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IOE, Chapter One
Cognition and Measurement
by Paul Spunzar

Date: 20 Nov 1994
Forum: Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy
Copyright: Paul Spunzar

Here is the kickoff essay to our chapter by chapter discussion of Rand's ITOE, written by yours truly. I've included in this summary a discussion of Rand's intended purpose in writing ITOE -- a solution to the problem of universals. Rand discussed the problem in the foreword. Of course, this is in addition to a summary of the first chapter -- "Cognition and Measurement."

All citations refer to ITOE -- 2nd expanded edition, unless otherwise noted.

Rand begins the foreword with a description of the "problem of universals." She equates "the issue of concepts" with the problem of universals, and goes on to ask: ". . . concepts are abstractions or universals, and everything that man perceives is particular, concrete. What is the relationship between abstractions and concretes? To what precisely do concepts refer in reality?" (1)

She also asks "When we refer to three persons as 'men,' what do we designate by that term? [. . .] Where is the 'manness' in men? What, in reality corresponds to the concept 'man' in our mind?" (2)

I think Rand's formulation of the problem of universals is rather sloppy. For one thing, the problem has historically been a metaphysical question. To Plato and Aristotle, for instance, the problem of universals wasn't just the *same* as the issue of concepts, although the two issues may have been closely connected.. Instead, they sought to establish a metaphysical, ontological relationship underlying entities we group together. For Plato, it is the Forms; for Aristotle, essences -- both metaphysical "somethings" in and of themselves -- that united together men, horses, tables, etc. They saw groups such as these to be *metaphysically* united -- our concepts just reflected that. So, it cannot be said that the issue of concepts *is the same as* the problem of universals, at least for Plato and Aristotle. In fact, I would argue (although I won't do so now) that even on Rand's terms, even given her own solution to the problem, the issue of concepts is not quite the same thing as the problem of universals, although they *are* closely related. Furthermore, I'm afraid that in formulating the issue in this way Rand suggests what I view as a false dichotomy -- the issue of whether universals exist in reality or merely in the head.

I think Rand best represents the problem when she asks "Where is the 'manness' in men?" Let me offer a tentative characterization of the problem of universals: The problem of universals is the problem of determining what, if anything, enables us to group certain entities together as being somehow similar in some respect. Now, I don't think this is a perfect formulation of the problem, but I do think it is better than Rand's, and it allows us to consider how her theory of concept formation is supposed to provide an answer.

From here, Rand proceeds to distinguish between five different approaches to a solution of the problem of universals. I won't list them here, because you can just read the book to find out. It is worth noting, however, that subsequent to the publication of ITOE in 1967, another form of realism was put forward by Putnam (1975, 1981, 1987). Kripke (1980) and Burge (1979, for example) have put forward roughly similar theories. According to Putnam, concepts (and, implicitly, universals) have a basis in reality, but -- unlike realists like Plato and Aristotle -- need not, in most cases do not, refer or depend upon internal "essences" or Platonic Forms. It would be interesting to compare and contrast Putnam's views with Rand's.

Finally, we are now ready to discuss Chapter One: "Cognition and Measurement."

Rand begins by stating "Consciousness, as a state of awareness, is not a passive state, but an active process that consists of two essentials: differentiation and integration." (5) I've always found this to be an odd statement. What exactly is Rand claiming here? Is she claiming that consciousness is the *result* of an active process, or that it *is* this active process, or, perhaps, both? I think the natural interpretation is to conclude that consciousness is both an active process as well as the res ult of this process. This conclusion is supported by her description of the chronological development of consciousness: from sensations to percepts to concepts. Perception is a nonvolitional activity which integrates sensations into percepts, and it is percepts of which we are normally aware in perception. Concepts, on the other hand, are the result of a volitional process of differentiation and integration (as we shall see in subsequent chapters). Perhaps I'm opening up a can of worms here, but I think it would be interesting to explore exactly what Rand means by "consciousness." I've always been somewhat confused by her characterization of it.

Implicit in every percept is the concept of existent: "something that exists, be it a thing, an attribute or an action." I suppose this is just to restate the standard claim that "To be aware is to be aware of *something*" Another interesting question is to ask if existent is a concept implicit in every percept, but is not acknowledged explicitly until one reaches the conceptual level, can animals that supposedly are unable to form concepts, but are able to form percepts, be said to have acquired the "implicit" concept of existent?

Rand claims that the implicit concept of existent undergoes three stages of development: (6)

1. entity -- awareness of objects
2. identity -- awareness of specific, particular things which can be recognized and distinguished from the rest of the perceptual field.
3. unit -- grasping relationships among entities by grasping the similarities and differences of their identities.

Rand also states that "The ability to regard entities as units is man's distinctive method of cognition."(6) Why is this ability so distinctive and important? Rand defines a unit as "an existent regarded as a separate member of a group of two or more similar members." (6) She goes on to state that "'unit' involves an act of consciousness (a selective focus, a certain way of regarding things), but it is *not* an arbitrary creation of consciousness: it is a method of identification or classification according to the attributes which a consciousness observes in reality." (6-7).

What makes this ability so unique, and why Rand considers it to be unique to humans, is that it is volitional. It involves a selective focus upon similarities shared by members of a group. It is this grasp of the concept of "unit" that marks the beginning of a conceptual level of cognition. Units, Rand writes, are the "bridge between metaphysics and epistemology," i.e., the bridge between particulars and concepts.

Perhaps the most important point Rand makes about concept formation in this chapter is that it is largely a mathematical process. She defines mathematics as "the science of measurement," and measurement as "the identification of a relationship -- a quantitative relationship established by means of a standard that serves as a unit." Entities, she says, are measured by their attributes, the standard of measurement being a "concretely specified unit representing the appropriate attribute." (7)

Rand requires three things of a standard of measurement: That it represent the appropriate attribute, that it be easily perceivable by man, and that once chosen it remain immutable and absolute whenever used. The purpose of measurement, she says, is "to expand the range of man's consciousness, of his knowledge, beyond the perceptual level: beyond the direct power of his senses and the immediate concretes of any given moment." (8) As an example, she points out that man can perceive the length of one foot directly, but cannot do so with ten miles. In sum, measurement "consists of relating an easily perceivable unit to larger or smaller quantities, then to infinitely larger or infinitely smaller quantities, which are not directly perceivable." (8)

I have raised several issues for discussion in this summary, but let me list those I consider to be most important.

1. What is the problem of universals? Throughout our discussion of each chapter, we should take time to consider how Rand is proposing to solve this problem.

2. What does Rand mean by the term "consciousness"? What role does it play in her theory of concept formation?


3. What role does measurement play in Rand's theory?

No doubt there are many more questions that can be raised (and I encourage people to do so), but I believe that these are especially important and will need to be addressed continuously as we discuss each chapter of ITOE.


Burge, T. (1979) "Individualism and the Mental," Midwest Studies in Philosophy 4.

Krikpe, S. (1980) "Naming and Necessity."

Putnam, H. (1975) "The Meaning of Meaning," Mind, Language, and Reality.

Putnam, H.(1981) Reason, Truth, and History.

Putnam, H. (1987) Representation and Reality.

Rand, A. (1990 [1967]) Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.

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