Chapter 7


[This topic is treated in Modes of the Finite, Part 3, Section 3, Chapters 1-5.]

7.1. The approach

For centuries--millennia, in fact--the controversy has raged over whether there is something distinctive about human beings, or whether we are nothing but complex animals. It seems lately to have been settled, as far as "scientific objectivity" is concerned, and "freedom," "immortality," and "spirituality" have been relegated to the area of "religion," which is supposed to be something emotional with no evidence to back it up.

It turns out, however, that spirituality, freedom, and immortality, and that humans are possessed of powers essentially different from and superior to other animals, have the objective evidence on their side, and it is the supposedly "objective" scientists who are the dogmatists and who ignore or sneer at evidence that doesn't happen to agree with their preconceptions.

I make this remark not to belittle science, nor to blame scientists, but to counter the prevailing religion, which at the moment is scientism; anything a scientist says is supposed to be "objective facts," or backed up by overwhelming evidence; and this is simply not always the case. Scientists, as much as philosophers, are making educated guesses based on the evidence as it presents itself to them; and scientists, confining themselves to restricted fields of evidence, sometimes make guesses that a broader view can test and show don't fit all the facts. Not that philosophy doesn't deserve frequent tongue-lashings of its own. But that's not the problem today; people are too ready to belittle any objective, scientific philosophy and rely too heavily on what scientists say.

Nevertheless, it is still the case that the burden of proof is on the one who claims that human beings are distinctive and essentially superior to other animals. The evidence has to indicate that it is impossible to explain the acts of thinking and choosing as just complex acts of imagination or instinctive association.

Hence, our approach in this chapter is going to be first, an examination of thinking as if it were an act of imagination that made a "multiple image" (which, on this theory, would be what we call a "concept"). When we show that this fails to describe our actual concepts (like the concept of "face"), we will see, secondly, if the concept can be explained by instinct--in the form of an association of images, especially an association of images with a symbol such as a word.

When this too fails, we will discuss what is necessary for concept formation, and will launch into a description of that phase of thinking called "understanding."

We will then get into understanding's relationship to sensation, and the question of truth and objective knowledge. This will be a brief sketch, since the question of objective knowledge is a book in itself. Then we will briefly discuss reasoning, the other aspect of thinking.

In subsequent chapters we will consider the human determination of the body, or choosing, and the implications of thinking and choosing with respect to the meaning of human life, the constitution of the human soul, whether there is a life after death or not, and what it must be like if there is one.

Finally, based on all of this, we will treat the "existentialist" question of what it means to be a self and a person, and in what sense we "create ourselves," and in what sense we don't; what this implies with respect to values and what it implies with respect to morality (the two are not the same).

This last section will look forward to more extended treatment elsewhere of these subjects, and is not intended to be a treatise in itself.

7.2. Understanding vs. imagining

Again, we need to have some preliminary notion of what we are talking about so that we can find out if it is something distinctive to humans or is just a complicated sort of sensation.

DEFINITION: Thinking is any act of the mind that involves understanding.

Thinking and understanding are not exactly coextensive terms. You are thinking when you are understanding a fact, but you are also thinking when you are engaged in a complex reasoning process linking many understood facts to arrive at a conclusion. This is thinking and not simply doing logic (as a machine might) if you understand what you are doing as you link these facts together.

But this means that we need to know what understanding is.

Provisionally, then, let me say that understanding is the act of the mind which results in general concepts like, "liberty," "triangle," "face," "nothingness," etc. We can also add that understanding gets us at the meaning of general terms like the ones just mentioned.

That will do as a starting, point, I think. The question is whether what, say, the term "face" means to you is some kind of sensation (a kind of picture of a face), or whether it is some combination of pictures of faces, or whether it is some connection among faces. If not, it is something that is distinctive, which cannot be accounted for on the sense level.

That is, if understanding is a complex kind of sensation, there are basically two sub-faculties of sensation we have considered which would be candidates for the act: imagination and instinct. Imagination allows us to form combined images--and therefore generalized images--and instinct allows us to associate images--and so to form "generic" associations.

The question

Can understanding be explained either (1) as a generalize image or (2) as an association of images?

