I appreciate Michael Huemer's extensive comments on my essay, "The Self: From Stimulus to Cognition."
His two primary complaints about my work seem to be: 1) That I mischaracterize the views of present-day philosophers and thus mislead my readers, and 2) That my theory of concept formation (the "discovery" method) is in error.
I regret if Huemer took personal exception to my comments and/or felt insulted in some fashion by my claims. I will address some of his points in complaint #1 and then examine his alternate theory of concept formation. I believe the latter issue has greater import for people (in general) and philosophy (in particular) and thus deserves closer scrutiny.
Before my formal reply, however, I think it might be helpful to establish the context of my article and its genesis.
I originally wrote "The Self..." as a chapter for a communication book to be published by SUNY Press. Just before publication, however, I withdrew the work because of certain problems with the editor.
The book (and my chapter) was intended as introductory material for undergraduates studying communication and was directed primarily towards a social science oriented audience. The section to which Huemer primarily objects ("False Dichotomies") was secondary to the theme of the piece, i.e., an examination of the "self" in the history of communication theory. Comprising perhaps 10% of the total work, it was meant to deal with prominent ideas in the social sciences arising from various philosophical positions.
I had neither the space nor the type of audience necessary to deal with or capture all the nuances of these dichotomies as considered by various people. Extensive analysis was not feasible. For that reason, I painted this section in broad brushstrokes. I wanted to highlight the differences in the most influential beliefs affecting the social sciences. No rudimentary presentation could hope to do more than this.
Some of Huemer's criticisms seem akin to criticizing a short story writer for having only sketchy details regarding background or history or offering an uncomplicated plot...forgetting that the writer has not (and did not intend to) write a novel.
My first interest in considering these issues either in print or in the classroom is to examine significant yet erroneous ideas, how they are expressed and practiced even by those who have never read a philosophy text, and to attempt to demonstrate a better way of understanding ourselves and the world in which we operate.
Perhaps the state of modern philosophy is not as dismal as I suspect it to be based upon my personal experience. Perhaps those with whom Huemer comes into contact celebrate reason, logic, objective reality, and the possibility of certainty. Perhaps laymen look to modern philosophers for useful guidance in living their daily lives.
I suspect, however, that the current state of philosophical wisdom is sadly lacking in a variety of areas. In the social sciences, I have seen considerable evidence that such is the case. (As an aside, however, I stated in my article that I was considering "dichotomies that have been placed in opposition throughout the course of recorded philosophy," not just "modern" philosophy.)
I have been explicitly told that: causality does not apply to people; that the law of identity is invalid; that "reality" does not exist or that, if it does, it exists only after someone observes it; that we cannot possibly know or understand "reality" because "objectivity" is impossible; that induction in invalid as a means of gaining knowledge; and that language means only what we want it to mean.
The professor I had for a philosophy of science course on causality (and the philosophy majors in the class) rejected tenets of Objectivism and viewed my positions as "naive" andunsuitable to serious classroom discussion.
If Huemer enjoys a more enlightened audience and colleagues, I congratulate him. But the positions I outlined above are widespread in the social sciences and in society, at large. The effects flowing from those beliefs are expressed in thousands of ways in a thousand arenas: in politics, art, literature, and science (even infiltrating such a hard science as physics). My present college students make the prevalence of these false ideas only too painfully clear to me on a regular basis.
Huemer first takes me to task for my presentation of rationalism and empiricism. He gives the impression that few -- if any -- philosophers ever believed my "straw man" characterizations of these ideas.
I stated that "Rationalism holds that we can gain knowledge of the world simply by 'reflecting' on the logical connections among selected propositions."
Huemer judges this description as "absurd" or, at best, a "gloss."
Such a belief is, I agree, "absurd." The notion that no prominent philosophers ever believed it is also "absurd."
In A Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd edition, St. Martin's Press, 1979, Antony Flew offers this definition of rationalism:
He then offers a "wider" definition for philosophers such as Sartre who believe (b) and (d) and a "popular" sense of the term as rejecting religion or irrationalism.
