It is possible to think of a concept as a Rock of Gibraltar—something that has seemingly been around forever. We don’t tend to think of one as dynamic, still being developed.
But a concept is man-made. It is a tool of human thought and someone somewhere had to invent it. The concept optimism, for instance, dates back less than three centuries. Where did it come from, and more interestingly, why did it change? Because it certainly did change.
It isn’t alone. If you look at a dictionary you will find that the most everyday concepts—those represented by a single word like “conversation”—have been evolving almost from the time they were formed.
Is this a mysterious or random process? I will argue that it is not—that it is the work of innovators who actively change our abstractions as the decades and centuries roll by.
The process of varying a concept is at once similar to and different from forming a new one, both in method and motive.
Consider five well-known concepts—optimism, transmission, conversation, capitalism, and selfishness. Each received the attentions of a genius. As a result, each dramatically changed its meaning. There are no prizes for guessing who gave a new meaning to capitalism and selfishness; Isaac Newton is the one who forever changed the meaning of transmission; Philip Sidney, a Renaissance poet, soldier, and diplomat did the same for conversation; and Ayn Rand had a little known hand in giving a new sense to optimism.
How is it possible for an innovator to transform the meaning of a concept and thus of a word? What are the benefits of doing so? And what does it imply about the nature of a concept?
To begin, let us trace the history of optimism.
A survey reported in Mark Steyn’s book America Alone sparked an interesting thought. The survey found that one year after the September 11 terrorist attacks, 61% of Americans said they were optimistic about the future, compared with only 43% of Canadians, 42% of Britons, 29% of the French, 23% of Russians, and 15% of Germans. I couldn’t help wondering what percentage of that optimism was because Americans faced better national circumstances and what percentage had something to do with the American sense of life.
Looking for the answer, I was reminded of a quotation from Ayn Rand. In her journals she wrote: “it is proper for a creator to be optimistic, in the deepest, most basic sense, since the creator believes in a benevolent universe and functions on that premise.” It occurred to me that with its greater freedom for creators, there could be more such types in America and that they transmit a spirit of optimism to the culture around them. But what is “optimism” anyway?
It is worth asking, because the concept had pretty horrible beginnings. Oddly, the word optimism did not begin its life as the symbol of a concept. It was originally a proper name, given in 1737 by a Jesuit scholar to a single doctrine: that of the German philosopher Leibniz. Leibniz formulated the idea that we live in “the best of all possible worlds.” The notion that there are alternative “possible” worlds and that every event is divinely calculated for the best result is a mystical fantasy. After the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, with its death toll of at least 60,000, the doctrine looked so temptingly ludicrous that it was satirized by the French thinker Voltaire, in his novel Candide. It is not widely remembered but the full title of Voltaire’s novel was Candide, ou l’Optimisme (Candide, or Optimism.)
Despite the disasters that befall him, the protagonist Candide strives to believe the teachings of his mentor, Dr. Pangloss, that this world is the best that could be and everything that happens is “for the best.” He struggles to believe it as he witnesses one disaster after another: expulsion from his home, conscription by kidnap, earthquake, shipwreck, war, misery, starvation. The clear implication: to be optimistic is to be deluded and at odds with reality.
By 1759 this widely debated doctrine had become a concept. In that year Bishop Warburton wrote in a letter (most likely about Candide) “The professed design is to ridicule the Optimisme, not of Pope, but of Leibnitz.” It is an interesting transition point. The name still gets a capital letter—not to mention a French spelling—but as the word now denotes two or more instances of a concrete, a concept has been formed. It is a narrow abstraction to be sure, because Alexander Pope’s optimism is derived from and very close to Leibniz’s.
So how did it come about that only two centuries later Ayn Rand could write that it is proper for a creator to be optimistic “in the deepest most basic sense”? Isn’t the deepest, most basic sense the original one? How can a concept change so drastically that it develops a sense more basic than its first?
