The Stolen Concept
Nathaniel Branden, PhD
This essay was originally published in The Objectivist Newsletter in January 1963.
The distinguishing characteristic of twentieth-century philosophy is a resurgence of irrationalism – a revolt against reason.
Students in colleges today are assailed with pronouncements to the effect that factual certainty is impossible, that the contents of man’s mind need bear no necessary relationship to the facts of reality, that the concept of “facts of reality” is an old-fashioned superstition, that reality is “mere appearance,” that man can know nothing. It is with such intellectual equipment that their teachers arm them to deal with the problems of life.
In the prevalence of these claims, primordial mysticism is winning its ultimate triumph and (for the moment) is enjoying the last laugh – because men are now taught to accept as the voice of science, the conclusion that man’s reason is impotent to know the “real” world, and that the world knowable to reason is not “real.”
In this article, I shall confine myself to the analysis of a single principle – a single fallacy – which is rampant in the writings of the neo-mystics and without which their doctrines could not be propagated.
We call it “the fallacy of the stolen concept.”
To understand this fallacy, consider an example of it in the realm of politics: Proudhon’s famous declaration that “All property is theft.”
“Theft” is a concept that logically and genetically depends on the antecedent concept of “rightfully owned property” – and refers to the act of taking that property without the owner’s consent. If no property is rightfully owned, that is, if nothing is property, there can be no such concept as “theft.” Thus, the statement “All property is theft” has an internal contradiction: to use the concept “theft” while denying the validity of the concept of “property,” is to use “theft” as a concept to which one has no logical right – that is, as a stolen concept.
All of man’s knowledge and all of his concepts have a hierarchical structure. The foundation or ultimate base of this structure is man’s sensory perceptions; these are the starting points of his thinking. From these, man forms his first concepts and (ostensive) definitions – then goes on building the edifice of his knowledge by identifying and integrating new concepts on a wider and wider scale. It is a process of building one identification upon another – of deriving wider abstractions from previously known abstractions, or of breaking down wider abstractions into narrower classifications. Man’s concepts are derived from and depend on earlier, more basic concepts, which serve as their genetic roots. For example, the concept “parent” is presupposed by the concept “orphan”; if one had not grasped the former, one could not arrive at the latter, nor could the latter be meaningful.
The hierarchical nature of man’s knowledge implies an important principle that must guide man’s reasoning: When one uses concepts, one must recognize their genetic roots, one must recognize that which they logically depend on and presuppose.
Failure to observe this principle – as in “All property is theft” – constitutes the fallacy of the stolen concept.
Now let us examine a few of the more prevalent anti-reason tenets and observe how they rest on this fallacy.
Consider the laws of logic. In the Aristotelian school of thought, these laws are recognized as being abstract formulations of self-evident truths, truths implicit in man’s first perceptions of reality, implicit in the very concept of existence, of “being qua being;” these laws acknowledge the fact that to be, is to be something, that a thing is itself. Among many contemporary philosophers, it is fashionable to contest this view – and to assert that the axioms of logic are “arbitrary” or “hypothetical.”
The Stolen Concept II
To declare that the axioms of logic are “arbitrary” is to ignore the context which gives rise to such a concept as the “arbitrary.” An arbitrary idea is one accepted by chance, caprice or whim; it stands in contradistinction to an idea accepted for logical reasons, from which it is intended to be distinguished. The existence of such a concept as an “arbitrary” idea is made possible only by the existence of logically necessary ideas; the former is not a primary, it is genetically dependent on the latter. To maintain that logic is “arbitrary” is to divest the concept “arbitrary” of meaning.
To declare that the axioms of logic are “hypothetical” (or merely “probable”) is to be guilty of the same contradiction. The concept of the “hypothetical (or the “probable”) is not a primary; it acquires meaning only in contradistinction to the known, the certain, the logically established. Only when one knows something which is certain, can one arrive at the idea of that which is not; and only logic can separate the latter from the former.
“An axiom is a statement that identifies the base of knowledge and of any further statement pertaining to that knowledge, a statement necessarily contained in all others, whether any particular speaker chooses to identify it or not. An axiom is a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it. Let the caveman who does not choose to accept the axiom of identity, try to present his theory without using the concept of identity or any concept derived from it…” (Atlas Shrugged).
