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"Capitalism is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned." (Ayn Rand Lexicon: Capitalism)

Is the United States a capitalist country? I think it's fairly indisputable that it was based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights. On the other hand, not all property is actually privately owned.

In his or her answer to Is Laissez-faire capitalism a utopian fairy tale?, Life says that "America in the latter 1800s came very close to a system of laissez-faire capitalism, but not quite fully." Is the system coming very close to laissez-faire capitalism enough to count the system as a unit of the concept "capitalism"? I assume adding "laissez-faire" here is just redundant if we're talking about capitalism as Ayn Rand defined the term.

If capitalism didn't have any existents (by which I mean if no system which currently exists or ever existed were a unit of the concept), would that make "capitalism" a floating abstraction? OPAR, p. 96, as quoted by Life, defines floating abstraction as "concepts detached from existents, concepts that a person takes over from other men without knowing what specific units the concepts denote."

asked Dec 04 '14 at 09:00

anthony's gravatar image


edited Dec 04 '14 at 14:53

The United States has a mixed economy. The anti-trust laws, for example, are incompatible with capitalism. For those who don't know, those are still doing harm today, e.g. currently prosecuting Apple for anti-trust for getting a minority share in the eBooks business. (I know I'm not answering the main question.)

(Dec 04 '14 at 13:24) Curi Curi's gravatar image

"Capitalism", like many words, may correspond to multiple concepts (i.e., may have multiple meanings or senses).

First, "Capitalism" may refer to a type of political theory. The units of this concept are those specific theoretical formulations that have been expounded by various persons across time. In particular, the distinguishing characteristics of these theoretical formulations that serve as units for "Capitalism" include that they advocate recognition of individual rights, including property rights, and privately owned property. Examples of these units may include the theoretical formulations of Locke, Smith, Rand, von Mises, Hayek, Friedman, etc. These theoretical formulations are actual existents in reality, and thus the units of the concept corresponding to this sense of "Capitalism" do in fact exist in reality.

Second, "Capitalism" may be used to refer to the idealized social system that is advocated by the theory of Capitalism. This idealized society is a theoretical construct, not an actual society that exists now or has existed. In other words, it is a description of what an ideal society would be like according to the theory...the ultimate goal of the theory. While no society corresponding to these idealized constructs does or has existed, the theoretical constructs themselves do and have existed qua theoretical construct, and it is these theoretical constructs that form the units of this sense of "Capitalism". For example, in Rand's formulations of the theory of Capitalism she described the ideal social system of that theory in certain ways, in von Mises's formulations of the theory of Capitalism he described the ideal social system of that theory in certain ways, and so on, and it is these descriptions of the ideal social system that form the units of this sense of "Capitalism". The distinguishing characteristics of these idealized social systems include that they are hypothetical social systems in which individual rights, including property rights, are recognized and all property is privately owned.

The questioner notes that no Capitalist social system has existed, and there is a question raised by implication (partially here and partially from other questions) about whether this fact means that the "units" of "Capitalism" do not exist in reality (and hence that "Capitalism" is a floating abstraction). However, this is only true if one assumes that the purported concept that "Capitalism" refers to must integrate only existing (or previously existing) social systems. One should not assume that the only way that one could form a concept like "Capitalism" is to note what types of social systems do exist now or have existed previously and then to classify those systems according to their similarities. One can also theorize about what types of social systems could be and ought to be. Once such theories about what social systems could be and ought to be have been formed, one can step back and look at the theories themselves and classify them according to their similarities, thereby forming concepts that, for example, integrate those theories that have essential similarities.

The assertion that "theories" and "constructs of theories" are existents may seem counter-intuitive at first. To understand this, one must recognize the distinction between (a) whether the substantive content of a theory corresponds to reality, and (b) whether the formulation of the theory itself exists qua formulation of a theory. A theory that has in fact been formulated by someone is an existent--it does, in fact, exist as a theory. This is true even if the substance of the theory is fantasy. Similarly, if a theoretical formulation includes a formulation of a particular construct (such as a hypothetical social system), that construct, qua construct, exists, even if there is no existent in reality corresponding to the construct. Of course, the value of a theory or a construct will depend on whether the substantive content thereof is reality based, but the existence of the theory itself or the construct itself does not.

