Mental Action

Chapter 5
Sorting Things Out

Here's a sentence which should be incomprehensible:

"A couple took their trio of kids to hear a quartet play a quintet of pieces."

You say you can easily grasp the sentence? But look how many separate things are in that sentence. Let's list them.

1 couple = 2
1 trio = 3
1 quartet = 4
1 quintet = 5

The right-hand column adds up to fourteen things. That's more than a mind can handle all at once. But the left-hand column only adds up to four things, which a mind is able to handle easily. That's why the sentence is comprehensible.

We can increase the contrast:

"There were more discoveries in this century than in the previous millennium."

How many things are referred to in that sentence?

1 group of discoveries = unknown large number
1 century = about 31,536,000 seconds
1 millennium = about 315,360,000 seconds
---------------------- -----------------------------
3 units more than 350,000,000 units

You can mentally handle millions of things all at once, because you handle them as if they were just a few things. How did you learn to do that?

It could have happened this way:

You were being dressed by your mother. She talked about the pair of shoes she was pushing your feet into. Suddenly you got it—those separate but similar things could be regarded as a unit. Two things could be one pair. You made the most useful discovery of your life—the making of a unit.

It could have happened that way, but you don't remember. What a shame that nobody can remember first taking the mental action on which all other mental actions depend—the discovery of the unit. Of course, nobody can remember taking the first step in learning to walk; but that's not so bad because other people can remember and describe it. Learning to make a unit was the first willful step in learning to think, which has determined your life ever since—but nobody noticed.

Nobody noticed, and nobody cheered, and most adults assume they were born thinking. The trouble with being born with it is: you're stuck with it. The point of seeing that you had to learn it is: you're not stuck with it. You were born with the ability to perceive objects. You discovered how to see similarity the same way you discovered how to wave your arms and wiggle your toes. But there's nothing about making a unit that can be learned by chance. It's an action you take with your mind. You do it. You regard two similar things as one pair, or five similar things as one quintet, or a thousand things as one crowd—or everything there is as one universe.

Why did you first want to do it? Because you were getting a glimmer of the advantages of classification. You were ready to start sorting things out.

Imagine a young child sorting out a jumble of square, round, and triangular shapes, which for convenience we'll call blocks. The child can see similarity, and so can sort the blocks into piles according to shape. Then, if the blocks are of more than one color, the child can resort them according to color. Or, if the blocks have varying weights, the child can resort them according to weight.

The child is aware simply of putting the same shapes in each pile, or the same colors in each pile, or the same weights in each pile. A later discovery will be that "same" really means "similar," rather than "identical."

To sort the blocks out in various ways, there is no need to go any further than similarity. As long as objects are there physically to be manipulated, similarity is enough. The blocks can be sorted out. But the same thing could not be done mentally with similarity alone. Putting things into mental piles requires the ability to form a unit—a mental pile.

How might that very physical thing, a pile of objects, be translated into a mental unit? The answer is as evident as the words on this page—symbols to be heard, seen, and held in the mind. Not a physical pile of cubes, but the word cube—that's the mental pile. Words are the concrete form of mental constructs: they are the sound and sight of concepts.

When a child succeeds in sorting blocks into piles, what that gives is a feeling of efficacy: I can handle things. And wow! If I can learn to create mental piles, then I can learn how to handle everything! No longer will I just react to things; I can be in charge of things. I can sort out the whole world.

Once I start to make concepts, then my mind becomes an infinite filing cabinet into which I can sort out every aspect of reality. Because I can keep everything straight, I can investigate everything, discover how everything relates to everything else, and discover how everything relates to me. Two-year-olds don't act all-powerful because they want to pretend it; they act all-powerful because they have discovered how to be all-powerful.

As children grow up, they discover that reality is more complicated than they thought. Some are delighted: it will never get boring. Others are disheartened: it will never get sorted out. All eventually forget the time when they consciously and deliberately took the step from perception to conception—from helplessness to genius. They began to make concepts.

The link between physical action and mental action is the word. Physically, a word is something you hear and see. It is available to the senses. Mentally, a word is a container. It stands as a symbol for any number of similar things contained inside. As a container, it can be labeled with a definition. As a symbol, it can stand for an unlimited number of similars.

Man is a concept which includes everybody who ever lived, who lives now, who ever will live. This concept has a famous definition: the rational animal. The definition serves to label the classification, but it does not exhaust the classification. The mental pile contains not only man's rationality, but every characteristic of man, known and unknown. That's why it causes no mental problem to use the word "man" to also mean "male," even if it causes a social problem. The crucial thing mentally is not what word we use, but what we put into the pile.

To sort things out into mental piles, you classify them into concepts. The child follows you around, asking: "Is that a chair? Well, is that a chair? And is that a chair?" The adult asks, "Are all politicians crooks?" Both are making mental classifications. In all cases, this mental action is anything but trivial. One who defines politicians as "crooks in control" will act very differently from one who defines them as "public servants." How you sort out reality governs how you live.

To put that another way, concept formation is a matter of life and death. It's the basic human method of dealing with reality. It begins with similarity, depends on making mental units, and requires words as concrete symbols. You never stop forming concepts, but you always have enough. As a child you might have sorted out all of reality using two concepts: known and unknown. The next minute, you could have resorted reality using two other concepts: safe and scary. If, in your mind, safe was the same as known, and scary the same as unknown, then you acted one way. If they were not the same, then you acted another way. The activity of making such decisions is the activity called thinking.

Thanks to Ayn Rand, it is now possible to see the exact progression from perceiving to conceptualizing. Perception is the automatic integration of sense data into awareness of objects. It is limited to handling a few things at a time. When a consciousness is capable of regulating its own response to sense data, then similarity appears. By taking the mental action of making a unit, one puts similarity to use. When a group of similars gets concretized as a word, it is a concept. When a mind learns to form concepts, it can expand indefinitely.

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