The distinguishing characteristic of twentieth-century philosophy is a resurgence or irrationalism—a revolt against reason.
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In this article, I shall confine myself to the analysis of a single principle—a single fallacy—which is rampant in the writings of the neo-mystics and without which their doctrines could not be propagated.
We call it “the fallacy of the stolen concept.”
To understand this fallacy, consider an example of it in the realm of politics: Proudhon’s famous declaration that “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.
All of man’s knowledge and all of his concepts have a hierarchical structure. The foundation or ultimate base of this structure is man’s sensory perceptions; these are the starting points of his thinking. From these, man forms his first concepts and (ostensive) definitions—then goes on building the edifice of his knowledge by identifying and integrating new concepts on a wider and wider scale. It is a process of building one identification upon another—of deriving wider abstractions from previously known abstractions, or of breaking down wider abstractions into narrower classifications. Man’s concepts are derived from and depend on earlier, more basic concepts, which serve as their genetic roots. For example, the concept “parent” is presupposed by the concept “orphan”; if one had not grasped the former, one could not arrive at the latter, nor could the latter be meaningful.
The hierarchical nature of man’s knowledge implies an important principle that must guide man’s reasoning: When one uses concepts, one must recognize their genetic roots, one must recognize that which they logically depend on and presuppose.
Failure to observe this principle—as in “All property is theft”—constitutes the fallacy of the stolen concept.