Metaphysical and Intentional Entities:  Exegesis  of “Edges, Entities and Existence: An Epistemological Excursion”


Jamie Mellway


Forum:  Enlightenment. This commentary is submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for participation in Enlightenment’s First Annual Meeting, June, 2001. The author has submitted an informal proposal for a paper on logical-argumentative dialectic to be presented at the meeting.



The paper _ Edges, Entities and Existence: an epistemological excursion _ (henceforth EEE:EE) deals with a difficult topic—what an entity is—and is sometimes difficult to understand. The following exegesis is an attempt to highlight the essentials of the paper and of Rand’s own theory that the paper is directed at.  Some liberal rewording of their theory was used to help make the paper more understandable, but the original texts should be consulted for verification.


My contention is that the metaphysics/epistemology of Radcliffe and Ray is different than Rand’s in that it encapsulates the intentional components of Rand’s theory while omitting the mind-independent identity and direct awareness realism of perception needed for Rand’s full theory of entities.  Since Rand believes that these omissions are axiomatically true, the status of Rand axioms are left open to question in Radcliffe and Ray’s ontology.


1. Radcliffe and Ray’s Intentional Entities

Ignoring for a moment the contested first/second class distinction and the criticism of Rand and Kelley, the beginning of the paper discusses what an entity is.  This description must be understood if the controversial definition of ENTITY, involving an edge, is to be comprehended.  (Note: An earlier post on the OWL list-serv by Radcliffe[i] is particularly lucid.)


In EEE:EE, “for some part of reality to be classifiable under the concept ENTITY, it is both a necessary and sufficient condition that there be a knowing subject who abstracts that part from the rest of reality by an act of selective attention.”  In Radcliffe’s OWL post, “an entity is something that has been mentally isolated from its context by an act of selective attention.”


In both of these descriptions, two requirements are needed to have an entity.  That is, 1) that it refers to something in reality (possibly our mental states) and 2) selective attention is used to focus on that something.  Notice that the first requirement is a necessary one, so they are not idealists in the sense that only ideas are really real, but we can also refer to something outside of our mental states.  Notice that the second requirement is also needed, so they are not naïve realists in the sense that entities are just things that are out there that we grasp instead of having some cognitive role is assembling.


Although the status of fictitious things is not discussed in EEE:EE, it is vital to understand their project.  Are fictitious things like God, unicorns, universal terms, or Shelock Holmes, entities?  Their answer would be that these themselves are not entities, but our mental states regarding them can be.  That is, when we focus and concentrate on our mental states regarding GOD and the like, we refer to something (i.e., the thought in our mind)—although it does not refer to something beyond our thinking it.  E.g., while a unicorn is not an entity, we can meaningfully refer to a unicorn, as our mental state thinking of UNICORN is an entity.  It would be a mistake to talk about ‘unicorns’ as if they existed outside of mental states as the term fails to refer, but it is ok to talk about ‘unicorns’ in the sense that it refers to UNICORNS.


Again, it might occur to you that this is idealism of the Berkeley-type[ii], but it should be stressed that our mental contents and actions are not the only things that we can attend to.  As Ray puts it, while they “are not arguing for even a whiff of idealism…  There are _also_ the kind of entities that are completely unrelated to mind-independent reality for their existence”, they “think that other sorts of entities have _objective_ existence, which means that they result from the interaction of the attention of a conscious subject with extra-mental existence.”[iii]


This theory is not radically different from Rand.  For Rand, “words transform concepts into (mental) entities; definitions provide them with identity[iv], so words-with-definitions are entities with identity.  Yet, words and definitions do not appear to be necessary to have mental states to be entities for Radcliffe and Ray.


Another way of looking at entities is to distinguish them from universals.  Universals refer to many things and are indefinite.  That is, DOG refers to all dogs and DOG is still meaningful whether any definite dog (e.g., Muttnik) is referred to or not.  Entities, on the other hand, refer to one definite thing.  E.g., Muttnik is an entity and so is the group of the dogs in this room.  If the set of dogs changes in that group, then the entity changes, whereas the concept DOG does not change merely by a change from one set of dogs to another set.


Looked upon this way, an entity is then one thing.  That is, it is a type of unity.  It should be noted a unity is a unity-in-the-mind and is not something metaphysically special in the sense that Socrates (a whole) is properly a unity and Socrates’ foot (a part) is never a unity.


2. Rand’s Metaphysical and Intentional Entities

A common maneuver in Rand’s philosophy is take two apparently contradictory theories and claim that they are compatible.  For instance, this maneuver can be found in Rand with the compatibility of self-interest and right-respecting behaviour and of contextualism and certainty. Similarly, Rand holds two different theories for what constitutes an entity and has two classes of entities for each theory.


Rand makes a distinction between metaphysical and intentional entities[v] [although Rand does not use the term ‘intentional’], and each type depends on a different theory.  Here intentional entities are roughly the same as the intentional entities of Radcliffe and Ray.  Metaphysical entities, on the other hand, are quite different in that they are entities when we perceive things as things, while intentional entities are entities only provisionally.  An inch on the ground is an (intentional) entity[vi] when and only when we are examining that piece of ground [ITOE, p. 269], but the whole ground is a metaphysical entity simply by looking at it.  Bodily organs are only (intentional) entities for a science that examines them, but an individual that has them is always a metaphysical entity.  Whole objects like Socrates, a cat, the earth, a mountain, and a tree just are things and as such when we perceive them, they are metaphysical entities.  Parts of a whole and collections of wholes can only be intentional entities, while whole objects are metaphysical entities and do not depend on our intentions at all.


