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Let say person A form the concept of a unicorn as a mythical creature by reading books that says that it is mythical but is composed out of a horn, something that exists in reality, and the body of a horse, also something that exists in reality.

Let say person B form the concept of a unicorn as a real creature by reading books that says that it is real but is composed out of a horn, something that exists in reality, and the body of a horse, also something that exists in reality.

Is person A holding the concept as a valid concept that is anchored in reality because they do not automatically take parts that do exist and create something out of it from which no direct evidence is available?

Is person B holding the concept as a floating abstraction because, while the parts do exist in reality, the only reason why they consider the combined parts to be real is due to the opinion of other people?

asked Dec 27 '14 at 03:26

Humbug's gravatar image


edited Dec 27 '14 at 13:56

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦

It depends on how the person formed and uses the purported concept. A concept is floating if it is not tied to reality in the person's mind--if the units of the concept are not real existents that the person has actually observed.

I disagree with Ideas' assertion that the concept does not have to refer to entities that really exist in order to not be floating. If the units of the concept are not actual existents observed by the concept's owner, then the concept is floating. However, this does not mean that all concepts of mythological/fantasy creatures are floating. The question is what are the units of such concepts, have they been observed in reality? Two different answers to this question will be discussed below.

(1) The Concept "Unicorn" refers to a Type of Actual Creature

If the person thinks that "unicorn" refers to a type of actual creature, then the concept is floating, because the person has never observed any such actual creature. The units of such a concept of "unicorn" would have to be actual creatures, but the owner of this "concept" has never observed any such creatures in reality. Thus the concept is floating.

(2) The Concept "Unicorn" refers to a Type of Fictional Creature

If the person thinks that "unicorn" refers to not a type of actual creature but rather a type of fictional creature, then the concept might not be floating. The units of such a concept would be those representations of the fictional creature that the concept's owner has observed. For example, descriptions of unicorns in stories and images or sculptures of unicorns would be such representations, and if the concept's owner has encountered some of these representations than they would be in a position to integrate these various representations into a concept. The concept would not be floating because the representations exist in reality, and the concept's owner has in fact observed them. Just because the representation depicts something fanciful does not mean that the representation itself is any less real. However, what was integrated by such a concept is the observed fictional representations--not any actual creatures--and therefore the resulting concept refers to the fictional creature that is depicted in the observed representations and not to an actual creature.

I do not believe that the analysis has anything to do with whether the mythological creature is composed of parts that can be found in reality (e.g., horse + horn = unicorn). Indeed, there is no mythological creature you can come up with that doesn't have some sort of connection to observed reality, since the nature of human imagination is that we can only imagine things that are based in some way on things that we have observed. We may alter things we have observed in our imagination in such a way that the result is something we have never seen before (as in the case of Unicorn), but the result is still based on something seen before.

answered Jan 09 '15 at 16:24

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦

If the person thinks that "unicorn" refers to a type of actual creature, then the concept is floating, because the person has never observed any such actual creature.

Surely that proves too much. There are lots of creatures that I've never observed, unless you're using the term "observed" very loosely.

Is the concept "dinosaur" a floating abstraction?

(Jan 10 '15 at 10:22) anthony anthony's gravatar image

The concept "dinosaur" is an interesting case, which is kind of half way between mythological creatures and regular every-day creatures. Unlike mythological creatures, dinosaurs did exist once, and there is evidence of the creatures that you can observe. Unlike regular every-day creatures, what you do observe of the creatures themselves is not the creature as it was when it was alive, but rather their fossil remains.

In addition to the fossils, people also observe representations of the creatures as they existed when they were alive, including artistic and scientific representations.

(Jan 12 '15 at 09:32) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

This raises an interesting question about whether the units of the concept are the observed fossil remains, the observed representations of the creatures, or both. I tend to think that most people are not referring to the fossils when they say "dinosaur", but rather to a whole creature. Thus, I tend to think that most people's concept "dinosaur" has observed representations of dinosaurs as its units. Such a concept refers to a previously existing creature.

(Jan 12 '15 at 09:50) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

This would be similar to the mythological creature case discussed above in that the units of the concept would be the representations of the creature that the person has observed, such as images, sculptures, and descriptions of the creature (including scientific facts pertaining to the creature). However, in distinction to the mythological creature, it is understood that these representations correspond to creatures that did in fact exist at one time. This understanding is based on observed evidence, such as the fossils.

(Jan 12 '15 at 10:02) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

I guess I shouldn't have used an extinct creature.

What about the concept of "kangaroo". I have never seen an actual real life kangaroo. I've seen pictures of kangaroos, which appear to be authentic, but I've never seen an actual kangaroo with my bare eyes. Is "kangaroo" a floating abstraction?

