By Filip Björner
Read my earlier articles
This is the latest debate article
Published tuesday January 1:st 2019
I have something to tell You...
...about the nature of the concept something.
The concept something is well known to all of us. We use it almost daily, in several different situations, and for different purposes. We use it when we are troubled, as in the sentence: "There's something wrong with my car." We also use it when we are thrilled with excitement, as in the simple sentence: "I'm on to something." In a certain context that may be a mention of some breaking news; it can be the introduction line when we tell a person that we are exploring "something", at a moment when we believe or hope that we are on the right track of finding "something" extraordinary or at least "something" interesting, and we can talk about this "something" which we are exploring while our heart beats a little faster and our curiousity is on fire.
A vast range of meanings
We surely use the concept "something" for referring to a vast range of different things. Yes indeed, anything there is and everything we can imagine can sometimes be referred to as a "something". And by the way... the concept sometime, as well as the concepts somewhere and someone (and also the variant somebody) are subconcepts of the concept something, as related to time, places and persons. (And the same goes for the concepts anytime, anywhere and anyone being subconcepts of the concept anything.)
So... we all know... kinda... what the concept "something" means... Now... don't we?
Well, yes... at least we kinda do so... we obviously know enough about it's meaning for us to be able to use it a lot. But... what does the concept "something" actually mean, more precisely?
Maybe you would like to take a reading pause here, so you can reflect a while for yourself on this question, and try to answer it for yourself before you read further and see my definition of the concept something?
I will give you my definition of the concept something, but lets start with a broader focus on concepts and definitions as such.
A concept means all of its referents, as for example the simple concept man means all human beings there are, have ever been and can ever come to be. And the concept dog then, of course, means all dogs there are, have ever been and can ever come to be. These concepts are first-level concepts, which fact means that a child can learn them quickly by simply observing a few human beings and a few dogs, and subsequently forming those concepts by mentally isolating their common distinguishing characteristics.
An abstract concept subsumes other concepts as it referents, as for example the concept animal subsumes all dogs, cats and other mammals, as well as birds, fishes and insects etc. So the simple concept man is a referent for the more abstract concept animal, and so also for the in-between abstract concept mammal.
The nature of a concept is briefly summarized by a definition. A good (Aristotelian) definition is constructed by a genus and a differentia.
The genus stands for the group of concepts which the defined concept as a specia belongs to. Such concepts as table and chair as species belong to the broader genus concept furniture. Such concepts as cat and man as species belong to the genus concept mammal, which in its turn as a specia together with such other specia concepts as birds, fishes and insects belongs to the broader genus concept animal.
The differentia specifies the most distinguishing characteristics by which a concept as a specia differs from other species within the group of the defined concept. So for example a characteristic of the specia concept man is that a man has fingers while cats have claws and horses have hooves. But having fingers is not mans most fundamental characteristic, even monkeys has fingers. Man's most fundamental charachteristic, among all other animals, all mammals and others, is his rational faculty.
Definitions can be more or less primitive or advanced. A primitive definition may consist of arbitrarily chosen charachteristics or merely easily detected characteristics, while the best definitions deal with fundamentals. A primitive definition of the concept man would for example be "a walking animal with thumbs". That definition is not wrong, it is just primitive.
A correct advanced definition cannot contradict a correct primitive definition. The most advanced definition of the concept man is "the rational animal". It doesn't contradict the fact that a normal man has two thumbs, two legs and can walk. The differentia "rational" is just more fundamental than the differentia "walking animal with thumbs". It is so because the human ability to think is the main cause of all the things man can do which other animals can't.
Summarizing the core
An Aristotelian definition consists of a genus and a differentia. The genus is the group of concepts which the defined concept as a specia belongs to. And the differentia describes the fundamental distinguishing characteristics of the defined concept. With this in mind I have identified the following definition, for the concept "something":
In this definition the single word "existent" is the genus. And the differentia are all the following words... "which is specific and unspecified".
A powerful concept
Let's check if this differentia really covers all the kinds of referents we ever could mean when we use the word "something". When you hear the doorbell ringing and you are too lazy to go and check who is ringing, you might ask a relative or a friend to help you: "Someone is ringing on the door. Can you please open and check who it is?" And since the concept someone is a subconcept to the concept something as related to persons, it should mean a person who is both specific and unspecified. And when we consider it, we can draw the conclusion that this is true. By asking a person to check who that someone is who is pressing a finger to the doorbell, you don't specify who that someone is or might be, but at least you take for granted that whoever it is it must be a specific person. After all, as Ayn Rand pointed out with her characteristic intellectual precision, "existence is identity". So whoever that unspecified person outside the door is, it must be a specific person making the doorbell ring.