Ideas raises the issue of only concretes existing, which I address briefly in a comment to his question. By saying that formulations of theories exist, I am not arguing that some archetypical essence that is "the theory of Capitalism" exists in a world of forms ala Plato. Instead, I am arguing that many concrete formulations do exist (e.g., Rand's formulation, Freedman's formulation, etc), and it is these concretes that we unite into a new mental entity--the concept "capitalism"--through a process of concept formation.

answered Jan 09 '15 at 14:15

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦

edited Jan 12 '15 at 09:30

Thank you for the excellent answer. The only issue I have with it is that it misrepresents what I've said. I'd appreciate it if you'd fix that.

Ideas is the one who said "only elements of capitalism have actually existed". I did not at any time agree with that. In fact, I challenged it: "Everything actually exists."

Anyway, thanks again for an excellent answer.

(Jan 10 '15 at 09:57) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Updated as you requested.

(Jan 12 '15 at 09:20) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

"Capitalism" is a higher-level abstraction, formed by "abstraction from abstractions" as discussed in ITOE (Chap. 3). It is not necessary to have any complete, fully formed instances of such a concept in order to form the concept, if the genus and differentia of the concept are objectively identifiable.

The question correctly states the Objectivist view of what capitalism is, in terms of its genus and differentia. In my understanding, this Objectivist identification is a refinement of other, older descriptions of "capitalism" that were not as well formed epistemologically, and which Objectivism's formulation endeavors to refine. Objectivist literature and other observers also use the expression, "laissez-faire capitalism," for emphasis and differentiation from non-Objectivist views of capitalism. For general background and history, Wikipedia has substantial articles on both "Capitalism" and "Laissez-faire."

Historically, a virtually complete instance of laissez-faire capitalism came close to existing in the U.S. in the late Nineteenth Century, as Ayn Rand explains in great detail in her book, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (CUI). The elements of capitalism that existed in that era were more than enough to form the concept of "laissez-faire capitalism," and eventually to identify the fact that non-laissez-faire "capitalism" isn't really "capitalism" at all in the purest, most essentialized and consistent sense of the concept.

Observers who use the term "capitalism" without knowing its objective roots in reality are usually either treating it as a floating abstraction (not tied to reality in their minds) or as an exercise in definition by non-essentials.

The question raises a narrow, technical point in epistemology:

If capitalism didn't have any existents (by which I mean if no system which currently exists or ever existed were a unit of the concept), would that make "capitalism" a floating abstraction? [This is followed by a reference to the discussion of floating abstractions in OPAR, p. 96, which mentions:] "concepts detached from existents, concepts that a person takes over from other men without knowing what specific units the concepts denote."

(Underlines added.) I see a potential confusion here between "existents" and "units." The two terms aren't exactly synonymous, such as when referring to a social system as an "existent." My own understanding is that the units of the concept "capitalism" are well defined (in Objectivism) because the genus and differentia are both objectively identifiable, thus allowing us to identify objectively whether or not any particular social system qualifies as a unit of "capitalism," even if no actual units have actually existed fully up to the present. We don't need to see a full instance of capitalism in advance of being able to project (from other known existents) what it would consist of and thus being able to form the concept of capitalism.

Update: To Exist without Existing

A historical comment by Curi, along with the original question and follow-up comments by the questioner, all taken together, ask, in effect and by implication: how can there be a history of capitalism if capitalism means laissez-faire and a fully consistent implementation of laissez-faire has never existed anywhere in the world? (At most, there allegedly could only be a history of the idea of capitalism.) And, how can it be said that America in the 19th Century was a capitalist system if there were also elements of statism in the system? Wouldn't it be a "mixed economy" rather than capitalism?

