OPAR 2.1: The Validity of Sense Perception

Short Summary:

As the starting point of all consciousness and all cognition, sense perception is necessarily valid. The validity of the senses is an axiom and is outside the boundaries of proof. Arguments made against the validity of the senses typically misconstrue the role of the senses and incorrectly blame sense perception for failures of reasoning. Regardless of their form or limitations, the senses convey facts of reality and are therefore valid.

And now for a transition from metaphysics to epistemology.

Metaphysics, which has been the subject of the first five posts in this series, is essentially just the identification of the fact of existence along with the corollaries of that fact (according to Objectivism). Weirdly, the word metaphysics has a confusing etymology and does not accurately connote its subject matter. As the fundamental branch of philosophy, metaphysics is said to have arisen from Aristotle, who never once actually used the term himself. Rather, Aristotle referred to his writings on metaphysical subjects as first philosophy, focusing on three key subjects: being as such, first causes, and “that which does not change.” The term metaphysics emerged after Aristotle died, when his editor labeled his writings on first philosophy with the words, “Ta meta ta phusika,” or, “the after the physicals.” This label was either meant to indicate that the works were supposed to be read after Aristotle’s works on physics/nature, or that the books had been placed on the shelf after Aristotle’s writings on physics/nature. Regardless, centuries later, a group of Latin scholars misinterpreted Aristotle’s editor’s label as meaning, “the science of the world beyond nature.” This label managed to stick and went on to spark widespread misinterpretation of the term metaphysics. Many believe that the subject of metaphysics denotes the philosophical study of the immaterial, and this mistaken interpretation of the term remains popular to this day. But first philosophy, as originally studied by Aristotle, never should have been labeled as “the philosophical study of that which is beyond nature.” Metaphysics, for Aristotle and many others, is the philosophical identification of the fact of existence and its corollaries.

Epistemology, the subject upon which these next twenty-two blog posts will be focused, is named much more aptly than metaphysics. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies the nature and means of knowledge. The word derives from two Greek words: episteme, meaning, “knowledge,” and logos, meaning, “reasoned discourse” or the scientific study of a particular subject. Commonly, the word knowledge is understood to mean an awareness or understanding of facts, which are verifiable actualities of reality.

The field of epistemology is based on the premise that not every random idea counts as knowledge and that human beings can acquire knowledge only if very specific processes are followed. Epistemology studies questions such as: what is the proper method for acquiring knowledge? Where does knowledge come from, and how can it be verified? Are some truths of existence unknowable? What does it mean to say that someone knows, or fails to know, something? In this wild and complex universe, how can anyone claim that any truth is a verifiable fact of reality? Is it possible to be one-hundred percent certain of any fact? If so, what are the limits of certainty?

In the second chapter of Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff moves on from metaphysics to what he calls “the anteroom of epistemology” (OPAR, 39), a discussion of sense perception and volition. Before diving in, however, Peikoff lays out three facts upon which Objectivist epistemology is based. These facts are: 1) knowledge is knowledge of reality, 2) existence has primacy over consciousness, and 3) human consciousness, being conceptual in nature, is fallible and requires a method (37-38). Objectivist epistemology is based on the premise that a method of cognition must be discovered in order for a fallible human consciousness to validate conclusions and distinguish truth from falsehood. Because there can be no knowledge of reality apart from sense experience, and because conceptual understanding is volitional rather than automatic, a study of sense perception and volition are necessary prerequisites to any study of knowledge itself, writes Peikoff (38-39). And so, here we find ourselves in chapter two of OPAR. Peikoff begins his chapter on pre-epistemology at the beginning, at the starting point of all consciousness and all cognition: with sense perception.

Is sense perception valid?

According to Objectivism, sense perception is necessarily valid. Peikoff opens his discussion by claiming that the validity of the senses lies outside the boundaries of the burden of proof. Proof is the reduction of an idea back to the evidence of the senses. You cannot reduce the data provided by the senses any further than to itself. Because the evidence of the senses is a precondition of any proof, its validity cannot be justified in the same way you would prove, for example, that it is wrong to murder someone or that climate change is real. Sensory data is relied upon for all cognition and all concepts, and thus, the validity of the senses has to be justified in some way other than through reducing to antecedent knowledge.

Because the validity of the senses lies outside the boundaries of proof and is the foundation of all knowledge, the validity of the senses is an axiom (not its own independent axiom, but rather, a corollary of Rand’s axiom of consciousness). It is only because we have senses that we know we are conscious—we see, hear, smell, taste, or touch something that exists. Consciousness is an awareness of that which is. If we are aware of that which is, then our means of awareness are a means of awareness. Peikoff seems to be arguing that if our senses do, in fact, make us aware of something that exists, then they are valid (correct, effective, relevant, meaningful, or sound). If the senses are not valid (i.e., are not an effective means of being aware of that which exists), then consciousness cannot be said to exist. Peikoff writes, “One cannot affirm consciousness while denying its primary form, which makes all others possible” (39). In other words, one cannot claim to be conscious (aware of existence) while also claiming that one’s means of awareness do not provide an awareness of existence. If consciousness exists, then the senses are necessarily valid.

