Objective and Objectivist Dogmas

Critical rationalism is sometimes mistaken to be little more than a call to be critical. Some object that advocacy of the critical attitude is hardly unique to critical rationalism; every first year philosophy student is instructed to be critical of themselves and others. However, critical rationalism is about a lot more than just an attitude.

Attitudes may not even be particularly important so far as the institutions of science are concerned. Every theory deserves a thorough and motivated defence, and it is often the dogmatists who provide it. Even when individual rationality fails, it can emerge again, given appropriate institutions, on the group level. Critical rationalism has always been about the rationality of social institutions as much as the rationality of individuals.

Critical rationalism is more concerned with objective dogmas. An objective dogma is an idea or argumentative strategy which does nothing but deflect criticism. One may have a critical attitude or stance and yet still play host to an objective dogma: its dogmatism does not depend on any subjective attitude, but rather the logical structure of the dogma itself.

A subjective dogmatist may be relatively benign. If an experiment appears to contradict his dogma, then he may studiously inspect instruments for defects, run the experiment again to reproduce results, or survey possible modifications of the dogma. The subjective dogmatist may fulfill a useful service by exploring possible counter-criticisms; he is certain that someday the apparent refutation will be explained away and, of course, he might be right.

An objective dogma, however, is like a spam filter that casts its net too broadly: it removes inbound criticism before it can properly reach the recipient’s attention. Objective dogmas are usually disguised as pragmatic heuristics, self-effacing scepticism, or even logical fallacies; they immunise their hosts from particular kinds of feedback, while often appearing to be the epitome of self-criticism or logical reasoning.

One objective dogma is the so-called fallacy of the stolen concept. Recognition of the purported fallacy is normally attributed to Ayn Rand, though I suspect others have used similar arguments before her. In his essay, “The Stolen Concept,” objectivist Nathaniel Branden explains the  fallacy by using Proudhon’s famous declaration, “All property is theft.”

“Theft” is a concept that logically and genetically depends on the antecedent concept of “rightfully owned property”—and refers to the act of taking that property without the owner’s consent. If no property is rightfully owned, that is, if nothing is property, there can be no such concept as “theft.” Thus, the statement “All property is theft” has an internal contradiction: to use the concept “theft” while denying the validity of the concept of “property,” is to use “theft” as a concept to which one has no logical right—that is, as a stolen concept.

Branden then applies this same argumentative strategy to reject claims that “logical axioms are arbitrary,” “logical axioms are hypothetical,” “all that exists is change and motion,” “man perceives only an illusion or mere appearances,”  and “man cannot achieve knowledge.” Finally, he concludes with “one of the most grotesque instances of the stolen concept fallacy,” that is, the claim that commitment to reason is an “act of faith” itself.

Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by the senses. Faith is the acceptance of ideas or allegations without sensory evidence or rational demonstration. “Faith in reason” is a contradiction in terms. “Faith” is a concept that possesses meaning only in contradistinction to reason. The concept of “faith” cannot antecede reason, it cannot provide the grounds for the acceptance of reason—it is the revolt against reason.

This last argument is of particular interest to critical rationalism; one of its central theses is that reason itself cannot be rationally justified. If “faith” is defined as commitment without rational justification, then, according to critical rationalists, commitment to reason itself would then be an “act of faith.” Are objectivists correct? Are critical rationalists guilty of the stolen concept fallacy?

At this juncture, it might appropriate to review the basic argument against justificationism. Let A and B represent propositions, and suppose that A justifies B.

(1) A ⊢ B

From (1) and the law of identity we get

(2) A ⊢ A, B

From the law of identity and principle that additional premises cannot subtract possible conclusions, it follows that

(3) A, B ⊢ A

Since the relation of deducibility is transitive, it follows from (2) and (3) that

(4) A ⇔ A, B

Finally, from (1) and (4) we conclude

(5) (A ⊢ B) ⇔ (A, B ⊢ B)

That is, (1) is logically equivalent to an obviously question begging form of argument. Since (1) exemplifies nothing less than all valid arguments from the non-empty set, it follows that all arguments either have this question begging form or are invalid. Since B can neither be justified by itself nor by an invalid argument, it follows that no possible conclusion is justifiable.

If “knowledge” is defined as justified belief, then knowledge is impossible to achieve. If “faith in reason” is defined as commitment to reason without justification, then commitment to reason must be an “act of faith.” The argumentative strategy here is reductio ad absurdum: “a form of argument in which a proposition is disproven by following its implications logically to an absurd consequence” (from Wikipedia).

However, Branden would reject this conclusion as “a grotesque instance of the stolen concept fallacy,” because it assumes the concept of justification and that something can be justified, while concluding that nothing is justifiable and the concept of justification is incoherent. To paraphrase Branden,

to use the concept “justified belief” while denying the validity of the concept of “justification,” is to use “justified belief” as a concept to which one has no logical right—that is, as a stolen concept.

Therefore, this argument by reductio ad absurdum, in light of the stolen concept fallacy, is inadmissible.

Returning to Branden’s exemplar of the stolen concept fallacy, Proudhon’s declaration “All property is theft,” one might ask what Proudhon meant.

