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Why Michael Huemer Should Be More of an Objectivist: Introduction & Section 1

[Note: this post has been superseded. — Ed.]

While wandering the Web back in 1997, I came across Michael Huemer’s Why I Am Not an Objectivist (WIANO hereafter). I was impressed by what I then called “[T]he first reasoned (and reasonable) critique of Objectivism I [had] ever read.” At the time, I considered myself an Objectivist, and though I was impressed by Huemer’s critique, I was not persuaded. In an exchange of emails, I attempted to defend the Objectivist theory of concepts from the Fregean critique Huemer offers in Section 1. My defense was inadequate, to say the least. The very little ground I forced Huemer to give he considered insignificant, and rightly so.

Several months ago, I finally had the time and the inclination to make another attempt, and the initial results are below. It has been a long-standing goal of mine to critique WIANO in its entirety, but, given that it has taken me the better part of a decade to cover Section 1, no one should hold his breath.

Section one of WIANO is entitled “MEANING.”

Meaning

Objectivism rejects the Analytic/Synthetic dichotomy. Michael Huemer accepts it. He correctly recognizes that the basis for Objectivism’s rejection of this dichotomy lies in its identification of the meaning of concepts. Leonard Peikoff writes, in “The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy,” “[A] concept means the existents which it integrates. … [It] subsumes and includes all the characteristics of its referents, known and not yet known.” (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Second Edition, p. 99. Emphasis in original. Hereafter cited as ITOE.) Huemer also notes that Objectivists consider concepts to be open-ended, or as he would have them put it, “the meaning of a concept is all of the concretes it subsumes, past, present, and future, including ones that we will never know about.” (WIANO, Section 1. All citations are from WIANO unless otherwise noted.)

Huemer prepares his attack on the Objectivist rejection of the Analytic/Synthetic dichotomy by first attacking what he sees as an incoherence in the Objectivist position on the meaning of concepts. To bring this incoherence to light, he attempts a reductio ad absurdum:

When Objectivists say that “the meaning of a concept is all of the concretes it subsumes, past, present, and future, including ones that we will never know about,” they are failing to distinguish sense and reference. The need for distinguishing the ‘sense’ of a word from its ‘reference’ is shown by examples like this:

Oedipus, famously, wanted to marry Jocaste, and as he did so, he both believed and knew that he was marrying Jocaste. The following sentence, in other words, describes what Oedipus both wanted and believed to be the case:

    (J) Oedipus marries Jocaste.
	

However, Oedipus certainly did not want to marry his mother, and as he did so, he neither knew nor believed that he was marrying his mother. The following sentence, then, describes what Oedipus did not want or believe to be the case:

    (M) Oedipus marries Oedipus' mother.
	

But yet Jocaste just was Oedipus’ mother. That is, the word “Jocaste” and the phrase “Oedipus’ mother” both refer to the same person. Therefore, if the meaning of a word is simply what it refers to, then “Jocaste” and “Oedipus’ mother” mean the same thing. And if that is the case, then (J) and (M) mean the same thing. But then how could it be that Oedipus could believe what (J) asserts without believing what (M) asserts, if they assert the same thing?

Of course, Oedipus did not know that Jocaste was his mother, which explains why he was not illogical in believing (J) without believing (M). But that doesn’t answer the question above, and in fact it just creates another problem. If “Jocaste” means the same thing as “Oedipus’ mother,” then “Jocaste is Oedipus’ mother” must mean the same thing as “Jocaste is Jocaste.” How could Oedipus fail to know that Jocaste was his mother, when he certainly was not ignorant that Jocaste was Jocaste, if those mean the same thing?

Of course they do not mean the same thing. What the example shows is that (J) and (M) do not express the same thought since Oedipus had the first thought and did not have the second thought. And the only reason for that can be that “Jocaste” and “Oedipus’ mother” do not express the same idea (since the other words in the sentences are the same). So there can be two different ideas, referring to the same thing.

The thing that the ideas refer to—the person, existing in physical space—I call the “reference” of the ideas. The reference of a word is the same as the reference of the idea that the word expresses. The sense of a word, however, I identify with the idea that the word expresses. Thus, “Jocaste” and “Oedipus’ mother” have the same reference, but different sense. That’s what we’ve just shown.

Thus, where Rand says, “a concept means all the concretes it subsumes…” I say, “a concept refers to all the concretes it subsumes.”

So we have to distinguish the sense of a word from its reference. And furthermore, there is no reason not to make this distinction. The only reason I can think of why Objectivists refuse to recognize this distinction, is that they think in declaring the sense of a word to be something other than the objects the word refers to, that I am saying that a word refers to something other than the objects it refers to — i.e., they just don’t understand the distinction.

The first and most obvious problem with Huemer’s process here is that he is trying to undermine the Objectivist theory of concepts using an example that hinges on a proper name, “Jocaste.” Proper names do not denote concepts, they denote particular entities — in this case, an individual character in an ancient play. Now, this objection is not particularly interesting, except in that it may reveal something about Huemer’s method. The uncharitable interpretations include: he is going for a philosophical “cheap shot,” or he is not taking his subject seriously enough to pick an apt example. On Usenet, Huemer has asserted that “[t]here is no relevance whatsoever to the distinction between proper names and common names here.” This is plainly wrong, unless Huemer is not deliberately begging the question, in which case it is still wrong, but is not plain to him. Objectivism requires that concepts be open-ended. If you are trying to do a reductio of a position, you have to assume the position correctly in the first place, and then consistently maintain it until you are done with the reductio. Otherwise, it is a reductio of a straw man. Whatever else ‘Jocaste’ may be, she is not open-ended (here and after, words in single quotes stand for concepts, i.e. ‘Jocaste’ (meaning the spurious concept) is not open-ended). So, a fortiori, ‘Jocaste’ is not a concept under Objectivism. This invalidates Huemer’s example, and therefore the letter, if not the spirit, of his reductio.¹

Fortunately, Huemer has also said on Usenet that he thinks ‘water’ and ‘H2O’ work just as well as ‘Jocaste’ and ‘Oedipus’ mother.’ Very well, then. Look at Huemer’s example with the terms substituted to get the invalid proper names out:

  • (W) Oedipus drinks some water.
  • (H) Oedipus drinks some H2O.

Now, because Objectivism claims that a concept means all of the concretes it subsumes, it seems to be the case that, since ‘water’ and ‘H2O’ subsume the same concretes, ‘water’ and ‘H2O’ mean the same thing, so if Oedipus (or anyone) knows he is drinking water, he should know he is drinking H2O. This is obviously false. So either Objectivism is in trouble or ‘water’ and ‘H2O’ do not actually subsume the same concretes.

Objectivism is not in trouble. First, we should check our premises. Is it the case that ‘water’ and ‘H2O’ subsume the same concretes? H2O is a molecule, not a mixture. If you have a beaker with river water in it, because you have got a bunch of dissolved silt, microbes, and dissolved gases in there along with your Hydrogen and Oxygen atoms in their 2:1 ratio, you can not say, with the precision needed for addressing this kind of epistemological question, that you have got a beaker of H2O. Water is principally — but not exclusively — composed of H2O. The referents of ‘H2O’ are therefore not the same as the referents of ‘water.’ (Also consider that not all the water in a puddle, say, or a lake is actually composed of H2O. Some of it is ²H2O — i.e., “heavy” water.) ‘Water’ and ‘H2O’ are the same concept under Objectivism if and only if the group of concretes subsumed under ‘water’ (such as what is in your toilet bowl) is precisely identical with the group of concretes subsumed under ‘H2O.’ This is clearly not the case. Contrast two words that do, in fact, denote the same concept, which in turn refers to the same referents: decimal “2” and binary “10.” Or, if it helps, consider what you learned in geometry: all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. In a macroscopic context, all H2O is water, but not all water is H2O.

One might object here that it is suspicious to hang a theory of concepts on a recherché and “contingent” fact such as that water outside of laboratories generally has impurities. Such an objection would have much more force if Objectivism were not trying to hang a theory of concepts on (among others) the fact that there are not any contingent facts. But even if he would not now make such an objection, I suspect Huemer would not be satisfied with the above counter-example — because I offered it to him years ago and he was not satisfied with it then. And it is a good thing he was not, because I have not got to the heart of the issue yet. Let us cut a little closer and see if we can get there.

Imagine an alternate reality where all water occurs in a chemically pure form. Oceans, rain, rivers, puddles, and ponds of H2O and nothing but: no dissolved solids, no heavy water molecules, and no dissolved Oxygen or other gases. Now, setting aside for the moment that life as we know it would be impossible in such an environment, let us pretend that some people live there and that they know about water and have experience with it much like our own: they drink it, bathe in it, keep it off their heads with umbrellas, etc. Some of them study it in labs or read about it in books and so know about its molecular composition. But not everyone, of course, has heard about this. Consider the following in the context of this imagined world:

  1. ‘H2O’ means (or refers to) H2O.
  2. ‘Water’ means (or refers to) water.
  3. Water is H2O.
  4. Therefore, ‘H2O’ and ‘water’ mean (refer to) the same thing(s).

Have I merely been sweeping the problem under the rug up until now? Examination of the third premise will tell us, I think.

If, as premise 3 asserts, in the imagined world, water simply is H2O, meaning that the concepts ‘water’ and ‘H2O’ have the same referents, then it follows that ‘H2O’ and ‘water,’ if Objectivism is true, mean the same thing, and that anyone who knows he is drinking a glass of water knows that he is drinking molecules of H2O. But it is apparent that the aliens of this weird-water universe who are ignorant of chemistry are not going to know about the molecular structure of their drink just because ‘water’ and ‘H2O’ have the same referents. So either Objectivism is not true, and a sense/reference distinction is needed, or else ‘water’ and ‘H2O’ do not have the same referents.

