O.P.A.R. – Commentary: Floating Abstractions Eventually Fall

“All knowledge is interconnected. To cut off a single field — any field — from the rest of cognition is to drop the vast context which makes that field possible and which anchors it to reality. The ultimate result, as with any failure of integration, is floating abstractions and self-contradiction.”
Leonard Peikoff, “O.P.A.R.”, page 127.
(The Hindenburg disaster. This is just a visual metaphor for a floating abstraction: when the context is dropped and reality sets in, concepts become a dangerous thing.)

Earlier when I talked about epistemological evasion I mentioned our mental laziness, how we avoid the effort to think correctly because it hurts. The problem is that if we really go through each idea thoroughly, we become responsible for it when we use it, and that is something we hate. This may sound offensive, but I have no doubt that this is the case with the vast majority of us, during the vast majority of our waking time. Of course, I include myself in this team of evaders.

One of the great symptoms of such evasion is the widespread use of what Ayn Rand calls floating abstractions, or concepts completely detached from reality. It is much easier to accept knowledge processed by others and simply reuse it, irrespective of its veracity. The prototypical example is the way we read the news. We are swayed by the general mood produced by the fusillade of biased news we receive every day. I try my best to keep my cool and judge based on what I know to be facts, but this is not always possible. I am in a good position to properly judge affairs about my own city and especially about its public security, but what about the US-China trade war? I would be lying if I said that I really did analyze all the concepts involved. But the problem is not in failing to do so; the real problem is to talk about these concepts as if you had indeed analyzed them.

This was the true wisdom of Socrates: not that he knew everything, but that he did not think he knew when, in fact, he did not. It is hard to imagine how much better the world would be if everyone were just as wise.

I just had this crazy idea while writing the above sentence. Imagine a world where everyone has to prove they know what they are talking about. Just as you have to pass exams at school to show a certain level of proficiency in a given subject, you would have to pass exams for every word you have learned. Let’s say that whatever someone says is captured by hidden microphones everywhere. Once your voice is captured, it goes through a speech recognition algorithm for words to be individualized. Then, you cross-reference the spoken words with a database containing all the words you are licensed to pronounce. If you are found to be talking about things you have not proven that you yourself know, you are automatically fined. Note that it is not your ignorance that is being punished; it is your negligence.

So you are talking about democracy and how Brazilian democracy will suffer from the current populist government. You are at the gym or by the water-cooler at work, or sipping champagne at a cocktail party, enjoying one of those pleasant moments when lesser men stop to listen to your intellectual ramblings. But as soon as you utter a phrase containing democracy and populism, your smartphone beeps twice: two large fines have been instantly charged to your credit card. You immediately change the subject or make a tactical exit to the restroom. How much better would the world be if the spread of such absurdities could be interrupted at the source![1]

Floating abstractions are all I hear around me, but at least now, I can identify them hovering in the skies above. At least now, I know I should get off from below lest they fall on me.



1. I am not here judging the assertion at the beginning of the paragraph. What I am saying is that there is no real democracy in Brazil, and that populism is a concept NO ONE knows how to define.

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