Dec 16, 2007

What is a story?

In her essay "Art and Sense of Life," Ayn Rand differentiates "a real-life news story and a fiction story."[1] Her comments and my own interest in history lead me to wonder about stories in general, regardless of type. Following is my personal--not philosophical--definition. What I seek is (1) improvement on the basic approach of understanding a commonly-used but often ill-defined concept, and (2) comments on the basic nature of stories.

EXAMPLES. Stories may be short or long; fictional or factual; vast or minute in scope; and fast or slow in pace. Stories may be told from memory to a single listener, read aloud to a large audience, or read silently alone. Excluding borderline cases, a range of examples from my experience includes: (1) Short stories like the Br'er Rabbit tales, written for children, about imaginary, anthropomorphized animal heroes and villains. (2) Lloyd A. Brown's The Story of Maps (with 86 illustrations and hundreds of endnotes), describing 2000 years of the art and science of map-making. (3) Stories, true or false, that a person tells to explain a fading scar or why he was late for work this morning. (4) Stephen Ambrose's D-Day, a story of the causes and effects of the events happening on one day in one place: the Allied invasion of Normandy in World War II. (5) Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, an 1168-page novel that has the widest of all possible themes, a metaphysical one: the relationship between consciousness and reality.

DEFINITION. What essential, distinguishing characteristics do all these stories have in common? In other words, what makes a story--a story? I don't yet have a completely satisfactory definition. I can suggest an approach. After collecting a range of examples from personal experience, an early step in defining an idea is deciding what kind of thing it refers to. This is the genus in the definition.

A story is a kind of accounting for things, that is, a story combines (1) identification, (2) explanation, and (3) evaluation of events. A story identifies a series of human events (or natural events important to people, such as a story of the rise and fall of dinosaurs); explains their relation to each other; and evaluates their significance, within the context set by a certain purpose valuable to the storyteller and listener. For example, if a man and his young son are walking through their neighborhood, and the young boy asks why a certain house they pass is decrepit and abandoned, the father might tell a story of how the house came to be that way.

The storyteller chooses which events will be the beginning and end of the story, based on the story's purpose, which may be implicit or explicit. The coherence resulting from an essential purpose distinguishes a story from a mere chronology or random collection of events.

Stories tell a sequence of events that lead causally to an end. The storyteller selects the events. A novelist creates from his imagination the events which will concretize his theme. A historian, as storyteller, picks those events which show the essentials of what happened, why it happened, and why it is important.

USES OF STORIES. I have seen people of all ages -- from toddlers to elders -- enthralled by stories. Why is there nearly universal interest in stories, in one form or another? A storyteller chooses a few events from a multitude of events, ties them together, and offers them as an explanation of something. For example, Leonard Peikoff's Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America, tells two stories from history, in parallel: the philosophical slide from the age of enlightenment to the age of nihilism, first in Germany and then, increasingly, in the United States.

For the reader, Ominous Parallels will, says Ayn Rand, "bring order into the chaos of today's events."[2] I think that stories serve a function analogous to the unit-economy function of concepts.[3] In daily life we encounter a myriad of events. They may be large or small, nearby or distant, known through our own experiences or described by distant reporters. Stories help us make sense of those events.

The function of stories is both epistemological (in connecting disparate events) and psychological (in confirming that the world is intelligible). That is true of all stories. Certain stories--the "stand up and cheer" stories, whether they are fact or fiction--can be refueling as well.

SUMMARY. A story is a selective account of logically connected events, told for some purpose that offers values to the storyteller and audience. Stories confirm that events are causally connected, that we can make sense of them, and that--like all facts--they have value implications.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

Notes: [1] The essay "Art and Sense of Life" appears in The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature, and the quote comes from the hardback edition, pp. 47-48. [2] Ayn Rand's comment about a use of Ominous Parallels comes from her Introduction to Leonard Peikoff, Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America, p. ix (hb). [3] See Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Ch. 7, for unit economy of concepts.