I think Objectivism will get another reprieve, even on this chimerical world. The referents of ‘water’ and ‘H2O’ are not identical, even here. It is not a good idea to identify or equate the two concepts as strongly as we have been accustomed to by our middle-school science teachers. It is much better to say that water “is composed of H2O” rather than “water is H2O.” Compare yourself, reader: you are composed of trillions of cells — muscle cells, skin cells, neurons, etc. But it is not just odd, but flatly wrong to say that you are a whole bunch of cells. The properties of a whole (i.e. the identity of a whole) will differ from the properties of its constituent parts. Specifically considering water: water can change state from solid to liquid to gas. But can a single molecule of H2O be said to do the same? It certainly cannot flow like a liquid, or form a crystalline structure like ice. Individual molecules do not seem to fall into these categories. So, to put it succinctly: on our imagined world ‘H2O’ must refer to some positive integer quantity of H2O molecules, but it can refer to any number — including just one. ‘Water’ on the other hand, must refer to a quantity of H2O molecules sufficient to give it the familiar macroscopic properties of everyday experience. In other words, the concretes subsumed by ‘water’ and ‘H2O’ on our imagined world overlap, but they do not describe precisely the same set of entities. Their referents differ: H2O is not water. This fact is not changed by our habit of referring, synecdochically, to water as if it were H2O rather than composed of H2O. If I could see a single isolated molecule of H2O, and had forsworn the use of synecdoche, I could retain my honor by announcing “There is one of those things from which some water could be pieced together, if there were many more like it at hand,” but if I referred to it as a molecule of water, I would lose all self-respect.

A final counterexample will be particularly instructive. Those seeking to justify the sense/reference distinction commonly note that all the creatures on Earth that have a heart have a kidney. I will stipulate for the purposes of my counterexample that this is true, though I believe it is actually false. (Insects such as grasshoppers have simple hearts, but their open circulatory systems do not filter wastes through kidneys.)

The terms “cordate” (meaning a creature having a heart) and “renate” (meaning a creature having a kidney) are nonce words that are useful in setting up the challenge to Objectivism. If each and every creature with a heart is a creature with a kidney, then ‘cordate’ and ‘renate’ have the same referents, and, Huemer would suppose, must mean the same thing according to Objectivism. That is, if Oedipus is eating fillet of cordate, and knows it, he must know that he is eating fillet of renate, or else Objectivism is wrong.

Objectivism is not wrong, despite Oedipus’ ignorance of kidneys. I have stipulated that all the creatures on Earth that are cordates are renates. I cannot point out, as I did in the case of ‘water’ and ‘H2O,’ that the known referents of these two concepts overlap but are not identical. Instead, I will point out that concepts are open-ended.

Suppose that, in reality, Earth is home to the only life in the universe, and that, on Earth, my stipulation stands. In this context, imagine a distant fictional planet upon which Earth-like life has evolved. On this planet, for a long time, all cordates were renates and vice versa. Then a cordate-renate parasite evolved which lived by attaching itself to the heel of a large biped. Throughout these parasites’ lives, they were being squashed as their hosts walked around. Over time, their hearts evolved to take advantage of the energy of their hosts’ strides. The natural CPR action of their hosts’ heels compressing the parasites’ bodies made the pumping power of their hearts redundant, and they became incapable of pumping blood on their own, vestigial, no longer hearts at all. The kidneys’ functions in these parasites of course remained vital. So, once their evolution reached its present state, these alien parasites were renates without being cordates. Even if no heartless renates ever exist, the reference of the concept ‘renate’ includes our fictional parasite.

Objectivism understands concepts to be open-ended. The meaning of a concept is not, then, merely the group of concretes that were used to form the concept. Nor is the meaning of a concept limited to all the extant concretes that it subsumes. Nor, finally, does a concept mean only those concretes that have existed, exist now, or are likely to exist in the future. That concepts are open-ended means that the reference of a concept is specific yet indeterminate, exactly as the value of “a” in 2a = a + a is specific yet indeterminate. An Objectivist exozoologist would not need to modify his concept of ‘renate’ upon encountering an alien parasite, because although no such renate had previously been known, or even imagined, all of the traits, including not having a heart, which would distinguish the parasite from Earthly renates would have been among those measurements omitted when forming the concept ‘renate’ in the first place.

A concept means its specific yet indeterminate extension. ‘Cordate’ and ‘renate,’ like ‘water’ and ‘H2O,’ describe overlapping but distinct conceptual areas, and because they have distinct extensions, these concepts have discrete meanings. On the question of sense and reference, Objectivism stands.

Michael Huemer has, in the first section of WIANO, challenged Objectivism on what appear to this non-scholar to be standard Fregean grounds, insisting, as did Frege, on a sense/reference distinction. I can find no fault with Huemer’s presentation of the standard case. He did not improve upon the standard accounts by eschewing cordate and renate or Hesperus and Phosphorus in favor of Jocaste and Oedipus’ mother, but neither did he make matters any worse. Hopefully, it is now clear that the standard account of the necessity of the sense/reference distinction fares poorly against the Objectivist theory of concepts, and should be rejected post-haste and without reservation, at least by those who can volitionally differentiate between a molecule and a refreshing beverage.

1. Ayn Rand says in ITOE, p. 10: “Every word we use (with the exception of proper names) is a symbol that denotes a concept, i.e., that stands for an unlimited number of concretes of a certain kind.”

14 comments to Why Michael Huemer Should Be More of an Objectivist: Introduction & Section 1

  • Luka

    You write:

    “A concept means its specific yet indeterminate extension. ‘Cordate’ and ‘renate,’ like ‘water’ and ‘H2O,’ describe overlapping but distinct conceptual areas, and because they have distinct extensions, these concepts have discrete meanings. On the question of sense and reference, Objectivism stands.”

    I’m having trouble understanding this. If indeed everything that was a cordate was also a renate and vice versa, AND if the meaning of a word is just all of the concretes brought together by the concept expressed by it, then how do the meanings of ‘cordate’ and ‘renate’ differ? How are their extensions distinct?

    Also, why can’t Huemer just say that his objection isn’t specifically against the Objectivist theory of concepts but that it’s against the Objectivist theory of meaning? Objectivists say that meaning is reference. So the referent(s) of a word is the meaning of that word, right? The referent of the name ‘Jocaste’ is Jocaste. And the referent of the words ‘Oedipus’s mother’ is Jocaste. So, if meaning is just reference and vice versa (that’s right, isn’t it?), then ‘Jocaste’ and ‘Oedipus’s mother’ have the same meaning.

    If they do not have the same meaning, then that means that either (i) they don’t have the same referent or (ii) they have the same referent but that’s not all there is to meaning.
    Isn’t that right?

  • Thomas Fuller

    Luka,

    I recommend re-reading the paragraph that beings “Objectivism understands concepts to be open-ended. The meaning of a concept is not, then, merely the group of concretes that were used to form the concept. Nor is the meaning of a concept limited to all the extant concretes that it subsumes….” What I wrote there addresses your question.

    And to answer your question directly, the meanings of ‘cordate’ and ‘renate’ are distinct even if all extant cordates are renates and vice versa because: (1) Being a renate is not identical to being a cordate. (If I wrote or thought in the Anglo-American academic style, I might say that it’s merely “contingent” that all renates happen to be cordates.) (2) It is possible for there to come into being a cordate that is not a renate (this is what my example of the alien parasite illustrates). (3)The possible-but-not-extant non-renate cordates are included (from the beginning) in the so-called “reference” of ‘cordate.’ (4) The possible-but-not-extant non-renate cordates are NOT included in the “reference” of ‘renate.’ (5) Therefore the “references” or extensions of ‘renate.’ and ‘cordate.’ are different. (6) And so their meanings are different.

    The essential point is that a concept’s open-endedness means that its “reference” is specific yet indeterminate. A concept means a certain, limited group of entities, but that group is not a physical thing, not a concrete, nor an aggregate of extant entities. The group includes, but is not limited to, all of the entities that are actually in existence. The members of the group include any entities that would be included, were they extant.

    Put another way: A concept works like a cunningly crafted net, that, when cast into the ocean of the senses, snares only and always certain kinds of fish. (And there are more things beneath that sea than dreamt of in conventional philosophy.)

    Hope this has clarified matters.

  • Luka

    Thomas,

    Thanks for the reply. I was thinking that you might be saying what you said in the comment, but I wanted to be sure. Your view sounds very non-Objectivist to me. You seem to be claiming that non-existing objects can be the refered to by words (or concepts). And I don’t just mean past and future objects that no longer or don’t yet exist. I mean possible objects, too.

    You write:

    “(3)The possible-but-not-extant non-renate cordates are included (from the beginning) in the so-called “reference” of ‘cordate.’”

    Does this mean that you think that all possible cordates are referents of ‘cordate’? Even the ones that never become actual?

    Wow.

    This does not sound like Objectivism to me at all. What would a possible object be like? (I’m completely serious.) Some (many?) contemporary philosophers believe in possible objects. They believe that they are abstract objects (objects that do not exist in space or time). But the notion of ‘abstract object’ is a platonistic one. And it’s not one that I think Objectivism endorses. Do you think it is?

    And if you don’t think that a possible object would have to be an abstract object, what do you think it would be? It doesn’t seem like it could be physical. And it doesn’t seem like it could be mental.

    Also, I find your notion of specific-yet-indeterminate to be a difficult one to grasp. You say that concepts are open-ended and so they do not refer only to things that existed in the past, exist in the present, or will exist in the future. Why don’t you just say that you think that they refer to all possible objects of a certain kind?

    I think a better way to describe the Objectivist view is to say that sometimes meaning is reference, as in the case of proper names, and sometimes meaning is the concept picked out (or expressed) by a word. On this view, the meaning of ‘Jocaste’ would be Jocaste, the person. And the meaning of ‘Oedipus’s mom’ would be the concept OEDIPUS’S MOM. And that concept would pick out Jocaste. But the terms ‘Jocaste’ and ‘Oedipus’s mom’ would differ in meaning.

    Finally, another problem with the Objetivist view is that non-reffering terms come out meaningless. That is, expressions like ‘the 19 planet in our solar system’ or ‘Santa Claus’ don’t have meanings on the Objectivist view. They don’t have meaniings because they don’t refer to anything.

    But these expressions clearly DO have meanings. And perhaps, Thomas, your view can account for the fact that they have meanings. (Because, as I wrote before, your view does not seem to require that referents be physical or mental objects.)

    Anyway, those are my thoughts tonight.

  • Thomas Fuller

    When you say “past and future objects that no longer or don’t yet exist,” and then contrast these with possible objects, it seems that you have a submerged idea that “past objects” and “future objects” are special kinds of existents. (I’m not saying that you have explicitly endorsed this notion, nor even that what you have said is tantamount to having endorsed it, but specifically that it’s implicit in your language, on my reading.) In my view, “past objects” and “future objects” are just “things that don’t exist,” which is to say they are nothing, which is to say they aren’t.

