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?
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".
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.
(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....
The question lists some specific examples of allegedly "problematic" cases:
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 for Life ♦