The answer is to be found by holding the context while studying CUI and the other major works in the literature of Objectivism. What existed in 19th Century America was, indeed, a mixture of capitalist and statist elements, a mixture of freedom and controls. But the capitalist elements were dominant. Statism rose to dominance in the next century. That is what CUI means by describing 19th Century America as "capitalism" (in a book whose title classifies capitalism as an "unknown ideal"). It means a mixed system in which the capitalist elements were dominant. And 19th Century America was, indeed, the closest approach to a system of pure, fully consistent, laissez-faire capitalism that the world has ever known, despite the system's lingering statist elements.

Remember, also, that a mixed economy is not a third type of system, in addition to capitalism and statism. Capitalism and statism are the two main alternatives; a mixed economy is merely a mixture of these fundamentally opposing elements. If the mixture happens to be "mostly capitalist," as it was in 19th Century America, then it is perfectly natural to refer to it simply as "capitalism" as long as the context of a mixture is kept in mind. CUI also emphasizes repeatedly that it was a mixture and that the evils and failures popularly ascribed to "capitalism" were actually caused by the statist elements. To restrict the term "capitalism" to a pure implementation only, would be to lose the historical context of what the capitalist elements actually accomplished (where they existed) and would continue to accomplish if brought to fully consistent implementation. Those who attack capitalism by attacking a mixture of freedom and controls are seeking to obliterate both the true nature of freedom and the actual history of it.

Further elaboration of Ayn Rand's usage of "capitalism" can be found in The Ayn Rand Lexicon under the topic of "Capitalism." Regarding 19th Century America, one passage in those excerpts observes:

The nineteenth century was the ultimate product and expression of the intellectual trend of the Renaissance and the Age of Reason, which means: of a predominantly Aristotelian philosophy. And, for the first time in history, it created a new economic system, the necessary corollary of political freedom, a system of free trade on a free market: capitalism.

No, it was not a full, perfect, unregulated, totally laissez-faire capitalism—as it should have been. Various degrees of government interference and control still remained, even in America—and this is what led to the eventual destruction of capitalism. But the extent to which certain countries were free was the exact extent of their economic progress. America, the freest, achieved the most.

(Excerpted from "Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World," in CUI.) Another passage in the Lexicon excerpts on "Capitalism" also reiterates:

It must be remembered that the political systems of the nineteenth century were not pure capitalism, but mixed economies. The element of freedom, however, was dominant; it was as close to a century of capitalism as mankind has come. But the element of statism kept growing throughout the nineteenth century, and by the time it blasted the world in 1914, the governments involved were dominated by statist policies.

(Excerpted from "The Roots of War" in CUI.)

In sum, Objectivist references to capitalism in a mixed-economy context refer to the capitalist elements in the mixture, and Objectivism does not apologize for the properly identified capitalist elements in any manner, directly or indirectly.

Update: Genus and Differentia

Comments by Anthony ask for clarification of genus and differentia regarding the concept "capitalism." An overview of genus and differentia in general can be found in The Ayn Rand Lexicon under the topic of "Definitions." A more extensive discussion can be found in ITOE Chapter 5.

The Objectivist definition of "Capitalism" is exactly as excerpted in the question: "Capitalism is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned."

  • The genus is "social system."

  • The differentia is(are): "based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned."

  • A unit of the concept "capitalism" thus is any "social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned."

If it is asked additionally where or when did or does any such unit actually exist, the answer is that throughout history up to the present, only elements of capitalism have actually existed (predominantly so in 19th Century America), not the whole system in its fully consistent entirety, fully free of all statist elements. Refer to the preceding Update above for further discussion of the existence issue.

Update: What Exists

The Answer by Eric maintains that capitalism can "exist" as a theory even if it has never actually existed historically so far. A comment on Eric's Answer points out:

Ideas [for Life] is the one who said "only elements of capitalism have actually existed". I did not at any time agree with that. In fact, I challenged it: "Everything actually exists."

