Monday, August 24, 2009

Concepts from an Objectivist Perspective, Part 1

As I said in my first post, I’m an Objectivist interested in understanding induction, and in sharing what I find out with others. I’m aware that there’s a connection between induction and concepts, as I discussed in my post The Importance of Concepts for Bacon. So I’d like to briefly discuss concepts as they are presented in my philosophy, Objectivism. In doing so, I hope to show that it is a persuasive account that others should adopt (if they haven’t already), and that it has important implications for the subject of induction. (Implications that may have to wait for another time, unfortunately.)

Concepts in General

Concepts are units of thoughts, such as dog, decide, and fight, and are typically represented by words or sounds (or some other kind of symbol) in a language. They are a sort of human perspective on the world; a bird for instance can know about particular trees it sees or remembers (as we surely can), but in our having a concept of tree, we can know about information pertaining to every and all trees, not merely the ones we see or can remember in life.

(When speaking about particular concepts, I will put them in italics, like when discussing the chair concept. I'll also use italics to emphasize certain points, and the context should indicate which of the two purposes I'm employing in a given case.)

This is a significant fact about the human mind. Whereas our faculty of memory allows us to bring past experiences in life back to our attention and awareness, and sensory perception (the five senses) allows us to be aware of our present surroundings and experience, concepts grant us awareness of general information which can extend across vast stretches of time, past, present, and future, and beyond the objects that we deal with in daily life.

Concepts generally are mental things in our minds that contain knowledge pertaining to many different things which we’ve classed under the same types or groups. As Dr. Greg Salmieri puts it in his dissertation Aristotle and the Problem of Concepts:
When I speak of ‘concepts,’ I mean the basic units or components of thought (expressed in language by words), each of which is (or enables) a unitary cognition of an indefinite number of differing objects. For example, the concept ‘man’ subsumes all men, tall and short, black and white, local and distant, past, present, and future. [p. 3]
I’ve now said several times that concepts are a sort of generalized knowledge about particulars. But what accounts for our ability to generalize in the first place? The answer would be our power of abstraction: our power to mentally separate and consider an aspect or feature of the world without focusing on the particular circumstances in which we originally noticed it. For instance, we can observe particular wars, schoolhouse brawls, and UFC competitions, and abstract from them the action “fighting,” focusing our attention on what it is to fight without having to simultaneously consider this specific street fight or that particular boxing match. It is in this way that we can gain general knowledge that can apply to a plethora of differing things, as the information we’ve abstracted can be integrated with information about particulars by our minds into a concept.

With this general account of concepts in mind, let’s see what the philosophy of Objectivism has to add.

Percepts and Concepts

Objectivism is a philosophy created by Ayn Rand (1905-1982), and she elaborated on her theory of concepts in the 1964 work “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.” Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies knowledge: what it is, and how it is gained (or whether or not it can be achieved). Concepts are units of thoughts and units of knowledge, and so an epistemology discusses how we learn about these units, and how we build from these to higher conceptual activities, such as having complete thoughts, and forming scientific theories.

So what does Objectivism have to say about concepts? It might help to consider first what it has to say about the differences between perceptions and concepts.

According to Rand, a perception or “percept” is a “group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism, which gives it the ability to be aware, not of single stimuli, but of entities, of things.” [Ayn Rand Lexicon entry: Perception] Because of a physiological process between our brains, nervous system, and sense organs (eyes, ears, etc.) and the features of the outside world (such as light), we possess a awareness of our immediate surroundings that would otherwise be impossible. This fact about perception is not terribly difficult to understand. For instance, when we don’t want to hear certain sounds or noises, we attempt to stop the process of hearing by plugging our ears, restricting certain sound-waves of the outside world from interacting with our brains. Restricting blood flow to nerves in our bodies causes, for instance, the familiar “numb/sleepy arm” feeling, which drastically reduces our ability to feel objects that we touch through our skin (the sense organ of touch). Perception is an awareness of external things by their interaction with our organs and nerves, the awareness coming in the form of colors, shapes, brightness, sound levels, odors, and tastes. It is an automatic, physiological process that can operate without our conscious decision; as long as the relevant human parts are in working order, and things in the world like visible light are present, then we necessarily experience perceptions.

Nothing could be further from the truth when considering concepts.

Concepts are not an automatic result of nerves interacting with organs and the outside world: no amount of standing next to a T.V., or even glaring at it, will “payoff” in the form of a television idea or concept. Countless individuals in the past have lived under the influence of forces of nature, but it wasn’t until Sir Isaac Newton that we classified the attractive force between two masses under the concept gravity.

(I'll note that Aristotle had a concept of gravity as well, but it wasn't specified enough to distinguish it from other forces, such as magnetism.)

Concepts, then, arise from a process of thought, of using our faculty of reason in a certain way, and this activity is not automatically carried out by our biology, like perceptions are. On this point, Rand notes that:
The process of abstraction, and of concept-formation is a process of reason, of thought; it is not automatic nor instinctive nor involuntary nor infallible. [For the New Intellectual, 14. Ayn Rand Lexicon entry: Free Will]
Instead, concepts are products of certain volitional activities, certain actions that we choose to enact. Our ability of choice is our volition or free will, and in Rand’s view it is no different from our faculty of reason, the ability to abstract and form concepts.
Reason does not work automatically; thinking is not a mechanical process; the connections of logic are not made by instinct. The function of your stomach, lungs or heart is automatic; the function of your mind is not. [Galt’s Speech, For the New Intellectual, p. 120. Ayn Rand Lexicon entry: Free Will]
So now we have an understanding of concepts as non-automatic, volitional products of thinking and specifically of a process called abstraction. To really understand concepts and how they are formed, we must then understand this process of abstraction. If abstraction is what philosophers have said it was for hundreds of years, a sort of mental separation and contemplation of something (like abstracting a general red from a fire truck, rainbow, and apple), then what explains our ability to even do this? What is the underlying operation of abstract thinking?

Rand’s answer to the question of abstraction’s nature is simultaneously the heart of her theory of concepts and of concept-formation, to the point that it is even included in her novel definition of what a concept is. For her account, we will turn to in Part 2.

Part 2

Part 3

1 comment:

  1. Have you heard of Col. John Boyd? He developed a theory on how concepts are formed and a theory on induction. You can read about him and his ideas in Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War. This an excerpt from the book The Pentagon Wars by James G Burton explaining some of his ideas:

    "When Boyd retired from the Air Force in the fall of 1975, he went into seclusion. He concentrated entirely on putting into words the ideas that had been swirling around in his head on the subject of how the mind works."...
    "By the spring of 1976, Boyd had written a twelve-page paper titled “Destruction and Creation.”This paper described how the mind goes through the process of analysis and synthesis to form mental concepts that we use to govern our actions as we deal with an ever-changing environment around us. The key to this paper was the notion that, sooner or later, these mental concepts no longer match the observed reality as our surrounding environment changes. Unless we change our mental concepts as the reality around us changes (destroy the old concepts and create new ones), we make decisions and take actions that are out of step with the real world around us. When this happens, we become confused. Our actions are no longer in harmony with our surroundings. If we continue to hold onto our old views of the world, we begin to look inward and eventually become totally out of tune with the real world surrounding us—a system talking to itself. Invariably, confusion and disorder result. When the surrounding environment is menacing and threatening, the confusion and disorder in our minds quickly lead to panic and mental paralysis."