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“Epistemology is a science devoted to the discovery of the proper methods of acquiring and validating knowledge.”
   ~ Ayn Rand, IToE


Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with the validity and requirements of human knowledge. Epistemology includes those facts about how one thinks and how one should think which one must understand to minimize errors when learning about other subjects.

In essence, Objectivist epistemology holds that all of man's knowledge comes from the senses, and is developed in the following order- Percepts, which come from the automatic integration of certain sensations that lead to awareness of a specific existent, and Concepts, the mind's organization of percepts [as well as other concepts] into groups based on their essential characteristics that differentiate them from other entities. Furthermore, Objectivist epistemology rejects all forms of faith or mysticism as means of knowledge.

The foundational writing for Objectivist epistemology is Ayn Rand's Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (ITOE); Leonard Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (OPAR) further develops a number of the basic ideas of ITOE.

From sensations to concepts

Sensations are the basic information provided to the mind by the sensory organs, such as the light from the computer screen you're reading now. The awareness of these sensations is considered axiomatically "valid" on the grounds that it is self-contradictory to deny the efficacy of the senses as sources of genuine knowledge, because such an assertion implicitly assumes the validity of the senses. For example, something which is an "illusion" is something which is perceived falsely; reality contradicts your awareness of it. Since that is part of what "illusion" means, to suggest that reality is an illusion means that reality contradicts itself.

Sensation, or awareness of raw sensory data, counts as knowledge in a limited way. However, sensations as such are not retained by the mind and so cannot provide guidance beyond the present moment. (To refer to the previous example, if the computer screen you're reading turns off, the sensation ends.) Perception extends the awareness of the objects of sensation over time, a "percept" being a group of sensations that is automatically retained and integrated by the mind. Some animals other than human beings operate at the level of sensory perception and thus possess a measure of knowledge.

Human beings are unique in possessing another, higher level of cognition: the conceptual level. According to Objectivism, the human mind apprehends reality through a process of reasoning based upon sensory observation, in which perceptual information is built up into concepts and propositions.

However, humans are not guaranteed to achieve this level of consciousness, instead possessing a "volitional consciousness", reaching the "conceptual level" only by an act of volition to which no one can be led or forced from the outside. All humans by definition have the potential to achieve the conceptual level, but some may fail to actualize this potential — and some may lapse from the conceptual level by practising evasion, by which is meant evasion of reason, a deliberate abandonment of the rational consciousness.

Any mind, human or nonhuman, can explicitly hold only so many perceptual units at a time. But the human mind is able to extend its knowledge over a wide range of space, time, and scope by organizing its perceptual information into classifications.

For more information on the formation of concepts, see Concept formation

Topics In Epistemology

The analytic-synthetic dichotomy

Objectivism explicitly rejects the analytic-synthetic dichotomy. This dichotomy — which stems from the views of David Hume and Immanuel Kant — is the view that there is a fundamental distinction between statements that are true in virtue of meaning, alone, and statements whose truth depends upon something more (usually, upon the way the world is). Rand rejected the view that there is any such fundamental distinction, because she accepted that the meaning of a word is its referent, including that referent's every attribute. Consequently, any true proposition is in a way true in virtue of meaning, while its truth simultaneously depends upon the way the world is. In specific, Rand holds that the meaning of a non-singular term is the concept associated with that term, while this concept somehow includes or subsumes all the particulars of a given class, including all the attributes had by these particulars. Which particulars a concept subsumes, according to Rand, depends upon what the concept-coiner was discriminating from what when he or she formed the concept (this appears to be how Rand accommodates Gottlob Frege's insight that there are different "modes of presentation" of the same content). This view is a version of content externalism, similar in certain ways to the views of Hilary Putnam and Tyler Burge.

