Meaning (of Concepts)

A word has no meaning other than that of the concept it symbolizes, and the meaning of a concept consists of its units.

A widespread error, in this context, holds that the wider the concept, the less its cognitive content—on the ground that its distinguishing characteristic is more generalized than the distinguishing characteristics of its constituent concepts. The error lies in assuming that a concept consists of nothing but its distinguishing characteristic. But the fact is that in the process of abstracting from abstractions, one cannot know what is a distinguishing characteristic unless one has observed other characteristics of the units involved and of the existents from which they are differentiated.

Just as the concept “man” does not consist merely of “rational faculty” (if it did, the two would be equivalent and interchangeable, which they are not), but includes all the characteristics of “man,” with “rational faculty” serving as the distinguishing characteristic—so, in the case of wider concepts, the concept “animal” does not consist merely of “consciousness and locomotion,” but subsumes all the characteristics of all the animal species, with “consciousness and locomotion” serving as the distinguishing characteristic.

To know the exact meaning of the concepts one is using, one must know their correct definitions, one must be able to retrace the specific (logical, not chronological) steps by which they were formed, and one must be able to demonstrate their connection to their base in perceptual reality.

When in doubt about the meaning or the definition of a concept, the best method of clarification is to look for its referents—i.e., to ask oneself: What fact or facts of reality gave rise to this concept? What distinguishes it from all other concepts?

For instance: what fact of reality gave rise to the concept “justice”? The fact that man must draw conclusions about the things, people and events around him, i.e., must judge and evaluate them. Is his judgment automatically right? No. What causes his judgment to be wrong? The lack of sufficient evidence, or his evasion of the evidence, or his inclusion of considerations other than the facts of the case. How, then, is he to arrive at the right judgment? By basing it exclusively on the factual evidence and by considering all the relevant evidence available. But isn’t this a description of “objectivity”? Yes, “objective judgment” is one of the wider categories to which the concept “justice” belongs. What distinguishes “justice” from other instances of objective judgment? When one evaluates the nature or actions of inanimate objects, the criterion of judgment is determined by the particular purpose for which one evaluates them. But how does one determine a criterion for evaluating the character and actions of men, in view of the fact that men possess the faculty of volition? What science can provide an objective criterion of evaluation in regard to volitional matters? Ethics. Now, do I need a concept to designate the act of judging a man’s character and/or actions exclusively on the basis of all the factual evidence available, and of evaluating it by means of an objective moral criterion? Yes. That concept is “justice.”

Since a word is a symbol for a concept, it has no meaning apart from the content of the concept it symbolizes. And since a concept is an integration of units, it has no content or meaning apart from its units.

The meaning of a concept consists of the units—the existents—which it integrates, including all the characteristics of these units.

Observe that concepts mean existents, not arbitrarily selected portions of existents. There is no basis whatever—neither metaphysical nor epistemological, neither in the nature of reality nor of a conceptual consciousness—for a division of the characteristics of a concept’s units into two groups, one of which is excluded from the concept’s meaning.

What, then, is the meaning of the concept “man”? “Man” means a certain type of entity, a rational animal, including all the characteristics of this entity (anatomical, physiological, psychological, etc., as well as the relations of these characteristics to those of other entities)—all the characteristics already known, and all those ever to be discovered. Whatever is true of the entity, is meant by the concept.

It follows that there are no grounds on which to distinguish “analytic” from “synthetic” propositions. Whether one states that “A man is a rational animal,” or that “A man has only two eyes”—in both cases, the predicated characteristics are true of man and are, therefore, included in the concept “man.” The meaning of the first statement is: “A certain type of entity, including all its characteristics (among which are rationality and animality) is: a rational animal.” The meaning of the second is: “A certain type of entity, including all its characteristics (among which is the possession of only two eyes) has: only two eyes.” Each of these statements is an instance of the Law of Identity; each is a “tautology”; to deny either is to contradict the meaning of the concept “man,” and thus to endorse a self-contradiction.

A similar type of analysis is applicable to every true statement. Every truth about a given existent(s) reduces, in basic pattern, to: “X is: one or more of the things which it is.” The predicate in such a case states some characteristic(s) of the subject; but since it is a characteristic of the subject, the concept(s) designating the subject in fact includes the predicate from the outset.

Copyright © 1986 by Harry Binswanger. Introduction copyright © 1986 by Leonard Peikoff. All rights reserved. For information address New American Library.


Excerpts from The Ominous Parallels, by Leonard Peikoff. Copyright © 1982 by Leonard Peikoff. Reprinted with permission of Stein and Day Publishers. Excerpts from The Romantic Manifesto, by Ayn Rand. Copyright © 1971, by The Objectivist. Reprinted with permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. Excerpts from Atlas Shrugged, copyright © 1957 by Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, copyright © 1943 by Ayn Rand, and For the New Intellectual, copyright © 1961 by Ayn Rand. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Ayn Rand. Excerpts from Philosophy: Who Needs It, by Ayn Rand. Copyright © 1982 by Leonard Peikoff, Executor, Estate of Ayn Rand. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Ayn Rand. Excerpts from “The Philosophy of Objectivism” lecture series. Copyright © 1976 by Leonard Peikoff. Reprinted by permission. Excerpts from Alvin Toffler’s interview with Ayn Rand, which first appeared in Playboy magazine. Copyright © 1964. Reprinted by permission of Alvin Toffler. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.