Since knowledge, for Objectivism, is knowledge of reality, denying the validity of the senses means denying all cognition. Peikoff writes, “If the senses are not valid, neither are any concepts” (39). This includes the concept being used to attack the senses, the concept that the senses are invalid. Sense data, according to Objectivism, is the foundation of all knowledge and all concepts. Therefore, one cannot use concepts, which derive from sensory data, to disprove the validity of sensory data.

Rather than focus his justification on trying to prove a fact that is self-evident, axiomatic, and un-provable, Peikoff’s discussion of the validity of the senses focuses instead on disproving the opposition. Peikoff writes, “the purpose of philosophical discussion of the senses is not to derive their validity from any kind of antecedent knowledge, but to define their exact function in human cognition and thereby to sweep away the objections raised against them by a long line of philosophers. The purpose is not to argue for the testimony of our eyes and ears, but to remove the groundless doubts about these organs that have accumulated through the centuries” (39). He does this by defining sensory experience, refuting several arguments made against the validity of the senses by other philosophers, and defining the precise function of the senses.

What is sensory experience? Peikoff writes that “sensory experience is a form of awareness produced by physical entities (the external stimuli) acting on physical instrumentalities (the sense organs), which respond automatically, as a link in a causally determined chain. Obeying inexorable natural laws, the organs transmit a message to the nervous system and the brain” (39-40). Sensation is different from other forms of awareness like introspection or conceptualization because sensation is totally automatic. There is no choice, creativity, or volition involved in the experience of sensing. Rather, our sense organs merely react when acted upon by the external stimuli of the universe. Just like every other entity, our sense organs are subject to the law of causality and can only act and react according to what their physical characteristics allow. Peikoff writes that “such organs have no power of choice, no power to invent, distort, or deceive. They do not respond to a zero, only to a something, something real, some existential object which acts on them.” (40). If a sense organ reacts to a stimulation and transmits a message to the brain, it is because something exists out there that is acting on the senses. The senses are not proactive; they do not edit or create. The senses are reactive. They are messengers of the actions of external stimuli. All that the senses do is make us aware that some sort of things exist. They do not communicate what exactly the things are (that is the job of reason), but merely that they are (40).

Contrary to what philosophers have claimed, many mistakes that are blamed upon the senses are a result of human conceptual error and are not the fault of the senses themselves. For example, “If a boy sees a jolly bearded man in a red suit and infers that Santa Claus has come down from the North Pole, his senses have made no error; it is his conclusion that is mistaken” (40). The boy’s senses are not at fault; they correctly transmitted the smiling face, the large beard, and the red suit. The mistake was made when the boy extrapolated from sense data to an incorrect conclusion. His reasoning failed him—not his senses. Another example can be found in the famous story of the blind men and the elephant. In this story, a group of blind men each put a hand on a different part of an elephant. One man touches the elephant’s tusk, another touches the elephant’s leg, another its trunk, another its side. Based on sensory data, each man concludes that the elephant is something different. The first blind man concludes that the elephant is a spear, the second concludes it is a tree trunk, the third a snake, and the fourth a wall. In this story, as in the story of the boy thinking he sees Santa Claus, it is not each blind man’s sense of touch that fails him, but rather his conclusion. In this way, many supposed failures of the senses are in fact just failures of reasoning.

Neither do so-called sensory illusions disprove the validity of the senses. Peikoff writes, “A so-called sensory illusion, such as a stick in water appearing bent, is not a perceptual error. In Ayn Rand’s view, it is a testament to the reliability of the senses” (40). In the case of the stick and the water, the senses are simply responding to the full-context of facts, including the fact that light travels more slowly through water than it travels through air, which is what causes the stick to appear bent. The senses do not censor their message to the brain in order to make the universe easier for the human mind to understand; all they do is transmit all of the data automatically and without distortion or edits. This is why Rand and Peikoff claim that a stick appearing bent in water is actually evidence of the reliability of the senses rather than of their failure. Peikoff writes, “If a casual observer were to conclude that the stick actually bends in water, such a snap judgment would be a failure on the conceptual level, a failure of thought, not of perception. To criticize the senses for it is tantamount to criticizing them for their power, for their ability to give us evidence not of isolated fragments, but of total” (40). By defining the specific role that sensory data plays in the cognitive process, Peikoff refutes this common argument made against the validity of the senses.

What is the precise function of the senses? According to Peikoff, the role of the senses is essentially to synopsize an enormous amount of data about the universe into a digestible summary comprised of a few simple sensations received by our conscious mind. Each sensation is the tiny tip of an enormous iceberg. The sensations we experience are condensed clues about complex stuff that exists in reality. For example, “we perceive a bunch of roses…as red, cool, fragrant, and yielding to the touch. Such sensations are not causeless. They are produced by a complex body of physico-chemical facts, including the lengths of the light waves the roses reflect and absorb, the thermal conductivity of the petals, the chemical makeup of their molecules, and the type of bonding between them; these facts in turn reflect the underlying atomic structures, their electronic and nuclear features, and many other aspects. Our sensations do not, of course, identify any of these facts, but they do constitute our first form of grasping them and our first lead to their later scientific discovery” (41). Essentially, the function of the senses is to provide a starting point for the cognitive process. Once we have some initial evidence, we can organize it, compare, and classify in order to develop further knowledge and move up to the conceptual level, where scientific theories and formulations are possible.