The analytic-synthetic dichotomy is intimately related to the distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge, as some philosophers believe that analytic truths are known a priori (i.e., they are justified independent of any experience), while synthetic truths are known a posteriori (i.e., they are justified in virtue of experience). Rand rejects the view that there is any a priori knowledge. All knowledge, she holds, including mathematical knowledge, is about the world (though possibly at some very high level of abstraction or quantization). Justification always terminates in the evidence of the senses.

The analytic-synthetic dichotomy is also related to the alleged distinction between necessary and contingent truths, i.e., the claims of a distinction between truths that could not have been otherwise and truths that could have been otherwise. Many contemporary philosophers believe that mathematical truths such as "2 + 2 = 4" are necessary (could not have been otherwise) while statements such as "There are nine planets in our solar system" are contingent (could have been otherwise). These notions of contingency and necessity have led many contemporary philosophers to elaborate metaphysical systems-building. In constrast, Objectivism holds that there is no distinction between necessary vs. contingent facts in the natural world (that is, all natural facts are necessary) and that the concept of "contingent" applies exclusively to the results of human choice (that is, there is a fundamental distinction between the metaphysical and the man-made). All facts hold in virtue of the natures or identities of the entities involved. Man-made facts hold in virtue of actions that were initiated by volitional beings ("I went to the grocery today" is a man-made fact, because I could have done otherwise). Metaphysical facts, by contrast, hold without reference to any action of a volitional consciousness.

Objectivism holds that, in a sense, all facts are "necessary": all knowledge is knowledge of identity, i.e., a statement that an entity (or aspect, potentiality, condition etc. of an entity) is what in fact it is. Many contemporary philosophers claim that, while the proposition "1 + 1 = 2" is "necessary" because true in all possible realities, the proposition "the atomic mass of hydrogen is 1" is "contingent" because it is not constant across possible worlds. Objectivism would reply that the second proposition is just as "necessary" as the first: if the atomic mass differed, the substance in question would not be hydrogen. Objectivism recognizes no legitimate meaning of "necessity" other than this one.

Additionally, Objectivism also accepts so-called "nomological" possibility and necessity. Statements of nomological possibility say that certain states-of-affairs are in accordance with natural reality in the sense that they reflect the potential of an entity to act in a certain way. For example, consider the propositions, "This glass could break" and "It could rain this weekend." These report truths, because they say that, it is in the nature of glasses that they can break (given the right circumstances) and similarly it is in the nature of the weather that it has the potential to produce rain. Objectivism analyzes counterfactuals, e.g., "If I had dropped this glass, it would break," in similar terms. Objectivism does not insist, as many contemporary philosophers do, that there must be some fact in another possible world for this proposition to correspond with, in order for it to be true. Objectivism also rejects the now-popular view that these nomological facts should be analyzed using a "possible worlds" framework that builds on a distinction between the necessary and the contingent.

The problem of universals

Objectivism offers the foregoing account as the solution of the problem of universals. This problem has throughout the history of philosophy been regarded as a problem of metaphysics, but Objectivism asserts that its proper resolution lies in epistemology. Traditional solutions to the problem divide generally into realism and nominalism. Objectivism regards the first as "intrinsicism" (the view that universals are "intrinsic" to reality) and the second as "subjectivism" (the view that universals are arbitrary creations of the human mind). The proper resolution, Objectivism says, is that universals are concepts, created to meet the unique cognitive needs of the human mind, but objective so long as they are validly formed.

Objectivism, classical rationalism, classical empiricism

There are many notable differences between Objectivist epistemology and classical rationalism. While a classical rationalist would defend a "thick" conception of reason that includes a priori knowledge and the grasp of relations of necessity, Objectivism defends a "thin" conception that denies the possibility of a priori knowledge, tends to treat the grasp of necessity as something akin to mystical insight, and relegates reason to the role of classifying and organizing the information provided by sensory perception.

See Also

Epistemology Topics
Senses | Consciousness | Volition | Concepts: Unit, Concept-Formation
Objectivity | Knowledge: Context, Hierarchy | Reason: Certainty, Truth, the Arbitrary | Emotions