Return to Definitions
Let us note, at this point, the radical difference between Aristotle’s view of concepts and the Objectivist view, particularly in regard to the issue of essential characteristics.
It is Aristotle who first formulated the principles of correct definition. It is Aristotle who identified the fact that only concretes exist. But Aristotle held that definitions refer to metaphysical essences, which exist in concretes as a special element or formative power, and he held that the process of concept-formation depends on a kind of direct intuition by which man’s mind grasps these essences and forms concepts accordingly.
Aristotle regarded “essence” as metaphysical; Objectivism regards it as epistemological.
Objectivism holds that the essence of a concept is that fundamental characteristic(s) of its units on which the greatest number of other characteristics depend, and which distinguishes these units from all other existents within the field of a man’s knowledge. Thus the essence of a concept is determined contextually and may be altered with the growth of man’s knowledge. The metaphysical referent of man’s concepts is not a special, separate metaphysical essence, but the total of the facts of reality he has observed, and this total determines which characteristics of a given group of existents he designates as essential. An essential characteristic is factual, in the sense that it does exist, does determine other characteristics and does distinguish a group of existents from all others; it is epistemological in the sense that the classification of “essential characteristic” is a device of man’s method of cognition—a means of classifying, condensing and integrating an ever-growing body of knowledge.