When neo-mystics challenge the concept of “entity” and announce that “naive” reason notwithstanding, all that exists is change and motion – (“There is no logical impossibility in walking occurring as an isolated phenomenon, not forming part of any such series as we call a ‘person,’” writes Bertrand Russell) – they are sweeping aside the fact that only the existence of entities makes the concepts “change” and “motion” possible; that “change” and “motion” presuppose entities which change and move; and that the man who proposes to dispense with the concept of “entity” loses his logical right to the concepts of “change” and “motion”: having dropped their genetic root, he no longer has any way to make them meaningful and intelligible.
When neo-mystics assert that man perceives, not objective reality, but only an illusion or mere appearance – they evade the question of how one acquires such a concept as “illusion” or “appearance” without the existence of that which is not an illusion or mere appearance. If there were no objective perceptions of reality, from which “illusions” and “appearances” are intended to be distinguished, the latter concepts would be unintelligible.
When neo-mystics declare that man can never know the facts of reality, they are declaring that man is not conscious. If man cannot know the facts of reality, he cannot know anything – because there is nothing else to know. If he cannot perceive existence, he cannot perceive anything – because there is nothing else to perceive. To know nothing and to perceive nothing is to be unconscious. But to arrive – by a complex chain of “reasoning” and a long string of such concepts as “knowledge,” “perceive,” “evidence,” “infer,” “proof” – at the conclusion that one is not conscious, is scarcely epistemologically admissible.
“‘We know that we know nothing,’ they chatter, blanking out the fact that they are claiming knowledge – ‘There are no absolutes,’ they chatter, blanking out the fact that they are uttering an absolute – ‘You cannot prove that you exist or that you’re conscious,’ they chatter, blanking out the fact that proof presupposes existence, consciousness and a complex chain of knowledge: the existence of something to know, of a consciousness able to know it, and of a knowledge that has learned to distinguish between such concepts as the proved and the unproved.” (Atlas Shrugged)
The Stolen Concept III
Existence exists (that which is, is) and consciousness is conscious (man is able to perceive reality) – these are axioms at the base of all of man’s knowledge and concepts. When neo-mystics contest or deny them, all of the concepts they use thereafter are stolen. They are entitled only to such concepts as they can derive from non-existence by means of unconsciousness.
It is rational to ask: “How does man achieve knowledge?” It is not rational to ask: “Can man achieve knowledge?” – because the ability to ask the question presupposes a knowledge of man and of the nature of knowledge. It is rational to ask: “What exists?” It is not rational to ask: “Does anything exist?” – because the first thing one would have to evade is the existence of the question and of a being who is there to ask it. It is rational to ask: “How do the senses enable man to perceive reality?” It is not rational to ask: “Do the senses enable man to perceive reality?” – because if they do not, by what means did the speaker acquire his knowledge of the senses, of perception, of man and of reality?
One of the most grotesque instances of the stolen concept fallacy may be observed in the prevalent claim – made by neo-mystics and old-fashioned mystics alike – that the acceptance of reason rests ultimately on “an act of faith.”
Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by the senses. Faith is the acceptance of ideas or allegations without sensory evidence or rational demonstration. “Faith in reason” is a contradiction in terms. “Faith” is a concept that possesses meaning only in contradistinction to reason. The concept of “faith” cannot antecede reason, it cannot provide the grounds for the acceptance of reason – it is the revolt against reason.
One will search in vain for a single instance of an attack on reason, on the senses, on the ontological status of the laws of logic, on the cognitive efficacy of man’s mind that does not rest on the fallacy of the stolen concept.
The fallacy consists of the act of using a concept while ignoring, contradicting or denying the validity of the concepts on which it logically and genetically depends.
This fallacy must be recognized and repudiated by all thinkers, if truth and reality are their goal.
In the absence of such recognition and repudiation, the gates are left open to the most lethal form of mysticism – the mysticism that postures as “science.”
Who are the neo-mystics’ victims?
Any college student who enrolls in philosophy courses, eagerly seeking a rational, comprehensive view of man and existence – and who is led to surrender the conviction that his mind can have any efficacy whatever; or who, at best, gives up philosophy in disgust and contempt, concludes that it is a con game for pretentious intellectual role-players, and thus accepts the tragically mistaken belief that philosophy is of no practical importance to man’s life on earth.