Ayn Rand to High School Student: "Your questions do not make sense"

I am well, well aware that this is the sort of thing that makes her foes consider Rand an absurd crank, but to me it all feeds in to why I love her. See this report from the San Diego Union Tribune's web site on a high school student in 1963 who wrote various then-huge literary lions to ask them about the use and meaning of symbolism in their work.

Rand found his definition to be untrue--and thus "your questions do not make sense."

All the responses the kid (Bruce McAllister, now a writing coach and author) got, from the Paris Review. Writers who wrote back include Kerouac, Mailer, Updike, Bradbury, Bellow, and Ralph Ellison.

Reason on Rand. Hundreds of pages on Rand's life, work, and influence in my book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.

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  • Juice||

    She was a total dick to a high school student and that's why you love her? Okiedokie.

  • A Serious Man||

    Um, she gave him her honest opinion. What's wrong with that?

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: A Serious Man,

    Marxists do not like it when people point out the truth that their definitions do not make sense, A. That's all. They have a hang up about that.

  • oh yeah||

    Remember that time Ayn Rand lived her final years on government benefits? that was awesome. ah-hah!

  • ||

    You mean when she got back SOME of the money that was confiscated over the years? That. Was. Awesome. ah-hah!

  • KPres||

    That was OUR money!

  • ||

    Right. Because her money had already been given to someone else. That's why they call it a ponzi scheme.

  • Vake||

    Remember the time you got that tax cut from that President you hated? I'm sure you gave it right back to the IRS.

  • ||

    I never saw a "tax cut" I hated.

  • ||

    Sorry, thought that was for me. Disregard.

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    A tax cut is letting you keep more of your money.

    A subsidy is accepting money forcibly* taken from someone else.

    Rand's decision to take SSI was probably one of the most ideologically damaging things she did, from my pro-Rand perspective.

    *Or under the threat of force.

  • ||

    Except that Rand had already argued, decades earlier, in favor of accepting government benefits, on the grounds that "Kant feel Pietzsche" explains above.

    So I don't see how her decision caused ideological damage; it can be labeled hypocritical only by those arguing ignorantly or dishonestly.

    If you're merely saying that it was unwise from a PR-strategy perspective -- that she should have declined SSI simply because people are too stupid to know or understand her argument -- I suppose that's a little different. But then you're basically asking her to ignore one of her own principles just for the sake of humoring idiots and hacks.

  • Famous Potato||


  • BakedPenguin||

    There's a logical end to the leftist "honest libertarians wouldn't use guvamint ROADZ!" bullshit. In a totalitarian state, libertarians would ostensibly have to starve and die, since any economic activity is directed by the state.

  • Meh||

    There is nothing wrong with her giving her honest opinion, and I happen to agree with her opinion.

    Still, everyone else managed to cobble together enough meaning to give the student a meaningful answer. Hers was a dick move.

    I have no problem with it. We're all dicks sometimes. But call a spade a spade.

  • Krom||

    The article mentions that many of the authors didn't bother responding.

  • Maxxx||

    Her response is that of a dismissive self important asshole, not a dick.

    A dick would explain why the kid was wrong by providing her definition of symbolism and then answering the question.

  • Richard Stands||

    I imagine she'd say something like "I don't live for his sake."

    Not good PR, certainly. But she never much worried about making nice with every stranger.

  • Juice||

    Um, she gave him her honest opinion. What's wrong with that?

    She could have been more constructive and educational, no? Yeah, I know, Ayn Rand don't play dat. To her, being an antisocial twat is admirable.

  • ||

    Ha, Bradbury's answers were really good.

  • Joe M||

    And he signed it on Guy Fawkes' Day.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Yet another example of how for every person Rand draws to Liberty, she repulses two people from it.

