XX. The Intellect

Intellect is vaguely defined as the faculty of the human mind that understands, rather than merely senses or feels. It distinguishes knowledge from emotions and feelings.

The difficulty in this classification is that it treats the three as separate things when in reality they are highly interdependent. We must sense in order to understand them, understand them in order to have feelings about them. If this is not understood, then the very nature of sense, thought, and feeling are not understood.

In the discussion about perception, it was concluded that our perception of the world depends on our knowledge of it. The panorama that constantly presents itself to our sight is a chaos of colors and shapes until the mind recognizes them - sorts them into objects, and is aware of their characteristics and behaviors. We do not see a horse, but we interpret the colors and shapes we see as being a horse. And so, intellect guides of basic perception of the world.

We have also seen that our feelings are trained by the intellect. Any object we recognize is regarded neutrally unless it is understood and suspected to represent an opportunity or a threat. We cannot have feelings, in any meaningful or functional way, without first having an intellectual understanding of the things we recognize. Although in some instances our understanding may be imperfect - we may misunderstand, and feel as a reaction to our misunderstanding rather than to the true nature of things.

For the lesser species of animal, instinct substitutes fro intellect. An animal cannot ponder the meaning of what it perceives, but reacts according to pre-programmed instructions of its instinct which it has little ability to change - though in the higher mammals we recognize the ability to become trained, intentionally or by happenstance, to deviate from their internal programming to some degree.

What is unique to human beings is the ability to think and to understand concepts. A dog may learn that an object taken out of a furnace is hot only by feeling the heat and the pain that it causes - it is only once the creature experiences this sensation that it comes to recognize that small objects taken out of a particularly large object are to be avoided, and it often takes several repetitions for the notion to become ingrained. A man can understands the function of the furnace and the properties of heat on an intellectual level, and does not ever need to touch the object to recognize the consequences he will suffer if he comes into contact with it. He does not need ever to have had a sensory experience, but may have read about it or been told by another person.

Most people give little thought to the process of thinking - they think because they think, in the same way that they breathe because they breathe - it is automated, and receives little attention and therefore benefits from little refinement. In this sense, the intellectual person is likened to a swimmer, who has learned to control his breathing in order to achieve better results when it is necessary to do so.


Thinking is an activity that is difficult to describe because it lacks a physical component. Any other action can be described by the motion of the body or the actions that take place in organs and tissues - but it is difficult to define thinking in a manner that does not become circular: "to think is to have thoughts" is a tautology. Atkinson attempts to define it in terms of mental activities:

  1. Comparing our perceptions and memories of things with one another, noting likenesses and differences
  2. Recognizing the relationships among concepts, either sorting them into categories, hierarchies, or other structures
  3. Developing abstract and symbolic concepts that describe the characteristics, behaviors, and purposes of things
  4. Using the understanding of things and their relationships to form inferences into things that are not known through sensory experience
  5. Forming basic hypotheses and then deducing more complex judgments upon them
  6. "And so on"

Thinking is the faculty that enables man to benefit from experience: to process the information he receives to form ideas about things he has not experienced and in some instances never can experience. Thinking also allows one human mind to receive information from others without having first-hand experience. Thinking brings the experience of the past to bear in the future, in situations that do not exactly match those in which the knowledge was gained.


A concept is the element of thought. The idea of a thing, or an action, or a quality, or a relationship is a concept which may have originated in sensory experience, but which has been abstracted from the qualities of that experience.

Most terms express concepts: a horse is a thing, and we may have a memory of a specific horse. But we also have an understanding of what a horse is - its physical and behavioral characteristics - that is independent of our experience of any specific horse. It is composed of an amalgam of specific memories, but is also influenced by descriptions or images, that is expected to provide a general description of the genuine article. Even a person who has never seen a horse may understand what the horse is from having heard them described by another person.

Atkinson suggests a five-step process of concept formation:

  1. We perceive a number of things, either directly (through the senses) or indirectly (reports from other minds)
  2. We recognize the multiple instances of a thing as similar, yet differentiated from other things, such that we begin to form the idea that it is a thing unto itself, to be classified separately.
  3. We recognize certain qualities about these things - properties, attributes, characteristics, and the like - that we come to associate with the thing
  4. We generalize the perceived qualities about these things. We recognize that all things of this kind have certain qualities to some degree, though they differ in the degree to which they represent them
  5. We now understand the thing, and give it a specific name, to which we associate the qualifying qualities that cause us to recognize something as belonging to the concept and the incidental qualities that may be possessed, but are not firm criteria for exclusion.

There is an example of the concept of a "bird." There are certain qualities that we observe about an object we perceive that cause us to think it is a bird (it is a creature, it has feathers, it flies, it has a certain shape, it exhibits certain behaviors, etc.), and other qualities that we consider incidental to its bird-ness (if we have only seen brown birds and what we now see is red, we consider color to be incidental and what we see is still a bird).

But concepts need not be concrete - as actions are characteristics. We know what it is meant by flight, and we can name various creatures and objects who fly, but we have never seen flight as an thing independent of an object. We know what is meant by beauty or justice, but struggle to describe these concepts without reference to things or situations that demonstrate them. Much of argument is the result of two minds trying to arrive at a common understanding of an abstract concept.