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Is an apple a first-level concept?

How about a table? Doesn't a table depend on other concepts such as placement? What is the purpose of a table unless there's a need to keep other objects off the ground?

What about a driver's license?

asked Dec 28 '13 at 23:35

Humbug's gravatar image


edited Dec 30 '13 at 16:45

The main Objectivist discussion of "levels of abstraction" can be found in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (ITOE), Chapter 3, "Abstraction from Abstractions." Key excerpts can also be found in The Ayn Rand Lexicon under the topic of "Hierarchy of Knowledge." Here is a brief sample from the Lexicon excerpts:

Observe that the concept “furniture” is an abstraction one step further removed from perceptual reality than any of its constituent concepts. “Table” is an abstraction, since it designates any table, but its meaning can be conveyed simply by pointing to one or two perceptual objects. There is no such perceptual object as “furniture”; there are only tables, chairs, beds, etc. The meaning of “furniture” cannot be grasped unless one has first grasped the meaning of its constituent concepts; these are its link to reality. (On the lower levels of an unlimited conceptual chain, this is an illustration of the hierarchical structure of concepts.)

The question asks:

What is a "first-level" concept?

It is a concept denoting perceptual concretes, whose meaning can be conveyed simply by pointing to a few concrete examples of it.

Is an apple a first-level concept?


How about a table? Doesn't a table depend on other concepts such as placement? What is the purpose of a table unless there's a need to keep other objects off the ground?

The Lexicon excerpt quoted above explicitly describes the hierarchical status of "table." It is first-level, because it refers to perceptual concretes of a particular kind and can be understood and communicated ostensively, i.e., by pointing to concrete instances of it. The meaning of "table" itself does not depend on its placement or purpose. ITOE discusses "table" explicitly and identifies its essential distinguishing characteristics.

What about a driver license?

My understanding is that, first of all, this isn't proper English. The formal English expression is "driver's license," which means a license belonging to a driver. The expression is also not a single concept, but an expression comprised of two concepts: driver and license. I don't think either of those concepts would be considered first-level. One can point to a person, but to communicate or understand what "driver" means, one needs to understand the abstract relationship between the person and whatever vehicle he is "driving." Similarly, one can point to a card, but to communicate or understand what a "license" is, one needs to understand a great deal more that isn't perceptually evident.

Update: Hierarchy of Concepts

It has been pointed out in the comments that Ayn Rand included a reference to "intended function" in her adult definition of "table" (see ITOE Chap. 2):

An adult definition of "table" would be: "A man-made object consisting of a flat, level surface and support(s), intended to support other, smaller objects."

The questioner wonders whether the inclusion of intended function in the definition of "table" means that the concept "table" is no longer a direct integration of perceptual concretes, but depends on intermediate concepts such as "intend" or "function" (or "use"). In the case of "table," I don't think it does. One can grasp the meaning of "table" in normal cases just by pointing to representative instances. The concept formation process is not the same as the process of formulating a definition of the concept. Here is a summary of some key points on this issue from ITOE Chapters 1 through 3:

  • "A concept is a mental integration of two or more units possessing the same distinguishing characteristic(s), with their particular measurements omitted." [ITOE 2nd Ed., p. 13]

  • The "units" subsumed by a concept can be either directly perceivable concretes or previously formed concepts. In the former case, the concept is referred to as "first level," meaning a concept that is closest to the perceptual level of cognition. In the latter case, i.e., a concept that subsumes other concepts, the concept is referred to as "higher level," meaning farther removed from the perceptual level of cognition.

  • "New concepts can be formed by integrating earlier-formed concepts into wider categories, or by subdividing them into narrower categories (a process which we shall discuss later [in Chap. 3])." [ITOE 2nd Ed., p. 15]

  • In the early stages of learning new words, a child "is able to retain the referents of his concepts by perceptual, predominantly visual means; as his conceptual chain moves farther and farther away from perceptual concretes, the issue of verbal definitions becomes crucial. It is at this point that all hell breaks loose.... There are many ways in which children proceed to learn new words thereafter. 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." [ITOE 2nd Ed., pp. 20-21]

Chapter 3 goes on to explain the processes of integration and differentiation (hierarchy of concepts) in great detail. I cannot begin to summarize all of that material more succinctly than Ayn Rand herself did in her own words, beyond highlighting a few key points directly related to the topic of this question.

An adult definition of a concept usually will need to utilize concepts that are not necessarily at the same hierarchical level as the concept being defined, particularly when forming definitions of first-level concepts. For example, the inclusion of a particular type of "intended function" within an adult definition of "table" does not automatically imply that "table" isn't a first-level concept referring to perceptual concretes. Since a definition focuses on the essential distinguishing characteristics of a concept, the definition of a first-level concept doesn't necessarily need to state or emphasize that the concept is first-level. In the case of "table," the first-level aspect could nevertheless be highlighted more strongly (if one needs or wants to do that) by reformulating the definition as follows: "A table is an object made by a person or persons, consisting of a flat, level surface and support(s), which on which a person places, or might place, other, smaller objects." This would not be an optimal definition of "table," however, because the fact that "table" is a first-level concept is not an essential distinguishing characteristic of the kind of thing that "table" denotes. (ITOE includes a whole chapter on definitions, Chap. 5.)

Regarding "birth certificate" (as in "certificate of birth"), it isn't a single concept. It's an expression comprised of two separate concepts: birth and certificate. One may argue that "birth" is a first-level concept, since it subsumes perceptually concrete processes which one can observe first-hand or in movies or videos, both in mammals of all kinds and in other animal species whose members hatch from eggs). "Certificate," however, is higher level (in my understanding), deriving from the concept of "certify," which presupposes a certifying authority (or owner) of some kind. I don't see how "certify" could be grasped perceptually in a way that truly comprehends what "certify" means.

I also tend to agree that "document" is a higher level concept, perhaps a subdivision of "paper" (as in "a paper" or "a piece of paper"). I believe "document" could also be regarded as a subdivision of "writing" (as in "a writing"). One can certainly point to a document, but that doesn't convey what a "document" truly is (unlike the case with "table"). One needs to understand "a writing" and "on paper" to understand what a "document" is.

answered Dec 30 '13 at 13:21

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

edited Jan 09 '14 at 02:57

"The meaning of "table" itself does not depend on its placement or purpose."

Are you certain about that? What about chairs that have no backs? They can be interpreted as a table or a chair depending on how you use them.

e.g., link to image

(Dec 30 '13 at 16:47) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

I rechecked Ayn Rand's discussion in ITOE and found the following in Chapter 2:

An adult definition of "table" would be: "A man-made object consisting of a flat, level surface and support(s), intended to support other, smaller objects."

Evidently Ayn Rand did include a reference to intended function in her definition of "table."

The objects shown in the photo actually look more like tables than chairs, and they look like they might not be level. They actually seem closer to stools than to tables or typical chairs. A range of size measurements is also included within the meaning of a concept such as "table," which might differentiate most tables from the objects in the photo.

(Dec 31 '13 at 20:51) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

So what exactly are the essential differentiators between a first-level concept and a non-first-level concept? Now that we've established that "intended function" can be used as part of the definition of a first-level concept, does this means that both a birth certificate and a driver's license, both being perceivable using our senses as "documents" with differences in intended function, are first-level concepts? "Document" is probably not a first-level concept if I use the example of "furniture" provided by Ayn Rand.

(Jan 04 '14 at 21:37) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image
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Asked: Dec 28 '13 at 23:35

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Last updated: Jan 09 '14 at 02:57