How Do You Know What You Know?

 Posted by on 22 January 2010 at 5:30 pm  Epistemology, Objectivism Seminar
Jan 222010

How do you know what you know? And why should you care?

Objectivism isn’t just a bunch of conclusions to collect and apply — there’s a distinctive methodology that emanates from the very core of the epistemology which shapes the entire philosophy and its ultimate effects in every realm. At the center of it all is the Objectivist account of just what concepts are, and how we properly acquire and use them. This is central because it goes to the essence of how we humans navigate reality: we’re the rational animal, i.e., the conceptual animal. Leonard Peikoff explains it nicely:

For man, sensory material is only the first step of knowledge, the basic source of information. Until he has conceptualized this information, man cannot do anything with it cognitively, nor can he act on it. Human knowledge and human action are conceptual phenomena.

Although concepts are built on percepts, they represent a profound development, a new scale of consciousness. An animal knows only a handful of concretes: the relatively few trees, ponds, men, and the like it observes in its lifetime. It has no power to go beyond its observations — to generalize, to identify natural laws, to hypothesize causal factors, or, therefore, to understand what it observes. A man, by contrast, may observe no more (or even less) than an animal, but he can come to know and understand facts that far outstrip his limited observations. He can know facts pertaining to all trees, every pond and drop of water, the universal nature of man. To man, as a result, the object of knowledge is not a narrow corner of a single planet, but the universe in all its immensity, from the remote past to the distant future, and from the most minuscule (unperceivable) particles of physics to the farthest (unperceivable) galaxies of astronomy.

A similar contrast applies in the realm of action. An animal acts automatically on its perceptual data; it has no power to project alternative courses of behavior or long-range consequences. Man chooses his values and actions by a process of thought, based ultimately on a philosophical view of existence; he needs the guidance of abstract principles both to select his goals and to achieve them. Because of its form of knowledge, an animal can do nothing but adapt itself to nature. Man (if he adheres to the metaphysically given) adapts nature to his own requirements.

A conceptual faculty, therefore, is a powerful attribute. It is an attribute that goes to the essence of a species, determining its method of cognition, of action, of survival. To understand man — and any human concern — one must understand concepts. One must discover what they are, how they are formed, and how they are used, and often misused, in the quest for knowledge. This requires that we analyze in slow motion the inmost essence of the processes which make us human, the ones which, in daily life, we perform with lightninglike rapidity and take for granted as unproblematic. [OPAR p.74]

Rand offers just such an analysis in her monograph, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. In doing so she better equips us to do business in reality while repelling deadly threats that can sometimes be quite subtle. For, “What is at stake here is the cognitive efficacy of man’s mind.”

As I [Rand] wrote in For the New Intellectual: “To negate man’s mind, it is the conceptual level of his consciousness that has to be invalidated. Under all the tortuous complexities, contradictions, equivocations, rationalizations of the post-Renaissance philosophy — the one consistent line, the fundamental that explains the rest, is: a concerted attack on man’s conceptual faculty. Most philosophers did not intend to invalidate conceptual knowledge, but its defenders did more to destroy it than did its enemies. They were unable to offer a solution to the ‘problem of universals,’ that is: to define the nature and source of abstractions, to determine the relationship of concepts to perceptual data — and to prove the validity of scientific induction …. The philosophers were unable to refute the Witch Doctor’s claim that their concepts were as arbitrary as his whims and that their scientific knowledge had no greater metaphysical validity than his revelations.” [ITOE Forward]

The Objectivism Seminar is about to start its journey through Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (Expanded Second Edition). We hope to thoroughly digest the main work as well as all of the supplementary material. The meetings will feature several fairly seasoned Objectivists trading off on moderation, and we especially encourage those who are newer to the ideas or maybe a little fuzzy on them to bring their most challenging questions and puzzles! (And for those who are more acquainted with the material, this offers the challenge of grappling with helping others find their way through those questions and puzzles — as well as the surprisingly common bonus of finding unexpected fuzziness of their own. :^)

We’ll be meeting weekly, in a one-hour conference call hosted at You can participate online with just your computer, or via a regular phone (or you can listen in later via the podcast recordings). The series begins on Monday, February 1, 8:00 pm Mountain time.

Please visit to learn more and join in!

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