A Reply to Anderson: On Realism, Conceptualism and the Objectivist Theory of Concepts

by Dawson Bethrick

 

 

 

 

In September 2006 I posted an essay on my blog titled Frame’s Summary of Van Til’s OMA. In that entry I examined John Frame’s published notes on the so-called “One-Many Argument” for which his mentor, Cornelius Van Til, is in some circles very well known. My analysis of this summary uncovered many problem areas, such as the claim that we cannot identify particulars without universals, that “universal terms exclude particularities,” that universals cannot be defined “except by means of particularities,” etc. These and other errors of understanding are corrected in my interaction with Frame’s rehearsal of Van Til’s famed argument.

 

Some time after I had published this post, presuppositional apologist James Anderson posted some critical remarks in response to what I had written in the comments section of the same blog entry. It is not clear what Anderson’s goal was in posting these comments, for they do not directly interact with my corrections of Frame’s statements, and they also display some confusion on Anderson’s own part.

 

For instance, in his comments, Anderson stated that my “critique apparently takes for granted a conceptualist view of universals.” He explained this by saying that my

 

introductory remark about Frame mistreating the issue of concepts, even though Frame refers only to universals and not to concepts; the two terms are not synonymous, even on a conceptualist position.

 

But this strikes me as a rather odd statement to make. Apparently Anderson

 

(i)     recognizes from my analysis that on my view (the view which my critique “takes for granted”), universals and concepts are synonymous (he states that “at several points [my analysis] treat the terms 'universal' and 'concept' as interchangeable”),

(ii)    acknowledges that universals and concepts “are not synonymous, even on a conceptualist position,” but

(iii)   says that my “critique apparently takes for granted a conceptualist view of universals.”

 

If it is the case, as Anderson has stated, that universals and concepts “are not synonymous, even on a conceptualist position,” and my analysis in fact treats these two terms synonymously (“as interchangeable”), why does Anderson suppose that my “critique apparently takes for granted a conceptualist view of universals”? In explaining his remark that my critique of Frame “takes for granted a conceptualist view of universals,” Anderson himself points to a significant difference between the view which my analysis assumes and the conceptualist view of universals.

 

In response to these confused comments, I had pointed out to Anderson that my critique in fact assumes the Objectivist theory of concepts rather than the conceptualist view of universals. I pointed this out not expressly to disaffirm the view that the Objectivist theory of concepts is a species of conceptualism, but to emphasize the fact that my analysis is coming from a specific school of thought on the matter, one which rejects realism as well as nominalism. One of the reasons for this is that there are so many varieties of conceptualism in the philosophical marketplace, some of which hazarding the problems inherent in realism, and others the problems inherent in nominalism. To enlarge briefly on this point of dispute, let’s inform our terms:

 

Universal: The following summary is fairly standard:

 

The term ‘universal’ is related to the concepts of species, genus, and class. It stands in contrast to the terms ‘particular’ and ‘individual’. The problem of universals arises when one asks about the status in reality, or the ontological status, of universals. An intense debate over universals took place during the Middle Ages… The terms Nominalsim, Realism…, and Conceptualism…, were used in, and as a result of, that debate. For the Realist the universal has some kind of reality outside the mind. For the Conceptualist the universal has reality only within the mind. For the Nominalist the universal is nothing but a name, and has reality neither within nor outside the mind. In fact, however, these distinctions exist along a continuous spectrum, and the distinction is sometimes so fine between Nominals and Conceptualist, or between Conceptualist and Moderate Realist, that the distinctions are not very useful, nor is there anything approaching complete agreement on the classification of various individual philosophers…. Socrates… set the stage for the discussion by pressing his colleagues for the ‘common nature’ or universal definition of any given set of things. A question as to the status of the common nature and universal definition emerged from the Socratic quest… Plato… held that such common natures or ‘ideas’ required their own reality; and that they are in fact exemplars according to which individuals or instances in the world are created. In the language of the medieval dispute, Plato is a realist. He believed in the extramental reality of universals. Further, since the Ideas or universals depend on nothing in the world, having their own eternal realm, he is an absoulte realist, and his view is one of Absolute Realism… It was a Christianized version of the Neoplatonic alternative which St. Augustine… employed in supporting the Absolute Realism of Plato. He gave the eternal ideas and eternal home by placing them in the mind of God. (Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion, pp. 795-796)