    Science-fiction writers—most notably Fritz Leiber, Lloyd Biggle Jr., Judith Merril, and A. J. Budrys—were the most expansive. Biggle sent a lengthy letter and then, nearly a year later, sent further thoughts. In the second letter, he advised McAllister to read an essay by Mary McCarthy, “Settling the Colonel’s Hash,” saying, “You will not want to do any kind of article on symbolism until you have read [this] … You will find much good material there, as well as an emphatic reinforcement for your viewpoint.” (McCarthy sent the same advice herself.) Judith Merril’s response is heavily mired in linguistics; she offers McAllister a chart to illustrate her semantic overview.

    McAllister became a science-fiction writer. If Rand had taken the time to explain why his definition was false, and/or sleep with him, perhaps McAllister would have become her literary heir.

  • ||

    Damn it, I wish that had put Lieber's response up for viewing too.

  • Brett L||

    Read the article again. By the time he sent the letters he was already a published sci-fi writer.

  • Juice||

    If Rand had taken the time to explain why his definition was false, and/or sleep with him, perhaps McAllister would have become her literary heir.

    Looks like we all dodged a bullet.

  • A Serious Man||

    The only writer alive today that I would really want to meet or receive some corrospondence from is Cormac McCarthy.

  • Brett L||

    If someone would send me the head of Stephen King... I hear he's returning to the Rolandverse.

  • Pantless Deviant||

    ...this is the sort of thing that makes her foes consider Rand an absurd crank...

    No, just a pretentious hack and faux intellectual.

  • Jason Ward||

    Clearly, you haven't actually *studied* her, or you'd know that both your points are inaccurate. As a literary writer, her work is top tier except in one regard: her dialog tends to be very stiff and inorganic. Her attention to character details, plot depth, layered themes, etc, however, are top notch.

    Likewise intellectually, she was a superlative thinker. You disagree for a simple reason: you think in a linear fashion along the continuum of Altruist moral codes, which paves the whole way from "Left" to "Right", politically speaking.

    Rand, though--her ideas aren't on that continuum. They're neither Right nor Left; her viewpoint is completely different, and you simply choose not to allow yourself to look at the world through another lense.

    Don't feel bad; most other people are that way too, including the Randroids, who've only replaced "Jesus" with Ayn Rand and called it a day, intellectually speaking.

  • Ospin||

    Rand wrote fiction. Calling it Literature is an insult to the medium. Her characters don't *have* dialogue; they exchange extended sermons. I respect her non-fiction essays and her philosophy but the impression I'm left with after reading many of her writings as well as those of Nathaniel Branden's is that she was shrill and intolerant of differences of opinion. By the way, there is no correct or incorrect in terms of highly subjective fields such as fiction.

  • ||

    "As a literary writer, her work is top tier except in one regard: her dialog tends to be very stiff and inorganic. Her attention to character details, plot depth, layered themes, etc, however, are top notch."


    It's like listening to two stern, bearded intellectuals, say Freud v Marx, engaged in a conversation.

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    Well, the whole books are supposed to be about ideas. She left out the unimportant parts. The conversations could have flowed better--like say Heinlein's, which was just as preachy but rather easier for the average reader to get through.

  • Ospin||

    Left out? Atlas Shrugged could easily be only half its length without omitting anything relevant except n iterations of the same speech. Overall, Rand seems as preachy and wooden as one of her characters.

  • Neu Mejican||

    I think this provides a better sense of Rand's merits as a writer and thinker.

    But, to each his own, I guess.


    What interests me most about her is not the absurdity of her “philosophy,” but the size of her audience

  • ||

    "Generally, the best symbols in a novel are those you become aware of only after you finish the work"

    And with this statement, the premises of a few hundred thousand english grad papers can be rendered as useful as toilet paper, and a few hundred thousand lit majors should choose a new career.

  • ||

    Wait, new best: "Playing around with symbols, even as a critic, is a kind of kiddish parlor game."

  • yogi||

    There are two ways to look at this.

