Mental Action

Chapter 18

People love lists—Top Ten, Best Dressed, Things To Do. There is something about a list which satisfies. It looks organized. It looks complete. It looks scientific. It doesn't look tricky—but it is.

Is this a list?

  1. tongs
  2. wink
  3. glass
  4. stop light
  5. shirt
  6. record
  7. twig

In the grammatical sense, it is a list, because it is in the form of a list. But it is not organized, or complete, or satisfying. It is not a list of anything. To make it a convincing list, you'd have to find some common denominator—a similarity. You'd have to be able to form a concept out of it.

In other words, there are two kinds of lists: those that telescope into a word and are therefore unnecessary, and those that don't, and are therefore confusing. An unconceptualized list is the adult equivalent of a pile of blocks waiting to be sorted out.

Lists are popular because they look linear. They lay things out. They give an impression of simplicity. They are quasi-perceptual. The Top Ten List seems today to be the last word in clarity. But tomorrow, you've forgotten it. The Best Dressed List seems very informative—for the moment, while you remember some of it. Lists can be entertaining, but they cannot be useful, because your mind cannot handle them all at once.

To see this clearly, memorize the list above. What method can you use to do that? How long do you suppose you'll remember it? What use will you make of it? If it were a grocery list, then you would have written it down just because of the difficulty of memorizing it, and you would expect to throw it away right after shopping.

Teaching is often done by enumerating lists. "The causes of the Civil War were: (1) slavery, (2) state's rights agitation, (3) foreign machinations, (4)...." The list may go on to considerable length, but what gets remembered is simply: "The Civil War was caused by slavery." Knowing no way to instantly memorize a list, the student picks out what seems the most important item, usually the first item. The student assumes that the list is a hierarchy—that it is an ordered list, starting with the most fundamental cause.

Actually, it's a trick. Historians do not agree about the fundamental cause of the Civil War, so the teacher simply includes all the possibilities in a list, starting with a personal favorite. The point is made, and arguments are avoided.

(A conceptual statement of the causes of the Civil War might go like this: "The Civil War was a war of rebellion. Both sides rebelled against what they saw as immorality. The South rebelled against immoral power; the North rebelled against immoral slavery." One reason such a statement would spark argument is that it could be remembered.)

A teacher who presents aspects of a subject as lists is evading the responsibility of the job. If there are a number of items to convey, then they can be outlined—arranged as a hierarchy so that lesser items can be grouped under more fundamental items. To present unsorted material to students is not teaching, but demanding that the students do research.

p>Research consists of collecting data and sorting it out. You look for similarities so you can make combinations. You are, as Ayn Rand puts it, reducing the units. That's the reason for graphing data and looking for trends or patterns. "Sales peaked in 1986, and have fallen by half since." A statement like that could conceptualize hundreds of data points, by focusing on their significance.

Exactly what is the process of conceptualizing a list—of telescoping it into a concept? Well, how do you generate a list? That's easy. Think chair, and then list some chairs—your chair, my chair, and the highchair. The essence, or generating principle, of a list of chairs would be the definition of chair: a seat with a back.

Here's another list: chair, stool, bench. The essence of that list would be a bit broader: furniture to sit on. Finding the essence of a list is finding the essential similarity that would generate that list in your mind. That way the list can be held in mind as one idea, and expanded as needed. Like a pocket umbrella, it can be telescoped together and tucked away, ready for use.

It would be easy to find other similarities in the chair-stool-bench list. They can be used to connect it to other lists, and to discover new things about this list. They cannot be used to generate the list. The essence of the list is the defining similarity, which will generate that list and only that list in your mind. You identify the essential similarity by seeing if it will generate that list and only that list.

Together, essence and hierarchy can tell you if a list is useful, or only a trick. A list for which you can find no essence is useless, because it cannot be held in mind. A list with no indication of logical order, or hierarchy, is a trick, because it presents itself as being sorted out when it's not. To see this clearly, notice that the description of conceptualizing a list is simply a description of forming a concept.

The definition of a concept gives two things: the essence, or essential similarity which would generate a list of things contained in the concept, and an indication of hierarchy. To indicate hierarchy is to show where this telescoped list fits in the complete and sorted out list of all things. If we define a chair as a seat with a back, then "seat" would be included in "furniture," which shows where we are in the list from atom to universe.

There is, after all, just one big list: the list of everything. When you keep that list sorted out into concepts, then all or any part is available to you any time. The better your concepts are defined, the easier your access to any part of the Big List. The essence given by the definition generates a list as short or as long as you need. You never have too many units to handle, or too few to be useful. The hierarchy keeps you reminded of where you are in the Big List. You never get fooled by lists which pretend to be sorted out, but are not.

The tricky list is like the floating abstraction. It says, "Look at me, but don't look at how I relate to everything else. Forget the context, just look at me." For example, would you accept a list like the following?

The Good Life

Probably you would find it easy to see that such a list is not sorted out. There is no essential similarity between a right to life and a right to caviar. The trick is a glaring one. But what about another list?

Freedom of speech
Freedom from want
Freedom of worship
Freedom from fear

This is a well-known, even revered, list. If it is a true list, then the essential similarity and hierarchical position are given by the definition of freedom. Freedom is the absence of physical force. Its position in the Big List of Everything is in the area of guns, jails, policemen, and clubs. Its essence is the absence of such things. So the list says that guns and clubs should not interfere with speech, produce want, prevent worship, or cause fear. But wait; how do guns and clubs produce want?

Force produces want when it stifles production by creating a climate of fear, which it does by interfering with speech and choice. To put the list into a hierarchy, it must be rearranged as "Three Freedoms and What Happens in Their Absence." As given, it is a tricky list. It slips a complicated derivative idea into what purports to be a declaration of basics. It was widely used after the Second World War to justify the use of guns and clubs and policemen and jails. There was want, so the list excused stealing. There was want, so force was okay to get rid of it. The result was more want.

Apologists for the Four Freedoms list say that it was not meant literally, but poetically. This suggests a good way to handle unconceptualized or tricky lists. Don't read them as lists. Read them as poems.

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