Philosophy against Misosophy


Brand Blanshard at Swarthmore (1930s?)


Essays by Me

Essays by Others

First published in The Journal of Philosophy, 38, April 10, 1941, pp. 207-216; anthologized in American Philosophers at Work: The Philosophic Scene in the United States, Sidney Hook, ed., New York: Criterion Books, 1956, 183-193.


The Nature of Mind

Brand Blanshard

By “mind” most people mean conscious-ness.  As examples of the mental, they would take pleasures and pains, loves and hates, pur-poses, memories, and desires.  And conscious-ness––what is that?  They would be unable to say; but they would be untroubled by this, and rightly enough, for there are plenty of things whose meaning is clear and familiar that we cannot define.  And whether we can define con-sciousness or not, we can readily convey what we mean by it to another; for example, it is what makes the difference between being awake and sound asleep.  And the natural first question to ask is whether consciousness is what we mean by mind.

I do not think it is.  I agree that all con-sciousness is mental; what is doubtful is whe-ther all that is mental is conscious.  Take a case in point.  Some time ago I was discussing with a discriminating friend the achievements of the so-called unconscious self.  He told me that, being puzzled once as to the demonstration of some theorem in geometry, he went to bed with the problem unsolved.  The next morning he found the demonstration written out on the table at his bedside.  His memory was clear that he had left the problem unsolved the night be-fore; the writing was unmistakably his own; and there was only one plausible explanation:  he had got up in his sleep and written the solution down.  This kind of performance, though not perhaps common, has been made familiar to us through Professor D. Lowes’ researches on Coleridge, and through such extended inquiries as those of Morton Prince and Freud.  Not that in all cases the performance in unconscious; sometimes it occurs in a dream that can be re-called on waking; sometimes there is a process of co-consciousness that is to be recovered, if at all, by technical methods only.  But the pro-cess does appear on occasion to be genuinely unconscious, Freud thought very frequently so.  If and where it is, what are we to say about its being mental?  Are we to say of the elaborating of a conclusion or the composing of a lyric that it is not a mental process at all?  Of course we can make the word “mental” mean what we wish.  But the issue is more than verbal.  If we call some processes mental and some not, it is be-cause between them we find a chasm placed by nature.  Such activities as inference and artistic invention seem to belong to mind so clearly, whether verifiable as conscious or not, that I prefer to place them there at the outset and make the definition of mind conform, rather than to define mind independently and force our natural classification into line.

If we are willing to start from this natural classification, our question becomes this:  Is there any characteristic which is always pre-sent, and which alone is always present, where mind is recognized?  Take some cases at ran-dom in which people would generally agree that in some measure or other mind was present and active.  A philosopher is philosophizing; a householder is making a budget; a sculptor is carving a clock; a poet, asleep or awake, is con-triving a poem; an infant is crying for the moon; a dog is sniffing at a hole; a bee is hunting, or apparently hunting, nectar. We should be less sure in the last cases than in the first that mind was at work; but I do not think we should regard any of these cases or levels as simply and to-tally mindless.  Regarding any such series we must ask:  Is there anything universally and ex-clusively present that we can fix on as the com-mon and essential feature of mind?

My own answer is Yes:  wherever mind is present, there the pursuit of ends is present.  Wherever that pursuit is wholly absent, mind is absent. And when mind is present, it is present precisely in the degree to which ends are in con-trol.

Let us revert to our cases.  I should say that in all of them ends are being pursued, but not in the same sense or the same way.  Ordinarily when we speak of anyone as engaging in such pursuit, we imply that he takes thought of what he wants and deliberately appoints his means with reference to it.  The householder who ar-ranges his budget is aiming at a target in full view, namely, the bringing of his expenses with-in a limit that is clearly defined.  The poet who is writing a sonnet has in mind a poem of a certain length and structure, and the character of this whole presides over his selection of words and images.  It is such behavior that we commonly mean when we speak of purposive process––behavior, that is, in which the controlling pur-pose is definite and explicit.

