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IOE, Chapter Four
Concepts of Consciousness
by Diana Mertz Brickell

Date: 27 Mar 1995
Forum: Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy
Copyright: Diana Mertz Brickell

Introduction: Why is this subject important?

In this chapter, Rand delves into concepts of consciousness, concepts whose referents are based in the mind rather than directly in external reality. Before I discuss the chapter itself, I'd like to indicate why I think that the subject matter is important. What relevance does epistemology, particularly concerning the formation of concepts of consciousness, have to an individual's life?

I believe that conceptualizing on a second-order level, i.e. about the actions of our consciousness in grasping reality, is crucially important if we expect to properly "carve nature at her joints." As far as I can tell from my plush philosophical armchair, one of the functions of free will is to provide consciousness another level of self-regulation, because of the complexities that naturally arise when the primary means of understanding reality is on a complex conceptual level. "[The ability to conceptualize mental processes as such] gives man an entirely new level of self-regulation: the ability to regulate, within limits, the actions of his consciousness, which in turn regulate his existential actions." (Binswanger, 156)

Since it is only by means of self-reflection that choosing values becomes possible, we must self-reflect well in order to gain clear, objective knowledge of values themselves. Rand only briefly addresses the overall need for study of the concepts of consciousness, although she does provide mini-reasons for its importance throughout the chapter. I hope that my motivational explanation provides a broader view of the importance of the subject.

Just as a warning, this chapter is so packed with interrelated information and interesting ideas that I found it difficult to omit discussions of all but a few sections. I just couldn't restrain myself!


Rand begins this chapter with a short discussion of awareness as an active state and as necessarily derived from the external world. These two aspects of consciousness are crucial -- action and content -- since they will serve as the Conceptual Common Denominators for all concepts of consciousness.

Rand makes an interesting observation about perception in this first section, that "man is aware of the results [of perception] but not of the process." (Rand, 29) David Kelley expanded upon this idea in his tape series on epistemology. (Kelley, "The Primacy of Existence") If my notes and memory are to be trusted, Kelley said that there are two distinct perspectives on perception, one external and one internal, and that the facts available in each perspective are unavailable in the other. From the external, scientific perspective, one isn't aware of what the experience of perception is like, and from just the internal, "subjective" perspective, one isn't aware of how the causal mechanisms of perception work. Kelley indicates how this separation between internal and external perspectives has lead to the diaphanous model of consciousness, and thus to (wrong) indirect theories of perception.

I find this progression from a single sentence of Rand's to (through a whole lot of work) an answer to the fundamental problems in the philosophy of perception fascinating. I think that Rand has many such short, yet "pregnant" passages which can serve as a jumping off point for the solution to many traditional philosophical problems.

I am slightly uncomfortable with the way in which Rand formulates the idea that any state of awareness, perceptual or conceptual, is "achieved and maintained by continuous action." (Rand, 29) I fear that this formulation blurs the distinction between consciousness as *metaphysically active* and consciousness as *epistemologically active.* Asserting metaphysical activity commits us to the view that consciousness is, at least in part, the creator of reality, i.e. to the primacy of consciousness. Of course, Rand would not take this position, although she would agree that consciousness is epistemologically active, that the act of grasping reality requires action on the part of the subject, and even conscious effort where conceptual knowledge is sought.

Interestingly, taking consciousness as metaphysically active commits one to subjectivism, while denying that consciousness is epistemologically active inevitably leads to intrinsicism. Only denying the former and asserting the latter leads to an objective view of the relationship between consciousness and reality.

Forming Concepts of Consciousness

As I indicated earlier, the content of awareness and the action of consciousness in regard to that content serve as the "fundamental Conceptual Common Denominator for all concepts pertaining to consciousness," because conscious activity can neither be passive nor contentless. (Rand, 30) According to Rand, in the process of forming concepts of consciousness one abstracts "the actions of consciousness from its contents and observe the *differences* among these various actions." (Rand, 30) One way to illustrate how to conceptually separate the action and content of consciousness is by considering only a specific action or content, while varying the other.

So, for example, I can solely consider the mental content of the philosophy of perception, and consider what sort of actions are possible with regard to the subject. I can IDENTIFY a particular theory as belonging to the philosophy of perception; I can EVALUATE the validity of a claim about representations; I can RECALL some empirical evidence in an article; I can INTEGRATE some of Gibson's ideas about perceptual error with Kelley's.

Now although Rand doesn't ever talk about omitting the measurements of the action of consciousness, while retaining the content (within a certain range), I do suspect that such is possible. In fact, I think that this is how we divide up fields of study, like physics, history, and child psychology. To illustrate, I can suppose that my mental action is solely "evaluation," and consider different areas of knowledge in which I can evaluate truth claims. I can evaluate the OBJECTIVIST METAPHYSICS; I can evaluate SPECIAL RELATIVITY (yeah right); I can evaluate the GRAMMAR of a particular sentence.

If it isn't the case that we conceptualize fields of study based on content of mental entities, I wonder whether there are any concepts of consciousness that are conceptualized along the lines of content at all.

