2.   Basing the Concept of Mind on Reality

By Paul Vanderveen

June 3, 1997

Copyright ©1999 by Paul Vanderveen

In his post of May 23, Vincent Cook responds to my post regarding the formation of the concept of mind. I appreciate his response, but find it unconvincing. As I see things, his arguments fall into two categories: those that misconstrue my argument and those that propose an invalid method of forming concepts, a method also quite at variance with Objectivist epistemology. Let me begin with the latter category, since it is more fundamental.

It seems appropriate in an Objectivism discussion forum to take Objectivist epistemology for granted, at least for starters. I did this when arguing that "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." One cannot form any concept "by 'integrating' a single existent, whatever that would mean."

Fully half of Mr. Cook's response, however, is an attempt to show that one can indeed conceptualize a single isolated existent. One can do this, he argues, because it is not actually existents or "objects" that we integrate, but our different perceptions of them, "multiple perceptual events, not multiple objects." In support, he draws on Epicurean philosophy. He argues that we do not need to integrate two or more minds to form the concept of mind, but can form the concept introspectively, because each of us has multiple experiences or "snapshots" of his or her own mind. I am not an Epicurean scholar and do not know whether this view reflects Epicurean philosophy, but I do know that it is quite at odds with Ayn Rand's theory of concepts.

According to Rand, a concept is "a mental integration of two or more units." A unit is an existent--that is, "something that exists, be it a thing, an attribute or an action," regarded as "a separate member of a group of two or more similar members" (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, pp. 5-6, 13).

On this view of concepts, one cannot consistently maintain that introspective awareness provides adequate data to form the concept of mind. "Each of us has only one mind," I argued, "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." I hasten to add that this means that, before one grasps that others have minds, one does not know how to think explicitly in terms of minds and therefore does not know explicitly that one has a mind oneself.

There are other regards in which Mr. Cook's views diverge quite basically from Objectivist epistemology. In his next to last paragraph, for instance, he claims that, "in a sense, proper names are concepts too." The similarity which he sees between a proper name (which identifies a particular entity) and a concept appears to lie in the fact that one can observe and recognize a particular object on many occasions, just as he maintains that one can form a concept of that object after observing it multiple times. In his first paragraph, he also proposes observing "the defining attributes" of the concept of mind directly, introspectively, and specifically allows the possibility of determining defining attributes without reference to "multiple objects."

I disagree and think that Rand's contrasting views in these matters are correct: proper names are not concepts (pp. 10-11) and there is no way to determine essential or defining characteristics out of context (pp. 42-43). To form a concept of something, unlike dubbing it with a proper name, one must observe its similarity to one or more other existents (and, in almost every case, their differences from still other existents). One must mentally integrate two or more similar existents, not two or more perceptions of one existent. Indeed, to determine a concept's proper defining characteristic(s), one must observe the similarities (and differences) within "the entire field" of one's awareness or knowledge.

If we maintain cognitive contact with reality when we form our concepts, as we need to do for them to be valid, it is not our perceptions or "snapshots" that we observe (unless, of course, it is the concept of perception that we are forming). We observe real things, attributes and actions that exist independently of our awareness of them. (If it is the concept of perception that we are forming, it is different perceptions that we observe, not different instances of our awareness of perceptions.) We do not need to distance ourselves from things by focusing instead merely on our perceptions of them, looking inside our own skulls (to speak figuratively) rather than at reality. The act of observing existents and their relationships is already an act of consciousness--one that keeps us focused on and in cognitive contact with reality.

David Kelley notes in The Evidence of the Senses that the formation of concepts "allows us to recognize the existence of types, or patterns of similarities in things," revealing "a new level of structure in reality" and "giving us a deeper understanding" of facts known at the preintegrative level (pp. 171-172). When a person forms the concept of mind, he or she comes to recognize a new level of structure in reality--a pattern of similarity between him or herself and other persons, and he or she gains a deeper understanding of facts about thinking, remembering, imagining and so forth than he or she had before forming this concept.

On this more explicit foundation, let me turn now to Mr. Cook's misconstrual of my argument. In his opening sentence, he states that my argument "presupposes that mental integration of units requires direct observation of the defining attributes in multiple objects." This just is not so. While I do maintain that forming a concept involves integrating "two or more" existents, there is nothing in my post to suggest that we always need direct (or present) observation of them. Indeed, I made it quite clear (in the very next sentence after the passage he quotes, actually) that forming the concept of mind requires that we integrate directly and indirectly obtained material. "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." (Beyond this, I recognize that we have many valid concepts that subsume existents we have never directly observed but have good evidence for, such as the concepts of electron and dinosaur.)