It is ironic—given his hostility to Leibniz—that Voltaire probably forged the crucial next link in the chain. With his character Dr. Pangloss, he had created a satiric embodiment of Leibnizean optimism. He thus conceived the first widely recognized optimist. It didn’t take long for someone to form a concept of the type. In 1766 E. Griffiths wrote: “I am a perfect Optimist. I rejoice in a Lottery, when the five thousand prize passes me by…I immediately conclude that Fortune has palmed the Ten Thousand for me.” Although still the target of mockery, optimism was evolving from a doctrine to an attitude. And in fact, by 1819 the concept “optimist” had lost much of its negative connotation. In Gentleman’s Magazine of that year a writer could remark simply as a matter of fact: “On the subjects of revenue, commerce and finance he was a decided optimist.”
As the concept “optimist” changed, so did the parent concept “optimism”. In 1819 the poet Shelley made clear that a new version of the concept had been formed. In words that would have shocked Leibniz he wrote: “Let us believe in a kind of optimism, in which we are our own gods.” Although his exact meaning is obscure, it is the first recorded version of a concept the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “Disposition to hope for the best or to look on the bright side of things, general tendency to take a favorable view of circumstances or prospects.” Now, while this is a major modification from the first version, it is not the decisive link to Ayn Rand.
The exact date is not known—nor is the originator—but according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (Sixth Edition, 2007) a new form of the concept emerged in the early nineteenth century. The SOED gives it as: “confidence in the future.” The language of reason has been reached. The link to Ayn Rand is complete.
You can see the connection in her article, The Money-Making Personality. In it she wrote of the money-maker: “Having complete confidence in his own judgment, he has complete confidence in the future.” Miss Rand clearly recognized “confidence in the future” as a distinctive mental state.
Such confidence is not a form of religious belief or Pollyannaism. It is a hardheaded expression of rational certainty, the ability of a long-range mind to project a long-range outcome.
This explains why Ayn Rand thought the term “can-do optimism” did not do justice to the kind of optimism she saw in America’s space program. In her 1973 article Epitaph for a Culture she quoted a comment from a December 21, 1972, story in the New York Times about the Apollo mission. The comment was: “Apollo was an act of can-do optimism, of a belief in progress, in a time of reigning pessimism.” Re-quoting it later in her article, she inserted a brief comment between brackets. Then, recognizing the insult being offered to Apollo—and to man, she proceeded to give a dazzling lesson on the relationship of optimism to rationality:
“Apollo was an act of can-do optimism, of a belief in progress (‘can-do’ is a timid substitute for ‘self-confidence’) in a time of reigning pessimism.” If so, then self-confident optimism and the conviction that progress is possible to man have been justified and validated more resoundingly than anyone could ask for. And the same event has shown us the precondition of self-confidence, optimism and progress, like skywriting left in the wake of those rockets: rationality. There is no necessity or justification for men to suffer in stagnant hopelessness. If pessimism is reigning over our time, who enthroned it and isn’t it time to stage a revolution against its reign?
Instead of pessimism being realism, it has become something to be rebelled against. Optimism has become something to welcome. The concept has been transformed to capture an attainment. That sense is indeed the most basic sense of optimism if rational meaning is the standard.
What can we learn from the evolution of optimism? The first point is that the original version of a concept is not necessarily the last—or the most useful. The first version can be modified if it is cognitively valuable to do so. This is part of a wider principle, that the process of cognition does not stop with the formation of a concept: it is just getting started. (The other cognitive activity that begins in earnest is the detailed study of the existents the concept isolates.)
Fortunately for us, later thinkers did not say, “We’ve got a mental category for doctrines of a certain type. We’ll let it go at that.” Rather they noticed that those who held an optimistic doctrine tended to expect better of the future. So they created a new form of the concept that had positive attitudes as its referent. In short, they modified the concept to change its focus from doctrines to attitudes.
Was the new form of the concept worthwhile? Count the ways. By forming an abstraction based on attitudes rather than doctrines, the tie to the doctrines was weakened. It didn’t take much longer for the abstraction to become secularized and generalized: a man could be an optimist without being a Leibnizean. It thus had a much wider usefulness: it applied well beyond the bounds of academia.
Ayn Rand’s achievement was to take the attitude concept to the next level and identify a special form of it. She observed that the most basic type—confidence in the future—properly rests on awareness of a universe governed by natural laws. She demonstrated that high expectations are justified if men exercise their reason in mastering those laws and develop the necessary self-confidence to back their judgment.