7.2.1. Understanding vs. generalized image

To tackle the first part, then, if we take the abstract concept of "face," is this a generalized image? The hypothesis that it is would go this way: Just as the film on a camera can store many exposures, so our brains can store many perceptions. And just as, if a person were to take many pictures of different kinds of faces on the same frame of film and then develop the film, he would come up with a blurred picture with the eyes, nose, mouth, and ears in the right place, but with fuzzy outlines; so our brains store up our perceptions of faces and (among other things) produce the generalized image we have when we hear the word "face." That is, if someone tells you "Draw a face," your imagination calls up this generalized image, and you draw something resembling a generic face.

The theory then says that the "concept" of a face is this generalized image; and the statement "That's John's face" consists in superimposing the generalized image on top of the perception, getting a "fit." If there's no "fit," this produces the negative statement, "That's not John's face."


It seems to work. It would be hard to deny that we do in fact have such generalized images; and animals' recognition of, say, their masters when seen from all sorts of different angles must be a version of matching a perception to an image.

But the trouble with the theory appears when we note that we not only call the face of a dog a face, but we understand that it really is a face; and yet in what sense does it "match" the image we have of a "face"--which is always a human face? That the general image of "face" is that of a human one can be tested by asking people to draw "a face"; the picture will always be a human face.

Further, we talk of the "face" of a cliff, which doesn't at all like the face of any animal; and yet the word is not an equivocal term like "pen" (i.e. the thing you write with vs. the thing you keep pigs in). We call the face of a cliff its "face" because we consider it the "front" of the cliff, and faces are in front. Note that we call the bottom of the cliff's face its "foot"; but our generic image of "face" has a chin at the bottom, not a foot. How could we possibly have got this by matching images? After you understand what the point of comparison is, you can see why the term is used, but there's nothing in the images that makes one "fit" the other.

Terms like this are called analogous: they have a meaning based on a relationship rather than some observable aspect of the objects that is the same in all cases.

Conclusion 1

If understanding (and meaning) came from "image-fitting," analogous terms would not be possible.

Further, if we take concepts like "free," it is hard to see how the image of one free object looks like the image of another: how an untied animal looks like a person who has just chosen to get married. Granted, the idea is that the untied animal doesn't have a rope constraining its movements, and the person who chose to get married doesn't have--it is supposed--anything forcing the choice; and so the two senses of "free" have something in common. But you can't see in any literal sense what the images of the two scenes have in common. It's not easy to tell how you could match the two scenes at all, let alone how they could be the result of a matching process.

Again, concepts like "colorless" or "spiritual" seem impossible in terms of image-superposition. To form a visual image of colorlessness is impossible (as we saw earlier), because "no color" is imaged as black, and "all colors" as white; but we can understand what "colorless" means. And "spiritual" as "activity that is not energy" precisely can't be imagined at all (because all our perceptions are reactions to energy-complexes); but this does not mean that the concept is meaningless.

Conclusion 2

If understanding and meaning came from "image-fitting," we could have no concept of things that could not somehow be visualized.

So this theory does not explain the facts.

7.2.2. Understanding vs. association

If understanding can't be an act of imagination, whether simple or complex, perhaps it uses the sub-faculty of instinct, and is a connection among images rather than a generalized image. After all, we saw that analogous terms are based on a relationship rather than a visual sameness.

Bertrand Russell, who holds this theory, illustrated in one of his books how it goes. He used to give bread to his little child, who was just learning to talk; when he did so, he would say "bread." One day, he cut the slice of bread into a triangle, and said "triangle" as he gave it to the boy. Later, when the two were walking somewhere in London, his boy looked down at the triangular pieces of pavement and said, "triangle." He had associated the shape with the word.

The example makes the process sound quite neat; but there's more to it than meets the eye. How did the child know enough to associate the new word with the shape and not the taste, the color, the size, or any other aspect of the piece of bread? In this case the answer is obvious; the only different thing about the bread was the shape, and therefore the new word must refer to the shape. Then, when the shape is seen in a different context, the shape is associated with the new word.

But the point is that in order to make the association, you have to be able to know this: "The word is different from the old word; therefore, it means something new. Everything else is the same but the shape; therefore, the new word refers to the new shape." For a computer to be programmed to do this, the program would have to be enormous, because the computer would have to go through every aspect of the two images and check to see which one is not the same--and if there happened to be two (as there undoubtedly would be, because the new shape also would imply a new size), then the program would stop before reaching a conclusion.