    In no way do I mean to add possible-entities to the catalog of existents. The possible cordates that I have been making use of do not imply any non-Objectivist ontological commitments. On my view, there’s no difference in the ontological status of things that are yet-to-be and things that are “merely” possible—neither exist. So, since future entities don’t exist, and since canonical Objectivist writing states that concepts subsume past (not existing), present (existing), and future (not existing) concretes, I fail to see why it should be controversial to assert that concepts, under Objectivism, subsume all of their possible referents (as well as past referents, which I would not call “possible”).

    (I should note here that I think Objectivism and I agree on the point that only things that actually exist actually exist; that is, I’m not breaking ranks when I assert the plain non-existence of both future and “possible” entities. Also, I believe Objectivism uses possibility in an epistemological, not a metaphysical sense. I was following this usage in my examples of possible cordates. When I speak of possible entities, I’m speaking subjunctively: “The members of the group include any entities that would be included, were they extant.” It’s important to recognize that, did there exist some other variety of cordate, it would have to have a heart. (It wouldn’t have to have kidneys.) So when I say that it is possible for there to come into being a cordate that is not a renate, I mean merely that the thing that differentiates cordates from non-cordates is having-a-heart, not some nebulous complex of characteristics perhaps including, in some vague way, having kidneys. I do not mean that there is evidence for the actual existence of non-renate cordates, nor do I mean that there is such a thing as a “possible-cordate” floating about in the twilight of ontology.

    Being precise here is especially important because, as I understand it, Objectivism would require that there be some specific evidence for the existence of a cordate like the parasite described above in order for it to be considered to be “possible.” While I have maintained a non-metaphysical understanding and usage of possibility, I have not been using possibility under these tighter constraints, so my usage might be considered by some Objectivists to be illegitimate. I don’t think my usage is illegitimate in the context at hand. Yet my introducing talk of possible cordates has proved to be tricky, if not dangerous. Messing around with this kind of stuff can get one ensnared in speculative metaphysics, which ought to be avoided.)

    So, to summarize: (1) Canonical Objectivist writing includes future entities in the meaning of a concept. Future entities do not exist. Therefore, canonical Objectivist writing includes non-existent entities in the meaning of a concept. My including cordates that do not exist (possible cordates) in the meaning of ‘cordate’ should therefore not sound non-Objectivist to you. (2) When you ask “Does this [point 3 from my previous comment] mean that you think that all possible cordates are referents of ‘cordate’? Even the ones that never become actual?”, my answer is Yes to the first, No to the second. “[O]nes that never become actual” is a meaningless designation. Cordates that never exist aren’t cordates (or anything else, for that matter). If it seems that one has to include “cordates that never exist” under “all possible cordates,” I’d guess it’s because you’re thinking of possible-cordates in metaphysical, rather than epistemological terms, as if they were some kind of spectral existents, which would be a mistake. (3) It should be clear from what I’ve said so far that I don’t think Objectivism endorses any notions of “abstract objects,” and also that I don’t think any such endorsement is implied in anything I’ve asserted. (4) You ask: “And if you don’t think that a possible object would have to be an abstract object, what do you think it would be?” This is a trick question, though I don’t think you meant it to be. I don’t think a possible object would have to “be” anything. Possible objects, like future objects, aren’t. Again, When I speak of possible objects, I’m speaking subjunctively: “The members of the group include any entities that would be included, were they extant.”

    Also, I find your notion of specific-yet-indeterminate to be a difficult one to grasp. You say that concepts are open-ended and so they do not refer only to things that existed in the past, exist in the present, or will exist in the future. Why don’t you just say that you think that they refer to all possible objects of a certain kind?

    I don’t say that concepts refer to all possible objects of a certain kind because it’s confusing, especially in an Objectivist context, where the meaning of possibility is tightly (and rightly) constrained. I would not have used the phrase “possible-but-not-extant non-renate cordates” at all had I not thought that doing so might advance our discussion. In other words, that turn of phrase was a rhetorical choice, not a philosophical one. It isn’t that my last comment on this post misrepresented my views, but talking about possible cordates made it necessary to show that my interpretation of Objectivism does not entail novel ontological commitments.

    As for specific-yet-indeterminate, consider this: 5 = |x| The value of x is specific yet indeterminate: it’s “either 5 or -5.” Yet it is also neither “5” nor “-5,” because neither 5 nor -5 alone exhausts the value of x. The value of x is indeterminate. In this case, there are two possible solutions to the equation, a very tight constraint. A similar constraint is what makes the meaning of a concept specific. Ayn Rand put it this way:

    A concept is like an arithmetical sequence of specifically defined units, going off in both directions, open at both ends and including all units of that particular kind. … [T]he concept “man” includes all men who live at present, who have ever lived or will ever live. An arithmetical sequence extends into infinity, without implying that infinity actually exists; such extension means only that whatever number of units does exist, it is to be included in the same sequence. The same principle applies to concepts: the concept “man” does not (and need not) specify what number of men will ultimately have existed—it specifies only the characteristics of man, and means that any number of entities possessing these characteristics is to be identified as “men.” [ITOE pp. 17–18]

    Rather than 5 = |x|, she used 2a = a + a, which makes a better analogue for a concept, because it’s open-ended: an infinite range of values for “a” are possible solutions. In the same way, there are an infinite number of possible cordates. Pay special attention to Rand’s comments on infinity. The infinite range of values for “a” corresponds to the infinite number of possible cordates, but in neither case is it implied that infinity exists. Neither is it implied that possible cordates exist as such.

    I think a better way to describe the Objectivist view is to say that sometimes meaning is reference, as in the case of proper names, and sometimes meaning is the concept picked out (or expressed) by a word.

    I cannot understand what you are saying here, and I strongly disagree that you have found a better way to describe the Objectivist view. The meaning of what is sometimes reference? The meaning in question in my response to Huemer, as well as in WIANO itself, is precisely the meaning of concepts. Objectivism asserts that the meaning of a concept is always its referents. “[T]he meaning of a concept consists of its units. [Man defines] concepts … by specifying their referents.” [ITOE p. 40] It is incoherent to assert that the meaning of a concept is sometimes the concept picked out by a word.

    Questions over proper names are a red herring. (Not that I think you’re wandering off topic deliberately or maliciously.) Ayn Rand has very little to say about proper names in ITOE, and everything she does say is quite literally parenthetical. She did not err in treating proper names only parenthetically because proper names are parenthetical to the understanding of man’s conceptual faculty.

    In my footnote above, I quote the beginning of the brief passage in ITOE that deals with proper names. It continues: “(Proper names are used in order to identify and include particular entities in a conceptual method of cognition. Observe that even proper names, in advanced civilizations, follow the definitional principles of genus and differentia: e.g. John Smith, with “Smith” serving as genus and “John” as differentia—or New York, U.S.A.)” [ITOE p. 11] That’s it. All that’s said in ITOE on proper names is now known to anyone reading this.

    What this passage is saying is that proper names are exceptional. Unlike all other words, they are not symbols that denote concepts. It is an essential characteristic of all other words that they stand for an unlimited number of concretes of a certain kind. In other words, it is essential that concepts are open-ended. What is not open-ended cannot be a concept, what is a concept cannot but be open-ended. Proper names are “hacks,” if you will, that allow a conceptual faculty wired for universals to deal effectively with particulars.

    Proper names are not concepts. What measurements are omitted when forming the “concept” Clark-Kent? [For why I hyphenated Clark-Kent, read ITOE p. 177.] None. Is Clark-Kent open-ended? No. It is the particularity of a particular itself that enables its proper-naming, that anchors the name to the thing. In the case of concepts, it is the properties of things that make them ‘water’ or a ‘table’ or a ‘man’. No property of Clark Kent makes him Clark Kent. He’s Clark Kent just because that’s what he’s called, by others and by himself.

    My own view, for the record, is that proper names don’t have meanings at all; they only have referents. Confusion and equivocation arise because “meaning” is used both in a technical sense and in a loose and popular sense. In the loose sense, both “water” and “Clark Kent” have meanings, in the technical sense, only “water” does. Note, however, that my view in this matter is provisional, and I don’t consider it part of Objectivism. (Objectivism, as far as I know, has said nothing about what a proper name might mean, or whether meanings are something that proper names have.) Finally, proper names are something like concepts with only one unit. In that context, consider this:

    Who knows more about the concept “man,” a layman or a doctor? Well, they both understand the concept equally, but the doctor may know more about the referents of the concept “man” … [ITOE p. 236. Emphasis mine.]

    In sum: I don’t at present find the question of proper names very interesting, if only because understanding concepts is so much more interesting. The question of sense and reference with respect to concepts is a legitimate challenge to Objectivism (one I have met); the question of sense and reference with respect to proper names is a petty word-jugglery. The most important thing to take away from my comments on proper names is not anything I have said about their meanings or lack thereof, but that the whole issue of proper names has nothing essential to do with the specific matter at hand: the viability of the Objectivist theory of concepts. If there is anything wrong with Objectivism’s theory of concepts, it will be demonstrable without resort to the periphery, or other fishy moves.

    “Finally, another problem with the Objetivist view is that non-reffering terms come out meaningless.” This isn’t a problem, it’s a virtue. Terms that have no referents are meaningless. “Santa Claus” is meaningless, like all proper names. It is not without referent, however; it refers to a fictional character in the diffuse cultural corpus of the West.

  • Luka

    Thanks again for the reply, Thomas. There’s much in your comment that I think I disagree with but I think I’ll just limit myself to a couple/few points. (And thanks for discussing the notion of specific-yet-indeterminate some more. I’ll think about that.)

    (1) It is difficult for me to see how, given the Objectivism, words or concepts can refer to non-existing objects. You and I seem to agree that Objectivism views past and future objects as non-existing. But you seem to think that they can still be presently referred to. But how in the heck can a non-existing object be (presently) referred to?

    Also, you write:

    “In my view, “past objects” and “future objects” are just “things that don’t exist,” which is to say they are nothing, which is to say they aren’t.”

    I agree that past and future objects don’t exist. But there seems to be a distinction that can reasonably be made between then and other objects that don’t exist, right? Abe Lincoln no longer exists. But he once did. The 100th president of the US doesn’t exist now but (probably) will exist in the future. (Future objects might be a little more difficult to talk about than past objects…) But these types of objects can be distinguished from objects that never have, don’t, and never will exist. Unicorns are such objects. (I suppose that they might exist in the future, but it doesn’t seem likely.)

