Consciousness and Identity

by Ayn Rand
From Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology
Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology
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“Consciousness and Identity,” which is chapter 8 of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, was first published in the February 1967 issue of The Objectivist, then in a booklet containing the entire work (1967), then in a mass market paperback (1979) and most recently in an expanded second edition (1990)

The organization of concepts into propositions, and the wider principles of language — as well as the further problems of epistemologyEpistemology is a science devoted to the discovery of the proper methods of acquiring and validating knowledge...
Definitions, 36View Full Lexicon Entry
— are outside the scope of this work, which is concerned only with the nature of concepts. But a few aspects of these issues must be indicated.

Since concepts, in the field of cognition, perform a function similar to that of numbers in the field of mathematics, the function of a proposition is similar to that of an equation: it applies conceptual abstractions to a specific problem.

A proposition, however, can perform this function only if the concepts of which it is composed have precisely defined meanings. If, in the field of mathematics, numbers had no fixed, firm values, if they were mere approximations determined by the mood of their users — so that “5,” for instance, could mean five in some calculations, but six-and-a-half or four-and-three-quarters in others, according to the users’ “convenience” — there would be no such thing as the science of mathematics.

Yet this is the manner in which most people use concepts, and are taught to do so.

Above the first-level abstractions of perceptual concretes, most people hold conceptsA concept is a mental integration of two or more units which are isolated by a process of abstraction and united by a specific definition...
The Psycho-Epistemology of Art, 17View Full Lexicon Entry
as loose approximations, without firm definitions, clear meanings or specific referents; and the greater a concept’s distance from the perceptual level, the vaguer its content. Starting from the mental habit of learning words without grasping their meanings, people find it impossible to grasp higher abstractions, and their conceptual development consists of condensing fog into fog into thicker fog — until the hierarchical structure of concepts breaks down in their minds, losing all ties to reality; and, as they lose the capacity to understand, their education becomes a process of memorizing and imitating. This process is encouraged and, at times, demanded by many modern teachers who purvey snatches of random, out-of-context information in undefined, unintelligible, contradictory terms.

The result is a mentality that treats the first-level abstractions, the concepts of physical existents, as if they were percepts, and is unable to rise much further, unable to integrate new knowledge or to identify its own experience — a mentality that has not discovered the process of conceptualization in conscious terms, has not learned to adopt it as an active, continuous, self-initiated policy, and is left arrested on a concrete-bound level, dealing only with the given, with the concerns of the immediate moment, day or year, anxiously sensing an abyss of the unknowable on all sides.

To such mentalities, higher concepts are indeterminate splinters flickering in the abyss, which they seize and use at random, with a nameless sense of guilt, with the chronic terror of a dreadful avenger that appears in the form of the question: “What do you mean?”

Words, as such people use them, denote unidentified feelings, unadmitted motives, subconscious urges, chance associations, memorized sounds, ritualistic formulas, second-hand cues — all of it hung, like barnacles, on some swimming suggestion of some existential referent. Consequently (since one cannot form concepts of consciousness without reference to their existential content), the field of introspection, to such people, is an untouched jungle in which no conceptual paths have yet been cut. They are unable to distinguish thought from emotion, cognition from evaluation, observation from imagination, unable to discriminate between existence and consciousnessExistence exists—and the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms: that something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists...
Galt’s Speech, 124View Full Lexicon Entry
, between object and subject, unable to identify the meaning of any inner state — and they spend their lives as cowed prisoners inside their own skulls, afraid to look out at reality, paralyzed by the mystery of their own consciousness.

These are the mentalities that modern philosophy now asks us to accept as the criterion of the meaning of concepts.

The assault on man’s conceptual faculty has been accelerating since Kant, widening the breach between man’s mind and reality.


There is an element of grim irony in the emergence of Linguistic Analysis on the philosophical scene. The assault on man’s conceptual faculty has been accelerating since Kant, widening the breach between man’s mind and reality. The cognitive function of concepts was undercut by a series of grotesque devices — such, for instance, as the “analytic-synthetic” dichotomy which, by a route of tortuous circumlocutions and equivocations, leads to the dogma that a “necessarily” true proposition cannot be factual, and a factual proposition cannot be “necessarily” true. The crass skepticism and epistemological cynicism of Kant’s influence have been seeping from the universities to the arts, the sciences, the industries, the legislatures, saturating our culture, decomposing language and thought. If ever there was a need for a Herculean philosophical effort to clean up the Kantian stables — particularly, to redeem language by establishing objective criteria of meaning and definition, which average men could not attempt — the time was now. As if sensing that need, Linguistic Analysis came on the scene for the avowed purpose of “clarifying” language — and proceeded to declare that the meaning of concepts is determined in the minds of average men, and that the job of philosophers consists of observing and reporting on how people use words.

The reductio ad absurdum of a long line of mini-Kantians, such as pragmatists and positivists, Linguistic Analysis holds that words are an arbitrary social product immune from any principles or standards, an irreducible primary not subject to inquiry about its origin or purpose — and that we can “dissolve” all philosophical problems by “clarifying” the use of these arbitrary, causeless, meaningless sounds which hold ultimate power over reality. (The implicit psychological confession is obvious: it is an attempt to formalize and elevate second-handednessIsn’t that the root of every despicable action? Not selfishness, but precisely the absence of a self...
The Nature of the Second-Hander, 69View Full Lexicon Entry
into a philosophical vocation.)

Proceeding from the premise that words (concepts) are created by whim, Linguistic Analysis offers us a choice of whims: individual or collective. It declares that there are two kinds of definitions: “stipulative,” which may be anything anyone chooses, and “reportive,” which are ascertained by polls of popular use.

As reporters, linguistic analysts were accurate: Wittgenstein’s theory that a concept refers to a conglomeration of things vaguely tied together by a “family resemblance” is a perfect description of the state of a mind out of focus.

Such is the current condition of philosophy. If, in recent decades, there has been an enormous “brain-drain” from the humanities, with the best minds seeking escape and objective knowledge in the physical sciences (as demonstrated by the dearth of great names or achievements in the humanities), one need look no further for its causes. The escape, however, is illusory. It is not the special sciences that teach man to think; it is philosophy that lays down the epistemological criteria of all special sciences.

To grasp and reclaim the power of philosophy, one must begin by grasping why concepts and definitionsA definition is a statement that identifies the nature of the units subsumed under a concept. It is often said that definitions state the meaning of words...
Definitions, 40View Full Lexicon Entry
cannot and may not be arbitrary. To grasp that fully, one must begin by grasping the reason why man needs such a science as epistemology.

Man is neither infallible nor omniscient; if he were, a discipline such as epistemology — the theory of knowledge — would not be necessary nor possible: his knowledge would be automatic, unquestionable and total. But such is not man’s nature. Man is a being of volitional consciousness: beyond the level of percepts — a level inadequate to the cognitive requirements of his survival — man has to acquire knowledge by his own effort, which he may exercise or not, and by a process of reason, which he may apply correctly or not. Nature gives him no automatic guarantee of his mental efficacy; he is capable of error, of evasion, of psychological distortion. He needs a method of cognition, which he himself has to discover: he must discover how to use his rational faculty, how to validate his conclusions, how to distinguish truth from falsehood, how to set the criteria of what he may accept as knowledge. Two questions are involved in his every conclusion, conviction, decision, choice or claim: What do I know? — and: How do I know it?

About the Author
Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand
Learn more about Ayn Rand’s life and writings at AynRand.org.