14.   The Units of the Concept of Mind

By Paul Vanderveen

December 17, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by Paul Vanderveen

In Formation of the Concept of Mind, Objectivity (1993), I challenge the widespread supposition, evident in the works of Descartes, Locke, Rand and other thinkers, that you learn to think in terms of your mind through an inwardly directed cognitive process. You cannot reach the concept of mind that way, but must extend your thinking to other people and their experiences. My article explains why this is so, outlines how you form this concept and reintegrates related findings of scientific research.

Monart Pon, in his review (February 6, 2003), quotes my article extensively, claiming thereby to have extracted its basic philosophical argument. He includes much material which is not basic, however, and misses an important basic premise, that you have only one mind.

My argument may be stated succinctly as follows. Forming a concept of anything, as many philosophers recognize, requires that you grasp its similarity to other things. In Ayn Rand's terms, you must regard it as a unit--that is, "a separate member of a group of two or more similar members" (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 6). You have only one mind. Therefore, you cannot form the concept of mind by focusing inwardly on that one mind alone, but must consider its similarity to the minds of others.

Mr. Pon claims that the concept of mind is axiomatic and that this enables you to form it without regard to others. (I have addressed similar objections in other essays, available on my Web site.)

He offers little reason for supposing that the concept is axiomatic, simply quoting three passages from Rand's Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Rand does not, however, discuss the concept of mind in the passages he quotes. She does not argue anywhere else, to my knowledge, that the concept of mind (as opposed to the concepts of consciousness and self) is axiomatic.

In any case, it would not matter if the concept were axiomatic, because every concept, even an axiomatic concept, is a mental integration of two or more units.

Mr. Pon appears to agree that you need to integrate two or more of something to reach the concept of mind, but proposes that these are not minds, but just your own actions of "thinking, remembering, imagining, choosing, evaluating, etc.," so that you could form this concept "even if there were no other minds."

If you proceed along the lines he proposes, deriving a concept whose units are just your individual instances of thinking, remembering, imagining and so forth, you would still need to grasp "what it is for such acts to be combined into the unity of a single mind" (H. H. Price, "Our Evidence for the Existence of Other Minds," Essays on Other Minds, p. 162). You would still need to regard all your inner experiences, taken together, as a unit--that is, as one member of a group of two or more similar members.

Mr. Pon himself, in the rest of his review, disregards his own proposal, writing instead in the usual sense about "one's own mind," "other minds" and "two or more minds." He clearly means not your individual actions of thinking, remembering, imagining and so forth (or the similar actions of others which you infer "secondarily"), which are all his proposal entitles him to mean, but your actions taken together as a unit, one mind, your own, and others' similar actions taken together as units, their minds.

How do you actually reach the concept of mind? In brief, you live in a world in which there are other minds, and you need to pay attention to them.

You interact from birth with people who see, think, remember, dream and so forth. Typically, with their help, you begin reaching concepts of such actions before the age of three and, in further interactions with people over the ensuing years, become increasingly sophisticated at inferring what they are experiencing. You do not, however, recognize such actions as mental processes immediately, because you have not yet reached the concept of mind and are not aware of anyone's mind as such, not even your own.

What you do begin to recognize is that complex relationships exist between your experiences. What you currently think and feel, for instance, depends upon what you have learned, on your memories, judgments, attitudes and so forth. You do not perceive the world afresh each moment, as though you had never come to any conclusions or learned anything.

These complex internal relationships, which you experience yourself and infer in others, go far beyond the relationship of similarity, which Mr. Pon relies upon when he proposes that you just conceptually integrate your internal actions. You do not reach the concept of mind by grasping that your experiences of thinking, remembering, imagining and so forth are similar, but by grasping that they have internal dependencies, that your experience depends in complex ways upon your own context and history and that this is true of every person.

As a young child, for instance, you learn that focusing your own eyes in one direction limits what you can see in other directions, but does not limit what a playmate who is standing next to you (but looking in a different direction) can see. You learn that your own memories color your present emotions, but not what your best friend feels. You learn that your own thoughts and attitudes inform your observations, but not your father's. In school, you learn that your own thinking skills and knowledge affect what you can understand, but not what your classmates can understand. All persons--your playmates, friends, father, classmates and everyone else--focus, remember and think for themselves. Each person's experiences function together as a whole.

When you form the concept of mind, you integrate a vast amount of such material about others and yourself which you have gathered and organized over the years. You regard the total of each person's inner experiences, in all their complex relationships, as a unit. You need other people to serve as cognitive objects in this developmental process, because you have only one mind yourself and need to regard it as a unit--that is, one member of a group of two or more similar members. If there were no other minds with which to do this, you would not be able to derive the concept of mind from the facts of reality. You must, to reach this concept, mentally integrate others' minds and your own. Thinking about others, on this level of abstraction, is not a mere secondary afterthought, but as primary and necessary as thinking about yourself.

  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
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