HUMAN MINDS: An Exploration
Allen Lane: The Penguin Press, a division of Viking Penguin: New York, 1992.
314 pp., $25.00 (hardback).
SITUATED WITHIN one of the branches of Western psychology that strives to be a science (the experimental study of child development), Margaret Donaldson painstakingly develops a remarkable theory of the growth of the human mind which, shockingly enough, turns out to iriclude what is called “religious experience” as one of its major landmarks. There are notably few existing opportunities for dialogue between respectable scientific academic psychology and meditative or religious approaches to the mind. This work may provide one such bridge. Human mental development, in Donaldson’s theory, is a matter of the growth of successive modes of knowing. Infants have only one mode available, what she terms the point mode. Their entire focus is the temporal here and now and their ways of knowing (perception, thought, emotion, and action) are inextricably mixed. (This section includes a lucid discussion of the child’s earliest sense of self which might serve to clarify the therapist/Buddhist debate on whether
one must “be somebody in order to be nobody.”) In the second mode to develop, the line mode, the child becomes able to understand a personal past and future. In the third mode, the construct mode, he or she becomes capable of abstraction and can reason about events that happen sometime/somewhere (for example, solve simple arithmetic word problems). In the fourth mode, the transcendent mode, the child can work with abstractions not tied to any time-space contingency. So far there is nothing extraordinary about Donaldson’s formulation, except perhaps the sensitive readability of her style that would make the book of great interest to a nonprofessional audience. However, she goes further. The construct mode, she argues, develops in two separate branches, one intellectual, one affective. The highest development of the intellectual, the intellectual transcendent mode, is the reasoning involved in logic and pure mathematics. Development of abstraction in the affective, called the value sensing mode, means that the child becomes capable of sensing value in matters not tied directly to his or her own personal life and desires. The highest point of this line of development, the value sensing transcendent mode, is a form of knowledge of value most often called religious experience in the world’s cultures. Donaldson suggests this may be a fundamental aspect of the human mind which both our culture and our study of psychology have grossly neglected. The second part of the book turns from the development of individual minds to the historical evolution of the two modes of abstraction in European culture. Not always has the intellectual transcendent mode been honored; for example, in the seventeenth century, an overly great interest in pure mathematics was suspected to be the work of the devil. Donaldson is particularly intrigued with the ability of mature humans, when their culture provides the legitimation and training, to switch modes at will. She turns to Buddhism both as a prime example of the value transcendent mode in operation and as a prototype for methods of training the mind in mode switching. Her sensitive treatment of Buddhist meditation practices is to be doubly applauded given that she claims only an intellectual interest in the topic (and cites for it a short and rather idiosyncratic bibliography). In the final chapters, Donaldson turns to descriptions of the value transcendent mode that emerge from modern culture despite its suppression. These are from empirical surveys of religious experience and from the works of a littleknown author, Marion Milner, who, by performing a detailed and lifelong observation of the “small movements” of her own mind, came to many conclusions about training the mind analogous to those from the meditative traditions. Donaldson concludes with a discussion of implications of her formulation for modern education. What will happen to this pioneering work? The danger is that it may be, on the one hand, ignored by mainstream psychology, which is simply not interested in the possibilities that it raises, and, on the other hand, accepted uncritically by students of religion, eager to have any legitimating work from psychology to cite. For Buddhist practitioners it should raise many questions, such as: Are reason and “value sensing” best conceived as different mental modes? Is the state of touching one’s awake mind (however that is described in different Buddhist traditions) accurately spoken of as a form of abstraction? Hopefully, this book will lead to many more questions to stimulate inquiry in its most potent form.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.