Hers was the discovery of a relationship. The word optimism could already mean “confidence in the future.” She simply identified its precondition and retained the word. What she had created was a new subdivision where the pre-condition—self-confident rationality—was an explicit part of the abstraction’s focus. Instead of favorable outcomes being hoped for because of God or luck, they were to be expected because of a person’s ability to attain them. It was this more precise defining characteristic that distinguished her version of optimism from those that came before.
Interestingly, neither her version of the concept (the latest) nor any of the earlier modified versions eliminated the original. The word “optimism” could—and still can—mean the Leibnizean doctrines, “hopefulness,” or “confidence in the future.”
But isn’t there a need to differentiate the several abstractions of optimism? Shouldn’t each have its own symbol?
Let us widen the question and ask: why doesn’t every abstraction that is a new version of an established concept get a new symbol?
A word that answers that question in part is transmission. It involves one of the most beneficial changes in meaning ever recorded. The word already stood for a concept when Isaac Newton added a new dimension to its meaning at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Prior to Newton, the concept of transmission referred to the act of conveying something from one person or place to another. You could speak of the transmission of ideas down the ages or the transmission of water from one location to another. It was Newton who conceived a particular version of transmission: one where a medium was the critical factor. In 1704, noting that light rays could bounce off or pass through a substance, he wrote in his Opticks: “Their reflexion or transmission depends on the constitution of the Air and Water behind the Glass.”
Consider what this new version of the concept made possible. It enabled the isolation and further study of the relationship of light rays to different types of mediums. It soon turned out the abstraction was applicable to heat and sound. Eventually and through a long chain of intermediate steps, it led to the discovery of the scientific laws necessary to perform the transmission of television and satellite signals.
Even that wasn’t the end of the flow-on effect. Newton’s version of the concept paved the way for a further version that came soon after: the one that referred to the transference of motive force from one point to another, also via a medium (a hydraulic or mechanical one.) In the early twentieth century there was a further version still, one that conceptualized the device we take for granted as smoothing out the power delivery in the modern automobile: the gear box.
Newton changed the concept the same way Ayn Rand changed optimism. He created a subdivision by combining the concept’s distinguishing characteristic (“conveyance from one place to another”) with an additional characteristic: to qualify as units of Newton’s version of the concept, instances of transmission had to occur through a defined medium.
You could argue that all instances of transmission occur through a medium—a parcel is transmitted through the air for instance. But Newton had made a discovery. It was that the medium plays a crucial part in whether and how the transmission of light occurs. His subdivision was one in which the medium wasn’t just incidental, it was essential.
Look at what a valuable subcategory this is. Yet no new symbol was coined to cover it. Why not? Because Newton was relying on the earlier sense of the concept to help the reader grasp his meaning. When a concept is modified and there is a strong cognitive reason to maintain continuity with a previous version, the same symbol is retained. In Newton’s case, the compelling cognitive reason was to link a revolutionary discovery to perceptual experience.
Retaining an existing name can be thought of as a cost-benefit proposition. There is a new discovery. If it is clothed in terms wholly unfamiliar to an audience they will get bogged down in language, not in what the originator wants them to learn. So he counts on their intelligence to master a new sense of a word and thereby learn a new form of a concept. The price they pay—and it is a small one considering what they learn—is that they must now separate out a new abstraction from an old word, relying solely on context.
The word conversation takes the cognitive benefit of using the same symbol a step further. Philip Sidney changed the meaning of this word so compellingly that the earlier meanings are now virtually unknown. Yet he could not have communicated to his Elizabethan audience if they had not known its former senses. Sidney’s daring in using the symbol conversation was remarkable. Prior to him, conversation had denoted the concept of “living in or amongst”; thus an explorer could have conversation with an unfamiliar tribe by living amongst them, even if he spoke no word of their language. Or it meant “general dealing”; thus a merchant could have conversation by exchanging goods. And finally it meant “sexual intercourse or intimacy.”
For the first time, Sidney used it to denote the informal exchange of words and ideas. In 1580 he wrote: “She went to Pamela’s chamber, meaning to joy her thoughts with the sweet conversation of her sister.” So original was the innovation that even decades later it was necessary to make clear you were referring to the exchange of thoughts, not other things. Thus in 1609 Tourneur wrote: “In little time he made such benefit of Conversation (the commerce of minds).”
