Harry Binswanger’s How We Know – Epistemology On An Objectivist Foundation (TOF Publications) is aimed at exposing the root causes of bad epistemology, and bringing clarity to the crucial questions: What is knowledge? How is it acquired? How is it validated? To a large extent, the material that Binswanger has presented was originated by Ayn Rand. In the preface he declares: “The present work makes extensive use of Rand’s Objectivist epistemology, as I understand it after fifty years of professional study and teaching. To a modest degree, I elaborate on and build upon Rand’s system…”
The first chapter, “Foundations,” is focused on introducing the reader to the basic ideas in epistemology—the first axioms, the axiomatic concepts, the core properties of consciousness, and the validity of introspection. On axioms, Binswanger writes: “Axioms cannot be proved. This is not a weakness or subjectivity lurking in them. Axioms are better than proved: they are self-evident. “Existence exists” does not need to be proved; it is directly perceived.”
In the chapter, “Perception,” Binswanger begins by establishing that perception is axiomatic. “The fact that the senses provide awareness of reality is axiomatic. The issue of the “validity” of the senses does not even arise: sensory awareness is awareness — which means that it has the status of a corollary of the axiom of consciousness.” However, perception is not the same thing as sensation; Binswanger lists a number of features that distinguish perception from sensation. He gives the preliminary definition of perception as the “ongoing awareness of entities in their relative positions, gained from actively acquired sensory inputs.”
The analysis of Direct Realism, which Binswanger informs is based on the achievements of the researcher and theorist, J. J. Gibson, is particularly interesting—it provides a clear understanding of perception and enables the reader to explicitly and thoroughly reject the error of sensationalism. The important point that is made here is that consciousness is a difference detector, and that the animals that are capable of perception, as opposed to just sensation, can detect the higher-order differences.
The next chapter, “Concept-Formation,” begins with a discussion of reason. “The biological function of reason has not been widely understood or appreciated. The long Platonic tradition, still gripping the intellectual world, holds that reason is concerned with “higher,” “spiritual” matters, not the allegedly “materialistic” issues of life on this earth.” Binswanger explains that due to the Platonist theory of mind-body dichotomy, mankind has been caught in an internal war between his “higher” and “lower” nature. He posits that by taking over and intensifying this Platonic dichotomy Christianity has outright damned all things earthly.
Binswanger describes concepts as the tools of thought: “If the tools are useless, malformed, or otherwise defective, the thought cannot achieve its goal: knowledge of reality. The validity of one’s thinking depends upon the validity of the concepts one uses.” There is detailed analysis of the three theories of concept formation—the Realist Theory, the Nominalist Pseudo-Theory, and the Objectivist Theory. The analysis exposes the fallacies inherent in the Realist Theory and the Nominalist Pseudo-Theory due to which these theories fail to explain concept formation and collapse into subjectivism. Then there is the description of the fundamentals of the Objectivist theory of concept formation under which the concepts get formed by omitting measurements.
In the next chapter, “Higher-Level Concepts,” Binswanger explains what higher-level concepts are with these words: “In order to gain the full power of the conceptual level, the child must be able to add explicit, conceptual content to his conceptual files. To get beyond “Here tree” and “There dog,” he needs to be able to think such a thought as “Trees grow tall.” But “grow” is an action, not an entity, and “tall” is an attribute. Similarly, he needs to be able to think “Dogs are animals,” but “animal” is a higher-level concept, not one formed from direct perception, as “dog” is.”
Ayn Rand said that the higher-level concepts get formed by a process that can be best described as abstractions from abstractions. According to Binswanger, this consists of “turning the concept-forming process back on its own products: the input to the process is not concretes but earlier-formed concepts.” So in order to form a concept like animal, the child will use the concepts that he has formed earlier such as dog, elephant, cat, etc. The process of abstractions from abstractions is also used by the child to form several other concepts that may be concerned with the activities or the features of entities, which he is conceptualizing— in case of the concept “animal,” he may be able to form concepts like tail, wagging, bark, etc.
The final section in this chapter is on axiomatic concepts, which come prior to axiomatic propositions. “The primary axiomatic concepts are: “existence,” “identity,” and “consciousness.” (There are a few other axiomatic concepts, the most noteworthy being “entity” and “action” or “change.”)”
Why does man need concepts? What is the value of concepts? The value of concepts is described in the chapter, “Propositions.” Concepts are the tools for identification, they are used for the purpose of stating in words what something is. “The form in which we make conceptual identifications is the proposition. A proposition is the combination of two or more concepts into a single thought, as in “The table is brown,” “Tops spin,” or “Plants need water.””