 

Realism: This is the view “that universals have a reality of their own, an extra-mental existence. Positions are often marked out, running from moderate to absolute Realism. The more definite, fixed, and eternal the status of the universals, the more absolute is the Realism. (Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion, p. 637) Plato is typically cited as the original “absolute Realist” in the sense mentioned here. On Plato’s view, the “common natures

 

Nominalism:Nominalism represents the minimal position with respect to the problem of Universals… The posiiton is that universals are not real entities either in the world or in the mind, but names which refer to groups or classes of individuals things. The position of Nominalism is difficult to distinguish from some forms of Conceptualism…” (Reese, p. 525)

 

Conceptualism: “the position with respect to universals that they exist as entities in the mind but have no extra-mental existence. The position stands between the extremes of Nominalism… and Realism… The position of Conceptualism is extremely difficult to distinguish from some versions of Nominalism on the one hand, and from moderate Realism on the other. Any philosopher listed as a Conceptualist might be assigned and probably has been assigned elsewhere either to Nominalism or Realism.” (Ibid., p. 131)

 

Objectivism: Unlike the herd of philosophers before her, Ayn Rand understood the problem of universals as an epistemological concern rather than a metaphysical controversy which pre-occupied medieval thinkers. Rand dedicated an entire book to the issue, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, consisting of a series of notes which she had published in The Objectivist between July 1966 and February 1967. In her book, these articles appear as separate chapters and Rand suggested that they “be regarded as a preview of my future book on Objectivism” (p. 1), which she never ended up producing. Specifically, Rand saw “the problem of universals” as actually an “issue of concepts,” which she considered to be “philosophy’s central issue,” and therefore extremely important:

 

Since man’s knowledge is gained and held in conceptual form, the validity of man’s knowledge depends on the validity of concepts. But 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? Do they refer to something real, something that exists – or are they merely inventions of man’s mind, arbitrary constructs or loose approximations that cannot claim to represent knowledge? (Ibid.)

 

Rand contrasted the theory she was about to unveil with the following four general positions on thought on “the problem of universals” as she understood them:

 

1.     The “extreme realists” or Platonists, who hold that abstractions exist as real entities or archetypes in another dimension of reality and that the concretes we perceive are merely their imperfect reflections, but the concretes evoke the abstractions in our mind. (According to Plato, they do so by evoking the memory of the archetypes which we had known, before birth, in that other dimension.)

2.     The “moderate realists,” whose ancestor (unfortunately) is Aristotle, who hold that abstractions exist in reality, but they exist only in concretes, in the form of metaphysical essences, and that our concepts refer to these essences.

3.     The “nominalists,” who hold that all our ideas are only images of concretes, and that abstractions are merely “names” which we give to arbitrary groupings of concretes on the basis of vague resemblances.

4.     The “conceptualists,” who share the nominalists’ view that abstractions have no actual basis in reality, but who hold that concepts exist in our minds as some sort of ideas, not as images. (Ibid., p. 2)

 

I can certainly understand why some might think, at least on the basis of superficial similarities, that Rand’s theory of concepts is a species of conceptualism. It may or may not be, depending on the specifics of what “conceptualism” is understood to be teaching. As Reese makes clear above, conceptualism is difficult to distinguish from certain versions of realism and nominalism, and Rand’s theory of concepts is certainly neither of these. Interestingly, Peter St. Andre, in an essay titled Conceptualism in Abelard and Rand, argues that Rand’s theory of concept has many similarities with Abelard’s view, which has historically been categorized as conceptualist, affirming that “Rand's views on the problem of universals are properly classified as a form of conceptualism,” and that “Rand's characterization of the conceptualists does not do justice to their views about the basis of abstractions in reality,” specifically that “her characterization of conceptualism as a form of nominalism does not do justice to at least one conceptualist thinker, whose views seem quite congruent with her own.” In regard to this last charge against Rand, I have seen no evidence to the effect that Rand had any familiarity with Abelard’s position on “the problem of universals.” So when she states, as she does in the Foreword of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, that conceptualists “share the nominalists’ view that abstractions have no actual basis in reality,” she might very well have been reacting to other philosophers, classed as far as Rand knew as conceptualists, who held such views. Since the conceptualist school of thought seems to be a mixed bag, including such names as John of Salisbury, Locke, Berkeley, Reid, Kant, Mill and Quine (cf. Reese, pp. 131-132), it’s quite possible that Rand had one of these in mind.