Now we find this kind of behavior, not on the lower levels only, but at every level in the scale of mind. Mental activity is the sort of activity everywhere whose reach exceeds its grasp.  So far as is now known, human beings top the scale; but when a man makes a choice––say of one action rather than another as the right one––can he give any adequate account of why he chooses it?  Quite possibly he could take a step or two ahead; he wanted to better his business or home or income.  But if pressed as to why he wanted this, and why he wanted the further end that this in turn subserved, he would soon falter.  This does not imply that his choice is unwise, or even that it is not firmly guided; the saint who has the surest sort of practical judg-ment may cut a very poor figure when he philo-sophizes on ultimate good.  But we may go much further than this.  Even in our clearest cases of purposive action, there is a large ele-ment of this mysterious kind of end-seeking.  When a philosopher philosophizes, he is trying to solve a problem, and he is anyone should know what he is about.  Does he?  The Greeks had a dilemma for it:  If the man who seeks after truth knows what he wants, there is no use seeking, for he has it already; and if doesn’t know what he wants, he won’t recognize it when he finds it.  Their answer to this puzzle, of course, was that he may know in general what he wants without knowing in detail, and that this general end is enough to guide his search and check it.  The answer is sound so far as it goes.  But need even this general end be explicit?  And whether it is or not, how can so vague and end exert a control so firm and precise over the course of its realization?

Reflection on such problems would carry us deep, I think, into the nature of mind.  To be sure, there may seem at first to be no problem at all.  When we are given the premises of a syl-logism and required to draw the conclusion, it may be said that we know quite well what the form of the syllogism is, and that with this form or pattern before us, we simply hew to the line.  But half the time this is false to fact.  Introspec-tion shows that the form or pattern is often ab-sent, and that we hew to the line without it.  We see afterward that our thought did conform to the pattern, but the pattern is a later abstrac-tion from the process, not the chart which guided its course.  It may be said that such thought is not a case of control by ends at all, but a following of the track of habit.  But thought is never mere habit, even on the level of syllo-gism; and it is obviously more when it breaks new ground.

From the lowest level to the highest, then, in the scale of mind, we find teleology, not the kind of teleology that is found in explicit purpose, but something more generic.  Can we say what this it?  If we can, we shall have caught the common and distinguishing feature of mental process.  We must see what we can do.

The irreducible facts we must start with are, first, that there is a great range of processes whose course is determined with reference to, and in some sense by, an end, and second, that this end is not consciously there to exert con-trol.  These facts force us on, I think, to the no-tion of an immanent end, an implicit end, an end that can lay compulsion on conscious processes without being conscious itself.

Philosophers commonly shy away from this notion.  Behavior that is expressly purposive they recognize and in a measure understand; behavior that is mechanical they often think they understand better; but behavior that is purposive without purpose sounds so mon-strous that they avert their eyes and withdraw.  The psychologist, however, do not.  Whether from moral courage or from metaphysical in-nocence, they dash in with abandon where the philosophers fear to tread, and are soon talking in accents heard by all, except perhaps the phi-losophers, about unconscious fears, desires, and memories.  If a philosopher here or there does take notice, he probably remarks that these things are meaningless.  To which the psychologist replies, “It is no more our business to say what these things really are than it is of the physicist to say what a photon is; if he finds that there are x’s that behave in a certain way, he has done his job; and so of us.  People in fact behave as if unconscious ends controlled them; for us that is enough; whether it makes specu-lative sense is for you to say, and instead of facing the issue, you avert your eyes and look pained.”  There is force in this rejoinder.  If in-duction compels us, as I think it does, to say that mind is teleological process of the type de-scribed, in which there is control by implicit ends, the it is clearly of the utmost importance to make philosophical sense of it.

