1.   Forming the Concept of Mind

By Paul Vanderveen

May 22, 1997

Copyright ©1999 by Paul Vanderveen

On 12 May 1997 Vincent Cook wrote:

I hold that what we introspectively identify as the mind is the same entity as what we identify via sensation as the brain (i.e. the mind/brain distinction is epistemic, not metaphysical).

How, actually, did we conceptualize our minds? How did we learn to think about them explicitly, in conceptual terms? Did we, as Vincent Cook seems to hold, bring the mind into conceptual terms introspectively? Some philosophers and psychologists (and, in my experience, many Objectivists) believe we did. Yet I believe that we did not and could not possibly have--and that this is a matter of considerable importance.

The concept of mind is vital to many aspects of modern life. It underlies the field of psychology, for instance, and plays a crucial role in the philosophy of Objectivism. No one who lacks the concept of mind could have a fundamental grasp of Ayn Rand's philosophy--or of Western philosophy since Descartes, for that matter. Nevertheless, I think it is arguable that many adults, even in the modern Western world, have less than a firm hold of this important concept. If we wish to help people secure it and to become more confident of our knowledge ourselves, it behooves us to understand how we went about acquiring it.

A concept, as Rand noted, is a mental integration of two or more units. Because each of us experiences "two or more" instances of thinking, remembering and imagining, we can form concepts of these and a host of similar processes introspectively--and recent research in developmental psychology shows that, indeed, children do begin to learn and informatively use such concepts, starting very early in life. But these concepts are not the same as the concept of mind (nor does using them entail explicitly identifying the processes involved as mental processes). Each of us has only one mind and can be introspectively aware only of the thinking, remembering, imagining and so on that he or she does, not that anyone else does, of the actions of only his or her own mind, not "two or more" minds--thus making it impossible to form the concept of mind introspectively. We cannot gain the requisite perspective that way. While introspective data is necessary, it is not, by itself, sufficient. As with all other concepts, we form the concept of mind by cognitively integrating two or more units. The other units, in this case, are the minds of other persons.

The only valid way to form the concept of mind is to cognitively integrate "self and others"--that is, that one mind which one alone experiences directly and other minds which one can know only indirectly. What is the pattern of the developmental progression leading to such a profound integration, to the explicit recognition of a basic similarity between self and others on this level? Children's growing ability to use the simpler concepts of thinking, remembering, imagining and so forth, as with their use of many other action concepts, spans both themselves and others. Research demonstrates that children are normally very curious about others and rapidly expand their knowledge of what others want, know, can figure out and so on. Because the scope of their thinking in this realm includes both self and others, they can be said to have an implicit awareness of minds. When they then form the concept of mind explicitly (assuming that eventually they do), it is not by breaking this pattern and looking inward, to the exclusion of their awareness of others. On the contrary, to conceptually identify minds, a young person must take the interrelated totality of those processes which he or she directly experiences and regard them as a single unit--grasping the similarity to other interrelated totalities, the minds of others, which he or she does not and can never experience but about which he or she has also been learning for years. The trick here is learning to regard oneself as a unit in relation to all other persons.

Why have many thinkers (including Rand, it seems to me) mistakenly thought that we can form the concept of mind through inward observation? What makes this view plausible to so many? There are many possible explanations. Probably most people who have thought about this issue remember little, if anything, about the actual process of forming this concept themselves, at least not in such terms. And then there is the fact that the only mind which anyone directly experiences is his or her own. Acknowledging this fact, in some manner, is part and parcel of the process of forming the concept of mind. Some people, however, seem to think that it implies that each person can form the concept introspectively (but it does not).

Additionally, in some cases at least, a partial explanation of the plausibility comes from the power of conceptual knowledge itself--and the ease with which we can take it for granted. By forming the concept of mind and automatizing its use, one becomes able to think explicitly, in words, about one's own mind and about the mind of anyone else whom one knows, even when one is completely alone. This can be a powerfully liberating experience. One can easily go on to mistake it for a preconceptual form of awareness and assume that it served as the foundation for subsequent conceptualization. On such an assumption, forming the concept introspectively might seem possible. Indeed, one could then imagine that one could have formed it even if one's life had somehow actually been solitary, even if one had grown up on the proverbial deserted island or uninhabited planet and one's knowledge of mental processes had been limited to one's own processes.

But a concept is a mental integration of two or more units. One cannot form the concept of mind by gazing inward, by limiting the range of one's awareness to internal phenomena, one mind, while ignoring one's knowledge of others, any more than one can form any other concept by "integrating" a single existent, whatever that would mean. It is only after forming the concept of mind by cognitively integrating two or more units, one's own and others' minds, that one can then apply the concept inwardly--and "introspectively identify the mind." Before that, one lacked the power.

Vincent Cook responded to this post, arguing that one can conceptualize a single, isolated existent on the basis of multiple observations of it. In my next post, I argued that one must integrate multiple existents and reiterated why one cannot form the concept of mind introspectively.

  1.  Forming the Concept of Mind
  2.  Basing the Concept of Mind on Reality    < Next
  3.  Proper Names and Concepts
  4.  The Concept of Mind and Certain Symmetries
  5.  Concluding Remarks about Forming the Concept of Mind
  6.  Recognizing Minds
  7.  The Problem of "Other" Minds
  8.  Concept of Mind and Early Development
  9.  Retaining the Concept of Mind
10.  Ayn Rand and Other Minds
11.  Perceiving Other Minds Directly?
12.  Preconceptually Apprehending Other Minds?
13.  Inferences about Other Minds
14.  The Units of the Concept of Mind

Article:  Formation of the Concept of Mind