And when a kid comes stumbling into the hallway bleeding from his nose and screams... "Something bad happened!" ...then you can be sure that whatever that "something" might be, you don't know what it is since it is left unspecified so far, but nevertheless you can be sure that it must have been something very specific resulting in what you are going to hear about, and which probably can be a cause of the bleeding nose you see.
The concept "something" can actually encapsulate a whole story as a single fact lightning fast, because it has the power of including anything as specific referents and at the same time momentarily excluding everything as unspecified.
Wow! The concept something really gives us a vast range of intellectual opportunities. It expands our capacity to think, mentally embrace, calculate, pause and retain in memory, and explore further...
And well... this is what concepts
And also an extra
Let's take a look at that definition again. And this time I will make it more specific. The former definition is the best one, and the one I will give you now doesn't contradict the former, it will merely make an aspect explicit which is implicit in the former definition. And in order to emphasize that I will italicize the two extra words in the extra definition:
A something is an existent which is metaphysically specific and epistemologically unspecified.
Our ability of "unspecification"
What does this extra definition bring to light? It is something which is self-evident, or rather which should be self-evident and which is so from the moment it is grasped. What is specfic is that which has identity. And possessing identity is an aspect of everything in the realm of existence, therefore this aspect is metaphysical. And what is unspecified are all those specifications we temporarily leave out of our mental focus, not as blanked out and forgotten but as omitted from our explicit knowledge or communication, so this aspect therefore belongs to epistemology.
The ability of "unspecification" (i.e. to refrain from specifying) in our own thinking and also in our communication with others is important for two reasons. Firstly because we may have a lack of knowledge about "something", so we want to learn more about it - and secondly because we in a certain context need to leave out details in a communication. Of course both of those reasons can be at play at the same time. We can have several reasons for wanting to leave out details in a communication. The most common one is the need for speed with focus on essentials.
The bridge aspect
More fundamentally the concept "something" belongs to a group of concepts which serves our need for mentally connecting metaphysical aspects with epistemological aspects without chaotically mixing them up. These concepts are bridges between metaphysics and epistemology. They help us think clearly so we can avoid dangerous mental fog or mystical confusion.
Let me concretize. Imagine you are strolling through the countryside on a vacation. Suddenly you may hear a strange sound in a forest which seems to come from a big tree, and when you tell your friend that you heard "something" over there (and maybe you also point out the direction while speaking), you are exercising a far better mental effort than if you instead had said that there is a noisy demon in that tree.
Instead of helplessly jumping to a mystical conclusion you stick with the facts of reality, and the concept "something" is an important tool in your intellectual equipment which helps you think rationally.
The concept unit
Another concept belonging to the group of concepts which are bridges between metaphysics and epistemology is the concept "unit". As Ayn Rand discovered, this concept matters enormously in concept-formation, even though it is normally only used implicitly. She describes this briefly in her book Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology:
"A unit is an existent regarded as a separate member of a group of two or more similar members. (Two stones are two units; so are two square feet of ground, if regarded as distinct parts of a continuous stretch of ground.) Note that the concept 'unit' involves an act of consciousness (a selective focus, a certain way of regarding things), but that it is not an arbitrary creation of consciousness; it is a method of identification or classification according to the attributes which a consciousness observes in reality. This method permits any number of classification and cross-classifications: one may classify things according to their shape or color or weight or size or atomic structure; but the criterion of classification is not invented, it is perceived in reality. Thus the concept 'unit' is a bridge between metaphysics and epistemology: units do not exist qua units, what exists are things, but units are things viewed by a consciousness in certain existing relationships."
There are other such bridge concepts, and I will here briefly mention a few of them.
In the mid 90:ies I was rereading Ayn Rands book Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology at my work. I was, and still am, a ticket seller in the subway of Stockholm. It is a fantastic work, which in calm time periods permits me to read and write. One day a customer stood still in front of me in the station Sandsborg. She was thinking before aproaching me with a question. She said: "I want to buy a such one." And then she made a gesture with her hands forming the contour of a strip in the air. And I immediately understood what she meant, and sold her a strip. (In Swedish, at the time, it was called "förköpshäfte" or "remsa".) And that got me thinking... My mind focused on the concept "such" and I explored its cognitive roots.