So here we have some background information which I hope will help us in sorting out some of Anderson’s points.

 

Acknowledging his own unfamiliarity with Objectivism and his awareness of the fact “that the Objectivist theory of concepts is not the same as the conceptualist view of universals,” Anderson insisted that my “critique of Frame assumes a conceptualist view of universals, for the reasons I indicated.” But the reasons which he indicated themselves pointed to my practice, namely the treatment of universals as synonymous with concepts, which is foreign to conceptualism (“the two terms are not synonymous, even on a conceptualist position”). If it is the case that concepts and universals “are not synonymous, even on a conceptualist position,” then why suppose that my view, which essentially equates concepts and universals, is conceptualist? Although this seems to me to be a trivial matter of classifying my position within preset categories which likely carry their own connotative baggage within the academic community, Anderson takes this association which he supposes between the Objectivist theory of concepts and the conceptualist view of universals as an opportunity to attribute to the Objectivist position a defect which he apparently believes plagues the conceptualist view.

 

Observe Anderson’s following statement:

 

In your view, I take it, universals are identical (or reducible) to concepts; specifically, human concepts. (We don't want any "invisible magical being" to get a foot in the door, right?) So the fact that the ball is round, that it possesses the property of roundness, is ultimately grounded in the application of our concept of roundness to the ball. Insofar as there are such things as properties, they are not mind-independent; if they exist at all, then they are purely conceptual.

 

A couple points here are needed, one to clarify my position, the other to make a drastically needed correction.

 

First, on my view, the terms ‘universal’, ‘concept’ and ‘abstraction’ essentially refer to the same thing: “a mental integration of two or more units which are isolated according to a specific characteristic(s) and united by a specific definition” (Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 10). On my view, “universals” are not extra-mental objects co-existing with or pre-existing the concrete objects which we perceive in the world. Rather, they are the form in which we identify and integrate what we perceive (they are also the form in which we integrate previously formed abstractions to form higher abstractions). In his symposium on “Universals,” Dr. David Kelley, an Objectivist philosopher, makes the comment that the historical quandary commonly known as “the problem of universals” really should have been called “the problem of abstractions,” since the philosophically relevant problem is not so much their “ontological status” (as many philosophers have believed), but how they are formed by the human mind. To reject this analysis is to multiply one’s philosophical problems: not only does he have the original “problem of universals,” he now also has the problem of abstractions, which Kelley addresses (and which Rand’s theory of concepts solves). On such a view, “universals” represent a third category, one which supposedly exists in addition to the subject of consciousness and the objects which he perceives. On this view, there are (1) the objects which we perceive in the world, which are concrete particulars, (2) the knowing subject which perceives them, and (3) the “universal,” which exists somewhere “out there,” but which is inaccessible to the senses, and apparently available to man’s mind through some mysterious capacity, such as anamnesis (for Plato, “reminiscence” or “loss of forgetfulness”), or by means of divine afflatus. Objectivism avoids these additional, unnecessary problems by recognizing that universality is a property of concepts (as I explain in my blog Demystifying Universality), and that the problem of universals is therefore actually an epistemological issue rather than a metaphysical problem.

 

In relation to these points, Anderson did ask me to “make clear [my] view on the ontological status of universals.” This is answered in Rand’s definition of ‘concept’ which I provided above. That definition is: “a mental integration of two or more units which are isolated according to a specific characteristic(s) and united by a specific definition.” In other words, concepts (or “universals”) have the ontological status of being mental. That is, they are an operation of the human mind. (I would say that they are the operation of any mind which has achieved the conceptual level of consciousness, but I know only of human beings which have done this. In anticipation of the objection that the Christian god has its knowledge in conceptual form, I have already weighed in on this objection with my essay Would an Omniscient Mind Have Knowledge in Conceptual Form?) Specifically (and this is why Objectivism sees “the problem of universals” as in fact an epistemological concern rather than a metaphysical problem), this has to do with how the human mind economizes its retention of the objects it has perceived and allows newly perceived objects to be treated as units of categories already formed. As for the “ontological status” of universals, or concepts, or abstractions (whichever term one might prefer), they belong to the status of conscious activity. And since one of Objectivism’s primary axioms is the axiom of consciousness, this poses no difficulty for the Objectivist worldview.