I have written (by implication) as if I hold that only concretes exist. I do hold that view, but I did not originate it. I got it from Ayn Rand, who got it from Aristotle. In ITOE Chap. 5, Ayn Rand observes:

It is Aristotle who identified the fact that only concretes exist.

In Journals of Ayn Rand, Chap. 3, in an entry dated May 15, 1934, an editor's comment explains, in regard to Ayn Rand's early notes comparing concepts to the relation between algebra and arithmetic:

We can see the first seeds of AR's later theory of concepts in her identification of the relation between abstractions and concretes as similar to that between algebra and arithmetic. Her primary concern here is to reject the Platonic rationalism that detaches abstractions from concretes, and affirm the Aristotelian premise that only concretes exist.

My understanding is that Plato regarded abstractions as having an existence of their own, apart from (and superior to) concretes. This is the classic foundation for a dual-reality metaphysics, with abstractions as existing in a whole separate "dimension" or "realm" of "reality." Kant, too, had a philosophical "field day" with that kind of metaphysics.

In Chapter 16 of the Journals, in an entry dated June 19, 1958, Ayn Rand wrote:

Aristotle established the right metaphysics by establishing the law of identity—which was all that was necessary (plus the identification of the fact that only concretes exist).

Regarding the use of words to allow abstractions to be treated by man (cognitively) as if they were concretes, OPAR explains in Chap. 3, subsection titled, "Differentiation and Integration as the Means to a Unit-Perspective":

Only concretes exist. If a concept is to exist, therefore, it must exist in some way as a concrete. That is the function of language. "Language," writes Ayn Rand, "is a code of visual-auditory symbols that serves the ... function of converting concepts into the mental equivalent of concretes."

Regarding higher level concepts such as "organism," OPAR also explains in Chap. 3, subsection titled, "Concepts of Consciousness as Involving Measurement-Omission":

Only when the child has first conceptualized separately the various perceptually given entities is he capable of the more extensive acts of abstraction and integration that identify their common denominators. These latter are not available on the perceptual level, because only concretes exist: there are no such things as "organisms" to be seen—there are only men, dogs, roses.

Ayn Rand reiterates the point that only concretes exist in The Art of Nonfiction, Chap. 8:

When you write nonfiction, you are communicating knowledge. You are dealing with abstract issues, which you present by means of abstractions, i.e., words and sentences. However, you must remember that only concretes exist—that abstractions are merely a method of classifying concretes: Therefore, if you are writing an abstract essay, the question will necessarily arise: how and when do you tie what you are saying to reality?

Regarding a very high level abstraction such as "capitalism," OPAR explains in Chap. 11, subsection titled, "Capitalism as the Only Moral Social System":

Historically, pure capitalism has never existed. It was, however, approached by the West during the period of the Industrial Revolution; the best example was America in the nineteenth century. That was the closest men have yet come to an unbreached recognition of rights and, therefore, to a free market.

If the fact that this formulation comes from OPAR raises questions about its accuracy as a statement of Ayn Rand's views, consider the following excerpt by Ayn Rand in CUI Chap. 3:

A system of pure, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism has never yet existed anywhere. What did exist were only so-called mixed economies, which means: a mixture, in varying degrees, of freedom and controls, of voluntary choice and government coercion, of capitalism and statism. America was the freest country on earth, but elements of statism were present in her economy from the start.

I hope the foregoing adequately establishes what the literature of Objectivism means by something "existing" or not. The further question of how something that is only a potential existent and not yet an actual one can be conceptualized objectively has already been discussed earlier in this thread and in related discussions of other recent questions about floating abstractions.

