A definition cannot list all the characteristics of the units; such a catalog would be too large to retain. Instead, a definition identifies a concept's units by specifying their essential characteristics. The essential characteristic(s) is the fundamental characteristic(s) which makes the units the kind of existents they are and differentiates them from all other known existents.
One must know the idea's relationship to all the other ideas that give it context, definition, application, proof. One must know all this not as a theoretical end in itself, but for practical purposes; one must know it to be able to rely on an idea, to make rational use of it, and ultimately, to live.
Being implicit from the beginning, existence, consciousness, and identity are outside the province of proof. Proof is the derivation of a conclusion from antecedent knowledge, and nothing is antecedent to axioms. Axioms are the starting points of cognition, on which all proofs depend.
Conceptual knowledge is not acquired in a state of total ignorance or from a vantage point of omniscience. At any stage of development, from child to sage and from savage to scientist, man can make conceptual differentiations and integrations only on the basis of prior knowledge, the specific limited knowledge available to him at that stage. Man's mind functions on the basis of a certain context. The context, states Miss Rand, "is the entire field of a mind's awareness or knowledge at any level of its cognitive development.
Although definitions are contextual, they are not arbitrary. The correct definition at any stage is determined by the facts of reality. Given any specific set of entities to be differentiated, it is the actual nature of the entities that determines the distinguishing characteristics.
...knowledge is knowledge of reality, and existence has primacy over consciousness. If the mind wishes to know existence, therefore, it must conform to existence. If thought created reality, no science offering guidance to thought would be applicable; consciousness could assert whatever it wished, and reality would obey.
A man cannot do much with his faculty of vision until his eyes are in focus. Otherwise, his eyesight gives him only a blur or haze…A similar concept applies to the mind. In regard to thought, as to vision, the same alternative exists: clear awareness or a state of blur, haze, fog in which relatively little can be discriminated.
The arbitrary, however, has no relation to evidence or context; neither term, therefore - "true" or "false" - can be applied to it. Philosophically, the arbitrary is worse than the false. The false has a relation, albeit negative, to the facts of reality...As to the practical consequences of this difference, whom would you prefer to work for, talk to, or buy groceries from: a man who miscounts the people in his living room (an error), or who declares that the room is filled with demons (the arbitrary)?
“Aristotle is the champion of this world, the champion of nature, as against the supernaturalism of Plato. Denying Plato’s World of Forms, Aristotle maintains that there is only one reality: the world of particulars in which we live, the world men perceive by means of their physical senses. Universals, he holds, are merely aspects of existing entities, isolated in thought by a process of selective attention… the physical world, in his view, is not a shadowy projection controlled by a divine dimension, but…is an orderly, intelligible, natural realm open to the mind of man.”
Ayn Rand explains some of the steps necessary to achieve a conscious, rational philosophy. She teaches the reader how to identify, and then evaluate, the hidden premises at work in his own soul or nation. She makes clear the mechanism by which philosophy rules men and societies…
One knows that the axioms are true not by inference of any kind, but by sense perception. When one perceives a tomato, for example, there is no evidence that it exists, beyond the fact that one perceives it; there is no evidence that it is something, beyond the fact that one perceives it; and there is no evidence that one is aware, beyond the fact that one is perceiving it. Axioms are perceptual self-evidences. There is nothing to be said in their behalf except: look at reality. What is true of tomatoes applies equally to oranges, buildings, people, music, and stars.
It is not true that words are necessary primarily for the sake of communication. Words are essential to the process of conceptualization and thus to all thought. They are as necessary in the privacy of a man's mind as in any public forum; they are as necessary on a desert island as in society. The word constitutes the completion of the integration stage; it is the form in which the concept exists.
When a definition is contextually revised, the new definition does not contradict the old one. The facts identified in the old definition remain facts; the knowledge earlier gained remains knowledge. What changes is that, as one's field of knowledge expands, these facts no longer serve to differentiate the units. The new definition does not invalidate the content of the old; it merely refines a distinction in accordance with the demands of a growing cognitive context.
As one more illustration, consider the issue of literary style. Some styles are praised as economical; the writer communicates a complex content by means of relatively few words. Other writers are prolix weighing our consciousness down with more units than the content requires. At the evil extreme of this continuum is the writer who deliberately flouts the crow-epistemology; he seeks to subvert the reader's consciousness by loading it methodically with more units than it can hold. For example, he gives you a seemingly endless sentence, with a jingle of qualifications, subordinate clauses, and parenthetical remarks, erupting in the middle, all of which you must plow through and try to retain while you are still holding the subject of the main clause and waiting for the verb. After a few pages of such prose, the reader's mind simply closes, and the words turn into meaningless verbiage.
Concept formation and use is precisely the realm that is not automatic or infallible, but volitional. In order to conceptualize, a man must expend effort; he must engage in the kind of mental work that no stimulus can necessitate. He must struggle to relate, connect, process an ever-growing range of data - and he must learn to do it correctly.
To an evader, a feeling of some kind is more important than truth. A man finds a certain fact or policy to be unpleasant, frightening, or guilt-provoking. Reality to the contrary notwithstanding, he does not want the fact to be real or the policy to be necessary; so he decides to blank out the offending datum. Or a certain idea or policy gives a man pleasure, reassurance, or relief, and he wants to believe in or practice it, even though he knows reality is against him in the issue; in Ayn Rand's words, place an "I wish" above an "It is".
The true is identified by reference to a body of evidence; it is pronounced "true" because it can be integrated without contradiction into a total context. The false is identified by the same means; it is pronounced "false" because it contradicts the evidence and/or some aspect of the wider context.
The drifter does not integrate his mental contents; the evader disintegrates them, by struggling to disconnect a given item from everything that would give clarity or significance in his own mind. In the one case, the individual is immersed in a fog by default; he chooses not to raise his level of awareness. In the other case, he expends energy to create a fog; he lowers his level of awareness.
The process of evasion, as we will see, is profoundly destructive. Epistemologically, it invalidates a mental process. Morally, it is the essence of evil. According to Objectivism, evasion is the vice that underlies all other vices. In the present era, it is leading to the collapse of the world.
Now you may ask why make a metaphysical catastrophe out of the fact that we are going to die one day?...If you know Epicurus from the ancient world he took care of this whole problem of death very well with the following argument. He said Death should be nobody’s concern at all because no one will ever encounter it. Death is not a problem of the living because they are alive, and it is not a problem of the dead because they are not. Consequently no one will ever know any state other than life and there’s no point groveling before the fact of death.
…if you are to fight these errors, you have to know the main arguments advanced in favor of them. You have to hear the Devil’s case, so to speak, presented as strongly as his case permits…You have to be sure you know on each issue what really is true and what is wrong with the arguments advanced for the erroneous position.
A God susceptible of proof would wither and starve the spirit of mysticism. Such an entity would be finite and limited; it would be one thing among others within the universe, a thing bound by identity and causality, capable of being integrated without contradiction into man’s cognitive context, incompatible with miracles, revelations, and the other paraphernalia of unreason. Such an entity would not be an ineffable mystery transcending nature and science. It would be a part of nature to be studied by science, and it would be of no use whatever to a mystic.