Nov 18, 2007

Etiquette for Comments

(Last revised Nov. 21, '07) Making Progress is an experiment. I am trying to create a site strictly for discussion of ideas that intrigue me as a student of history -- a site free of interpersonal struggles.

Etiquette is an art. It applies principles and rules of individual behavior to social situations in order to facilitate trade. This Etiquette section has two purposes: (1) Facilitate the trade of ideas in this forum; and (2) Simplify moderation and thereby save time for me.

Post only serious, relevant comments. Posted comments can include, for example: (1) a disagreement, which means identifying a flaw and offering a superior alternative if possible; (2) a reformulation of particular points in your own words, for feedback; (3) a discussion about methods for approaching similar problems; or (4) a question. Post personal comments -- positive or negative -- privately to me, not in "public."

Address ideas not individuals. Do not address, name, cite, or quote me or another commenter. State your target idea in your own words, and support, refute, or question it. Formulating others' ideas in one's own words is hard but educational work.

Addressing ideas only is difficult for many individuals. Here is a model example: "The supposition that 'worldview' is the genus of both religion and philosophy is invalid because ... [and so forth]." Addressing ideas only means decoupling the ideas from their particular personal sources in this forum and dealing with the ideas not the sources. Do not say: "Burgess, your supposition that 'worldview' is the genus of both religion and philosophy is really stupid [or brilliant] because ...." Likewise, do not say: "Burgess's idea of making 'worldview' the genus of both religion and philosophy is intriguing because ...." Again, mentally decouple ideas from their particular personal source--and then in writing deal with the idea only. Of course, if you need to document a source (which always applies to citing Ayn Rand), do so, for example: "... as Kant said in Critique of Pure Reason, B234, ...."

If your screen name is not your full true name or does not link directly to a page on which your full true name appears, then sign your comment with your true name at least in some truncated form--e.g., J. Smith for John Quintius Smith III. Unless your first name is unusual (like "Burgess"), state at least an initial for your last name, to avoid confusion with the names of other commenters with the same first name. Make no anonymous or pseudonymous comments. Be sure to at least link to your homepage, unless you are using your full true name. Identify yourself. I want to know, to some extent, the individuals with whom I am communicating. If you prefer anonymity, post elsewhere. (However, see Post Script.)

Support the good. I value Ayn Rand, as well as Leonard Peikoff, Peter Schwartz, and others associated with ARI. I delete posts from writers--such as Kellyites, Brandonites, and libertarians--who attack those I value or who sanction such attackers, e.g., on home pages.

Follow the other usual rules of etiquette. For example: (1) Write grammatically. If for you English is a second language, please say so. I admire anyone newly trying to communicate in English, which is a very difficult language. (2) Capitalize properly, especially "Objectivism" (not "objectivism"). (3) Use a spell-checker unless you are normally an excellent speller. (4) Write with civility; use no vulgarities. (5) Be dignified.

Provide contact information. I am a novice weblog moderator trying to learn the system's capabilities. I have not found a way to communicate with commenters before publishing or rejecting their comments. (The software gives me only those two choices.) If you innocently violate the etiquette, but provide no email address allowing me to tell you what is wrong, I must therefore reject your comment without explanation. The burden rests on you to comply with the etiquette and to provide a channel of private communication (e.g., through your blogger profile or homepage).

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

P. S. -- Nov. 20, '07: Edits of comments that mistakenly violate etiquette. My standards of etiquette are unusual; and, for some individuals, they are difficult to follow. Some individuals who have inadvertently violated etiquette have, nevertheless, offered pertinent comments. Unfortunately some of these individuals have given me no way to communicate with them about the etiquette problems. Rather than reject their comments, I have decided to edit them, when I have the time and interest, and post them myself, but still credit the source, where warranted.

Nov 16, 2007

What is Western Civilization?

"Western Civilization" is a term used often in Objectivist writings as well as elsewhere, both by professional historians and laymen. What is Western Civilization? What idea does the term symbolize; and to what facts of reality does the idea refer?

