Jason Petersen's Abysmal Ignorance of Concepts
Now, I do not know the original source of this paragraph, but I have no reason to suspect that Petersen did not author it. That said, I do suspect that the ideas contained in it are not original to Petersen, but rather that he is simply recycling the same kind of ignorance-borne, fallacy-ridden objections we’ve seen here at Incinerating Presuppositionalism for many years now, for the locution and tactics Petersen uses are quite familiar. Regardless, while I am happy to suppose that Petersen is the author of the paragraph in question, I’d welcome any readers to post a link to the actual source if they are aware of one.
In this paragraph, Petersen is apparently attempting to refute the role of concepts as the basic units of knowledge. This is evident from the concluding sentence, which states: “Thus, concepts are not ultimately reflections of reality and do not lead to knowledge.” More specifically, Petersen’s aim here is to dismantle the Objectivist position by denying the role of concepts in human cognition altogether. Perhaps this is ambition is motivated at least in part by the fact that Christianity has no theory of concepts and thus offers no conceptual understanding of the nature of knowledge. So his statements here can be taken as an attack against Objectivism.
But notice a couple things while reading through this:
1. Petersen postures as though he were interacting with Objectivism, but he nowhere cites Objectivist sources to secure his characterization of the Objectivist position.
2. Petersen clearly wants to stress that there are problems involved in concepts, but he offers no solutions. His entire concern is not to instruct, but to destroy.This second point exposes the underlying roots of Petersen’s worldview in radical skepticism: the human mind is defunct, impotent, useless, which is why we allegedly need “revelations” from an invisible magic being in the first place. If it is conceded by apologists that the human mind is in fact able to form concepts from perception and thus have the ability to reason, infer, induce, deduce, etc., then there’s no need for “revelations” from the god apologists enshrine in their imaginations. So make no mistake, radical skepticism is essential to the presuppositionalists’ toolbox of gimmicks.
Now, let’s take a look at the entirety of what Petersen’s paragraph. Then we will get to my analysis below.
One must ask, can concepts be true or false? Are concepts not just categorizations? In the objectivist conception, categorizations are made by individuals. Is the concept of 'treeness' true or false? Is the concept of 'duckness' true or false? More to the point, can categorizations be true or false? Concepts are not true or false. If concepts are not true or false, then they are not propositional. If concepts are not propositional truth, then they cannot be said to be knowledge. For instance, if someone asked a person to picture a tree, that person may picture a magnolia tree. If a person down south is asked to picture a tree, they may imagine a pine tree. Which concept of 'treeness' is true and which is false? They are not the same tree. If two people picture pine trees, the pine trees would look different from one another in some way. Which concept of 'pine treeness' is true and which one is false? In fact, which pine tree within 'existence'(as the objectivist says) are they picturing? Is not anything that is within the sum total of existence imaginary according to the objectivist? Is one concept of treeness true or false if there are other trees that are not identical to the concept of the tree that is being pictured? Should we then have more than once concept of 'treeness?' If everything must be not only identical to itself, but also of specific quality/quantity, then would not every individual tree require a concept? By such implications, every tree must be a proper noun, for if one tree is not identical to another tree, then their quantity cannot be said to be the same. Thus, there can be no concept of 'treeness' in the objectivist worldview, rather, every tree must be treated as an individual, and thus, a concept must be made for every individual tree. Thus, a concept of 'treeness' would not be identical with reality because the concept will not contain the quantity that every other tree in 'existence' possesses. Thus, concepts are not ultimately reflections of reality and do not lead to knowledge.
First, let’s probe Petersen’s question whether or not concepts can be true or false.
The answer to this question is a firm Yes! - concepts can indeed be true or false. In fact, concepts that are not true need to be discarded. Rand is explicit about this. In chapter 5, "Definitions" of her book, Rand discusses the importance of true definitions to concepts - definition being the final step in the process of concept-formation. Definitions specify the essential characteristics belonging to those units which a given concept subsumes. If the definition is false, then the concept is false.
