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Leonard Peikoff wrote, on page 104 of OPAR, “a concept, once formed, does not change.” This means a concept, once formed, cannot be expanded, cannot be narrowed and cannot be given a figurative sense. Is he correct?

Consider the evidence.

Can a concept, once formed, be expanded? Well, according to Ayn Rand, not only can it be done, a child can do it. She gives the example of widening the concept “animal”.

She wrote:

A child, for instance, may first integrate the appropriate concretes into the concepts “animal,” “bird,” “fish,” then later integrate them into a wider concept by expanding his concept of “animal.”’ 

[ITOE P 25–italics added for emphasis]

So initially the child, let’s say a girl, has three distinct concepts, thus:


But at a certain point she realises that fish and birds have so much in common with four-legged animals that their differences in shape are comparatively unimportant. She begins to integrate the three concepts:


Finally she achieves the feat of expanding her concept “animal” to include fish and birds:


Yet by expanding her concept, she has changed it: it is now wider. But according to Dr. Peikoff this is impossible.

Narrowing a concept is another form of changing it. Can you do it? The dictionary record shows that an early version of the concept “deer” subsumed any animal that was not a fish or a bird.


The narrower version that is known today only subsumes ruminant animals whose males have antlers.


If you can’t change a concept, how come the above happened?

As further evidence that concepts can be expanded or narrowed, there are wider and narrower forms of many concepts. Every different form of these concepts traces back to one original root. For instance, the concept “man” has a wide version, referring to every member of the human race; it also has a narrow version, referring only to adult males:


Both variants are valid. We widen or narrow the referents of the concept according to the context. For instance, if the context is the rights of man, the concept “man” is taken to include men, women and children. But if the context is a menswear department, the concept “man” is taken to include only adult males.


To understand how concepts are changed, it is important to distinguish between literal entities (e.g., a rock) and figurative entities (e.g., a concept). As Ayn Rand pointed out, mental entities are not literally “entities”. She wrote of concepts, on page 155 of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, “we can call them “mental entities” only metaphorically or for convenience.”

What is the difference? Literal entities exist independent of the mind. Abstractions exist at the volitional control of a mind. If a boy exercised his mind to change a rock into a flower he would be doomed to failure:


On the other hand, an idea is easily changed and a child can do it. For example, a girl who likes gardens might have an idea about a day and then change it because a new thought strikes her:


In order to clarify exactly in what way abstractions such as ideas or concepts are changed, it is necessary to formulate a principle. It is as follows: words identifying actions taken in regard to literal entities have literal meanings, but words describing actions taken in regard to mental entities have figurative meanings. As an example, consider the concept “divide”. You can literally divide six oranges with your hands:


But you cannot literally divide an abstraction such as a number by physical means:


How do you do it? You divide it figuratively, i.e., notionally. That’s what arithmetic does. It notionally divides a number. The result is a lower number, not the separation or disappearance of the original:


Similarly, when a concept is expanded or narrowed (or changed in any way to produce a new abstraction), the process is notional. The result is a new concept in addition to the original. If that new concept shares the same symbol as the original, it is called a variant.

Here are two variants of the concept “man” again. Note that neither replaces or eliminates the other and that one is a subdivision of the other, just as much as 3 is a subdivision of 6:


Are there other ways to vary a concept besides expanding or narrowing it? Can you start with a concept with a literal meaning and give it a new sense? Consider the literal concept “pig”, referring to non-human animals. When someone first noticed the similarity between a greedy person and a porker, the concept “pig” was about to be varied:


A variant of the literal concept was thereby created. The literal units in the variant are replaced by analogous ones. A person now has a literal version of the concept “pig” and a figurative one:


Changing the referents of a concept is impossible according to Dr. Peikoff. But in view of this pattern—which applies to the formation of every figurative version of a concept—is it?

Variations of a concept explain why the meaning of a word varies. A word stands for all the variants of a given concept.

Take the concept “animal”. Does it include human beings or not? Well it depends on the context. If you want to stress that human beings are part of the animal kingdom, the relevant variant of the concept does include human beings:


Thus Ayn Rand called man “the rational animal”, including men as a sub-category of the concept “animal”.

On the other hand, when she wanted to distinguish men from animals, she used the variant of the concept “animal” which excludes men. In this variant of the concept, men are deliberately removed from the category. “Man” and “animal” are treated as mutually exclusive concepts:


Thus she could write in The Objectivist Ethics (VOS page 23): “Man cannot survive, as animals do, by acting on the range of the immediate moment.”

So, is man included in the concept of “animal”? It depends on the variant of the concept—which in turn depends on the context.

It is only possible for the meaning of a word to change because there are such variants.

As a final example, we saw above that the concept “man” has two main variants. But it has others. There is a variant of the concept that refers to members of a team, as in, “It’s a six man team” and here the referents of the concept are members of the team regardless of sex or age:


There is even a figurative version that refers to checker or chess pieces. Each of  the pieces below falls under the figurative variant of the concept “man”:


Variants exist. And they do so because a concept can be varied, i.e., changed.

Copyright Tom Minchin © 2015