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The Life of the Mind

Richard Ostrofsky (December, 2001)
By mind in the present context, I mean the conscious mind, ignoring all we now know about the self-organizing brain, and taking the phrase “unconscious mind” as something of an oxymoron. The life of the mind is concerned with the recognition of difference and similarity (based on supposedly essential or typical properties), with the fitting of things into labeled categories, and with the use of such categories in framing rules for dealing with particular things. Sometimes there is criticism of how other people have classified and framed their rules. Occasionally there is conscious effort to adjust, or metaphorically extend the categories themselves. Such adjustment happens mainly at a social level, however, beyond the awareness of most individuals. For most people, most of the time, the mind’s workings are primarily conservative, assimilating present experience to prior memories and concepts. But minds are also capable of both metaphorical and permutational novelty: Through the former, recognizing some subtle likeness or analogy, it can extend a given pattern into a new domain. The idea of the mind as a reflecting “mirror” might be mentioned as an example. Through its permutational capabilities, the mind can assemble familiar patterns in new ways – imagining things like unicorns and flying horses (or, eventually “horseless carriages” and airplanes), that were never seen before. With this basic equipment, the mind, spurred along by a valuing “spirit,” (see below, next article) does all the things that human minds do, and creates the world we know – from the real world, as a sort of raw material. Perhaps the most characteristic feature of human minds is our habit of story-telling. At all times and places, wherever minds are at play or work, we find a bewildering variety of narratives, always playing a similar role. A group’s stories reveal its world and its archetypal ways of living, to display a profound, imagined harmony between (what it understands of) the “natural order” and its prevailing social arrangements. Our dependence on these stories is the mind’s most conspicuous weakness. For it is all but impossible to see much more than our stories have led us to expect to see.

How then can we avoid the error of taking all we see for all there is? And, in our dealings with others, how shall we allow for the possibility that we may be limited, and even completely mistaken in our perceptions of them? It is always possible, after all, that people we think are wrong have seen some aspect that we ourselves have overlooked! Perhaps the central lesson of a good education is to accept, but not be paralyzed by our fundamental ignorance. A lifetime is certainly not long enough to encompass the range of human experience. It is not even long enough to learn the things we really need to know – things that would be greatly advantageous, even vital, in the lives we’re actually living. Constantly, we find ourselves in the position of taking decisions with no real understanding of the issues involved – understanding that will come only much later when the decisions themselves are beyond recall. Life keeps us in the dark, and rarely gives us second chances. And yet, we have to manage day by day, living boldly and confidently as if we actually knew what we were doing. At the same time, to have some chance of growth and further learning, we must not delude ourselves with false certainties. We must keep in mind how much we do not know. More generally: A good education is liberating. It teaches us to question authority, giving us need and permission to feel and think for ourselves, while giving us the tools and background to do so effectively. One type of poor education clutters the mind with other people’s ideas and values, without awakening the faculties of response and judgment. Another type merely empowers response and judgment without providing the tools or background to make these anything more than merely personal feelings and opinions. Under these conditions, feelings and opinions are scarcely worth having, since there is no reason why anyone–even you – should give them weight. The outcome of really good education is the ability to live according to our lights (as we say), confidently and tentatively at the same time, grasping that other people’s stories are as important to them as our own to us. “All very well,” we say, “but some story – very close to our own, most likely – must be the true one.” As long as people have had minds and used them we have thought this way – mistakenly. But “the truth,” it now appears, is not one story at all, but that structure of perception, concern and argument that a whole society develops and maintains.