 

Now for the drastically needed correction to Anderson’s remarks above, note specifically the following statement of his:

 

So the fact that the ball is round, that it possesses the property of roundness, is ultimately grounded in the application of our concept of roundness to the ball. Insofar as there are such things as properties, they are not mind-independent; if they exist at all, then they are purely conceptual.

 

This statement is supposedly intended to serve as an interpretation of my position, or its logically implied outcome. If so, it is entirely incorrect. Objectivism is relentless in its adherence to the primacy of existence metaphysics, i.e., the view that the objects of consciousness exist and have their nature independent of the activity of consciousness by which it has awareness of those objects. Objectivism’s theory of concepts is fully compliant and wholly consistent with this metaphysical recognition. Thus, contrary to Anderson’s statement here, the fact that a ball “is round” (i.e., that it is what it is, including the fact that it has a specific shape) obtains independent of any mental activity (including the activity by which we integrate the ball as a unit in the concept ‘ball’). The fact that the ball is round is not in any way “grounded in the application of our concept of roundness to the ball.” Quite the opposite: the fact that the ball is round (i.e., that it has a certain shape) allows us integrate it into the concept ‘round’ (assuming of course that we have already formed this concept from previously encountered units). Let me emphasize: the shape of the object (the ball) does not depend on our integrating it into any specific category; if we had no awareness of its existence, it would still be what it is (including the fact that it would still have the shape that it has), and even if we misintegrated it (e.g., if we tried to integrate it into the concept ‘square’ or ‘building’ or ‘movie actor’), this activity would not alter the ball in any way; its shape would continue to be what it is in spite of such mistakes. The primacy of existence not only prevails, but also guides our conceptualization.

 

Again let me stress: the Objectivist view of concepts (or “universals”) in no way assumes or requires that the nature of an object is dependent upon conscious activity. The ball, for example, is not constituted by concepts, or by anything else which the mind produces. That Anderson supposes this is what my view holds does not even follow from what he himself stated, namely that on my view “universals are identical (or reducible) to concepts; specifically, human concepts.” If universals are identical to concepts, and concepts in this case are understood to be what Objectivism holds them to be (i.e., mental integrations formed ultimately on the basis of what we perceive), then there is no reason to suppose that the attributes which make up the ball are in any way dependent upon any conscious activity. Why? Because concepts (or “universals”) are formed on the basis of perceptual awareness of the characteristics which objects possess independently of conscious activity. Equating universals with concepts, then, where concepts are understood as the Objectivist theory of concepts defines them, in no way implies the mind-dependence which Anderson’s interpretation affirms.

 

Much of this confusion on Anderson’s part can be traced back to his ignorance of the Objectivist theory of concepts. I tried to point this out to him, noting that Van Til, Frame and other academics tend to “discount the active role which the human mind takes on in forming concepts from what they perceive.” In response to this, Anderson made the quizzical comment that the Objectivist “theory of concept formation is neither here nor there,” which strikes me as incomprehensibly odd. Apparently to clarify this comment, Anderson explained that his “criticism concerns [my] position on the nature of universals, not [my] position on the origin of concepts.” But if universals are concepts, as my position holds (and as Anderson’s own previous comments acknowledged), then it is hard to see why the theory explaining how concepts are formed (“the origin of concepts”) assumed in my analysis could be “neither here nor there” in all this. If the theory of concept-formation which my analysis assumes, explains why I treat the terms ‘universal’ and ‘concept’ interchangeably, as I contend that it does, then it is certainly germane to the position from which I have launched my critique of Frame’s exposition of Van Til’s argument. Anderson seems eager to ignore all this.

 

Running roughshod on his own hastiness in trying to interpret my position as affirming views which are at odds with each other, Anderson made the following statement:

 

The problem, however, is that your conceptualism implies that reality is dependent on human consciousness. Facts, such as the fact that the ball is round, are ultimately the product of human thought. If there were no human consciousness, then strictly speaking the ball would not be round -- indeed, it would possess no properties at all (since there would be no concepts applied to it). On your view, then, the way the world really is turns out to be a product of our minds.