In fact, if you try to get computers to do something like this, you get frustrating results. Unless you have programmed the computer to pick out some given similarity or difference, it will just find the first one it happens to hit upon, which might be totally bizarre. Recently, a computer was given a series of photographs of landscapes, some of which concealed military installations, to see if it could pick out the camouflaged and hidden weapons systems. It did a fine job--until the researchers found out that what it was doing was picking out the photographs that were darker in tone, and it just happened that all the camouflage pictures were taken in dim light.

But that is precisely the point. If understanding is simply associating, then associating the right group of images would be understanding what they have in common. But they might have a hundred things in common, and the association doesn't distinguish any one from any other one.

Conclusion 3

Images are complex, and merely connecting the images does not reveal the relation among them.

We can take the test of this theory a step further if we consider the following pictures, and ask the question, "What is the relation among them?" Look at them for a while and try to see what relation(s) you find.


It does not matter which relation you picked out. What is of concern here is that there are thousands of relations: they are all drawings, they are all on the page, they are all in black and white, they are all generated by a computer, they are all illustrations of a point in the argument, they are all of objects whose names begin with "b," they are all of material objects, they are all of visible objects, etc., etc.

Now if concept-formation is the same as association, why does the same association give rise to so many different concepts? That is, when you were presented with the drawings, they were associated in your mind. But the mere association did not tell you what the relationship was among the associated images; you had to perform an extra act of your mind to "see the connection." And the more you thought about the objects, the more relations you were able to discover about them.

Conclusion 4

If understanding were the same as connecting images, then one connection would not give rise to many acts of understanding.

That is, if concepts are simply associations, then once the images are associated, the job is done. But this is far from the case.

Notice that the new concepts are formed by picking out aspects of the images or the objects they refer to; and these "aspects" can be pretty strange ones. Consider that the drawings refer to objects that begin with the letter "b." In order to see this relationship, you have to (a) say the names of the objects over in your imagination (boat, butterfly, baby, buffalo), (b) notice the alliteration of the sound of the names, ignoring anything else about the names except the sound, (c) connect that with the spelling of the words, (d) notice the similarity of the initial consonant of each word, and (e) use this as a point of similarity in the objects referred to by the drawings.

It is a mystery how the mere association of the images themselves could give rise to this similarity, which is a similarity neither among the drawings nor among the objects referred to by the drawings (as can be seen from the fact that if you were Spanish, this could not occur to you, since the names would be barco, mariposa, niño, bisonte.)

Furthermore, if the "association" is supposed to be with a word, where did the words come from? One supposes that they are already there in the language, and taught by parents and others. But this ignores the problem of how the words got there in the first place, and also ignores the fact that children are constantly forming new words that don't exist in any language to express relationships that they don't know the words for. Even in the adult world, as new situations and objects come into existence, people invent words for them, rather than "finding" some term to "associate" the images with. Consider computer terminology, with "byte," "RAM," "ROM," "baud," "modem" and so on, none of which words existed in any language at all.

So what is needed in understanding is something beyond mere association of images; we have to know what the connection is among them. It is one thing to connect; it is another to know what the connection is; and this is what Russell didn't notice because of the obviousness of the connection his child made. He reminds me of the young mathematician who thinks he has discovered a way to trisect an angle with a compass and straightedge, just because he can trisect a 45-degree angle this way. But when you try to test his method with strange angles, like those of 2-degrees or 361-degrees, the method fails.

The theory makes it extremely difficult to explain negative acts of understanding. When I say, "John's house is not painted red," how could I have got this from an association? Obviously, it would have to be the fact that I tried to associate my image of "redness" with the house (which is white), and failed. But then I can form the concept "non-white," which means "everything else except white"; and how could I get this out of a failure to associate? Further, I may never have seen John's house (so I can't compare images); but I happen to know that he hates the color red, so that, whatever color his house is, it isn't red. In this case, the "association" is not based on a "failure to connect" at all, but on a positive fact I happen to know.

Conclusion 5

If understanding were simply connecting images, then negative concepts would not be possible, because they would be non-connections.

That is, if understanding were just connecting, then not to connect two images would simply mean that understanding did not take place, not that a non-connection was discovered. But it is one thing not to understand that this page is blue and to understand that the page is not blue--but how could you do the latter without connecting the page with blueness in the mode of non-connection?

True, computers can generate negative results from comparisons if you tell them to search something for some given thing you have programmed into them, and the failure to find it sends energy into the program that writes "object not found" on the screen. But this is different from just looking at two objects without having any preconceived notion of what you are looking for and then noticing differences between them.