    1) Examples are not definitions. You should think more deeply about this.

    2) I am the Queen Bitch of Philosophy and nothing you utter means anything.

    It's 1 by the way.

  • Old Mexican||

    Ayn Rand was right - that was not a definition.

    One of the commenters was impressed with Ray Bradbury's reply, when in fact he pretty much went to lenght to lecture the guy on why he was an idiot for dwelling too much in the matter - read the reply and see for yourself. I would say that Ayn Rand did him a bigger favor by telling him to use his head, as good an advise as one could get.

  • ||

    Exactly. It was just too concise for some of our more touchy-feely members.

    If you want a good answer, ask a good question.

  • Juice||

    Ayn Rand was right

    So fucking what? She was wrong about what was the important part of the interaction with the high school student, which was education. The kid got nothing out of the interaction except probably that Ayn Rand is a cunt.

  • ||

    It's a bit like looking at a jar of urine with a crucifix in it, and then pontificating on what the "artist" "intended to convey".

    Intellectual masturbation, at best.

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    If art must have a message, then we have a whole lot of not-art exhibits.

    My personal opinion is that some people read so much into what someone wrote that its hard to believe the author intended a third of it. Otherwise, it would have taken then a decade to write the book.

    I'm not to surprised to find such deep stuff in Atlas Shrugged, though, because it *did* take her a decade to write the book.

  • ||

    Aesthetics can be the trickiest of all the sub-discliplines of philosophy.

    But, I'm pretty sure that I could decide I wouldn't care for the philosophy of the "piss-Christ" artist without exchanging two words, and not be wrong.

    And I say that as an atheist.

  • ||

    "My personal opinion is that some people read so much into what someone wrote that its hard to believe the author intended a third of it"

    Half of modern literary analysis is the practice of projecting one's own bias into someone else's words. The most embarrassing thing to see are papers about an author who's still fucking alive.

  • Glen||

    Rand was right -- the kid gave an example, not a definition. So why didn't she offer a proper definition, and then move forward from there? The questions the kid was asking were perfectly valid, and Rand should have seen that. I, for one, would have liked to read Rand's opinion on this subject, but she gave us nothing. I agree with Meh -- it was a dick move.

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    Agreed, Rand should have asked for a definition (and given her own). Keep in mind, though, that Rand had no tolerance for irrationality, and was probably a little annoyed that this kid went through all that trouble without providing even a basis for discussion.

    This could tie in with her ideas about non-thinking, and using substitutes for ideas.

  • ||

    Or, at least, that was how she saw herself. She said quite a few irrational statements: e.g. the glow of a the tip of a cigarette symbolizing the spark of personal creativity behind civilization.

  • ||

    In what way is that statement irrational?

    I'm asking in part because I'm genuinely curious what you mean, and further because I'm pretty sure I disagree. (With you.)

  • Maxxx||

    Keep in mind, though, that Rand had no tolerance for irrationality,


  • ||

    I'm curious. What would you folks do if you were a busy, best-selling author and an anonymous person sent you a form letter requesting that you write them an essay on the use of symbolism in literature? Personally, I think I'd crumple it up and toss it in the garbage.

    If I were in an expansive mood, though, maybe I'd send back a pithy reply, and see if I could get a more personalized response from the person. I might want to learn a little about him, and at least find out if he'd read any of my books, before I wasted my time trying to explain my work to him. :/

  • ||

    The fine line between "not suffering fools gladly" and being dickish can be treacherous.

  • ||

    Lets hit it up one time dude. Wow.


  • Tony||

    Naturally Rand's response was the least interesting, since she was a poor thinker who mistook her lack of understanding with bad premises.

    Of course writers use symbolism, and of course readers find more than was intended. Whether it's a useful activity to go "treasure hunting" for symbols is something I still struggle with having taken a degree in English. The ideas and insights matter most, and symbolism is a tool in a literary artist's toolbox used to motivate thinking about them.

