Mental Skill

Chapter 2

What are you doing when you think? Are you engaged in some mystic process that puts pictures of reality into your head, where they are shuffled around into ideas and convictions? If so, then skill is not involved; talent and luck is what is needed. There's not much you can do to improve such a vague process. You must wait for a better understanding of what is going on in your mind.

That understanding has arrived. Ayn Rand's epistemology lets you see exactly what you are doing when you think. Any discussion of mental skill has to start with a review of her theory of concepts.

For conceptual thinking, you must have the ability to make the comparisons required to see similarity, and you must have the ability to make a mental unit.

A pair of pants is one thing, but a pair of shoes is two things, and a bunch of things could be any number. Plurality is regarded as unit. One makes the unit by an act of mental integration. Similar things are mentally combined, and treated as a unit. Then those units can be further combined and treated as a unit. Counting illustrates the process: you can count to ten, then count to a hundred by tens, then count to a thousand by hundreds, and so on.

Regarding similars as units makes it possible to classify and reclassify so that everything can be compared and related to everything else—if you can keep the units straight in your mind. For that, you use words.

A group of similars regarded as a unit held in mind by means of a word is a concept. The first job of language is not communication, but concept formation. A mental class regarded as a unit does not become a concept until it is encompassed by a word and specified by a definition. It is by means of words that we keep concepts in memory, bring them to awareness when needed, and convey them to others.

The fact that words come from outside the mind—that they are given by the language we learn—sometimes creates the impression that concepts come ready-made from outside the mind. This error is fatal to mental skill. You may get directions for making a concept, but you still must do the mental work. As you learn a word, you must form the mental classification for yourself. The word's definition tells you what similarity to use in making the classification. It does not specify any details. It is up to you to grasp the details, and know that every detail present in reality is referred to and included in the concept.

Opening the door to mental skill requires that you grasp the nature of concepts. You must fully understand that concepts are not metaphysical but epistemological. They are not penumbras detected by a sixth sense; they are mental combinations created by you as a method of handling things. You do not discover concepts; you make them. You are not given concepts; you are given words and definitions, which you use to make concepts.

Reality exists on its own, independent of your mind. But your mind is not a passive receptor of impressions; it is an active processor of information. As you observe what is, you actively classify it, compare it, analyze it, and relate it to what you have already learned. You differentiate this from that, then integrate this and that with the rest of your knowledge.

Metaphysics answers the question, "What is it?" Epistemology answers the question, "How do I know?" You do not change facts of reality by thinking about them; but also you do not passively receive messages from reality. You employ methods to sort things out and combine data into knowledge. When you have enough knowledge, then you can take action to change things.

The most basic method is comparison—measuring difference. Your senses respond to difference, and your brain integrates sensations into percepts. Then your will takes over and your skill begins: you look for similarity, and use it to perform acts of mental integration. To integrate is to combine. Things are integrated when they become parts of a whole, as outsiders into a society.

Thus, when you mentally integrate things, you regard them as parts of a whole. Is that a useful thing to do? Not if it were done at random. Arbitrarily regarding this book and a smile as part of a whole would do nothing toward handling reality. But take two things with a common characteristic. They differ in the amount of that characteristic. It is a quantifiable relationship, not a random one. In that case, regarding them as parts of a whole will help greatly in handling reality, by reducing the units—making it possible to keep more things in mind at once.

If you look around the yard with the eyes of a child, you see variously shaped things. You learn what they are. That shape is a tree, that shape is a bush, that shape is a chair. You are differentiating groups of things by using a common attribute that can be measured—their shape. Shape provides what Ayn Rand calls a conceptual common denominator that you can use as a basis for sorting things out. Call it the CCD for short.

Changing the CCD would change the groups into which you classified things in the yard. If the CCD were "self-generated action," then you would see living things and dead things. If the CCD were color, you would see green things and blue things and white things. Nothing in the yard is changed, of course, but by focusing on different commonalties, you conceptualize things in whatever orderly way fits your purpose. This part of concept formation gives rise to the idea of essence, which is a basic element of mental skill. A characteristic is deemed essential in a specified context when you need it to classify the things in that context into concepts—to think about them.

Without concepts, you would have the same ability to handle reality as your pet. That is, you could try to deal with one situation at a time as it presented itself in front of you. You would know no larger reality. You would know nothing about relationships on a global scale. You could deal with three or four things at once—whatever number of things possible to hold in mind at once. Anything more would be beyond you.

With concepts, whatever number of words you can hold in mind at once is enough, because the whole of the universe can be combined into those words. If concepts are poorly made, they will raise your abilities to a human level of confusion. If they are skillfully made, they will make it possible when thinking about one thing to take everything else into account.