What Sidney had done was to create a new abstraction by metaphor. It was not done arbitrarily. It was the distillation of a discovery. He had correctly identified that the exchange of ideas has a parallel with the give and take of commerce. It is also true that in certain cases where ideas are exchanged there is an accompanying sense of intimacy. Sidney’s meaning connects those thoughts. Would it have worked without the same symbol? It is more to the point to ask: how could it have worked if a different word had been chosen? But he had to rely on his reader’s ability to respond to context.
In a case such as this, the use of the same name is not only beneficial, it is mandatory.
Now observe a different point. Whereas the feat performed by Newton was one of differentiation (splitting off instances where the medium was essential), the feat performed by Sidney was one of integration. He took the idea of talking and integrated it with the concepts of exchange and intimacy.
The result is noteworthy because although these three concepts have been combined, the product is not a wider abstraction. The standard pattern of integrating two or more concepts is to form a wider one. Thus when table and chair are integrated, you get the concept furniture. But conversation, as an exchange of ideas, is no wider an abstraction, in terms of the range of concretes it subsumes, than commercial dealings. It is an extension, but not an expansion.
Notice how evolutionary these changes in meaning are—how they depend heavily on what went before. New versions of a concept arise when a thinker varies a preceding one, even in what seems like a small way. (Newton’s shift in the meaning of transmission now dominates every other meaning of the word. But at the time, in context, it seemed like a blip.)
A key inference can now be drawn, even from what we have seen so far: a concept is a modifiable abstraction.
An innovator modifies the concept first, but in order for it to be understood, the abstraction has to be modified in the minds of his audience, too.
Why should they bother? Quite simply, for cognitive gain. When rational innovation drives the variation, the result is a clear increase in the cognitive power of a word. The new version of the concept captures something of greater value. It identifies part of reality more accurately and informatively.
Few concepts support this observation better than capitalism. Prior to Ayn Rand, at least in English, the word capitalism denoted a stunted, almost circular concept. If you check in the Oxford English Dictionary you will find that the word first appeared in 1854. The entire entry (apart from quotations) reads as follows:
Capitalism: The condition of possessing capital; the position of a capitalist; a system which favours the existence of capitalists.
Baffled, you look up the words capitalist and capital. Here is what you get.
Capitalist: One who has accumulated capital; one who has capital available for employment in financial or industrial enterprises.
Capital: Of or pertaining to the original funds of a trader, company, or corporation; principal; hence, serving as the basis for financial and other operations.
Apart from some valuable earlier meanings of the word capital (e.g., “head”), that’s everything you can learn about capitalism from the OED. The twenty-volume authoritative source on the meanings of English words has virtually nothing to say.
It is small wonder that people have not been able to think clearly with the concept and that Marxists have been able to fill the vacuum.
Prior to Ayn Rand the highest understanding of capitalism was that it was an economic concept. As she reported in her article “What is Capitalism” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, the Encyclopaedia Britannica gives the following opening statement in its entry:
CAPITALISM, a term used to denote the economic system that has been dominant in the western world since the breakup of feudalism.
As Miss Rand pointed out, the Britannica article didn’t even attempt a proper definition. When Webster’s New World Dictionary attempted one, this was the result:
Capitalism: an economic system in which all or most of the means of production and distribution, as land, factories, communications, and transportation systems, are privately owned and operated in a relatively competitive environment through the investment of capital to produce profits: it has been characterized by a tendency toward the concentration of wealth, the growth of large corporations, etc. that has led to economic inequality, which has been dealt with usually by increased government action and control.
Webster’s tangled definition goes downhill from the premise that capitalism is an economic concept. Focusing only on economic referents, a thinker cannot see the integrating wood (an individual rights-based society) for the economic trees.
Ayn Rand’s innovation was to open the horizons of the abstraction. She widened it, recognizing accurately it ought to refer to a whole social system. This allowed the essential characteristic of capitalism—that it is based on the recognition of individual rights—to be identified. Her brilliant definition was made possible only after she had extended the concept by widening it. Without the broader genus (social system), there could have been no new differentia (individual rights). Here is her definition:
Capitalism is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.
