4.   The Concept of Mind and Certain Symmetries

By Paul Vanderveen

June 14, 1997

Copyright ©1999 by Paul Vanderveen

Jeff Cousino, in his June 4 post, indicates that he accepts Ayn Rand's basic view of concepts, but not my particular conclusion about the concept of mind. To recap, I argued that one cannot form the concept of mind while "gazing inward" and "ignoring one's knowledge of others." Each of us has only one mind, but a concept is a mental integration of two or more units. To form the concept of mind, one must regard one's own mind as a unit--that is, "a separate member of a group of two or more similar members." The other units are the minds of other people.

Mr. Cousino argues that if we applied my argument to existence, rather than minds, it would lead to the conclusion that one could not validly form the concept of existence, because one would need "knowledge of other existences." Bill Stoddard, in his post of June 8, noting "a certain symmetry" between the concept of mind and the concept of universe, argues similarly about the lack of other universes. Dorothy Fanyo, in her June 4 post, raises similar concerns about the concepts of reality and universe.

But these concerns arise from a misapplication of my argument. I never claimed that the units of a concept can always be read straight off from whatever word we use to represent it. We cannot simply take any random noun that designates a concept, for instance, make it plural and assert that having the concept commits us to the existence of two or more of what we have come up with, a procedure Mr. Cousino and Mr. Stoddard seem to have followed to come up with "existences" and "universes." One could just as well misapply my argument to the concept "cattle," holding that we are committed to the existence of two or more "cattles." We are not, of course, because the concept of cattle integrates and regards collectively not "cattles," but cows and bulls. Mr. Cousino and Mr. Stoddard seem to appreciate this sort of difference, but then suggest that the concept of mind is like the concept of existence or the concept of universe and that we can form the concept of mind by integrating all actions of consciousness.

I think the alleged symmetry between the concept of mind, on the one hand, and the concepts of existence, universe and reality, on the other, is far-fetched and that these latter concepts are poor models for the concept of mind. Basically, these concepts subsume all existents and regard them collectively. Thus, the concept of existence subsumes "every entity, attribute, action, event or phenomenon" (Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 56) and identifies the basic fact that they exist. As Rand uses this concept, it is "close" to the concept of universe--"all that which exists" (p. 241). I think she uses the concept of reality in a similar way also, to refer to whatever exists, collectively--not to all of what exists regarded as a single system or existent. (There are contexts in which it may be appropriate to use a plural form of some of these words, as when logicians speak of separate delimited universes, but it is not appropriate in the present context.) Just as I see no problem with forming both the concepts of cow and cattle based on one's observation of a multitude of cows, so I see no problem with forming the concept of existent ("something that exists") and the concepts of existence, universe and reality (though, of course, there are differences between all these concepts).

The concept of mind is another matter. Note that the word "mind" quite comfortably takes a plural form. Each of us has a mind, and my mind, your mind and other people's minds are quite different. If I know you well enough, I can describe some important ways our minds differ, and even if I have just met you, I can say something on the subject. Unlike alternate "existences," "universes" and "realities," minds are quite plentiful--indeed these days possibly just as "plentiful as blackberries," to use Mr. Stoddard's example. Using a plural form of the word is perfectly justified, given the billions of minds on earth at this very moment.

So let us look for better models for the concept of mind. How about concepts such as herd, orchestra and family? Each existent subsumed by these concepts--each herd, orchestra and family, consists of many individuals related to each other in complex ways (in addition to similarity) that justify regarding them together as a single unit. The members of each herd eat and live together, perhaps carrying the same brand. The members of each orchestra perform different musical roles together in a regular, coordinated fashion. The members of each family may live together or bear specific relationships of parentage. Thus, the members of each group are not simply regarded collectively, they are considered a unit by virtue of their special relationships to each other. The same applies to the concept of mind. The "members" of one mind (each person's thoughts, memories, etc.) belong together and exhibit complex relationships to each other--relationships that are similar from one mind to another.

Of course, the concept of mind is more difficult to form than any of these other three concepts for an important reason: each of us experiences only one mind.

It is as though we were directly aware of lots of cows, but they all happened to belong to one herd, and we had to infer the existence of other cows (and the interactions of members of each group of them that eat and live together) from other evidence to form the concept of herd. Or suppose we were directly aware of lots of musicians, but all of them happened to be members of a single orchestra, and we had to infer the existence of other musicians (and their relationships in subgroups which perform together) to form the concept of orchestra. Or suppose we were directly aware of quite a few persons, but all happened to be members of one family, and we had to infer the existence of other persons (and the special relationships of subgroups of them who live together or bear relationships of parentage) to form the concept of family.

The fact that we are directly aware of only one of the existents subsumed by the concept of mind does not preclude our forming the concept of mind, because we are aware of other similar existents indirectly. My claim has not been that we cannot form the concept of mind, but that we cannot form it by ignoring our knowledge of others.

Vincent Cook responded to my second post, acknowledging basic epistemological differences and raising various other concerns. Also, George Lyons responded to my third post with concerns about a role for imagination, and Dorothy Fanyo responded with linguistic concerns to each of my last two posts. In response, I next focused on the theme of epistemological differences.

  1.  Forming the Concept of Mind
  2.  Basing the Concept of Mind on Reality
  3.  Proper Names and Concepts
  4.  The Concept of Mind and Certain Symmetries
  5.  Concluding Remarks about Forming the Concept of Mind    < Next
  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