This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 1999 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " The Continental Origins of Postmodernism ."

Notes on Writing for the CyberSeminar, by William Thomas

The CyberSeminar in Objectivist Studies has the basic purpose of developing an Objectivist method of philosophical analysis. This means that CyberSeminar participants are expected not only to be qualified scholars and students, but to bring a systematic understanding of Objectivism to their writing. Objectivism recognizes that any claim in philosophy has systematic presuppositions and implications, and Objectivist analysis therefore should pay attention to systematic issues as a central concern.

The Objectivist method entails certain concrete procedures, which I mention here simply as a reminder:

  • Know the purpose of your writing. What point are you trying to make? What are you trying to achieve? Is there a question you are trying to answer? Is there an insight you want particularly to advance?
  • Know your audience: who are you trying to address? Although we encourage CyberSeminar participants to develop their essays for wider circulation and publication, participants should regard the CyberSeminar as the primary audience for their posts.
  • Address essentials. Look for fundamental causes, implications, and connections.
  • Define terms. Make sure that both you and your readers know what you mean. This is vital in dealing with highly abstract concepts. Definitions should generally be of the species/genus form, and should be based on a recognition of the Objectivist theory of concepts. In other words, one should differentiate units in terms of essential characteristics along clear dimensions.

Write for the length you have in mind. Formal posts should develop a theme that can be judiciously addressed in the space available. Because we will be writing reviews of readings, and comments on those reviews, we will be tempted to write in “laundry-list” fashion. Focusing on a theme or issue is one way to keep our attention on essentials. Finding a theme that allows you to address what is interesting about a reading challenges you to identify the fundamentals.

Informal posts to the CyberSeminar should be direct and focus on the essentials of a certain point. They should be no longer than 500 words. If you have several points to make about an essay or reading, make them in separate posts. This has the added virtue of separating the threads of your argument. One problem in written exchanges of ideas is that each party may raise many points at once, making it difficult for the discussion to stay focused. With a limit to the length of informal posts, we may be able to avoid this problem to some degree.

Developing an Objectivist method of philosophical analysis is a challenge to each of us, because it means attending to standards that are not always prized in the academy, and which may not have been emphasized in our earlier education. So I encourage each participant to view this seminar not only as a place to approach a controversial literature on the basis of shared principles, but as a place to develop and learn to apply the principles by which one approaches it.

Method and Concept Formation, by David Kelley

I have chosen to concentrate here on one topic that I hope will prove useful for our discussion. That topic is the need, in philosophical thinking, to understand and use technical terms from the Objectivist theory of concepts. The reason for its usefulness derives from the nature of philosophy as a subject.

As anywhere else in life, charity in interpreting an author is a secondary virtue, secondary to justice.

 Philosophy as such does not involve any special method distinct from the methods of thinking generally. But philosophy does place a heavy emphasis on qualitative thought as opposed to quantitative reasoning. Philosophy is distinct from the sciences in not relying on quantitative measurements or experiments, just as mathematics is distinct from the sciences in abstracting from the qualitative natures of the things that bear quantitative relationships to each other. Philosophy in a sense is the mirror image of mathematics: it abstracts from all quantitative aspects of the phenomena it studies, in order to establish the broadest possible qualitative connections, whereas mathematics abstracts from all qualitative aspects of nature in order to establish truths about quantity.

In philosophy, we are mostly concerned with types or categories of things, and with their general features, actions, and relationships--e.g., with man as such, or justice, or truth. This means that in philosophy there is a very high premium on the valid use of concepts, on their precise derivation and definition, because we do not have empirical measures or experiments to test the conceptual links we are concerned with. This need is all the more pressing because philosophical concepts are so abstract. Thus it is important to have an explicit understanding of how concepts work and how they are validated. In this respect, even specialists in other branches of philosophy such as ethics must also have some familiarity with epistemology.

