Wednesday, January 6, 2010

An Epistemological Exercise for Your Approval

Here's a problem I could really use some input on. Ever since reading Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology I have been concerned with making sure my conceptual equipment is explicitly grounded in reality; that is, that I am fully aware of what the concepts I use mean and that I know how I can be certain that I have inferred the correct meaning.

The means I have established to that end is a rather complex vocabulary exercise that I assign to myself as a part of my grammar studies. I do the assignment in two parts, taking one day to write up the homework and another -- though not days next to each other -- to reread, review, and think about what I have written. It has done well for the trip down the road to certainty, but I think it could still be optimized, so I would like to submit its specifics for your approval. I will explain the exercise step by step and then give two examples from my homework assignments. First, what the process is:

  1. First, look up the word in the dictionary and copy verbatim the appropriate definition.

  2. Second, identify whether or not the concept is perceptual (i.e. whether the concept denotes something that is part of physical reality). If the concept is not directly perceptual then identify what unfamiliar concepts serve as its units, and if one is familiar with the concepts then instead move on to step three.

  3. Third, write what the concept actually denotes. For instance, if the concept were "tree" then one would write "A physical entity," or if the concept were "green" one would write "An attribute."

  4. Fourth, list any extreme contrasting or closely related concepts for comparison purposes. For example, for "rage" one could write "angry" as being a similar concept and "euphoria" as being a direct antonym.

  5. Fifth, write a sentence employing the concept.

  6. Sixth, record whether or not the concept is entirely meaningful. I do this so I know at all times what confuses me and what I'm certain on.

  7. Finally, jot down any notes, concerns, or whatever. This is an optional step that can be incorporated anywhere in the process, multiple times if need be.

Some examples, first starting with a perceptual concept. Notes in square brackets indicate editorial content not in original homework:

  1. Vituperation > /Noun/ Bitter and abusive language. [Concise Oxford American Dictionary.]

  2. Height: Perceptual. Language is an audio-visual format of concepts. [Human language is accessible by the five senses, which is what makes this a perceptual concept.]

  3. Denotes: Language with an emotional attribute and intention to harm [emotionally].

  4. Similar: swearing, cursing.

  5. [Sentence omitted.]

  6. Fully meaningful?: Yes

  7. Note: Duplicate of concepts already existing; differs only in connotation.

And an abstract one:

  1. Addendum > (Plural: -da, -dums) An item of additional material, typically omissions, added at the end of a book or other publication.[Concise Oxford American Dictionary.]

  2. Height: Abstract. Requires understanding of the abstractions involved in the information in the publication. [This concept is abstract because there is no physical existent or phenomenon known as "addendum." One may object by bringing forth a book and tapping the bottom of a page where there is an addendum, but that would be incorrect. What would exist in physical reality is ink and paper, not a physical manifestation of the concept addendum.]

  3. Denotes: Additional information added at the end of a published work. [Simplied definition.]

  4. Similar: Additional

  5. Sentence: How frustrating it is to have sat and read a blog post for an hour only to read in the addendum that the article is factually wrong.

  6. Fully meaningful?: Somewhat.

So are there ways that the reader thinks I can improve this process?

1 comment:

Burgess Laughlin said...

Very thorough and a result of successful introspection.

> "So are there ways that the reader thinks I can improve this process?"

Ayn Rand, The Art of Fiction, p. 52: "One rule that you need both as a human being and as a fiction writer is: Concretize your abstractions." (See Index for "Abstractions and concretes.")

1. I would emphasize that striving to know what a concept means is a process of knowing what it refers to in reality. The meaning of a concept _is_ its referents.

2. I would dump terminology such as "denotation" and concentrate on being able to:

a. Formally define the concept -- by genus and differentia. Knowing the genus explicitly helps integrate the concept with others.

b. Think of several examples of the referent of the concept. E.g., if the concept is "injustice," think of a range of examples (omitting measurements such as degree of injustice): a productive businessman exploited by government through taxation; a man killed by a mob because of the color of his skin; and an innocent child psychologically abused by a neurotic parent.

3. I would remind myself that most dictionaries merely record conventional usages, not necessarily objective definitions. They are a useful place to start, however, because most conventional usages (in non-philosophical categories) are objective and can easily be reformulated.

In summary, a concept is valid (and meaningful) only if it is drawn logically from sense-perceptible facts of reality. Thinking of referents is a key step.

This is an intriguing topic you have picked and one that you will gain from in the long-term.