A temporary holder
I found two interrelated aspects. The _word_ "such" can serve as a temporary holder when we forget a word denoting a concept. The customer who wanted to buy a strip knew the concept "strip", she had merely forgotten the word for it. And the alternative word "such" made it possible for her both to think of that concept and (with some more help, by some appropriate body language) comunicate it. And I could infer her intended meaning. So, the _concept_ "such" has a certain flexibility which makes the word for that concept work as a substitute-word denoting other concepts. And the other aspect has something to do with concept-formation.
Most (or all) of the concepts we learn have been invented by others, and often we learn their words at the same time as we learn about their units, as when a parent for the first time is pointing to a doll and tells the child that "this is a doll", "look at that doll's dress" etc. But when a child encounters some similar objects on its own, it may start the process of conceptualizing them without the knowledge of a word to denote them. In such cases the (implicit) word "such" will do the trick, as a temporary and concrete holder. And I have coined the concept "suchnessity" (in Swedish: "sådanhet") to remind myself of this principle.
The number of words versus concepts
In one's personal thinking the concept "such" can substitute for a word which is not yet known or is temporarily forgotten. In comunication it serves the same purpose, but can also fill in gaps in describing sentences: "You know... I mean... such a thing... which...". This comunicative need often occurs when two persons each have different native languages. Considering all the languages in our world, we have plenty of different words which denote the same concepts. The total number of concepts is far smaller than the total number of words. And we also got some extra blabla-words as for example synonyms which exist merely for the sake of variation and for literary reasons.
Some other concepts with similar helping functions as the such-concept can be "these","those", "this", "that" and even the important concept "it".
Now, I will mention only one more concept in the group of concepts that serves as bridges between metaphysics and epistemology, and that is the concept Objectivity. Intellectually it is the highest concept a mind can grasp in this group, because grasping it fully gives us the cognitive guidance we need for staying civilized when other humans around us fall into the epistemology of primitive cavemen.
So let me quote a genius. This was written by the best philosopher who has lived in this world: "Objectivity is both a metaphysical and an epistemological concept. It pertains to the relationship of consciousness to existence. Metaphysically, it is the recognition of the fact that reality exists independent of any perceiverís consciousness. Epistemologically, it is the recognition of the fact that a perceiverís (manís) consciousness must acquire knowledge of reality by certain means (reason) in accordance with certain rules (logic)."
I will now also mention another group of concepts which is important for us, in order for us to be able to grasp and hold in our minds some of the core connections as well as the crucial differences between metaphysics and epistemology. These concepts are corresponding concepts. And I will just give you a short list, without any explanation.
New scholasticism needed
Holding the differences and borders in mind between metaphysics and epistemology is a hallmark of clear thinking. And todays academic world is in this regard a meltdown.
Even the most nitpicking amongst the medieval scholastics were far better thinkers than the deconstructivist academics of today; while the worst of the scholastics wasted time on meticulous disputes, the humbug intellectuals in Western universities of today teach, debate and advocate a blur mixed with fog. At their best they gives us nonsense and at their worst they give us nihilism.
Let's redispute the Problem of Universals
In order to clean up the mess in the rooms and corridors where real intellectuals ought to be found, we need to launch a new dispute on the Problem of Universals. Yes, I think that no less than such a time-demanding battle is necessary. I actually don't believe in the possibility of a Second Renaissance without mankind first going through a second scholastical dispute on the Problem of Universals. And this time the reality-orientated thinkers can and should win.
Hopefully this article can function as a small step in the right direction. As Ayn Rand pointed out the "nothing-thinkers" have done enough damage with a fallacy she called..."the Reification of the Zero. It consists of regarding 'nothing' as a thing, as a special, different kind of existent."
I wholehartedly agree with her. Rational thinkers should talk about "something". They should have something to say which is pro both reality and reason.
A philosophical core choice
We have a choice. We can choose between reason and unreason. We can choose between respecting the facts of reality or closing our eyes and our minds.
An Objective view of reality holds that reality is primary, absolute and inevitable, and the deeper epistemological view which it corresponds to is the idea that an active consciousness can discover facts by a process of logical identification.
A Subjective view of reality holds that reality is subordinated, that a consciousness can have primacy over existense
An Intrinsic view of reality holds that reality is mystical, and the deeper epistemological view which it corresponds to is that a passive consciousness can discover facts; as by revelation, without any mental process at all, which of course implies absolutely no need for logical thinking.
