Mental processes

Mental Processes

Considering the processes inside an individual subject, one has to always relate them to the outer activity, and communication with the other subjects, both on the same and different levels. Any inner activity originates from outer activity and communication, and the inner organization of the subject, or any processes in it, reflects the organization of the culture. The very existence of the subject is due to the repeated reproduction of the cultural phenomena in a hierarchy of activities. However, subjectively, this cycle manifests itself through repeated reproduction of the subject's inner activities as typical sensoric and motoric structures and the typical chains of mediation between them:

... → S → C → R → S' → C' → R' → S" → C" → R" → ...

When S' (or S") is of the same kind as S, this chain forms an inner cycle:


which resembles the usual feedback schemes in systems theory, with the output of the system tied to its input. Here, the key link R  S is intrinsically culture-dependent as it lifts up objective mediation (and productive activity, the reorganization of the world to satisfy the subject's needs), which results in seemingly immediate transformation of reaction into sensory input, an inverse of the usual stimulus-reaction sequence. It is only in the society of conscious beings that such a folding can become regular, which is yet another aspect of the subject's universality. Since the sensoric structure S is normally an image of the world, and the motoric structure R is directly related to the subject's action, the projection of R onto S must be related to the ability of imagination. Indeed, any human fantasy is always a prediction of the change in the world that would be caused by one's action; even seemingly passive dreams involve one's participation, at least on the level of mere attention.

One cannot immediately observe the inner structures S, C and R; however, since the stimuli and reaction are culturally standardized, the structures S and R can be derived from the current activity and the cultural stereotypes associated with it. On the contrary, explication of the inner mediation C requires a rather complex investigation, and in most cases this structure is only assumed; for the outer observer, there is an apparently direct connection S ⇒ R, which looks like a simple reflex, but is different in that it remains culturally mediated and hence universal. Such a virtual mapping of S onto R, abstracted from the inner mediation C, can be identified with a mental act. Combining the links R  S and S ⇒ R, one arrives to S and R reproducing themselves through each other: ... → S ⇒ R → S ⇒ R → ... This inner activity is called a mental process. Similarly to how, in an outer activity, the subject and the object reproduce themselves through mutual reflection and mutual penetration, the interaction of the distinct sides of the Subject leads to their development through each other.

Similarly, employing the cyclic nature of any inner activity, one can lift up mediation in the sequences R → S → C and C → R → S, arriving to mental acts R ⇒ C and C ⇒ S. The corresponding mental processes, obtained trough combining these secondary links with the primary links C → R and S → C respectively, are represented by the schemes ... → R ⇒ C → R ⇒ C → ... and ... → C ⇒ S → C ⇒ S → ... That is, there are three kinds of mental acts (S ⇒ R, R ⇒ C, and C ⇒ S), forming the secondary cycle of inner activity:

The relations between the inner structures of the subject are reversed in the secondary cycle. This is how they are often presented to the subject itself. Thus, the subject's reactions R seem to influence the subject's internal state C, while, in the primary sequence, the internal state C causes certain reactions R; also, the subject is apt to suppose that at least a part of stimulation S comes from inside, C ⇒ S, while the primary dependence is inverse: external stimulation influences the inner states of the subject, S → C.

The schemes of inner activity allow numerous interpretations. Thus, the scheme S ⇒ R  S can refer to the development of the subjective image of the world S via explorative behavior R, which is an obvious correlate of a cognitive process in the classical psychology. On the conscious level, the link C ⇒ S can be identified with an act of planning, while the complementary link R ⇒ C corresponds to self-control. The corresponding schemes of inner activity, R ⇒ C → R and C ⇒ S → C, describe, respectively, consciously constructing one's actions (will) and the evolution of one's inner state through re-interpretation of an external stimulus (the ability of feeling), which gives the other two members of the well-known psychological triad: cognition, emotions, volition.

