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.
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.
"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 for Life ♦
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