The Tour

Getting Identification Right

From the Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology: "Words transform concepts into (mental) entities; definitions provide them with identity." (p.11)

Imagine starting a job, and running into this dilemma: "Does what the boss just said fit the definition of sarcasm, or of good humor? It makes a difference! If I make the identification wrong, I could lose this job."

When you get concept formation right, then you can get identification right. You can have confidence that you know what you are dealing with. You can start enjoying the benefits of being sure. To reap the full rewards, you will need to check all of your definitions for two things: essentials and hierarchy.

Essentials refer back to similarity, which is why you set out to make the concept. Some aspects of reality had enough in common so that differences among them could be considered differences of degree rather than of kind. For example, a number of variously shaped but not very large containers could be grouped in the mind as "cups." The reason to group them in the mind is that they can be used for drinking. So the essential thing — the reason to group them into a concept — is their use. When in doubt about the essentials for a definition, ask yourself: why do I want to make this concept?

Hierarchy is the secret weapon of epistemology. A hierarchy is an orderly arrangement, as numbers progressing upward from "one". Imagine for a moment what it would mean if every concept in your mind were connected in as orderly a way. Just as you can count to a hundred by tens, or to a million by hundreds, so you could mentally connect any conceptualized aspect of reality to all of reality—instantly and effortlessly, as a matter of habit. That is exactly what you can do by making sure that hierarchy is included in all your definitions.

If your definition of "chair" is "a thing to sit on," that's where it stops. "Thing" does not provide any connection to other definitions, because you are using it in place of a genus. If, on the other hand, you define "chair" as "furniture providing a seat with a back," then you are connected. It is a kind of furniture, which is a kind of household furnishing, which is a kind of man-made object, the result of action by man, a kind of animal, a living thing, a constituent of the Earth, an object in the solar system.

When definitions include the connection to other definitions, then they are placed in an orderly universe, sorted out and ready to be mastered by you. When you make identifications using these definitions, then you can see if everything fits together. If it does not, you have discovered a mistake and can correct it. If it does fit together, then there is no mistake and you are certain of the identification.

Getting definitions, and therefore identification, right is the secret of being sure.

Getting Identification Wrong

One way to get identification reliably wrong is to embrace the arbitrary.

Consider for a moment the old canard that "a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day." The first thing required to take this statement seriously is to choose the wrong essential for defining "clock." A clock is a mechanism for keeping time. The essential is not telling time, but keeping time. A clock not keeping time has nothing to tell. The arrangement of hands on the face of such a clock is random and meaningless. It indicates an arbitrary time, which has nothing more to do with right or wrong than a picture on the wall. One might as well draw clock hands and claim that the drawing tells the right time twice a day. If this were accepted, then any number of other arbitrary claims might be accepted, like having a telephone pole tell the correct time at noon and midnight.

The clock canard may be only a jest, but it shows the pattern for getting arbitrary statements serious attention. "It's the international coffee conspiracy!" one says. "How else could you explain this price increase?" That is, the absence of evidence is declared to be evidence. "I know in my bones," says another, "that this shop is charging more than it needs to for coffee." Depth of feeling and sincerity of expression are offered as substitutes for evidence.

Declarations made without evidence are not true, but they are also not false. They are in fact not declarations. They do not declare a meaning, but a feeling. They are exclamations, like "Ah," or "Boo-hoo!"

Arbitrary identifications are extremely common. A is called B, C, or D at random without hesitation, and without evidence. It works because others mistake the form of the expression for the meaning of the expression. It sounds like an identification; it is made like an identification; it must be an identification. Since it must be an identification, it must be either right or wrong. It must be taken seriously, and disproved or accepted.

But a clock not keeping time has nothing to tell, and a declaration without evidence has nothing to declare. Your identifications cannot be made by another. You yourself must see the evidence, find the essentials, make the concepts, and decide what aspects of reality belong in what concepts. To wonder for a single second whether an arbitrary declaration is true or false is to give up on certainty. The only question to ask is, "What's the evidence?" If there is none, don't waste your time.

Next: Logic Back: Definitions Tour Overview Home