Beyond Objectivism—Knowledge of Particulars

In Objectivism, or any correct philosophy, epistemology is the fundamental branch of philosophy and everything else in philosophy stands or falls depending on its epistemological foundation. There are a number of issues in Objectivist epistemology I will address; the one addressed in this article concerns the very nature of knowledge itself, "how do we have knowledge of particulars?"

All Knowledge is Conceptual

The word knowledge is used in general conversation to refer to a number of different things, such as, skills (she knows how to drive a care or play the piano), memory (I know his name, but cannot think of it just now), data and information (you'll find that information in the knowledge data base), or even what animals do ("he knows his masters voice"). None of these, however, are knowledge in the philosophical or epistemological sense.

Knowledge, in epistemology, refers only to that class of conscious existents we call ideas or concepts and the only class of beings capable of having them is man.

In her, "Foreword to the First Edition," of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (IOE) Ayn Rand wrote, "... man's knowledge is gained and held in conceptual form, the validity of man's knowledge depends on the validity of concepts."

Quoting, Edward C. Moore (American Pragmatism: Peirce, James, & Dewey, Columbia University Press, 1961, p. 27.) she adds, "All knowledge is in terms of concepts. If these concepts correspond to something that is to be found in reality they are real and man's knowledge has a foundation in fact; if they do not correspond to anything in reality they are not real and man's knowledge is of mere figments of his own imagination."

The Definition of Concepts

In, "Concept-Formation," (IOE), Ayn Rand defined concepts:

A concept is a mental integration of two or more units possessing the same distinguishing characteristic(s), with their particular measurements omitted.

There are at least three important questions raised by this definition. I am only interested in one of those questions here, and will address the others in future articles. The question I'm interested in here is how knowledge of individual things is possible in light of this definition.

The Question

In classical logic, the "units" of a universal concept are called its referents or "particulars." The concept "dog" refers to any dog there ever was, is now, or ever will be. It was Ayn Rand who pointed out a concept not only refers to its "units" or particulars, it's "units" are what it means. In Objectivism, "dog" means any dog there ever was, is now, or ever will be. [That is, every possible individual dog is subsumed by the concept dog.] Furthermore, "dog" means any dog with all it's attributes and qualities, whether they are known or not.

If we know the meaning of "dog," then, we will be able to identify any dog as a dog, and know that it is a dog. If our definition of a concept is correct, however, though we can identify any dog, and know it is a dog, we cannot know any particular dog. Here's why:

1. "All knowledge is in terms of concepts."
2. "Concepts are the mental integration of two or more things."
3. There are no concepts for individual things.
4. Therefore, individual things cannot be known.

There is obviously a problem here, because we do know individual things. If all knowledge is in terms of concepts and there are no concepts for individual things, how is it that we know them.


There is obviously a mistake, but it is not as serious as it seems. There is a good reason for the mistake too, and it is a little surprising no one has ever pointed this out.

Ayn Rand was primarily interested in solving the problem of, "universals." "The issue of concepts (known as 'the problem of universals') is philosophy's central issue," she said in the foreword to IOE. The mistake begins here and it is assuming that "universal concepts" are the only kind of concepts there are.

If we have knowledge of particulars and all knowledge is in terms of concepts, there must also be "particular concepts." It is by means of particular concepts that we have knowledge of particulars. Ayn Rand's definition of concepts pertains only to universal concepts, not particular concepts.

If there are two kinds of concepts, however, we need a new definition for what a concept is. As I said in the introduction to this series, I am not going to provide detailed answers to all the questions that are raised, because I want to stimulate discussion. So I am going to suggest some things that I know lead to the answers, and see how others work it out.

What Is a Concept

When a child says, "may I have an apple please," he is using the word "apple" as the symbol for the concept "apple." The child could have said, "may I have one of those" pointing at an apple. The word "apple" in the first case preforms the same function as "pointing at an apple," does in the second case. It identifies the thing he wants. In both cases the thing he wants has all the attributes it has, and whether named or pointed at, that's what the child means.

In the case of the apple, the child knows what he wants is one of those kind of things. The concept apple is a universal one. If the child had said, "may I sit in Uncle Bill's lap?" "Uncle Bill," identifies a particular individual. The child could have said, "may I sit in his lap?" while pointing at Uncle Bill, and he would have meant the same thing. "Uncle Bill" is a (two word) symbol for the child's concept for a particular individual. It performs the very same function the universal concept does for class of things called apples, it identifies what the child means, which is Uncle Bill, with all his attributes, known or unknown.

How would you then define a concept? How can Rand's definition of a concept be expanded to include particular concepts? Why is it important that particular concepts be identified and recognized?