Proudhon believed that the common conception of property conflated two distinct components which, once identified, demonstrated the difference between property used to further tyranny and property used to protect liberty. (From Wikipedia)

As with critical rationalism’s case against justification, Proudhon’s conclusion is the result of argument by reductio ad absurdum. His claim, whether right or wrong, was that the traditional concept of property was incoherent. However, Branden’s argumentative strategy leads him to reject Proudhon’s conclusion without ever addressing his argument.

Branden does not address a single criticism in his essay, because his defensive strategy can deflect any and all inbound criticism in the form of reductio ab absurdum. He is immunised from criticism by both an objective and objectivist dogma: the so-called fallacy of the stolen concept. In his conclusion, Branden is triumphant despite not addressing a single argument against his position.

One will search in vain for a single instance of an attack on reason, on the senses, on the ontological status of the laws of logic, on the cognitive efficacy of man’s mind, that does not rest on the fallacy of the stolen concept … This fallacy must be recognized and repudiated by all thinkers, if truth and reality are their goal.

Indeed, if one accepts Branden’s defensive strategy, then nobody will be able to demonstrate to him that his views are inconsistent, because any such critic can immediately be dismissed for committing the “fallacy” of the stolen concept. Employing this dogmatic argument does not mean Branden did not have a critical attitude; it is precisely because objective dogmas transcend subjective considerations that a mere critical attitude is not enough.

An interesting consequence of all this, that may initially seem confounding, is that one is not a critical rationalist just because one says so. I may regularly say “I am a critical rationalist,” but I may not be. What objective dogmas pervade my thoughts? Perhaps, despite my critical attitude, I am unresponsive to criticism, and incapable of being self-critical. Like Branden, I may use arguments that seem to me like the epitome of self-criticism and logical reasoning, but are, in fact, nothing but objective dogmas that deflect and immunise against criticism. I don’t think so, but it is the way of objective dogmas that their hosts are normally unaware of them.

About Lee Kelly

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15 Responses to Objective and Objectivist Dogmas

  1. J. Goard says:

    Recognition of the purported fallacy is normally attributed to Ayn Rand, though I suspect others have used similar arguments before her.

    And not just “others”, neither. Did you also happen to see this little gem mentioned on Wikipedia?

    The upshot is at best that the bourgeois legal conceptions of “theft” apply equally well to the “honest” gains of the bourgeois himself. On the other hand, since “theft” as a forcible violation of property presupposes the existence of property, Proudhon entangled himself in all sorts of fantasies, obscure even to himself, about true bourgeois property.

    [Emphasis mine.]

    If the argument wasn’t rather obvious, I’d say that Branden blatantly plagiarized Marx. LOL.

  2. Pingback: Van Til « Philosophy of Science

  3. 1Z says:

    Is one supposed to conclude from this that all deductive arguments actually are invalidly question begging?

  4. Lee Kelly says:


    It doesn’t matter whether you agree with my reductio of justificationism. It doesn’t matter whether you agree with Proudhon’s reductio of capitalism — I certainly don’t. The point is that Branden’s defensive strategy avoids the entire issue of whether they are good arguments and skips right to rejecting them. The “fallacy” of the stolen concept can used by anyone to reject any accusations of incoherence. It is neither an assumption nor corollary of objectivism; its only purpose is to deflect criticism — it is an objective dogma.

    In other news, my claim was that all deductive arguments have a question begging form, and not that all such arguments are question begging. That is a subtle distinction. Arguments cannot be question begging in and of themselves, because begging the question is something we do with arguments. Clearly, if one does not intend to use deductive arguments to justify, then one cannot be accused of begging the question.

    The traditional position is that question begging arguments are valid; they are not considered logical fallacies but rather argumentative fallacies. I would say the proper fallacy is when someone tries to use any argument (deductive or inductive) to justify its conclusion.

  5. David Gordon says:

    The “basic argument against justificationism” does not show that all valid deductive arguments have a question-begging form. The argument shows that from a valid deductive argument, another argument can be derived that has a question-begging form and is logically equivalent to , i.e., has the same logical content, as the first argument. But this does not show that the first argument has a question-begging form: it need not contain its conclusion as a premise. Logical equivalence and meaning are very different things.

    “All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; Therefore, Socrates is mortal” is true if and only if “All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; 2 +2 =4; Therefore, Socrates is mortal” is true. The first syllogism could not be true unless the second was also true, but it hardly follows that the first syllogism contains “2 +2 =4” as a premise.

  6. David Gordon says:

    In the last sentence of my comment above, both mentions of “true” should be replaced by “valid.”

  7. Lee Kelly says:

    David Gordon,

    First, whether or not my argument against justificationism is sound, the form of the argument is a reductio ad absurdum. The point of my post was to show how, using the so-called fallacy of the stolen concept, Branden can, and does, “refute” such conclusions without addressing the actual arguments.