This chapter has an interesting section on why grammar is essential to propositions. “The different parts of speech are designed to indicate differences in metaphysical status: entity vs. attribute vs. action, etc. Nouns and pronouns stand for entities; the other parts of speech pertain to characteristics of entities.” There is a brief discussion on the analytic-synthetic dichotomy which, according to Rand, was an unwarranted dichotomy. Binswanger says that this attempt to separate logic from observation has led to many errors and fallacies.
The analytic-synthetic dichotomy is the outcome of ignoring the differences between the concepts and propositions, “as in the common belief that a concept is only a shorthand tag for its definition, which is a proposition.” Binswanger emphasizes that there exist crucial differences between concepts and propositions and that we cannot understand either unless we recognize these differences.
“To form a concept is to create a new file folder; to form a proposition is to use existing file folders. Concepts are information-handling tools, not (primarily) identifications. Propositions are the identifications. Concepts condense and store information discovered. Propositions make use of concepts to formulate explicit identifications. A concept is a cognitive device, a means not an end. Propositions are the end in relation to which concepts are the means. Concepts are the elements of thought; propositions are the thoughts.” Therefore, the propositions lack the kind of unity that is there in concepts. “A proposition is an organized combination of concepts (or proper names) not an integration of them.”
The following chapter, “Logic: Theory,” begins with these lines: “The ability to form propositions gives rise to a crucially important phenomenon: the ability to think about one’s own thinking and thus to judge one’s own judgments. Concepts of consciousness enable one to identify what one’s mind is doing—whether one is perceiving, thinking, emoting, imagining, etc. Axiomatic concepts enable one to distinguish between what is only in one’s mind and what is a fact of the external world, to distinguish between what merely seems to be and what really is, between one’s wishes or fears and the facts of an independently existing reality.”
Binswanger explains that while perceptual cognition is automatic, conceptual cognition is volitional. It is possible for man to use his mind to control the operations of the mind. You can use the ideas that you have already formed to see the process by which your mind develops further ideas, and you can use your knowledge of axiomatic concepts to judge the relation of your mind’s actions to reality and to direct your mind on that basis. Logic is the method, with standards, to guide man in identifying reality at the conceptual level. The definition of logic given in the book is particularly evocative—“Logic is the method of acquiring knowledge and of ensuring that it is knowledge.”
After presenting an overview of the Law of Non-Contradiction, which Aristotle has first identified as the basic principle of all knowledge, Binswanger provides the formulations the three laws of logic: The Law of Identity, The Law of Non-Contradiction, The Law of Excluded Middle. He posits that the Laws of Non-Contradiction and Excluded Middle are reformulations of the Law of Identity. From concept formation to propositional judgement to inference, logic applies to every level of conceptual reasoning. Syllogism, Aristotle’s great discovery, is at the core of deductive reasoning.
While the work that Aristotle has done in the area of logic is fundamental and path-breaking, it is not complete because the Aristotelian principles of logic pertain to the objects of cognition, they do not take into account the nature of the subject of cognition, by which we mean the nature of the mind of the thinker. Binswanger points out that “identifying this fact and working out its implications for logic is the achievement of Ayn Rand.”
It is not possible for anyone to develop knowledge out of errors, vague approximations, wishes, daydreams, improper combination of truths. A right input and a right method are of paramount importance for the development of knowledge. Binswanger posits that “man’s cognitive mechanism is what it is and cannot function in contradiction to its nature.” In order to be logical a mental procedure must adhere to the identity of the material supplied by reality, through perceptual observation, and must also accord with the identity of man’s consciousness. If a mental procedure or product contradicts reality or the requirements of cognition it is illogical.
From here we move on to a discussion of the two basic injunctions of the Objectivist conception of logic: hold context and obey hierarchy. Knowledge is contextual and “it consists not of isolated atoms of information but of a network, a fabric of interwoven connections.” Knowledge is not scattered bits of scattered revelations, it is a network of discriminated and interrelated content, and therefore when we expand our knowledge, we are essentially adding the next pieces to a jigsaw puzzle—it is important for each item to attach to those adjacent to it, if doesn’t attach then it will not cohere and add to the overall knowledge.
Binswanger presents a quote from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: “No concept man forms is valid unless he integrates it without contradiction into the total sum of his knowledge.” He gives several examples, few of which refer to famous incidents in history, to explain the contextual nature of knowledge and how when we are unable to integrate concepts without contradiction with the sum total of our knowledge, we become prone to committing the kind of error that Rand calls context-dropping.
