6.   Recognizing Minds

By Paul Vanderveen

September 27, 1997

Copyright ©1999 by Paul Vanderveen

In previous posts, I argued that forming the concept of mind requires the cognitive integration of two or more units, both one's own and others' minds, and that one cannot form this concept introspectively, while ignoring one's knowledge of others. The concept of mind plays a central role in modern life, and especially in the philosophy of Objectivism, making how we form and validate it matter.

In our dialogue on this topic, Dorothy Fanyo argued that concepts do not always integrate two or more units, citing the concept of universe among other examples. I replied that the concept of universe does integrate a multitude of existents, indeed, all existents. She apparently took this to mean that the universe was something like an entity "made up" of all existents. Thus, she asked (June 19) how I could consistently maintain that the words "Dorothy Fanyo" and "Eiffel Tower" do not designate concepts, since each of these entities is also "made up of many things." By the time she had clarified her question, however, I was already off-line for the summer. Back now, I would like to answer this and two related questions that bear especially on our formation of the concept of mind. I would also like to touch briefly upon the limited role memory can play in resolving these questions.

First, why does the word "universe" designate a concept, but the words "Dorothy Fanyo" or "Eiffel Tower" do not? I agree with Ms. Fanyo's observation that her various parts, and separately those of the Eiffel Tower, do fit together in certain ways to make up these two entities. If, for instance, we took apart the nuts, bolts, beams and other parts of the Eiffel Tower and left them in a pile on the ground, the Eiffel Tower would no longer exist. The universe, however, is neither an entity nor something "made up" of parts.

There are, of course, various concepts of "universe." As Will Wilkinson noted (August 28), "the astronomer's current concept of 'universe' is not the same as the metaphysician's concept." I explicitly used the philosophical concept which means "all that which exists." When Ayn Rand used this concept, for instance, she did not mean the arrangement of the Milky Way, other galaxies and other stuff--or, it seems to me, anything that might reasonably be construed as a particular thing made up of parts. The universe, in this sense, is also not some kind of container which "holds" things. I think it confusing even to call it "a collection," as the collecting done with this concept is epistemological, a way of regarding and referring to all the sundry things that exist. This contrasts quite sharply with "Dorothy Fanyo" and "Eiffel Tower," which are proper names, not concepts, because each of them refers to a particular thing that exists.

Rand is one of many thinkers who have elucidated an important epistemological principle--namely, that conceptual awareness involves thinking in terms of "two or more." While the concept of universe I used is exceptional in many ways, this is not one of them. Ms. Fanyo disagrees with the principle of "two or more," however, even with respect to ordinary concepts. She writes in response to my argument about the concept of mind:

One can accept that a word is a symbol for a thing long before one knows (or cares) that there is more than one of them. The infant accepts that 'dog' is a symbol for that four-legged, furry creature in his life (if he's told so) before he sees any other dog.
Identifying a particular entity, however, differs significantly from conceiving of a type of thing, which entails thinking not only in terms of two or more units but of their similarities and their differences from other existents. In her present example, for instance, the particular entity actually instantiates numerous concepts, such as the concepts of dog, animal, entity, value and pet. Reaching these various concepts involves grasping different patterns of similarity among things, not merely specifying one particular entity. Just pointing to a particular four-legged, furry creature will not tell someone which of these (or other) concepts one intends--or whether one just intends that particular creature. Indeed, as noted in one text, a young child "who has learned to attach the label 'dog' to the family pet is likely to extend that label to all four-footed animals he meets, including sheep, cows, and horses," until he learns to be more discriminating (J. J. Conger, Adolescence and Youth, p. 42).

Be that as it may, Ms. Fanyo asks a second question:

if, according to Mr. Vanderveen's contention, we can form the concept of universe by the myriad things it holds, why can't we ... go through the same process with the myriad products of the brain and call that aggragate [sic] 'mind'?"
This question paraphrases me too freely. Writing that so-and-so is my "contention" suggests that that is really what I have claimed, but actually I never claimed that the universe (or even the concept of universe) "holds" everything. So let me rephrase this question: If one can form the concept of universe by mentally integrating all existents, can one go through a similar process with the myriad products of one's brain and regard them collectively as "the mind"?