    In any case, you’re right but misunderstand. Take your two syllogisms:

    All men are mortal
    Socrates is a man
    Therefore, Socrates is mortal


    All men are mortal
    Socrates is a man
    2 + 2 = 4
    Therefore, Socrates is mortal

    While the sets of premises are not equal, they are logically equivalent, i.e. they have the same consequence classes. 2 + 2 = 4 is a tautology. Its presence in the second argument is redundant. It doesn’t add anything to the premises, because it must be true regardless of whether it is a premise.

    More to the point, my proof demonstrates that

    A ⊢ A, B ⊢ A

    This is impossible unless A has the same consequence class as A and B together. If they do not differ in any logical consequences, then they are logically equivalent. There will always be someway of restating the premises which makes the question begging form obvious and other way that make it obscure.

    To be clear, this isn’t a criticism of deduction, but a criticism of justificationism.

  8. David Gordon says:

    I agree with your proof but don’t understand the significance you attach to it. (In your reply to me, the last “A” should be a “B”, corresponding to (5) of your original post.)

    Consider this argument: An acceptable criterion of meaning should be meaningful according to its own standard
    It is not the case that the logical empiricist criterion of meaning is meaningful according to its own standard
    Therefore, the logical empiricist criterion of meaning is not an acceptable criterion of meaning.

    This seems to me a valid argument. Does it beg the question? That issue depends on whether someone could reasonably accept the premises who did not already accept the conclusion. In this case, surely one could. Someone could think, “Well, of course a criterion of meaning that, when applied to itself, turned out to be meaningless would be a sorry affair” before realizing that this would lead to problems for the logical empiricist criterion.

    Your argument shows that the argument I just gave is logically equivalent to one with the same premises and conclusion as mine but with the conclusion of the argument as an additional premise. This argument does beg the question. No one who didn’t already accept the conclusion would accept that very conclusion as a premise. But someone, to reiterate, could accept the premises of the first argument who did not already accept the conclusion. It need not beg the question. The argument’s being logically equivalent to another argument that does beg the question does not change the fact that this argument need not do so.

    All you have done with your talk of logical equivalence is to show that for a valid deductive argument, one can get a logically equivalent argument by adding the conclusion as a superfluous premise. This is true enough, but I don’t see why the matter is important.This was the point of my “2+ 2 = 4” example. If one adds “2+ 2 = 4” to the premises of a valid argument, one will obtain a logically equivalent argument with the same conclusion, but so what?

    I agree with you that Branden should not dismiss arguments without examining them.

  9. Kenneth Hopf says:


    All valid deductive arguments are question begging. Mill recognized this over 100 years ago. What is typically taught today in critical thinking courses, that all question begging is unacceptable, is itself mistaken. Begging the question is not a fallacy. In fact, it can sometimes be quite enlightening. This depends largely on whether the question begging is progressive or regressive. A regressive argument begs the same question over and over again, whereas a progressive argument begs different questions. With a progressive sequence, you can exchange the begging of one question for the begging of another, and the exchange may be rather helpful, because the new question might, for instance, be more susceptible to testing or other critical examination.

  10. Kenneth Hopf says:


    The real reason that question begging is frowned upon is that, in the Western tradition, it is widely thought that a proposition is worthless unless justified. Now, all deductively valid arguments fail to justify, but in the case of those that actually get rejected for begging the question, the logical chain has been reduced to the point where the lack of justification is blatantly obvious. According to our tradition, if you have no justification, you have nothing. Question begging arguments simply lay bare the ridiculous nonsense at the heart of the mainstream Western epistemological tradition. That’s the real reason they’re rejected — not because they’re logical fallacies, which they clearly are not.

  11. Kenneth Hopf says:


    Question beggary has nothing to do with what anyone could accept. It’s a strictly logical question. People can be accepting or unaccepting all they want. It makes no difference. Thus it is not the case that your argument either does or doesn’t beg the question depending upon what someone accepts. You seem to be mixing up logical issues with questions about belief.

  12. Ex-Critical Rationalist says:

    I was a Critical Rationalist.

    I rejected every philosophical method that was not criticism, because these methods were dogmatic and deflected any reductio ad absurdum.

    I do not deflect reductio ad absurdum.

    I would not criticise the Critical philosophy itself – that was dogma.

    Therefore, Critical philosophy was dogmatic. – reductio ad absurdum


    Since Critical philosophy could be reduced to absurdity and dogma, and since Critical philosophy upheld this reduction argument, by being Critical I was compelled to reject Critical philosophy – which meant that Critical Rationalism is self-defeating and self-contradictory in its depth.

    I am now an Ex-Critical Rationalist.

  13. d says:

    Ex-Critical Rationalist,

    Your reductio has been covered over and over. Bartley and Miller addressed it in Comprehensively Critical Rationalism. Do you have anything more?

  14. Bell Ocampo says:


    This is an interesting paper written by a Randian philosopher, don’t know what to think of it, but I think there might be one or two major errors.

  15. Rafe says:

    You are correct!
    I think I first saw this paper in a draft form many years ago and it was amazing that it was ever published in a respectable place. It is so full of misrepresentations of Popper’s ideas that I have never tried to list them all and answer it although some other people have done so.
    I never got the impression that the author changed his mind. Nor that he actually read Popper critically and self-critically.

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