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Since concepts mean everything about their potential referents, including the unknown, concepts mean things we do not know. In my using a concept, that implies I mean more than is part of my own knowledge. How is that possible?

asked Nov 07 '10 at 17:08

Mindy%20Newton's gravatar image

Mindy Newton ♦

edited Jan 26 '11 at 13:00

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦

What's an example of a statement and a context where the statement "means" more than the person knows in the context?

(Nov 08 '10 at 03:07) jasoncrawford ♦ jasoncrawford's gravatar image

This would pertain to all concepts, according to Rand.

(Nov 08 '10 at 18:14) Mindy Newton ♦ Mindy%20Newton's gravatar image

Mindy, this whole discussion is pretty abstract. I'm just trying to clarify it by getting a specific example for us to discuss. E.g., you mention "liver" below as a concept. What's a statement a person might make about the liver, in a certain context, that means more than he knows? Can you make this clear and specific? Thanks.

(Nov 13 '10 at 02:58) jasoncrawford ♦ jasoncrawford's gravatar image

I just saw this question! Anyway, presumably, every statement using the term "liver" includes knowledge of the liver which has not yet been discovered by man. It includes this knowledge in the form of its "meaning" as Rand puts it, because a concept means everything about its referents, even what has not yet been discovered. When we make a statement, that statement's meaning is a function of the meanings of the concepts in it. If meanings of individual concepts include knowledge not yet discovered, our meanings, when we use concepts, exceed our knowledge. That is how the difficulty arises.

(Jan 02 '11 at 20:24) Mindy Newton ♦ Mindy%20Newton's gravatar image

Mindy, using the file folder analogy, I see the 'file name' as the concept we identify. We firstly assimilate the meaning, the idea that requires the concept. We have no use for the concept before we understand the idea behind it. So know we have an empty file with a name and we begin filling that folder. Because of our fallibility, it's possible to place misinformation in with the 'true'. As such, we would partially misuse that concept. Using the right concept in the wrong way will still lead to errors. It is our knowledge that limits our accuracy. It is also possible to right by accident.

(Jan 03 '11 at 03:04) garret seinen garret%20seinen's gravatar image

It doesn't make sense ever to have an "empty file folder." Concepts are not formed in ignorance of their referents. Beside that, your concern will error and fallibility seems wholly irrelevant to the question. This isn't about misusing concepts.

(Jan 03 '11 at 13:55) Mindy Newton ♦ Mindy%20Newton's gravatar image
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It is possible because (and if) new existents qualify as instances of previously formed concepts. By focusing on the essential distinguishing characteristics of existents when we form a concept, we can know, in advance, that any future discoveries that differ from the previously known ones only in specific measurements or non-essential characteristics will have the same essential characteristics as the ones that led to the formation of the concept, differing only in their measurements or in non-essential characteristics. If they don't, then they're not of the same type, i.e., not subsumed by the same concept.

Ayn Rand discusses this issue at some length in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Chapter 7. Here are some representative passages (from ITOE, 2nd Ed., pp. 66-69):

It is crucially important to grasp the fact that a concept is an "open-end" classification which includes the yet-to-be-discovered characterists of a given group of existents. All of man's knowledge rests on that fact.

...a concept subsumes all the characteristics of its referents, including the yet-to-be-discovered.

Since concepts represent a system of cognitive classification, a given concept serves (speaking metaphorically) as a file folder in which man's mind files his knowledge of the existents it subsumes.... This filing system makes possible such activities as learning, education, research -- the accumulation, transmission and expansion of knowledge....

[This is followed by strong criticism of philosophers who attack the "open-ended" character of concepts.]

It is the "open-ended" character of concepts that permits the division of cognitive labor among men....

Concepts represent a system of mental filing and cross-filing, so complex that the largest electronic computer is a child's toy by comparison....

I find the "file folder" metaphor particularly illuminating in regard to the question at hand. This discussion in ITOE also strongly points to an Objectivist solution to the age-old "problem of induction," as David Harriman's book, The Logical Leap, attempts to elaborate further.


From follow-up comments by the questioner, the question evidently was prompted by the following statement by Ayn Rand: "a concept subsumes all the characteristics of its referents, including the yet-to-be-discovered." Evidently the question amounts to asking: how can a concept subsume anything that is not already known? Doesn't something have to be known first, before we can subsume it under a concept?

I can see that Ayn Rand's statement might be puzzling if considered by itself, without relation to all the other explanation and elaboration that Ayn Rand provides. That statement is actually the conclusion of a whole paragraph in ITOE (2nd Ed., p. 66) that discusses "accumulation and transmission of mankind's knowledge," citing the example of the concept "man." Ayn Rand points out: "when roughly half the sciences (the humanities) are devoted to the study of man, the concept "man" has not changed [from that of a child or primitive savage]: it refers to the same kind of entities. What has changed and grown is the knowedge of these entities." This paragraph in ITOE also mentions that the definitions of concepts may change, and reclassifications may occur, "but these changes are made possible by and do not alter the fact that a concept subsumes all the characteristics of its referents, including the yet-to-be-discovered."