Even this formulation is too broad, for many products of one's brain are not normally functions of one's mind. A sneeze, for instance, is at least partially a brain product, as are breathing when one is asleep, the production of certain hormones, body temperature regulation, fine motor control and many other things. So if we try to go the route Ms. Fanyo suggests, we need to identify which of the "myriad products of the brain" we are talking about. She refers to "consciousness, language, reason, emotion, imagination, creation, intuition." Similarly, most modern adults would regard experiences such as thinking, remembering, guessing, dreaming and so forth as mental processes. Can one, in effect, take all one's inner experiences and regard them collectively as "the mind," using the concept of universe as one's model? Would this be a way to avoid my conclusion--that is, a valid way to form the concept of mind introspectively, while ignoring one's knowledge of others?

My answer is that it would not, for the modern concept of mind identifies a level of structure in reality that goes beyond anyone's own direct experience of just his or her own mind, i.e., it identifies a similarity between one's own and others' minds (as this very discussion with talk of different minds demonstrates). Furthermore, it is not a legitimate practice to ignore elements of one's knowledge when forming concepts, and a person would indeed need to ignore his or her knowledge of others to form the proposed concept on the model of the concept of universe.

Note that one of the special features of the concept of universe is that nothing lies outside its scope--everything falls within. There are no other universes. If one allows the possibility of the existence of "other universes," or of something outside the universe, as some people do, one thereby removes oneself from speaking of the universe in this philosophical sense. If there are other universes, then no universe includes "all that which exists."

Similarly, the moment one acknowledges the existence of any thoughts other than one's own, one would remove oneself from speaking in the proposed sense of "the mind." Rather, one would then need to treat one's own thinking, remembering and so forth as functions of just one of many minds, allowing that other minds do actually exist (even though one does not experience them oneself). As the comparison with the concept of universe shows, this would be a very different way of thinking. One would be thinking (as we do) in terms of a concept that subsumes two or more minds, not all instances of just one's own thinking and similar processes.

Although she claims to be arguing against my thesis, Ms. Fanyo's reference to brains ("I know that I have a brain... and that so do you") indirectly introduces the very element of "two or more" which I argue is intimately involved in forming the concept of mind. What is crucial here, however, is not whether one acknowledges the existence of other brains, but other thoughts--i.e., mental processes which are not one's own. As soon as one does that, by whatever method, the idea of forming a personal concept of all mental processes on the model of the concept of universe is obviously defunct.

Ample empirical research of the last couple decades demonstrates that most children (in the modern Western world, at least) begin forming concepts such as thinking, remembering, guessing, feeling, wanting and so forth early in their preschool years. They quickly and competently learn to apply these concepts to both themselves and other persons, as befits a conceptual form of awareness. In my view, they do this long before they are able to grasp the concept of mind explicitly.

Research also demonstrates that, during the preschool and school years, children gain extensive knowledge as to what other individuals can and actually do perceive, think, remember, guess, want and so forth. They learn to keep secrets and confidences, for instance, and to remember what someone else knows. As they become better at anticipating other persons (and themselves) as individuals, they may be said to have the concept of mind "implicitly" (in the Objectivist sense of having gathered material which they will later integrate by means of that concept).

To reach it explicitly, however, each must learn to regard the organized sum of his or her own experiences as a unit in relation to the other similar units of other persons. Each must grasp an element of similarity between him or herself and others--that is, must grasp a level of structure in reality that goes beyond his or her own direct experience of just one mind. This is a complex integration and not, I maintain, a routine achievement of early or even middle childhood.