    2. “Meaning” is an ambiguous word. Most (if not all) contemporary philosophers talk about words having meaning. Objectivists are different. They talk about concepts having meaning. Contemporary philosophers think of concepts as meaning (or some of them do). But whenever they are talking about meaning, they are talking about the meaning of language. And I think that’s a pretty natural way to think of things. The Objectivist way of talking about the meaning of concepts seems at least a bit less natural to me. (Actually, it’s very out of the ordinary.) Ordinary people seem to talk a lot more about the meaning of words than they do the meaning of concepts.

    This seems to possibly be another area where Objectivism uses words in ways that differ from both philosophy in general and ordinary English speakers. And this kind of thing can, unfortunately, lead to a lot of terminologically-based confusions.

    3. The reason that I find proper names interesting is because it’s pretty difficult to come up with a good theory of meaning for them. Objectivism hasn’t done so. Contemporary philosophy has trouble doing so. It’s actually pretty tough. And the reason that it’s relevant to this discussion is because Objectivism says that meaning is reference. If that’s so, then it seems that Objectivism should say that the referent of a proper name is its meaning. Right?

    You write:

    “My own view, for the record, is that proper names don’t have meanings at all; they only have referents.”

    Ok. So you don’t think that the meaning of a word is the referent(s) of the word. At least, not always. You think that the meaning of a word is the referent(s) of the word only when the word picks out (or expresses or denotes) a concept that refers to things. Is that right? Or is it that you just (and Objectivism, maybe) don’t even like to talk about the meanings of words? (I imagine that you’d have to admit that some words do have meanings. And I imagine that you think that, at the very least, words that pick out or denote concepts have meanings.)

    4. You write:

    “Terms that have no referents are meaningless. “Santa Claus” is meaningless, like all proper names. It is not without referent, however; it refers to a fictional character in the diffuse cultural corpus of the West.”

    This passage seems somewhat confused to me. You say that terms that have no referents are meaningless. Then you say that the name ‘Santa Claus’ is meaningless. But then you say that the name ‘Santa Claus’ is not without a referent. So is ‘Santa Claus’ meaningless even though it has a referent?

    Also, don’t you think it sounds a bit strange to say that terms without referents are meaningless? Wouldn’t that amount to saying that sentences that contain non-referring terms are meaningless as well? Is the following sentence meaningless?:

    (S) Santa Claus doesn’t exist.

    It certainly doesn’t seem meaningless. I think most competent English speakers know exactly what (S) means, don’t you?

    Or what about this one:

    (R) Round squares do not (and cannot) exist.

    Is that a meaningless sentence? Certainly the term ’round square’ does not refer. But it does still seem to have some meaning, right? It’s not like I wrote these sentences:

    (S’) Scdtw Clerf doesn’t exist.

    (R’) Rohnr sqyesrc do not (and cannot) exist.

    (S’) and (R’) are clearly meaningless. The terms ‘Scdtw Clerf’ and ‘Rohnr sqyesrc’ don’t have any referents or meanings. And it seems that that is all that is needed to make both (S’) and (R’) meaningless in some appropriate sense.

    But (S) and (R) are nothing like (S’) and (R’). Real information is being conveyed when they are used. But how can this be so if they are meaningless? Or do you think that you know of a way in which they are meaningful even though ‘Santa Claus’ and ’round squares’ are without meaning on your (and the Objectivist) view?

    5. I think that the Objectivist view here is confused. But I don’t think it’s as confused as it might seem to some outsiders. Or, rather, it’s more confused than it really needs to be. If Objectivism would just focus a little more on the meaning of words, and be willing to change the terminology a little (in order to match up better with philosophers and/or ordinary people), then the Objectivist theory would seem less incorrect. One way to start doing this is to accept that concepts are the semantic values (or meanings) of certain words. This terminological adjustment might go a long way towards making the Objectivist theory of meaning more accessible to non-Objectivists, without requiring Objectivism to make any conceptual changes to its theories.

  • Thomas Fuller

    Luka, I’m beginning to feel a little like Michael Corleone: Just when I thought I was done with metaphysics, you pull me back in.

    Before I get into my reply, let me make a couple of administrative points. First, it has occurred to me that a distinction between future entities and possible entities is arbitrary, and so from here on I’ll no longer be making one. This should help cut down on the over-growth of terminology. Second, when I wrote that proper names are meaningless and only have referents, I didn’t advance the discussion. While I know what I meant by that, I think the formulation is terminally confusing. I’m going to abandon it too, and I’ll try to refrain from picking it up again.

    You and I seem to agree that Objectivism views past and future objects as non-existing. But you seem to think that they can still be presently referred to. But how in the heck can a non-existing object be (presently) referred to?

    First, there there was the question of the metaphysical status of the possible, past, and future entities. Now, we seem to have moved into a question of the metaphysical status of the relationship between a concept and its units. I don’t comprehend why it is you think it should be problematic for a non-existing entity to be referred to. Yet you seem to think this is obviously problematic, so I can guess as to the specifics. My best guess is that you are thinking of the verb “to refer” in what the Objectivists would call a “concrete bound” way.

    Provisionally, I will say that there are (at least) two kinds of referring: indication and subsumption. If somebody were to ask “What do you mean by “dog,” Tom?” I could indicate (refer to) a dog by pointing and say “I mean one of these.” Obviously, in order for me to refer to something in this way, the thing has to exist, and, more than that, it has to be present in my (and my interlocutor’s) shared perceptual field.

    If the referring that concepts did (subsumption) were like this kind of referring, it would be impossible for concepts to refer to entities that are out of sight (“sight” standing in here for the whole of perception.) “Out of sight, out of mind” would be literally true, and cognition would collapse.

    Obviously, the referring that concepts do can’t be like that. So if the referring that concepts do is not indication, what is it? What is the nature of subsumption? I’m taking this to be your question.

    A concept is a mental tool that does a certain thing: it picks out its units from whatever is presented to consciousness. My currently favorite metaphor here is a net. When you are forming a concept, you are crafting a net that will snare only certain kinds of fish. In the case of the concept ‘chair,’ the net only snares chair-fish, all other fish just slip through.

    Saying that ‘chair’ subsumes all chairs, present, past, and future, is not to say that there are any specific, particular chairs in the future that are ensnared in a relationship with one’s consciousness, or even that there are any present chairs so ensnared. It’s saying that your concept ‘chair’ has the power to ensnare any chair, that whenever a chair is present to your consciousness, by means of ‘chair’ it may be picked out; you are able to recognize it as a chair.

    Similarly: here I have a frying pan. It will fry any chicken’s egg. Because of the pan’s identity, because of what it is, and because of the identities, the nature(s), of all possible eggs, I can be certain that my frying pan will fry every last one of those suckers. It’ll fry ’em today, tomorrow, and would have fried ’em yesterday too. In fact, there’s no chicken egg that can be that can’t be fried by my pan.

    A peddler calling out to passerby: “Get your frying pan here! Fries all eggs!” is doing something much like what Rand did in ITOE: “Define your concept of table here! Subsumes all tables!”

    A frying pan can’t fry past or future eggs. Indeed it can only fry eggs that are in it presently and under heat. But the pan has the power to fry any egg nonetheless, including eggs in the next county, and in the next week, and had the pan been laden with eggs in the past, it could have fried them as well.

    In the same way, my concept ‘egg’ allows me to recognize any egg as a unit of ‘egg’. I can only actually recognize eggs that I see, or imagine, or remember, or otherwise present or have presented to my consciousness, just as a frying pan can only actually fry eggs that are in it presently and under heat. Yet my concept ‘egg’ has the power to allow me to recognize any egg I might present or have presented to my consciousness. It is this relationship of having power “over” an infinite range of particulars, past, present, and future, that is expressed by the Objectivist identification that meaning of a concept consists of its units. That’s the nature of subsumption.

    [P]ast and future objects don’t exist. But there seems to be a distinction that can reasonably be made between then and other objects that don’t exist, right?

    I think, yes, a distinction can be made between past or future objects and, say, the quintessential thing-that-doesn’t-exist, nothingness. I think there is a very basic confusion at play here, however. Abe Lincoln doesn’t exist, and I’d say, metaphysically speaking, he’s equally nonexistent with flying chartreuse dog-faced unicorn ballerinas from Neptune. There’s not a modicum of difference in the degree of these things’ respective nonexistence: all are nonexistent absolutely.

    So, supposing that Abe and the ballerinas are equally null, metaphysically speaking, what kind of distinction can be made between them? I’m going to take that to be your question.

    I’d say that an important distinction to be made between Abe and the ballerinas is that, since Abe did exist at one time, he’s left a causal legacy that extends into the present. You take a piece of coal and compress it into a diamond. The coal no longer exists, but its causal legacy is plain in the present, in/as the diamond. A similar principle applies for future entities. They don’t exist, yet some of them we can be very confident will exist, because many things in the present have predictable natures. The predictability of entities allows us to anticipate the consequences of their action, so the future becomes, in a limited sense, known to us in the present.

    That all said, I can’t emphasize enough that Abe’s former existence does not mean that, in any sense at all, he exists now. And the extreme likelihood that the sun will rise over Toledo tomorrow doesn’t mean that, in any sense, the earth is facing that way now.

    I don’t have too much to say on your second point, concerning the confusions of the Objectivists’ usage of “meaning.” I’ll note that ITOE treats words and concepts in a very tight tandem. Objectivists don’t object to talk about the meaning of words, but they do insist on the necessity of concepts to any full account of meaning. Some philosophers think the concept of ‘concept’ is otiose; Objectivists rightly disagree.

    I don’t think ordinary usage of words like “meaning” is very important in this context. Ordinary people (I think you understate) almost never talk of concepts at all, and have no useful notion of what a concept might be. Since talk of concepts is essential to the treatment of meaning, ordinary people need to study up a bit if they want to consider the subject.

    As for the diction of contemporary philosophy, I don’t think bringing Objectivism more in line with it could do anything but adulterate the former. However, my reasons for believing this are complex and I can’t give even a cursory treatment of them here.

    [T]he reason that [proper names are] relevant to this discussion is because Objectivism says that meaning is reference. If that’s so, then it seems that Objectivism should say that the referent of a proper name is its meaning. Right?

    Ah, but Objectivism never says that “meaning is reference.” A minor but still important point: the word “reference” is never used in ITOE in the way that Huemer uses it. (I haven’t looked to see whether it’s used in some other way.) Keep in mind that ITOE is not a complete treatment of epistemology, nor is it a comprehensive theory of language. It is just what it says it is, an introduction. It introduces Objectivist epistemology by means of its theory of concepts, which is the epistemology’s centerpiece.