Tibor Machan in Introduction to Philosophical Inquiries, University Press of America, 1985, offers the following observations of rationalism:
I wrote that "empiricism contends that the only things we should consider in deciding what we know are those aspects of the world that are directly observable."
Flew (op. cit.) writes:
Machan (op. cit.) writes:
As these excerpts indicate, the essential characteristics I presented for rationalism and empiricism are hardly as obscure as Huemer would have them. He may be quite correct that there are not many professional philosophers today who are strict rationalists or empiricists. I am not in a position to determine that. But the beliefs described above and in my article still exert major influence in academia and, trickling down, in the unquestioned ideas of many laymen. The "trivial truth" that both observation and reasoning are important has, unfortunately, yet to penetrate the psyches or alter the actions of our collectivist politicians and the millions of their supporters.
Perhaps Huemer is unaware of the vicious assaults on rationality present in academia. The feminists and leftists who now fill the professorships of many of our universities attack reason as oppressive, invalid, and "patriarchal." See such books such as The Flight From Science and Reason, Uncommon Sense, and Higher Superstition for practical examples of what happens when the proper view of reason is absent.
Part of the problem seems to be that Huemer neglects the fact that the implications of a theory sometimes lead to far different conclusions than the originator intended. Kant, Hegel, and Mill all wrote explicitly in favor of freedom, yet their theories ultimately led to the exact opposite. I doubt Marx or Engels would have endorsed or supported dictatorships which slaughtered tens of millions. Few philosophers today would openly declare they believe the final implications, the final logic of even diluted rationalism or empiricism present in their theories.
Intentions are one thing. Results, however, can be quite another.
Philosophy should provide guidelines for living one's life. If I see philosophical beliefs that ultimately are destructive, that is what I see as most important, not whether or not a particular person ignored or was ignorant of the ultimate consequences of what he believed.
Apparently, though, Huemer agrees with my "putative discovery" of the false dichotomy between reason and observation and thus endorses the Objectivist viewpoint.
But then, unfortunately, he states that Hume -- a man who denied there is any necessary causality (and thus denied the Law of Identity) and who believed that "it was still appearances in our own minds rather than objects in the external world of which alone we can be immediately aware" (Flew, op. cit., p. 154) and thus severed rationality and language from reality -- this philosopher would be "pleased" by my summary.
If Huemer truly thinks such a thing, then I suppose my judgment above regarding his support of Objectivism must be radically revised.
In dealing with the nature of knowledge, of course, we enter the realm of epistemology. Epistemology is crucially bound with concept formation and language, the next area of disagreement Huemer discusses.
Perhaps Huemer has never run across any philosopher who propounds relativism. (He speaks misleadingly of "the current state of philosophy" as though all professional philosophers somehow accept essentially the same ideas, akin to the situation in the hard sciences. I vigorously challenge any such statement.) For a more thorough discussion of relativism, I direct him to Against Relativism by James Harris, Open Court, 1992. As Mr. Harris writes, "Many of the important measures of modern relativism can be found in (William) James's theory of truth. Truth becomes relative to a particular system of beliefs (or, as some have suggested, to a particular person); so there is no absolute truth, and what is true relative to a particular system may also change with time." (p. 32)
(And, yes, truth and knowledge are not identical. However, if there is no absolute truth, there can no be contextually absolute knowledge.)
If Huemer has any knowledge of "multiculturalism," he will have a direct example of relativism writ large in modern society. It is pernicious in its effects and leads to such gems as, "You can't condemn the Nazis for what they did because that's simply what they believed to be right. We believe killing the Jews was wrong, but we can't impose our judgments on the Germans," (courtesy of my students).
In the type of relativism I condemn, there is justification. But the ultimate justification people use to defend a "knowledge" claim is no more and no less than that they and other people believe it; an example of the fallacy of an "appeal to majority" (and as Harris points out above, this is a projection of subjectivism: It's true because I believe/want it to be true).