Peikoff ends his discussion of the validity of the senses by explaining the role that sensory form plays in sense perception. The type of sense organs we possess prescribes the manner in which we perceive objects—with a smell, a taste, a color, etc. If our senses were of a different type, for example, if we didn’t have eyes and ears and instead had fleebobs and zigleeduds, we would presumably perceive reality in an entirely different way.

Does sensory form distort or control reality? Do the sense organs confine a person to his own universe, totally unique from the universe of other beings possessing different sense organs? Peikoff argues no. The form of one’s senses has absolutely no impact on an individual’s ability to accurately perceive reality. Difference in sensory form is a difference in form only; not content (42). If the role of the senses is to give a conscious mind a starting point from which to gain knowledge of the universe, then as long as a person can grasp similarities and differences between entities that exist, the type of sensory experience that is used to gather the data is irrelevant. This is why philosophers who attack the senses on the basis of form are wrong, according to Objectivism. Peikoff writes, “Species with different sense organs gain from perception different kinds (and/or amounts) of evidence. But assuming that a species has organs capable of the requisite range of discrimination and the mind to interpret what it perceives, such differences in sensory evidence are merely different starting points leading to the same ultimate conclusions” (43). No form of perception is any more or less valid than our own. Every type of sense organ condenses information on a certain scale, perceives some aspects of reality more directly than others, and is incapable of immediately perceiving other facts that are too large or too small to be registered. But no matter how big or small a being’s sense organs are, there is still only one universe. It does not matter from which data you start. All sensory data offers clues about the same fundamental reality.

What it comes down to is that the facts that the senses convey are indeed facts, no matter how limited in scale or form. The data transmitted by the senses leads to all further knowledge. The validity of the senses is axiomatic, self-evident, and unassailable. Can any honest philosopher, after considering Peikoff’s arguments, find sincere cause to doubt or deride the validity of sense perception?

Questions and Concerns:

  • Why have so many philosophers unfairly denigrated the senses and cast doubt on their reliability? If the validity of the senses is so self-evident, why the barrage of criticism from philosophers of all creeds?

Level of Difficulty: Low

Mystery Number: 90

Works Cited:

1. Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991). New York: Meridian, 1993.

This cute dog never questions the validity of his senses. Why should you?

OPAR 1.4: The Metaphysically Given and the Man-Made

What does it mean to be absolute? Generally speaking, an absolute is an unalterable certainty—a fact that is universally valid and is not conditioned by other facts nor reined in by parameters. In English, the word absolute derives from the Middle French word “absolut,” from the Latin “absolutus,” a past participle of “absolvo,” meaning “to set free, end, and complete.” Something that is absolute cannot be changed nor tempered; it submits to no higher authority or law than itself. In the culminating principle of Objectivist metaphysics, Ayn Rand employs the concepts of absoluteness and changeability to differentiate between two different types of observable facts: the metaphysically given and the man-made. Peikoff, in his account of this final metaphysical principle in OPAR, states that while man-made facts are products of human choice and therefore do not have to be, no alternative to a metaphysically given fact is possible or imaginable (OPAR, 23). In other words, the metaphysically given is absolute.

“Metaphysical” means, “pertaining to the fundamental nature of reality;” and “given,” in the philosophical sense, means, “not requiring proof or explanation.” With the term metaphysically-given, then, Rand and Peikoff are referring to things like our solar system, the law of gravity, death, mountain ranges, thunderstorms, planetary motion, sea turtles, mold, etc. The metaphysically-given is every characteristic, feature, and fact inherent in existence that is untouched by human action. Man-made things, by contrast, are “objects, institutions, practices, or rules of conduct that are of human origin” (OPAR, 23). In other words, man-made facts are entities brought about by human action and choice. This would include things like nuclear reactors, birth certificates, the institution of marriage, public schools, toothbrushes, space ships, the U.S. Constitution, plastic, or a landscaped backyard.

For Rand and Peikoff, metaphysically given facts are inescapable and unalterable because of the laws of identity and causality. According to the law of identity, every entity is comprised of a certain set of characteristics and only those characteristics. According to the law of causality, in any given set of circumstances, entities can act only in the one way that is expressive of the characteristics which they possess. Metaphysically given facts have to be exactly as they are because—except for where choice is involved—entities’ specific characteristics allow for only one possible outcome in a given set of circumstances. For example, a rock, when kicked by a mountain goat at 10,000 feet, will tumble down a mountain. Due to the nature of gravity and the characteristics of rocks and air, that is the only thing the rock can do in those circumstances. Peikoff writes, “If such a fact is, then, within the relevant circumstances, it is immutable, inescapable, absolute. ‘Absolute’ in this context means necessitated by the nature of existence and therefore, unchangeable by human (or any other) agency” (24). Because it is the nature of gravity to pull objects toward other objects, and because it is the nature of rocks to have a certain density and weight and to fall downward when dropped, and because a particular slope on a particular day did not have any trees growing on it or boulders blocking the path, the tumbling rock is necessary. That fact cannot be escaped.