Let us face it: all instinct can do is make complicated connections among images; it can associate images, or go from one image-set to another. But of itself, it doesn't see either why it makes the association, or what the connection is among the images. In fact, insofar as instinct is doing the associating, the basis of the association is emotional.

And this is why psychologists find "free association" useful. They give you a set of words and tell you to say "the first thing that pops into your head" as they say each word to you. The idea here is to get to you say the word that you spontaneously--without thinking--associate with the word they say, because then the association is based on emotion and not on "abstract qualities of the object"; and so if there is any emotional problem, it will possibly show up as a strange association, a hesitation, or something else that is abnormal.

This is further evidence that thinking cannot be the same as association of images; and so we can take it that the instinct-generated theory of thinking also fails as an explanation of thinking.

General conclusion

Understanding cannot be explained as a sensation or combination or association of sensations. It is a distinct act of the mind.

7.3. What understanding is

But then what does this distinct act of the mind do, precisely? Our object here is to understand what understanding is.

DEFINITION: Understanding is the act of knowing what the relationship is among associated sensations.

To connect this with thinking, when you see the relationship between objects that are presented to you, that kind of thinking is called "understanding." When you see the relationship between the premises and the conclusion in an argument, that kind of thinking is called "reasoning." It is understanding--the understanding of the relationship between different acts of understanding.

Thus, when you say, "John is a human being and every human being is mortal, and therefore John is mortal," and you understand why "John is mortal" cannot be denied without claiming one of the other two statements is false, then you are reasoning and not simply doing logic.

Now then, if understanding knows what the relationship is among the sensations associated in consciousness, what is necessary for it to be able to do this?

When we know that the face of a dog is similar to the face of a human being, what do we know? We have to be conscious (a) of some associated perception/image of a dog and of a human being (without the sensations, we can't know the relationship); (b) what type of relationship we understand--in this case, similarity, or "having something in common"; and (c) the aspect each sensation has in common with the other--in this case, the features like eyes, nose, and mouth that make a face a face.

It is interesting to notice that, while (a) may be in consciousness before (b) and (c) (as the pictures above were in your consciousness before you understood any relation among them), it is logically impossible to know (b) before you know (c), or (c) before you know (b). In the case of the pictures above, how could you know they were similar, for instance, before you knew what they had in common; but how could you "pick out" a common element before you knew that the relationship was one of similarity and not of position or causality or whatever? And in point of fact, if you have two images associated in your mind at the same time, what you really have is one complex image that you then analyze into two parts--but how could you do this if you didn't first know that there was some relationship between the parts? Thus, even (a) depends on knowing (b) and (c) first. This, by the way, is one of the reasons why computers get into trouble when trying to "learn" relationships; they can't even define the objects to be related.

Conclusion 6

Understanding cannot consist of a process involving several steps, because in that case each step has to be taken after all the others.

But then what is the solution to this conundrum? It sounds as if we will once again have to resort to a single act which includes itself within itself, or which "reduplicates" itself without being more than one act. That is, if the act of understanding understands itself, then there really wouldn't be any problem with whether (c) came before (b) or after it, because both would be there together in the same act, each a part of the other. So, for instance, when you understand that a dog's face is similar to a human face, that very act of picking out "similarity" is the act of noticing the features that are similar.

Notice further that if the act of understanding includes the consciousness of the associated acts of sensation, then it also includes (d) the consciousness of whether these acts are perceptions or images. Hence, when you say, "A dog's face is similar to a man's," you realize that you are dealing with generalized images, and not any definite dog; whereas, when you understood that the objects drawn a few pages back were all "b-objects," you understood in that same act that the "objects" were the ones represented by the perceived, rather than imaginary, drawings.

This will be important later.

Not only that, but in the act of understanding, you understand that this relationship is only one act of your stream of consciousness; you understand (in a conscious, but not articulated way) that your mind is capable of understanding other things, and that your consciousness is in itself greater than this single act. You are aware of what Immanuel Kant called "the (I think)" in the act of understanding; you understand (e) yourself as understanding.

To put this into a more logical order, then, the act of understanding contains, in one single, simple (i.e. no system of interconnected parts) act: (1) the knowing self as beyond this mere act; (2) the sensations associated; (3) whether the sensations are perceptions or images, and in general the total consciousness of the sensations; (4) the relationship itself; and (5) the aspect in the sensations by which they are related. And since this is so,

Conclusion 7

The act of understanding is a spiritual act.