To emphasize the scope of her accomplishment, observe that it is possible to change the definition of a concept without changing the concept itself. The simplest example is the one given by Miss Rand in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. When a child defines man as “a living thing that walks on two legs and has no fur,” the meaning of the concept “man” hasn’t changed. It still refers to the same entities an adult refers to when he defines “man” as “the rational animal.” The meaning of a concept is the referents—the things in reality—it focuses on. These don’t alter, however rough or precise the definition.
But when a concept is modified, the innovator changes what it refers to. Ayn Rand’s concept of capitalism includes an economic component, but its focus is wider. It takes in the social framework that surrounds it and makes it possible. The principle is: when you change the definition of the referents, the concept itself doesn’t change. When you change the nature or scope of the referents, you have changed the concept and of course you will then need to change the definition.
To focus fully on capitalism again, the concept was modified by integration: connecting economic, social, and political factors to form a more useful variant of the concept. In this case, the integration did result in a wider abstraction.
If capitalism was a nullity, a shallow concept focusing on far too little before Miss Rand touched it, selfishness was worse. It was a concept with an almost hopeless past, with only one redeeming exception.
It is early days yet, but it may be that what Miss Rand did with this one concept will rival in the humanities what Newton did with transmission. Let us examine the extent of her challenge.
The first recorded use of the word selfishness was in 1643 by a W. Greenhill. The sentence he wrote was this: “It’s domestickness of spirit, selvishness, which is the great let to Armies, Religions, and Kingdome[’]s good.” “Domestickness” here means “devotion to home life” and “let” means “hindrance.” Note three things. First, it is profoundly true that selfishness (in any sense) is a barrier to the ambitions of the king’s conscription services, the demands of the church, and the dictator-king’s authority. Second, the writer’s standard is collectivist—it is the good of these social institutions that he values above the good of the individual. And third, note in particular that the term selfishness was conceived as opposed to the good. A crucial concept has thus been formed by an enemy of individualism.
The definition the OED gives for this meaning is as follows: “The condition of being selfish; selfish disposition or behaviour, regard for one’s own interest or happiness to the disregard of the well-being of others.” Again, note the element of circularity.
What is being “selfish”? You don’t have to go far back to find the first appearance of this concept. The earliest appearance of selfish, dating from 1640, is this: “Devoted to or concerned with one’s own advantage or welfare to the exclusion of regard for others.” The OED offers nothing later.
There is one redeeming exception to this sorry record. There is a meaning of the word self dating from 1680 that shows a chink of blue sky. The OED identifies it thus: “One’s personal welfare and interests as an object of concern”—then it cannot help adding in the same sentence: “chiefly in bad sense, selfish or self-interested motive, selfishness.” But whatever the proportion meant by “chiefly,” there is a glimpse of a neutral or even an uplifted concept. In fact, an 1870 source, Mozley, is cited as writing: “This respect to self and its ultimate good pertains to the very nobility of man’s nature.” A more typical citation, though, is this self-despising one from George Eliot in 1859: “She’s better than I am—there’s less o’ self in her, and [less] pride.”
What did Ayn Rand do with this sorry mess?
First, she analyzed how far the concept selfishness had sunk in its common form—one that simply took the academic version to its logical conclusion. In The Virtue of Selfishness she wrote:
The meaning ascribed in popular usage to the word “selfishness” is not merely wrong: it represents a devastating intellectual “package-deal,” which is responsible, more than any other single factor, for the arrested moral development of mankind.
In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.
Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests.
This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions.
I cannot help commenting that the dictionary meaning Miss Rand quotes is the one the OED lists for self but did not include for selfishness. Her dictionary must have picked up a development in the latter concept missed by the OED.
It was quite a feat to pinpoint that there were two abstractions in operation and that they were being conflated. She proceeded to pull them apart.
Splitting apart a package-deal—separating the murderous brute idea from the concept with no moral evaluation in it—is a subdivision in its own right. But then she went a step further. She subdivided the “concern with one’s own interests” concept. She did it in the same way Newton modified transmission. She focused on all the instances of selfishness involving an additional characteristic: rationality.