Man-made facts, like metaphysically given facts, are also subject to the laws of identity and causality, but they are not unquestionable metaphysical truths, unchangeable and universally necessary. Man-made facts, according to Rand and Peikoff, are products of human choice and therefore do not have to be. Any choice could have been made differently. Peikoff writes that, “Man-made facts, of course, also have identity; they too have causes; and once they exist, they exist, whether or not any particular man decides to recognize them. In their case, however, the ultimate cause, as we will see in the next chapter, is an act(s) of human choice; and even though the power of choice is an aspect of human identity, any choice by its nature could have been otherwise. No man-made fact, therefore, is necessary; none had to be” (24-25). It is in man’s nature to have to make choices. The act of making a choice is inescapable for human beings—but the particular choice that is made is chosen rather necessary.

In addition to choice, people also have the power of creativity. The word “creativity,” though, is almost not the right word. People don’t actually create things according to Rand—they arrange entities into new configurations. People take metaphysically given things (like a rock or a sharp piece of bone), and position the things in such a way as to bring into existence a combination or integration of natural elements that had not existed before (Rand, 34). Millions of years ago, the cave man, for example, took a rock and a sharp piece of bone and moved them against each other in such a way that the rock “became” a wheel. (That might not be the actual sequence of events that occurred when the wheel was invented, but you get the idea.) Creativity is really just human beings initiating a set of circumstances under which certain objects will react in a particular way (as dictated by their natures) to achieve a desired result. Those who would be creative can only succeed by paying attention to the nature of the metaphysically given. “Man’s creativity, therefore,” writes Peikoff, “is not defiance of the absolutism of reality, but the opposite. In order to succeed, his actions must conform to the metaphysically given” (OPAR, 25). In order to be productive and creative, human beings must conform to the natural laws of the universe.

Peikoff writes that to confuse the metaphysically given and the man-made is to “court a series of disastrous errors” (26). Metaphysically given facts should be accepted without evaluation, while man-made facts should always be judged. Man-made facts can be true or false, right or wrong, but metaphysically given facts cannot. Metaphysically given facts just are and must be. There is nothing to evaluate about them. This distinction is extremely important to Objectivism, branching into every area of philosophy and human life.

When it comes to man-made facts, people often make the mistake of thinking that tradition or the consensus of the times is “reality” that cannot be changed. This might take the form of someone treating man-made institutions and practices as though they were permanent and immortal, refusing to even consider that an entity such as the public school system might not actually be good for children and does not have to exist. The error lies in thinking that because human beings have created and committed to a particular man-made thing, that thing must be eternal, unchangeable, and necessary. False. No matter how many millions or billions of people commit to a particular behavior or practice, and no matter how many years the behavior or practice has remained popular, no entity brought into existence by an act of human choice had to be. If the thing did not have to be, the universe does not require that it continue to be. Man-made things can be changed.

Another error is made in regarding the metaphysically given as alterable and imagining alternatives to aspects of reality that are absolute and unchangeable. For example, one might try to imagine a perfect world without death and suffering, condemning actual reality because life involves struggle and eventual death. Because life involves pain, some might say, life is terrible, and we should instead yearn for a better world in another dimension. Because life ends in death, life is meaningless. Peikoff writes that “this amounts not merely to evading reality, but to declaring war on it” (26). The historical root of this error of trying to rewrite reality comes from religion, from the idea that the world was created by a supernatural consciousness who could have created things differently but just chose to make the world this way. Other worlds were (and maybe still are) always possible because the ultimate “creator” of reality is a supernatural being who can alter natural law whenever he pleases. In making this error, people set their desires above actual reality and refuse to accept what actually is. Unfortunately, one cannot make peace with the universe if one cannot recognize the necessity and absoluteness of that which is.

Peikoff succinctly sums up the final principle of Objectivist metaphysics in the statement: “Nothing is possible except what is actual” (28)—metaphysically speaking, of course. Similarly, nothing is changeable except that which has been brought about by human choice. It is man’s responsibility to conform to the universe—it is not the universe’s responsibility to conform to us. A recognition of the critical difference between the metaphysical and the man-made is necessary for successful human action. To fail to accept the difference between the metaphysical and the man-made is to invite internal philosophical turmoil as well as external conflict with reality. By accepting the absoluteness of the world for what it is, and by working with the natural laws of existence rather than against them, human beings can achieve harmony with the universe.

Questions and Concerns:

  • Peikoff mentions that Hume and Kant “searched for a perceptual manifestation labeled ‘necessity.’ Like a metaphysical glue sticking events together or holding facts in place; unable to find it, they proceeded to banish necessity from the world” (24). What did Kant and Hume actually write on this subject? What were their arguments, and how exactly did they “banish necessity” from the world?

Level of Difficulty: Low-ish

Mystery Number: 90

Works Cited:

1. Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991). New York: Meridian, 1993.