Rand goes on to emphasize that "in the realm of introspection, the concretes, the *units* which are integrated into a single concept are the specific instances of a given psychological process" and that the "measurable attributes of a psychological process are its object or *content* and its *intensity*." (Rand, 31)

The content, because it must eventually refer to some aspect of reality, can be measured by the same means by which external existents are. But the intensity (which involves scope, clarity, mental effort, etc.) can only be measured approximately, using a comparative scale. But intensity cannot be completely separated from content, since intensity necessarily depends upon content (or the *scope* of the content, as Rand puts it), as well other facts about consciousness (e.g. values and previous knowledge). To take an extreme example, the level of focus required to grasp the implications of the double-slit experiment is much higher than that required to identify an object as a chair, because of (the scope of) the content of each idea.

Scope and Hierarchy as Means to Measure Intensity

In order to more precisely measure intensity, Rand introduces the concepts of "scope" and "hierarchy." Each is applicable to a different type of concepts of consciousness; scope applies to concepts of *cognition*, while hierarchy applies to concepts of *evaluation*.

Concepts of cognition (e.g. "thought," "observation," learning") are measured by scope, which can be "gauged by two interrelated aspects: by the scope of the factual material involved in a given cognitive process, and by the length of the conceptual chain required to deal with the material." (Rand, 32) Of course, in order to gauge the length of conceptual chain, it is necessary to have a clear foundation of "perceptually given concretes," but what exactly constitutes this foundation is a bit controversial. In the workshop section, Rand does say that there is "a certain element of the optional" about what concepts are on the bottom of the hierarchy. (Rand, 204) I think that it is an interesting question what sort of concepts (if any) *must* serve as the foundation of the hierarchy of concepts.

Concepts of evaluation (e.g. "value," "feel," "desire") necessitate an entirely new type of measurement: teleological measurement. Teleological measurement "serves to establish a graded relationship of means to end" using ordinal ranking. Rand illustrates the importance of having a clear hierarchy of values in her discussion of the relation between ethics and teleological measurement. (See Rand, 33)

Unit of Teleological Measurement?

There is an interesting issue which I would like to raise surrounding teleological measurement and the unit of measurement. Rand defines measurement as "the identification of a . . . quantitative relationship established by means of a standard that serves as a unit," but it is unclear if there is actually a unit of measurement in teleological measurement, since the standard in teleological measurement "serves to establish a *graded* relationship of means to end." (Rand, 7; Rand 33, emphasis added) I would not hesitate to say that there is no unit in teleological measurement except for the existence of the following passage: "in the spiritual realm, the currency--which exists in limited quantity and must be teleologically measured in the pursuit of any value--is *time*, i.e. *one's life*." (Rand, 34) (This statement might be confusing in isolation, so you might want to look up the specific passage.) Is it possible that the unit is *time* for the standard of life?

Concepts of Products of Psychological Action

After her great discussion of whether love can be measured, Rand delves into concepts that refer to products of psychological action (e.g. "truth," "knowledge," "concept"). In the formation of these concepts their content is omitted, while their distinguishing characteristic is retained. Although Rand doesn't say explicitly, it seems that the distinguishing characteristic is the both the actual product of conscious activity, as well as the action that yields the product. So knowledge is "a mental grasp of the fact(s) of reality [product], reached either by perceptual observation or by a process of reason based on perceptual observation [process]" (Rand, 35)

Concepts of method, which are a species of the concepts of products, deserve special consideration, because of their importance in human life. Rand defines methods as "systematic courses of action devised by men for the purpose of achieving certain goals," in which the action can either be purely psychological or existential. (Rand 35-36)

Obviously, methods which designate existential method are extremely important to human life -- survival would be impossible without means to automatize certain actions (like shoelace tying) through learned methods. Methods pertaining to psychological action are no less important, since they will govern the proper use of an individual's mind in grasping reality.

Logic as the Fundamental Concept of Method

Rand identifies logic as "*the* fundamental concept of method, the one on which all others depend." (Rand, 36) With respect to logic, the action is "the actions of consciousness required to achieve a correct identification" and the goal is knowledge. Of course, this doesn't tell us what actions actually *are* required for correct identification, which is why the concept of logic needs to be broken down into components in order to really serve as a guide to thinking.

If I recall correctly, Peikoff breaks down logic into "reduction" and "integration" in his "Objectivism: State of the Art" tape series, but because I disagree with a good part of his discussion on these issues, I don't think that it is all that helpful to explicate his views. (I'd be very interested in a discussion of Peikoff's views, and would be willing to post a summary of his position for those who haven't heard the tapes if others are interested as well.)


One final point about this chapter: in her closing passages Rand emphasizes that "*measurement requires an appropriate standard.*" (Rand, 38) I think that this idea is crucial for giving an Objectivist answer to many traditional philosophical problems. For example, the possibility of certainty is often denied on the grounds that humans are capable of error, in other words because we are fallible. But omniscience is only an appropriate standard for a being for whom such a state of awareness is possible; the fact that humans are fallible must be integrated into any human epistemological theory.

I thank anyone who has slogged all the way through this essay. Let the discussion begin!


Binswanger, Harry. "Volition as Cognitive Self-Regulation." Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 1991. 154-178.

Kelley, David. "Primacy of Existence I."

Rand, Ayn. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. 1990.

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