In this post, I will summarize chapter 1 of Ayn Rand’s book, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. This chapter describes the stages a child goes through leading up to the ability to use concepts, as well as the basis for those steps in reality.
According to Rand, there are three stages that a child goes through:
First, the stage of sensations. Rand suggests that “an infant’s sensory experience is an undifferentiated chaos” which is forgotten by the time one becomes an adult. Adults can infer that they once experienced a sensation stage, but they cannot bring a sensation into their conscious awareness.
Second, the stage of percepts. Rand says “a percept is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism.” Adults are consciously aware of percepts, and they form the level at which we are directly aware of reality.
At the perceptual level, the child attains the (implicit, not yet explicit) concept of an existent, a thing that exists. This implicit concept develops through three sub-stages: “entity,” referring to the objects around him or her, “identity,” referring to the fact that he or she can distinguish these entities from the other things he or she sees, and “unit,” which refers to the fact that there are similarities and differences between these objects’ identities.
Rand next spends some time on the concept “unit.”
A unit is an existent regarded as a separate member of a group of two or more similar members. (Two stones are two units; so are two square feet of ground, if regarded as distinct parts of a continuous stretch of ground.) … Units are things viewed by a consciousness in certain existing relationships.
Rand points out that this concept allows us to extrapolate beyond our observations by defining a standard and thinking in terms of repetitions of the standard. I think what she has in mind here is primarily physics; physicists define a specific distance as the meter and then do physics in terms of repetitions or divisions of that standard meter. The point applies to any concept, though. For example, we can recognize more than one country as instances of the concept “country” because we can abstract from the specific number of people in the population, the specific geographic location, the specific system of government, etc. These are essentially just repetitions of the same thing, or of similar things we have seen elsewhere.
Summary in bullet points:
- Sensation stage
- Perceptual stage
- Unit (Entry to conceptual stage)