Yes, we can choose between these three different views of reality along with their more essential respective views on epistemology, but we cannot escape their epistemological consequences, nor their existensial consequences for our lives. We are free to choose between respect or disrespect for facts; we are not free to live successfully without any rational mental effort. As human beings we cannot stay alive without thinking, and we cannot go on disrespecting facts without nourishing a meltdown of our respective minds.
What kind of man do you want to be? A half-primitive cavemen or a civilized individual? I know what I choose. Life and happiness.
 Introduction To Objectivist epistemology [ITOE]. The quote is taken from pages 7 and 8 in the original paperback edition, which was published in 1979. ISBN 0-451-62171-9. (But the content of that whole book was first published as early as in 1966 and 1967 in some issues of the magazine The Objectivist.) The qoute is also to be found on pages 6 and 7 in the posthumously published expanded edition of ITOE, which contains a lenghty section of some excerpts from workshops Ayn Rand held with philosophers and other academics in 1969-1971. It was published in 1990. Hard cover ISBN 0-453-00724-4. Read about ITOE here:
(In Swedish the preface to ITOE and the two first chapters were published in 1993 as issue number 30 of Objektivistisk $kriftserie. ISSN 0284-2661.)
In ITOE Rand published her theory of concepts; on concept formation and the nature of concepts, how they are constructed, why they are constructed
In the first chapter of ITOE Ayn Rand describes the concept concept only implicitly. It is mentioned as a mental "group" when she defines the concept unit: "A unit is an existent regarded as a separate member of a group of two or more similar members." That "group" is a concept, rudimentarily described. In the second chapter of ITOE she explicitly defines the concept concept twice. That way she guides us climbing on a cognitive ladder towards better knowledge in three following steps, and this is the final step: "A concept is a mental integration of two or more units possessing the same distinguishing characteristic(s), with their particular measurements omitted."
But that step is only "final" as a definition, not as a full-fledged knowledge of the nature of concepts. Far from it... In the book she continues by describing how conceptual differentiations "are made in terms of commensurable characteristics". And she dives into several interrelated advanced aspects, and just never stops adding on with new insights.
Yes, the condensed content in ITOE is so dense that it is impossible for any alert intellectual reader to reread any chapter of ITOE without gaining new aha-experiences each time.
 Qouted from Rands essay Who Is the Final Authority in Ethics?, which was first published in The Objectivist Newsletter in 1965. It was republished as chapter four in the posthumously published book Voice Of Reason in 1988. ISBN 0-453-00634-5. (In Swedish this essay was published in 1989 as issue number 13 of Objektivistisk $kriftserie. ISSN 0284-2661.)
 The Renaissance in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was nourished by Aristotelian premises brought forward in the thirteenth century by Thomas Aquinas. This entire good trend started to reverse in the late eighteenth century by irrational premises brought forward by Immanuel Kant. Since then philosophy has mostly gone downhill. The huge exception from this trend is the thinking of Ayn Rand. Her philosophy has the power to start a Second Renaissance. But not without an intellectual struggle.
I believe we must launch a new dispute on the problem of universals in order to win the intellectual war. And since Ayn Rand already has solved the problem it should be easy to win the battle. All we need to do is to point at the solution and tell the world that it exists. So, let us use our freedom of speech and loudly speak about the Objective nature of concepts.
 This does not mean that there is anything wrong with the concept nothing. That concept is also an important concept. But it cannot be understood prior to the concept something, since the meaning of "nothing" simply is the absence of "something".
 Ayn Rands intellectual heir, dr Leonard Peikoff, discovered these three technical definitions for objectivity, subjectivism and intrincisism. He defined their essential connections and differentiations as epistemological alternatives, in terms of active/passive and discover/create. This aproach is an example of salutary elucidation.
Ayn Rand coined the term intrincisism to refer to the epistemology behind the irrational belief in revelation. And she also pointed out that intrincisism and subjectivism are related epistemologies with common false premises. The most well known subjectivists in the history of philosophy are Berkeley and Fichte, but sadly today the majority of our contemporary philosophers are subjectivists, whether they are so openly or implicitly.
Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand, adheres to objectivity in all of the five branches of philosophy. There are other philosophies which like Objectivism share the demand for coherence in thinking. But Objectivism also insists on correspondence between the facts of reality and our thoughts. Truth is a mental product corresponding with a fact of reality which must not contradict any other item of knowledge.