Mental Action

Chapter 17

Problems! Problems! Life consists of problems. If getting out of bed in the morning is not a problem, then getting to bed at night is. If money is not a problem, then taxes are. If health is not a problem, then time is. If problems are not a problem, then boredom is.

An attitude toward problems is an attitude toward life. If mental action is nothing more than a figure of speech, then problem solving is one of the great mysteries of life—and life is a scary business. Or, if a mental action is a skill to be mastered and enjoyed, then problem solving is one of the great joys of life—and life is a joyous adventure.

Animals overcome obstacles by using whatever abilities are built in. Conscious animals have an advantage: perception. Man has a further advantage: conceptualizing. Obstacles become problems, and problems get broken down into smaller problems. For man, there is no such thing as a problem too big to solve.

When the conceptual method is regarded as a method of solving problems, it is called analysis. To analyze is to concentrate conceptual skills on a specific area for a specific purpose.

One could easily make a numbered list of the steps in an analysis:

  1. Identify the subject.
  2. Separate the subject into constituent elements.
  3. Determine the nature of each element.
  4. Observe the relationships among the elements.

The trouble with such a list is that it is quasi-perceptual. It is this, and then that. To grasp the actual process, one needs to imagine the list telescoped together. The process is identification—sorting things out. One explores the identity of the subject, in its context, including the nature of each constituent element and the interrelationships of the elements.

To see how the idea of analyzing things connects to our image of a child sorting blocks into piles, imagine that the problem to be solved is a jigsaw puzzle. You can pick a piece at random, and try to match another piece to it, one and then another, and then another. Or, you can analyze. You can look for similarities among the pieces. Blue ones might go together up there for sky; green ones down here for grass. If you have in mind the final picture, then you estimate where the pieces would fit. If you don't, then you think of possible pictures. You examine each component as a separate thing, in relation to all the other separate things, in the context of making a total picture.

Analysis can be analyzed into those three elements: component, relationship, context. The secret is to be conceptual: examine each in the light of the others. Analysis is usually thought of as zooming in on the details of a problem. It also zooms out to regard the problem as a detail of a larger picture—the context. If, for example, the car won't start, you zoom in on the electrical system and the fuel system; but you also zoom out. How cold did it get last night? Did somebody forget to fill the gas tank?

When problem solvers have trouble explaining how they analyze problems, this two-way zoom is the reason. It does not fit the quasi-perceptual models imposed on us by our teachers. Listing the steps does not explain the process. "Once I had everything sorted out," says the analyst, "the solution appeared." "But what were the findings?" says the critic. "Show me the numbers. Lay out the steps."

Analysis often fails just because it lays out the steps. Making a list of parts is not analysis. Listing causes is not analysis. Blood is not being analyzed when it is put through tests to determine the glucose level, and the triglyceride level, and the cholesterol level. It is being observed. Data is being collected. The analysis takes place when this data is compared with past data and normative data, in the context of everything known and everything to be determined about the owner of the blood.

To make this vital point clear, think again of the jigsaw puzzle. To solve it, I have to fit the pieces together into a picture. If I follow a common idea of analysis, I will examine each piece separately. I will number the pieces so I can keep track of them. I will write down on a lab report a minute description of each piece. I will feed this data into a computer programmed to discover patterns in the data. I will end up knowing everything about the pieces except how to fit them together into a picture.

Or, I can use the conceptual method. I can examine each piece in relation to the other pieces, in relation to the problem of fitting them together, and in relation to the final picture. That is, I can sort them out. When I get them sorted out so that they form a picture, I will have the solution.

If we still haven't got the car started, we could "analyze" it by simply taking it apart, down to the smallest components. We could then examine each part and compare it to a new part fresh from the factory. Sooner or later—unless we lose track of things—we'll find the defective part. Aha! There is a leak in the gas tank. No wonder we smelled gas all the time.

Or, we can use the conceptual method. We can consider each interrelated part of the car in relation to the whole car, and in relation to our desire to get it to start, and in relation to all the evidence of our senses, like smell. We can keep all these things in mind at once because our method simplifies by combining and classifying. There is the fuel system, the electrical system, the drive train. We zoom out to smell gas, then zoom in to collect data in relation to that. By keeping everything sorted out, we keep it all in mind at once. Then we don't overlook the obvious.

The essence of analysis is contained in the fixit rule: take things apart in a way which ensures that you can put them back together again. That is, examine details while keeping them sorted out. In analyzing an argument, the question is not only, "Is this point valid?" but also, "What is the function of this point in the total argument?" In analyzing a movie, the question is not only, "Is this a good line?" but also, "How does this line work in the scene, and how does this scene advance the story?"

To the subjective mental arrangement, in which evaluation takes the place of similarity, analysis looks like divination. This kind of mind can consider only a few details at a time. A carburetor is not examined as part of a fuel system, but as this thing associated with the motor—along with that thing and that thing and that thing and that thing and that thing and that thing....

Ask a subjectivist what happened, and you'll get not facts but evaluations.

The subjectivist truly believes that he is telling you what happened. In his mind, the evaluation stands for the thing evaluated. He cannot begin to analyze what happened, because he has no context for it. He can zoom in on details, but he cannot zoom out, because he has no idea where this happening fits in with other happenings.

Notice the similarity between the anti-conceptualist and the family dog.

The similarity is not accidental. Whenever things are not sorted out in your mind, then the only statements you can make about them are essentially like barks. They are sounds which signal approval or disapproval, interest or alarm. They can say nothing about relationships, context, or the nature of things.

The subjective manner of analysis, therefore, is agitation. When the subjectivist is stirring things up, having hysterics, or shouting demands, that is an attempt to figure things out. It is the attempt to sort things by scattering them at random. It is, in other words, panic.

This points up another advantage of analysis: it is the antithesis of panic. The stronger your habit of applying conceptual skills to particular problems, the less your likelihood of going into panic. To panic is to give up on the conceptual method, and act at random.

When you practice conceptual skills, and practice how to apply them in every instance—and form the habit of applying them—then you have the habit of analyzing things as a matter of course. You look at details, relationships, and broad contexts all at once. Does that sound complicated? Well, is it complicated to fix dinner? To do that, you must look at tiny details, big relationships, and several contexts — all at once. That is also what you must do to fix Foreign Relations, to understand Justice, to solve problems of Ethics.

The advantage of dinner is its lower level of abstraction. It sits there in front of you, helping to keep as if connected to it is. For higher abstractions, you need methods to keep the connection to observed reality—methods like hierarchy, essence and definition. These are ways of using the conceptual method to keep clear on your use of the conceptual method.

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