IOE, Chapter Seven
The Cognitive Role of Concepts
by Andrew Breese
Date: 19 Jun 1995
Forum: Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy
Copyright: Andrew Breese
Earning its place in ItOE, this chapter is the most concerned with the value of concepts. It is a wide-ranging discussion of the ways our minds *use* concepts, with many suggestions for improving that utility. Indicating the fundamentality of concepts within O'ist epistemology, Rand stated, "The issue of concepts...is philosophy's central issue. Since man's knowledge is gained and held in conceptual form, the validity of man's knowledge depends on the validity of concepts." (1, Expanded Second Edition, Meridian)
Overview of the Summary:
Chapter seven treats crow epistemology (unit-economy), the relation of mathematics to conceptualization, definition by essentials, learning as automatizing, concepts as including "yet-to-be-discovered characteristics of a given group of existents," language as "primarily a tool of cognition--not of communication," the categories of existents for which individual concepts must be formed, Rand's Razor, "Borderline Case" problems as evading cognition's purpose, and the precise tasks of epistemology.
Rand points out that a mind can only focus on so much at any given time. Crows apparently can discriminate between one man, two men, three men, and more-than-three men--but not between four men and five men (in their short-term memory). Humans have a slightly greater perceptual comparative ability; the oft-cited cognitive psychology result is seven plus or minus two units. Concepts, though, allow us to keep track of any number of perceptual events. It is possible for us to accurately remember and analyze any event without ever holding more than a few concepts in focus at once. If I were counting crows (up to a ten digit number, say-- I know I can remember a phone number), I would just have to keep track of one number at any point and be able to add one to it. "The essence, therefore, of man's incomparable cognitive power is the ability to reduce a vast amount of information to a minimal number of units--which is the task performed by his conceptual faculty." (63) Rand calls this reduction to a minimal number of units: unit-economy.
"Mathematics is a science of *method* (the science of measurement, i.e., of establishing quantitative relationships), a cognitive method that enables man to perform an unlimited series of integrations... Conceptualization is a *method* of expanding man's consciousness by reducing the number of its content's units--a systematic means to an unlimited number of integrations." (64) Mathematics is based on the idea that some existents are commensurable-- that it is meaningful and useful to compare those existents. Conceptualizing is based on the fact that it is meaningful and useful to treat some existents in exactly the same way in certain situations--that some existents are not just commensurable, but practically equivalent. Mathematics requires conceptualizing.
"It is the principle of unit-economy that necessitates the definition of concepts in terms of *essential* characteristics." (65) If one is to later focus only on the definition of a concept (which is the most precise way of applying the concept while still keeping the number of units minimal), that definition should be carefully selected.
More generally, because we each automatically rely on our previous reasoning, all new understanding should be carefully reached. "[A]ll learning involves a process of automatizing, i.e., of first acquiring knowledge by fully conscious, focused attention and observation, then of establishing mental connections which make that knowledge automatic (instantly available as a context), thus freeing man's mind to pursue further, more complex knowledge." (65)
This chapter's most complex point is, "Concepts stand for specific kinds of existents, including *all* the characteristics of these existents, observed and not-yet-observed, known and unknown." (65) Rand further clarifies in her summary at ItOE's end, "Concepts represent condensations of knowledge, 'open-end' classifications that subsume *all* the characteristics of their referents, the known and the yet- to-be-discovered; this permits further study and the division of cognitive labor." (86) This is puzzling on its face because Rand also defines a concept as "a mental integration of two or more units possessing the same distinguishing characteristic(s), with their particular measurements omitted." (13) We are left to reconcile "including *all* the characteristics" with "particular measurements omitted." My thought is that "*all* the characteristics" refers only to those characteristics possessed by all of the existents subsumed by a concept, which Rand elsewhere calls distinguishing characteristics. "Particular measurements," on the other hand, refers to those characteristics of one or some, but not all, of the subsumed existents. For example, "able to use reason" is included in the concept of man, while "open to rational argument regarding the existence of God" is not.
On the purpose of language, Rand writes, "Concepts and, therefore, language are *primarily* a tool of cognition--*not* of communication, as is usually assumed...*Cognition precedes communication;* the necessary precondition of communication is that one have something to communicate." (69) An understanding does not become a concept and a unit until a word or other perceptual symbol is tied to it. Language is therefore vital for unit-economy and thus for thought of any complexity.
Rand provides a list of categories of existents for which concepts should definitely be formed, then ties them together with, "These [categories] represent existents with which men have to deal constantly, in many different contexts, from many different aspects, either in daily physical action or, more crucially, in mental action and further study." (70) This clearly ties concept-formation to its later use and is a great example of the ethics buried in epistemology.
Emphasizing that each concept should have an important CCD, "[N]either the essential similarities nor the essential differences among existents may be ignored, evaded or omitted once they have been observed. Just as the requirements of cognition forbid the arbitrary subdivision of concepts, so they forbid the arbitrary integration of concepts into a wider concept by means of obliterating their *essential* differences." (71) Rand then rephrases this in terms of a double-edged demand for "necessity" in concept- formation, as her epistemological "razor." (72) Presumably, "necessity" is tested for by weighing "[t]he descriptive complexity of a given group of existents, the frequency of their use, and the requirements of [further study]." (70) It is interesting that concept formation (an action studied at the base of epistemology) properly rests on value judgments.
Rand shows that borderline cases do not threaten her theory of concepts, by arguing that only "traditional-realist theories of universals, which claim that concepts are determined by and refer to archetypes or metaphysical essences" are refuted by such puzzlers. (74) Applying the doctrine of necessity based mostly on the requirements of further study, one can objectively determine how to classify each borderline case; in the absence of necessity either way, one has classification options, none of which challenge the objectivity of the concepts which *are* formed by cognitive necessity.
This chapter closes with a concise list of the tasks of epistemology, pointing the way toward future work: "to keep order in the organization of man's conceptual vocabulary, suggest the changes or expansions of definitions, formulate the principles of cognition and the criteria of science, protect the objectivity of methods and of communications within and among the special sciences, and provide the guidelines for the integration of mankind's knowledge." (74) Rand further distills these tasks as the integration and guardianship of man's knowledge.
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