Turning more directly to my thesis, Ms. Fanyo asks a third question:

Does Mr. Vanderveen mean here that I can't know that I have a mind until I know that others do? That I must first observe that XYZ has a mind, and only then can I introspect to see whether or not I have one?
No, one must not restrict one's awareness just to others--nor just to oneself. The task of conceptualizing minds is more challenging and does not involve a separate act of introspecting "to see whether or not I have one." While considering both oneself and others, one must rather grasp an element of similarity across the board. The process of forming the concept of mind involves recognizing that all persons have the same type of existent, even though each person directly experiences only one existent of that type.

Someone who first observes that others have "minds" while leaving him or herself out of the picture has failed to recognize the most apparent instance of a mind, the only one he or she directly experiences. Anyone who fails to subsume an apparent instance of a concept has not yet fully reached that concept, i.e., has not learned to recognize a level of structure in reality which other persons have learned to recognize by means of that concept.

Apparently assuming, as many people do, that the choice was either to conceptualize others' minds first or one's own first, Ms. Fanyo tries to remember which of the two she did:

As near as I can remember, I 'grasped' that I had a mind before I ever bothered to question whether anyone else did.
By saying "as near as I can remember," she plausibly conveys uncertainty (though I should reiterate that questioning whether "anyone else" has a mind was never precisely at issue). It is my impression that most people whose conceptual repertoire includes the concept of mind do not remember much about the process of forming it, at least not in such terms. This is not surprising, as conceptual awareness does not require that one remember the specific chronological steps one took to form particular concepts. (This is one respect in which concepts are "independent of time," as Rand put it in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 258).

Also, searching one's distant memory is a dubious way of ascertaining how one formed a concept, especially one with a complex and protracted development. (Studies show how unreliable memory can be and how easily some people can allow current misinformation and other influences to alter their memory of distant events. See, e.g., "Creating False Memories" by Elizabeth Loftus in the September 1997 issue of Scientific American). Most of us today who have reached the concept of mind probably did so before we knew much about epistemology and thus would have had difficulty at the time putting the experience into terms of concept-formation. A better approach is to study the developmental processes of contemporary children, adolescents and adults (as developmental psychologists are doing), while paying as close attention to any presuppositions one may be bringing to one's investigations as one can.

After one forms and automatizes a concept, one normally tends to experience relevant aspects of reality in terms of it (as Rand discussed, e.g., p. 65). Thus, it is understandable that the constant experience of one's own thoughts, memories, feelings and so forth might make it seem to some people that one's ability to think "introspectively" of these as mental processes, i.e., as actions of one's mind, preceded one's "inferring" that others "also" have minds. While understandable, believing this is nevertheless an error. I also think that, because it steers one in the wrong direction (away from a cognitively integrated view of self and others, upon which explicit thinking about minds actually depends), it can be somewhat disabling.

Even though my basic point about the concept of mind is limited, I think it has wide-ranging implications. For instance, how can someone who lacks a firm grasp of this concept truly understand Rand's philosophy, in which it figures so prominently? Perhaps no small part of the difficulty which some people have understanding her ideas stems from their not really knowing what she meant by "mind." In any case, would it not behoove us to help young people attain this level of understanding? My impression is that many young people could use the help. And what of the usefulness of the concept in helping one to "know what one's mind is doing" and improve one's thinking, as well as broaden one's understanding of both oneself and other persons?

I do think these matters are quite complex and appreciate Ms. Fanyo's and the other posters' willingness to venture into this poorly charted territory. I am quite interested in learning where people may find difficulty with my thesis, and I welcome anyone's further thoughts.

George Lyons previously objected that externally observable behavior, especially the use of language, enables us to infer "that other minds exist." Dorothy Fanyo and Chris Cogen responded to the present post, also discussing our knowledge of "other" minds. I addressed their arguments next, demonstrating that the use of language does not prove that a person has attained the concept of mind, citing empirical research which shows that young children have not attained it, addressing prominent "other minds" arguments of philosophers and emphasizing that, to understand the developmental process leading to this concept, you must first consider the conceptual perspective of someone who lacks it.

  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
  7.  The Problem of "Other" Minds    < Next
  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