by Thomas M. Miovas, Jr.
“Psycho-epistemology” is one of those words that shows up in the Ayn Rand / Objectivist literature and seems to throw a lot of people off, since it is a big word and not found anywhere else. “Psycho-epistemology is the study of man’s cognitive processes from the aspect of the interaction between the conscious mind and the automatic functions of the subconscious. “Psycho-epistemology,” a term coined by Ayn Rand, pertains not to the content of a man’s ideas, but to his method of awareness, i.e., the method by which his mind habitually deals with its content.” [from the Lexicon]. As far as I know, she uses the word first in The Romantic Manifesto regarding art, both for its creation and its understanding.
Psycho-epistemology is a combination of two words, “psychology” (dealing with man’s subconscious) and “epistemology” (the study of man’s conscious mind). In a way, one can consider those mental functions which are semi-automatic to be in the domain of psycho-epistemology. Take driving, for example. When one first learns how to drive, a great deal of conscious attention must be exercised so that one can keep control of the vehicle and not get into a wreck. After a while and through continuous driving, the effort to keep control of the car becomes semi-automatic – that is, one must still pay attention to the road, but one no longer has to give oneself explicit instructions to turn to the right or the left, to press the gas pedal, or to hit the brakes. One’s conscious awareness is directed at the road, but driving per se is done in an automatized manner: It becomes habitual.
Learning a language and learning how to walk, all done at a very early age for most of us, is psycho-epistemological. Like driving, the various mental habits and muscle co-ordinations take time to become automatized, but as an adult, one does not have to be consciously aware of using a specific language or moving one’s legs in a certain way to walk. Basically, once it has been automatized, it just happens.
More specifically, psycho-epistemology has to do with one’s mental habits when considering a topic. For example, let’s say one reads a headline that says, “Israel Stations 75,000 Troops at the Border.” If one is rational, one seeks to identify the facts of the case, to semi-automatically bring up memories of the conflict between Israel and Hamas around the Gaza Strip. By doing this, one can assess whether or not the headline is appropriate, or if it should have stated, “Gaza Hamas Continues to Fire 10,000 Rockets into Israel.” This comes about due to the mental habit of going to the facts. Another mental habit might be to semi-automatically go to floating principles, such as trying to be fair to both sides to demonstrate that neither side is wholly in the right on the issue, as a recent news story following that original headline revealed. Trying to be fair, rather than being on the side of total justice, is a mental habit brought about by attempting to be “politically correct” in all matters (not taking sides in any political conflict). Yet another mental habit would be to go by one’s emotional reaction to the headline, which might be anger that Israel is preparing to attack Gaza or joy that they are finally going to take on their enemies as they have a right to do.
So, psycho-epistemology is something one does all the time, it just sounds big and cumbersome because Miss Rand combined two words that already existed (she was against neo-logism or coining new terms unless it was absolutely necessary). Regarding art, where she first mentions it, psycho-epistemology has to do with the semi-automatic or automatized mental processes of the artist creating the art. Does he bring forth mentally those aspect of the subject that best concretizes or makes real that which he is trying to convey – i. e. the facts that observed would lead the viewer to understand his intent? Or does he go by the method he was taught as a floating principle not connected to the facts or the case being presented? Or does he go by his emotions, conveying things in a hap-hazard kind of way because they seem to fit together because he has the same emotional reaction to each of the items presented?
These types of mental habits and a similar automatized reaction by the viewer identifies the nature of the art conveyed by the artist and the nature of the response to the art by the viewer. Both are counting on semi-automatic mental processes which can be difficult to explicitly identified without a good instructor who knows not only artistic techniques of rendering things real on canvas, say, but also the mental habits that must be developed to be able to convey what is on one’s mind as one begins the process of creating a work of art.
Miss Rand goes into the issues in some detail in The Romantic Manifesto; and I recommend it highly to anyone interested in the arts, both as the producer of the art and the enjoyer of the final product.