5.   Concluding Remarks about Forming the Concept of Mind

By Paul Vanderveen

June 17, 1997

Copyright ©1999 by Paul Vanderveen

Looking over the public responses to my four posts about the concept of mind, I must admit to some surprise at the direction the conversation has taken. I did not imagine I would be defending Ayn Rand's epistemology quite so much and so basically. I have tried in each case to engage the responder and relate his or her concerns to my original point, and I shall try once more.

I began explicitly with Rand's theory of concepts as my frame of reference. This is not because I "take all applications of ITOE for granted," to use Vincent Cook's expression (I pointed out in my first post where Rand might disagree with me about the formation of the concept of mind), but because I believe that Objectivist epistemology is an area where Rand excelled and that, as an area fundamental to her way of thinking, it was perhaps a place where we could begin on some common ground in an Objectivism discussion group.

Mr. Cook (June 3), however, acknowledges "significant differences" between how he deals "with word-meanings and how Objectivists have traditionally dealt with them." Actually, this seems a minor admission, considering what I pointed out about his view of concepts. He further minimizes his differences by writing that Rand's epistemological theory, "while sound as far as it goes, neither functions as a complete theory of word-meaning ... nor even as a complete theory of universals," which suggests that the approach he takes merely extends her incomplete and limited theory into new territory, not that he disagrees about any fundamentals. (I admit there is something he writes that I cannot fathom: "While Rand conceives of the variability of non-defining characteristics as existing among different existents, I would point out that the variability can also exist in a single existent at different points in time." Is he suggesting that one of Rand's limitations is not allowing for the fact that things change over time?)

As I pointed out, Mr. Cook diverges not in incidentals, but basically--even from Rand's very definition of a concept and two of her related views (about proper names and definitions). The issues I addressed about concepts are not minor issues, but speak to the heart of Objectivist epistemology, and Rand had a fair amount to say about them. Because Mr. Cook does not respond to my specific points about these matters in acknowledging his "significant differences," but instead writes that Rand's theory is sound "as far it goes," I find it difficult to know where he actually stands and to engage with him about these epistemological matters.

I should point out, however, that I did not characterize him "as believing in a diaphanous theory of perception," and I also did not ask him to concede "that proper names are meaningless." I do not know nearly enough about his view of perception to characterize it and, indeed, have not discussed his or any other theory of perception, and I myself do not regard proper names as meaningless. (To answer Ms. Fanyo on this subject, the proper name "Eiffel Tower" is not meaningless, even if one does not have the concept of tower or know that the word "tower" designates that concept. One can learn and meaningfully use proper names for particular places and landmarks, only to realize later that parts of the names were derived from words that stand for concepts.)

I noted previously that Mr. Cook paid little heed to a fundamental element of my argument about the concept of mind--namely, "the distinction between concepts of processes such as thinking, remembering and imagining, on the one hand, and the concept of mind, on the other." He responds to my complaint (but not, I note, two others that I made), writing that he paid little heed to my distinction because "the mind is the entity which undergoes these various processes."

This is not a valid reason for disregarding this distinction when considering my argument. An action does presuppose an entity that acts, as Rand pointed out (e.g., Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 264), but the entities that think, remember, imagine and engage in similar actions are people, whom even young children can conceptualize. Children can also conceptualize such actions, and they quickly develop a rudimentary skill in determining what other people see, hear, think, remember, dream and so on. My concern is not about all this wonderful and exciting learning that goes on (and which scientific research is shedding considerable light on), but about the concept of mind. This concept is not the same as any of the concepts of actions.

George Lyons (June 12) is concerned that I seem to be arguing that, "before actually knowing of another instance of satellites besides earth's moon, people could not conceive other satellites and form the concept of moon encompassing many instances...." He is concerned that my approach seems to allow "no role for imagination."