2. Rand, Ayn. Philosophy: Who Needs It. New York: Signet, 1984.

On Crying Wolf

Ever since the election, a huge number of articles, videos, and discussion comments associating Trump with white supremacy have catapulted across the internet. There has been a lot of this:

“I feel like personally apologizing to every POC, LGBT+ person, and woman of childbearing age. I want to live in a Stronger Together America, not a white nationalist fascist America.”

and this:

“White supremacy and white denial helped Donald Trump win the White House.”


“No Trump, No KKK, no fascist USA.”


“So how long before whites are simply outnumbered by non-whites, so that a strategy based in White Nationalism isn’t enough?”


“Today we saw that in the 21st century, you can run an utterly incompetent campaign headlined by a man utterly and obviously unfit for office, and as long as your guiding star is white nationalism you have a good shot at the win.”


“If you voted for Trump, your vote encouraged the language and actions in this video [of white supremacists giving Trump the Nazi salute]…. Stand up, tell your chosen candidate that he needs to do more than say ‘stop it.'”

In light of this elevated state of concern regarding white supremacy/nationalism, I have been investigating the topic quite a bit, because if it were true that Donald Trump is in favor of white supremacy, that would be extremely concerning.

A few days ago, though, I stumbled across a powerful and well-researched counterargument to the claim that Trump is openly white supremacist and the candidate of the KKK. This author’s counterargument is important and should be considered.

You don’t have to like Trump even slightly to read this, as the author himself is anti-Trump. The conclusion is especially powerful, so read the whole thing.

Two good excerpts:

This, I think, is the first level of crying wolf. What if, one day, there is a candidate who hates black people so much that he doesn’t go on a campaign stop to a traditionally black church in Detroit, talk about all of the contributions black people have made to America, promise to fight for black people, and say that his campaign is about opposing racism in all its forms? What if there’s a candidate who does something more like, say, go to a KKK meeting and say that black people are inferior and only whites are real Americans?

We might want to use words like ‘openly racist’ or ‘openly white supremacist’ to describe him. And at that point, nobody will listen, because we wasted ‘openly white supremacist’ on the guy who tweets pictures of himself eating a taco on Cinco de Mayo while saying ‘I love Hispanics!’

“But as I pointed out in Part 4, a lot of these accusations [against Trump] shy away from the word ‘racism’ precisely because it’s an ambiguous thing with many heterogenous parts, some of which are understandable and resemble the sort of thing normal-but-flawed human beings might think. Now they say ‘KKK white nationalism’ or ‘overt white supremacy’. These terms are powerful exactly because they do not permit the gradations of meaning which this subject demands.

Let me say this for the millionth time. I’m not saying Trump doesn’t have some racist attitudes and policies. I am saying that talk of ‘entire campaign built around white supremacy’ and ‘the white power candidate’ is deliberate and dangerous exaggeration. Lots of people (and not just whites!) are hasty to generalize from ‘ISIS is scary’ to ‘I am scared of all Muslims’. This needs to be called out and fought, but it needs to be done in an understanding way, not with cries of ‘KKK WHITE SUPREMACY!’

Please read it. For peace.

You Are Still Crying Wolf

A Revision

I would like to qualify my statements from Two Minutes of Hate last week. Throughout the whole (brief) post, I referred to the object of my hatred simply as “politics,” which was an imprecision. I said, for example, “Why hate politics? Because politics puts a crown on the head of the worst methods of human thinking and enshrines those methods on a comfortable throne.” 

My use of the term “politics” did not make clear the distinction between contemporary politics and politics as a vital branch of philosophy. My statements failed to differentiate between politics in essence and politics in the manner in which they are carried out today in our compromised, pluralistic, unprincipled, mixed-bag of a collectivist quasi-democracy.

In philosophy, politics is the fourth level of the pyramid. Politics sits on top of ethics, which sits on top of epistemology, which rests on metaphysics. Politics uses ethics to set goals and determine the proper actions to take in order to bring about the best future for humans living together on Earth. Political philosophy is, according to Ayn Rand, “abstract theory to identify, explain and evaluate the trend of events, to discover their causes, project their consequences, define the problems and offer the solutions” (from Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution). In this sense, I actually love politics.

Compromised, pluralistic, unprincipled, collectivist, quasi-democratic politics are “an affront to the good, the noble, the just, and the true” (to quote myself), but they are not all politics.

I think this distinction matters. I would like to revise what I said.

A Lengthy Discussion of the Definition of Socialism

Hello, internet. I have returned to talk about socialism. Historian and theorist Carroll Quigley once wrote, “Naturally we cannot talk intelligently unless we have a fairly clear idea of what we mean by the words we use.” Clear ideas stem from clear definitions (and evidence), and so, before I try to say anything at all about socialism, I would very much like to define the word socialism itself.

But first a definition of definition.

Definition: A concise, exact statement that sets the boundaries or limits of the subject matter to include what belongs to it and exclude what does not. Its objective is to give the subject matter a distinctive identity and precise meaning to prevent conflict, confusion, or overlap.

Or, to put it more simply:

Definition: A statement expressing the essential nature of something.

