Mental Skill

Chapter 6

If the essence of mental skill is the ability to see each thing in the light of all things, then the essential method is orderly classification. To see why this is so, ask yourself how it happens that no matter how fast you talk, words are available as needed. It is not necessary to stop and search out the place in memory where the next needed word resides. Having a thought and expressing it are not separate actions, but part of the same action. A word is there to be said because it is there to be thought.

The reason for this is obvious: thoughts are connected. One moment's thought is connected to the next moment's thought. Since you know the connection, you know the next word. Not just any random word comes to mind, but the logical word. In order to utter a coherent sentence, you must have a coherent thought, which requires an orderly process rather than a random process.

The process is orderly, but not static. When thinking, you are differentiating and integrating—taking things apart and putting them together. You are classifying from one angle, then reclassifying from another angle, then identifying the result of comparing the angles. Note the changing identifications in this example:

"This is Helen. She is my wife. She is the mother of our kids. She is a great cook—but she is not just a housewife; she is a breadwinner also. Without her, I'd be a bum instead of a law student, happy father, and Little-League coach."

The same thing can be classified any number of ways, on condition that none of the classes are mutually exclusive. If I say, "He may be rich but he's still a bum," you know that bum is a figure of speech. I cannot be saying that he has lots of money but no money, that he has a big house but no house, that he has cars but no cars. Contradictory identifications cancel out. Any thought process based on them comes to nothing.

If a politician said that next year the government will take in less money but give away more money, the contradiction would be plain. So he says that the government will take less money from you, and still give away more money. He hopes you think others will pay more. He uses ambiguity to disguise the contradiction. If in your mind there are many ambiguously defined concepts, then there could be many unnoticed contradictions.

Contradictory thoughts cause trouble whether noticed or not, because actions based on those thoughts clash. So an important mental skill is logic, the ability to avoid contradictions.

A contradiction is a bogus identification. It tries to put a subject into and out of the same classification at the same time. So it is a default on the basic conceptual method of making concepts and using them to make identifications. An undisguised contradiction is therefore rejected by the act of recognizing it, which is the act of classifying it as a mistake. So the art of logic is the art of removing disguises.

The traditional method for doing this is the syllogism. An argument is first reduced to essentials, then stated in outline form: since this and this, then that. Since all men are mortal, and I am a man, then I am mortal. The conclusion follows from the premises to avoid contradiction. Thus to note that men are mortal, and I am a man, is to identify myself as a mortal man. If the conclusion denies this, that is trying to take myself out of the class I am putting myself in. Stating it in the form of the syllogism makes it obvious.

The syllogism works because one premise contains or excludes the other, and the conclusion affirms that fact. If I am contained within the class of mortals, then I am mortal. This is deduction, the process of applying known truth to a particular case. Arranged as a syllogism, the elements of a deduction nest together. If the fit is faulty, then a contradiction is unmasked.

Here's an argument to analyze: "You say that my conclusion is not true, in spite of the fact that you cannot find a contradiction in my argument! You can't do that! If you can't find a contradiction, you have to admit that what I say corresponds to reality!"

The essence of the argument is that when contradictions are absent from the argument, then truth, defined as correspondence to reality, is present. In outline form, it looks like this:

All contradictory arguments are false.
My argument is not contradictory.
Therefore, it is not false.

An advantage of the outline form is that you can plug in other statements to check the fit. Let's try that here:

All lies are false.
What I said is not a lie.
So it is not false.

That fails to fit. Lies are false, but so are mistakes and a lot of other things. What I said may not be contained as a lie, but it can still be contained as false in some other way, so it cannot be excluded from false. To make the syllogism work, it has to be changed this way:

Only lies are false.
What I said is not a lie.
So it is not false.

And the original has to be changed also:

Only contradictory arguments are false.
Mine is not contradictory.
Therefore, it is not false.

Now the elements fit together. The original argument contradicted itself, but the new argument does not. It just contradicts reality.

Using the rules of formal logic, you can rearrange all sorts of syllogisms to make sure they are not self-contradictory. Then you can compare them to reality. That comparison is the point. A perfected syllogism is not the end of the test, but the beginning of the test.

An internal contradiction cripples an argument. It renders the argument helpless to say whether or not an assertion corresponds to reality. But the absence of a contradiction does not settle the question; it makes the next step possible, which is to test for truth. What a syllogism says is that if the premises are true, then the conclusion follows. Logic, as Ayn Rand puts it, is the art of non-contradictory identification. It is used in proof, but it is not all there is to proof.


Logic can be practiced for its own sake, without comparing the results to reality. You consult a logic book, and follow the rules. It is excellent practice, as long as you keep in mind that the problems, and therefore the results, are arbitrary examples without necessary relation to reality. They are correct or incorrect, not true or false.

To practice syllogisms without learning formal rules, use the inclusion principle. When the wider premise includes the other, then it also includes the conclusion. When it excludes the other, then it excludes the conclusion. The thing to check is how genuine the inclusion or exclusion is.

If all philosophers are writers, and I am a writer, then am I included as a philosopher? No; I would be included only if all writers are philosophers. If no philosophers are writers, and I am a writer, does that exclude me from the ranks of the philosophers? Yes. What if no philosophers are not writers, and I am a writer? What if no philosophers are not writers, and I am not a writer? The practice consists in making up ever more complicated examples, and deciding if inclusion or exclusion is genuine or bogus.

Mental skill is not omniscience. Getting every possible syllogism right is fine, but the real point is forming a habit of looking for disguised contradictions. If a particular form of the syllogism stumps you, just keep plugging different examples into the form. When you hit on an example that connects to your knowledge of reality, then the answer will turn obvious.

To practice logic without using syllogisms at all, practice reducing arguments to essentials. Contradictions are hidden most often by complexity. Finding the essence clears up the complexity and tends to reveal any contradiction.

Local politicians, for example, are fond of making a distinction between taxes and fees. "We would not think of raising your taxes," they say. "Instead, we will charge a road-maintenance fee, a street-lighting fee, and an animal-control fee. These are all things the city does that cost money, so we'll be good capitalists and charge for them."

To form the concept tax, you look among the payments you make, and pick out the ones you make because the government gives you no choice. That is the essence of tax—forced payment. Is the mayor saying that his fees will be voluntary? If not, then the word is a trick, and the argument is a contradiction: "Instead of making you pay, we will make you pay."

Remember that a contradiction is a phony identification. When you practice finding contradictions, you are not practicing a parlor game, but a vital survival skill of making accurate identifications.

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