Update: Existents and Concretes

My previous update, "What Exists," was predicated on my understanding of the terms "concrete" and "exist" as referring (in Objectivism) to perceptual concretes, i.e., to entities and phenomena existing entirely outside of man's consciousness, existing physically (non-mentally). On that understanding, the expression "concrete mental entity" is a contradiction in terms; that which is mental is not concrete.

This "physical" (non-mental) understanding of "existent" is reinforced by the following formulation in ITOE, excerpted in the The Ayn Rand Lexicon under the topic of "Existent":

The building-block of man's knowledge is the concept of an "existent" -- of something that exists, be it a thing, an attribute or an action. [Other passages in Objectivist literature also seem to include "relation" as a possible type of "existent," such as "taller than" in regard to physical entities such as trees and rocks, for example.] Since it is a concept, man cannot grasp it explicitly until he has reached the conceptual stage [of cognition]. But it is implicit in every percept (to perceive a thing is to perceive that it exists) and man grasps it implicitly on the perceptual level -- i.e., he grasps the constituents of the concept "existent," the data which are later to be integrated by that concept. It is this implicit knowledge that permits his consciousness to develop further.

Further reinforcement comes from the original definitive statement of the metaphysical axioms in Galt's Speech (excerpted in the Lexicon topic of "Axioms"):

Existence exists -- and the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms: that something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists.

Incidentally, that same passage also explains:

Centuries ago, the man who was -- no matter what his errors -- the greatest of your philosophers, has stated the formula defining the concept of existence and the rule of all knowledge: A is A. A thing is itself. You have never grasped the meaning of his statement. I am here to complete it: Existence is Identity, Consciousness is Identification.

(My understanding of "existent" as perceptual also includes existents that man cannot perceive directly but can nevertheless discover through conceptual knowledge and experimentation and/or observation with specialized test equipment -- existents such as atoms, micro-organisms, radio waves, etc.)

The comments, however, have raised important questions about exactly what Ayn Rand actually meant by her statement:

Abstractions as such do not exist: they are merely man's epistemological method of perceiving that which exists -- and that which exists is concrete.

(See The Ayn Rand Lexicon, topic of "Abstractions and Concretes." The context of this formulation is the psycho-epistemological role of art in concretizing abstractions for more direct contemplation by man.)

As I indicated in my "What Exists" update, Ayn Rand wanted to differentiate her view from Plato's view of abstractions as existing in another dimension. For more on Plato, refer to the Lexicon topic of "Platonic Realism." For more on the broader topic of instrinsicism vs. subjectivism (vs. Objectivism's alternative to both), consider the following passage in ITOE2 Chapter 5, p. 53:

The extreme realist (Platonist) and the moderate realist (Aristotelian) schools of thought regard the referents of concepts as intrinsic, i.e., as "universals" inherent in things (either as archetypes or as metaphysical essences), as special existents unrelated to man's consciousness—to be perceived by man directly, like any other kind of concrete existents, but perceived by some non-sensory or extra-sensory means.

The nominalist and the conceptualist schools regard concepts as subjective, i.e., as products of man's consciousness, unrelated to the facts of reality, as mere "names" or notions arbitrarily assigned to arbitrary groupings of concretes on the ground of vague, inexplicable resemblances.

After reviewing the various usages of the term "concretes" in the literature of Objectivism more closely, I now see that Objectivism does, indeed, use "concrete" and "existent" to include states or processes of consciousness as well as perceptual concretes, provided that one always bears in mind a clear distinction between the mental and the physical, the conceptual and the perceptual. In particular, "concrete" is often used in the context of cognitive integration in human consciousness to refer to conceptual units that are closer to the perceptual level, as against "abstract" as referring to the product of a process of integrating the more concrete units into a higher level integration. The crucial caveat in such usage is emphasized by Ayn Rand in her answer to Prof. E in ITOE2, pp. 157-158:

Prof. E: Would it be fair to say that a concept qua concept is not a concrete but an integration of concretes, but qua existent it is a concrete integration, a specific mental entity in a particular mind?

