Nate Smith

Implicit Concepts and Units

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Reading through ITOE again, I'm still not clear on what Ayn Rand means when she refers to implicit concepts. For example, it isn't clear to me what she means when she says "man grasps it [the concept of an existent] implicity on the perceptual level." (page 6)

Question 1: Is there a difference between perceiving that there are things that exist, and having an implicit concept of existent?

Animals can perceive that there are things that exist. Does this mean that they have an implicit concept of existent? Is it the case that animals can go this far (and only this far) in the conceptual process? Or are they incapable of even this much?

I don't believe animals have implicit concepts. Here's my thought as to why: The difference between man and other animals lies in Rand's concept of a unit. She says, "units are things viewed by a consciousness in certain existing relationships." (page 7)

I may view 3 or 4 tables and have a "feeling" that there's something similar about all of those things. I am noticing that there's something they have in common, as opposed to other objects. I am regarding these objects in a certain way--in a way different from other objects. In short, I'm abstracting something from all of these objects, and regarding these particular existents as instances of that abstraction (even if the conceptualization process isn't complete).

Question 2: AR writes, "The ability to regard entities as units is man's distinctive method of cognition, which other living species are unable to follow." (page 6) - What exactly does it mean to "regard entities as units"?

I think it means what I was referring to in the table example, but I'm not sure. Is there a difference between "regarding entities as units" and observing similarity. I'm guessing animals can do the latter but not the former. But if so, what is the difference? It seems that a lion, after observing its first gazelle and eating it, would identify future gazelles with some recollection of the first. It seems the lion notices similarities. Is it not "regarding" a second gazelle as like the first?

Question 3: Is forming an implicit concept a necessary step in the process of conceptualization?

I think the answer is yes.

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The meaning of "implicit concepts" in Ayn Rand's epistemology was further discussed and explained at the workshops. Look for it in the appendix to IOE, then come back to discuss it further if you need to.

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There can be no such thing, really, as an "implicit concept". :-) somewhere, somebody has to make it explicit, or it's just a percept, and as such, very prone to being irrational.

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There can be no such thing, really, as an "implicit concept". :-) somewhere, somebody has to make it explicit, or it's just a percept, and as such, very prone to being irrational.

Ayn Rand meant something specific when she used the term "implicit concept" and she didn't mean a percept at all. See Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology for what Rand meant.

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There can be no such thing, really, as an "implicit concept". :-) somewhere, somebody has to make it explicit, or it's just a percept, and as such, very prone to being irrational.

There is a long discussion in the Workshop appendix to IOE, referred to previously, of the meaning of "implicit concept" as the material available to one's consciousness in the process of forming the concept before it is completed. She did not say that one does not have to make the concept explicit, and the fact that the material is still implicit during the process and not yet a concept is not a contradiction making it "no such thing".

It is also not "just a percept". The material implicit during the formation of a concept is part of a process of observation, differentiation, and integration, which is much more than a "percept" even for first level concepts, and the units of higher level concepts are themselves concepts, not percepts.

Percepts are not "prone to being irrational": People can be irrational when they hold or act on irrational ideas, which may or may not involve failing to integrate percepts (which are automatic integrations of sense experience) into simple concepts.

Here are two of the statements Ayn Rand made during the discussion of the nature of "implicit concepts" in the appendix to IOE, which should not continue to be ignored in this discussion.

The "implicit" is that which is available to your consciousness but which you have not conceptualized. For instance, if you state a certain proposition, implicit in it are certain conclusions, but you may not necessarily be aware of them, because a special, separate act of consciousness is required to draw these consequences and grasp conceptually what is implied in your original statement. The implicit is that which is available to you but which you have not conceptualized.

An implicit concept is the stage of an integration when one is in the process of forming that integration and until it is completed.

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Did you find what you need?

Yes, that reference was helpful. Thanks.

It does raise other questions. It's not clear to me why Ayn Rand chose to name "implicit concepts" when all she is referring to is the material available for conceptualization. Why call something an implicit concept when it isn't necessarily the case that any conceptualization has taken place? Why not just refer to them as the existents that could become a concept?

Also, I realize that "implicit concept" isn't a definition, but it sounds like a differentia subset of the genus "concept" (the same way a flying fish is a type of fish). But in fact that isn't the case. Generally I understand why she makes choices like this, so I'm wondering if I'm missing something in her choice to do so.