Productive conversation is impossible without a shared understanding of what exactly is being discussed. If I am talking about a tree, and you are talking about a sloth, and we are both using the word “cumulus cloud” to refer to these things, debates about the weather become extremely frustrating and pointless. Since I hope to discuss socialism in depth in further posts on this blog, the concept itself should be clearly defined so that I don’t start comparing sloths and trees and cumulus clouds while no one has any idea what I am actually talking about.

Here is the definition of socialism according to Wikipedia:

Socialism: A range of economic and social systems characterized by social ownership and democratic control of the means of production, as well as the political ideologies, theories, and movements that aim at their establishment.

……okay. But what…does that mean…exactly? In an attempt to resolve some of the initial confusion I had with this definition, I did some further digging:

Social ownership (also referred to as public ownership) is a type of ownership that is not the private kind, meaning rather than individuals or companies owning private property and making personal decisions about it, “the collective” (whatever that is) or the state will own and control that property democratically. But is it just me, or is it not quite clear based on the definition who this “collective” will be who will own and control the things? Is it the government, specifically? Is it the community as a whole? The workers at every factory? The definition of social ownership does not designate who the group will be, but it is clear that it will not be private individuals.

Means of production are the various pieces of stuff that, when acted upon by a creative idea and some tools, cause new kinds of stuff to come into existence in an economy. This could mean (emphasis on the word could) factories, blocks of iron, crude oil, water, hammers, roads, sewer systems, airports, public schools, sunlight, hospitals, prisons, vegetation, phone service, the internet, minerals, lumber, and coconuts. Means of production are basically the physical, non-human things that play any sort of role in producing economic value. Everything that exists on this entire planet has some sort of economic value though, and is therefore a means of production in some sense. For example, my toothbrush helps keep my teeth healthy and free from cavities, which in turn affects my ability to go to work as opposed to lying at home in pain, and my tooth health impacts the amount of money my dentist will be making this month. If we are going to follow the idea of social ownership of the means of production to its logical end, only the most totalitarian society in which every hair on one’s toothbrush is owned by “the collective” would qualify as true socialism in the most complete sense. No society in all of human history has yet achieved this level of absolutism.

I am still confused. Collective ownership by some vague and unnamed group of every piece of stuff that exists in society is not what most people act like the word socialism means. Bernie Sanders has never mentioned a totalitarian toothbrush dictatorship, and the countries of Europe today do not seem to be striving for a 1984 society either. Many people, it seems, view the idea of socialism simply as this:


But what about Joseph Stalin of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics? Or Adolf Hitler, leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party? Or Chairman Mao of the Communist Party of China? Were they in favor of sharing, too? How can socialism be about Feeling the Bern while also being about starving 7.5 million Ukranians until they eat each other?

If the purpose of a definition is to prevent conflict, confusion, and overlap, the general definition of socialism totally fails. On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being completely clear and concise, removing all conflict, confusion, and overlap, and with 1 being the entity being described is indistinguishable from every other thing that exists in the universe, and I have no idea what the thing even is, I give the definition of socialism a score of about 3. I can now say with confidence that a radish is not socialism, but that’s it.

The problems that I have with the definition of socialism are as follows:

  1. Without knowing exactly what social ownership entails and who specifically gets to own things (the government, the neighborhood, or the workers at Google), how can we discern precisely what it is we are talking about? Are we referring to trees or sloths or neither?
  2. Without drawing a line in the sand to designate exactly which items qualify as “means of production” and which items do not, how can we know the kind of society we are dealing with? Is this a world where I get to own my own toothbrush or one where the government will own it for me along with my hypothetical children? And how can I be sure?
  3. How can a single concept called socialism be one idea while also being a range of ideas that are held together by a common thread that has not been made clear? How can it be both one thing and everything?
  4. If socialism is many different things, why are we calling all of the things socialism and not naming them uniquely? Is there anything more specific than the vague notion of the “social ownership of the means of production” that holds all of the elements together?

These questions leave me wondering how the people of Facebook can speak about socialism with such apparent confidence. One reason, it turns out, may be because beneath the wide and vague umbrella of socialism exist a number of various and opposing branches called the Types of Socialism or the socialisms. I guess these could be considered “denominations” or diverse manifestations branching off of the concept of socialism at different eras in history. Each of the types redefines the notion of socialism in its own specific way, and each attempts to provide answers to the questions I have listed above, although their answers do not always mesh. One of the most disagreed-upon issues among socialists, for example, is the particular method by which a socialist system should be implemented. Should it be by vote? By seizure of the government? By worker action? By mass execution of the infidels? Each type of socialism answers this question differently.

What makes things complicated, however, is that because the groups’ answers to the questions differ, the word socialism has meant different things at different moments in history depending on which group was and is doing the talking. The Wikipedia page on the Types of Socialism acknowledges this confusion, saying, “Some definitions of socialism are very vague, while others are so specific that they only include a small minority of the things that have been described as ‘socialism’ in the past. There have been numerous political movements which called themselves socialist under some definition of the term. Some of these interpretations are mutually exclusive, and all of them have generated debates over the true meaning of socialism.” Well, great. That clears things up, then! I am now feeling confident in my understanding of socialism. Wait…no.