AR: That's right. But I kept saying, incidentally, that we call them "mental entities" only metaphorically or for convenience. It is a "something." ... But anything pertaining to the content of a mind always has to be treated metaphysically not as a separate existent, but only with this precondition, in effect: it is a mental state, a mental concrete, a mental something. Actually, "mental something" is the nearest to an exact identification. Because "entity" does imply a physical thing. Nevertheless, since "something" is too vague a term, one can use the word "entity," but only to say that it is a mental something as distinguished from other mental somethings (or from nothing). But it isn't an entity in the primary, Aristotelian sense in which primary substance exists.... I think the term "mental unit" or "mental entity" can be used, provided we understand by that: "a mental something."

The editors of ITOE2, Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff, chose the following title for the Appendix section (pp. 153-158) in which this passage appears: "Concepts as Mental Existents."

answered Dec 05 '14 at 00:23

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

edited Jan 17 '15 at 14:44

I disagree that late 1800s USA was virtually complete laissez-faire capitalism. E.g. from CtUI NOTES ON THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN FREE ENTERPRISE: 'The Central Pacific—which was built by the “Big Four” of California, on federal subsidies' (Wikipedia says it finished being built in 1869)

What CtUI says re. Vanderbilt is not capitalism or re. laws being proposed to get bribes not to pass. Or, 'When the first railroad bridge was built across the Mississippi, the river steamship interests brought suit against its builder, and the court ordered the bridge destroyed...' (supreme court reversed, phew)

(Dec 05 '14 at 00:42) Curi Curi's gravatar image

I see a potential confusion here between "existents" and "units." The two terms aren't exactly synonymous, such as when referring to a social system as an "existent."

Can you clear up the potential confusion?

"A unit is an existent regarded as a separate member of a group of two or more similar members." http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/unit.html

(Dec 05 '14 at 09:13) anthony anthony's gravatar image

So your answer to the question is that there are no units of the concept "captialism"?

I guess I'll ask the narrow, technical point in epistemology in another question.

(Dec 09 '14 at 08:18) anthony anthony's gravatar image

If it is asked additionally where or when did or does any such unit actually exist

Everything actually exists. Maybe that's a topic for another question, but probably not, since Greg already seems to have answered it: http://objectivistanswers.com/questions/916/do-concepts-exist

I wasn't asking "where or when" the units of capitalism are, though. If anything, the answer as to "where or when" an abstraction exists is an esoteric question for another day.

(Dec 09 '14 at 08:55) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Ideas, I agree that only concretes exist. However, concrete is not the same thing as physical. Your thoughts, ideas, memories, concepts, perceptions, etc. all exist (at least for the duration of their existence in the case of fleeting ones). Some of these--such as concepts--are "abstract" in the sense that they are created by a process of abstracting from observed facts. However, once created they have an existence as a concrete mental entity.

(Jan 12 '15 at 09:02) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Furthermore, I referred to the actual formulations of the theories, which are concretes brought into existence by their creators. For example, Rands writings and speeches are existing concretes. These formulations have a concrete nature that can be observed, classified, and conceptualized. Furthermore, in these formulations various things are described, such as an idealized social system. These descriptions exist in reality, and have a concrete nature that can be observed, classified, and conceptualized.

(Jan 12 '15 at 09:05) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

I hope the foregoing adequately establishes what the literature of Objectivism means by something "existing" or not.

Not even close. You didn't even provide the most important statement: Existence is identity.

I agree that only concretes exist.

Existence exists. Entities exist. Attributes exist. Actions exist. Events exist. Phenomena exist. Consciousness exists.

Theories exist.

Existence is identity. To exist is to be something. To not exist is to be nothing. A thing is itself. Every thing is itself. Everything exists. Everything is a concrete.

Now we're getting closer.