Mr. Cook also pays little heed to a fundamental element of my argument--the distinction between concepts of processes such as thinking, remembering and imagining, on the one hand, and the concept of mind, on the other. Concepts of processes are relatively easy to form. I noted that children, "starting very early in life," do begin to learn and informatively use these concepts in a way that spans "both themselves and others." The difficulty I addressed is not with any of these concepts, but rather with the concept of mind. A child can grasp that he or she thinks, remembers and imagines, and also that other people do such things--but this does not imply that he or she already thinks explicitly in terms of minds. Mr. Cook, however, jumps between all these concepts rather indiscriminately and, at one point, concludes that inferring the existence of other "mentalities" which are similar to "those I observe in myself is not a difficult or doubtful inference at all," as though this addresses my argument. It does not, in part because my argument does not pertain to processes or mentalities (or anything else one's own possession of which one can refer to with a plural pronoun such as "those"). My argument pertains to that concept which subsumes the interrelated totality of one's inner experience, one's one and only mind regarded as a single unit. Incidentally, I think explicitly forming this concept is indeed quite difficult (and I doubt that all adults have done so).

Furthermore, my claim is that one cannot form this concept introspectively and leave the realization that others have minds for later. Mr. Cook holds that one can. He then argues, in his second through fourth paragraphs, that one can easily infer that someone else "also" has a mind--for instance, by noting that he or she has "a similarly-functioning brain" or talks and acts certain ways. But these arguments are irrelevant; I regard the initial, self-referring use of the concept of mind in them as invalid. In my view, if one has not yet grasped that others have minds, then reaching that realization is not a matter of inferring that others "also" have minds, because one does not yet know that one has a mind oneself.

Finally, Mr. Cook in his third and last paragraphs interprets my post as a criticism of his idea "that 'mind' and 'brain' refer to the same parts of myself," but my post actually had nothing to say on that topic at all. I used one of his statements as a springboard for the start of a new thread, but criticized only his idea that we identify the mind introspectively.

In summary, Mr. Cook initially misconstrues my argument but then, in a move which does respond to it, proposes that it is not actually existents that we integrate when we form concepts, but perceptions--and that these perceptions could all be of a single isolated existent not seen in relation to any other existents. At this point, it is up to him to demonstrate how any "concept" resulting from such an integration could be derived from the facts of reality, rather than being an arbitrary product of consciousness. In any case, I hope he can at least agree that he has stepped way out of bounds of Objectivist epistemology.

I continue to maintain that explicitly forming the concept of mind necessitates a change in one's way of thinking about oneself, that one must learn to regard one's own mind as a unit in relation to other minds, so that one can recognize a "level of structure in reality" which one did not recognize previously. Once one has learned how to do this, integrating all relevant evidence (including one's abundant knowledge about others), one has reached the valid concept of mind which many of us know and love.

I should point out that, in attempting to validate the concept of mind directly, Mr. Cook is basically in good company. It seems to me that many notables--including Descartes, Locke, Rand herself and many modern scientists--assume that we can and "must have" conceptualized our minds introspectively. It also seems that Nathaniel Branden takes such a view in The Psychology of Self-Esteem. He maintains, for instance, that "man is able, alone, to know himself conceptually" (p. 186). In the opening paragraph of his very first chapter, he states that, while a few exceptional persons no longer ask the question "How am I to understand myself?" (because they know its answer, at least to a significant extent), every human being without exception asks, through most of his or her life, "How am I to understand other people?" The idea that even those people who understand much about themselves fail basically to understand other people, that each of us, alone, can know him or herself conceptually (even if few of us do), and that everyone asks, "sometimes in wonder, often in despair," "How am I to understand other people?" seems akin to the view that one first brings one's own mind into conceptual awareness introspectively, leaving others for later.

I maintain instead that no such wide disparity exists between learning how to understand oneself and learning how to understand others, at least not on this level of abstraction (the level of explicit conceptual awareness of minds). If my thesis is correct that one forms the concept of mind by cognitively integrating "self and others," then it is both oneself and others who become more deeply intelligible when one explicitly forms this concept. And that, indeed, I might add, was my own personal experience.

Dorothy Fanyo responded, raising concerns about concepts which seem to subsume only one existent each and arguing that Rand was mistaken in holding that a concept is a mental integration of two or more units. I responded next by discussing her examples and the differences between proper names and concepts.

  1.  Forming the Concept of Mind
  2.  Basing the Concept of Mind on Reality
  3.  Proper Names and Concepts    < Next
  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