In the final chapter of her book, titled "Summary," Rand writes the following:
A definition is a statement that identifies the nature of a concept’s units. A correct definition must specify the distinguishing characteristic(s) of the units (the differentia), and indicate the category of existents from which they were differentiated (the genus)… Every concept stands for a number of implicit propositions. A definition is the condensation of a vast body of observations—and its validity depends on the truth or falsehood of these observations, as represented and summed up by the designation of a concept’s essential, defining characteristic (s). The truth or falsehood of all of man’s conclusions, inferences and knowledge rests on the truth or falsehood of his definitions. (ITOE, pp. 84-85)
Keep in mind something very important here which many thinkers commonly miss: there is a distinction between the entire content of a concept and its definition. In the same volume, Peikoff points out that “a concept subsumes and includes all the characteristics of its referents, known and not-yet-known” (“The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy,” Op cit., p. 99; cf. Rand, Ibid., p. 23). This means that the concept ‘man’, for instance, includes not just all men who have existed, who presently exist and who will exist, but all their characteristics, features, attributes, actions, etc. It includes those who have blond hair as well as those who have red, black or no hair; it includes those who are 6’2” as well as those who are 5’2” and 6’8”; it includes men who are doctors as well as men who are salesmen, plumbers, airline pilots, telephone operators, handymen, beggars, criminals, etc.; it includes those who are young as well as those who are old, etc. The concept ‘man’ includes all such individuals as well as all their characteristics and features.
By contrast, a definition only specifies the essential characteristics which distinguish the units a concept subsumes from existents not subsumed by it. Rand explains:
A definition is not a description; it implies, but does not mention all the characteristics of a concept’s units. If a definition were to list all the characteristics, it would defeat its own purpose: it would provide an indiscriminate, undifferentiated and, in effect, pre-conceptual conglomeration of characteristics which would not serve to distinguish the units from all other existents, nor the concept from all other concepts. A definition must identify the nature of the units, i.e., the essential characteristics without which the units would not be the kind of existents they are. But it is important to remember that a definition implies all the characteristics of the units, since it identifies their essential, not their exhaustive, characteristics; since it designates existents, not their isolated aspects; and since it is a condensation of, not a substitute for, a wider knowledge of the existents involved. (Ibid., p. 42)
Rand discusses examples of false definitions in the relevant chapter of her book to make her point. Consider the following examples which she gives on pages 48-49 of her book:
[C]onsider some modern examples of proposed definitions. A noted anthropologist, writing in a national magazine, suggests that man’s essential distinction from all other animals, the essential characteristic responsible for his unique development and achievements, is the possession of a thumb. (The same article asserts that the dinosaur also possessed a thumb, but “somehow failed to develop.”) What about man’s type of consciousness? Blank out.
An article in a reputable encyclopedia suggests that man might be defined as “a language-having animal.” Is “language-having” a primary characteristic, independent of any other characteristic or faculty? Does language consist of the ability to articulate sounds? If so, then parrots and myna-birds should be classified as men. If they should not, then what human faculty do they lack? Blank out.
There is no difference between such definitions and those chosen by individuals who define man as “a Christian (or Jewish or Mohammedan) animal” or “a white-skinned animal” or “an animal of exclusively Aryan descent,” etc.— no difference in epistemological principle or in practical consequences (or in psychological motive).
The second example which Rand considers fares no better, for as she points out, “language-having” is not a characteristic that securely distinguishes human beings from other animals. For example, whales are said by many to be “language-having” given their melodic vocalizations which are said to have a communicative purpose. If this is true, the definition “language-having animal,” for example, would include human beings and whales. And since concepts include all features and characteristics and attributes belonging to those units which they subsume, are we then to suppose that men also breathe through blowholes? Clearly it’s not the case, then, that “language-having” sufficiently distinguishes human beings from other existents.
These examples do not invalidate concepts as such or the concept ‘man’; rather, they show how in fact a false definition can render a concept false. To be true (i.e., to correspond accurately to the nature of the units it subsumes), the concept ‘man’ (or ‘human being’) needs a definition which properly specifies the essential characteristics which distinguish men from other existents. Rand addresses this briefly as follows:
What is the common characteristic of all of man’s varied activities? What is their root? What capacity enables man to perform them and thus distinguishes him from all other animals? When he grasps that man’s distinctive characteristic is his type of consciousness—a consciousness able to abstract, to form concepts, to apprehend reality by a process of reason—he reaches the one and only valid definition of man, within the context of his knowledge and of all of mankind’s knowledge to date: “A rational animal.”
