According to Leonard Peikoff, objectivity means accepting that “thinking, to be valid, must adhere to reality”. Concepts do not belong only to consciousness or only to existence. They are the product of a specific type of relationship between the two, guided by a human method: logic.
On the one hand, there is an exclusively human contribution to the conceptual level of consciousness; the formation and use of concepts is precisely the domain that is not automatic or infallible, but volitional. Man must strive to relate, connect, process an ever-increasing range of data. The result is a human perspective on things, not a revelation of a special kind of entity or an intrinsic attribute of the world apart from man.
On the other hand, consciousness is the faculty of understanding what exists. There is, therefore, a metaphysical basis for concepts, something similar in reality among the units of a concept: their characteristics, which differ only in relation to their measures. This is a fact about the concretes, not about the inner processes of a consciousness. A concept, therefore, is not a subjective and arbitrary creation of man – it is objective.
Precisely because our conceptual faculty is neither automatic nor automatically correct (as our perceptual faculty) we need a method that allows us to find the truth. Logic is the method of reason. Ayn Rand defines it as the “art of non-contradictory identification.” In essence, logic is the method of observing the facts (the premises), consulting the law of noncontradiction, and then coming to the conclusion that this law establishes.
But logic can not work properly with isolated concepts, not if its purpose is to apprehend reality in a non-contradictory way. The reason for this is that all knowledge is contextual and hierarchical. “Human knowledge at all levels is relational.”
Concepts can only be formed in a context by relating concretes in a field of contrasting entities that form a set of relationships. Man must voluntarily adhere to the whole context of his knowledge, always working to integrate any new idea into it. “Context should never be dropped.” Otherwise, he risks basing his thought process on mere floating abstractions, concepts completely severed from reality.
The fact that knowledge is hierarchical means that concepts differ in their distance from the perceptual level. A first-level concept is formed directly from perceptual data, without the need for prior conceptualization. Higher-level concepts, by contrast, can not be formed directly from perceptual data but presuppose earlier concepts. This means that any concept, no matter how high it is in the hierarchy, must ultimately be linked to reality, to the self-evident, to the sense data. These, therefore, are the standard of objectivity, to which all other cognitive materials must be connected.
The process of doing so — of traveling back through the hierarchical structure of the concept and finding its conceptual roots — is called reduction. Failure to do so is to incur what Ayn Rand calls the “fallacy of the stolen concept”: to use a higher-level concept while denying or ignoring its hierarchical roots. Or, worse than that: one may be using an invalid concept, one that simply can not be reduced to the perceptual level (like ghosts, devil, or god).
Like any concept, propositions must also be brought back, step by step, to the perceptual level. The proof of an argument, therefore, is the process of establishing a conclusion by identifying the appropriate hierarchy of premises. If you can not prove something, or if that something implies a contradiction, you should heed to Ayn Rand’s warning:
“Check your premises.”