By Bradley Harrington
“How do we know what we know? … Upon the solution to this problem every other aspect of philosophy must rest. For until we know how we know, we cannot be certain of what we know.” – Ayn Rand, “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology,” 1966 –
Last week, in my “Might does not make right” column (WTE, June 12), I opened with “Concrete events often serve as mirrors of abstract ideas.” Well, that’s all it took to blow up my inbox with all kinds of reader questions, the most common of which could best be boiled down to:
“What is the link between the two? And how is it that the first reflects the second?”
Those questions have answers. But, first, a disclaimer: While I do my best to state complicated, ideological issues as clearly as possible, some of this is going to be a bit on the heavy side, even more intellectual than usual, so…
OK, anybody still there? I hope so, as the future of the United States depends upon it.
So: To discuss “abstract ideas,” we’re going to have to talk philosophy – and we can’t do that until we’ve defined the term.
And, what better person to do that than a philosopher herself?
“Philosophy is the science that studies the fundamental aspects of the nature of existence. The task of philosophy is to provide man with a comprehensive view of life. This view serves as a base, a frame of reference, for all his actions, mental or physical, psychological or existential. This view tells him the nature of the universe with which he has to deal (metaphysics); the means by which he is to deal with it, i.e., the means of acquiring knowledge (epistemology); the standards by which he is to choose his goals and values, in regard to his own life and character (ethics) – and in regard to society (politics).” (Ayn Rand, “The Chickens’ Homecoming.”)
Far from being meaningless ivory-tower gymnastics, therefore, philosophy emerges as the most practical of all the disciplines instead – since it sets the underlying framework for everything else. Not a luxury, but a very real necessity. As Ms. Rand continues:
“It is not a question of whether a man chooses to be guided by a comprehensive view; he is not equipped to survive without it. The nature of his consciousness does not permit him an animal’s percept-guided, range-of-the-moment existence… Man’s choice is not whether he needs a comprehensive view of life, but only whether his view is true or false.”
So: Yes, we live in the “concrete,” physical world… But our psyches also possess specific natures, and the primary requirement for survival is for man to think, i.e., to be able to relate concretes to abstracts.
How do we know what is real? How do we know what we know? How do we determine what is right or wrong? And how do we best implement those answers on a social scale?
THIS is the task of philosophy. A few minds throughout history – Socrates, Aristotle, Bacon, Spinoza, Locke, Rand, a few others, but not many – have lived up to it. Yet every single one of us, as conceptual, independently-thinking human beings, need the results of that thinking in order to function.
When those processes fail, all kinds of problems arise. For examples from the “real” world, just walk into any so-called “philosophy” class in nearly any public school in the country and you’ll see exactly what I mean… As you’ll hear that there’s no such thing as objective reality and that man cannot really know what he knows.
Those errors, in turn, lead to the much more personal issues guaranteed to cause us to act as our own destroyers: Ethical subjectivism and relativism.
And, finally, as the ultimate philosophical expression of bad ideas: Political statism and collectivism, i.e., the “standards” that hold society as superior to the individual. (You are now witnessing the near-complete stages of that corrosion in every country in the world.)
Do you, Dear Reader, wonder at the sorry state of the “concrete” world around you? At the reign of the thug and the rise of the rule of brute force? You need look no further than at what passes for our ideas. One follows from the other. The realm to reclaim, the intellectual desert in need of irrigation, is the realm of philosophy; the life-giving water is man’s reason.
And that, of course, takes us back to where we started, to the link between concrete events and abstract ideas. The first are consequences of the second, and that’s a relationship you are now geared to observe in any city council, county commission or congressional meeting you care to name.
Bradley Harrington is a computer technician and a writer who lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.