What I am calling a “whole object” is whatever it is that we directly are aware of though perception.  Our direct perception perceives existent objects as a whole thing—which has mind-independent identity.  Since we perceive it as a whole, we can say that it has a unity-in-the-mind and a unity-in-reality.  I am using the term ‘whole’ to stress the unity, yet distisguish it from the unity-in-the-mind of Radcliffe and Ray’s intentional entities.  I am also using that term to stress that parts of a whole and collections of wholes are not metaphysical entities in Rand’s theory.


Rand stresses that it is “a very important point” that an individual cannot be subsumed into “society in the same way that you can subsume the liver into an individual[vii]” (p, 273).  She also states that “man is a unit, not Society… nothing collective can have the unity and integrity of a ‘unit’.”[viii]  That is, an individual—opposed to organs and society—can be _metaphysical_ entity.  Parts and collections of entities are only entities with qualification of the singular whole.  You cannot talk about “society” or “a person’s arm” without grasping an individual person beforehand (p. 273).  The singular whole is metaphysically and epistemologically prior to a part or a collection (pp. 272-3).


On Rand’s theory, a collection of entities can only be grouped together to make one entity if they “have something in common or [are] tied together in some way” beyond our grouping of them together (p. 272).  The argument in EEE:EE (contra Rand) is that all entities are intentional and that focusing on a group is sufficient to tie entities together as one entity.  It is interesting to note that EEE:EE introduces a distinction very similar to the first and second class entity, that is, there are “simple entities” opposed non-simple entities.  The difference between their simple entities and Rand’s metaphysical entities is that simple entities only _appear_ to be pre-discriminated and that is it not necessary that there is “something metaphysically special” about them.


What, then, is “metaphysical special” about whole objects instead of parts and collections?  I believe Rand holds that it is axiomatic that there are mind-independent existents[ix] which exist as existent, that these mind-independent existents have mind-independent identity (p. 79), and that we have direct awareness of the existents as things (p. 5).  (Or as the mediaevals would put this last point, we have direct awareness of the “this-ness” (_haecceitas_) of things.)


A fuller explanation of Rand’s theory would include a detailed analysis of Rand’s axioms and connect the four “most universal concepts in the functioning of a human consciousness: Existence, Identity, Entity, and Unit.[x]  Since this not primarily a commentary on Rand, I will only want to suggest that, in Rand’s view, our direct awareness of the this-ness of existents is metaphysically special enough to justify us to consider what we are directly aware of as metaphysical entities.


3. There is No Identity without An Identifier

In a post to the Analytic email list, Radcliffe claims that “there is no identity without an identifier.”[xi]  Now, if whole objects do not have mind-independent identity, then our perception cannot have direct awareness of existents as existents.  This is because, for Rand, all existents possess mind-independent identity (p. 79).  Without mind-independent identity, there does not seem to be anything “metaphysically special” about whole objects.  Without something “metaphysically special” about whole objects, there are no metaphysical entities. 


I believe the rejection of metaphysical entities in EEE:EE can be reduced to a more fundamental disagreement with Rand concerning the metaphysical status of identity.  Without depending on that ontological assumption, Radcliffe and Ray are using only the intentional/conceptual half of the analysis of identity and entities, which I want to claim is only secondary in Rand.


[i] Tom Radcliffe, “Entities.” (OWL. May 25, 1999.

[ii] By Berkeley-type idealism, I mean the belief that mental ideas are really real opposed to “material substance”:  we attend to mental ideas and only mental ideas.  That is, material substance is non-essential.

[iii] Carolyn Ray.  “conceptualism, nominalism, properties.”  (Analytic. Sept 2, 2000. For more on fictional entities as entities see Tom’s paper _Inside The Edge: Justified Reification of Actions_ at

[iv] Ayn Rand.  Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.  p. 11.  Further references to this work will be found in the main text in brackets.

[v] In the posthumously published “Excerpts from the Epistemology Workshops” in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology

[vi] Ray states that Rand “seems undecided regarding a square inch of ground”, but Rand states that it is a “specific entity” when we are attending it, although it is not a metaphysical entity.  Rand only seems “undecided” if you collapse the distinction (as Radcliffe and Ray want to do), but Rand’s own theory has the distinction. [Carolyn Ray, “some clarifications, and bare particulars” Analytic, Aug 11, 2000.]   Rand says, “in the context of your examination [of one square inch of the ground], it’s a specific entity” although metaphysically “it’s [only] part of many, many other inches like it.” (p. 269).  Ray also says that “the criteria [Rand] is giving for picking out entities” includes that it “looks to be a unity”, but I contend that Rand is stating something stronger than it “looks” to be a unity.

[vii] An interesting speculation would be that Rand might be letting her political beliefs drive her theory here.

[viii] Rand [Dec. 5, 1937] quoted in Peikoff’s “Afterword” to The Fountainhead (pb. p.703).  The version in Journals of Ayn Rand (p. 147) does not capitalize ‘Society’.

[ix] “Existents” include entities, attributes, actions and mental events and they are things that exist. (p. 241)

[x] Ayn Rand, Journals of Ayn Rand, p. 701.  Rand’s theory requires a lot more precision with those four terms than I have used here.

[xi][xi] Radcliffe, Tom.  What is real. Aug 7.  Analytic.