    Rand combined philosophy with aesthetic presentation in the complete wrong way. The art is supposed to partly conceal the ideas in order to challenge and provoke thought. Rand beats you over the head with the ideas and chose fiction as the instrument because a fictional world is the only kind of world they apply to.

  • Ayn||

    This is not a "critique," it is not true - and, therefore, your statements make no sense.

  • A fan||

    "I still struggle with having taken a degree in English"

    Didn't you ever learn that stealing is wrong?
    Restitution is required.

  • Nike Dunk Shoes||


  • protefeed||

    So Rand spent maybe 10 seconds dashing off a sentence correctly informing a nobody that their "definition" wasn't one, and didn't spend any more time on it because she doesn't believe in altruism, and people here are criticizing her for that? WTF?

    I'm amazed the kid got as many responses as he did.

  • Tony||

    Similarly, it's wrong to condemn Ted Bundy for his actions, as he was a firm believer in serial killing.

  • Juice||

    Also notice the terrible punctuation and sentence structure. This is not a "sentence."

  • Untrue Definition||

    Is it just me, or is "untrue definition" a strange term? Don't we say "incorrect definition"? I think this makes a difference. Statements - e.g., "The sun is yellow" are true or false, because they make claims about the world and then we have ways of going about and evaluating those claims. Definitions - e.g., "philosopher - lover of wisdom", aren't claims about the world that can be evaluated as true and false. They're features of our language, and you're either correct or incorrect about them.

    Of course you can say "'Philosopher' means 'lover of wisdom'", and _this_ statement can be true or false; but that is the statement of a definition which is true or false, not a definition itself.

    I bring this up to demonstrate how Rand is a charlatan. She was obsessed with "truths" (like A=A) because a lot of nonsense about commies and relativism when she didn't understand either. After writing some bad fiction with some extraordinarily bad "philosophy", people who didn't know any better deified her. She got them to do it by throwing around a lot of silly, incoherent, self-important rhetoric about "truth" which demonstrated no philosophical understanding of it, e.g., "That is an untrue definition".

    Maybe Doherty misunderstands and Rand actually means that "This (the example) is not true, therefore it cannot serve as a definition." I'm not sure why she would say that, though. Even if were possible to say that his claim about Hawthorne's novel isn't "true", I don't know why the example couldn't help serve as a definition. I think his example of symbolism is pretty shallow and stupid, but that doesn't mean I couldn't glean a working definition of "symbolism" off it.

    Even if the example were "untrue" and his definition of symbolism incorrect, I don't understand why his questions wouldn't "make sense". They do not defy any laws of logic; they do not mistake contentless analytic truths (e.g., "A is A") for meaningful value-filled statements about the world.

  • Tony||

    Yeah Rand got a surprising amount of traction merely by claiming her insane ramblings were the end product of strictly applied reason. No demonstration needed, just the claim.

  • ||

    Definitions ... They're features of our language, and you're either correct or incorrect about them.

    Even this is not quite right. Definitions aren't really "correct or incorrect" -- they're merely agreed upon to varying degrees.

    When an English speaker enunciates the sound gey, most listeners in 2011 interpret him to be signifying "homosexual." Listeners in 1911 would have widely interpreted it as "merry."

    But if you take the step of explaining what your meaning is -- "when I say 'gay' here, I'm referring to green telephones" -- then it seems any subsequent protest is unnecessary semantic quibbling.

    I'm not a linguist, so I may not be expressing this idea properly (irony!), but yes -- it does seem Rand's response was splitting hairs that didn't need to be split.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    Funny, one could say the same thing about the insane ramblings of Keynes.

  • ||

    Which same thing?

  • Mr. FIFY||

    That was for Tony's bullshit post, Tom. Just above yours.

    Sometimes, these responses don't show up where they need to.

  • Untrue Definition||

    So what did Keynes have to do with Tony's post?