(As a simple example of this subjectivism in today's world -- and relativism is simply a type of subjectivism -- consider the money spent and time expended celebrating the "new millennium" beginning in 2000...even though innumerable news stories -- and reality -- make it clear that the millennium begins in 2001. "Don't confuse me with the facts" is the mantra of many elements of our society, from environmental issues, to gun control, to the effects of political policies. [Cf to "ignoring relevant information" below.] The general public did not arrive at this disconnect from reality solely on their own. Philosophy has encouraged them -- albeit indirectly for most people -- to indulge in this evasion.)
Huemer makes no mention of the flipside of this dichotomy: those who demand that all knowledge be eternally and absolutely in all contexts certain. Perhaps this observation is not one he considers "trivial."
Throughout much of his criticism, Huemer seems unable to see the forest for the trees, criticizing me for not larding my brief overviews of influential, predominant, and essential views with every qualification and nuance of which he is personally aware.
As Rand stated, a person cannot fully understand "gray" until he first understands "black" and "white." In my article, I presented the black and white, which I still maintain have and still do affect vast numbers of people through the "gray" permeating our colleges and our society.
All the false dichotomies I mention are related in one fashion or another. They also color our views on language and concept formation.
In Huemer's first example of "cat," for example, he demonstrates his lack of understanding of Objectivist epistemology. Here he confuses the word "cat" (which, of course, is different in every language) for the concept which those three letters label.
THE CONCEPT IS THE SAME IN EVERY LANGUAGE BECAUSE THE CONCEPT GROUPS TOGETHER THE SAME THINGS IN REALITY.
This idea is crucially important since concept formation is integral to our efforts in dealing with the world as beings with rational capacities.
Focusing on the word rather than the concept as Huemer does places the cart before the horse. The concept is primary, the word secondary.
A valid concept does not change over time. The same word may be used to label different concepts either contemporaneously or over time, but the concept of "cat" was valid before there ever was the word "cat" and will continue to be valid even when no cat exists anywhere in the universe.
(Our understanding of the concept may change and grow in depth or breadth, but the concept itself does not. See below for a description of concept formation.)
A concept and the word/label for it are not the same. For an everyday example of this, remember the last time you knew what you wanted to say -- you had the concept firmly in your mind -- but you could not remember the word to express it.
PHILOSOPHY AND THE PEOPLE
Throughout this discussion, in my original piece and here, I take reality as the foundation -- the source -- for analyzing knowledge, language and communication, meaning, causality, rationality, objectivity, emotions, anything and everything. It is to understand reality and to be able to use that knowledge to better my life that I bother engaging in this process, at all.
Too many philosophers have lost sight of this valuable and important purpose of their profession. No philosopher would admit that he "ignored or evaded in the making of judgements," but what he counts as relevant facts is one of the central issues here.
Yes, some of my wording in my original was general and "glossed" over certain nuances. I find that less troublesome in a work designed for an introductory book, however, than Huemer's repeated implication that there is more agreement among philosophers than actually exists. His position is akin to hearing that all politicians support freedom, equality, fairness, and justice. Yes, that "is another trivial truth that would be agreed upon by all" politicians.
Yet what those concepts mean in reality are wildly divergent from what many of those "agreeable" politicians preach and practice. The same is no less true for philosophers, a fact Huemer ignores in his misunderstanding of proper epistemology and concept formation. Huemer may count himself an analytic philosopher, but there are innumerable kinds of philosophers and innumerable gradations of each type. These groups are no more in essential accord than are the countless religious sects and sub-sects and sub-sub-sects ad infinitum that plague the world. The near unanimity in philosophy Huemer appeals to is a chimera.
The true absurdity -- the true intellectual crime -- is the disgraceful uselessness of much of philosophy in actually fulfilling one its prime purposes: providing everyday guidance. Ask the average person, and I guarantee that few will have much positive to say about philosophy: too abstract, pointless, an endless series of semantic games, impenetrable prose, double-talk, and on and on.
