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Thinking and Acting in the World

by Thomas M. Miovas, Jr.

Reposted and Modified 01/27/2014

The concept “cognition” is one of those interesting ones that has changed meaning over time depending on the primary philosopher that is dominant in one’s culture. For a long time, via Plato, cognition meant thinking about something in one’s own mind in a logical manner without necessarily taking explicit facts and experience into account. In Objectivism, this is known as rationalism, and is frowned upon because we have a different understanding of cognition that at least partially stems from Aristotle. In both Aristotle and Objectivism, cognition means not only considering something in one’s head based on some spurious insights one might have based on who knows what, but rather it means identifying the facts of reality in a non-contradictory manner (being logical) and acting through one’s purpose based upon one’s understanding of those facts that one observes about the world in general.

For example, in Plato’s world view, thinking about what to have for dinner or the perfect dinner is not something one would necessarily even act upon to actually have for dinner. In fact, what to have for dinner is such a mundane thing to do, according to the Platonists, that not much thought should go into it at all. Thinking or cognition for this sort of mind-set is really a type of fantasizing about the perfect this or the perfect that without taking the actions necessary to bring it into fruition. In Aristotle and in Objectivism, we hold that pursuing values in a rational sense, of actually conceiving of what is a value based on a standard and acting to accomplish it is an act of cognition – the whole thing, from thought to action, to following through, to getting the value.

For example, I had a gift card from Applebee’s I got for Christmas this past year, and I decided I wanted to go out to dinner and use that card. If that is as far as it had gotten, then no real cognition was used. I would have been fantasizing about having a wonderfully delicious lunch at a restaurant. In order for me to be fully cognitive, I had to think about what I wanted, how I was going to pay for it, how I was going to get there, get in my car, drive to Applebee’s, look at the menu, order lunch, and enjoy eating it – all of this from start to finish is really one cognitive act in those philosophies that are both logical and reality oriented.

This is a really important consideration when one is talking about values greater than simply what to have for lunch. Whether it is one’s career or spouse or house or neighborhood or some other great value in life, merely moving it around in one’s head as one sits at a desk is not sufficient to living one’s life in a rational manner. One must think, plan, keep the whole context in mind, along with one’s purpose, and act to obtain the value, and then have it and either utilize it or maintain it for one to be cognitive. The point is that the whole reason man has a mind such as he has is that it is there for you to be able to better live your own life, and not to just fantasize about what you might want to have in your life that you may or may not be willing to act upon.

For example, sex is a high value in Objectivism, but sitting around and fantasizing without actually going out and finding a suitable partner is really just fantasizing. I think this is understood for the most part in our culture; though it is not applied consistently throughout all the great values one can understand and pursue in the world.

Being cognitive is a full-time proposition – in all hours when one is awake and alert and living one’s own life. Rationality as a primary virtue in Objectivism means that one must go by reason rather than emotion. While emotions are a handy indicator of what your values are by experience according to one's sub-consciously held value premises, one's emotions are not automatically geared towards man's life as the standard nor automatically geared to your own life as the standard – one must be rational, cognitive, and value oriented at all times in order to pursue those values which are actually good for you by a rational standard. This is basically the biological necessity brought about because man has a volitional consciousness. Because man has free will he must figure out how to live his life according to the proper principles based upon the facts of man and the facts of reality and integrate the two together into one conception – full cognition on all levels.



This work of art (Gernerator) commissioned by the Quent Cordair Art Gallery I think is a great representation and concretization of the concept of cognition as I used it above and for having a rational purpose. Made from Acrylic by Michael Wilkinson, it depicts a single individual reaching up to turn on a light or flipping a switch. What he is reaching for or trying to activate is his mind, symbolized by the sign of the dollar, the product of man's mind on Earth. Integrated with this feature of a single finger and hand is the overall shape of the work of art, which is in the shape of a light bulb -- understood as a universal symbol for having a great idea.

Turn on your mind!

Contrast the above about cognition with Ayn Rand's handling and explanation of the role of emotions in a man's life:

"Man is born with an emotional mechanism, just as he is born with a cognitive mechanism; but, at birth, both are “tabula rasa.” It is man’s cognitive faculty, his mind, that determines the content of both. Man’s emotional mechanism is like an electronic computer, which his mind has to program—and the programming consists of the values his mind chooses.

But since the work of man’s mind is not automatic, his values, like all his premises, are the product either of his thinking or of his evasions: man chooses his values by a conscious process of thought—or accepts them by default, by subconscious associations, on faith, on someone’s authority, by some form of social osmosis or blind imitation. Emotions are produced by man’s premises, held consciously or subconsciously, explicitly or implicitly."