On the aspect of hierarchy, Binswanger says: “every aspect of conceptual knowledge is hierarchical. Hierarchy is essential to logic, and the anti-hierarchical approach is the one factor most responsible for the confused and chaotic state of today’s intellectual world.” The focus is on the specific aspect of the hierarchy of learning, or the order that must be followed for acquiring knowledge. “This is the kind of dependency that occurs when knowing A is a prerequisite of learning B, as knowing arithmetic is a prerequisite of learning algebra. In this hierarchical relationship, A grounds B.”
Binswanger posits that the hierarchy of knowledge does not have the same structure that exists in the external world, rather it is epistemological. The aspect of hierarchy reflects two things: “First, the range of things that the senses can respond to is metaphysically given” and “Second, some differences are too great to be accommodated by our limited crow capacity.” In regard to ‘inference’ the need to obey hierarchy is well recognized; for instance, the well-known fallacy of ‘begging the question’, consists of hierarchy violation, because this fallacy is a result of using what was to be proved in the attempt to prove it.
After completing the discussion of the theory of logic, the book moves to a chapter, “Logic: Practice”. Here Binswanger takes up the discussion of three aspects of logic: concept-formation, propositional judgment, and inference.
When hierarchy represents a necessary order of forming concepts, why does logic have to tell us to obey hierarchy? Won’t it be simpler if you were not allowed to proceed whenever you disobey the hierarchy? Binswanger provides the answer to these questions by analyzing the phenomenon of what Ayn Rand has called floating abstractions. Floating abstractions are approximate concepts, they are half-baked, semi-formed and cannot be applied accurately to their units. Binswanger gives the example of higher-level concepts such as love, freedom, and ‘justice’, which most people are hold in their mind even though they have very vague ideas about the meaning of these concepts. Another reason why the hierarchical progression can be violated is the fallacy of ‘stolen concept,’ which occurs when one goes through all the required steps of forming a given concept, but over a period of time one fails to remember the hierarchy.
The definitions are the remedy for the fallacies of floating abstraction and stolen concept. “A definition serves the function of isolating a concept’s units, thus providing the concept with a specific identity.” Except proper names, every word denotes a concept. However, the question arises that when an average English speaker knows around 30,000 words, how is he able to “keep each concept attached to its specific referents in reality, particularly when the same concrete can be classified under many different concepts?” Binswanger points out that the process of definition is responsible for keeping order in the mind and enabling us to distinguish a given concept from every other. In certain respects, a definition is comparable to the label on a physical file folder—the label indicates as accurately as possible what the folder contains.
The rules of proper definition were developed by Aristotle, but the significance of the Aristotelian rules go far beyond their role in definitions, as they also “illustrate the pattern of conceptual cognition as such: differentiation and integration.” While these rules are traditionally stated in negative terms, Binswanger explains that he has reformulated them as positives, while also reorganizing them to put them into an Objectivist context. He has also given them new names when doing so clarifies their function. The rules of proper definition as given in this book are: The rule of genus and differentia; The rule of reference; The rule of scope; The rule of fundamentality; The rule of unit-economy. Each rule has been analyzed in detail and some references have also been cited on what other thinkers have to say on myriad aspects of different rules.
Because the definitions function as the optimal condensers of knowledge, it is imperative for them to keep abreast of the expanding context of knowledge and this leads us to the idea that definitions are contextual. “They are established in a given context of knowledge, and they are to be judged by reference to the context of knowledge in which they are used. A broadened or deepened knowledge of the units requires a corresponding change in the concept’s definition.” Even though the rules of definition presuppose that one has formed a valid concept, it is possible for the concepts that one has formed to be either right or wrong. If one is making a concept for non-existent units, such as God, fairy, etc., or if one is using an invalid standard, then an invalid concept will be produced.
Binswanger posits that concepts are not meant to be formed unnecessarily, because the multiplication of concepts results in decreased cognitive efficiency. “Forming a concept is not a free lunch; there are “overhead” costs involved in storing it, carrying it forward, updating it, etc. One should form a new concept only when the cognitive gains of doing so exceed the cost.” In this regard Binswanger restates a line that Ayn Rand wrote in ‘Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology’: “. . . concepts are not to be multiplied beyond necessity—the corollary of which is: nor are they to be integrated in disregard of necessity”—this line from Rand, an epistemological version of Occam’s Razor, is now regarded as the Rand’s Razor. The concepts that violate the Rand’s Razor fall under the category of either false division or false integration.
The concepts are formed so that they can be used for identifying facts. This is the function of judgements which are made in the form of propositions. The next section of the chapter focusses on the issue of truth or falsehood in making propositional judgements. The propositions can be false because of choice and because of the factor of ‘time’. “The use of propositions to make judgments is fallible because to judge is to apply a predicate, which is a concept, and concepts are open-ended with regard to time. Concepts are trans-temporal: they integrate, summarize, and imply how a kind of thing is, was, and will be — across all conditions.”
