Rebirth of Reason


Ayn Rand's Metaphysics and Epistemology
by Edward W. Younkins

Metaphysics is the first philosophical branch of knowledge. At the metaphysical level, Ayn Randís Objectivism begins with axioms -- fundamental truths or irreducible primaries that are self-evident by means of direct perception, the basis for all further knowledge, and undeniable without self-contradiction. Axioms cannot be reduced to other facts or broken down into component parts. They require no proofs or explanations. Objectivismís three basic philosophical axioms are existence, consciousness, and identity -- presuppositions of every concept and every statement.

Existence exists and encompasses everything including all states of consciousness. The world exists independently of the mind and is there to be discovered by the mind. In order to be conscious, we must be conscious of something. There can be no consciousness if nothing exists. Consciousness, the faculty of perceiving that which exists, is the ability to discover, rather than to create, objects. Consciousness, a relational concept, presupposes the existence of something external to consciousness, something to be aware of. Initially, we become aware of something outside of our consciousness and then we become aware of our consciousness by contemplating on the process through which we became aware.

Rand explains that the metaphysically given (i.e., any fact inherent in existence apart from the human action) is absolute and simply is. The metaphysically given includes scientific laws and events taking place outside of the control of men. The metaphysically given must be accepted and cannot be changed. She explains, however, that man has the ability to adapt nature to meet his requirements. Man can creatively rearrange the combination of natureís elements by enacting the required cause, the one necessitated by the immutable laws of existence. The man-made includes any object, institution, procedure, or rule of conduct created by man. Man-made facts are products of choice and can be evaluated and judged and then accepted or rejected and changed when necessary.

Epistemology refers to the nature and starting point of knowledge, with the nature and correct exercise of reason, with reasonís connection to the senses and perception, with the possibility of other sources of knowledge, and with the nature and attainability of certainty. Rand explains that reason is manís cognitive faculty for organizing perceptual data in conceptual terms through the use of the principles of logic. Knowledge exists when a person approaches the facts of reality through either perceptual observation or conceptualization.

Epistemology exists because man is a limited fallible being who learns in disjointed incremental steps and who therefore requires a proper procedure to acquire the knowledge necessary to act, survive, and flourish. A man does not have innate knowledge or instincts that will automatically and unerringly promote his well-being. He does not inevitably know what will help or hinder his life. He therefore needs to know how to acquire reliable and objective knowledge of reality. A man has to gain such knowledge in order to live. A person can only know from within the context of a human way of knowing. Because human beings are neither omniscient nor infallible, all knowledge is contextual in nature.

Whereas concepts are abstractions (i.e., universals), everything that man apprehends is specific and concrete. Concept-formation is based on the recognition of similarity among the existents being conceptualized. Rand explains that an individual perceptually discriminates and distinguishes specific entities from their background and from one another. A person then groups objects according to their similarities regarding each of them as a unit. He then integrates a grouping of units into a single mental entity called a concept. The ability to perceive entities or units is manís distinctive method of cognition and the gateway to the conceptual level of manís consciousness. According to Rand, a concept is a mental integration of two or more units which are isolated according to one or more characteristics and united by a specific definition. A definition is the condensation of a large body of observations. A concept is kept in mind by referring to it by a perceptual concrete (i.e., a word). A word transfers a concept into a mental entity whenever a definition gives it identity.

The essential characteristics of a concept are epistemological rather than metaphysical. Rand explains that concepts are neither intrinsic abstract entities existing independently of a personís mind nor are they nominal products of a personís consciousness, unrelated to reality. Concepts are epistemologically objective in that they are produced by manís consciousness in accordance with the facts of reality. Concepts are mental integrations of factual data. They are the products of a cognitive method of classification whose processes must be performed by a human being, but whose content is determined by reality. For Rand, essences are epistemological rather than metaphysical.

Rand contends that, although concepts and definitions are in oneís mind, they are not arbitrary because they reflect reality, which is objective. Both consciousness in metaphysics and concepts in epistemology are real and part of ordinary existence -- the mind is part of reality. She views concepts as open-ended constructs which subsume all information about their referents, including the information not yet discerned. New facts† and discoveries expand or extend a personís concepts, but they do not overthrow or invalidate them. Concepts must conform to the facts of reality.

In order to be objective in oneís conceptual endeavors, a human being must fully adhere to reality by applying certain methodological rules based on facts and proper for manís form of cognition. For man, a being with rational consciousness, the appropriate method for conforming to objective reality is reason and logic. In order to survive man needs knowledge and reason is his tool of† knowledge.

For Rand, the designation, objective, refers to both the functioning of the concept-formation process and to the output of that process when it is properly performed. A manís consciousness can acquire objective knowledge of reality by employing the proper means of reason in accordance with the rules of logic. When a correct cognitive process has been followed it can be said that the output of that process is objective. In turn, when the mind conforms to mind-independent reality, the theory of conceptual functioning being followed can be termed†objective. The term objective thus applies to both method and to content.

According to Rand, all true knowledge is interrelated and interconnected properly reflecting the single totality that is the universe.† The key is Randís view that the relationship of a manís consciousness to existence is objective.† Through the use of reason and its methods, objective concepts can be formed and brought together according to objective relationships among the many existents.† The gaining of objective knowledge is a metaphysically-grounded process because all concretes are different and related to every other concrete and to the total that is the universe†

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