(“Rational,” in this context, does not mean “acting invariably in accordance with reason”; it means “possessing the faculty of reason.” A full biological definition of man would include many sub-categories of “animal,” but the general category and the ultimate definition remain the same.) (Ibid., p. 44)
Now, notice some other instances of needless confusion in Petersen's statement. For one, he speaks of something called "treeness." Is this supposed to be the same thing as the concept 'tree', or is it distinct from the concept 'tree'? I know what the concept 'tree' means. What is "treeness"? If it means the same thing as the concept 'tree', then why not talk about the concept 'tree' rather than what he calls "treeness"? Similarly with "duckness." What does that mean, if not the same thing as the concept 'duck'? Typically the habit of adding "-ness" to otherwise legitimate concepts has been picked by Neo-Platonists and nominalists who have either no theory of concepts or very bad ones at best. I'm guessing Petersen, who does not strike me as at all well read on these matters, read some other apologist doing this and has simply repeated the behavior, sort of like "monkey see, monkey do."
Next, if Petersen is interested in whether concepts are true or false, why does he not consider the relationship between a concept and its definition? This never crosses his mind.
Then Petersen announces, without argument or even any hint of rationale (for prior to this he merely asked a bunch of nonsense questions), "Concepts are not true or false." Is he speaking for his own epistemology here? We must ask this since it’s clear from what we have seen above that he's certainly not speaking for Objectivism, for he does not even consider any of the points which Rand raises on these matters. Indeed, he doesn’t even seem to be aware of what Rand has articulated about concepts.
Then, after declaring that "concepts are not true or false," apparently by fiat (maybe this was revealed to him in a dream?), Petersen tries to draw an implication from this declaration: "If concepts are not true or false, then they are not propositional." But definitions are certainly either true or false, and they are propositional, and they specify the essentials belonging to those units which a concept subsume. This can be true or false. Moreover, the Objectivist view is that “every concept stands for a number of propositions” (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 48), and a profound aspect of their usefulness is the fact that concepts condense a huge context of knowledge – knowledge that can certainly be put into propositional form – into a single mental unit. If this does not qualify concepts as “propositional,” what would? Blank out.
He tries to illustrate his point with a thought experiment, but he makes a major blunder throughout this exercise. His thought experiment involves asking individual thinkers to "picture a tree" in their minds. Apparently Petersen believes that the mental image assembled in such an exercise is supposed to represent the concept 'tree' (or perhaps "treeness"?), but if so he's missing a fundamental aspect about concepts at this point. A concept is not a “mental picture,” but rather an open-end “integration of two or more units which are isolated according to a specific characteristic(s) and united by a specific definition” (Ibid., p. 10; italics mine). Petersen is clearly oblivious of this crucial distinction.
When we "picture" something in our imagination, we are assembling something that is specific rather than general (cf. “open-end”). Concepts are formed by a process of measurement-omission - i.e., the principle that “the relevant measurements must exist in some quantity, but may exist in any quantity” (Ibid., p. 12). A concept, then, does not specify the quantities in which the attributes and characteristics of an existent it subsumes must exist. But when we “picture” an object, we are mentally supplying specific characteristics and attributes to the object we are picturing: e.g., the tree is a specific species with a specific size, shape, height, age, degree of maturity, with a specific amount of foliage, etc., as opposed to a tree of the same species with different size, shape, height, etc., as opposed to a tree of any other species, as opposed to any other type of existent. Thus by supplying specific measurements to what we “picture” in our mind, we are no longer talking about the concept per se, but a would-be unit that concept subsumes.
This is confirmed by Petersen characterizing two individuals picturing different species of trees - one picturing a magnolia tree, the other picturing a pine tree. There would be even further refinements and specifics in whatever the individuals picture in their minds: the trees would be a certain size, age, color, height, etc. But since we're talking about something specific at this point, we are not longer talking about the concept 'tree' - but about specific trees, with specific measurements in place. This is important: just as when we perceive a tree, we perceive a tree with specific measurements - it's a specific species, it's 22-feet tall, it's lost most of its leaves, it's 24 years old, it's located on Evans Drive 17 feet from the intersection of Davis Street, it was planted by a local troupe of Boy Scouts, etc., etc. But this specific tree is certainly distinct from the concept 'tree'. But Petersen ignores this distinction and treats any tree one “pictures” in his mind as though it were equivalent to the concept ‘tree’ itself.