    Meaning in ITOE is always used specifically in the context of concepts. At no time does Rand give us a formulation of what she thinks the meaning of a proper name must be. Contrary to what many seem to assume, her understanding of the meaning of proper names is not only not stated, it’s not implied (at least, not plainly). As you have seen, the only mention made of proper names in the whole text is parenthetical, and used then to contrast proper names against all other words, to differentiate them and plainly indicate their exceptional nature.

    I agree with you that proper names are interesting, but as should be clear, I don’t agree that they’re relevant to this discussion, in the first place because the evidence you’ve given for proper names’ relevance, that Objectivism says that “meaning is reference,” is false. Second, yet more importantly, there is very good reason to think that proper names and concepts can be treated independently. Proper names are radically different from all other words; they have closed references, referring to particulars rather than to an infinite range of units. This is not an insignificant difference; it’s huge. It means that proper names and all other words serve fundamentally different functions in the relationship of consciousness to reality.

    (I’ll tell you what it would take to convince me proper names are relevant: show me evidence that a theory of the meaning of general concepts is unstable or utterly compromised without an accounting for the meaning of proper names. I will stipulate that proper names pose interesting questions; convince me that the resolution of these questions is essential to the matter at hand.)

    Now, even though I do not believe it’s necessary to do so, let me try to bridge the gap in our thinking on proper names. Since I’ve abandoned my confusing formulation that proper names don’t have meanings, I will try another way.

    (1) Oedipus marries Clark Kent (CK).
    (2) Oedipus marries Superman.

    Supposedly there’s a problem for Objectivism here, because if CK and Superman mean the same thing, Oedipus should know he’s marrying the one if he knows he’s marrying the other. (Let’s assume Superman is saving his secret for the wedding night. Oedipus then either doesn’t know he’s marrying CK (in case 2), or doesn’t know he’s marrying Superman (in case 1).) Contrast the above example with this one:

    (A) Oedipus’ shopping list calls for 2 eggs.
    (B) Oedipus’ shopping list calls for 10 eggs.

    What poor Oedipus doesn’t know this time is that his PC, which generates his shopping list, sometimes outputs quantities on his shopping lists in binary format. In other words, both shopping lists call for this many eggs: || Oedipus doesn’t know this, because he doesn’t know about the computer glitch, and he doesn’t even know there is such a thing as a binary number system.

    But decimal “2” and binary “10” are two different words that mean the exactly same thing. Which is to say that both words denote a single concept which subsumes precisely the same range of concretes (all groups of one thing and another). In this case, Oedipus clearly knows the meaning of “2.” He also knows the meaning of binary “10”—he just doesn’t know that he knows it. In other words, he knows the quantity meant by “2,” he just doesn’t know that some people (and occasionally his computer) name that same quantity “10.”

    That some people call the quantity || by the name “10” is not a property of quantities of ||. It is a property of the binary-numerate. That some people call Oedipus’ fiance “Superman” is not a property of that individual, it’s a property of folk that have seen him flying around in tights.

    I’ve heard that Wittgenstein believed that there weren’t any genuine philosophical problems, and generally I strongly disagree, but in the case of Oedipus’ fiance, I think he was dead right. This confusion over proper names is a case of tangled language obscuring reality; it’s not an epistemological problem. Say the meaning of a proper name is the thing it refers to. A thing is just all of its properties (A is A). Since “being called Superman” is not a property of Superman, “being called Superman” is not meant (referred to) by either “Superman” or “Clark Kent.” What’s meant is the individual, the entity, and all of his properties, known and unknown.

    With the language untangled, perhaps the confusion can be untangled as well:

    (X) Oedipus marries an individual he calls CK.
    (Y) Oedipus marries an individual others call Superman.
    (Z) Oedipus believes that (the individual he calls) CK and (the individual others call) Superman are different people.

    The key principle is this: that a thing is called by any particular name is not a property of the thing, but of the namers. Being (primarily) composed of H2O, on the other hand, is a property of water. Therefore if water and H2O were the same thing, i.e. if ‘water’ and ‘H2O’ subsumed the same range of concretes, since they have different meanings, there would be a problem for Objectivism, because this would demonstrate that the meaning of a concept cannot be fully accounted for by its “reference,” and would arguably introduce the need for “sense” (or nonsense).

    Also, don’t you think it sounds a bit strange to say that terms without referents are meaningless? Wouldn’t that amount to saying that sentences that contain non-referring terms are meaningless as well? Is the following sentence meaningless?:

    (S) Santa Claus doesn’t exist.

    I don’t think it’s strange at all to say that terms without referents are meaningless. Saying this emphatically does not amount to saying that sentences that contain non-referring terms are meaningless as well. Provisionally, I’ll agree that a proper name means its referent (I’m still a little uneasy with this usage given how radically proper names differ from other words), and, as I’ve said, I think “Santa Claus” has a referent, so there’s no problem with (S), in my view: it means what I think most people think it means.

    (R) is more interesting, though not at all difficult. ‘Round-square’ does not refer, and has zero meaning. To see why, it’s essential to grasp that the hyphen is not merely stylistic (cf. ITOE p. 177). The hyphen transforms the compound concept ’round square’ into a single (anti-)concept. ‘Round’ and ‘square,’ separately, are meaningful. Because all the words of (R) have meanings, including both ’round’ and ‘square,’ the sentence as a whole is meaningful. It means: squares that could be accurately described as round do not exist. The paradox is only apparent, a trick of language, a prestidigitation-by-juxtaposition.

    Do you think that you know of a way in which [(S) and (R)] are meaningful even though `Santa Claus’ and ’round squares’ are without meaning on your (and the Objectivist) view?

    I’ve shown why I think (S) and (R) are meaningful. I want to add here that I don’t think ‘Santa Claus’ is meaningless on the Objectivist view. Again, I think the Objectivist view on the meaning of proper names is unknown. Certainly, it is unknown to me. If I had to guess, I’d guess that authorities on Objectivism would agree with what I’ve said, namely that ‘Santa Claus’ is meaningful and does refer—to a fictional character.

  • Luka

    Glad I pulled you back in. 🙂

    I think I’ll respond to another couple/few of your points. I understand that at some point (perhaps at this point) you’ll tire of responding. But I’m interested enough to make at least one more comment. Hope you don’t mind.

    1. A future object is not a unit. It’s nothing. It can’t be subsumed because nothing can’t be subsumed, right? Same with a past object. If you agree that both of these kinds of objects don’t exist, then I can’t understand how you can think that they can have anything done to them (including being subsumed). If an object doesn’t exist, then it seems to me that there is no way in which anything can have a relation to it. And I take it that you think that there is some relation that holds between a concept and its units.

    2. Fair enough on the ordinary language point. I don’t know how important the ordinary English sense of ‘meaning’ is either. Just thought I’d throw it in there to cover my bases. All that’s important to me is the fact that EITHER ordinary people or philosophers need to be able to understand how Objectivist use the word. If not, Objectivists are doing themselves a disservice. Communication is key and it’s difficult to communicate when you choose terminology that nobody else understands. It’s unecessary, I think.

    Philosophers think that there is something that is expressed by sentences and (at least) some words. They call this thing ‘meaning’. Everybody (even ordinary people) agrees that there is something that is expressed by words. Objectivists would do well to concentrate more on that fact. Clearly (it seems to me) Objectivists should want to say that concepts are the things that are expressed by words and propositions are the things that are expressed by sentences. (That second thing might be a bit more controversial than the first.)

    3. I don’t think that your 2 and 10 example works. It’s not true that Oedipus knows the meaning of the binary ’10’ but that he just doesn’t know he knows it, just because he knows the meaning of ‘2’ and it has the same meaning as ’10’. That’s like saying I know all of the meanings of all of the words in non-English languages that are synonymous with the English words that I know, but that I just don’t know that I know them! That can’t be right. If it is, then ever since I learned that English word ‘dog’ I also knew the meaning of the Spanish word ‘perro’. And when I thought I learned the meaning of the word ‘perro’ I really wasn’t learning the meaning, I was merely learning that I already knew the meaning of the word…

    PLEASE take that point back. If you don’t take anything else back, you have to agree that that example, as stated, doesn’t work.

    4. I disagree with your analysis of ’round-square’. The fact that it’s built out of referring terms should not matter. The fact that it’s a so-called ‘anti-concept’ shouldn’t matter. It’s a term that everybody knows the meaning of and it refers to nothing. But I don’t want to get into it over that. It’s easy to find other non-referring terms that aren’t built out of referring terms. Take ‘unicorn’ or ‘Pegasus’. Or how about ‘Vulcan’ the name of the planet that scientists supposedly thought existed but actually did not. None of these terms refer. (I’ll deal with the possible objection that some of them refer to fictional objects next.)

    5. Fictional objects do not exist (just like past, future, and merely (metaphysically) possible objects). Or if they do, they aren’t physical and they probably do not exist in time. That’s right, if fictional objects exist, then they would probably have to be abstract objects. And since Objectivism (or at least Objectivists) doesn’t let abstract objects into its ontology, I wouldn’t think, then it must say that fictional objects, like Santa, don’t exist. I mean look, where is Santa? Where is this fictional object? Is it in your head? Is it in my head? Is it in both of our heads?? Is it in a book? (If so, which copy is it in?)

    Personally, I don’t believe in either abstract or fictional objects. Neither exist in my book. When somebody asks me if Santa really exists I don’t respond by saying “Yes of course. He exists in fiction!” The person I was talking to would think I was nuts (and rightly so) or at least not speaking literally.

    When children use the name ‘Santa Claus’ they do not mean to be speaking of a fictional person. They mean to be speaking about a real live man. And when they get to a certain age they discover that he doesn’t actually exist. He’s made up. He’s fake. They don’t think “Oh, Santa does exist! But he just exists in a different form than I thought!”

    Right? The name ‘Santa Claus’, at least in the mouths of children, does NOT refer to a fictional person (if there really is such thing). If it refers, then it refers to a jolly, fat, red-suited, white-bearded man who lives in the North Pole and delivers presents on Dec. 25th every year.

    But no such man exists. So their uses of the name does not refer…Yet it still seems to mean something, doesn’t it?

  • Thomas Fuller

    Luka,

    I’m sure you’ve noticed that this response has taken me longer to craft than my previous responses. The reason is, as you anticipated correctly, that I am tiring of this discussion. I’m tiring of it because I’m having to look harder and harder through your comments in order to find a substantive point that I can answer with something new, rather than by telling you to re-read something. At this point, I don’t anticipate many more substantive objections from your direction. Rest assured, however, that if I notice any, I will endeavor to reply.

