appear to be floating. The standards are well-established, and independently verifiable (and verified), so I don't see any difference between them and any other standard.

(Feb 24 '15 at 13:26) James James's gravatar image

How would a blind person be able to see reflected light? How would he be able to see the color chart for comparison?

(Feb 25 '15 at 00:04) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image
1

Most remote sensing equipment (from hand-held devices to several orbital telescopes) actually produce numerical values, which are processed into images. That's why the Hubble images are delayed a few years, for example. Those numerical values can be compared against a standard. If the light is reflecting at around 700 nm wavelength, it's red (620 to 750 nm). That information can be provided in raised letters, or some other method that allows the blind person to read it. The process is fundamentally no different from the way normal folks comprehend UV light, or gamma radiation, or the like.

(Feb 25 '15 at 14:50) James James's gravatar image
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Asked: Nov 27 '12 at 19:52

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Last updated: Feb 26 '15 at 00:09