A valid proposition is formed from a valid combination of valid concepts; if the concepts being used are invalid, or if valid concepts have been combined invalidly, then the proposition will be defective and the string of words will fail to make any sense. After conducting an analysis of the requirements for logical validity of a proposition, Binswanger moves on to discussing the nature of truth, and what makes a proposition true. He points out that truth pertains to awareness. “Awareness is not a series of isolated responses to isolated stimuli; awareness is a global activity of differentiating and integrating.”
For judging the truth or falsehood of a proposition, one must know its meaning, and the meaning can only be discovered by taking into account the total cognitive context from which the assertion has originated. If the proposition contradicts something, then it is false. Ayn Rand has spoken about what she calls the fallacy of self-exclusion, in which the fallacy gets committed when the act of asserting a philosophical statement contradicts its own content. Binswanger gives the examples of sentences like “There are no absolutes” and “Man can know nothing for certain”—the first sentence has been stated like an absolute and in the second sentence something is known for certain.
If a proposition is fully logical it will also be true, but logical validity is not enough to ensure a proposition’s truth. There can be usual cases when what you take as logical, on basis of the available evidence, turns out to contradict the facts available at a certain point of time and is thus false.
The book moves on to a study of inference, which is the mental process for deriving a proposition from observation and/or other propositions. Inferences are either deductive or inductive. Binswanger points out that deduction has been well understood ever since Aristotle identified the syllogism and analyzed the forms that are valid and those that are invalid. Deduction is the application of the general to the less general and the most elementary act of deduction is the syllogism. Most of the reasoning that we do is deductive, and the purpose of deduction is to make the implicit explicit, or to bring a conclusion into conscious awareness.
The second type of inference is induction, which is defined as the process of generalizing from the less general or the particulars. For centuries induction has been attacked and even now it is regarded as something that is uncertain or subjective. Binswanger says that an attack on induction is self refuting because it is an attack on all inference. The validity of induction cannot be denied, it is the “fundamental means of acquiring conceptual knowledge. Without induction, there would be no general premise for a deduction to apply. Deduction presupposes induction.”
The next chapter, “Proof And Certainty,” focuses on the issue of validation, or the process of ensuring that an idea is correct and that it constitutes knowledge. “The need for proof arises not only in regard to ideas one hears asserted by others but also in regard to any of one’s own past conclusions whose logical basis one no longer clearly recalls. The question then is: is the idea true or false? Is it derivable by logical means or not? What is its epistemic status: is it certain, likely, possible — or is it invalid?”
Binswanger suggests a method for double checking for complete validation of an idea. “The complete validation of an idea — the justification for accepting it as a grasp of fact — requires both that it be proved by reduction to perceptual reality and that it be integrated into the sum of one’s knowledge. A conclusion has been fully proved only when it has been related, step by step, back to perceptual data (the task of reduction) and has been checked for consistency with the rest of one’s knowledge (the task of integration).” The integration that is required in this case must subsume not only the failure to find a contradiction, it must also be a positive act.
There can be cases where the item of knowledge must be acquired and validated through the accumulation of evidence which arrives over a period of time. In legal cases it can take weeks or months to present the evidence; it may take months, years or even decades to prove or disprove some theories of science. “Such cases, in which the evidence for a conclusion grows over time, give rise to the idea of an evidentiary continuum and to the concepts that mark off ranges along that continuum — notably: “possible,” “likely,” and “certain” (and informal subdivisions, e.g., “barely possible” and “quite likely”).”
When the evidence for an idea has been acquired and integrated with the evidence that is needed for a conclusive proof and the contrary ideas do not have any evidence, then the idea is certain. Certainty is contextual; however, certainty’s contextually does not make it subjective, because the standard for gathering of ‘sufficient’ evidence for proving the idea is not defined in terms of personal feelings or social conventions, but in terms of logic. “Note that the evidence must logically ‘imply’ the conclusion, not the other way around. Certainty is not achieved merely on the grounds that a given hypothesis, ‘if’ true, ‘would’ explain the observed facts. What one needs for certainty is that ‘only’ a given hypothesis can explain all the observed facts. And that “only,” in turn, assumes that one knows enough about this kind of phenomenon to be certain that one of a relatively few hypotheses has to be the correct one.”
