Sunday, April 22, 2012

Objectivist epistemology

Researching the early history of Wikipedia, and in particular the effect of Ayn Rand's 'Objectivism' on the early development of Wikipedia, I came across this Usenet post from April 1994 by Jimmy Wales, one of the founders of Wikipedia.
Essentially, in Peikoff's presentation, the process goes like this: I perceive (directly, via observation) that "this man is not both white and nonwhite" (at the same time and in the same respect, of course). I see that this pail of water is not both wet and non-wet. At a later point in time, I abstract from the particulars that I've observed and note that "No being is both A and non-A." This holds no matter what being and what attribute is being considered. 
Peikoff is a leading exponent of 'Objectivism'.  Thoughts?  My initial question is how one can perceive, and 'directly, via observation' that this man is not both white and not white.  How exactly do we perceive this?

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16 Comments:

Blogger Anthony said...

A sample of Rand and Peikoff's writing about perception is available at http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/perception.html

That said, it's not clear to me how one can perceive that this man is not both with and not-white.

I suspect some important details were lost in the telephone game from what Peikoff said to what Wales wrote about what Peikoff said to what you wrote about what Wales wrote about what Peikoff said. You don't happen to have a transcript of Peikoff's actual presentation, do you?

2:33 pm  
Blogger Michael M said...

If I may assume a person in possession of his normal faculties (e.g. not blind), what's to doubt?

This is a simple case of visual perception capable of distinguishing the light v. dark values of colors. In addition to that are a host of physical characteristics that with few exceptions could augment his certainty.

Ultimately, however, reaching the same conclusion does not even depend on having identical means of sensory perception. It only depends on how we distinguish those perceptions from all others by our capacity to abstract from them and reintegrate them into concepts.

3:11 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

I read the usenet post, and found the source that Wales was attempting to summarize:

The New Scholasticism
Volume 59, Issue 2, Spring 1985
Leonard Peikoff
Pages 185-199
Aristotle’s “Intuitive Induction”

Unfortunately, it costs $20 to view the whole thing, and I don't think it's worth $20 just to show that Wales was misquoting Peikoff :).

I do think it's likely that Wales was misquoting Peikoff. While the laws of logic *are* abstractions from that which we perceive, it's not as direct as Wales was making it out to be (and I think Peikoff would have been more careful in explaining it).

In particular, I believe the concept "nonwhite" is too complicated to be directly perceived. The concept of not-A would come after the recognition of "A is A", and "A is not not-A" relies on the concept of not-A.

3:22 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>I believe the concept "nonwhite" is too complicated to be directly perceived.
<<

I'm not sure we can perceive concepts. If they are mental items, how do we perceive a mental item?

I think we can, and animals can, perceive that something is not white. Suppose some animal like a panda dislikes white leaves. Then it will actively look for leaves that are not white.

Polar bears are also on the lookout for non-white things, in case they can eat them.

3:29 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

>> I'm not sure we can perceive concepts.

Touche.

>> Suppose some animal like a panda dislikes white leaves. Then it will actively look for leaves that are not white.

Will it actively look for leaves that are not-white, or will it actively look for leaves, and merely avoid eating those leaves it finds which are white?

3:38 pm  
Blogger Michael M said...

The meaning of "perceive" is contextual. Wales could not have meant it, in this context, as the equivalent of raw perception in the sense of an agglomeration of sensations independent of any concept.

Additionally, colors are what Rand calls "conceptualized sensations" that have "ostensive definitions (the experience of which is definable only by pointing)." Post-earliest infancy, it is impossible to experience these independent from one's conceptual history that becomes part of one's "direct perception."

Furthermore, your own context for "non-white" is ambiguous. Are you reading that as an identification of color differences? Or some anthropological attributes?

4:00 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>Will it actively look for leaves that are not-white, or will it actively look for leaves, and merely avoid eating those leaves it finds which are white?
<<

I'll pass on that one, Anthony.

4:02 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

Welcome Michael.

4:02 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

>> I'll pass on that one, Anthony.

It was pretty much a rhetorical question. I'm questioning your premise that one can "perceive that something is not white".

Anyway, if your question is about the Objectivist account of how one comes to know, inductively and not intuitively, that no being is both A and non-A, then you should read Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. I don't think anything any of us write here is going to introduce you to Rand's epistemology as well as that.

But I don't think that's your question.

Michael could be right that Wales was using "perceive" in a different context from "an agglomeration of sensations independent of any concept". I think he was just being sloppy, though. And with the quote being from a usenet post made nearly two decades ago, I don't think his sloppiness reflects very much on Wales' thinking, let alone its effect on the early development of Wikipedia.

Of course, maybe it does. Bob Stubblefield, who ran an electronic forum named the Objectivist Study Group, found Wales understanding of Objectivism so intolerable that he required participants to his ODG group to enter into a contractual agreement promising not to participate in Wales' MDOP mailing list.