I do think that people can imagine all sorts of things, and I allow that some persons may have conceived of something like moons prior to Galileo (in my own words, "most persons" had not). I believe that we have to be careful, however, in distinguishing between imagination and knowledge. No matter how good our imagination or what we can conceive of, the bottom line is that, if we are to acquire knowledge, it has to be derived from the facts of reality. I think "pruning a set of imaginary constructs in response to experience" is a risky approach to gaining knowledge--unless one makes sure one "prunes" back to what one can verify objectively by reference to facts, keeping a strict distinction between what one imagines and what one knows. The risk, of course, is that one will uncritically import and accept concepts one has not validated, because experience has not told one to get rid of them yet. An example might be those "primitive peoples" who, according to Mr. Lyons, believe that inanimate objects have minds. I submit that if one believes that inanimate objects have minds, one does not know what minds are and one needs to do a bit more "pruning."

More to the point, Mr. Lyons argues that we can "recognize mind as an attribute of ourselves, introspectively" and then imagine "other" minds. I maintain that the process of imagination or "simulation" (as some researchers in developmental psychology, such as Paul Harris, might put it), verification, correction and so forth occurs not on the level of minds, but on the level of processes. Preschool children are quite capable of conceptualizing processes--and can imagine and attempt to verify what others think, remember, feel and so forth, in different situations. My point is that, on this level of abstraction, the requisite multiplicity ("two or more units") is present introspectively, providing a firm foundation for concepts of these processes, but forming the concept of mind entails regarding all of those processes as a unit--and that involves regarding the thinking, remembering, feeling and so forth of each other person as a unit also. While obviously one directly experiences one mind, conceptualizing that mind requires that one regard oneself as a unit in relation to other persons.

I reiterate that my point is not that we cannot form the concept of mind, but that we cannot form it by ignoring our knowledge of others.

As for Dorothy Fanyo's last two posts (June 13 and 14), it seems to me that she does not basically engage my argument about the concept of mind. She instead talks about how "we" use words, how "humans before the invention of writing" used words, "the complexities of English usage which abounds with exceptions," and the etymology of the word "mind." She sometimes freely draws conclusions that, from my point of view, have little to do with what I have said.

With respect to my brief discussion of the concept of universe, she notes that "there is only one universe, the universe, the one we inhabit." I did not claim otherwise. What I claimed is that the units of the concept of universe are things which exist and the concept means "all that which exists." One can use this concept to refer to "the universe," just as one can refer to the cattle (which one sees somewhere) as "the cattle." Of course, there are no other things which exist, as for example there are other cattle (than those one sees somewhere), but that does not prevent one from referring to "the universe" that does exist.

Ms. Fanyo claims that validating the concept of mind is "relatively simple." "I have a brain," she writes, "and it produces... what we call mind.... Since other people have brains, what convolutions would I have to go through to question whether or not each of those others has a mind...? Seems kinda like a waste of time. What's a human brain for, if not to see and accept the obvious?"

Let me state what seems obvious to me. I have not questioned "whether or not each of those others has a mind." I have argued instead that one cannot validly form the concept of mind, basing one's concept on the facts of reality, without grasping the similarity between oneself and others--that is, that one cannot explicitly grasp that one has a mind before one grasps that others do. Therefore, when Ms. Fanyo talks about her own mind ("what we call mind") as though she could have done this before she grasped that others have minds, she is, in my view, using the concept of mind invalidly. A concept is a mental integration of two or more units. Before one grasps that others have minds, one has not grasped that one does, either. I add that it also seems obvious to me that the concept of mind identifies different facts of reality than the concept of brain. I have tried to describe what I thought those facts are.

At this point, however, I need to bring my contributions to Objectivism-L to a close and will not be in a position to respond in the immediate future.

Dorothy Fanyo responded to this post, further challenging my analysis of concept-formation and the formation of the concept of mind. After a break, I responded next by discussing concept-formation using her examples and by explaining the difficulty of patterning the concept of mind on the concept of universe. I also answered her more specific questions about my thesis and explained why memory is a poor guide to reconstructing how we form the concept of mind.

  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
  6.  Recognizing Minds    < Next
  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