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On Objectivity -- The Method of Thought

By Thomas M. Miovas, Jr.



I just finished re-reading the chapter in “Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand” by Leonard Peikoff on “Objectivity” and this essay concerns that topic in a shortened form. Dr. Peikoff says that objectivity at root is a relationship between man’s mind and existence with regard to knowledge, neither coming only from reality (intrinsicism) nor coming only from man’s consciousness (subjectivism) – it is a relationship between the facts and consciousness necessitated by the fact that man has no automatic form of knowledge and therefore must volitionally adhere to existence in his thinking in order to be able to comprehend existence, and to live his life in existence. While Dr. Peikoff doesn’t mention it from the following perspective, I think the term “objectivity” comes from the word “object” – as in an entity or a thing one can directly observe (its attributes and its actions); it also comes from the term “objective” as in “taking specific actions to pursue a purpose.” So, at root, to remain objective one must be focused on the facts (entities, objects, things, their attributes, and their actions) in a purposeful manner to obtain knowledge of existence – to think in terms of identity and causality.

But because man has no automatic guide in the pursuit of knowledge, and must develop a volitional / free will based methodology, this method must be clearly identified for a man’s mental contents to be based upon reality. The most fundamental component of being objective is to use logic, the art of non-contradictory identification. Contradictions cannot exist in reality, but are only evident in a man’s improper thinking or lack thereof. While Aristotle clearly identified the method and workings of logic (non-contradictory identification of the facts of reality as given by observation), Ayn Rand added two other components to objectivity that were only implicit in Aristotle’s work: context and hierarchy.

Thinking in terms of logic implies context, because in order to not be involved in mental contradictions one must take all the facts into account with regard to one’s topic of consideration. For example, if one is thinking about or talking about an apple, it is important to keep in mind that they are edible and grow on trees; whereas if one is thinking or talking about money, it is not edible and does not grow on trees, but is rather a medium of exchange of values in voluntary trade. Thinking in terms of logic regarding all of the relevant facts is a means of remaining consistent with what one already knows, and therefore to avoid contradictions. So keeping the context is a recognition of the fact that reality is one and that everything is relatable to everything else; that to isolate a thought from all others is to belittle this fundamental fact and to create the potential to have contradictions, which would be contrary to the facts of reality – i.e. of thinking that apples are poisonous to man or that money does grow on trees; neither of which would be helpful to one’s living on earth.

Hierarchy is a type of context, and refers to the fact that not all knowledge is graspable on the perceptual level. We can see apples on trees or one’s parents giving money to receive groceries, but grasping “farming” or “working for a living” are not immediately graspable or understandable to a young child. In order to reach the stage where someone can understand farming or capitalism requires a long chain of non-contradictory and contextual knowledge building up on previously understood knowledge; this is the role of being hierarchical – of starting with the perceptually self-evident and building up one’s knowledge. For example, a boy can grasp that things can be cut up – like cutting up the apple for a snack – but he cannot grasp that the apple is made of cells, molecules, atoms, and sub-atomic particles until after he has learned to organize his concepts into wider and wider concepts * – concepts that are logically dependent on the perceptually self-evident, but not possible to directly point to as he can point to the apple. However, to remain objective, it is necessary to be able to trace the hierarchy of concepts and knowledge down to the perceptually self-evident; a process Dr. Peikoff refers to as "reduction."

By using logic, keeping the context, and developing his concepts into wider and wider abstractions in a hierarchical manner, a man can rationally understand any aspect of existence as a single sum of knowledge, a single whole that is his guide to living on earth and enjoying his own life.


*Concepts are not necessarily wider when compared to their logical base, they can be more intensive – i.e. “Washington apples” versus “Delicious apples” as being more intensive than the concept of "apple" -- but hierarchy is first understood as wider and wider, such as “animal” being dependent on integrating “bird,” “snake,” and “beetle.” So it may be more proper to say hierarchically dependent concepts are higher and higher, rather than wider and wider; though for more intensive concepts the hierarchically dependent concept does not cover more items in reality. It is difficult to say they are “higher” when they cover less and less aspects of existence. Dr. Peikoff compares the conceptual / objective hierarchy of knowledge to a skyscraper #, with “animal” being higher than “beetle,” which means that even more intensive concepts like “Washington apples” would be higher than the concept “apple” even though it covers less types of fruit. However, I find it helpful to consider intensive concepts as being more like a room on a floor of the skyscraper, rather than being upstairs.

# [04/07/2012: In the final analysis, any physical representation or analogy to the hierarchy of knowledge breaks down, because there is no counter-part to mental integration and the hierarchy of knowledge in the physical world. One cannot take a bushel of apples and somehow squish them all together to get one integrated apple that has all the attributes of "appleness." Similarly, if one were to continue the skyscraper analogy, all apples, all bananas, all grapes would be stored on the first floor (being first-level concepts); but all fruits would be stored on the second floor ("fruit" being a second-level concept). So, it cannot be done literally. And even if one moved to the computer database analogy, one can make a database of all the particulars of apples in one database, and all the particulars about bananas in another database, but the database is not an integration; and one cannot combine the apple database with the banana database and call it a fruit database, as that, too, would not be an integration. So, while it is helpful to consider "fruit" to be higher or wider than "apple," "banana," and "grape"; it's not really that way, it's just an analogy. It is better to identify it as a mental integration into one unit (a concept) retained by the mind that has all the knowledge of bananas, grapes, and pears into one mental unit named fruit; but it cannot be done in physical reality.

Added on edit: One has to be careful with these analogies not to become concrete-bound, and literally think of a mental integration as a mere grouping of items. The mind does something different, which Ayn Rand identified as measurement omission, which, as others have pointed out, leaves nothing, if done literally in physical reality. Measurement omission for concept formation means that a concept covers a range of measurements-- like apples can be 1/2 inches to 5 inches in diameter -- and is stored mentally as one recognition of reality.]



Note: Thinking in terms of principles is an application of being objective; and so long as one follows the general guidance of objectivity above, one’s principles will be in accordance with existence and will represent a sub-set of one’s knowledge applied to specific cases of the facts.