3.   Proper Names and Concepts

By Paul Vanderveen

June 12, 1997

Copyright ©1999 by Paul Vanderveen

In her response of June 4 to my post about the concept of mind, Dorothy Fanyo objects that if Ayn Rand were correct that a concept is a mental integration of two or more existents, "no one before Galileo had a legitimate concept 'moon', and until recent times, no one had the concept 'sun' even though both the sun and moon have been worshipped since time out of mind."

Although she apparently thinks that her conclusion about the historical development of the concepts of moon and sun is absurd, it is basically correct. If one uses a word such as "Moon" to identify only that particular celestial body that lights some of our nights, then "Moon" is a proper name, not a concept. This distinction applies to "Sun," as well, and to most of the other examples Ms. Fanyo gives. There is nothing that prevents human beings from perceiving particular entities or from worshipping a particular celestial body they perceive, and there is no need to make a concept out of what they worship in order to identify it. Indeed, even those who worship God are "out of the conceptual realm," in Rand's view, because they suppose that "there is nothing like God" (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 148), just as most persons before recent times made a similar supposition about the real existents, the Moon and the Sun.

Of course, using the proper name "Moon" does not preclude also forming the concept of moon and using the word "moon" to represent a concept which subsumes our Moon, the moons of Jupiter and other moons, as we moderns have learned to do.

Are Ms. Fanyo's examples, I wonder, really supposed to constitute a serious objection to Rand's theory of concepts? One does not have to read very far to see why Rand regards concepts as very different from proper names.

Ms. Fanyo then cites the "tricky instance" of the concept of mother, which she claims babies form "long before they know or care that anyone else has a mother." She offers no support for her claim that they form this concept before they know that other mothers exist. Does she just assume that proper names and concepts are the same or that, if one uses a proper name to identify some particular, one automatically also has a certain concept of that entity? Even if she thinks this way, does she really think that Rand would?

A person can use a word such as "Mother" or "Mom" (here are proper names) to identify the person who is his or her mother (here is a concept), and most children do this before forming the concept of mother. Even though any given child may identify only one person by means of "Mother," namely that person whom we know to be his or her own mother, that does not imply that he or she knows that that person is his or her mother. To explicitly recognize the person whom one calls "Mother" as one's mother, one must know what mothers are, must grasp the similarity between that person whom one calls "Mother" and the numerous other mothers in one's environment. It is highly useful for us to learn to do this and quickly recognize mothers whenever we encounter them, as it helps us to understand their relationships to other people, what experiences they have had in life and so on. (Is it necessary for us to form the concept of mother to be aware of these relationships, experiences and so forth? No, obviously not--or else we would have no way to form the concept, but having the concept sure simplifies things.)

Having said all this, I see that Ms. Fanyo applies the distinction between concepts and proper names quite handily (if inappropriately) to her last two examples, "universe" and "reality." Her previous comments, therefore, seem disingenuous to me. Why could not she have applied the distinction herself to the obvious (and appropriate) earlier examples? Is this her way of showing that she rejects the distinction? Why? Just calling an argument "a chicken way around the problem" leaves something to be desired.

I will address the relevance of such concepts as universe and reality to my argument about the concept of mind in my next post.

Responding to objections by Jeff Cousino and Bill Stoddard, as well as Dorothy Fanyo's further concerns, I argued next that the concepts of existence, universe and reality do not subsume just one existent, and I offered better examples of concepts analogous to the concept of mind.

  1.  Forming the Concept of Mind
  2.  Basing the Concept of Mind on Reality
  3.  Proper Names and Concepts
  4.  The Concept of Mind and Certain Symmetries    < Next
  5.  Concluding Remarks about Forming the Concept of Mind
  6.  Recognizing Minds
  7.  The Problem of "Other" Minds
  8.  Concept of Mind and Early Development
  9.  Retaining the Concept of Mind
10.  Ayn Rand and Other Minds
11.  Perceiving Other Minds Directly?
12.  Preconceptually Apprehending Other Minds?
13.  Inferences about Other Minds
14.  The Units of the Concept of Mind

Article:  Formation of the Concept of Mind