Here are the key technical terms that, in my judgment, Objectivist philosophers should be familiar with and capable of applying accurately to their own conceptual thought: unit, contrast object, CCD, measurement-omission, and the some-but-any principle.
I assume that participants on this list are basically familiar with these terms from Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. So I am going to review the material quickly with an emphasis on how these terms can be used in philosophy.
Unit. A unit is something regarded as a member of a class of similar objects, a class that one isolates from some contrast objects that are seen as dissimilar. Units are the things that the concept integrates by omitting the measurements in respect of which they differ, allowing us to regard them conceptually as identical. Thus the units are the referents of the concept, the things it designates in reality. This means that the most important thing we can know about a concept is what its units are: what does it stand for in reality?
When Objectivists talk about the reduction of a concept, what they mean, at least in part, is identifying clearly what its units are. This is not always an easy task with highly abstract concepts, and often lies at the heart of philosophical disputes. For example, there has been a lot of discussion lately about whether the concept “virtue” refers to actions, traits, cognitive states, principles, etc. In effect, the dispute is over what kinds of things the units of “virtue” are. This is why Rand’s question--what are the facts of reality that give rise to this concept?--is so important. To resolve issues like that regarding virtue, we need to ask: what is it, exactly, that we observe in reality and need to conceptualize?
Contrast Objects. The relation between a concept and its units does not exist in isolation; it is essentially dependent on the relationship between the units and the contrast objects from which they are being distinguished. At the level of our first abstractions from perceptual awareness, we do not have to conceptualize these contrast objects: the awareness of similarity and difference is perceptual. But in philosophy we are dealing with concepts formed by many steps of abstraction from abstractions, and so we are able to conceptualize the contrast objects.
Understanding a given concept, therefore, requires that we put it in the context of the related concepts for those things in reality that contrast with its units. One of the key tools in philosophical analysis is to ask of a given concept: “X as opposed to what?” For example, we gain a clearer understanding of why we need separate concepts of “knowledge” and “truth” when we see that the first is contrasted with ignorance whereas the second is contrasted with falsity.
CCD. Uniting the units and the contrast objects is the Conceptual Common Denominator: the variable dimension on which the units of a concept are similar to each other and different from the contrast objects. Identifying the CCD(s)--and there are normally more than one--allows us to understand explicitly the nature of the contrast we are drawing between the units of a concept and other things. In forming a definition, the CCD is involved in identifying the genus and the relevant differentiae. For example, how do we define “government”? Well, what are we contrasting governments with? Other social institutions. What are the dimensions of institutions? They have purposes; they employ various means in pursuit of those purposes; they have internal structures of offices and roles, and rules for filling offices and making decisions; they have effects of various kinds on people outside the institution. These are the CCDs that enable us to form a definition to the effect that government is an institution which pursues [some end] by means of [certain actions].
Measurement-Omission. Measurement-omission is the process by which we isolate the common dimension uniting the units of a concept from their specific measurements on that dimension. But to isolate is not to treat as nonexistent. Units are existents that we regard first as similar, and then--once we have formed a concept--as identical. But they are still existents; our cognitive method of regarding them in a certain way does not change the fact that, as existents, they are concrete and determinate, with specific values on each of the variable dimensions we use to compare them. The relation between a concept and its units is the same as that between a variable like length and a particular length like three inches.
Some-but-any Principle. The some-but-any principle (the units must have some specific quantitative relations to each other, but may have any relation) expresses this aspect of measurement-omission. It is the principle that best expresses how the broader primacy of existence applies to concepts. Our concepts involve a great deal of cognitive processing, but the content of a concept is still existents. If you take away the units and try to consider a concept simply as an idea in the head, you have no content left, you have sheer cognitive absence. Philosophers are prone to ignoring this principle and treating concepts as internal ideas detached from their units. This is the view implicit in the distinction between meaning and reference, connotation and denotation, etc.
In this CyberSeminar, I propose that we pay careful attention to conceptual methodology. Participants should feel free to interrupt the substantive discussion with questions about how we are employing concepts.
Another suggestion--actually, an implication of the foregoing--is that we should watch carefully to see how the philosophers we are reading employ concepts. We naturally have the impulse to seek a clear interpretation of what an author is saying. But if he does not ground his concepts in observation, never specifies their units or contrast objects, or commits other methodological sins, his statements may not have a definite meaning or truth conditions. As anywhere else in life, charity in interpreting an author is a secondary virtue, secondary to justice.


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