Now I think that if we are going to make sense of it we must return to a conception of Ar-istotle which he represents in the De Anima as essential to the understanding of mind, and which he stresses again in the Metaphysics.  We must regard mind as a process in which the po-tential realizes or actualizes itself.  It is the sort of process in which that which is to be deter-mines, in part, the course of its coming to be. Mind acts as it does because pressing in and through the present is a world that clamors to be born. Is it replied that only the actual can act, and that the notion that what is not yet ex-istent can influence what is is nonsense?  I an-swer that this reply rests on a notion of the ex-istent and actual that will not stand.  I agree that so far as the actual does act, it does so in virtue of its character. But what is the character possessed at any given moment by a truly de-veloping thing?  A shoot appears above the earth, and you ask what sort of plant it is.  The answer comes, It is the shoot of a cornstalk or an elm tree.  Would you reply that this intro-duces irrelevance, since the shoot is not yet an elm tree, but only the possibility of one?  But so to conceive it is still to conceive it with refer-ence to what it is becoming.  Strip off that refer-ence, conceive it not as an incipient elm, but simply as a pattern of cells whose changes are without directive impulse, and would you have a better idea or a worse of what the thing now it?  You would have a worse, because, present in the thing that now is, making it what it is, con-trolling the course of its change, is a special im-pulsion or drive that cannot be conceived ex-cept as a drive toward a special end.  This is suggested in our speech; we say, that is an elm tree shoot, identifying what it is through what it is becoming, and suggesting that if we are to understand its present nature, we must grasp that nature as the imperfectly realized form of something else.  This is true always of what de-velops, and true only of this.  A ball of putty can be conceived without reference to anything that, in course of molding, it may become.  What develops cannot be conceived except as the partial realization of that which as fully ac-tual, is yet to be.

Now mind, at all of its levels and in all of its manifestations, is a process of this kind.  And since this is what I mean by conative process, I can agree with Mr. W. H. Sheldon that mind is essentially conative.  May one go further with him and say that mind is secondarily cognitive?  Yes, if this means that knowing is a less funda-mental, because less universal, mental process than conation is.  No, if it implies that cognition and conation are fundamentally different.  For in my view mind is conation; all mental processes reduce to it.

This obviously needs defense.  But it needs defense far more in respect to some processes than to others.  Regarding volition, affection, and emotion, one may argue with some plausi-bility that they are aspects of conation, but to say that cognition in all its forms is a conatus toward an end appears less credible.  Since I hold that cognition is just this from first to last, it may be well take some central cognitive pro-cess and show that it is unintelligible unless taken as the realizing of an immanent end.  I should be willing to rest my case on any process that is clearly cognitive, but let us take one that will not be challenge don that ground and is of great interest in itself, the process of inference.

Suppose a crime has occurred and a detec-tive is called in to solve it.  What does he do?  Normally he begins by gathering evidence through observation and inquiry; on the basis of this evidence he forms one or more hypotheses; these hypotheses he then tests till one of them proves satisfactory.  Now none of these steps can be understood unless the movement of thought is taken as under control by an end.  The first two steps are those of what James described as sagacity and inference proper.  Sa-gacity consists in seeing what evidence bears on the case, what is evidence in the case.  If the expert consulted happens to be Watson, he will make a laborious and largely irrelevant cata-logue of details; if it is the great Sherlock him-self, his selection will be at once narrower and broader, narrower because much of Watson’s detail will be for him superfluous baggage, broader because details offer themselves as re-levant which Watson would never have noticed.  Why is it that Holmes selects the right things for notice, while Watson does not?  It is more than a matter of past experience, for a wealth of this without sagacity may fail, while a very little of it with sagacity may succeed.  We can only say that working in and through the better obser-vation is a more exacting ideal of relevance.  In some instances this is perfectly clear.  Perhaps the main contribution of Aristotle to induction was the insight that where, in observation, nous or intellect was really active, there was no need for it to wait to pile up instance in order, by as-sociation and dissociation, to bare the nerve of a connection; it could seize the connection di-rectly, as when the schoolboy sees that straightness of line in the triangle before him bears on its geometrical properties, while red-ness and largeness do not.   The norm or rele-vance that is at work in his mind he is no doubt unable to define; it may work less effectively in some minds than in others; in even the best minds it works variably, as when Aristotle thought he saw the same sort of connection be-tween humanity and mortality that he saw be-tween two fives and a ten.  But this leaves the result still standing that the selective obser-vation which is normally the base of inference is under the control and guidance of an immanent ideal of relevance.

