This is a sidebar to " Peikoff's Summa "

March 1, 1992 -- The process of reduction—of tracing a concept or conclusion back to its perceptual bases—is a crucial one for the Objectivist view of knowledge. But Peikoff's one extended example of the process is incoherent. The concept "friend," he says (133), is linked to reality through a series of intermediate concepts. A friend is a person in a relationship of mutual knowledge, esteem, and affection; the concepts of "esteem" and "affection," in turn, presuppose the concept of "value," which presupposes the concepts of "purpose" and "choice," which rest ultimately on first-level concepts for perceptual concretes. Thus we have the hierarchy:
leonard peikoff summa

Concepts lower in the hierarchy are supposed to be closer to the perceptual level, and are epistemologically prior: a child must grasp them before he can have a conceptual understanding of what a friend is. But this doesn't make sense. The concepts of purpose, choice, and value are more abstract than the concept of a friend. It would be an unusual child, and a rather lonely one, who learned the former concepts first. Peikoff is assuming here that if concept A is contained in the definition of concept B (as "value" is contained in the definition of "esteem"), then A is epistemologically prior to B. This is not generally the case. For example, man is defined as that rational animal. But "animal" is a higher level generic concept that is an abstraction from, and thus presupposes, the concept "man." And "rationality" is a highly abstract concept, presupposing knowledge of cognition that a child will not master until long after he has formed his basic concept of humans as distinct from dogs and cats. In conceptual reduction, as Ayn rand described it, we identify the facts of reality that gave rise to a concept. The existence of purpose, choice, and values are among the facts that give rise to the concept "friend." So Peikoff is right about the definitions of these concepts. But we do not acquire concepts, in the normal case, by learning their definitions. In reality, a child would become directly aware, through introspection, of the similarity in what he felt toward certain people, and would classify those people as friends. Only later would he identify the feelings themselves conceptually, and later still would identify purpose, choice, and values as essential to those feelings.

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 Originally Published in IOS Journal Volume 1 Number 3 • Summer 1992


David Kelley

About The Author:

Author: David Kelley
David Kelley is the founder and executive director of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.

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