Once again, if this view of things is at all on the right track, those people who are trying to make computers think are doomed to failure. So far, what they have done has certainly borne the theory out; years and years of research have been wasted on rather spectacular failures, with the computers coming up with conclusions like "your car has measles" because you have given it information that it has red spots on its trunk.

7.3.1. Concepts

The act of understanding, like the various "acts" or "components" of the act of sensation, has its own conscious form that it contributes to the total conscious act (which, as is obvious, is polymorphous, because it contains within it all the forms of the associated sensations as well as the distinctive forms of the act of understanding). This form of the act is called the "concept."

DEFINITION: The concept is the form of the act of understanding as such; it is both the relationship understood and the aspect by which the objects in question are related.

DEFINITION: The judgment is the complete act of understanding (i.e. the five "phases" we outlined above).

The term "judgment," then, is not to be taken as some kind of evaluation. An evaluation is only one kind of judgment, as we will see. It is another one of those single-word conveniences that will keep us from having to use the phrase "act of understanding" all the time. Try not to let this confuse you.

Note well

"Judgment" means nothing more than "act of understanding."

There is another term connected with understanding: the idea. This, unfortunately, is a vague term which can mean either the judgment (the "idea" that grass is the same as emeralds in color), or the concept (the "idea" of greenness)--or even, sometimes, a sensation (your "idea" of your mother reading this book, in the sense of your imagining it). Philosophy is difficult enough, however, without our having to contend with such a slippery word, and so I won't use it in this book.

With that said, there are several things to notice here. First, the concept is not something that the act of understanding "produces"; it is the form of the act. It seems, in a sense, like a "product" of sorts, because, being conscious, the act is aware of the concept as one of its forms; but it is actually just the way we understand, or the kind of act we are performing, in the sense in which the color-appearance is the way we see the colored object.

Secondly, the concept contains (as "components") both the relationship and the aspect by which the objects are related (both the kind of relation, such as similarity, and the "foundation" of the relationship in the objects, like the greenness in both grass and emeralds). Our language, since it is material, expresses only one of these two "components," though it always implies the other. Thus, "green" expresses the aspect green objects are similar in (and implies the similarity); "fatherhood" expresses the relationship (and implies the aspect by which the person is a father). But the concept itself understands both at once. Abstraction

Since the concept is only one of the millions of possible relations the object has with other objects, and since the aspect by which this object is related is only one of the millions of aspects the object has, then it follows that understanding ignores every other aspect of the object except the one that deals with the particular relation it picks out to understand.

DEFINITION: Abstraction is the "selecting" from the object of only one aspect (the one to be understood) and the consequent ignoring of all other aspects of the object.

Thus, understanding is always abstract; you can never understand all there is to understand about any object, because there are always relationships other than the one you happen to be understanding at the moment; and since there is an infinity of possible relationships any object could have with others, it is not possible ever to get through all the aspects that could be understood about this object.

This means, of course, that understanding can never be complete knowledge about any object (you can never comprehend any object you understand); but it does not mean that understanding is untrue. When you understand that grass is green, you are ignoring (in that act) the fact that it is living; but that does not mean that you understand it as not living. It certainly is (among other things) green; so your act of understanding is true--but incomplete. Grass is in fact like emeralds and traffic lights; but (as living) it is also like dogs and carrots. To understand one relation is not to say that the other relations don't exist; it is to "abstract" from these other relations, that is all. Universality

Since the act of understanding is aware of itself as being a relation between objects (or parts of objects), then it immediately knows that the concept is not confined to this particular object; and this gives us another characteristic of concepts; a characteristic that has always been recognized, and that has caused a good deal of discussion.

DEFINITION: Universality refers to the fact that a given concept can be applied to all the objects that happen to have the aspect/relation in question.

That is, as soon as you understand that the grass is green (or is like emeralds and traffic lights in the way it affects your eyes), then you know "greenness" as an aspect of objects, and you are immediately aware that anything that affects your eyes in this way belongs in this relation and has this aspect. Hence, when you see a grasshopper or a frog, you know that it too is green, and you don't have to get a whole new concept.

Note well

The difference between abstractness and universality is that abstractness deals with the many possible relations in one object (only one of which is chosen) and universality deals with the many objects that could be connected by this relation.