To make the point, instead of asking the thinkers to picture "a tree" - which they will rightly and necessarily interpret to mean "a specific tree," ask them to picture a tree, but no tree in particular - a tree of no specific species, a tree having no specific color, no specific height, no specific size, no specific shape, no specific degree of foliage, no specific age, etc., etc. No specifics allowed. Well, the mind cannot do this. Why? Because "picturing" or imagining requires that we supply specific attributes with measurements, even if we change them as we picture them. If I imagine a pizza, for example, I'm imagining one with pepperoni, onions and olives, which means: I'm not imagining one with bell peppers, Italian sausage and anchovies. But can I imagine a pizza with toppings, but no specific toppings? No, I cannot. Why? Because I'm trying to imagine a pizza - i.e., one unit belonging to a category which is open-ended in its scope of reference.
So in the very requirements of Petersen's thought experiment, he's already abandoned any discussion of the concept 'tree' and is now speaking about specific units (albeit imaginary ones). He does not notice this fundamental shift, but that's probably because he does not understand the relationship between concepts and their constituent units in the first place. He then tries to draw implications about concepts generally from this thought experiment, but his thought experiment has nothing to do with whether or not concepts themselves are true or false.
Again, Petersen is just speaking from his own ignorance here, and what's also crucial to notice - at least in what is presented here - is that he offers no Christian solution to what is essentially a problem of his own making. Since he simply announces that "concepts are not true or false," he's clearly not informed about the Objectivist theory of concepts, so any implications he hopes to draw will not apply to Objectivism (he doesn't even quote any Objectivist sources!). Also, since his thought experiment only indicates that he, Petersen, himself has little or no understanding of the relationship between a concept and the units it subsumes, and since his thought experiment necessarily involves picturing something that is specific, he has already departed from a discussion about concepts and is at that point only comparing and contrasting specific units (albeit merely imaginary ones), which Petersen himself categorizes as trees, which just underscores the fact that he needs to use concepts in order to argue against the validity of concepts as such - i.e., more self-refuting bloviation.
Try this: Instead of asking him to picture a (i.e., specific) tree, ask Petersen to picture the concept 'tree'. Trees can be perceived - they are perceptible concretes that we find in the world by looking outward. Given this fact, we can imagine a tree as well – i.e., mental pictures of something specific. But concepts are not perceptual, they are not perceptible concretes. Concepts are the mind's process of identifying and integrating things that we perceive and other concepts which we have formed into mental units which are open-ended and which “stand for a number of propositions”.
Or try this:
Jones: “Picture the concept ‘number’.”
Smith: “Okay, I’m thinking of the number 6.”
Jones: “No, you’ve misunderstood. The number six is a specific number. I’m asking you to picture the concept ‘number’.”
Smith: “Okay, about 6,283,412?”
Jones: “Again, that’s a specific number. Picture the concept ‘number’, not a specific unit which the concept ‘number’ subsumes.”
Smith: I don’t believe I can.
Jones: Right, you can’t. You understand the concept ‘number’, but you can only “picture” specific numbers; you cannot “picture” the concept ‘number’. The concept ‘number’ does not correspond to any specific concrete, so it cannot be pictured like we can picture pizzas and trees.
Smith: Hey, that’s interesting! I’m learning something very important. Thank you!
If Petersen truly wants to find ways to draw the conclusion that "concepts are not ultimately reflections of reality and do not lead to knowledge," then clearly he needs to a lot more homework. He would need, for example, to correct the many mistakes he's made in this one paragraph. Also, he would need to undertake the task of actually learning about concepts, what they are, how they are formed, how they relate to the units they subsume, how new units can be integrated once they've already been formed, how they are properly defined, etc., etc., etc. But how would he do this? Certainly he’s not going to learn about concepts by studying the bible. To learn about concepts, he would have to look outside the bible, indeed outside Christian literature as such, which in itself would be a performative acknowledgement that his worldview has no account of concepts.
Petersen demonstrates very clearly that he hasn't done any of this homework, and yet chooses to speak pompously on the matter, as though he had something of value to offer on the matter. But if he truly wants to draw such a conclusion as he attempts to do here, what is he left with? All he's left with is a final epitaph for his worldview's understanding of knowledge, for at this point he could only be speaking on behalf of his own worldview (he's certainly not interacting with Objectivism here), and his conclusion is that, per his own worldview, concepts have no relationship to reality. This just leaves Petersen in the dark.
Frankly, it explains much: his worldview leaves him completely empty-handed when it comes to epistemology. That he chooses to argue for a skeptical outcome does nothing to overcome this - rather, it simply seals his own worldview's coffin.
by Dawson Bethrick