 

This is essentially an elaboration of the very mistaken view which I corrected above. Apparently drawing from his own understanding of conceptualism (which he has equated with my position), Anderson assumes that my understanding of concepts makes the objects of perception somehow dependent upon the activity of the knowing subject. I can only suppose from this that Anderson is profoundly unfamiliar with the Objectivist literature on the subject (which he in fact admits). Indeed, he nowhere quotes any statements from either this literature or from my own writings which substantiate the view which he attributes to me.

 

What seems to have happened here, is that Anderson is drawing from his own understanding of what conceptualism teaches (and that could be pretty much anything, since as we saw above many schools of thought on “the problem of universals” may be classed as “conceptualist”), and – assuming that my position is identical with some form of conceptualism with which Anderson himself is familiar (an assumption which, as we saw above, is not compatible with several of Anderson’s own statements) – supposes that my view suffers from the same subjectivist tendencies which he has observed in the positions with which he is familiar (which are not in fact identical to the Objectivist account which my analysis assumes).

 

Again, to correct Anderson on the points he states above, the Objectivist theory of concepts (which my analysis of Frame’s exposition of Van Til’s “One-Many Argument” assumes), in no way “implies that reality is dependent on human consciousness.” To make this charge, Anderson would have to be fundamentally unfamiliar with Objectivism in general, and with the Objectivist theory of concepts in particular. I suppose that this is the case, and his own admission (“No doubt I have a lot to learn about Objectivism, but I am aware that the Objectivist theory of concepts is not the same as the conceptualist view of universals”) only confirms this.

 

Anderson holds that “conceptualism implies that reality is dependent on human consciousness,” but he attributes this view to my position. Does Anderson show that my position leads to such a view? No, he does not. Specifically, does he show that the formation of universals from perceptual input by means of a volitional mental process (a process of selective focus) leads to such a view? No, he does not. Does Anderson show that the Objectivist account of concepts leads to the view “that reality is dependent on human consciousness”? No, he does not. Does he show that any statement I have made in my analysis of Frame’s exposition of Van Til’s “One-Many Argument” implies or reduces to the view that “reality is dependent on human consciousness”? No, he does not. Not in any way does he link this charge to statements which I have made, or with any position which I have affirmed.

 

What Anderson has apparently done is fallaciously link my position with the view that “reality is dependent on human consciousness” by exploiting the hazy notion of “conceptualism” as a pivotal toggle. His view is that my position is equivalent to a particularly offending version of conceptualism (even though significant statements of his own deny this, as we saw above), that this form of “conceptualism implies that reality is dependent on human consciousness.” Unfortunately, Anderson’s charge is made without any intelligent analysis of the position which he is so characterizing, namely the Objectivist theory of concept-formation, a factor which he says is “neither here nor there” in spite of its integral relevance to my position.

 

It is at this point that Anderson seeks to enlarge his objection to my position by equivocating on the notion of “properties.” Essentially Anderson will use the term ‘properties’ in two distinct senses, senses which are germane to the dispute which he has generated with his charges of subjectivism. In terms of essentials, the equivocation which Anderson employs in misrepresenting my position reduces to a blurring of the subject-object relationship, which is not surprising given Anderson’s theistic commitments (see my essay The Inherent Subjectivism of Theism).

 

Consider the following statement which Anderson makes:

 

If properties (which are paradigmatic universals) are merely human concepts, then the truth of propositions such as the ball is round ultimately depends on human conceptualisation.

 

Notice how unclear this is. The question for Anderson here is what he means by “properties.” Does this term denote the particular attributes which we perceive in objects, or does it denote the concepts by which we identify and integrate them? I find it necessary to ask for this clarification since Anderson’s point falls victim to blurring this distinction, which I suspect is what leads him to the subjectivism he charges against my position.

 

Let’s explore this a bit.

 

If by “properties” Anderson means the former – namely the particular attributes which we discover in the individual objects which we perceive – then obviously properties so understood are not concepts (human or otherwise), but are existents which exist independent of human cognition. In such a case, they are particular, meaning they exist in specific measurements (e.g., the ball is two inches around or eight inches around, etc.). Consequently they are not “universals,” since they are particular and exist in specific measure. Obviously in such a case, since they exist independent of human cognition, the fact that the ball is round does not ultimately depend on any human cognitive activity, since on the Objectivist view (given its recognition of the primacy of existence), existence exists independent of consciousness. By extension this fact applies to the attributes which make up the objects which we perceive (e.g., the shape of a ball).