    Rand is a charlatan because she makes a lot of nonsensical pseudo-philosophical statements -- e.g., "A is A", "that is an untrue definition". She accompanies this with a bunch of rhetoric about how much her nonsensical statements like "A and A" align with the rules mapped out by the Holy God of Rationality. This rhetoric wrongly convinces some people that she has in fact tapped in to a rigorous rationality unavailable to all those evil relativists around her. In actuality, the rhetoric is just stupid and shallow metaphysics.

    What makes the rhetoric even worse is that she tries to make it seem that her unique access to the ways of the Holy God of Rationality also enable her unique insight into the psychological reality of Man. From this insight she deduces that man is inherently selfish, isolated, miserable, and misogynist, that corporations are better, more moral people than owners, etc.

    Keynes might have spouted rhetoric about how reason grounded his economic arguments (I honestly don't know and don't care). I'm calling Rand a charlatan not because I'm a Keynesian but because I think she is doing bad, offensive, lazy philosophy. I also think she has some bad, offensive ethical positions dominated by the worst aspects of the contemporary capitalist ethic, but criticizing them has nothing to do with Keynesianism -- he's much too far right for me.

  • Untrue daffynition||

    I didn't understand a word of Rand, so I'll just bitch.

  • Untrue Definition||

    I'm fine with most of what you said, but it's not relevant to the discussion. There can be cases in which we disagree and both of us are right, like you showed. There can also be cases in which we disagree about a definition and one of us is just wrong -- if, for instance, I insist that "circle" means "shape with four equal sides". I'm not wrong for some deep metaphysical reason, I'm just wrong because of what social practice agrees the word means. Of course, if I explain to you what I mean by "circle", you could understand the rest of what I say if you think "square" anytime I say "circle". But you would still have a point if you insisted that I was getting something wrong with my definition of circle.

    My point about true/correct didn't have to do with to what extent disagreement about definitions have a "right" or a "wrong" anyway. My point was that, insofar as there _is_ a "right" and a "wrong" about definitions, it is one of "correctness" -- about whether you're following the rules of the social language-game. It is not a "right" and "wrong" of "truth", in which definitions would be claims about the world which are evaluable in the same sense that "The sun is yellow" is a claim about the world which is evaluable.

  • anonymous||

    Can an incorrect definition be true in your view? I would find that remarkable. Your example of the person who mislabels squares as circles isn't quite convincing. Can't we say that it's untrue that circles have four corners?

    Consider it this way. Some people argue that any label is a claim about how the world is, or perhaps more interestingly, how the world ought to be. For instance, the word "philosopher" makes a claim about reality. Although we can point to the root meanings and say the word simply means "lover of wisdom," if we really want to understand it, at least in a historical sense, we could do worse than to look to Plato's Socratic dialogues. Of course, famously, Plato never finished the dialogue called The Philosopher, which was supposed to define that term for us, so to some extent we're on our own. But Plato does give us a definition of sophistry, and shows us a method of arriving at a definition of words that have different meanings. Since we know that Socrates was a critic of sophistry, it's reasonable to assume that in some important sense "philosophy" must mean something other than, say, "loving sophistry." It must be seen as a critical response to a way of thought Socrates and Plato both rejected. Plato's definition of sophistry, according to Wikipedia, is finally this: "sophistry is a productive art, human, of the imitation kind, copy-making, of the appearance-making kind, uninformed and insincere in the form of contrary-speech-producing art." At the very least I think we can say that for Plato philosophy was distinguished by its sincerity, by its being informed--though there are some paradoxes here--, and by its being concerned with essences as opposed to appearances.

    Naturally, philosophers throughout the ages have offered different definitions of philosophy. A few I'm familiar with:

    Deleuze and Guattari at one point define philosophy as "the creation of concepts." What they mean by concepts is a long discussion, as is the question of whether they both were consistent throughout their professional lives.