The very next paragraph introduces the "file folder" metaphor and explains it in some detail. And the whole discussion of what concepts subsume and the "file folder" metaphor begins with an introductory (topic-setting) paragraph that focuses on "the fact that a concept is an 'open-end' classification which includes the yet-to-be-discovered characteristics of a given group of existents."

All of this discussion, both before and after the statement that prompted the question, should be sufficient to resolve any puzzlement about that statement.

But others certainly needed additional clarification, also, judging by the amount of further discussion that is contained in the Appendix. Refer to "Concepts as Open-Ended" on p. 147, and especially "Meaning and Referent" on pp. 235-238. The latter discussion is extremely helpful in clarifying the relation between the meaning of a concept and the idea of "subsuming" a referent. On p. 236, Ayn Rand explains: "The meaning is the referent, but your understanding of the meaning of a concept and your knowledge about the referent aren't the same thing."

Mindy may already be familiar with these discussions in ITOE, but other readers of this website may not be. From these ITOE discussions, together with Ayn Rand's original presentation on pp. 66-69, I cannot imagine how there could still be room for confusion over what Ayn Rand meant by the idea of subsuming yet-to-be-discovered characteristics of the referents of a concept.

answered Nov 11 '10 at 01:19

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

edited Nov 14 '10 at 03:34

I don't understand your answer. I know ITOE quite well. You seem to be speaking of how concepts are formed, and now new instances are indentified. The question is how we mean things we do not know.

(Nov 11 '10 at 14:00) Mindy Newton ♦ Mindy%20Newton's gravatar image

The question states: "concepts mean everything about their potential referents, including the unknown...."

I interpreted this to be equivalent to (though less precise than) the excerpt that I quoted from ITOE, especially the first two sentences of the quoted ITOE excerpt, pertaining to the "open-ended" character of concepts. If the intended meaning of the question was different, then the question needs to be clarified. I certainly agree that the term "mean" (as in meaning) is a little vague and open to interpretation. The ITOE excerpts that I referenced are the closest match that I could find in Objectivist epistemology.

I wonder if perhaps the difference might be that the Objectivist view of concepts does not claim that as-yet-undiscovered instances of a concept actually exist, but only that they will have certain essential characteristics if they are discovered and confirmed to qualify as instances of previously formed concepts. To put this another way, concepts certainly allow man to state things about as-yet-undiscovered instances, and to make predictions about the presently unknown.

(Nov 11 '10 at 15:19) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

"Open-ended" means past, future, and not-encountered instances of particulars that correspond to a given concept. What I am asking about is more concerned with yet-to-be-discovered characteristics. Unknown characteristics can belong to instances we have actually encountered, characteristics of liver function not yet understood, for example. Those are included in the meaning of a concept, so they are part of its meaning when the concept is used. When we use a concept, we use something that means things nobody has yet discovered about the referents of that concept. In using a concept, we mean what the concept means, so our meaning includes things we do not know. Our meaning exceeds our knowledge. Does that help? p.s. I put this as an answer, because it was too long as a comment.

answered Nov 11 '10 at 16:50

Mindy%20Newton's gravatar image

Mindy Newton ♦


RE: "In using a concept, we mean what the concept means...."

I would say that we mean what we understand the concept to mean, in the context of our own knowledge. I don't see that as equivalent to whatever we or others might someday understand the concept to subsume in an expanded context. A liver is still a liver even if we don't presently know as much about it as we might someday come to know.

(To change one's own answer into a comment, click on "more" on the line that says "link | edit | delete | more.")

(Nov 12 '10 at 15:19) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

"I would say that we mean what we understand the concept to mean..." I understand, but do you see that that is exactly opposed to what Rand actually said?

(Nov 12 '10 at 17:23) Mindy Newton ♦ Mindy%20Newton's gravatar image

Objectivism holds that concepts are open-ended, and that all knowledge is contextual. Some might see these positions as conflicting; Objectivism does not. I have tried to explain why. Anyone who believes there is a conflict should cite specific references in the literature of Objectivism (title and page), as actually stated, not as interpreted or summarized by others, to support such a claim.

(Nov 13 '10 at 01:29) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

The reference is in the first answer, above. "...a concept subsumes all the characteristics of its referents, including the yet-to-be-discovered..." (ITOE)

(Nov 13 '10 at 14:15) Mindy Newton ♦ Mindy%20Newton's gravatar image

@ Ideas For Life - Your answer is not clear. The questioner has described and quoted relevant literature. Your answers tend toward rationalization and dogmatism. You may not be frustrated with further questions about contradictions that were not resolved by your previous answers if this is to truly be a discussion forum based on objective reality. For the record, you have not answered the question.

(Jan 27 '11 at 11:40) dreadrocksean dreadrocksean's gravatar image
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Asked: Nov 07 '10 at 17:08

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Last updated: Jan 27 '11 at 11:40