To see the difference between well-made and poorly-made concepts, think of money in a wallet. There are dollar bills, fives, tens, twenties—all jumbled together at random. You wonder how much money there is. To find out, you must take all the money out of the wallet, lay it on the table, and sort it out. Unless you do that, you will make only a guess. And if all your cash is not in the wallet, and you put some receipts in there with the money, then even the guess will be difficult.

It is easy to see how to keep track of the money. First, make sure that all the cash and only the cash is in there. Second, put the money in the wallet in an orderly fashion: keep ones together, and tens, and so on. Third, put the groups of bills in hierarchical order: ones first, then fives, then tens, then twenties. Now it takes hardly more than a glance into the wallet to see how much money is there. The effort of keeping things in order pays off.

A poorly made concept is like the all-purpose wallet containing some but not all your cash, plus some checks and a grocery list. The things in there are similar as paper, but it is not the appropriate similarity for the purpose. The container should not be called a wallet, but a paper-holder. In the same way, if your concept of friend includes people you like, people you can use, people you can get your way with, and people you want to impress; then you will spend your life wondering who your "real" friends are. You formed the concept using a bad definition: "people I am concerned with." There is a similarity, but it is not the essential similarity for friends. The essential similarity is the commonality that puts everything you want into the group, and nothing you don't want.

Imagine slips of paper on the table. As slips, the essential similarity is thickness. As paper, the essential similarity is the material. But if they are dollar bills, the essential similarity is their use: paying. If you want to put your money on the table, using a similarity of material, size, or shape would exclude things you do want, like quarters, and include things you don't want, like receipts.

Concepts get subdivided, as your cash into tens and twenties. They get combined into broader concepts, as your cash and bank account into assets. To avoid confusion, you must keep the hierarchy. Just as the money arrangement has ones first because they are the basic units, all concepts need to be located in an arrangement with the basic units—percepts—first. To do this, include the hierarchy in the definition. Thus a wallet is not, "what I put money in," it is, "a flat case for money." It is a case, which is a container, which is a holder, which you do with your hand. That is the base of the hierarchy: something you can directly perceive. The foundation of certainty is the ability to trace every concept back to perception.

The part of a definition that indicates hierarchy is called the genus. The part that differentiates this thing from other things in the genus is called the differentia. A wallet differs from other cases in being flat and designed for money. Cash differs from other means of payment in readiness. A friend differs from other companions in mutual esteem.

A definition is always a decision about essentials. Are friends companions with mutual esteem, or are they just companions you like? The former says that mutuality is an essential of friendship; the latter says that it is not. You can easily tell which definition people use by observing the way they act. Decisions about essentials are decisions about the way you will live.

The genus locates a word in its context. It indicates where the concept fits in a human view of things—a view that keeps the whole universe in mind all at once. To see how this works, imagine holding your wallet in your hand. Now focus not on the wallet but on the idea of in. This concept has location as a genus, and encompassed as a differentia. A skillful thinker would by habit reflect that money is in my wallet, in my hand, in my home, in my region, in the world, and in the universe.

Now focus on the wallet itself. It is a case, which is a container, which is itself contained in my hand, my home, my region, the world, and the universe. Or focus on the money, which is a standard means of payment. A means is a method, which is something you are using now, and would use always and everywhere in the universe. Payment is part of human interaction, which exists always and everywhere humans exist.

Everything you look at and think about will, when properly conceptualized, come into focus securely in its place: related to direct perception, and also related to everything else that exists. In other words, a human mind never sees things in isolation, but always sees things in relationship to all other things. Thinking is always contextual.

Does this mean that thinking is always laborious? Quite the opposite. It means that the labor need be performed only once, when the concept is formed. If that is done right, then after that, keeping the context is habitual and seems effortless. Skillful thinkers often express surprise at how new connections "just pop up" in their thinking. It is the same process that is happening when new details of a painting you are studying "just pop into view." It depends on two mental habits: the habit of taking everything into account when thinking about anything, and the habit of comparing.

For example, consider money as a standard means of payment. A standard is an established unit. There are many established units, and there are many kinds of money. A skillful mind thinking about money would by habit compare various established units, and various moneys. One thing that might pop into awareness would be that established units keep the same value over time, but most things called money do not. How could it be that most money violates the definition of money? Does the definition need to be corrected?

That entails a decision: what is essential about money? Is it essential that the value stay the same over time, or is it only essential that people accept it for payment? A skillful mind looks for a relationship between those two possibilities. If the value of money does not stay the same over time, then will people still accept it as payment? If you think they may not, then you have decided that keeping the same value over time is an essential of money. You will want to use as money only something that will keep its value.