Also, many people allege that the specific manifestations of socialism are as unique and un-integratable with one another as caesar salad is with potato or fruit salad, implying that there is absolutely nothing similar among the groups apart from the sharing of a vague utopian goal, the specific nature of which floats around in the ether like a wind-blown ghost. I am extremely skeptical of this allegation of un-integratable-ness, but the issue may need to be a discussion for a future blog post. Check back later.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of some of the specific types of socialism that have existed in past and present:

  1. Marxist Communism: Marxists aspire to create a classless, stateless social organization based on common ownership of the means of production. This will be achieved by capturing the state, which will later evolve into a non-governmental commune. Lenin, Stalin, and Mao were Marxists.
  2. Autonomism: Through an everyday working class resistance to capitalism, workers will overthrow the system through self-organized, bottom-up action.
  3. Collectivist Anarchism: Collectivist anarchists believe that the economy and most or all property should be collectively owned by society. Historically, this was initiated by acts of violence and “propaganda of the deed” meant to inspire the workers to revolt.
  4. Anarchist Communism:  Self-governing communes use democracy to collectively dispense the means of production. Individuals do not receive direct compensation for labor, but rather have free access to resources.
  5. Anarcho-syndicalism: Labor unions are the source for revolutionary social change, replacing capitalism and the state with a network of democratically-managed workers.
  6. Social Democracy: Capitalism will be reformed from within, and the welfare state will be achieved through democratic vote. However, capitalism will not be totally destroyed but rather will be greatly “humanized” so as to support the values of freedom, equality, social justice, and solidarity.
  7. Democratic Socialism: A socialist economic system will be achieved through democratic vote. Capitalism is inherently incompatible with the values of liberty, equality, and solidarity and therefore cannot be “humanized” in the way social democrats desire. Ultimately, capitalism must be replaced with socialism through a democratic management of enterprises. Some people claim that Hitler was a Democratic Socialist.
  8. Liberal Socialism: The values of liberty and equality are compatible and can be achieved through a mixed economy that includes both private and public property. Some people claim that Hitler was a Liberal Socialist.
  9. Religious Socialism: A form of communism centered on religious principles, usually practiced by utopian societies through the voluntary dissolution of private property so as to meet everyone’s needs.
  10. Eco-socialism: Eco-socialists (also known as Green socialists) believe that capitalism is to be blamed for environmental degradation, social marginalization, and inequality, and they seek to dismantle capitalism by advocating for common ownership of the means of production.

What I am seeing is a thing called socialism which seems to mean something slightly or extremely different depending on who you talk to. Under the umbrella of socialism live the socialisms, under which live the people of the socialisms who don’t necessarily believe that the other people of the other socialisms should be considered true socialists at all because few agree on what the word socialism actually means in the first place. But don’t worry! There is nothing strange or concerning about this! Socialism is just too complex, ha ha ha, and it doesn’t need to be limited to rational models that dominate modern academic economics. After all, why should we bind ourselves to dogma? Socialism is definitely awesome, and YOU SHOULD BE A SOCIALIST even though nothing in this paragraph makes sense and even though the definition of socialism will probably change at least three times in the next twenty years.


Now that I have proceeded this far, is there anything to be gleaned about socialism as a whole from the explanations of the types above? Do the definitions of the types reveal anything that the general definition of socialism does not? One thing that jumps out right away that all of the types seem to share is a strong dislike of capitalism. Phrases like, “resistance to capitalism,” “property should be collectively owned by society,” “replace capitalism,” “humanize capitalism,” “mix capitalism with socialism to make it better,” “dissolve private property,” and “blame capitalism for earthly degradation” are present in each and every instance listed above. What exactly is capitalism though? This seems important.

According to Merriam-Webster:

Capitalism: An economic system characterized by private ownership of the means of production, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined by competition in a free market.

To further expand on this definition, private ownership of the means of production refers to lone individuals and private companies having exclusive possession and decision-making power over the stuff that belongs specifically to them. Additionally, a free market is an economic system characterized by unrestricted competition between privately owned businesses, where the forces of supply and demand are free from intervention by a government. The opposite of a free market would be a regulated market, where a government intervenes in supply and demand through laws creating barriers to entry, price fixing, requirements to comply with environmental standards, product-safety specifications, information disclosure requirements, regulations that privilege special interests, and other tactics. While socialism advocates economic regulation and collectivism, capitalism advocates economic freedom and individuality.

If you follow the definition to its logical end, the essence of “true capitalism” is not particularly difficult to pin down. Capitalism in its most complete sense would be a society where there is no such thing as public property whatsoever and where the government has absolutely zero say in economic affairs, not even to impose the tiniest regulation or requirement. Has true, full capitalism ever actually existed? The answer is no. Since birth, capitalism has always been regulated or mixed with other systems to some degree, although there have been periods of time where the economy has been freer and more capitalistic than it was during other eras.

Are the capitalistic notions of private property and unregulated markets completely antithetical to the theories held by the various types of socialism? YES. Most definitely. But why, exactly? Why do the socialisms oppose these ideas?