 

On the other hand, if by “properties” Anderson means the latter – namely the concepts by which we identify and integrate the particular attributes which we discover in the objects we perceive – then yes, these are concepts (“human” concepts if Anderson prefers), but it still would not follow from this that “the truth of propositions such as the ball is round ultimately depends on human conceptualisation.” It is by means of conceptualization that we identify and integrate the fact that the ball is round, and it is ultimately on the fact that the ball is round that the truth of the statement the ball is round depends, since according to Objectivism truth ultimately depends on facts, not on conscious activity.

 

In neither case does human cognitive activity make the ball what it is, nor is it responsible for the nature which the ball possesses. It should be clear, then, that the Objectivist account of concepts is fully consistent with the primacy of existence here, in spite of Anderson’s comment that my view of universals is inconsistent with my “commitment to metaphysical realism” (by which I suppose he meant my system’s adherence to the primacy of existence), suggesting that on my view “the features we perceive in the external world… are not mind-independent after all.” But how he attributes such a view to my position is not at all clear, especially if his inference to such a conclusion relies ultimately on equivocating on the understanding of ‘properties’ as I suspect he has done. My above points are intended to clarify the meaning of “properties” as it is used in interpreting my position and to correct what I believe is a mistake on Anderson’s part. I believe this error can be traced back to Anderson’s lack of familiarity with the objective theory of concepts, for it is precisely here where his construal of my position equivocates.

 

It should also be noted that, contrary to Anderson’s insistence, the Objectivist theory does not commit one “to the existence of unperceivable entities” in the sense of “universals” as the realist school conceives of them, i.e., some immaterial “form” or “idea” or other thing which exists outside the mind. In the Objectivist account, there exist only the particular objects which we perceive (they are not universal), and the individual who perceives them (he is not universal). Thus there are only two participants in the subject-object relationship which is the precondition to conceptual cognition, namely the subject and the object. There is no “third member” here, which cannot be perceived but which exists “out there” somewhere, somehow, no how, etc. Moreover, since conceptualization is a mental operation performed by the subject on the basis of perceptual input, universality is properly understood as an aspect of conceptual awareness, specifically the open-endedness of a concept’s scope of reference.

 

All of this is lost on Anderson, who somehow makes his way to the understanding that, according to my worldview, “’reality’ is a product of human consciousness, since the features exemplified by objects ‘out there’ do not inhere in the objects themselves but exist only in our minds.” But where does my position affirm or imply such a view? He has not shown that this is at all what my view endorses or entails. It is only by equivocating on key terms (such as “properties” as we saw above) that Anderson can do this. But at this point he is no longer interacting with my position, but rather with a misrepresentation of it. I agree with Anderson that, given such a view (namely that “’reality’ is a product of… consciousness”), “it makes little sense to speak of an ‘external world’,” but again this is not a problem for Objectivism, since it in no way affirms or implies such a view.

 

To try to tease out my position on the matter, Anderson did ask me to consider a question of his:

 

Ask yourself this simple question: In your view, is the ball round because (a) it exemplifies the property of roundness independent of any mental activity on our part or (b) because we apply the concept of roundness to it? If you opt for (a), then you're really a closet realist (about universals). If you opt for (b), then you face a conflict with your Objectivist commitment to metaphysical realism. (If you reject both (a) and (b) then, as I said before, it would move things forward if you could state your alternative and relate it to your prior use of the terms 'universal' and 'concept'.)

 

I actually don’t think either alternative here does justice to the Objectivist account. On the Objectivist account, the ball exists and is what it is independent of any conscious activity. This is the primacy of existence. This may seem to affirm (a) above, but its construal of objects “exemplifying properties” makes me suspicious, given the historical association of realism with the primacy of consciousness and the equivocation on “properties” on which Anderson’s earlier point traded. In regard to (a), what specifically is “the property of roundness”? Is it itself a feature existing independent of anyone’s mental activity? If it is an example of what the realist school means by “universal” (something which has “an extra-mental existence”), then apparently it is something which supposedly exists independent of anyone’s mental activity in addition to the particular concretes which we perceive in the world. In other words, it is, as I have suggested above, a third member,” or perhaps a late-comer, to the subject-object relationship, whose existence has not been established, even by Anderson. If this is what Anderson means by “the property of roundness,” then I would reject his option (a) just as quickly as I reject option (b) in preference for the Objectivist account which I have described.

