login about faq

In particular, why is "anarchism" a floating abstraction, but not "capitalism"?

-- Edit: Does the following quote indicate that the author of the quote held the term "hard-core pornography" as a floating abstraction?

“I have reached the conclusion, which I think is confirmed at least by negative implication in the Court's decisions since Roth and Alberts, that, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, criminal laws in this area are constitutionally limited to hard-core pornography. I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” Justice Stewart concurring in Jacobellis v. Ohio, internal citations omitted.

asked Dec 09 '14 at 08:27

anthony's gravatar image


edited Jan 10 '15 at 10:38

A "floating abstraction" is one that is held and used by a person without that person having a clear tie to objective reality in his usage of the abstraction. He is able to use it at all because he mimics the way others use it. The lack of a clear tie to reality can arise either because the person hasn't learned the abstraction properly, or because the abstraction is inherently incapable of a clear tie to objective reality by anyone.

OPAR describes "floating abstractions" as follows (p. 96):

The perceptual level of consciousness is automatically related to reality; a sense perception is a direct awareness of a concrete existent. A concept, however, 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. A floating abstraction is not an integration of factual data; it is a memorized linguistic custom representing in the person's mind a hash made of random concretes, habits, and feelings that blend imperceptibly into other hashes which are the content of other, similarly floating abstractions. The "concepts" of such a mind are not cognitive devices. They are parrotlike imitations of language backed in essence by patches of fog.

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.

"Capitalism" can be either floating or not in a person's mind, depending on how the person has learned the term and uses it. If it is learned and used objectively, "capitalism" has both an objective genus and an objective differentia, from which units of "capitalism," i.e., actual instances of laissez-faire capitalism in the world, can be identified objectively (if or when any such instances should come into existence and/or almost came into full existence historically). Refer to another recent Q&A on this website for further explanation of capitalism's epistemological roots (link).

The main context where Ayn Rand discusses "anarchy" as a political concept and floating abstraction is in her article, "The Nature of Government," reprinted in both VOS and CUI. The key excerpts can also be found in The Ayn Rand Lexicon under the topic of "Anarchism." The opening Lexicon excerpt on "Anarchism" observes:

Anarchy, as a political concept, is a naive floating abstraction: ... a society without an organized government would be at the mercy of the first criminal who came along and who would precipitate it into the chaos of gang warfare. But the possibility of human immorality is not the only objection to anarchy: even a society whose every member were fully rational and faultlessly moral, could not function in a state of anarchy; it is the need of objective laws and of an arbiter for honest disagreements among men that necessitates the establishment of a government.

As this excerpt explains (particularly in the context of the other excerpts, as well), anarchy, as a political concept, makes no sense. It cannot be a "social system," as is capitalism. Anarchy is the opposite of a "system." Hence, any attempt by anyone to treat "anarchy" (or "anarchism" or "anarcho-capitalism") as a viable social system can only be floating -- an abstraction having no possible tie to objective reality. Again, all of the Lexicon excerpts on the topic of "Anarchism" together provide Ayn Rand's explanation of why anarchy can never be a viable type of social system, like capitalism but without a clearly established government. Those who learned the "anarchism" abstraction typically learned it from capitalism, but with the organized central government of capitalism omitted and perhaps replaced by a more narrowly formulated (but still floating) abstraction known as "competing governments" (in the same geographical area). Another Lexicon excerpt on "Anarchism" describes "competing governments" as follows:

One cannot call this theory a contradiction in terms, since it is obviously devoid of any understanding of the terms "competition" and "government." Nor can one call it a floating abstraction, since it is devoid of any contact with or reference to reality and cannot be concretized at all, not even roughly or approximately.

To repeat, the essential issue is an abstraction's tie to reality, or not, in the minds of those who try to use the abstraction. A closely related issue is whether or not an abstraction is inherently capable of being tied to reality by anyone.

answered Dec 10 '14 at 02:53

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

Was there ever any discussions about partial ties to reality? Take for example the concept of computer program. While most users do use computer programs and can provide plenty of examples of it. Their understanding of the meaning of a computer program is quite limited when compared to that of a professional software programmer.

(Dec 15 '14 at 03:06) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

The "program" example (as in "computer program") has more to do with context of knowledge than with the tie to reality. All knowledge is contextual, and one's own context of knowledge may be significantly wider or less so than others' contexts. One holds one's concepts objectively if one holds them as integrations of whatever facts of reality one knows. "Application," for example (as in "application program" for a smartphone) may be understood merely as "a type of 'machine information' that I can download into my phone from the Internet to enable my phone to do new things it couldn't do before." Compare that to the TV commercial many years ago in which a physically attractive woman hears the expression "ten-ay-dee-pee" (1080P) and says, "I totally don't know what that means, but ah wan' it" (because "everyone" says it's good to have).

(Dec 16 '14 at 01:12) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

A "floating abstraction" is one that is held and used by a person without that person having a clear tie to objective reality in his usage of the abstraction. He is able to use it at all because he mimics the way others use it.

Thanks. I think this is an excellent definition, and it seems to fit how Ayn Rand used the term. I've added a question about a usage of the term "obscenity" to the question.

(Jan 10 '15 at 10:34) anthony anthony's gravatar image
showing 2 of 3 show all

If a person's concept of "capitalism" integrates various political theories that do in fact exist qua theories, then the concept has reality based units--the theories qua theories--and hence is not floating (see my answer to this question). However, the same thing is true for "anarchism"---if a person's concept of "anarchism" integrates various political theories that do in fact exist qua theories, then the concept has reality based units, and is not floating.