As I stated earlier and as Rand repeatedly emphasized, philosophy should be the most practical of endeavors. That was one reason Rand addressed herself primarily to a popular audience in her writings. That the field of philosophy is seen as anything but practical can be laid at the door of those who have abandoned the quest for knowledge people can actually incorporate into their daily lives and instead engage in sterile intellectual exercises. (See Rand's essay, "Philosophy: Who Needs It.")
I have already stressed the importance of understanding concepts and their formation in dealing with the other issues raised and discussed in my original paper.
Huemer criticizes my description of the "construction" theory of concept formation as being less than "crystal clear" in the six-paragraph section of my "Concepts and Meaning." It is unfortunate that Huemer has not in his "ten years" as a "professional" philosopher encountered this theory. Still, I will endeavor to wipe away a bit of the fog obscuring his comprehension. (It is also somewhat puzzling that while he does not understand the construction theory of concept formation he nonetheless has the courage to critique it.)
(David Kelley briefly discusses the construction theory in his Evidence of the Senses, Louisiana State University Press, 1986, 225-228. Also, "For a representative construction theory, see Lewis, Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation, Book II." [note 14, p. 225])
(As an example of the currency of the construction view in communication, the editor of the SUNY book mentioned earlier independently chose the same "donkey" example in his chapter as I did...except he concluded that the donkey would have five legs [rather than four as I suggested] if "we agreed" to call a "tail" a "leg.")
First, one must ask, "What is the purpose of concepts?" or stated differently, "Why do we need concepts?" or "What are functions of concepts?"
We use concepts to help us organize our understanding of the world (both within and without ourselves). Given the near infinite number of existents and relationships in the universe, this seems at first blush to be a daunting, nearly impossible task.
To organize/classify/group the things in the world, we must have some method. Concept formation consists in first recognizing differences among two or more objects from other objects (say, "pens" as opposed to "pencils"). Then we examine the first set of objects and decide what characteristic they have in common (say, "ink which can mark a surface" as opposed to "graphite" for the pencils). We ignore the color of the ink or the nature of the pen tip (whether metal or fabric or quill) and, mentally retaining that selected particular characteristic while ignoring all the other particular characteristics (such as metal vs plastic barrel, color, clicker vs cap, etc.), we organize/unite/integrate these objects into a new mental unit. In order to make it easier to use this new concept, we label it with a verbal/written symbol (in English, "pen") and use that label rather than the more cumbersome description of these objects (e.g., "a hand-held tool containing in which is used to mark surfaces") every time we wish to refer to these existents.
Concepts are a mental tool we use to help us understand and deal more efficiently with the world. They are the means we use (through language) to express our ideas about the world to other people.
In the discovery theory of concept formation, the source of our understanding -- the content we cognitively process -- has its origins in reality. It is, after all, reality we are attempting to comprehend and manage. In any disagreement as to the meaning of a concept -- whether "justice" or "freedom" or "concept" -- one should look to the facts of reality which give rise to a particular concept. We look at the referents of the concept, that is, those existents in reality which are grouped together/picked out by a particular concept.
(Tibor Machan calls the discovery theory "contextualism," op. cit., p. 115-118. As he frames this general issue, "Unlike relativism or pragmatism, contextualism holds that it is the facts of reality that determine the context as well as the standard of knowledge, not one's desires or background." p. 117.)
As Rand writes:
We become aware of things in the world via our senses. For example, to see a rock, the rock reflects light to our eyes, our eyes detect these sensations and integrate them into perceptions, and these perceptions are transmitted to our minds which process them into an awareness of that rock. (We are not aware of the light rays, per se, that is, we are not perceptually aware of our means of perception.) As beings with a conceptual level of consciousness, we can integrate our awareness of these kinds of objects into the concept "rock" as per the process described above.
In contrast, Huemer ignores or misunderstands the causal connections which link our mental processes to reality. His discussion of the concept CAT begins, not with real life cats but the "idea" or "symbol" of "cat." He states the obvious that, "Concepts (or ideas) exist only in the mind." Of course they do.
Unfortunately, he does not quote this from my article:
Here, "meaning" seems to = "expressing an idea" = "the idea" itself = the "symbol" = the "concept."
