The abstract noun, 'mind', refers to no observable physical entity, no tangible or material thing, rather to a human faculty, or physiological activity, characterized by the activity of thinking, broadly defined. That broad definition of thinking includes, among numerous other abilities attributed to mind-as-agent, the human ability to experience events of reality consciously, non-consciously, and self-consciously, and the ability to express beliefs, desires, and other such so-called propositional attitudes.
Thinking generates mind as a concept with a thing-like quality (e.g., mind as machine), a result of the human disposition to nominalize actions, in this case to nominalize the action of the verb form of 'mind'—if you don't mind—which derives from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning 'to think, remember' (vide infra). The concept of mind cannot underpin the active process, thinking, that generates it.
Although an abstract concept, speakers of the English language readily learn the concept, and use it widely; it ranks between ca. 300-500 in frequency of use in written English.
To mind, or not to mind
In its verbal forms, too, 'mind' relates to the ability of humans to think, characterized by different aspects of the thinking process in different senses of the verb. Such verbal expressions as "mind what I tell you", "mind your own business", "minded the babysitter", "mind your manners", "he doesn't mind taking out the garbage" — typically refer to some aspect of thinking, or to a requirement for thinking, as indicated through paraphrasing the utterance in terms of thinking. "Mind what I tell you", for example, paraphrases to "Think about what I tell you, and think about the consequences of not doing so", in both expressions the precise aspect of 'thinking', or requirement for 'thinking', is given by the context embedding the utterance. "Mind the icy walkway", "think about how you walk on the icy path".
Consistent with 'mind' as originally a verb, semanticists do not find a noun form (mind, thought) universal among the world's languages, but do find the verb 'to think' such a lexical universal. 'Think' is a semantic primitive, a universal semantic primitive found in all the world's languages, whose meaning a child learns while learning to speak the language of its society, from the way its society uses the word. Semantic primitives provide a base set of words that allow all other words in the lexicon to be defined but cannot be defined themselves.. As a primitive, 'to think' cannot be defined in simpler terms, and has an equivalent in every language, having presumably composed part of the vocabulary of the language of the founders our present species.
Nominalization of verbs, typically creating an abstract entity, reifying the action/activity of the verb into a 'thing', appears as a natural tendency in humans, exemplified in such nominalizations/reifications as thinking to thought, living to life, experiencing consciously to consciousness. In the case of nominalizing minding to mind, studies of the nature and meaning of mind as noun often stray from considerations of the nature and meaning of the reality of the action of minding, or thinking, becoming abstracted into a non-physically observable, non-existent entity that is taken as performing the action.
The meaning of 'think'
'To think' cannot be defined in words that do not themselves ultimately require the word 'thinking' to define them non-circularly.
The status of 'thinking' as a semantic primitive, however, does not preclude philosophical, cognitive, neuroscientific, linguistic, anthropological, and artificial intelligence investigation of its evolutionary origins, its characteristics, its mechanisms of production, its scope, its levels of complexity, and its impact on the future of mankind. Those are some of the goals of the interdisciplinary field of Cognitive science.
Whether the mind does our thinking, or whether thinking generated the concepts of mind and thought, we would in either case require a clearer understanding of the spectrum of phenomena that qualify as thinking.
Philosopher Derek Melser gives thinking a broad scope:
By thinking we usually mean such activities as calculating, cogitating, pondering, musing, reflecting, meditating, and ruminating. But we might also mean any of a broader range of actions or activities (or dispositions, states, processes, or whatever). I mean remembering, intending, imagining, conceiving, believing, desiring, hoping, feeling emotion, empathizing, following what someone is saying, minding, being conscious of something, and so on….I would like to include all the above as “thinking.” The general term most philosophers would use is mental phenomena.... Derek Melser, The Act of Thinking
Mind and brain
The subjective experiences of consciousness are closely related to the concept of mind, and it is well established that there are neurological correlates of activities related to mind. It is also well known that "mind" is affected by conditioning, education, and by neurological malfunctions such as long-term depression and addiction.
The study of the relation between mind and brain is far from over, and is a subject that goes back to the dawn of human history. In philosophy it is labeled the mind-body problem and one aspect of it is the topic of free will, that is, among other things, debates over whether mind can have causal influence over the brain and our physical actions, and how mind relates to morality.
Notes and in-line citations
- See these web sites: Word Count., Word frequency lists and dictionary from the Corpus of Contemporary American English., SubtlexUS: American Word Frequencies.,Word Frequency List for English..
- Szasz, Thomas (2002). The Meaning of Mind: Language, Morality, and Neuroscience. Syracuse University Press, p. 1. ISBN 081560775X.
- Online Etymology Dictionary.
- Anna Wierzbicka (1996). Semantics: Primes and Universals. Oxford University Press, p. 9. ISBN 0198700032.
- A review of this matter is given by: Anna Wierzbicka (1996). Semantics: Primes and Universals. Oxford University Press, p. 48. ISBN 0198700032.
Melser, Derek (2004). The Act of Thinking. MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-13446-2. - TOC and link to PDF of Introduction: Is Thinking a Natural Process, or Is It an Action?
- From the publishers summary: [Melser] examines the developmental role of concerted activity, the token performance of concerted activity, the functions of speech, the mechanics and uses of covert tokening, empathy, the origins of solo action, the actional nature of perception, and various kinds and aspects of mature thinking. In addition, he analyzes the role of metaphors in the folk notion of mind.
- Tor Nørretranders (1998). The user illusion: Cutting consciousness down to size, Jonathan Sydenham translation of Maerk verden 1991 ed. Penguin Books. ISBN 00140230122.