    That said, I should note for those listening in that, at this point, I believe I’ve stated my position clearly and mounted an objectively solid (and successful) defense. In this reply, I will not be trying to clarify my position so much as trying to get inside Luka’s head and bring our mutual understandings of the subject matter closer together. This means that unless you share Luka’s particular concerns, anything I write here might just confuse you. You are fairly warned.

    1. A future object is not a unit. It’s nothing. It can’t be subsumed because nothing can’t be subsumed, right? Same with a past object. If you agree that both of these kinds of objects don’t exist, then I can’t understand how you can think that they can have anything done to them (including being subsumed). If an object doesn’t exist, then it seems to me that there is no way in which anything can have a relation to it. And I take it that you think that there is some relation that holds between a concept and its units.

    We still seem to be stuck fast in metaphysical questions, but I think we’re making progress, because this statement of your concerns about subsumption reveals your misapprehension of the subject more clearly. A review is in order, I think.

    First, I agreed with Rand that concepts subsume past, present, and future units. Then you questioned whether I meant to say that possible units are in some way actual. We agreed that possible units (future units) and past units don’t exist. You seemed to think that past and future entities were somehow metaphysically different than other things that don’t exist. I denied this, asserting the equal nonexistence of Abe Lincoln and a flying chartreuse dog-faced unicorn ballerina from Neptune. I used the metaphor of the frying pan that “fries all eggs” and the formulation “has the power to” to show that subsumption was not unique in the universe in being a relation between existents (a concept, a frying pan) and specific things that don’t exist (future units, future eggs). I said, “I don’t comprehend why it is you think it should be problematic for a non-existing entity to be referred to.” You replied, “I can’t understand how you can think that [non-existents] can have anything done to them.” Working together, we’ve managed to establish that we don’t understand each other. (Huzzah!)

    Let’s get your premises out in the open so we can check them. We’ll start with the premises that can also be attributed to me.

    (L1) [Thomas thinks] Subsumption is a kind of relation.
    —I agree, subsumption is a kind of relation.

    (L2) Past and future entities (units) do not exist.
    —I agree. So far, however, you have been either equivocal or noncommittal (let’s split the difference and say “hedging your bets”) on the question of the metaphysical status of past and future entities. I have said flatly that they don’t exist. You have agreed, but seem to have left room for caveats. That is, if you’re willing to abandon any metaphysical distinction between a past entity qua entity and a never-existing entity, you haven’t said so.

    (L3) X can have the relation “doing something to” Y if and only if X and Y both exist.
    —I agree.

    Now let’s move on to the premises that I don’t share:

    (L4) Subsumption is a kind of “doing something” to units.
    —I disagree.

    (L5) A relation can hold between X and Y if and only if both X and Y exist.
    —I disagree.

    (L5) is a more general form of (L3). To see why the general form should be rejected, let’s consider my great-grandfather. At one time, obviously, he existed, but when I was born, he was already dead. Since we were never alive at the same time, it is useless to hedge with something like “great-grandson and great-grandfather were related until the elder died.” Either I have never been related to my great-grandfather, or I am related to him now. So, Luka, either you must be willing to argue that I am not and never have been related to my great-grandfather, or else you will have to admit that (L5) is false.

    (Your only refuge, if you accept that I am related to my great-grandfather, and if you wish to maintain (L5), would be to argue that, somehow, my great-grandfather exists. I can’t imagine why you would prefer that task to abandoning (L5). If you do prefer it, let me point out that the burden of proof is on you, since you will be taking the affirmative, and that you will be arguing metaphysics, not epistemology.)

    In sum:
    1. Relations between existents and former existents are actual (examples: coal/diamond, ancestor/progeny, egg/chicken, a thing today/itself yesterday).
    2. Former existents do not exist ((L2)).
    3. Whatever is actual, is possible.
    4. Therefore, relations between existents and non-existents are possible.
    5. Therefore, (L5) is false.

    Without (L5), you have no grounds for using (L1) against me. The option remains to you to fall back to using (L4) against me (in conjunction with our shared premise (L3)). I don’t think you will have any success pursuing this option.

    Every relationship has a specific, limited identity. I have already offered an account of what subsumption is—

    It is this relationship of having power “over” an infinite range of particulars, past, present, and future, that is expressed by the Objectivist identification that meaning of a concept consists of its units.

    —and therefore there is little more that I can do to identify the nature of subsumption. I’ll try to do what little more I can, in hopes that you will see, at least, what subsumption isn’t (namely, something that concepts “do” to units).

    You seem to be thinking of the relation of subsumption in an almost tactile way, as if a concept had to be able to, in some sense, “touch” its units. Subsumption is not something that is “done to” units, like coating them in molasses, or tethering them to our minds with tendrils of psychic mojo. Similarly, fryability-by-my-frying-pan isn’t something that is “done to” past or future eggs.

    Subsumption is a relation of treat-as-a-unit-ability. ‘Chair,’ for example, is the tool a mind uses when it treats any particular chair as a unit. This chair can be any chair presented to consciousness, whether through sense-perception, memory, imagination, or anticipation.

    It is vital to grasp that the concept ‘chair’ relates to the chair I’m sitting in right now no differently than it relates to chairs of the past or future, or chairs I’ve never seen, remembered, imagined, or anticipated. If I focus my consciousness on the chair I’m sitting in, ‘chair’ automatically, as a ready tool in the tool box of my mind, allows me to treat this seat as a unit; I don’t have to think about it (which is the point). (Another important distinction: ‘chair’ allows me to treat a chair as a unit, it doesn’t do the treating itself.) When I recognize something as a chair, it is also important to understand, I’m not then subsuming it under my concept of ‘chair.’ The subsumption was fait accompli before I ever walked into the room, before the tree that the chair was cut from had been felled. When I recognize something as a chair, I’m recognizing that it is subsumed under ‘chair,’ not performing a subsumption.

    Now we have definitely passed the point of diminishing returns so far as my clarifying the nature of subsumption. Hopefully, this has been helpful.

    On your point 2: you’re absolutely right, communication is key, at least when philosophy is pursued publicly. However, I’m very, very far from convinced that anything the Objectivists have been doing with their diction has hurt their communication with the greater world of philosophers and people interested in philosophy.

    Respecting ordinary people, I think a strong case is ready to be made that Objectivism has communicated its message far more effectively than any other philosophy. Is Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology the most popular work on epistemology in the world? I don’t know, but I’d bet it is. Atlas Shrugged, besides being a great novel, is a primer on Objectivism, and with it Ayn Rand has taken serious philosophy off of musty library stacks and out of jargon-bloated academic conferences and brought it on vacations to the beach.

    As for academic philosophers, consider this: what if Objectivist epistemology is true? Suppose, for a minute, that I’m right, and Huemer is wrong, and the sense/reference distinction is worthless. I take the sense/reference distinction to be widely accepted by contemporary philosophers, and its validity and utility to be largely presupposed in their work. Indeed, unless I miss my guess, it’s worse than merely presupposed; it’s sunk into the background, hardly more controversial than A is A.

    “Well begun is half done,” so ill begun is half undone. I believe that Objectivism’s theory of concepts is true, and that the sense/reference distinction is useless. The Ivory Tower of contemporary philosophy uses this distinction as one of its foundation stones. Why build a bridge to a structure that’s unsound and engineered for collapse?

    And there’s a mistaken assumption lurking beneath all this concern for conforming to the lexical habits of professional philosophers. Contrary to that assumption, it is impossible to make general progress in philosophy. We may stand on the shoulders of giants, but we still are obliged to climb up there under our own power. The mountain of busy paperwork tossed off by publish-or-perish professionals has fooled some, I think, by it’s raw imposing mass, into mistaking it for philosophy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Philosophy is, first and foremost, a love, and after that, a habit of mind. It is not, and never can be, found in a jargon.

    Finally, I think Ayn Rand’s writing on epistemology is amazingly clear. If I’m right in the interpretation presented in this post, Huemer’s WIANO begins with a massive misreading. Is this misreading Ayn Rand’s fault for not having shoe-horned her thinking into conformity with the philosophical lexicons and style manuals of the day? Hell no.

    On to your point 3:

    3. I don’t think that your 2 and 10 example works. It’s not true that Oedipus knows the meaning of the binary ’10’ but that he just doesn’t know he knows it, just because he knows the meaning of ‘2’ and it has the same meaning as ’10’. That’s like saying I know all of the meanings of all of the words in non-English languages that are synonymous with the English words that I know, but that I just don’t know that I know them!

    You’re right, it is just like saying that you know all the meanings of non-English words that are synonymous with the English words that you know. Yet I stand by it, 100%. You admit that decimal “2” and binary “10” have the same meaning, just like English “dog” and Spanish “perro.” If you know the meaning of one word, and another word has the same meaning, ipso facto you know the meaning of the second word too, what you don’t know is that the second word has the same meaning as the first. I fail to see why this should be controversial. A parallel: say I know where my brother is, but I don’t know he has a girlfriend named Penelope. I know where “Penelope’s boyfriend” is, I just don’t know that I know it.

    That can’t be right. If it is, then ever since I learned that English word ‘dog’ I also knew the meaning of the Spanish word ‘perro’. And when I thought I learned the meaning of the word ‘perro’ I really wasn’t learning the meaning, I was merely learning that I already knew the meaning of the word…

    PLEASE take that point back. If you don’t take anything else back, you have to agree that that example, as stated, doesn’t work.

    You don’t have to be kidding, but I wish you were. I’m afraid I see no reason to take the example back. When you were, as you say, “learning the meaning” of the word “perro,” you were indeed learning that you already knew the meaning of the word, but you were not “merely” learning this. Concurrently, you were learning that, in Spanish, the word for ‘dog’ (the concept) is “perro.” Again, this is not the same as learning something about dogs; it’s learning something about Spanish.

    Contrast “Schadenfreude.” This German word is famous among English speakers for (ostensibly) being untranslatable. (Which really means that there’s no single English word that captures its meaning.) When a native English speaker learns “Schadenfreude,” he is learning a meaning; he’s learning to conceptualize a new range of existents as units (instances of taking pleasure in the misfortune of others). When a native English speaker learns “perro,” he isn’t learning the meaning of the word, he’s learning that ‘dog’ (the concept) goes by a different name in Spanish. I can understand why this formulation might be surprising, almost a koan, but I have explained it clearly, and you should accept it as soon as you’ve had time to digest it.