In context of the law of rationality versus the arbitrary, Binswanger proposes the law: “In reaching conclusions, consider all the evidence and only the evidence.” The term arbitrary refers to a state of ignorance that has assumed an epistemological license, “as if the ability to imagine something made it cognitive.” The law of rationality makes it clear that for justifying conclusions, one must also justify his cognitive actions—he must even justify the time that he is spending in considering the claim. “It is irrational to consider that for which there is no evidence.”
If we assume the unawareness of evidence to be a form of awareness then we are committing the logical fallacy known as the Ad Ignorantiam Fallacy, which stands for the appeal to ignorance. Ignorance is not the source of evidence. In explaining the Burden of Proof Principle, Binswanger states: “One doesn’t need a reason not to consider something a fact. One doesn’t need a reason not to entertain something as a hypothesis. The reverse is true: The burden of proof is on him who claims knowledge.” In case the burden of proof is not met, the assertion must be rejected, no disproof is required.
On the question of what is objectivity, Binswanger says: “In its metaphysical usage, “objective” simply means: existing independently of consciousness. But now we are concerned with “objective” in its epistemological meaning—i.e., the objectivity of a mental process or product. What is it for a mental process or product to be “objective”?” Binswanger provides the epistemological meaning of objectivity in these words: “Objectivity is a deliberate, honest, truth-seeking, methodical process —as opposed to surrendering control of one’s mind to emotional urges and random associations (or of actively evading facts available to one).”
We live in a world where describing someone as a pragmatist is regarded as paying him a compliment, and anyone who is loyal to principles is attacked for being an ideologue. The nature of principles and their importance is discussed in the chapter, ”Principles.” Binswanger posits that as a principle is a fundamental generalization, we need to understand the nature of fundamentality in order to understand principles. “In a given domain, a fundamental is the factor that integrates and explains the existence and interrelations of all items within that domain. All the items in that domain, on whatever level, are subordinate to the fundamental; they are its consequences, implications, and/or variants.”
If we lose sight of the fundamental, then we may take decisions that appear good out of context, but are harmful in the long run. Binswanger explains that by organizing our knowledge on the basis of fundamentals, we automatize what is most cognitively fertile and this adds to clarity. He goes on to define a principle as the “fundamental generalization that serves as a standard of judgement in a given domain.” By virtue of identifying the fundamental cause, a principle informs us of the requirements that are absolute. To qualify as a principle the generalization must be wide and deep enough. As they deal in fundamentals, the principles integrate and condense all the derivatives, they subsume all the consequences, implications and variants, and they provide us with a unit-economical, long-range view of the consequences. “Life is complex; principles allow us to simplify it.”
“By spotlighting root causes, principles make one aware of a long train of consequences—not just the immediate effects, but the sum across a lifetime. Principles are thus indispensable for acting long-range.” As they are generalizations, the principles are reached by a process of induction. Because they are high-level generalizations, “they are formed from generalizations that are one level less abstract, rather than from cognitive ground-zero.” Since a principle is an abstraction that is derived from observing and integrating facts, its sphere of proper application can only be determined by reference to the context of the knowledge on which it’s based.
“Within their proper context, principles are absolutes. This follows from the nature of a principle: the law of causality has no exceptions. Thus, a valid principle can never be violated with impunity.” The principle of individual rights provides a vivid concretization of contextual absolutism of principles. Because they arise only in a civil society, rights are contextual; they provide guidance in organizing a proper social-political system under the government. “The principle of individual rights starkly illustrates the absolutism of principles: rights exist to define what takes precedence over what in cases of conflict, social or individual. In such cases, rights define the supreme moral consideration — that over which nothing can take precedence.”
Binswanger terms principles as the “biological imperative for Homo sapiens.” He puts it in a way that will be easy for many readers to grasp—he writes that to say to a human being, “Don’t be theoretical” is the same as saying to a bird, “Don’t fly.”
When we say that the conceptual activities are volitional, that they are subject to choice, what does choice mean and imply? Where does choice operate? How is it caused? What does it affect? The answers to these questions are provided in the chapter, “Free Will.” “Man’s free will consists in his sovereign control over how he uses his own mind. How a man uses his mind determines the rest: the conclusions he reaches, the goals he sets, the action-decisions he makes. But nothing, in turn, controls how he uses his mind; that is his “sovereignty”: the causal chain begins within one’s own mind. Having the power to initiate a rational process makes man an autonomous, self-regulating being, not a robot programmed by outside forces.”
The book ends with a chapter, “Overview,” which provides a compact view of the ideas presented in all the earlier chapters, while also offering a perspective on how the battle between the philosophies of Aristotle and Plato have shaped our theory of knowledge and correspondingly our way of life for more than two millennia.
GET THE BOOK: How We Know – Epistemology On An Objectivist Foundation by Harry Binswanger
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