Now when a certain amount of evidence has been collected, thought leaps to a hypothesis; this is the second step in the process; and it constitutes inference proper.  What determines the direction of this leap?  According to James’s famous chapter, it is similar association; the ef-fective reasoner is the man who is prodigal of analogies, good, bad, and indifferent, between which, once they are laid out before him, he goes on to choose.  But surely this is just how a mind in command of its matter does not work.  If the suggestions turned up by analogy are really random, thought is at sea with no rudder; there is no reasoning at all.  If the analogies are in point, the connection that is being sought is present in all of them, and it is more natural to suppose that the presence of this connection within them had something to do with their arising than that, once arisen, they all disclosed it by sheer chance.  The working of analogy it-self rests on the working of an implicit logic.  Hence in favorable cases James’s paraphernalia of similars can be dispensed with, and we can go to our result directly.  When the conditions of a problem are precisely set out before a mathe-matician, he does not always need to go groping about for his result through a forest of meta-phors; if he can keep hold of the leading-string of logical implication, he may go straight from conditions to conclusion.  Nor does this occur only in regions of high abstractness.  When an intelligent detective leaps from the evidence given him to the solution of a crime, the move-ment of inference is as truly under the control of an implicit logic as the thought that deals with numbers or triangles.

It may be replied that logic is a set of time-less relations among concepts timeless them-selves, and that it never descends into the flux of events to control or divert the current.  It is eternal, and what is eternal does not act.  I ac-cept the first statement and reject the second.  Just as the form of a sonnet which, abstractly taken, is eternal does, when present in a poet’s mind, preside over the work of composition, so logical implication may groove the channel for thought.  To me there is something absurd in saying that when you present a man with the premises of a syllogism and his thought leaps on to the conclusion, the fact that the premises implied the conclusion had nothing to do with its appearance.  The conclusion appeared precisely because he had succeeded in so surrendering his though to logic that implication took control.  Indeed it is only when we succeed in doing this that true inference occurs.

Both in the selection of evidence, then, and in the leap of inference by which that evidence is completed, there is at work an immanent lo-gical end. It is at work even more clearly in the third step, by which the inferred suggestion is tested.  To test anything is to measure it by a standard.  Without such a standard, testing would be meaningless. When do we take a prob-lem as solved?  When the relation between the solution we offer and the relevant evidence an-swers to our ideal of proof.  Present in the mind of the geometer, whether defined or not, is an ideal of demonstration which forbids rest in any theorem till it is connected systematically with the postulates of his system.  Present in the mind of the detective is a standard which tells him when the ring of evidence has snapped shut, which warns him that to stop earlier would be to fail, and that to continue afterward would, for the purpose in hand, be pointless.  I say “for the purpose in hand,” because it would be un-true to say that when we have satisfied our practical end, or the interest of the law, we have reached the goal of thought.  When the law has got its man, there remain a hundred points at which thought, seeking to understand, could still ask Why?  And when would thought as such be satisfied?  Only when it understood fully.  And when would it understand fully?  Only when no loose ends were left anywhere in the case––only, that is, when this occurrence, and that, and what led to each, and what led to that, were made intelligible, which means satisfactory to reason, which means in turn logically neces-sary.  When would the end of all this be reached?  If I may be allowed to put without argument what elsewhere I have argued at length, only when there are no loose ends any-where, when all things existent or possible are caught in one web of necessity.