    By the way, these examples show very clearly why Objectivism talks primarily about the meaning of concepts, rather than the meaning of words. Words, as auditory or visual symbols which stand for concepts, exist (generally) within languages. In our email exchange in 1997, Huemer and I adopted the convention of denoting a word with double quotes, a concept with single quotes, and an entity without quotes: “water,” ‘water,’ water. Obviously, it’s impossible to render a concept on virtual paper except as a word, hence the convention. ‘Dog’ is meant to indicate a mental entity, an entity that is concretized and symbolized by a word, but which is not itself a word. ‘Dog’ stands for the concept that any speaker of any language has for dogs, no matter what the word for “dog” in that language happens to be.

    The relationship between word and concept (“dog” and ‘dog’ or “perro” and ‘dog’) and therefore word and reference, is arbitrary, and maintained by convention. In other words, there is nothing but convention causing “dog” to be named “dog” in English rather than “plutarch” or “firecracker.” In contrast, the relationship between concept and reference is not arbitrary. Showing the nature of that relationship is the task undertaken in ITOE.

    On your point 4: I don’t want to get into reconsidering the question of round-squares either, since, as I see it, my analysis in my previous comment was conclusive. As for your other objections, “unicorn” and “Pegasus” I do consider fictional characters, which I’ll handle when I get to point 5. “Vulcan” is slightly more interesting. I either don’t know or can’t recall anything about the story of this mistaken planet, and “Vulcan” has the fault of being a proper name, so I’ll work with “impetus” instead. (“Impetus” is more challenging and more revealing besides.)

    “Impetus,” (if I understand the term correctly (though in this context it’s not actually important whether I do or I don’t)) was intended to refer to the quality that kept moving bodies in motion. Something moving would come to rest when it “ran out” of “impetus.” People thought they knew what they meant when they said “impetus.” Centuries later came Newton, objects in motion tend to stay in motion, objects at rest tend to stay at rest, inertia, blah, blah, blah, etc.

    To keep things simple, let’s stipulate that the meaning of “impetus” has changed as time has gone by. In its day, the term meant something to those who used it, but now it means something else, something more like “the imaginary quality of motion supposed to exist before the principles of inertia were discovered.” I’m not going to bother explaining what impetus means now in any more detail, nor will I attempt to give an account of the historical process of its change in meaning. Instead, I will give an account of what “impetus” meant at the time the term was current (if anything), because I think you will agree that this is the crux of the matter. (And if you don’t, you should.)

    In the case of impetus, when 14th-century observers tried to conceptualize a notion of the cause of the motion of bodies, they used “quality” as the genus and “motion” as the differentia. So “impetus” was the “motive quality” in moving bodies. What 14th-century folk meant when they said “impetus” was this “motive quality (of bodies).”

    It has turned out that there isn’t any “motive quality” in moving bodies. So, clearly, if the reference of “impetus” really is this motive quality, which doesn’t exist, then impetus refers to nothing. And if “impetus” refers to nothing, it has no meaning, under Objectivism.

    Something interesting has happened, however. It has turned out that “impetus” is defined by means of the referring terms “motive” and “quality.” Motion exists, and the adjectival form “motive” is obviously valid and referential. Also, things have qualities or properties, a fact well known even in 14th-century Europe. On this analysis, “impetus” is, like “round-square,” “built out of” referring terms. I suppose one could say, then, that the meaning of a non-referring term is a construct from the terms of its definition, while the meaning of a referring term is its (open-ended) reference. Non-referring terms are still anchored in reference by means of their definitions, for the definitions themselves are built out of referring, or directly and strictly meaningful, terms.

    (I note at this point that there’s very little chance my analysis of “impetus” will be fully intelligible to anyone who thinks he knows what “round-square” means (as something distinct from claiming to know what both “round” and “square” mean). I implore you to abandon that absurd fantasy, or at least to reconsider it very carefully. (Here’s a good exercise: draw something round, draw something square, then drawn a round-square. I will be happy to host images of bona fide round-squares here at The Agonblog.))

    For the sake of completeness, I think I’ll say a thing or two about “Vulcan” after all. Actually, I’ll say some things about “Caspian” the mistaken construction worker, rather than “Vulcan” the mistaken planet.

    Howard Roark and I were doing the riveting for a new high-rise in Tokyo last summer. As we walked along the girders, we found buckets of rivets waiting for us wherever we needed them. We assumed that these buckets were put in place by a worker we hadn’t met yet, whom we started referring to as “Caspian.” Later we found out that a team of robot drones, not one man, had been responsible for placing the buckets. What did “Caspian” mean?

    “Caspian” meant his definition: “the (hypothetical) individual responsible for the placement of all of our rivet buckets.” If we had actually seen Caspian in the act, we could have had an ostensive definition, such as “that guy we’ve seen placing the rivet buckets.”

    Anyhow, the same principle applies to “round-square” as to “impetus” as to “Caspian.” All are built, indirectly, from the evidence of the senses (roundness and squareness, bodies in motion, the placement of rivet buckets). All are defined in terms that reference this evidence, and because these terms—by means of their definitions—have some basis in reality, they can be used as though they weren’t meaningless, even though, strictly speaking, they are. That terms like “impetus” are strictly meaningless (there is nothing in reality to which “impetus” directly refers) does not imply that these terms are referentially indistinguishable from nonsensical nonce words like “zyompoogus” or “electroobviation.” If “impetus” and “zyompoogus” were referentially indistinguishable, then Objectivism would have a problem. But that is not the case.

    (The root of your confusion, it seems to me, is that you have interpreted “meaning is reference” rationalistically, so much so that it doesn’t seem to particularly matter to you that Ayn Rand never said it. Don’t be distracted by your “meaning is reference” tunnel vision into thinking that my formulation that non-referring terms mean their definitions is a “modification” of Objectivism, in the sense of a caveat or proviso. It’s not. (N.B.: when I say that you have interpreted “meaning is reference” rationalistically, I mean in the Objectivist sense of focusing on words or ideas apart from reality, typically by means of dropping context. For example, someone who would argue that Objectivism isn’t a true philosophy of freedom because it requires us to obey the law of gravity is treating the concept of freedom rationalistically, dropping the context necessary to understand what Objectivism means by “freedom.”))

    Onward, at last, to your last point:

    I mean look, where is Santa? Where is this fictional object? Is it in your head? Is it in my head? Is it in both of our heads?? Is it in a book? (If so, which copy is it in?)

    I’m tempted to reply Socratically:

    Q: Socrates, I see a horse, but I don’t see “horseness.”
    A: That’s because you have eyes, but lack intellect.

    If I left it at that, though, I’d have no reason to hope that I’d advanced the discussion. So, I’ll forge ahead by drawing a parallel between your questions about Santa and the most basic questions ITOE was written to address.

    “Where is length? Where is this universal? Is it in your head? Is it in my head? Is it in a ruler? If so, which ruler is it in?”

    The answer here is, of course, that length is “in” all rulers, and indeed all entities of any kind, past, present, or future, that extend. Hopefully, you do not think that this answer commits Objectivism to an ontology of abstract objects. If it does, (re-)read Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology post-haste.

    “Santa” differs from “length” radically. It’s a proper (not a common) name, and it refers to a (fictional) particular, not a universal. Nonetheless, “Santa” refers to all characterizations of him in literature, all imaginations or notions of him in the thinking of anyone who thinks of him, all cardboard cutouts of him, all men in Santa suits, and all plastic lawn ornaments made in his fictional image, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Santa no more refers to an “abstract object” than does “length” or “table.”

    The name ‘Santa Claus’, at least in the mouths of children, does NOT refer to a fictional person (if there really is such thing). If it refers, then it refers to a jolly, fat, red-suited, white-bearded man who lives in the North Pole and delivers presents on Dec. 25th every year.

    Well, if we are going to delve into pediatric epistemology, I feel I should point out that little children visiting “Santa” at the local mall really believe that the John Doe dressed as Santa is the selfsame jolly old elf who will soon be flying about in a sleigh delivering presents to the children of the world. In other words, to them, “Santa” means “a jolly, fat, red-suited, white-bearded man who lives in the North Pole and delivers presents on Dec. 25th every year,” but their ostensive definition of “Santa” is the very fellow you and I know to be John Doe. In other words, “Santa,” in the mouths of these children, does refer to a fictional person, just like when I’m talking over a play I’ve just seen, and I say “Romeo,” I mean the fictional person on stage, the character, not the actor. The difference is that the children watching John Doe play the part of Santa don’t know they’re watching a play. This does not constitute a challenge to Objectivist epistemology.

    When somebody asks me if Santa really exists I don’t respond by saying “Yes of course. He exists in fiction!” The person I was talking to would think I was nuts (and rightly so) or at least not speaking literally.

    Do adults often ask you whether Santa really exists? No matter. If you are surrounded by such people, you have more to worry about than getting a handle on Objectivist epistemology. At any rate, if someone were to ask you whether Santa really exists, you’d know from the context of the conversation that he was asking whether there really is a fat, jolly, present-delivering magical elf/man living at the North Pole. That the meaning of “to be” is equivocal in colloquial speech has zero significance to our discussion. That you could honestly think otherwise boggles my mind, as does the notion that it could be controversial to assert that the fictional character “John Galt” does indeed exist, qua fictional character, as does the notion that you, or anyone, could find a substantive difference in the quality of fictionality common to Galt and Claus that is significant in the context of this discussion.

  • Luka

    Thomas,

    Alright, I’ll get right to the points that I’m going to address.

    1. You write:

    “You seemed to think that past and future entities were somehow metaphysically different than other things that don’t exist. I denied this, asserting the equal nonexistence of Abe Lincoln and a flying chartreuse dog-faced unicorn ballerina from Neptune.”

    I think you misunderstand me. I agree that Abe Lincoln and a flying chartreuse dog-faced unicorn ballerina from Neptune are equally nonexistent. Neither exists. But there is stil SOME distinction to be made between them. Abe used to exist. The other thing didn’t. If you can’t see this distinction, I don’t know what else to say. (But that’s the only distinction that I am claiming is makable.)

    2. It is difficult to see how a nonexistent thing can bear a relation to anything. It doesn’t exist. It has no properties. Therefore, it can’t have the property of bearing a relation to something else. (Why do I have the feeling that you’re going to say that that isn’t a property…?)

