The Epistemology of Concepts
Date: Saturday, September 28, 2013
Time: 10 am – 6 pm
Location: Glen Ridge Community Center, 228 Ridgewood Ave., Glen Ridge, NJ 07028
The IOS Fall Seminar in Philosophy is an all-day intensive seminar in philosophy intended for advanced undergraduate philosophy majors and graduate students in philosophy (and independent scholars). The Fall 2013 Seminar will be led by Irfan Khawaja (Philosophy, Felician College) with the assistance of Carrie-Ann Biondi (Philosophy, Marymount Manhattan College), and focus on the epistemology of concepts, as understood both within the Objectivist and analytic philosophical traditions. Our basic aim in this seminar is to compare and contrast the Objectivist theory of concepts with current approaches to concepts in analytic philosophy, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches and arriving at a provisional verdict as to their relative merits.
Participation in the seminar is by application or invitation, and is limited to
ten twenty participants. There are no fees or other paid expenses, but participants are expected to arrive at the seminar at their own expense and initiative, to buy all relevant texts at their own expense (most are free and online), to do all readings and exercises in their entirety, and to stay for the duration of the seminar (i.e., 10 am – 6 pm).
Seminar Schedule, Readings, and Assignments
9:30-10 am: Opening reception, continental breakfast.
10-10:30 am: Introductions to one another, to IOS, and to the Seminar.
Session 1, 10:30 am -12 noon: An overview of the Objectivist theory of concepts
- Participants are presumed to have read Ayn Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.
- Reading 1: Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (Dutton, 1991), ch. 3
- Reading 2: David Kelley, “A Theory of Abstraction,” Cognition and Brain Theory vol. 7, nos. 3-4 (1984), pp. 329-57.
- Reading 3: Allan Gotthelf, “Ayn Rand on Concepts: Another Approach to Abstraction, Essences, and Kinds,” conference presentation at, “Nature and Its Classification,” Birmingham, UK, October 2007; also forthcoming in Allan Gotthelf and James G. Lennox, Concepts and their Role in Knowledge: Reflections on Objectivist Epistemology (Pittsburgh, 2013).
- Discussion questions: Is the Objectivist account of concepts sufficiently clear, coherent, original, and/or distinctive to qualify as a theory of concepts? Or is it just a programmatic sketch of a theory yet-to-be-developed? Which of our three authors does the best job of articulating and/or defending Rand’s claims, and why? What questions do our authors leave unanswered or unaddressed? Why has Objectivist scholarship over the last four decades been so fixated on the most basic features of the theory (the formation of first-level concepts by measurement-omission), while saying relatively little about its derivative features (e.g., abstraction from abstractions, concepts of consciousness, definitions, unit-economy, axioms, epistemology’s relation to philosophy of mind)? What are the challenges ahead for the future development of the theory, and how should they be met? What are the hard questions for the Objectivist theory, and how should they be answered?
LUNCH, 12-1 pm (provided)
Session 2, 1-2:30 pm: Concepts and conceptual analysis: Objectivism and/vs. analytic philosophy
- Reading 1: Eric Margolis and Stephen Laurence, “Concepts,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Reading 2: Jesse Prinz, Furnishing the Mind: Concepts and their Perceptual Basis (Cambridge, 2002), chapters 1 and 6.
- Optional reading: Raffaella DeRosa, “Prinz’s Problematic Proxytypes,” Philosophical Quarterly vol. 55, no. 21 (Oct. 2005), pp. 594-606.
- Discussion questions: What are the basic presuppositions of analytic theorizing about concepts? How well-supported are these presuppositions, and how do they differ from the basic presuppositions of the Objectivist theory? To what degree does Prinz’s empiricism overlap with the Objectivist theory? To what degree does it diverge? What are good research strategies for engagement with Prinz-like empiricism?
BREAK, 2:30-2:45 pm
Session 3, 2:45-4:15 pm: Objectivism and the problem of universals
- Reading 1: Ayn Rand, “Introduction,” Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.
- Reading 2: D. M. Armstrong, Universals: An Opinionated Introduction (Westview, 1989) [You should read the whole book, but focus in particular on chapters 1 and 3.]
- Discussion questions: Is there a single best way to state “the” problem of universals? If so, what is it, and how does the Objectivist theory solve it, so stated (if it does)? Does the Objectivist theory correspond to any of the solutions described in Armstrong’s book? Is it ultimately reducible to a form of realism or nominalism? It’s commonly claimed that Rand covertly imports a kind of realism into her theory, either by treating “similarity” as a kind of realist universal, or via her “Conceptual Common Denominator,” or via her theory of essences, or in some other way. Are these legitimate complaints? If not, how are they best answered?
BREAK, 4:15-4:30 pm
Session 4, 4:30-6 pm: Concepts, definitions, and anti-concepts: Objectivist epistemology in practice
- Reading 1: Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, ch. 5.
- Reading 2 (optional but highly recommended): David Kelley, The Art of Reasoning, ch. 3 (or any textbook discussion of the Aristotelian rules of definition, though Kelley’s is one of the best, alongside H. W. B. Joseph’s Introduction to Logic [Oxford, 1906], ch. 5)
- Reading 3: Entries for “invalid concepts,” “stolen concepts,” “package dealing,” and “anti-concepts,” along with entries for specific anti-concepts (e.g., consumerism, duty, ethnicity, extremism, McCarthyism, meritocracy), all in the Ayn Rand Lexicon.
- Exercise: Students should come to this session prepared to identify and discuss one significant anti-concept that they’ve encountered (one not discussed anywhere in the canonical Objectivist literature), and explain why it is an anti-concept. Students should also be prepared to provide a brief Objectivist analysis–no more than five minutes long–of one significant concept from their college/university/graduate studies. A “brief Objectivist analysis of a concept” includes a description of its “units,” the measurements omitted to form the concept, its definition, and a programmatic description of how it is to be “reduced” to–or formed from–the perceptual level.
- Discussion questions: What is the cash value–the practical import–of Objectivist epistemology? How does it guide thought and discourse in a practical way? How should we deal with the violations of Objectivist epistemic norms we encounter, whether in academic or non-academic discourse? Does contemporary Objectivist discourse adhere to Objectivist epistemic norms or violate them? Where is the most assiduous adherence to Objectivist epistemic norms to be found in contemporary thought and discourse? Why there?
DINNER, 6 pm (we’ll either order in or go out to a nearby restaurant, but dinner is optional, and not officially part of the Seminar)
See also the list of student and participant questions on the Updates and Information Page (scroll to bottom).
(The due date for applications was July 15, 2013).
Last modified: August 22, 2013 (IK)