The words that express concepts are of two sorts, depending on whether they express the concept as to be applied to possible objects, or the concept as just the relationship/ aspect. The first use of words is called the "concrete universal" (of which "green" would be an example); and the second is called either the "reflex universal" or the "abstract term" (of which "greenness" is the example).

The idea here is that you can use "green" as the predicate of a sentence with "is" as the verb; but you can't use "greenness" this way. "X is green" makes sense, but "X is greenness" doesn't. "Greenness" refers to the aspect itself, and so you would have to say "X has greenness" if you were to use this word in a sentence applying it to some object. On the other hand, "green" is this aspect as being true of some possible object.

Once again we come to a situation where language, as something perceptible (and therefore, energy) cannot fully express the spiritual aspect of understanding. The act of understanding knows the concept as it is in itself (expressed by "greenness") and also as applicable not only to this object but any object having this aspect (expressed by "green"). The two terms do not refer to two acts of understanding, but to two ways of considering one polymorphous act. There is more to the story than this, but this is enough for our purposes.

7.4. The "process" of understanding

We have now seen a sketch of what understanding entails as an act of consciousness. Since it is a distinct act of the mind, let us now consider how we perform the act. Strictly speaking, understanding itself is not a process; but since it involves a prior association of sensations and since it produces a sensation afterwards, there is a sequence (and therefore a kind of "process") involved in it.

First of all, then, what happens is that the attention (one of instinct's functions) is drawn to some perception, image, or association. This can either be the result of a sense-act, or can result from prior understanding as directing the instinct.

At any rate, once attention is directed to the act, this "turns on" the act of understanding, and we are conscious of curiosity about the sensation in question.

DEFINITION: The intellect is the faculty of understanding.

DEFINITION: The mind is sometimes loosely used to mean the intellect.

Strictly speaking, the mind is the cause of all our consciousness' being just one stream of consciousness (or is the faculty of consciousness in general); but the major "component" of the human mind is, of course, the intellect. Since consciousness is spiritual and interpenetrates itself, you can't actually divide it up into distinct faculties.

The intellect is not, actually, some part of the brain or some spiritual "thing"; as a faculty, it turns out (as we will see) to be the instinct in its attention-function, since this is what turns understanding on and off. We cannot understand unless we are paying attention--as teachers know to their sorrow. But there is really no special faculty of understanding as such, for reasons we will talk about later.

When curiosity is aroused, the intellect is active, and is studying the images in question, as you studied the pictures some pages back. This phase of understanding was given the name "agent intellect" by Aristotle and St. Thomas. What understanding is doing is trying to pick a relationship.

Suddenly, the "light goes on" and you understand; you have recognized a relationship with its foundation in the objects, and so you have "formed a concept" and "made a judgment." Both of these are the same act; you don't form the concept first and then apply the concept to the images association; you "abstract" the concept from the images, but never leave them, and so you "see" the concept you have formed in the images in question (and that act is the judgment). Remember, the act of understanding is spiritual, and "does itself" many times in one act, so that "concept formation" and "judgment" are just two ways of considering the same act.

But then understanding does perform another act. Since the intellect in human beings is a kind of faculty, to be turned on and off by sense-consciousness and attention, and since understanding does not want to have to relearn this concept, it then creates an image in sensation which will reawaken this concept when it is activated.

DEFINITION: A word is a perceptible symbol of a mental act, especially of a concept.

Words can stand for all sorts of mental acts, but the ones we are interested in at the moment are the ones created to reactivate the particular act of understanding that has just occurred. This word need not be a word in some actual language; any perceptible symbol will do, so long as it means the concept in question.

DEFINITION: The meaning of a word is the mental act it stands for.

Let us say that a person understands that grass, emeralds, and frogs all affect his eyes the same way--and let us say that he is a cave man, with no set language to express his thoughts in. He then moves his hand in a circle, say, to represent this concept he has learned--and for him from then on, this gesture means what we call "green." The gesture is a word; whenever he does it or sees it, the same thing happens in his mind as happens in ours when we hear or see the word "green."

Words, of course, since they are perceptible, can be actually produced as forms of energy, which other people can perceive. And if we can agree on what concepts the words stand for, they we can communicate with other people, reading their minds and allowing them to read ours.