From this, I would conclude that the meaning of an idea is equivalent to its expression in the form of a symbol. Since Huemer equates concepts with ideas in (4), I assume the meaning of a concept is its expression in the form of a symbol. Or the meaning of a concept is equivalently the idea one has after "certain thought processes" (whatever those are).
Lamentably, however, he then states in his (iii) that, "There is no such thing as the meaning of a concept." At face value, this seems in contradiction to what he expresses in (i) and (ii) in his argument. But he claims this is not so since the phrase "the meaning of a concept" makes no sense. Ideas/concepts "do not have meanings; they just are meanings" (emphases added). To paraphrase Huemer: ideas are just ideas are just meanings.
So: meaning = idea = concept = symbol.
Yet in (iv), he says the word "cat" and the concept "CAT" refer to a kind of animal.
To quote Huemer:
Apparently the sound of this sentence -- the notion that concepts mean nothing -- does not bother Huemer or strike him as odd.
To repeat Huemer's position: A concept and a word can refer to objects, and a word means an idea, but since a concept is equivalent to an idea, an idea cannot mean anything, either. So a word means an idea which means nothing. They all simply are meaning.
To say that concepts/ideas are meaning but mean nothing is, I submit, a prime example of the kind of pointless semantic gymnastics I mentioned earlier when discussing the view of philosophy held by the general public.
Huemer provides no linkage between these ideas/meanings/symbols/concepts/words and the real world cats he employs as his example. He does not discuss why we need concepts; how they are formed; the causal chain from that cat out there to that idea in his head which "has no meaning but simply is meaning." He states that there is an external world, but he offers no mechanism to reach it or to connect it to our concepts. He says, "Nevertheless, concepts are connected to reality" and supports that statement by merely asserting in his (v) that concepts refer to things...and that when one thinks about certain things, one is employing a concept.
He seems not to recognize the circularity here. There is nothing in his account to prevent a person from thinking about something which doesn't exist and claiming that thought as a valid concept merely because he thinks it...since for Huemer meaning = idea = concept = symbol.
Perhaps, though, for Huemer, the notion of a "valid" concept is also devoid of meaning. If a concept is nothing more than "a certain thought process" which "causes you to acquire the concept...in your mind," I certainly see nothing standing in the way of such a conclusion...and no possible way to resolve any differences of opinion as to what a "concept" means...since a concept means nothing but merely is meaning.
So when one politician says "freedom" means doing only what the government allows us to do and I say that "freedom" means doing whatever we want and can do as long as we do not initiate coercive force against others, what possible standard can one possibly appeal to in Huemer's view to resolve this dilemma?
None that I can see. We each have "thoughts/ideas" in our minds which are the same as "concepts" which "are meaning." We each "refer" to different things in the world, but since "concepts are meanings" but "mean nothing," we each must both be correct...if "right" or "wrong" can possibly "mean" anything when the process occurs entirely in our heads.
Huemer sinks into this morass partially by acting as though the word "meaning" is linked to one and only one concept and that "to refer" to something is distinct from how I use "meaning" in terms of concept formation. Yet this is the very danger I warned against in my quote above!
As I stated in my article, "The meaning of a concept is its referents." To state this in another way, the meaning of a concept are those things in reality to which it refers (or those things it classifies together). This process of classification, of course, is a mental process, but what determines how these entities should be grouped together are their objective characteristics in accordance with our cognitive needs.
OUR CONCEPTS SHOULD CONFORM TO REALITY; REALITY DOES NOT HAVE TO CONFORM TO OUR CONCEPTS.
That is to say, we can attempt to group things in an invalid fashion, to "integrate errors, contradictions or false propositions" (Rand, ITOE, p. 65). If we do run across such invalid concepts, the only objective standard to which we can appeal to demonstrate that mistake is reality.
In his criticism of my "Nazi justice" example, Huemer is correct that concepts do not by themselves "assert anything" in a propositional sense. I should think it implicitly understood, however, that what my example meant was that it was individual Nazis who declared it was "just" to exterminate Jews. The point was to address the validity of a concept (as discussed above), not its truth or falseness in a propositional sense. I apologize for my infelicitous phrasing.
