Rand contradicts and violates her own philosophy of epistemology.
Rand claims “Modern Philosophers” are attacking her ideas with their “…favorite category (and strawman)… “The Borderline Case.”.. Modern Philosophers’ favorite examples of this “problem” are expressed by such questions as:… “If you had never seen any swans but white ones, and then discovered a black one, by what criteria would you decide whether to classify it as a “swan”, or to give it a different name and coin a new concept?”…”
First, Leonard Piekoff provides the guidelines of Rand’s Objectivist Epistemology:
“Since a word is a symbol for a concept, it has no meaning apart from the content of the concept. And since a concept is an integration of units, it has no meaning apart from its units. The meaning of a concept consists of the units which it integrates, including all the characteristics of those units.” (italics in original)
“Observe that concepts mean existents, not arbitrarily selected portions of those units. There is no basis whatsoever- neither metaphysical nor epistemologically, neither in the nature of reality nor of conceptual consciousness- for a division of the characteristics of a concept’s units into two groups, one of which is excluded from the concepts meaning.”
“Metaphysically, an entity is: all of the things which it is. Each of its characteristics has the same metaphysical status: each constitutes a part of the entity’s identity.”
“Epistemologically, all the characteristics of the entities subsumed under a concept are discovered by the same basic method: by observation of these entities.i”
Mr. Piekoff emphatically tells us. A concept such as “swan” is the whole package. You can’t just pick out one thing about the swan and say it doesn’t count. The all-black bird is a different thing from the all-white bird and requires a name of it’s own, according to Objectivism.
Now for Ayn Rand’s response to the “strawman” of the Black Swan:
“In the case of black swans, it is objectively mandatory to classify them as “swans,” because virtually all their characteristics are similar to the characteristics of a white swan and the difference in color is of no cognitive significance.”
Rand says the answer is “objectively mandatory”, but she ignores her own philosophy that a word sums up the entirety of the concept’s observed characteristics. She arbitrarily decides to disregard a characteristic, an act Peikoff describes as “without basis in metaphysics, epistemology, the nature of reality nor of conceptual consciousness”. The statement that the difference in color is of no cognitive significance ignores the thousands years history of citing the swan’s white color as it’s most important featureii, the Conceptual Common Denominator, to use Rand’s termiii.
Rand also ignores historical facts, because the issue of the Black Swan is not a strawman. Black Swans presented an actual “problem” for scientists. In 1697, Europeans first encountered a Black Swan in Australia. Scientists decided to coin a new concept and give the bird it’s own monotypic genus “Chenopis” instead of classifying it in the genus “Cygnus”. In other words, not a swan. Apparently, the color had cognitive significance for those scientists. For 90 years this opinion held, until John Latham determined that it was indeed a swan and it’s genus was changed.iv The scientific deliberation shows that Rand’s facile pronouncements come from ignorance.
Rand contradicts and violates the criteria of her own philosophy for categorizing observations. Rand falsely accuses “Modern Philosophers” of creating a strawman. Rand makes ignorant pronouncements about a subject that took scientists 90 years to decide.
i Pg. 133 Analytic/Synthetic Dichotomy by Piekoff , Intro to Objectivist Epistemology, Mentor, New American Library, 1967
iii Pg 18 Intro to Objectivist Epistemology