However, just because a concept that refers to a theory is not floating (since the theory does in fact exist), that does not mean that the theory itself may not be floating. It is not just concepts that can be "floating abstractions"--any abstraction that is not tied to reality can be considered a floating abstraction. Thus, for example, a theory could be considered a floating abstraction if it is not tied to reality (or at least is insufficiently tied to reality, since no theory could be completely divorced from reality and yet remain intelligible).

Applying the above to "capitalism" and "anarchism", it is apparent that both words can correspond to non-floating concepts--for example the concepts that refer to the theories of capitalism and anarchism. Indeed, we rely on these concepts to simply discuss the theories as we are right in this very question and answer. However, the matter is quite different when we turn to the substance of the theories. The theory of capitalism is clearly based on the facts of reality, and is not floating in any sense. On the other hand, the theory of anarchism ignores various critical facts of reality, as identified by Rand in the article quoted by Ideas. Thus, the theory of anarchism is clearly a floating abstraction, even if the concept that designates that theory is not.

Thus, to the extent that Rand's statement was intended to imply that any concept of "anarchism" is necessarily floating, then she would be wrong, since clearly at least one concept of "anarchism" can exist that is not floating--the concept that integrates all of the theories of anarchism that have been formulated to date. However, I do not believe that this is what her statement means. Instead, I believe that her statement is directed to the substantive theory of anarchism. That is, I think that Rand is arguing that the theory of anarchism is a floating abstraction, not that the concept that integrates such theories is floating. This is supported by Rand's discussion in the excerpts quoted by Ideas, which focuses on the substance of the theory itself and does not discuss concept formation or anything like that. That Rand said "concept" when she was talking about the substance of the theory should not be surprising, as people often refer colloquially to an entire theory as a "concept" when they do not necessarily mean "concept" in the technical epistemological sense.

answered Jan 09 '15 at 15:15

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦

clearly at least one concept of "anarchism" can exist that is not floating--the concept that integrates all of the theories of anarchism that have been formulated to date

What would be some examples of those theories (preferably ones which predated Rand's use of that term)? Or more to the point, if "theory" is the genus, what's the differentia?

Ideas makes the excellent point that a theory of a social system in which there is no system, is incoherent, so that wouldn't work as the differentia.

(Jan 10 '15 at 11:10) anthony anthony's gravatar image

The genus is political theory. The differentia is one that advocates having no government.

The formulations I refer to that can be integrated into a concept of anarchism can be found readily by a simple internet search... see the Mises Institute and Cato Institute for some modern examples and Wikipedia for lists of historical sources that you can peruse.

As for a theory of a social system that advocates having no system being incoherent, I believe this is a weak argument. Anarchism is wrong because it is contrary to the facts of reality, not because of some semantic "gotcha".

(Jan 12 '15 at 10:45) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

To me "political theory" means a theory that relates to how a society should be governed. In other words, a theory that answers the question "how should a society be governed." To answer this question "not at all" is still to answer this question. It is a silly answer to the question, but it is an answer nonetheless. To put the point differently, a theory that says there should be no government is still taking an affirmative stand as to how a society should be governed, and thus is still a political theory.

(Jan 12 '15 at 10:49) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Yes, there is some incoherence in saying anarchism is a "social system", since the ideal society according to the theory is one without a system (some concept stealing going on here). I would rather say that anarchism is a political theory that advocates a society without a government.

(Jan 12 '15 at 11:02) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Regarding your update to the question about "hard-core pornography", I think it raises the issue of whether or not you can form a concept without also having explicitly formed a clear definition thereof. Recall that a concept is not the same thing as its definition. I think that one can have a concept without having yet formulated its explicit definition--consider color concepts for example. Furthermore, just because you have a definition doesn't make your concept grounded (not-floating). Floating abstraction relates to whether your concept is tied to observed units...

(Jan 12 '15 at 11:09) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

It is possible that the Justice formed a concept by conceptualizing actually observed units (and hence its not floating), but was at that point unable (or rather, more likely, unwilling) to formulate a precise definition for the concept. Contrarywise, it would also be possible to just make up a definition for "hard-core pornography" without first actually conceptualizing anything (i.e., without observing existents, discovering similarities, mentally integrating the similar existents into a single mental entity, etc.)--the result would be floating despite the presence of the definition.

(Jan 12 '15 at 11:10) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Floating abstraction relates to whether your concept is tied to observed units...

I think there's a big difference between "without knowing what specific units the concepts denote" and "without having observed any of the specific units which the concepts denote".

But thank you for your answer.

(Jan 12 '15 at 19:10) anthony anthony's gravatar image

To answer this question "not at all" is still to answer this question.

I wouldn't call that a theory, though.

(Sorry, but I can't help imagining "Anarchism: A Treatise on Government" consisting of nothing but a few hundred blank pages.) :)

(Jan 12 '15 at 20:26) anthony anthony's gravatar image
showing 2 of 8 show all

Follow this question

By Email:

Once you sign in you will be able to subscribe for any updates here



Answers and Comments

Share This Page:



Asked: Dec 09 '14 at 08:27

Seen: 986 times

Last updated: Jan 12 '15 at 20:26