TERMS AND IDEAS. Anyone is free to employ any term for a given idea, and anyone is free to form and then define an idea in any way he wants. For efficiency and effectiveness in thinking and communicating, the policy I follow is to try to use conventional terms to name ideas as they are already used if those ideas have been logically formed. Sometimes one needs to reconstruct an idea to make it valid--while keeping the term, rather than creating a neologism.

MY USAGE. As I use the term, Western Civilization does not refer to a culture defined by geography, ethnicity, language, or other non-essential characteristics. Instead, "Western Civilization" refers to a set of principles, values, and their products. The elements of the set are related cognitively and historically. In hierarchical order, the elements are:
- A view of the world as operating by natural law (in metaphysics).
- A method of reason (in epistemology).
- A morality of long-term rational self-interest (in ethics).
- A system of rights (in politics).
- An art of inspiration for life on earth (in esthetics).

These ideas and values are all elements of rational culture, but Western Civilization is not synonymous with an ideal Rational Culture independent of time and place. Instead, Western Civilization is a particular stream of culture, sometimes advancing rapidly and sometimes regressing, but only existing at particular times, in particular places, and in particular degrees of achievement. Likewise, other cultures--in other times and places--have had rational elements too. But no other culture has had so many rational elements, in such an influential degree, over such a long time. Likewise, none have had a philosophy of reason at its base. That philosophy was implicit before Aristotle, and explicit with and after him.

BENEFITS. Two examples of con games I have heard are: (1) "The Bible is the most important book in the history of Western Civilization," says the religionist; and (2) "Racism, poverty, and oppression are the products of Western Civilization," says the multiculturalist. The authors of these statements implicitly define Western Civilization by non-essentials and ignore its essential distinguishing characteristic, an underlying, though often implicit, philosophy of reason. Having an essentialized idea of Western Civilization simplifies the study of history and exposes intellectual con games.

SUMMARY. Western Civilization is a complex of cultural elements based on a philosophy of reason, a cultural complex that has flowed brightly or dimly through time and space from the era of the Greeks to West Europeans to America and now, diffusely, throughout the world.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

Notes: [1] For the hierarchical list of elements of W. Civilization: Thomas A. Bowden, The Enemies of Christopher Columbus: Answers to Critical Questions About the European Discovery of America, Second Renaissance Books (now The Ayn Rand Bookstore), 1995, pp. 7-8. [2] For the meaning of "essential" and the method of essentializing: Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd ed., pp. 45-46. [3] The term "Western Civilization" is not the name of a concept, but the proper name of an entity. (I have also heard it called an "abstract particular.") It is a secondary entity, which is a set of primary entities (in this case, individual men and women) who interact, produce things (such as books and buildings), and are interrelated in various ways. This interconnected set of real things is properly considered an entity for the purpose of study. See Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd ed., pp. 264-276 (especially pp. 270-271) for discussion of secondary entities and for a society as an example. I am grateful to Stuart Johns for explaining this to me when I asked about The Roman Empire Problem--that is, what kind of thing is the Roman Empire? [4] In "Philosophical Detection," Ayn Rand analyzes five catch phrases, and then she describes the first step of her method: "You must attach clear, specific meanings to words, i. e., be able to identify their referents in reality. This is a precondition, without which neither critical judgment nor thinking of any kind is possible. All philosophical con games count on your using words as vague approximations." ("Philosophical Detection," Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 18.) This approach has been my guide in trying to understand and explain key terms/ideas used vaguely by professionals in my field of interest, history.

Oct 27, 2007

What is "implicit knowledge"?

My purpose here is to test my understanding of one element of Ayn Rand's epistemology.

AYN RAND'S IDEA OF IMPLICIT KNOWLEDGE. In her 1966-1967 treatise Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Ayn Rand defines "implicit knowledge" as "passively held material which, to be grasped, requires a special focus and process of consciousness ..." (2nd ed., p. 57).