(Jan 15 '15 at 17:46) anthony anthony's gravatar image

I'm not aware of any indication that Rand has left which suggests that she would say that "kangaroo" is a floating abstraction to me. And it does not seem to fit the definition provided by Peikoff ("concepts that a person takes over from other men without knowing what specific units the concepts denote"). I do know what specific units are denoted by the concept of "kangaroo". "Large plant-eating marsuipials with a long powerful tail and strongly developed hind limbs that enable it to travel by leaping." I've just never seen one with my bare eyes.

(Jan 15 '15 at 17:47) anthony anthony's gravatar image

I seem to have missed the reason for thinking that the kangaroo case might be different from the dinosaur case in regard to holding the concept objectively. Who is claiming such a difference and where?

(Jan 17 '15 at 15:04) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

I don't understand your question, "Ideas for Life."

I think that "kangaroo" refers to a type of actual creature, but I have never observed any such actual creature. Is my concept "floating?"

Feel free to answer that, "Ideas for Life," but my question is primarily directed at Eric.

I assume Eric's answer to that question is going to be different from his answer to the question regarding "dinosaur", because his answer to the question regarding "dinosaur" made reference to the fact that dinosaurs no longer exist. Kangaroos do currently exist. At least, I believe they do.

(Jan 17 '15 at 17:13) anthony anthony's gravatar image

The comment directly above is my own personal belief. I might be wrong, though, which is why I was asking Eric questions.

(Jan 17 '15 at 17:34) anthony anthony's gravatar image

As I understand the dinosaur issue, the concept of it can be held objectively because there is factual evidence showing that dinosaurs once existed. The same applies to kangaroos, except that they still exist. I do not see the issue of extinction as relevant to the existence of factual evidence and objective conclusions drawn from it. The details of the evidence will be different, but not the existence of evidence sufficient to warrant the conclusion. (Regarding unicorns, I know of no factual evidence showing that unicorns have ever existed as actual, living animals, but plenty of evidence that the idea of a unicorn is purely mythological, imagined by man.)

(Jan 18 '15 at 23:15) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image
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All knowledge is contextual. What is the context for "unicorn"? The question describes two possible but very different contexts. Which context is under consideration? If the answer is both, then I serioiusly doubt that the mythical context would arise in the form in which we know it, since the alleged "mythical" creature would no longer be a myth. The question does a good job of providing an objective understanding of "unicorn" based on mythology instead of actual existence of such creatures in reality (apart from mythology).

Update: Abstraction from Abstractions

In the comments, the questioner asks for further elaboration without specifying which aspect should be elaborated upon. Without an indication of what is preventing the questioner from comprehending my Answer, I wouldn't know what to elaborate. Still, it has occurred to me, from this question and other recent questions relating to floating abstractions, that the questioner may, perhaps, be puzzled as to how a concept referring to something that doesn't exist can be an objective concept. But that is an issue that applies to a great many higher level abstractions, especially as the level of abstraction increases. In ITOE, Ayn Rand explains how higher level abstractions can be objective. Chapter 3 discusses "Abstraction from Abstractions" in detail. For example:

[As a child's] conceptual chain moves farther and farther away from perceptual concretes, the issue of verbal definitions becomes crucial.... Some (a very small minority) proceed straight on, by the same method as before, i.e., by treating words as concepts, by requiring a clear, first-hand understanding (within the context of their knowledge) of the exact meaning of every word they learn, never allowing a break in the chain linking their concepts to the facts of reality.

(From ITOE 2nd Ed., pp. 20-21hc.) The chain linking "unicorn" to reality is the fact that "unicorn" involves real elements imagined as combined in a non-existing manner, and the fact that "unicorn" is a term from mythology. Such imagination is, in fact, the foundation of creativity in works of art and practical inventions. The "chain" does not require that all concepts of entities must refer to entities that actually exist. A "unicorn," for instance, is simply "a mythical horse-like animal with a single horn in its forehead." (This is an actual dictionary definition from Webster's New World Dictionary, pocket-size edition, 1958.) In my understanding, it is a perfectly intelligible definition that can readily be applied to any actual animal and any depiction of an animal in a work of art or other drawing or verbal description, to judge whether or not the entity in question qualifies as an instance of "unicorn."

If it is objected that "unicorn" is a concept referring to a potentially perceptual entity, then consider an even more abstract concept such as "justice." What would be the meaning of saying that justice "exists" (or does not "exist") in a particular case? Ayn Rand provides a detailed description of how the concept of "justice" is formed in ITOE Chapter 5, "Definitions."

ITOE and OPAR also discuss "objectivity," another very abstract concept that one cannot simply point to as a perceptual concrete in reality.

Update: What makes an abstraction "floating?"