By taking inference as an example of cogni-tive process and showing that it is under the control of a secret ideal, I have been showing what I conceive mind to be on its intellectual side.  A teleological process, I said, must be ap-prehended through its end.  It now appears that mind on the cognitive side is a process of realiz-ing the kind of system in which nothing is omit-ted and nothing is arbitrary.  What has been ex-hibited of inference, namely, the pressure in and through it of unrealized system, could be shown of any other cognitive process––perception, for example, or the entertaining of an idea, or the passing of a judgment.  To think in any form is to have put one’s foot on a rung of the ladder that leads to this far-off end; and mind is present precisely in the degree to which such system is embodied.  What the end is in detail we cannot see.  But at every level of thought we can feel its impulse, and our knowledge of what it is and what it asks of us grows clearer with every step of our approach.

But mind is not merely cognition.  Besides the pursuit of truth––if we may take a division that is useful, though neither exclusive nor ex-haustive––there is the pursuit of beauty and the pursuit of the moral ideal.  These are not ways of knowing.  But I should deal with them and with any other mental activity in the way I have just dealt with thinking.  They cannot be ex-plained by psychology, if this means a natural science of mind, for there is and can be no such science.  We have seen that thinking is a teleo-logical process laid under constraint by a logical end, and of the working of this end descriptive psychology knows nothing.  If we examined such aesthetic activities as painting, or carving, or composing in notes or verses, we should like-wise find that they are intelligible only by appre-hending what Professor Wolfgang Köhler calls “the place of value in a world of facts.”  So also of practical activity I mean, not mere play of arms and legs, but the direction and control of such play.  This direction is shown most typi-cally in the act of choice.  And what is choice?  To see it as one competing pull wining out in a tug of war, or as the resolution of a pencil of forces, is to look at it through distorting similes.  Choice is the election of a prospective course because it is conceived to embody an ideal of good more fully than alternative course.  Not that the ideal is clearly defined; that, as we have repeatedly seen, is needless.  But choice is meaningless unless the ideal is there.  The act thus conforms to our pattern.  It evinces mind because it evinces the kind of teleology in which an unexplicit end dominates the course of its own realization.

Mind, then, is not a single process, but a set of processes, a quiverful of arrows of desire. Do the arrows have one target or many?  The end of the theoretic impulse does not seem to be the same as that of the aesthetic, or either the same as the moral, or any of these the same as the hedonic.  It may be that there is no one goal of mind, that achievement of the moral end might leave the theoretic and aesthetic im-pulses unsatisfied, that the pursuits might even conflict and that the black and white horses of the soul, to use Plato’s figure, might break with each other and tear limb from limb their un-happy charioteer.  Mind has a tragic future if this is true.  Whether it is true can be found only by following the loadstones of the spirit where they lead, and seeing whether, as functions develop, they will diverge or will support each other.  I in-cline to believe the latter.  In the minds of the thinker, poet, and saint, it is not mind in three different senses that that is coming to be; it is mind in the same sense, but with emphases temporarily different.  If you ask what is the end of mind as such, as distinct from any function within it, I should give an answer which seems to me as inevitable in principle as it is unsatis-factory in its lack of detail; the end is an experi-ence in which the implicit demands of the differ-ent sides of our nature are all realized so far as consistency will allow.

To sum up:  mind is a set of processes distin-guished from others through their control by an immanent end.  At its lowest levels and its high-est its character is veiled from us.  At one ex-treme it dwindles into mere life, which is incipi-ent mind.  At the other extreme it vanishes in the clouds; it does not yet appear what we shall be.  Mind as it exists in ourselves is on an inter-mediate level.  It has achieved consciousness, but this consciousness is restlessly transform-ing itself under the spell of a secret end.  What is this end?  Our best clue is gained from study-ing that function which of all our mental func-tions has gone farthest toward its goal, the in-tellectual.  To follow that clue is to learn that mind is really mind to the extent that it achieves an experience at once comprehensive and ordered.

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