The Anti-Conceptual Mentality

May 3, 2003

(This is a reply in an ongoing debate on capitalism.)

You accuse me of seeing the political and economic landscape of the world as two stark opposites: capitalism vs. socialism.  According to you, my mindset does not allow me to see the “benefits and harms” of each system, or that no such thing as capitalism or socialism really exists: each is simply a convenient model for the groups in power to perpetuate their class/race/gender/ethnically based status.  The origin of this view can be attributed to what Ayn Rand described this view as the “anti-conceptual mentality.” 

A century of progressive education has crippled generations of students who are afraid to think because they have been taught the uselessness of their own mind, and the primary result of this education is the influence of an anti-conceptual mentality on all academic fields.  This mentality is based on a particular view of concepts – or rather the rejections of concepts as such.  It takes the perceptual level as given, and refuses to look any further or derive any universal conclusions from observations.  Such a view deals solely in concretes: it takes the immediate, directly perceivable empirical evidence as only kind of knowledge possible to man.  Directly perceivable objects such as “apple” and “hand” are not distinguished from higher concepts such as justice, jealousy, love, and freedom.  The anti-conceptualist’s conscious mind stops at the perceptual level – it recognizes sensations and physical objects, but refuses to draw abstractions and form higher abstraction from lower ones.  In short, the anti-conceptualist cripples his mind by destroying the very ability that distinguishes humans from animals – the ability to think in terms of ideas.

Because the anti-conceptual mentality is unable to draw conclusions from perceptions, it reduces the mind to dealing with particular events as disconnected and independent perceptions, without any notion of the “big picture.”  However despite the best efforts of the anti-conceptualist to reject his mind, all human action requires some kind of thought – but without the ability to think in terms of ideas, the anti-conceptualist is reduced to vague and disjoined bits, vague and contradictory emotions jumbled together by his subconscious that provide no guidance for the future.

The consequence of this mode of thought on politics and economics (with similar influence on all other areas of human knowledge) is to destroy the very idea of political or economy theory and splinter it into the empirical study of particular instances without any connection to a larger theory or question of “why?” or “what for?”  The modern economist or political scientist takes as a given all the subconscious and semi-conscious assumptions that are required before one can answer any particular question and attributes them to subjective traits of his culture or society.  For example, a political scientist will ask, “How can we make bureaucracies more responsive to the public?” and then will examine specific programs and crunch numbers to reach conclusions that are narrow and tentative.  (I am being generous – many political scientists ask questions that have very little bearing to reality and do not even attempt to reach any kind of useful conclusions.)  He will usually not ask “Why is this question important?  How does it tie in to the proper function of government?  Should bureaucracies be responsive to the public?  How are government bureaucracies different those found in business?  What is the fundamental nature of government?  Why do we need government at all?  If we need it, what form should it take?  What is a democracy and is it really a good model for government?  How does my thesis tie into this larger big picture?” 

Obviously, a political scientist cannot answer all these questions is a single paper – but he must consciously acknowledge what his premises are, and form a rational and hierarchical basis for them before he can claim that his thesis has any general applicability or larger lesson beyond the scope of the particular concretes he is studying.  Just to know what questions to ask, he must first know what questions are fundamentally important to human life and which are trivial.  (Or in the unfortunate modern connotation of the term, “purely academic”).

To understand a single one of the concepts he must define – say, democracy, the political scientist cannot simply observe various democracies and passively and unthinkingly understand what the word means.  Understanding requires one to single out the essential elements held in common between various democracies and to discard the unique or non-essential characteristics.  Democracies differ in their wealth, freedom, size, form of government, and longevity, but the share the essential characteristic of public influence or control over the government.  One cannot say “one of the flaws of democracies is that they are short-lived and violent” because some have been short lived and others have peacefully persisted for centuries (assuming we take democracy to mean “representative government” and not “mob rule”).  Thus, social instability and violence cannot be an essential characteristic of democracy.  Likewise, one cannot make the absurd claim that poverty is caused by capitalism simply by observing that some nations called “capitalistic” have poverty.  It is true that many nations with varying amounts of poverty have varying amounts of capitalism – but they also have varying amounts of redheads, bald men, and national monuments.  To make a judgment, one first has to determine the essential traits of capitalism (individual rights, especially well protected property rights) and the essential aspects of poverty (low standards of living) and then determine the relationship between them, ceteris parabis.  To even apply the example I just presented about democracies to capitalism requires certain fundamental assumptions and higher-level abstractions about the nature of knowledge and the relationship between a concept and a particular instance thereof.

Without the ability to operate on a conceptual level, what does the subjectivist see when he tries to determine the nature of capitalism?  Only various instances of societies with various levels of freedom, various unrelated and related characteristics without any unifying or essential traits.  Some vague idea forms based on the observation that “capitalism” is related to capital investment and Wall Street, which leads to other associations of “robber barons,” Henry Ford, corporate welfare, Reagan, greedy CEO’s, Enron, “exploitation,” and a dozen other disjoined associations and unidentified emotional responses without any unifying connections.  As long as he deals with people whose minds are in a similar state of disarray, the anti-conceptualist feels safe.  Without any ability to form connections or make judgments about his own or other’s views, he must necessarily be a subjectivist, always relying on the consensus of some collective to provide his reality, and always making compromises.  At best, he pays lip-service to principles he is unable to define or justify, always vulnerable to any religious or secular authority possess an air of confidence and finds a convenient scapegoat to justify whatever atrocity he has mind.  However, when confronted with someone who thinks in terms of ideas and ideals, he first attempts to discredit his opponents mind, and if unsuccessful, results to panic, evasion, or outright hostility.

Returning to the original accusation leveled against me, I proudly admit that I see the sad state of the world as the conflict between two forces: freedom versus slavery, individualism versus collectivism, capitalism versus god/state worship, the proud spirit of individualism and entrepreneurism versus the forced labor of communalism.  I am an Objectivist because I believe that there is such a thing an objective reality, and it is in my power to know it and to act on it and that my survival depends on it.