5:56 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>Of course, maybe it does. Bob Stubblefield, who ran an electronic forum named the Objectivist Study Group, found Wales understanding of Objectivism so intolerable that he required participants to his ODG group to enter into a contractual agreement promising not to participate in Wales' MDOP mailing list.
<<

(Makes note). Is that Googleable?

5:58 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

http://www.dianahsieh.com/ff/1994.02.17.html

The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand: Truth and Toleration in Objectivism
By David Kelley, page 120 (available at Google Books)

5:59 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

However (from Larry) "I wanted to say quickly here--I have long since lost patience to talk much about Rand's philosophy, since it is so sloppy and self-indulgent--that, in my experience, Wales was extremely well versed in Rand arcana. It's not correct to suppose that he was just a dabbler. He seriously studied the stuff back in the 90s. When I wrote a long "Objections to Objectivism" essay in about 1995 (putting flabby-minded Objectivist doctrines under an analytical philosophy microscope), Wales wrote one of the longest, meatiest replies. If you looked hard enough for them, you might be able to find both my original post and his reply. Possibly on the h.p.o. newsgroup."

6:00 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

Wales *was* "extremely well versed in Rand arcana".

However, there were parts of Rand's philosophy that Wales seems to have either misunderstood, or actively rejected. Personally I'd describe Wales more as a Libertarian than as an Objectivist, even though he claims to be both.

There were definitely parts on which he expressed his uncertainty. Rand's position on copyright law was one of them. (I'm thinking of a post he made to MDOP, which I don't have a copy of handy, and which I don't believe is googleable.)

For more background reading (probably more than you'll want, though), google something to the effect of "kelley vs. peikoff". Wales, at least circa 1994, fell on the Kelley side of that dispute.

6:16 pm  
Blogger David Brightly said...

Tim Crane has an online paper on the 'waterfall illusion' (in which one sees something simultaneously moving and not moving). He says

It seems to me, then, that this illusion presents a problem for those views (such as Peacocke's (1983) or Craig's (1976)) which treat the content of perception as conceptual.

The waterfall illusion suggests that one can perceive something as A and not-A but that one rejects this perception through giving greater weight to the principle of non-contradiction.

6:56 pm  
Blogger Michael M said...

Let me offer some miscellaneous notes of qualification ...

Diana Hsieh was, in the 90's on Kelley's side and in recent years has entirely rejected him and the Atlas Society, now in full agreement with Peikoff. She is, I believe very friendly with Wales now, so I wonder about Wales and Kelley.

As one whose understanding of Objectivism has matured at a slow and steady pace for over 40 years, be careful about quoting the understanding of Objectivism anyone had a decade or two ago. My own has accelerated in this decade thanks to the many opportunities to challenge my views with people more intelligent than my neighbors and colleagues—viva la web!

And even though this thread is about Wales, keep in mind that the ideas are by Rand and only a comparison of his with hers counts in judging his Objectivist credentials. And why does that matter anyway, because the only Objectivist standard measures the relevance of one's notions to the facts of reality, and not Rand's ideas. She regularly advised that no one should ever embrace her ideas into their personal philosophy without validating them on their own.

As for Kelley v. Peikoff, don't waste your time. Rand's philosophy is no more open than Aristotle's or Acquinas'. The content of a dead philosopher's oeuvre is not "open." Again. It's not about Rand or them, it's about validity.

Whether Wales is an Objectivist or a Libertarian is of course not an epistemological question, but a political one. And there is a clear distinction when in the context of the contemporary movement by that name. They differ from Objectivists in not generating their politics from a fact-based ethics, but rather from a pragmatic viewpoint generated from past successes of free-market economics for the most part. That's why Rand roundly condemned them. That does not change the fact that in the early context of "libertarian" in the sense of allegiance to the idea of guaranteeing individual rights, all Objectivists are libertarian. (and most distinguish the two contexts by a capital L or small l).

Finally, in Jimmy Wales' era of the undeniable benefits of open-source technologies, it is incredibly easy for an Objectivist who does not take the sizable amount of time to delve into all corners Rand touched to doubt the validity of copyrights; but Rand is on solid ground in explaining that one's right to the product of one's own mind and body is exclusive and absolute by dint of one's fundamental human nature.

7:05 pm  
Blogger Michael M said...

David,

"It seems to me, then, that this illusion presents a problem for those views (such as Peacocke's (1983) or Craig's (1976)) which treat the content of perception as conceptual."

Implicit in the concept of perception is the necessity to distinguish from illusion. One may presume the distinction precedes the perception in question.

Also, it is not Peikoff's position that perception is conceptual per se, but rather that it is simultaneous with the concepts historically derived from the perception(s). Even in the case of conceptualized sensations, the single event requires awareness of two contexts—their status as percept constituents on one hand and as concept equivalents on the other.

7:27 pm  

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