    Levinas said philosophy is "the wisdom of love in the service of love." Again, what one means by "love" and "wisdom," and what Levinas means in particular, is also a long discussion, but it's significant that Levinas understands "the wisdom of love" as primary and essential, the first philosophy, as it were. This is not only a long way from Heidegger, whom he confronted directly in his philosophy, but Pythagoras, Parmenides, Heraclitus and all the rest of Plato's pre-Socratic intellectual forefathers, as well as most of the philosophy that's followed in Socrates' wake. It does, however, resonate with some strains in the history of philosophy, including, I'd argue, Socrates, who's approach to philosophy was more loving than is often acknowledged.

    Wittgenstein, in his later incarnation, said famously that the problems of philosophy are not empirical. Rather, "they are solved through an insight into the workings of our language, and that in such a way that these workings are recognized -- despite an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are solved, not through the contribution of new knowledge, rather through the arrangement of things long familiar. Philosophy is a struggle against the bewitchment of our understanding by the resources of our language."

    With such a proliferation of divergent views of philosophy, it might seem hopeless to try to nail down a definition, and indeed, one suspects that were a definition nailed down, it wouldn't stop others from engaging in acts of redefinition. Does that mean that there's no essential meaning of the word "philosopher"? If so, I think that would be quite different from the case of "circle" which for several reasons--not just by convention--one thinks of as lacking four corners. We know that a circle lacks four corners, don't we? A circle is rather a perfect model for what some thinkers call a concept. If everything in life were like a circle, at least as it pertains to thinking, Plato would surely be a much more influential philosopher--and, really, in the grand sweep of European intellectual history, that's saying a lot.

    Yet how different is a philosopher from a circle, considered in these terms? Sometimes we call philosophers stupid, but philosophers almost never argue in favor of stupidity. If they did so, we might suspect them of being ironic, or of meaning "stupid" in some special sense, much in the way Socrates claims not to know what concepts mean in the aporetic dialogues, i.e., he starts from a position of ignorance because he values knowledge, and if he ends up in a state of doubt, it can be explained as a consequence of his commitment to knowledge. Surely that commitment to knowledge or wisdom among nearly everybody who engages in philosophy must count for something. When it's missing, when we think philosophers are being unreasonably stupid or engaging in sophistry or spurious forms of argumentation, we say as much; we challenge their claim to be doing philosophy. On what basis do we make such challenges?

    If I say a philosopher is by definition somebody with a superficial understanding of reality who emulates Continental thinkers he doesn't understand, who makes statements with no sincerity and no knowledge of anything at all, I suppose quite a few people might agree with that, but my gut instinct is to say that it's untrue as well as being a bad definition. It's only truth lies in sarcasm, and one can't properly make sense of that sarcasm without some ideal image of the philosopher that would run contrary to that definition which is in truth the definition of a sophist. In a deep sense, one arrived at through thinking, as a definition of a philosopher that definition is untrue.

    In short, then, I don't see any problem with calling incorrect definitions untrue.

  • Untrue Definition||

    "Can't we say that it's untrue that circles have four corners?"

    Sure; you just did. You also missed my point. Definitions do not have truth values. Propositions do. "A circle has four corners" is a proposition, not a definition. So of course it can be true or false. "A shape with four corners", meanwhile, is an (incorrect) definition for "circle". It does not have propositional form. "A shape with four corners" by itself is not truth-evaluable; it is just a correct or incorrect definition for "circle".

    The rest of your post is deliberately stupid.

  • anonymous||

    Ha. Well, thanks for the amusement.

