IOE, Chapter Six
by James Leithead
Date: 4 Mar 1992
Forum: Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy
Copyright: James Leithead
Chapter six covers the topic of axiomatic concepts. Ayn Rand indicates the role and fundamental importance of these concepts in the first paragraph of the chapter when she says: "The base of man's knowledge--of all other concepts, all axioms, propositions and thought--consists of axiomatic con- cepts." (Rand, 1990, p.55)
Axiomatic concepts identify primary, irreducible facts of reality. As primaries these facts can not be broken down to other, more basic facts--they lie at the absolute base level, the beginning. They are not proved by reference to other facts, but are the basis of proof itself. They are the fundamentally given, directly experienced, and thus are validated in and of themselves. Peikoff puts it concisely, saying "Axioms are *perceptual self-evidencies*. There is nothing to be said in their behalf except: Look at reality." (Peikoff, 1991, p.8) The vital epistemological task that axiomatic concepts perform is the explicit, conceptual iden- tification of these basic facts.
The three primary axiomatic concepts identified by Rand are: "existence", "identity", and "consciousness". As con- cepts, these are the abstract products of a selective focus, the objects of the focus being the broadest, most basic of facts--metaphysical primaries. The mental integration per- formed is the broadest possible to man's mind as it sub- sumes these broadest, most basic of facts, which are implicit in all of man's consciousness and derived from the *totality of a man's experience*.
The units of "existence" and "identity" are "every entity, attribute, action, event or phenomenon (including conscious- ness) that exists, has ever existed or will ever exist." (Rand, 1990, p.56) The units of "consciousness" are "every state or process of awareness that one experiences, has ever experienced or will ever experience". (Ibid.) Note that the abstraction involved is not that of an attribute from a set of existents. Rather, it is the abstracting of a basic *fact* from all facts. Existence and identity are not mere attributes of that which exists, they *are* that which exists. Consciousness is not an attribute of awareness, it *is* awareness. "Existence" and "identity" subsume all that is; "consciousness" subsumes all awareness of that which is.
These concepts identify certain primary facts but do not specify to what actual, concrete entities they apply. The concept of "existence" does not have anything to say about what exists, merely that it *exists*. "Identity" does not say what exists either, only that *it* exists. "Consciousness" doesn't say of what one is consciousness, only that one is *conscious* of it. Beyond the fundamental facts that they identify, axiomatic concepts have no other content. Every- thing else is an omitted measurement.
The measurements omitted when abstracting axiomatic con- cepts are all of the measurements of all of the existents that come under the concepts. In the case of "existence" and "identity", that means all of the measurements of all that is, ever was, or ever will be; with "consciousness" it means all of the measurements of all awareness that one has, has had, or ever will have. What remains after these reductions, then, are *fundamental metaphysical facts*. Epistemologic- ally only one category of measurements remains, with its par- ticulars omitted--that of time. In other words, these fun- damental facts remain always, independent of any single moment of awareness--they are "the *constants* of man's con- sciousness". (Ibid.)
As constants, axiomatic concepts are always there, serving as "cognitive integrators" (Ibid.) that maintain continuity in man's consciousness. Such continuity means the ability to integrate past, present, and future, a feat only possible to a conceptual consciousness. Sensations are immediate and fleeting. They are an awareness only of the present and ca not be retained beyond the time they occur. Percepts are retainable and as such can be a link to the past, but alone they still do not allow the projection of the future. "It is only conceptual awareness that can grasp and hold the total of its experience--extrospectively, the continuity of existence; introspectively, the continuity of consciousness --and thus enable its possessor to project his course long- range." (p.57) Axiomatic concepts are the means by which man establishes this continuity, making it a part of his con- scious knowledge.
Further, says Rand, these axiomatic concepts are the very foundation of objectivity. They identify explicitly the precondition of knowledge itself: they distinguish between existence and consciousness. They draw the line between reality and awareness of reality, between perceived and per- ceiver, between object and subject.
Another important role played by axiomatic concepts is that of epistemological guidelines. By identifying fundamen- tal metaphysical facts, they stand as guideposts for man's conceptual, volitional, and therefore fallible consciousness. They identify explicitly and conceptually the fundamentals given to man implicitly in direct perception, providing a clear base from which to proceed in cognition. As Rand puts it, "They sum up the essence of all human cognition: some- thing *exists* of which I am *conscious*; I must discover its *identity*." (p.59)
There are two respects in which axiomatic concepts differ from other, ordinary concepts--those of definition and Con- ceptual Common Denominator. Unlike ordinary concepts, axiomatic concepts cannot be defined in terms of other con- cepts. Recall that they are identifications of *irreducible primaries*. As such, there are no prior terms in which to put them. The only way to refer to their referents is ostensively. For example, to define "existence" one has to simply point to the world around oneself and say, "I mean this."
Just as they are exempt from definition, so do axiomatic concepts elude the requirement of a Conceptual Common Denom- inator. Since they aren't formed by differentiating some- thing from everything else, but are an integration of every- thing, they have no CCD. As they are all-encompassing, there is nothing else with which to compare them. There is no alternative to "existence", "identity", and "consciousness" --only nothingness (which is not a primary, but a derivative concept proceeding from a relationship to existents).
Because axiomatic concepts identify primary facts that lie at the base of everything else, they can be made into statements only self-referentially. To make these axiomatic concepts into formal axioms, one can only state that "Existence exists", "A is A", and "Consciousness is conscious." These three constitute the fundamental axioms of the phil- osophy of Objectivism.
Beyond explaining these extremely important facts about axiomatic concepts, Rand also gives some examples of how the enemies of reason attempt to violate, evade, and dis- prove them. These include the coining of supposed axioms that purportedly demolish the basic axioms of Existence, Identity, and Consciousness, but actually smuggle them in themselves as unacknowledged "stolen concepts". Also men- tioned is what Rand labels "The Reification of the Zero", which treats the derivative concept "nothing" as though it were a primary thing. In each case, of course, she quickly and easily identifies the fundamental error (or trick) upon which these attempts turn.
What this all serves to do is support Rand's contention that "what the enemies of reason seem to know, but its alleged defenders have not discovered, is the fact that *axiomatic concepts are the guardians of man's mind and the foundation of reason*--the keystone, touchstone and hallmark of reason --and if reason is to be destroyed, it is axiomatic concepts that have to be destroyed." (p.60)
Axiomatic concepts are as vital as they are fundamental. They play not only the role of guardian to man's conscious- ness, but can also be a great ally in philosophical detec- tion. "Do you want to assess the rationality of a person, a theory or a philosophical system? Do not inquire to his or its stand on the validity of reason," says Ayn Rand in her conclusion to the chapter. "Look for the stand on axiomatic concepts. It will tell the whole story." (p.61)
Peikoff, L. Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York, Dutton, 1991.
Rand, A. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology; 2nd Edition, Binswanger and Peikoff, Ed. New York, Meridian, 1990.
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