(Jan 12 '15 at 18:53) anthony anthony's gravatar image

When a line of thought leads to formulations such as "Everything exists" and "Everything is a concrete," I maintain that something has gone terribly wrong in the thought process. Surely Objectivism would never endorse such formulations, in my understanding. In particular, there is a crucial distinction between facts of reality and acts of human imagination, and the two must never be confused. Yet the term "everything" normally would include imagination (depending on the context of usage), as far as I know.

(Jan 12 '15 at 23:43) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Are you suggesting that acts of human imagination are not concretes?

Really I don't see what you're saying other than that the conclusion doesn't fit with your intuition so you assume that something must be wrong. Maybe so, but "Existence is identity. To exist is to be something. To not exist is to be nothing. A thing is itself." is pretty much straight from Rand.

To the extent that imagination is an action, yes, it is included in everything, and just like all actions, acts of imagination exist. That actions exist is again, pretty much straight from Rand.

(Jan 13 '15 at 08:14) anthony anthony's gravatar image

If the problem is that you're trying to use the word "everything" to include (I don't even know how to say it; things that aren't things?) then clearly that's not "the context of usage" in which I meant the statement.

Everything, like the universe or existence, is a concept which stands for every thing that exists - every thing that has identity. It doesn't include amorphous blobs of nothingness, or hypothetical things, or whatever you want to call "things that aren't things."

I don't care if you accept that usage, but not accepting it doesn't mean my thought process has gone terribly wrong.

(Jan 13 '15 at 08:30) anthony anthony's gravatar image

If you are saying that acts of human imagination are not concretes, then we have a quite fundamental disagreement, and I'd refer you to Ayn Rand's statement that "The units of the concepts “existence” and “identity” are every entity, attribute, action, event or phenomenon (including consciousness) that exists, has ever existed or will ever exist."

Existence is identity. What's your understanding of what that means?

(Jan 13 '15 at 08:36) anthony anthony's gravatar image
Are you suggesting that acts of human imagination are not concretes?

Yes, exactly; indeed, I'm not suggesting it, I'm stating it explicitly. But let's be clear on what this means. I am referring to the content of imagination (or of ideas in general), not to the action of human consciousness that produces the content. The content doesn't become a metaphysical existent merely because man performs the action of thinking of it. More broadly, only concretes exist. But what else is there, if "everything is concrete"? The answer is: in addition to concretes, there are also abstractions. Abstractions do not exist (in and of themselves, i.e., metaphysically) unless and until they are concretized in some way, usually by human action but not necessarily always. Refer to Abstractions and Concretes in The Ayn Rand Lexicon for a succinct formulation of this by Ayn Rand.

(Jan 13 '15 at 23:21) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Do you think there are any other categories of things other than concretes and abstractions?

(Jan 14 '15 at 22:42) anthony anthony's gravatar image

"Thing" is a vague and potentially very misleading category for "concrete" vs. "abstract." Yet clearly there is a valid question of how it is possible for man to hold abstractions and talk about them if they don't exist somehow (i.e., if "there are no such things.") In a quick search of the Objectivist literature, I could not find a definitive statement of what a "concrete" is. I found only various usages of the term -- probably many hundreds of examples (I didn't try to count them all). I suspect I will have a lot more to say about the topic of abstractions vs. concretes (also known as the "problem of universals," i.e., abstractions integrate concretes), but for now I would just like to call everyone's attention to the Appendix of ITOE2, topic of "Concepts as Mental Existents." One particular question by "Prof. E" and Ayn Rand's answer (p. 157) seem to clear up most concisely the view of abstractions as "mental existents." They are not the only phenomena residing within human consciousness, but they have no independent existence outside man's consciousness (unless concretized in a work of art or practical invention or construction, etc.). A "social system," for instance (in my understanding), becomes "concrete" when it is actually implemented in real life.

(Jan 15 '15 at 01:22) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

There is some equivocation going on here about "abstract" and "abstraction". In the cited discussions, the philosophical problem of abstraction is discussed, which regards the question of whether (and if so where) the "essence" of an abstraction exists. Skeptics have long asked questions like "where is the catness in cats?" They follow up by noting that all one can observe are individual cats, each different from the other, and no observable quality that they all share (i.e., "catness") that can justify their being considered the same type thing (i.e., all being considered cats).