7.5. Reasoning

Notice that in word-creation, the instinct (the energy-directing function of the brain) is under the control of the spiritual act of understanding. Understanding either lets go at this point and shuts off, letting attention wander, or it keeps control and leads attention in new directions toward further acts of understanding based on the act understood.

When this directing of attention occurs consciously and deliberately, it is called reasoning. In this case, the direction the associations are to take follows certain rules, called logic.

Note that each type of connection of concepts has its own logic. There is not one single "logic."

What we call "formal logic" is the logic of statements. Statements (with subjects and predicates) can be interconnected in such a way that a new statement is "generated," and can then be understood on the basis of what the previous statements mean.

But mathematics, which uses equations and inequalities as (among other things) its relations, has different ways in which its "statements" can be interconnected to generate new equations; and the logic there is the science of mathematics. It is a good deal like "formal logic," but is not the same, as many people, who know how to manipulate language but not mathematics, can testify.

Each of the sciences has its own way in which objects connect themselves with other objects to generate new knowledge; and one begins to understand the science in question when one sees which sorts of connections are permitted, which are "useful" in finding new facts, and which are a waste of time to pursue. Occasionally, one genius will "violate the rules" and discover a new approach to things--a new logical procedure in this science--and we have a "breakthrough."

The arts also have their distinctive ways of connecting things so that new acts of understanding are produced. In general, the "rules" for each art (like the "rules of composition") are the basic logic of that art. The difference between the logics of all the arts and the logics of the sciences is that artistic understanding uses emotions as the point of comparison in its concepts, and so the objects in art are connected by emotion-based relationships, not relationships based on perception. Emotional logic is true logic, but it is not the same as scientific logic.

Reasoning, as I said, is a conscious process; one is deliberately directing attention according to some pattern (either preexisting, as when one is following established rules, or by some new rule one is setting up for oneself). But these chains of associations can also occur below the threshold of consciousness. Then the process is not, strictly speaking, reasoning, but is more like what animals do. The difference is that at the end, the person suddenly understands the result, and that it is the answer he was looking for.

This is what happens when you have been trying to solve a problem by reasoning, and you can't get the answer--because the answer involves an association that can't be arrived at by the conventional rules. So you "sleep on it." That is, you deliberately put it out of consciousness, and tell your instinct, "Work on this by sending out energy from this image at random, and let me know if something promising emerges."

The instinct then just keeps energy in this image and sends it out more or less anywhere, associating it with all sorts of other images. The mind is monitoring this at a low level of consciousness (this is that feeling of "something bothering you" you have when you are concerned about the problem but not deliberately trying to solve it); and when an association that looks good is arrived at, the instinct turns the intellect back on to examine it. Then sometimes "insight" (understanding) occurs.

The famous example of this is Archimedes and the king's crown. The King wanted to know if the crown (an elaborate thing) was really made of pure gold or an alloy. Archimedes knew that gold does not weigh the same as an alloy would, and so if he knew how much metal was in the crown, he could, by weighing it, know if it was gold.

The problem was how to tell how much metal was used without melting down the crown so that it could be poured into a measuring-cup--which would destroy the crown, of course. How can you measure the crown and leave it intact?

He thought of possible solutions, and then did what we said above; and as he began to take a bath, he idly noticed the water rise in the tub as he got in. Immediately, he rushed naked into the streets of Alexandria, shouting "Eureka! Eureka! (I got it! I got it!)."

What had he "got"? He had associated the rise of water with his problem. The water had to get out of the way of his body, so it rose. So to measure the crown, you fill a tank with water and sink the crown into it, catching all the water that spills out and pouring the water into a measuring-cup. This will be an amount of water that is equal to the volume of metal in the crown. Then weigh the crown and find out if it is the weight that this amount of gold should be.

As I remember the story, it wasn't, and the goldsmith who cheated the King didn't do too well.

Strictly speaking, Archimedes hadn't reasoned to this conclusion; but afterwards, of course, he could put the process he went through into logical form.

This is all we are going to say here about reasoning, because the rules of reasoning are different for each branch of knowledge that a person pursues, and each needs a complete study in itself. Our purpose here is simply to show what is the mental basis of any reasoning process.


Plato (400 B.C.) was the first to make a clear distinction between understanding and sensation. For him the "aspects" (a literal translation of eide, usually translated "Forms") were the actual realities, and existed independently of the perceptible objects which the ordinary person thinks they are aspects of. For Plato, the perceptible object "shares" the Aspect, not the other way around. This is because the Aspect is the "truth," and hence the "reality," of the object.