When a skilled thinker says, "It just seems obvious to me," that is the result of habitually checking the relationships among all objects of thought. When an unskilled thinker says, "It's just obvious," that is an attempt to substitute the effect, certainty, for the cause, thinking.

Is there another explanation of how concepts are formed—an alternative to Ayn Rand's theory? No, there is just the vague assertion that somehow you sense a commonality and drop out the differences, so a number of things become one. Some like this idea because it leaves out effort. But it also leaves out mental skill. It looks at concept formation as a subjective mystery instead of an objective fact; as taking less into account rather then more; as reducing units not by telescoping them together, but by dropping them out of consciousness.

If you use this subjective method of forming concepts, you think of mankind as a mass of humanity with mass mind and mass emotions. Individual differences drop from your mind. A group you belong to is all good; some other group is all bad. You judge individuals not by their individual characteristics, but by the group they belong to. Thinkers with this habit are not called skilled; they are called bigoted.

The true concept of man contains an open number of individuals, past, present and future, with some degree of reasoning ability in common, and all the individual similarities and differences entailed in individual free will and biology. Individuals included in the concept are regarded as parts of a whole, but no details of their individuality are lost. There is no confusion of epistemology with metaphysics—of method with fact. Each individual is judged according to individual characteristics, while still being regarded as part of a larger unit.

Any degree of mental skill includes this duality: particulars seen in relation to universals, with all particular characteristics retained. No particular characteristics are omitted, but only particular measurements. Since measurements can be made at any time by comparing, nothing is lost. Every detail is retained, along with the entire context—the relationship of each detail to the whole and to the rest of reality.

This ability of the mind to take account of totality right along with the tiniest details has always been observed and remarked on. Now, thanks to Ayn Rand, it has been explained. Her theory shows how it can be done not just by a genius, but also by you.


The way to practice making concepts is to practice making definitions. One might think it easy to cheat on this by looking in the dictionary, but dictionaries rarely give conceptual definitions. They give synonyms and descriptions. It is a place to start, but not all you need.

Ayn Rand's definition of a concept is: a mental integration of two or more units possessing the same distinguishing characteristic(s), with their particular measurements omitted. Dictionaries get nowhere near that level of precision, but you can.

A definition says: to form this concept, look in this context, the genus, and pick out the things with this distinguishing characteristic. That's true even of ostensive definitions, which just point at perceptions. When you show something, it is always in a context, given by a specific CCD. To know what the sensation of heat is, you must first feel it. By the color red, I mean THIS. Since definitions are not works of art but tools of concept formation, the closer they are to show and tell, the better. That's why the model is Aristotle's definition of Man as "the rational animal."

The differentia, rational, is a decision about essentials. Man uses tools, forms institutions, spends years in childhood, and displays many more differences from other animals. But the essential distinguishing characteristic is the rational faculty. Men differ from one another in measurements of this faculty, but they all have some of it, and nothing else has any of it. If you omit the measurements and use that similarity, your mental integration will include all of what you do want, and none of what you don't want.

Note that the essential is not the most striking characteristic, or the most emotional characteristic, or the characteristic most important to you. It is the fundamental one or ones without which the others would not be possible. You might consider comfort essential to a chair, but you would not deny that a hard seat with a back, though uncomfortable, is still a chair. Confusion of important with essential is not a trivial matter; it is a principal factor in preventing the development of mental skill.

Suppose that in making a concept, you choose a characteristic at random—wheels, for example. You decide to call anything with wheels a "wheeler." You sound like this:

"Sorry I'm late! I went out for a spin on my wheeler, and got caught at the crossing by a long wheeler, and all the waiting wheelers were in the way so I went up on the sidewalk and ran into a wheeler full of wheelers."

Is that a silly example, unlike anything in real life? Then instead of wheeled for a random characteristic, try annoying: "Sorry I'm late! The idiot at the shop was late with the car, then some idiot had traffic blocked, then the idiot at the bridge couldn't make change, then when I picked up the cleaning, that idiot gave me trouble, then an idiot on a motorcycle gave me a ticket!"

In both examples, the harm is not to the listener, who can pretty much figure out what is being said. The harm is to the thinker. To form a habit of lumping things together by some non-essential characteristic is to form a habit of making sloppy concepts with vague definitions. It is a habit of confusion.

There is no need to go afar for practice in defining. Just look around the room, pick a concept, and define. What is the genus of that? What is the essential differentia that puts all of that into a concept, and nothing else?