(Jan 15 '15 at 09:24) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Plato answered that the essence did exist, and it resided in a world of forms. Aristotle answered that the essence did exist, but it resided in this world in each individual concrete as a separate aspect of their nature (they had their "form" and their "matter"). Rand correctly pointed out that only concretes exist and that therefore the essence is something that we supply as part of the process of conceptualization. However, she explained how that essence, although supplied by us, can still be reality based (and hence objective).

(Jan 15 '15 at 09:28) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Thus, when Rand says that abstractions do not exist in reality, it is clear what she is talking about. This sense of "abstraction" refers to the universal essence that is discussed above--e.g., to catness per se.

However, another sense of the word "abstract" refers to those things that are produced by human beings through a process of abstracting. For example, concepts are considered abstract because we form them through a process of abstraction. Theories are also considered abstract for the same reasons. Most human knowledge apart from direct perception is abstract in this sense.

(Jan 15 '15 at 09:32) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

When you form a concept, that concept exists as a concrete mental entity. So, when you form the concept "cat", that concept exists in your mind. The fact that it exists in your mind does not mean that it doesn't exist. Of course there are relevant distinctions between mental existents and external existents, but the distinction is not that one exists and the other does not.

Furthermore, to say that your concept exists in your mind as a mental entity does not mean that a universal concept of "cat" exists out there in the world (or in some other world). Each person's concept of "cat" will

(Jan 15 '15 at 09:37) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

be its own discrete concrete mental entity.

In addition, when someone physically embodies their thoughts, such as by speaking them, writing them, etc, then those physical embodiments are also concrete existents. So, for example, a speech about capitalism exists, and the embodied content thereof may be regarded as one unit of a concept. The fact that the subject matter of the embodiment includes things formed by a process of abstracting does not mean they do not exist.

(Jan 15 '15 at 09:49) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Moreover, to say that the speech is a unit of a concept "capitalism" is not to say that there is some universal abstraction "capitalism" out there in the world. Instead, it is a unit of your own individual concept of "capitalism", not a unit of the concept of "capitalism". There is no "the" concept of capitalism (i.e., no universal concept out there in the world). Each concept exists in someone's mind as their own concept. If our concepts are formed objectively, they will have similar referents, and so it is acceptable in everyday usage to consider them to be the "same", although in

(Jan 15 '15 at 09:58) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

reality each will be discrete.

Finally, it is worth noting that if Rand's theories do not exist in some form, then how was it that you became acquainted with them? How is it that you can read her writings and be aware of the ideas contained therein if the ideas do not exist? That would, it seems, imply an ability to become aware of that which does not exist, which seems quite problematic.

(Jan 15 '15 at 09:58) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Thanks for the pointer to "Concepts as Mental Existents". I hesitate to summarize it because, as Rand herself says near the end of that section, "we are dealing with a very difficult subject for which no clear definitions have been established." But it basically provides the answer for almost all of that which we've been discussing.

Also thank you to Eric for the discussion of what Rand meant when she said "Abstractions as such do not exist".

(Jan 15 '15 at 17:25) anthony anthony's gravatar image

I've looked back at my comments that I've made here, and I only see one thing (with two minor subpoints) that I'd like to correct. Above, I said:

I wasn't asking "where or when" the units of capitalism are, though. If anything, the answer as to "where or when" an abstraction exists is an esoteric question for another day.

1) I probably should have used the word "concept" here instead of "abstraction".

2) Rand answered the question quite simply in "Concepts as Mental Existents": Concepts are mental entities (mental "somethings") and as such they do not have spatial location.

(Jan 15 '15 at 17:27) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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Asked: Dec 04 '14 at 09:00

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Last updated: Jan 17 '15 at 14:44