In this purified sense, selfishness is not just a question of the beneficiary. It is a question of the method of choosing and obtaining the benefit. As Newton restricted his variant of transmission to those instances where a medium is essential, so Ayn Rand restricted her variant of selfishness to those where the method of defining and attaining one’s self-interest is reason—and no one’s interests are sacrificed to anyone else’s. In her (demonstrably true) conception, a person’s self-interest is served by creating and exchanging values.
She did not invent the reality underlying her subcategory any more than Newton did. Instances of rational self-interest existed, but no one had abstracted and identified them conceptually before.
If there is any doubt she regarded her sense of the word as new, she referred to it as “my sense.” In her article “Global Balkanization”, she wrote:
Observe the paradoxes built up about capitalism. It has been called a system of selfishness (which, in my sense of the term, it is)—yet it is the only system that drew men to unite on a large scale into great countries, and peacefully to cooperate across national boundaries, while all the collectivist, internationalist, One-World systems are splitting the world into Balkanized tribes.
Note that Ayn Rand’s modification of selfishness gave her a communication problem Newton did not have. She had to communicate the new meaning of the word against the prejudice of centuries. Unlike transmission, selfishness was a booby-trapped concept inside a booby-trapped word. If you’ve rescued the abstraction, why bother to save the symbol? Why not simply coin a new symbol without negative connotations? We can answer that in her own words from the introduction to The Virtue of Selfishness:
The title of this book may evoke the kind of question that I hear once in a while: “Why do you use the word ‘selfishness’ to denote virtuous qualities of character, when that word antagonizes so many people to whom it does not mean the things you mean?’
To those who ask it, my answer is: “For the reason that makes you afraid of it.”
Her answer can be amplified by adding this: Ayn Rand did not accept matter-spirit dichotomies. As she wrote of the proper way to deal with words in ITOE:
There are many different ways in which children proceed to learn new words thereafter. Some (a very small minority) proceed straight on, by the same method as before, i.e., by treating words as concepts…
Selfishness is an example of her treating a word as a concept, recognizing that one cannot give up matter (the word) without giving up the spirit (the abstraction it represents). In such a crucial issue as morality, she knew that to abandon one was to abandon the other. Summarizing her attitude in her introduction to The Virtue of Selfishness, she wrote:
It is not a concept that one can surrender to man’s enemies, nor to the unthinking misconceptions, distortions, prejudices, and fears of the ignorant and the irrational.
If ever there was a case where surrender was turned into triumph, this is it.
It should now be clear that when a great innovator changes the meaning of a word he has not performed a mere semantic trick. He has varied a concept.
A valuable new version of a concept is an epistemological achievement, one of the hardest. The examples we studied demonstrate what is required to do it. It starts with an innovator willing and able to treat a concept as a variable abstraction. It proceeds with two methods of modification: differentiation and integration—or, to put it more practically, subdivision and extension. It ends with the retention of the original symbol
How should these new versions of a concept be classified? They certainly have different referents and different definitions. None gets a distinctive symbol.
But new concepts require a distinctive symbol. As Miss Rand wrote in ITOE: “The process of forming a concept is not complete until its constituent units have been integrated into a single mental symbol by means of a specific word.” She clarified the requirements for that word thus: “In order to be used as a single unit, the enormous sum integrated by a concept has to be given the form of a single, specific, perceptual concrete, which will differentiate it from all other concretes and from all other concepts.”
Differentiation is exactly what an existing word will not accomplish. Giving a new abstraction the same word as the concept from which it was derived accentuates similarity, not difference.
The most accurate designation is that it is a variant. Considered in isolation, variants are surely concepts in their own right. Looked at in relation to abstractions sharing the same symbol, they are different versions of the same concept. When these versions are compared, the term variant is more precise and informative.
The term variant has another function. It underlines the process by which it is formed—variation—and the attribute of a concept that makes it possible. Regarding a concept as invariable is a fallacy. It closes the door to innovation and hinders observation—both of the cognitive improvements from good variants and the cognitive dangers from bad ones. Variation is occurring all the time, as a comparison of early and later editions of any dictionary confirms.
