Friday, March 27, 2009


It is astonishing, indeed revealing, what a lot of meanings a word like mind leaves in our dictionary—and meanings it leaves out. In Webster’s Collegiate (my 1967 copy) the word is defined as recollection, memory, an element (in individuals), conscious events and capabilities (in organisms), intention, desire, a condition (of mental faculties), opinion, view, disposition, and mood. There are other more derivative meanings in addition.

Concerning the definition of mind given above as an element, the exact words are these: “the element or complex of elements in individuals that feels, perceives, thinks, wills, and esp. reasons.” In this context element may be taken to mean a part or a function. In any case it is something that acts in certain ways.

The Latin root hidden deep under Old English and East and West Germanic derivations is mens, already meaning “mind.” The root of the Latin is the Greek menos meaning spirit. In romance languages like French the ancient meaning is carried forward; mind is esprit. In German the term is Geist; the word also means ghost or spirit. In German other words, including “soul,” are used as equivalents, the majority being narrower aspects of the mind. Hungarians, who speak my mother tongue, translate the English mind by using thirteen different words eleven of which, much as in our own definitions, are simply functions of consciousness; the two remaining words used are one that is “mind” as a single entity; the other one is “soul” or “spirit.”

Although we, as English-speakers, use the mind to include its richer connotations of something transcendent, our dictionaries are more piously coy and avoid linking mind and spirit except in often-skipped recitals of etymology. It’s slightly indecent in secular times even to suggest that something like “spirit” may be related to the mind, hence the use of words like “element”; it has a safely material connotation. The modern mind! This reminds me of Theodore Dalrymple’s tongue-in-cheek definition of murder as “The knife went in.” You can find the story here. The knife went in, perhaps, because the element decided that another martini wouldn’t hurt…

I turn to dictionaries as I turn to the media—not in order to discover authoritative truth but to find raw materials from which the truth might be built up with effort.

Over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that the ultimate proof of transcendence is found in consciousness—by means of the power of the mind to reason. An example of the line of thought one tends to pursue is expertly presented by one of my favorites, the Maverick Philosopher, here. Webster’s element, ultimately, must be defined as an agent, the very owner of the mind itself; the mind is one of this agent’s capabilities.

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