A particularly valuable exercise is to examine concepts you take for granted as already defined. You will likely find some defined by nonessentials, often with a genus that gives no hint of hierarchy. For example, one might have a definition of chairs as "things to sit on." The genus, things, gives no information, and the differentia does not separate chairs from stools, logs, and bicycles.

Some define politicians as "crooks in charge." But this would not work even if you could find all politicians by looking among crooks. Likening politicians to pickpockets and muggers is a common figure of speech, but not a method for forming concepts. It substitutes evaluation for identification. It is as if you ask, "How will I recognize you?" and I reply, "I'll be the honest one." Not only the differentia, but also the genus must be chosen by looking for essentials.

To define "boat," look in the area of man-made things, zoom in on the ones that float, then zero in on floating containers. You're not looking for the arcane, but the obvious: normal usage puts one on a barge and in a boat. You want a commonality among rowboats, houseboats, sailboats, and lifeboats that binds them together, but separates them from buoys, toilet tank floats, and balloons.

Is a ship a large boat, or is a boat a small ship? Nautically, a ship is not a boat but a vessel—except that in the American Heritage Dictionary, a vessel is a craft, and a craft is a boat. To avoid circularity and ambiguity, you use the conceptual method. You examine the nature of things to find a fundamental principle applicable to the whole area. You delimit an area of man made things designed for support in water. Vessels are the ones designed to contain and transport. Submarines are underwater vessels. Ships are large self-propelled vessels; boats are smaller utility vessels.

With the hierarchy established, everything snaps into place. A houseboat must be big enough to live in, but smaller than a ship. A ship's boat must be carried on a ship. A gravy boat must be a container likened to a boat. Rafts are platforms made to float. Barges are made to carry but not contain. Surfboards and inner tubes are special purpose water supports. The whole floating area is sorted out and anchored to reality. That is the purpose of forming concepts correctly: to keep things sorted out and anchored to reality.

If the most basic skill is comparison, the next most basic is concept formation by using essentials. Probably the single most powerful way to increase your mental skill is to be clear on what is essential in the definition of every word you use. If this sounds impossibly difficult, remember that "clear" and "correct" are not the same thing.

A definition of "chairs" as "things to sit on" is wrong not because the information in it is wrong, but because there is not enough information. It fails to answer the question, "Which things to sit on?" It fails to fulfill the purpose of a definition, which is to state the essential similarity that distinguishes these things from other things.

Consider a definition that contains wrong information. Define chairs as "furniture to sit on with three legs and a large back." Is this better or worse than "things to sit on?" Well, it states the genus, furniture. It includes the essential differentia of having a seat and a back. So it could be used to form a concept which would include some chairs, though not all chairs. A user of this definition would find it necessary to explain. "That looks like a chair except it has four legs, and a small back." The necessity to explain would make it obvious that the number of legs and the size of the back should not be included. They are measurements to be omitted. The clear definition is self-correcting because it can be used in real situations that provide real feedback.

For practicing mental skill, this provides an important lesson. The skill to practice is not a skill of just manipulating things in the mind. It is the skill of handling real life by seeing all particulars in relationship to all others. When you work in reality, mistakes cause discomfort and get corrected. Mental skills should be practiced not just by constructing artificial problems, but by applying them to real problems encountered in living.

Since definitions are done by essentials, practicing definitions is also practicing the real-life skill of identifying essentials. The more definitions you make, the easier it will be to pick out the basic element that the others depend on. Finding essentials is not only the secret of defining; it is also the secret of judging and analyzing. It is also the secret of good communication. Debating skill picks out the essential points in an argument, and answers them in terms of essentials.

Skilled thought gets its power by focusing on essentials, so that the units can be reduced. However, non-essentials are not banished from consciousness any more than are words you are not using at the moment. After all, what is essential for one purpose may be trivial for another purpose. To see how the essence changes with the purpose, imagine entering a mall to buy a clock.

To find the clocks, you must look not for things that tick, but things that keep time. Once you find the clocks, the essential thing may be quite different. You might be looking for a small clock, or a digital clock. When you find the kind you want, then the essential may change again: how much does it cost?

A definition uses the essential similarity that distinguishes referents of a concept from referents of other concepts. The essential is not metaphysical but epistemological; it is chosen for what it does. A definition states the essential similarity and the essential context. It makes no effort to state everything about the concept, but just to distinguish it from others. If you discuss definitions with others, you will sometimes be told that this or that must be included in the definition, or else people will get the wrong idea about it. The answer to that is, "Before they can get any idea about it, they have to know what it is." Defining is part of making concepts, not preaching about them.

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