There has been considerable confusion in the comments about what a "floating abstraction" is and how it relates to whether or not one has personally observed actual instances of an abstraction, and, indeed, whether actual instances exist at all. ("Exist" here means in reality apart from consciousness.) Perhaps another recent question specifically on "floating abstractions" can help to clarify the issues (link).

I have already indicated how I would apply the idea of a "floating abstraction" to "unicorn." If one forms one's concept objectively (i.e., unicorn as an imaginary, mythical animal), then it isn't floating. If one merely adopts the abstraction from others without tying it to reality in any way in one's own independent rational judgment, then it is thereby "floating" in one's mind.

Essentially the same considerations (in principle) also apply to "sasquatch," "Loch Ness monster," etc. Dinosaurs and kangaroos are different in that they aren't mythical, but they, too, could also be floating abstractions if held that way in one's mind, or objective concepts if one forms one's concepts of them objectively. For more on "Objectivity," refer to that topic in The Ayn Rand Lexicon. Floating abstractions are a form of non-objectivity, but not the only form of it. Refer also to OPAR, Chapter 4.

answered Dec 28 '14 at 02:23

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

edited Jan 20 '15 at 22:57

I don't understand this answer particularly the sentence on mythical creature. Can you break this down some more? Thanks.

(Dec 28 '14 at 07:07) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

I am referring to the following formulation from the original question: "form the concept of a unicorn as a mythical creature by reading books that says that it is mythical but is composed out of a horn, something that exists in reality, and the body of a horse, also something that exists in reality." Man is perfectly capable of imagining non-existing combinations of real elements.

(Dec 29 '14 at 13:14) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

I'm still struggling trying to understand your answer. I don't even understand why you ask which context is under consideration. Would you consider revising the answer to be more verbose? Thank you.

(Jan 01 '15 at 07:18) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

Since person B has as part of his definition of unicorn "is a real animal" because of the book that he reads, does this then mean that person B's unicorn is a floating abstraction?

(Jan 05 '15 at 22:51) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

Consider what happens if person C has knowledge of both books.

(Jan 06 '15 at 00:49) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Person C is what happens with a lot of kids growing up regarding the concept Santa Clause. They grow up learning about a fat man (something that exists in reality) wearing red clothing (something else that exists in reality). And they may be told by their parents that this person is real. Then, as they get older, they may read a book or (more likely) get teased by their friends for believing in Santa Clause. At that point they would reject the "is real" part from their concept of Santa Clause.

However, I get the sense that I'm still dancing around your answer not fully grasping your points...

(Jan 06 '15 at 03:30) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

Certainly the concept of Santa Clause (as a real person) or unicorn (as a real person) is not acquired first-handed in both Person B and the initial phase of childhood for Person C.

(Jan 06 '15 at 03:31) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

What would be the meaning of saying that justice "exists" (or does not "exist") in a particular case?

Doesn't that mean that a just outcome was reached (or was not reached) in that particular case?

Did Ayn Rand say that instances of abstract concepts don't exist? She rejected nominalism. She also said:

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.

so the units exist.

(By the way, the jolly old fat guy is named "Santa Claus" without the "e".)

(Jan 06 '15 at 09:38) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Certainly the concept of Santa Clause (as a real person) or unicorn (as a real person) is not acquired first-handed in both Person B and the initial phase of childhood for Person C.

I definitely disagree with regard to Santa. Children get lots of first-hand evidence that Santa is a real person, including seeing him and sitting on his lap.

With regard to unicorns it's more likely true that a person didn't directly perceive with the naked eyes a purported unicorn, but to say that alone makes it a floating abstraction would make numerous concepts including "president" a floating abstraction.

(Jan 06 '15 at 09:55) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Well there is the Santa(1) sits at the mall that some children thinks is the real Santa. Then there is the Santa(2) who is supposed to come via reindeers at night to give you surprises. My comment was in reference to Santa(2), not Santa(1).

(Jan 08 '15 at 04:59) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

There's first-hand evidence of Santa(2) too, though. The surprises.

I don't think "floating abstraction" just means you got some details wrong.

(Jan 08 '15 at 09:43) anthony anthony's gravatar image

I think this is a unique situation. Unicorns historically were real organisms--as I recall, the first (Roman) reference to them specifically referenced rhinoceroses. This reference was corrupted over centuries into the bearded, cloven-hooved animal we know as a unicorn today. There are also genetic mutations that allow ungulates to develop single horns. An albino unguulate with one horn is a very unlikely, but still possible, animal. So the concept of unicorns was, at one point, tied to reality. That tie was broken after the formation of the concept.

(Feb 17 '15 at 08:51) James James's gravatar image
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Asked: Dec 27 '14 at 03:26

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Last updated: Feb 17 '15 at 08:51