If the potential for change is part of a concept’s nature, does that make its meaning subjective? No. A concept’s meaning is not a changeless absolute but it is a contextual absolute. A concept always refers to the same existents in the same context. You can modify a concept—and thus a word’s meaning—but you cannot import an inappropriate meaning into a context that does not support it. You cannot import a primitive meaning of capitalism into Ayn Rand’s context.
The reason is that there is an objective relationship between context and concept. The two must be commensurable and commensurate, i.e., they must be congruent and in scale with each other.
To establish the proper context for a new variant of a concept can be a serious undertaking. In the case of selfishness it took four major works of fiction. What Ayn Rand did was set up a context of rationality for her heroes’ self-interested actions. The nature and extent of the measurements of that rationality, shown in the scale of their achievements—Rearden’s metal, Galt’s motor, Roark’s buildings—are set against the villains’ selfless mindlessness. The contrast enables us to isolate the highest type of egoism.
We can now identify the deepest motive for variation.
As Miss Rand observed, a concept (and thus a word) is not primarily a tool of communication: it is a tool of cognition. It is the human instrument for condensing knowledge of and classifying the entities, attributes, actions and relationships in existence. Whether it is an attitude many levels removed from perceptual experience, such as optimism, or a directly perceivable object like a chair, if it is worth serious study or daily attention, we need a concept for it.
Combine that fact with one other: cognition cannot stand still. As long as they think, men will make new distinctions between, and connections to, the existents they have already conceptualized. Thus a conceptual classification can always be subdivided or extended.
But how many symbols does the mind want to deal with? Is there a way to make a concept—and thus a symbol—do more? Yes. Regard a concept as a variable.
Historically, no concept began its existence as other than a fixed abstraction with one set of referents. But once formed, innovators re-tuned its focus. They inserted the abstraction into new contexts and as they did, the concept itself was affected. It started to vary. New permanent variants developed. Our minds learned the art of re-configuring that abstraction to match the context.
Along the way the concept became something much more valuable than any single version. It became an abstraction with senses. It is common to hear that a word has a number of senses, but not that a concept does. Yet a word merely mirrors its abstraction. It is the concept that has senses, and the word reflects the fact. That is why Ayn Rand could write: “Since selfishness is ‘concern with one’s own interests,’ the Objectivist ethics uses that concept in its exact and purest sense.”
Once you know a concept has variants, other pieces fall into place. The proposition that a word differentiates one concept from every other is exactly right. A word distinguishes one variable from every other.
A concept is an objective variable—with a possible range of meanings but a fixed meaning in a specific context. In this respect it is no different from an algebraic variable. Just as x can vary in its value, but has the fixed value of 3 in the equation 2x=6, so the concept character can vary, but in the context of a play it refers only to dramatic personages, not letters on a keyboard.
This is a different point from the similarity Ayn Rand noticed between conceptual thought and algebra. She noticed that the units of a concept are quantitative variables—that they share the same essential characteristic (and many other traits) with one another, and the differences between them are differences in measurement.
What is now clear is that a concept itself is a qualitative variable. The units of each variant have the same defining characteristic, but the defining characteristic of each variant is unique. What defines the units of Ayn Rand’s version of optimism does not define the units of Shelley’s.
There is a further similarity between an algebraic symbol and a word. Like an algebraic symbol before its value is delimited, a word can stand for a number of possibilities. In fact a word can symbolize a number of variants simultaneously. If a speaker says: “Tonight we’re going to consider the subject of optimism,” which variant is he referring to: philosophic doctrines, hopefulness, or confidence in the future? Quite clearly any of them—or all of them. You won’t know until he speaks. But if your mind contains a range of variants, it will have them all available until the context narrows. If you are fortunate enough to be listening to an original thinker, you might well hear a new one—in which case your understanding will be quicker if you know a concept is a variable.
Over and above its ability to integrate an unlimited number of concretes of one type, a concept’s ability to vary—and thus condense concretes of several different types—ensures its symbol is a masterpiece of unit-economy.
When you consider what innovators accomplish qualitatively by using it, variability turns out to be one of a concept’s most valuable attributes.
(Originally published in in The Intellectual Activist, May 2010)
Copyright Tom Minchin © 2010