    Your distinction between "definition" and "proposition" is a matter of definition, or, if you like, proposition. You propose one definition of "definition" and I propose another. I know you're recalling a quasi-technical definition of "proposition" but I doubt that you're really thinking the problem through. One place this is evident is in your idea that by writing something like "Circle: a shape with four corners" you've constructed an utterance that differs substantially from writing "A circle is a shape with four corners," or the more abbreviated "a circle has four corners." I'm sure now you sincerely and ardently believe that "a shape with four corners" is not "truth-evaluable" (sheesh), but you've got to that point by omitting the all important "A circle is..." and if you think a colon is much different than a copula in this instance you're really going to have to work much harder to convince people that you know how to think on your feet and carry on an adult conversation.

    Do I need to make this clearer? For your sake I will.

    Circle: a shape with four corners. (This is both incorrect and untrue.)

    Square: a shape with four corners. (This is both correct and true, though it could be more precise, e.g. "square: a shape with four sides of equal length.")

    Whenever you lay out a definition of something you're not just saying "I agree with other people who say this about that," you're also saying this about that--unless we're dealing with a case of irony or dishonesty, neither of which can be understood absent an understood capacity to honestly say this about that. If you think about the various ways to qualify a quotation so as to distance the speaker from the quoted utterance, it's also clear that there is a possibility of honestly and sincerely saying this about that which informs any attempt to report any instance of somebody saying this about that. Indeed, the very act of qualifying a reported utterance speaks to an intention to report honestly: it says this about that (albeit having shifted to a metalinguistic plane). Typically, how we report quoted speech reveals something about our attitude towards the truth of what we're reporting. For example, "The OED defines this as that" suggests we regard the definition as somewhat credible, whereas "some fusty old lexicographers define this as that" suggests we don't put much stock in the definition. In science people frequently use heuristic definitions, but absent an interest in being able to truthfully say this about that in relation to such heuristic definitions, they lose their force as definitions and become rather like mental exercises for beginners if they're not abandoned altogether.

    In short, I'm having a hard time imagining situations where definitions are offered that don't make any truth claims or qualified truth claims. You haven't given us much in the ways of examples, and the original point of contention here, the definition of "symbolism," has been identified by several people as something that could reasonably be said to be untrue. Has your introduction of a distinction between a statement's being incorrect and its being untrue added to our understanding?

    Obviously we disagree about the definition of "definition." You've re-asserted your view, and tried to draw a distinction between defining and proposing, but in the process you've avoided the difficult question of whether an incorrect definition can be true. Refusing to evaluate the truth of half of a definition is not worthy of anybody who cares to talk about such things. Take the whole definition ("A circle is a shape with four corners") and decide whether it is true or not.

    Now, finally, if you want to say that I've said stupid things, or that I'm stupid, please feel free to show me. It's quite likely that if you can show me my stupidity, I'll agree with you, and you will have the added satisfaction, in addition to the satisfaction of insulting an anonymous poster on the internet, of actually proving that you're smarter than a stupid person.

  • anonymous||

    Excuse me for being curious about how your mind works, but upon reflection I think I see what you're doing and I can clarify where your understanding is weak. I'm defining "giving a definition" as essentially "saying this about that." You are defining "definition" as "saying this" as if the "about that" were immaterial. I propose that a definition is always a definition of something: a word, a concept, an idea, a thing or something else.

    Consider this idea: there are two questions and the answer to each is "green." Are both answers the same? Now consider that one question is "What's your favorite color?" and the other question is "What color do you despise?" Are both answers the same? I would say no, since in once case "green" names what is hated and in another case "green" names what is loved. Even though both answers use the same word to point to the same concept (green), the answers themselves are different. This means, from my point of view, that that answers aren't complete in and of themselves. An answer must always be understood as an answer to some question. That's is essential business, what makes it an answer and not some other kind of utterance. The same holds true of definitions in the sense that we are discussing them. Definitions are understood as responses to the question "What is it?" where "it" represents some concept, word or thing or what have you. "It is" is implicitly the preamble to any definition.

    I think this approach to definitions (and to answers) provides for greater insights into the things that are actually being said than a more atomistic view that would separate definitions (or answers) from what they respond to. When I know that two instances of the word "green" are responding to two diametrically opposed questions, if I consider the answers also to be different, at least I know what's being talked about.