It is possible to consider the "truth" or "falseness" of a concept in the sense of its correspondence (or lack thereof) to reality.
There can be "false" (in the sense of invalid) concepts. If one does not believe this, try arguing with someone who believes it is impossible for blacks or minorities to be "racist" since only those in power can be racist; that a concept of "racism" which implies otherwise is wrong. Or a radical feminist who insists that even consensual marital sex is an example of rape. Or a president who claims that oral sex is not sex and debates what the meaning of "is" is.
Perhaps some of Huemer's positions are meant to stave off some view of concepts as having metaphysical essences (as opposed to Objectivism's view of essences as epistemological). Or perhaps he seeks to distance himself from a kind of Platonic Idealism.
In any event, his views of concepts and concept formation are "grossly inaccurate." His position on concepts vis a vis reality reminds me of a cartoon by Sidney Harris in which a scientist is examining a colleague's equations. To get from point A to point B, the first man has written, "Then a miracle occurs." His friends says, "I think you should be more explicit here in step two."
In his "Lessons on Philosophical Method," Huemer seems to take offense largely because he believes I am insulting philosophers by implying they are "stupid."
No. I do not think they are stupid. I think the are wrong.
The major philosophical beliefs held in this country --whether by philosophers or academics or laymen -- have veered farther and farther from reality since the Enlightenment stalled in the Nineteenth Century. In metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political economy, and esthetics, the ideas and concepts which have held sway in our nation and the world at large have brought us tens of millions of murdered innocents, trillions in wealth stolen from those who earned it, and freedom which shrinks with every passing year.
Why? Because too many philosophers holding various versions of the beliefs I have detailed have turned from reality as the standard by which to judge their work. Many had and may have good intentions. Unfortunately, the road to the hell that has been this century was paved with just such "good" intentions.
Ideas do matter. The wrong ideas of philosophers can have negative consequences and trickle down in diluted form to individuals who would never know the difference between a Hume and a Sartre.
The contortionistic explanation Huemer offers in his discussion of concepts, ideas, and meaning represents the abstruse, obscure, and "meaningless" language which has infected too much of philosophy (and academia as a whole) for too long. Clarity and simplicity of writing are too frequently sacrificed on the altar of academic respectability as academics write only for other academics. Excessive jargon and impenetrability of expression, however, hardly represent the hallmark of erudition.
More philosophers should keep in mind the ultimate audience for their ruminations: the average person who truly needs guidance -- perhaps even rescue -- from a stultifying culture which seeks to "dumb him down" rather than "raise him up"; a society which attacks or denigrates achievement, personal responsibility, rationality, objectivity, truth, reality, certainty, self-interest, and individualism.
Huemer complains of unfair expositions by Objectivists of non-Objectivist philosophers, as though the latter constitutes some monolithic, homogeneous whole. Any introductory philosophy text with its plethora of contradictory theories will put the lie to that notion. One person's "obvious blunders" are another's core beliefs. (And is it not odd that Huemer acts as though only Western philosophy is at issue here? Has he never studied various Oriental philosophies and the billions who believe in and practice them?)
As for academic philosophers who "rarely take Objectivists seriously" because of "blatant misrepresentations," I suppose I could likewise point out the frequency with which Objectivist positions are presented as caricatures...but this, of course, would merely be to commit a tu quoque fallacy.
Huemer also seems inordinately concerned that I may miss out on "interesting" things various philosophers have written. It is true that I have often learned from reading and thinking about the mistakes various philosophers have made. Such readings help me to better appreciate my own ideas.
I think, however, that a greater concern for what is true rather than what is "interesting" would serve as a better standard for determining the value of any particular philosopher's ideas.
Some of the issues involved in trying to understand the Objectivist/discovery theory of concept formation are obviously not intuitively evident. The idea that the "meaning of a concept are the things in reality organized/classified/grouped/categorized by that concept" apparently conflicts with the observation that concepts are grasped by a person's mind. Given the latter fact, how then could the "meaning" or locus of a concept lie anywhere outside of a consciousness (if we are to avoid some type of Platonic Idea)?