Several weeks ago I sat through the full 49:45 minutes of this incredibly patronizing video lecture on socialism given by Richard D. Wolff, Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The video’s title is, “As Capitalism’s Crisis Deepens, Thoughts of Socialism Return Again.” I will discuss this video in greater detail in a future blog post because some of his comments on the Soviet Union are so gag-inspiring that my sense of justice requires that I write about them further; but for the purposes of today, I will reference the video only to explain Wolff’s account of why socialists seek to overthrow capitalism. According to Wolff, “capitalism promised so much and delivered so much less” because it created an individualistic, violent, and unfair free-for-all within Western civilization, “dripping blood from every pore.” Essentially, socialists saw capitalism as a system that exploited workers and fostered inequality, with some people having a lot while others had only a little. Socialism by contrast, which sprang up in the 1840’s as a reaction against the supposed evils of capitalism declared, “We are not for the individual first and foremost; we are for the community first and foremost.” Wolff expressed this notion as a “brotherhood first, individual second” sort of idea. He went on to say, “It’s about a different vision for how you organize and understand what society is.” Where capitalism sought to create an individualistic society of private property with each person responsible for pursuing his or her own best interest, socialism wanted a world where everyone was roughly equal with everyone else and where the interests of the collective were managed by all rather than by a privileged few.

Socialism in all of its forms is anti-capitalism. It is a reaction against the capitalistic principles of private property, individualism, and unrestricted economic freedom on the grounds that capitalism is cruel and unfair. Even though the types of socialism disagree on how exactly a collective whole working together for the best interest of the group will actually be achieved or maintained, they do all agree that capitalism needs to be replaced with something more “humane” (aka collectivist). The specifics beyond this one point of agreement are still vague and subjective as I have already discussed, but the anti-capitalist nature of socialism is clear and shared by all. As a whole, socialism, from Marx to Stalin to Anarcho-syndicalism to the Democratic Socialists of America, seeks to oppose and overthrow capitalism, whether that means destroying it through revolution, democratic process, or worker strike, and whether it means “humanizing” capitalism, mixing it with other systems, or wiping it off the face of the planet for all eternity.

The last time I had this much difficulty locating an objective definition for a concept was back when I was teetering on the verge of atheism for the first time, grasping desperately onto the last vestiges of my Christian faith. Christianity just did not make real sense to me, and no matter how I looked at it the concept remained nebulous, floating without anchor in a twilight world of feelings, meaning whatever religious people wanted the word to mean at any given era in history. Traced through time there are thousands of different manifestations of Christianity, all of them contradictory and many of them mutually exclusive, and yet the idea of Christianity persists in all of its subjective glory, morphing shapelessly from one version of itself to the next as civilization reroutes itself toward new goals. When people use the single word Christianity to talk about their belief system, what are they specifically referring to? With its coat of many colors, how exactly does one judge Christianity on its rightness or wrongness if the religion stands for thousands of different ideas that simply shift in and out of popularity as people’s perspectives change over time?

The further I dig into socialism, a suspicion builds. Socialism, like Christianity, has a certain religious feel to it. It appears to mean whatever people feel in their hearts that it means. It morphs. It changes. It starts out as one thing and then becomes another without too much fuss being made. People try it one way, and when that one way fails, they move on to try it another way without concern for the fact that the second way is contradictory to the first, and despite the fact that the literature does not seem to make sense all together as a cohesive whole. Socialism is open for interpretation. It is open to your feelings, and isn’t that nice?

Capitalism, by contrast, is not like this. There is no range of capitalism; there is just capitalism, and it means one specific economic system that could concretely be pointed to were it ever to be implemented in its fullest sense. When and if the ultimate version of capitalism ever does have its moment (meaning all public property has been abolished and all restrictions on business have been lifted), its final judgment day will also have arrived, and that will be that. If in the end, when held up to the light, capitalism fails, honest capitalists will have no choice but to admit they were wrong, slink embarrassingly away into a corner, and think up some entirely different idea.

But not so for the socialists. Due to the floating, quasi-religious nature of the concept at the center of their system, when the next so-called socialist system fails, socialists will have the option to claim, “Well, that system that failed was not real socialism because [fill in the blank],” and who could prove them wrong? If one cannot point to what socialism specifically is, one can never know for sure when one has actually tried it. If socialists have not and will not set limits around the essential nature of their system, the boundary can just keep shifting, creeping out further and further until the socialism of the future is so unlike its original manifestation that it is literally unrecognizable. Without a boundary, anyone can logically claim that almost any brand of socialism arrived at at some future date both is and isn’t real socialism. And so, by these methods socialism can mean or not mean virtually anything as long as it does not mean capitalism.

When all is said and done, capitalism is a clearly defined economic method, but socialism, the system that seeks to overthrow it, is not. Does the lack of clarity prove that socialism is wrong? No, I don’t think so. I don’t think it does. But the ambiguity is reason to pay close attention, as it leads to the possibility of the socialist goalposts being moved in any debate. As a concept, the word socialism in all of its haziness is ripe and ready for equivocation, and its sub-types are bursting at the seams with contradictions. What unites them is a mutual understanding that in order to achieve the ideal human society, capitalism must not be left to its own devices. But is that actually true? Must capitalism be crushed in order for human life on earth to reach its highest potential? In order to answer that, I’ll have to do more research. Thanks. Bye.