9.   Retaining the Concept of Mind

By Paul Vanderveen

January 15, 1998

Copyright ©1999 by Paul Vanderveen

Nick Bruijn (September 28) also requested elaboration of my suggestion that it "can be somewhat disabling" to believe that one formed the concept of mind introspectively. I had suggested that this belief steers one "away from a cognitively integrated view of self and others, upon which explicit thinking about minds actually depends."

Learning about minds is beneficial, but requires a specific way of regarding oneself in relation to others--namely, as a unit. Misconstruing how one forms the concept of mind can undermine one's knowledge, making it harder to retain it and hence to reap its benefits. One misconstrues the method if one believes that one does not need other persons as cognitive objects but could have formed the concept of mind introspectively, even if one had lived on the proverbial deserted island all one's life.

First, what are some of the advantages of knowing what minds are? Consider unit-reduction. As Ayn Rand noted, concepts enable us "to condense information and to reduce the number of mental units" with which we have to deal (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 68). If you know what minds are, you will easily recognize, for example, that my experiences in life, my attitudes and my way of thinking vary in diverse and subtle ways from your experiences, attitudes, and ways of thinking. As you interact with me, you will have a handy way of referring to such differences and keeping them straight, and so you will have a greater chance of actually understanding what I say and do. You can ask yourself specific questions about the way my mind functions (what my intentions are, how much do I know, what have I experienced, etc.). You will be able to retain an enormous amount of information about different people in a useful way. Keeping such differences among people (including yourself) straight, for instance, makes you less likely to "project" yourself onto others and more likely in the long run to be respectful and persuasive when disagreeing with others.

Furthermore, as H. H. Price (Thinking and Experience, 1962) noted, a concept manifests itself even "in the absence" of its instances. "A concept is a recognitional capacity which manifests itself also in thinking in absence" (pp. 276-277). As Rand put it, "you don't need a particular event in reality in order to deal with your concepts." Using words, "you can sit in your room in total darkness and deal with any concept that you know" (p. 258). Thus, the concept of mind enables you to think about other people's minds even in their absence, so that you can think about their individual differences, their ways of thinking and of facing the challenges of life, even while you sit alone in the dark.

Additionally, the ability to think about one's own mind as such (i.e., as a mind) enables one to take charge of one's own mental functioning in a new way, just as demarcating any other territory and recognizing it as of a certain kind improves one's ability to negotiate it. The entire domain of one's thinking and other mental processes now becomes more readily mapped. One can consider and explore the features of one's own mind, asking oneself questions about what one's mind can do and how well it can do it. One can constantly monitor one's own mental functioning, identifying "what one's mind is doing" and considering various alternative courses of mental action. One can thus provide oneself with cognitive direction in ways that one previously could not.

One particular benefit of knowing about minds is that one may acquire a superior grasp of a system of ideas in which the concept of mind plays a prominent role, such as Rand's. Mr. Bruijn suggests that perhaps all that is necessary to discourage irrationality and foster understanding of Rand's philosophy is "to reclaim the correct meaning" of concepts such as knowing, thinking and reason. But how does one go about doing this? A person who knows what minds are is far more likely to be an able student of this sort of thing than someone who does not. For instance, when many of us read comments such as Mr. Bruijn's, we immediately recognize the mental terms ("think," "believe," "assume," "feel," "hope," etc.) as terms pertaining to the functioning of minds. A person who has not formed the concept of mind cannot keep these things straight quite so easily and is less likely to profit from teachings about the meaning of knowing, thinking and reason and so forth.

These are some of the benefits one will miss out on, if one does not have a firm grasp of the concept, i.e., if one cannot recognize one's own and others' minds.

While we have to take a specific attitude toward ourselves and others to form the concept of mind, taking that attitude is not the same as describing it or knowing what it is. It is thus possible to form the concept of mind by integrating two or more units, while simultaneously failing to identify the method one used to do so. One can even misconstrue it--as, for instance, one might do if one supposes that "independence" in some way requires that one have learned to think about one's own mind as such without grasping its basic similarity to other minds.

Knowledge is not something static that one can gain once, henceforth disregarding the method by which one reached it. Functioning conceptually involves learning how to recognize patterns of similarity and difference in one's surroundings and self and "establishing mental connections which make that knowledge automatic (instantly available as a context)" (Rand, p. 65). Knowing that one has a mind entails recognizing it as an existent of a certain kind, similar to the minds of other real persons. Failing to recognize another person's mind as a mind or regarding a non-mind (or non-existent) as a mind undermines one's knowledge. Believing in ghosts, for instance, can jeopardize one's concept of mind. If one held that the minds or "spirits" of one's dead ancestors continue to exist and reside in certain trees or rocks and have the power to visit illness upon one, as some people believe, then one has failed to recognize properly an important pattern of similarity, a level of structure in reality which some of us do identify by means of the concept of mind. Such fantastic beliefs obfuscate the mental landscape and undercut one's ability to make realistic discriminations about minds. In a different way, neglecting the vast knowledge one has of other persons and thinking that one could have arrived at the concept of mind just as easily if one had lived on a deserted island disconnects one from the data that one actually needed in order to form the concept of mind, also undercutting one's ability to make realistic discriminations about minds.

By thinking that way, one would turn one's attention away from the actual facts of reality which one had to identify to form the concept of mind and make oneself less likely to recognize the minds one encounters on a daily basis. One cannot realistically hope to retain the concept of mind that way.

To form the concept of mind, one must grasp an element of similarity between oneself and others and recognize that each person has his or her own "universe" of experiences. If one fails to do that, or only partially succeeds, one will be deprived, at least to some extent, of the advantages of forming the concept of mind. That is what I meant by saying that believing that one forms the concept of mind introspectively can be somewhat disabling. One cannot form the concept introspectively. Believing that one can takes one away from the kind of focus one needs in order to retain and automatize the concept of mind, making it harder to reap the benefits of doing so.

Claiming that Ayn Rand did not address the question of knowledge of others minds, Bill Stoddard drew on her other ideas in proposing that "other minds can be known to exist" by direct perception. In my next response, I demonstrated that she did address this subject, disagreeing with his position, and that he misconstrued her ideas in other ways. I also argued that Rand made an error in this area, contradicting her own theory of concepts.

  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
  8.  Concept of Mind and Early Development
  9.  Retaining the Concept of Mind
10.  Ayn Rand and Other Minds    < Next
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