  • Semantics||

    Thanks for the fellatio!

  • Your Mother||

    Thanks for the anilingus. And on a deeper level, isn't it nice to be back home?

  • Untrue Definition||

    "Definitions are understood as responses to the question "What is it?""

    No. Definitions are responses to the question "What does it mean?"

    If you think "What does it mean?" is the same question as "What is it?", you are a platonist.

  • anonymous||

    We're mainly talking about defining words, right? The meaning of words is essential to what they are. Perhaps that's not true of all things, but it seems very much to be the case with words.

    Do you say "platonist" as a way to avoid confronting challenging ideas? I put this question to you for your own sake. Plato's influence extends far beyond anything that might be accurately called "Platonism." He was a rich, erudite and provocative thinker, and a great interpreter of Socrates, arguably among the greatest philosophers who ever lived, if not the greatest. If you think you can boil down Plato's contribution to philosophy to a single proposition, you're cheating yourself.

    If it helps you, you can imagine that I believe you just told me what a definition is, when in fact you were merely telling me what a definition means. My actual opinion is that you revealed one aspect of what a definition means to you, and that if we were to study what a definition means in its various aspects, we might be able to eventually say something useful about the eidos of definition, or what it means to define things. (Do you think that's a reference to Plato? Try Husserl. I use the term "eidos" with no underlying assumptions about a transcendent world of essences or ideas. I assume that the essence of definition is immanent to the phenomenon of giving definitions.)

    In any event, now that you've acknowledged that a definition comes in response to a question, namely, "What does it mean?" (where "it" stands for a word, presumably; a frog and the word "frog" have different meanings, we might both agree), you're free to address the critique that you were only presenting a truncated idea of what a definition is, and doing so in such a way as to avoid the obvious point that a definition is in fact saying something about some other thing (a word, if your mind requires specificity on this point), and by that token the question of truthfulness is perfectly germane.

  • Untrue Definition||

    "The meaning of words is essential to what they are."

    What does a garbage sentence like that mean? In what sense are meanings of words "essential" to what "they [the words] are"? What do you mean by essential? What do you mean by "what [the words] are"? Well...what are they?

    It's this notion -- that there is a "what" that a word is -- that makes you a platonist, even if you don't believe in a transcendental realm of essences.

  • Famous Potato||

    From the linked article:

    Rand wrote to say she disagreed with the premise of McAllister’s definition of symbolism and “therefore, your questions do not make sense.”

    Unfortunately, the article does not provide the text of McAllister’s definitions, or the whole of Rand's response. Not that we should not judge the merits of the episode--as well as Ayn Rand's life's work--based upon the fragments provided.

  • Brett L||

    Uh, yeah it does. The mimeograph with writing on it.

  • Famous Potato||

    Aha. Missed that link. Thanks.

    Rand took the time to answer what appears to be a reconstructed high school literature quiz by rejecting McAllister's premise (his "definition" of symbolism.) And she dated and signed it and returned it to him. What a bitch!

  • Juice||

    If she would have just thrown the letter away, she would have been less of a bitch. Instead, she took the time to tell a high school kid how dumb he is. That's why the OP loves her.

  • Famous Potato||

    Well, she dedicated a few moments of her very busy life to reply, personally, to a form letter that wasn't written very intelligently. Are you saying that, in your world, "Your questions do not make sense" is equivalent to, "You are dumb"?

    No need to reply. It's a rhetorical question.

  • Juice||

    She took the time to prove that she was smarter than a high school student, which I'm not sure that she did. Are you saying that Ayn Rand would waste one second of her time to help someone if it wasn't self serving?

  • Kate Gladstone||

    She pointed out that his "definition" wasn't a definition. (It was an example: something quite different from a definition.)

    Since it wasn't a definition, it couldn't be a true definition.


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