Aristotle (350 B.C.) turned his teacher's theory upside down, and said that what was "really real" was the perceptible object, and that the Aspect was something the mind got at by abstracting it from the image. He did not see this exactly in connection with a relationship understood and its foundation, though this is implied in his philosophy, which holds up pretty well even today, and is the basis for much that I said in this chapter. He mentions the "agent intellect," but seems to imply that it is a mind separate from the human one (possibly, as one commentator--Averroes--thought, the mind that drives the moon around); and the human being had only the "passive" intellect of being able to understand concepts.

St. Thomas Aquinas (1250) showed how the Aristotelian "intellects" were two aspects of the same intellect, which was in human beings. Both St. Thomas and Aristotle seem to think that it was the act of the imagination that "turned on" the intellect and acted as its faculty; I think that any sense-act can do the job, once attention is directed to it--and so for me, the basic "on-turner" is instinct. But this is really a quibble, I think.

In the middle ages, the question of whether "universals" really existed "out there," either as real forms of objects or real things or whatever (I.e. does "humanity" or "greenness" really exist, and if so in what sense?) was a conundrum that people had trouble solving. Some said that there were no real "universals" in any sense, only individuals, and all that was universal was words(the "Nominalists")--which were just convenient lumpings-together of things that really had nothing in common. Others, following one or another version of Platonism, held that the "universals" really existed as such, somehow--and there were various versions of how.

It was controversies such as this that precipitated Descartes' (1600) rethinking of the whole subject of knowledge, by being doubtful of everything that could be doubted and beginning with "I think, therefore I am" and using mathematical method from there on. His mathematical deduction of the universe from this proposition, however, proved no more satisfactory than the medieval controversies he was trying to reconcile; but it did change the focus of what was controversial.

From Descartes on, the question has been, "How can we get any objective knowledge at all?" And since this is the subject of the next chapter, let us end this sketch here.


Is thinking a complex sensation (and so immaterial), or is it a different sort of act? It can't be a general kind of image, or terms that have common meanings and don't "fit the picture" of the general image couldn't exist. Nor can it be mere association of images, because a given association (or connection) can have an infinity of relations to be understood in it, and specific negative concepts would be impossible, since they are non-connections, and a non-connecting connection is a contradiction in terms.

So understanding must be a distinct act of the mind, by which we become conscious of what the relationship is between associated sensations. Reasoning becomes conscious of the relationship between acts of understanding.

The concept is the form of the act of understanding: the relationship in question and the aspect by which the images or objects are related. The judgment is the complete act of understanding, and knows the sensations, the aspects, the relationship, whether the sensations are externally caused or not, and itself understanding.

Concepts are abstract, in that each deals with only one relationship between objects (and one aspect in each), and "abstract" from other possible relationships and aspects; this partialness, however, does not make them false. Concepts are also universal, meaning that they apply to any object which happens to have the aspect in question, not just the objects the concept was derived from.

When an association occurs, this "turns on" the intellect, the faculty of understanding, which examines the sensations to find a relation; and when it does it makes a judgment (including a concept); and then it creates a word: a sensation that will stand for the concept, and which can then be communicated to others. The meaning of the word is the concept it stands for.

Reasoning makes chains of associations, which it then understands the relationships among. Each science or study has its own logic, which is the rules for connecting objects in that discipline so that new knowledge can be gained by reasoning.

Exercises and questions for discussion

1. Doesn't the fact that an animal can recognize its master's head even when seeing the back of it (which doesn't look at all like the front) prove that the animal has a concept of "my master's head" and so can think?

2. A chimpanzee sees bananas hung outside its cage, beyond its reach. It picks up a piece of bamboo and uses this to pull over the bananas and get one. The bananas are then hung beyond reach of the pole. It then sees two poles in its cage, fits them together into a long pole and gets the bananas. Doesn't this prove that the animal has thought, "If I put these two together, they'll be long enough for me to get the bananas," and so the chimpanzee can think?

3. How can understanding be universal if not everybody understands everything?

4. If it's arbitrary which word you use to express a concept, then how can we communicate with each other? How do I know what concept you're referring to when you use a word?

5. If a person "sleeps on" a problem and wakes up with the answer, has he been reasoning in his sleep? Has he been doing logic in his sleep? Are these the same thing?