(Previous in the series: Part 1)
Kelley’s Misunderstanding of Philosophic Principles vs. Scientific Principles
The amount of context needed to be certain of principles differ vastly between philosophy and science.
Philosophy, as Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff note, deals with the kind of issues men can face in any era. The inductive data needed to formulate philosophic principles–or understand and accept an older one–or to correct or rightfully reject a mistaken one–is accessible to any man, and only requires that he mentally engage in understanding the relevant facts. The principle of measurement-omission in concept-formation, to give an example, can be grasped by anyone willing to actually consider the nature of how we form concepts, assuming he has already grasped certain prior principles, such as our existence as volitional beings, and of a mind-independent reality (i.e. Primacy of Existence). (See: http://aynrandlexicon.org/lexicon/conceptformation.html for explanations of “measurement-omission”)
Science deals with issues that require more delimited contexts, such as more specialized knowledge (e.g. a high degree of mathematical knowledge), and special equipment (e.g. a telescope or a cloud chamber); consequently, not all men in any era can reach all scientific principles. Related to this is that the inductive data needed to verify a given element of scientific knowledge depends on many factors; factors which may involve grasping new relationships, correcting mistaken or misapplied past information, new technology which can properly test a proposed theory, and even the combination of different scientific fields (e.g. biochemistry). Because new technology and new knowledge may reveal insights which previous theories couldn’t anticipate, the theories in science are constantly tested against this progress in order to determine their validity; or need of reformulation and/or revision; or our need to overturn a previous theory in favor of a better theory.
David Kelley, I now realize, seeks to conflate this distinction between confirming philosophic principles and scientific principles. As he says in T&T, “[b]y the very nature of inductive knowledge, [philosophic principles] are subject to further confirmation, qualification, or revision”; philosophic principles, since they are not self-evident like axioms, are not “evidentially closed.” (p. 78 of the second edition)
But he is mistaken: a philosophic principle which is true, which corresponds to reality, is something that the person who grasps it can be certain about; no amount of new data or change of context could invalidate the principle. Among any of us who understand the role of measurement-omission in concept-formation, what possible different context or new observational data could invalidate Rand’s insight that this is how human beings abstract from particular entities on up to more complicated issues (e.g. theory-formation)? Will a new table or new scientific principle show that we in fact do not consider tables’ shapes in relation to other objects, their measurements, and mentally retain the shape but omit the particular measurements (e.g. length) when we unit the referents (e.g. actual tables) into a new concept? In addition, new data doesn’t “further confirm” logically valid principles: when I grasp the principle that measurement-omission is integral to the process of conceptualization, I’m certain of it; applying the principle to a new topic, such as forming the concept “nominalism,” makes me more certain about measurement-omission and its relationship to forming concepts, not that it is a principle. Although Kelley claims that we might find “certain concepts to which the theory of measurement-omission seemed inapplicable,” his lack of any examples causes me to consider this claim baseless (in addition, I consider his dropping “measurement-omission” from his list of “fundamentals” of Objectivism to be arbitrary as well). (p. 78 ) Well-grounded philosophic principles, once the relevant data is understood enough for one to grasp them, are “evidentially closed.”
Context, using Peikoff’s definition, is the “sum of cognitive elements conditioning an item of knowledge”; it is the ideas, observations, and particular things which allow one to cognitively process, validate, understand the meaning of, and properly apply some type of knowledge, whether a concept, principle, or even a quote. (Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 123; I will use OPAR for shorthand) The context of philosophic principles, and thus our means of grasping correct principles while avoiding and/or opposing erroneous principles, consist of the objects and living things we daily deal with (particularly other human beings), the environment around us, our own minds, and its mental processes. Kelley doesn’t completely deny this, saying that the philosophic “issues are ‘available’ only in the sense that the relevant facts can be grasped without specialized research.” (p. 77 ) What he denies is that the knowledge and correct intellectual procedures (e.g. asking the “right questions” and gaining the right perspective on some facts) needed to grasp these issues are revealed in a self-evident fashion upon observing the relevant facts, which is the view he attributes to Peikoff. (p. 78 )
(Comment: Anyone who understands the chapter on “objectivity” in OPAR knows that Peikoff certainly does not support that view, which is obviously mistaken (we wouldn’t need philosophy courses to grasp the self-evident). I also assume that Peikoff’s original lecture course “The Philosophy of Objectivism” from 1976 states similar points about integrating one’s new ideas, and since Peikoff is an Objectivist, I presume he agreed with the points he was making back then, Kelley’s accusation notwithstanding.)
Kelley gives the example of how it took centuries of intellectual development for the concept “individual rights” to be grasped, in order to contest Peikoff’s claim that men in any era can deal with philosophic issues. Speaking of the same example, he notes that the Greeks “could have observed” the facts which both required the formation of the concept “individual rights” and which would have validated it. (ibid; Bold in quote mine.) What I think is salient here is that the context needed to grasp the concept of “individual rights” was available to the Greeks, but the only way for them (or for anyone else) to grasp it was to engage in mental work, seek relationships among the relevant facts about human beings (and any other relevant facts), and integrate their new principle with their already established knowledge.
The context (including the inductive data) needed to form a given philosophic principle is available “to all men in all eras,” but this is not a sufficient condition for actually forming a principle: to form it, a man must already understand the logically prior principles and/or axioms, and he must try to relate a new principle to his already-established knowledge. The fact that a man doesn’t grasp a philosophic principle at one point in time, and later in history someone else does, does not mean that the former didn’t have the necessary context, as Kelley claims. It does mean that philosophic principles, to be grasped, require a commitment to seek new knowledge (among other things), which men can choose not to do (or fail to do properly).
(Comment: Again, I give my thanks to Diana, in this case for her entry “Ayn Rand on David Kelley” on Noodlefood: http://www.dianahsieh.com/blog/2005/07/ayn-rand-on-david-kelley.html)
Roderick Fitts is a former Vice-President of the University of Michigan Students of Objectivism.