[Note: this post has been superseded.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.”
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:
- ‘H2O’ means (or refers to) H2O.
- ‘Water’ means (or refers to) water.
- Water is H2O.
- 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.”