The analogy offered here will, perhaps, help to clarify a few of the points I made in my essay, "The Self: From Stimulus to Cognition." By examining what it means to know the person "Russell Madden" we may shed light on this contentious issue.
(A couple of obvious points where my analogy will fall short are that a person's name labels a distinct being while a word labels a grouping of existents; and a person [as a distinct personality] is sui generis while a concept is concerned with multiple, similar things.)
In trying to determine who "Russell Madden" (RM) is, an outside observer can only gain information about RM by examining his behavior, through either verbal or nonverbal cues/behavior/actions. The observer forms some idea of what RM is like by seeing what he does, hearing what he says, feeling his body, smelling him, or (least likely) tasting him. The observer gains information through this process. He discovers facts about RM.
Given this information, the observer draws upon his experience with others and his own self and reaches certain conclusions about RM: what he is like; what he believes; how he responds to various stimuli; what his personality is like; perhaps even why he is the way he is. The observer uses perceived similarities and differences between RM and other people in making his judgments as to who RM is; what it means to talk about "Russell Madden."
The observer then interacts with RM based upon his understanding of who RM is/what RM is like. The observer may be correct in some of his judgments and incorrect or only partially correct in others. After further interactions or after subsequent and more thorough reflection, the observer may come to modify his judgments to (he believes) more accurately reflect who "Russell Madden" is.
In other words, his knowledge and understanding of the person "Russell Madden" changes. BUT "RUSSELL MADDEN" HAS NOT CHANGED. He remains the same individual as before. What has changed is the observer's interpretation. When the observer says, "Russell Madden," he still picks out the same entity in reality regardless of the validity or depth of his knowledge about "Russell Madden."
It is who RM actually is, within his mind and body, which determines what "Russell Madden" means. What the observer believes or does not believe about RM are not constitutive of what RM's personality are. Even if other observers agree with the first observer, that "group belief" is irrelevant in discovering precisely who RM is.
The locus, the meaning of who RM is remains within himself.
There is obviously a linkage between RM and the observer in terms of the observer's interactions with RM and the observer's cognitive needs (in the sense of what the observer wants or needs to know about RM). But to say that the meaning of who "Russell Madden" is can only be found within the observer's mind is to sever that connection which makes knowledge possible. Since valid knowledge of RM is about RM, we must look to RM to discover those facts about him we seek to understand.
To apply this analogy to concepts then, we (as observers of reality) gain information about various existents via our senses. We observe various similarities among certain existents and note how this group of things differs from other existents around us. We discover what the characteristics of these existents are by their nature. (If these existents do not form the source for our information, if they do not provide the foundation for what we know, then the only other possible source is within our minds. A "concept" based on a fantasy, however, on something unreal, on that which does not exist, is an invalid concept.) After grouping these entities according to their epistemologically most essential traits, we apply a label, a word, to aid us in discussing this concept.
Our understanding of any particular set of entities categorized by a concept may change, expand, improve over time, but the concept itself remains the same as long as it continues to select out and classify the same entities.
For example, our understanding of what a "human" is has changed over time, but the concept itself has not. Whether discussing "humans" now or thousands of years ago, a person would still be grouping together the same type of entities and differentiating them from the rest of reality.
"Meaning" in the sense of identifying facts about reality, or grasping knowledge of other existents is, of course, strictly a function of consciousness. (As Rand said, "Consciousness is Identification.")
"Meaning" in the sense of the source for those facts we seek and discover and organize into concepts is objective reality. ("Existence is Identity.")
If the meaning of our concepts are not those referents in reality we group together but instead lies solely within our minds, then we have abandoned the Primacy of Existence and embraced the Primacy of Consciousness...and will eventually drown in solipsism, relativism, and subjectivism regardless of how many qualifications or excuses we offer to obscure the implications of our beliefs and our true dilemma.