    I think there are some good reasons to think that past objects bear relations to present objects. But I also take this as a reason to believe in some form of existence of past objects. In the end, though, I don’t think that past objects exist, so I don’t think that present objects bear any relation to them. At best, I think that our talk of inter-temporal relations is a useful fiction. That’s what I think now anyway.

    But I do take this whole issue to be an unresolved problem in philosophy.

    3. The fact that ITOE might be the most popular book on epistemology doesn’t seem very relevant to me. Dianetics is a very popular book, too. But that doesn’t mean that Hubbard didn’t change the meaning of words and develop Scientology jargon. I think Rand did the same thing. Her books are popular. But that doesn’t mean that she uses terms like “selfish”, “truth”, or “meaning” as they are meant in English. I think she doesn’t. My reasons for thinking this of “meaning” have been put forward in this discussion. Everybody knows that she did this with “selfish”. “Truth” is a topic for another discussion. But, briefly, my belief that she uses that term non-standardly comes from the Objectivist insistence that arbitrary claims cannot be true. I think that, according to the meaning of the English word “true”, they can.

    4. I don’t know what else to say about non-referring terms. The fact that they are built out of referring terms means little, it seems to me. You might have a point there, but I don’t really see it…

    “Round square” does not refer. So I can’t draw one. The fact that you think that I was claiming that it’s possible to draw one, or that you think that challenging me to draw one makes some kind of point, makes me think that you are fairly well confused about this issue.

    The expression is meaningful though. That’s why we can say that they don’t exist. There are no objects that possess both roundness and squareness at the same time and in the same respect.

    The fact that (i) “there are no round squares” seems different in some relevant way from (ii) “there are no rehnf sqyert” seems important. The first sentence seems to have meaning (for whatever reason) and the second does not. Now, if (i) is meaningful because “round square” is built out of referring expressions, fine. (I don’t think that IS why it is meaningful, but I don’t know that that matters here.) The point is that it IS meaningful. People know what it means. NOBODY knows what “rehnf sqyert” means. And that’s beacuse it actually doesn’t mean anything.

    5. “Santa” does not refer to all the characterizations of him in books. It refers to Santa, if it refers at all. Just like “Luka” doesn’t refer to characterizations of me (at least not in the sense that we’re talking about). It refers to me. If Santa is a fictional character, fine. But he is one character. Not two. Not two thousand. Not two million. One. It seems more accurate to say, as you did, that he is CHARACTERIZED in books, not that he is in the books. If you don’t see what it seems more accurate to say that, I’m not sure what else to say.

    6. I’m not talking about pediatric epistemology. I’m talking about pediatric semantics. What do the kids MEAN, not what do they KNOW. There’s an important difference, I think. They mean to be talking about a person that lives in the North Pole, yada yada yada. They don’t mean to be talking about a person that merely acts like the guy that lives in the North Pole. And what they mean by “Santa” matters to the subject of what a word like Santa can mean.

    And if you don’t see that, then I’m not sure…well, you get the idea.

    Thanks for engaging me in the discussion.

    Take it easy.

  • Luka

    Oh, one more thing. I almost forgot. I think this is largely (of not completely) a terminological issue. But your insistence that when I learned the Spanish “perro” I wasn’t learning the meaning of the word but that I was learning that the word referred to the concept ‘dog’, is another example of an Objectivist painting himself into a corner (at least terminologically) and ending up saying something that sounds VERY weird. In English, the phrase “learning the meaning of a word” can mean learning the concept that the word expresses (or refers to). And also, in English, if I don’t know what “perro” expresses or refers to, then it’s proper to say “I don’t know the meaning of the word ‘perro'”.

    And it you don’t see that…okay, okay, okay. You get the drift…

    (Also, I’d like to make a quick clarification/correction. The reason that I can’t draw a round square might not be because it doesn’t refer (which it doesn’t). It seems that I can draw things that possibly don’t refer (at least on my view), things like Santa, unicorns, etc. So, I probably just should have written that the reason that I can’t draw a round square is because no object (including a drawn object) can possess both roundness and squareness. The lack of reference of “round square” might have something to do with why I can’t draw one. But that’s not clear to me.)

    Luka out.

  • Thomas Fuller

    Luka,

    There are a few specific points that I’d like to clarify. I’ll address those first, and then I’ll make some general comments on our discussion as such.

    1. You write:

    “You seemed to think that past and future entities were somehow metaphysically different than other things that don’t exist. I denied this, asserting the equal nonexistence of Abe Lincoln and a flying chartreuse dog-faced unicorn ballerina from Neptune.”

    I think you misunderstand me. I agree that Abe Lincoln and a flying chartreuse dog-faced unicorn ballerina from Neptune are equally nonexistent. Neither exists. But there is stil SOME distinction to be made between them. Abe used to exist. The other thing didn’t. If you can’t see this distinction, I don’t know what else to say. (But that’s the only distinction that I am claiming is makable.)

    When I read this, I immediately planned to reply that we agree completely. Indeed, I can see that there is some meaningful distinction to be made between simply nonexistent entities and past entities. In a previous comment I noted that the basis for this distinction is what I called the “causal legacy” of past entities that extends into the present. I had to check my enthusiasm for our apparent ontological detente when I read your second point, however.

    2. It is difficult to see how a nonexistent thing can bear a relation to anything. It doesn’t exist. It has no properties. Therefore, it can’t have the property of bearing a relation to something else. (Why do I have the feeling that you’re going to say that that isn’t a property…?)

    You’re right; I would say that things don’t “have the property of bearing a relation.” I think you anticipated that because, mirabile dictu, we’ve succeeded, to some degree at least, in communicating.

    I think there are some good reasons to think that past objects bear relations to present objects. But I also take this as a reason to believe in some form of existence of past objects. In the end, though, I don’t think that past objects exist, so I don’t think that present objects bear any relation to them. At best, I think that our talk of inter-temporal relations is a useful fiction. That’s what I think now anyway.

    You’re hedging here. It seems plain that you’re hedging because your views on this matter are undecided (from your point of view) and indeterminate (from mine). There’s no point in pressing you to come down definitively on one side or the other, but you were mistaken when you thought, under point 1, that I had misunderstood you. I understood you perfectly. Also, I hope it’s clear that, so long as your views on this particular matter are unsettled, there’s little I can do to persuade you on consequential points. As a matter of form, I suggest that it would be better to state plainly that your view is undecided than to assume aspects of conflicting views depending on context. Or perhaps it was only by means of our discussion that you’ve come to realize that your view on this matter is unsettled? Or am I even presuming too much to think that you do realize that your view is unsettled?

    On ITOE and popularity: what I was getting at is not that ITOE doesn’t use a technical language; it does. Rather, my point was that ITOE (or, more broadly, Objectivism) does communicate effectively. I read it as a philosophical novice, and I understood it quite well. The fact that it didn’t use “meaning” in the same way as Joe Average was not an impediment to my understanding. I believe that ITOE teaches more people more real epistemology than any competitor, and a big part of why it succeeds in this is that it uses the language it uses, and not some other language, perhaps borrowed from academics.

    To give you a clearer picture of what I mean here, consider this: if I am right about Objectivist epistemology being true, and if my refutation of the sense/reference distinction holds, what does that say about ITOE as a piece of writing? I can tell you that my essential understanding of Objectivist epistemology has remained the same since my initial reading, requiring no substantive modifications whatsoever. I can also tell you that at the time of my initial reading, I was what we have been calling an “ordinary person.” (I.e. I had essentially zero knowledge of the language or methods used in contemporary, professional Anglo-American-style philosophy.)

    If I am right about Objectivist epistemology, and one “ordinary person’s” reading of ITOE was sufficient to communicate to me an understanding of meaning superior to any non-Objectivist’s, then, clearly, ITOE is a brilliant piece of writing, and a masterpiece of communication. I have no reason to believe that its masterful language has been any less successful in communicating, to a great number of its many readers, the same understanding that it so profitably communicated to me.

    On points four, five, six, and your addendum: I’ll leave you with the last word.

    On our discussion generally: I thank you, Luka, for raising the questions and objections you have. You’ve afforded me the opportunity to make some new integrations, and to achieve a more sophisticated understanding of some matters on the periphery of Ayn Rand’s theory of meaning. Also, I’ve gained a number of useful formulations which will make addressing future critics more efficient, if less stimulating.

    Certainly, I would like to have persuaded you, not in the least because I would love to hear an insider’s account of being persuaded by rational argument, a journey more epic than any conventional katabasis. When we are persuaded by rational argument, it’s usually on a matter that we had no committed view on in the first place, or one that is of little consequence to us. In the extremely rare cases where one is persuaded to change his made-up mind, the persuading and the changing are usually two discrete events, separated by a long period of solitary reflection. To persuade someone of something substantive, and to witness the transformation of understanding first-hand, why that would be something else again. I keep believing it is possible, simply because we are human.

  • Luka

    Thomas,

    Just writing to clarify two things. I explicitly admitted that I consider the status of past objects to be an unresolved problem in philosophy (as most philosophical problems are). I have a position on it but I think there are good and interesting points that can be made against my position. I was trying to see how you responded to the good and interesting points that I am aware of. There’s no need to take a strong stand on every philosophical issue that comes up. Indeed, it seems like one should not take a strong stand when one is not justified in doing so. But even if one is not justified in taking a strong stand, one can be justified in taking a weak stand and keeping the good points from all sides of the issue in mind (and on the table).

    Also, we did communicate. I think I have a pretty good sense of what your position is. But this is due partly to the fact that I used to be an Objectivist. My comment about what you wouldn’t consider to be a property came as much from my knowledge that Objectivists talk about properties in that non-standard way as from this discussion. (Yet another term (“property”) that Objectivism seemingly unecessarily uses in a non-standard way…)

    In response to your stuff about people changing their minds, I hope that some day you change yours as well. There’s a lot of truth out there that is inconsistent with Objectivism. This is merely one area where that is so.

  • Lewis

    I don’t think your defense for cordates and renates really hold up. There could be a causal or logical connection between two concepts that wouldn’t allow you to rescue the Objetctivist theory the way you did. For example:

    Concept A: All planar figures with three sides.
    Concept B: All planar figures with angle sum 180.

    Those two concepts are logically connected and have the same referents, namley all triangles, but you could know the meaning of either one of them with out knowing this very fact.

  • Thomas Fuller

    Lewis,

    I’ll be making a reply to the points you raise, but probably in a new post, possibly as part of a second edition of this one. (I’ve wanted to get to a revision for some time now, and your objection provides cause for substantial new material, I think, making a revision even more tempting than it had been.)

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