In her 1969-1971 epistemology workshops, she elaborates: "The 'implicit' is that which is available to your consciousness but which you have not conceptualized. For instance, if you state a certain proposition, implicit in it are certain conclusions, but you may not necessarily be aware of them, because a special separate act of consciousness is required to draw these consequences and grasp conceptually what is implied in your original statement. ... An implicit concept is the stage of an integration when one is in the process of forming that integration and until it is completed. ... And that's not all done instantaneously: it is a process. It is in that process that the future concept is implicit." (ITOE, 2nd ed., pp. 159 and 162)

EXAMPLE 1. Ayn Rand describes the first steps in forming knowledge: (a) sensation; (b) perception; and (c) three stages, for a child, in the develop-ment of the implicit concept "existent" into the implicit concepts of entity, identity, and unit. (ITOE, 2nd ed., pp. 5-7) A philosophical adult can make the four concepts explicit by following the steps of concept-formation and naming the concepts. (ITOE, 2nd ed., pp. 10-15)

EXAMPLE 2. I know explicitly that all men are mortal and that Mr. Smith is a man. Thus I also have implicit knowledge that Mr. Smith is mortal. I can make that knowledge explicit by performing a particular act of consciousness (deduction) and by saying the result: "Mr. Smith is mortal."

EXAMPLE 3. Aristotle was the father of many elements of logic. E.g., he identified fallacies, described syllogisms, and developed criteria for defining things by genus and species. However, Aristotle's concept of logic itself -- as a special science encompassing the elements -- was implicit. Five hundred years later, the Aristotelian philosophical-scholar Alexander of Aphrodisias (c. AD 200-250) made the concept of logic, as a science, explicit by naming the science logikos, and by defining it as the study of the principles of valid inference.

SUMMARY. To what facts of reality does the idea of "implicit knowledge" refer? From introspection, I can see that:
- Knowledge--whether concepts, principles, or theories--consists of integrated elements.
- Cognitive integration takes time and requires an act of volition, using a certain method.
- The process is complete when I can express the new knowledge as a word naming a concept, as a sentence stating a principle, or as a treatise presenting a theory.

Implicit knowledge is information which I have in pieces; have not put together into a concept, principle, or theory; and have not named, stated, or formulated. An implicit idea is like a building. An "implicit building" is one that consists of separate girders, bricks, and boards being put into position by cranes. The building becomes "explicit," so to speak, after the builder joins the pieces and puts a sign on the front door, naming the building.

I think of implicit knowledge as knowledge under construction.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

Oct 20, 2007

Distinguishing Worldview, Philosophy, and Ideology

I frequently encounter and occasionally use the terms "worldview," "philosophy," and "ideology." The problems I have wrestled with are:
- What idea does each term name?
- How are the ideas--and the facts they subsume--related?

My answer is that a worldview is a comprehensive set of ideas that, taken together, explain at least: (1) the basic nature of the world in which one lives; (2) one's own basic nature (including the way one knows about the world around us); and (3) the manner in which one should act in the world. "Worldview" is the genus for two species: religion and philosophy. The essential characteristic distinguishing religion and philosophy is the method by which a theologian or philosopher comes to his conclusions: mysticism for religion versus reason for philosophy.

Whether they are religions or philosophies, worldviews are universal in the sense that they are meant by their developers to apply to all individuals, at all times, and in all places. For example, in Christianity, the virtue of charity wasn't meant by Christians to apply only to the people of the Eastern Mediterranean in the first century AD. Likewise, in Objectivism, the virtue of honesty--facing facts of reality--will apply as much 1000 years from now as it does today.

By contrast, an ideology is an application of a universal worldview (particularly its ethics and politics) to the current milieu, that is, a certain broadly defined time and place. An ideology is not merely the worldview's ethics and politics lopped off from their base in epistemology and ontology. An ideology explains (1) the nature of a society's current situation in history, especially the political aspects, and (2) what should, in the most general terms, be done next to create the ideal society. For example, Marxism is an ideology applying a Kantian philosophy to the time of Marx and his successors in the countries dominated by "capitalists." For another example of an ideology, see the title essay in Ayn Rand's For the New Intellectual.

Conclusion: Worldview, philosophy, and ideology have distinct, logically related meanings. They are not synonyms.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory:The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

(The Ayn Rand Lexicon contains informative entries for "Ideology," "Religion," and "Philosophy.")