 

Speaking more to the point, I know that whatever features the ball I perceive has, they are not universal, but rather particular: they exist in specific measurements. The ball is (say) two inches in diameter, weighs four ounces, is dark red, has distinguishing wear marks, etc. There is nothing about this particular ball which is “universal.” Furthermore, given the primacy of existence, the ball is all these things independent of conscious activity; it could sit on a shelf unnoticed for decades, and still be what it is, having the characteristics it has, characteristics which are specific, particular, non-universal. If Anderson thinks the ball has some universal quality, he has not identified it. Its “roundness,” as I have pointed out, certainly is not universal, since it is particular, existing in specific measure. That is not universal.

 

Of course, this does not preclude our ability to form the concept ‘round’ based on what we perceive in this and other balls. The concept ‘round’ is universal in that it is open-ended, allowing us to integrate additional units without implying numerical limits. But this goes back to the Objectivist theory of concepts. There is a crucial distinction between the particular ball which I perceive (it is particular, its attributes exist in specific measurements, etc.), and the concept ‘ball’ (or the concept ‘round’) by which I identify and integrate the particular ball and other particulars which I perceive. The concept ‘ball’ is universal in that its range of reference is open-ended, allowing me to subsume every particular ball which I perceive as well as every particular ball which I do not perceive, into a single mental unit. Since the ball exists independent of the concept ‘ball’, I would not say that any particular ball is an “exemplification” of ‘ballness’ or ‘roundness’ or some other ambiguously construed quality. The ball simply is, it is itself, and it is what it is independent of conscious activity.

 

Anderson then made the following statement:

 

Ironically enough, your theory of concept formation (insofar as I can disern it from what you've written here) seems to presuppose realism about universals, because you speak of concept formation as a process of abstraction. Abstraction grounded in what exactly? From what is our concept of roundness abstracted? A series of concrete particulars (balls, etc.) that exemplify, prior to our perception of them, a common property (roundness)? If that's the case, then you're a realist after all. I simply invite you to come out of the closet; there's no shame in it. :) But as I noted earlier, a realist view of universals (properties, relations, etc.) commits you to the existence of unperceivable entities, despite your apparent distaste for the idea.

 

Of course, Anderson’s questions here are addressed in Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Had Anderson familiarity with this literature, I doubt he would be asking these questions. But yes, concept-formation involves a process of abstraction (it also involves integration and definition). Anderson asks “abstraction grounded in what exactly?” Abstraction is grounded ultimately in our perceptual awareness of objects. As the working definition of ‘concept’ indicates, these objects serve as the initial units which “are isolated according to a specific characteristic(s) and united by a specific definition” (ITOE, p. 10). The objects possess the specific characteristic(s) which are isolated; whether or not they “exemplify… a common property,” again depends on what specifically this is supposed to denote. If every particular object serving as the units from which the concept ‘ball’ is abstracted possess specific characteristics (that is, their attributes exist in specific measurements), then there is no universal “property” existing “out there” which the particular objects “exemplify.” What we call “universal” is actually the concept which is formed by omitting or “despecifying” the specific measurements we perceive in order to include objects possessing attributes in differing specific measurements.

 

Objectivism avoids the view that the particulars we perceive “exemplify” a universal “property,” because such terminology tends toward the intrinsic view of universals, which construes particular objects (i.e., those concretes which exist and possess specific attributes existing in finite measure) as “expressions” or “reflections” of some otherworldly “Form,” such that the concrete particulars “exemplify” a “universal property” (where “property” here is clearly not particular, not existing in specific measure). Such an account suggests that “universals” exist independent of (and even prior to) the world of objects which we perceive, and it is in this way that such accounts invite the primacy of consciousness metaphysics. Why? Because it ultimately requires a consciousness – typically considered supernatural – to “account for” the “universals” of which the concrete particulars which we perceive in the world are merely “exemplifications.” Objectivism avoids such philosophical hazards by adopting a theory of concepts which, contrary to Anderson’s poor understanding, is wholly consistent with the primacy of existence metaphysics.

 

So am I a realist who should “come out of the closet”? Am I trying to hide the realist tendencies of my position? Not at all. There are no realist tendencies in my position to hide in the first place. However, a better understanding of my position is required to appreciate this.

 

 

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