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Monday, September 15, 2008

Study Groups for Objectivists

SGO, open to all Objectivists, has completed its first study group, covering chapter 5 of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. It was a great success with six contributing members, and I gained clarity on some points in the chapter.

I developed the SGO software from scratch using C# and db4o. I like to have complete ownership of an implementation like this, because it lets me experiment with improved architectural elements -- such as using an object database (db4o) rather than a relational database, and trying my hand at Domain Driven Design.

Two study groups are slated for the rest of this year. I'll be moderating one covering the first half of Ayn Rand's lecture and essay, "The Objectivist Ethics."

Here's my final post in the study group we just completed:
The challenge question I assigned myself a few weeks ago was this: Most people would think that knowing a word's definition is more than you need to know to understand a word, i.e., that one doesn't need to be able to formally define "justice" in order to understand what it is. How do we know that this is wrong?

One theme of chapter 5 is that knowledge is contextual: every element of one's knowledge is built upon and supported by other elements of one's knowledge, all the way down to one's actual perceptual experiences. Chapter 3 showed one way in which knowledge is contextual: conceptual hierarchy. For example, the concept "furniture" cannot be grasped before grasping concepts such as "table" and "chair" -- because tables and chairs are not similar enough in immediate perception to warrant "furniture" as a first-level concept; but "table" and "chair" as concepts are similar with regard to the more abstract distinguishing characteristic of "furniture": tables and chairs can support the human body and/or other objects. So, "table" and "chair" (or similar) are part of the cognitive context which is necessary to grasp "furniture". See 3.12 (chapter 3, paragraph 12).

The principle that knowledge is contextual has much broader application than just conceptual hierarchy. She gives an example at 3.13: "habitation" is not a unit of "furniture", but it is part of the necessary context for grasping "furniture" as an adult.

How is the contextual knowledge which supports a concept specified? By defining its units. A definition makes explicit the concepts and relationships one must grasp to distinguish a concept's units. When there is some question as to exactly what the essential characteristic of a concept is, and one just "kinda" feels what he or she means by a word, the concept is not actually retained because it has become unhinged from those other pieces of knowledge needed to identify its units.

Given the nature of concepts, no concept can exist on its own in one's mind, it must be properly related to the rest of one's knowledge -- which means in practice that it must be immediately definable. Otherwise it is at most an approximation of knowledge.

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  • At 12:29 PM , Blogger German Viscuso said...


    It's great that you're using db4o =) Is your application open source? Maybe you want to consider contributing it as a sample application. It could be listed in

    Best regards and thx!

  • At 2:35 PM , Blogger Brad Williams said...

    The SGO application itself is not open source, but it uses the open source "db4o ASP.NET Providers" project I've uploaded on CodePlex.


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