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Yes, that reference was helpful. Thanks.

It does raise other questions. It's not clear to me why Ayn Rand chose to name "implicit concepts" when all she is referring to is the material available for conceptualization. Why call something an implicit concept when it isn't necessarily the case that any conceptualization has taken place? Why not just refer to them as the existents that could become a concept?

She is referring in chapter 1 to processes of conceptualization, not just existents apart from their role in that process. She was discussing the logical dependency of concepts like 'existent', 'identity', 'unit', and 'entity' in the process of conceptualization, and their role in the formation of elementary concepts before the implicit concepts referred to are fully conceptualized themselves.

Certain kinds of knowledge and processes of consciousness are required in the process of forming concepts, and the order matters. There is a hierarchy in the process, which determines a hierarchy in the completed, formal concepts.

For example, "The ability to regard entities as units is man's distinctive method of cognition,..." -- even though at an early stage he has has no explicit concept of 'unit'.

Also, I realize that "implicit concept" isn't a definition, but it sounds like a differentia subset of the genus "concept" (the same way a flying fish is a type of fish). But in fact that isn't the case. Generally I understand why she makes choices like this, so I'm wondering if I'm missing something in her choice to do so.

'Implicit' does not qualify 'concept' as a juxtaposition without regard to the meaning of the two concepts and their role in the sentence, and doesn't operate as in the role of a differentia; it refers to processes of conceptualization, which is essential to what she is talking about there. She is using the concepts 'implicit' and 'concept' in descriptive phrases in a sentence in a way that does not imply a 'differentia' type of qualification (as you observed).

A similar question (by 'G') was raised at the Workshop, which in the ensuing detailed discussion evoked the following comment,which should help illustrate and clarify the explanation:

Prof. E: May I make one brief observation? If I follow the drift of your comment, you would also say that it is a self-contradiction to describe a fertilized egg in the womb as a "potential man," because a man is defined as a rational animal and the egg is not yet a rational animal; so we are applying an adjective to a noun where the adjective, out of context, doesn't allow for the defining characteristic of the noun. Is that the drift of your argument? Because on the face of it that seems awfully linguistic-analytical to me. That is, you just observe the conjunction of an adjective and a noun, and divorce it altogether from the content of the two concepts.

AR: I am afraid so.

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Those are helpful comments, thanks. And I like the analogy between "potential man" and "implicit concept." That's good.

I want to return to my second question and try to answer it. Feel free to interject if you disagree.

Question 2: AR writes, "The ability to regard entities as units is man's distinctive method of cognition, which other living species are unable to follow." (page 6) - What exactly does it mean to "regard entities as units"?

AR says, "units are things viewed by a consciousness in certain existing relationships" (page 7). When I observe that three tables are alike in some way and different from the things around them, I believe that I am regarding these entities as "types" (or units) of what I may later learn to call a table. When I refer to a chair as a "chair", I am regarding that entitiy as a unit (or member) of the group of things called chairs. These would be examples of what she means.

Is there a difference between "regarding entities as units" and observing similarity[?] I'm guessing animals can do the latter but not the former.

I can think of at least one difference between regarding entities as units and observing similarity. I can observe that there's something similar between a skyscraper and a ruler. Their shape is similar. But that doesn't necessarily mean I am abstracting away something in common from the two and regarding them as units of some concept. I can observe that purple and blue are similar when compared to red, even though I am not regarding the two as units.

It does seem that in these two examples it could be possible to go an extra step and form a concept from these observed similarities. A word for long-skinny-rectangle could be abstracted, if it were deemed useful to do so. And a word for colors within the blue-purple spectrum could be coined if so desired. Would it be accurate to say that "observing similarity" is a first step in the process of concept formation, and it's as far as animals can go?

One other question comes to mind: Can entities be regarded as units (of some concept) before the process of concept formation has been completed? I can recall instances where I regarded different entities as alike only to later find out that there was a word for that thing. And I can imagine that if a child plays with a tablet computer a couple times, and that child identifies the next tablet computer he encounters as similar, he is regarding these entities as units, even if he doesn't have a name for these things yet. For this reason, it seems that we can regard entities as units before conceptualization is finished.

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