The existence of the three types of mental processes is obviously related to the distinction of the structures S, C and R in any subjective mediation. Each class of mental processes can be considered as an alternative representation of a corresponding structure: S for cognition, C for feelings, R for volition. This attribution, which is reflected in the common characterization of mental processes, helps to accentuate the specific quality of each class, indicating there is a primary form of each metal act, like the primary sequence O → S → O' and the secondary sequence S → O → S' in the infinite cycle of the subject-object reproduction (activity):

... → O → S → O' → S' → O" → ...

In the primary form of a scheme of a mental process, the primary link (→) is on the higher level, and hence the mental act (the secondary link, ⇒) is subordinate, serving to produce something "material". In the secondary form, inversely, the accent is on the reproduction of the mental act itself.

Obviously, the very existence of mental processes as the subject's inner motion is due to hierarchical inner mediation, the subject's communication with itself, inner activity. All the mental processes are only different manifestations of the same inner activity, and consequently, there can be no "pure" cognition, feeling or will. In every particular activity, one class of mental processes comes to the top only to give way to another, in the next turn of the hierarchy. The dynamics of this rotation accounts for all the complexity of a conscious act.


The cognitive mental process is described by the scheme ... → S ⇒ R → S ⇒ R → ..., where the image of the world initiates certain actions, which modify the original image and cause the reproduction of the same activity on a higher level. Since both structures involved in a cognitive process, S and R, can be derived from the standard templates of activity assumed by the particular culture, cognition is easier to study than the other types of mental processes. That is why, for centuries, most psychophysical research was concentrated on the cognitive operations, and there was even a tendency to reduce all the subjectivity to cognition, like in the philosophy of European rationalism (Descartes, Leibniz).

In cognitive processes, one's ideas (S) appear to be immediately produced by one's own intentions (R), which illusion lies in the foundation of numerous idealistic theories of consciousness. From the earliest times, people imagines how all kinds of miracles happened by mere will of a powerful sorcerer, and tried to bring such fantasies to reality practicing all sorts of magic rites. In modern idealistic philosophy, this standpoint has been refined to complete solipsism, when all the world is thought to be one's imagination, or dream. Despite of the obvious absurdity of such a position, many people still advocate some of its weaker (that is, inconsistent and eclectic) varieties. For a bourgeois philosophers, this conceptualization is strongly attractive, since it often well applies to their experience of a privileged person, whose will is normally fulfilled by the others.

There are two main schools in the idealistic philosophy of cognition. On of them puts stress on the subject's intentionality and identifies the subject with the R structure, while the opposite tendency is to reduce the subject to its passive aspect, to the image of the world. Both trends implicitly attempt to project the normal scheme of subject-object relations O → S → P (the object, the subject, the product) onto the scheme of the cognitive process, which can be done in two opposite ways: S ⇒ R  S or R → S ⇒ R . The first of these possibilities makes the world mere imprint of the subject's will, the second, inversely, pictures it as an active substance, determining the subject's "flow of consciousness".

However, the apparent independence of cognition from the objective world in nothing but illusionary. Both components of the cognitive process, S ⇒ R and R  S , are mediated in an essentially material way, by the objective organization of the subject and the culture, respectively. And both kinds of mediation are necessary for a cognitive process to unfold. Consequently, cognition cannot be understood exclusively on the basis of the knowledge of cerebral functionality (as in the so called cognitive science), nor can it be explained solely by cultural influences (cultural psychology).

In the scheme of the cognitive process, ... → S ⇒ R → S ⇒ R → ..., one can consider the subjective structures S and R in different aspects, thus obtaining different interpretations of the same scheme. Typically, all the components of the scheme are understood as the states of the same individual; however, this individual cognition is not the only possibility, and one can, for instance, describe cognition as a process of communicating the image of the world and intentions from one individual to another, and hence creating a collective picture of the world, as well as collective interests. If the structures S and R belong to the different levels of the subject (say, an individual and a social layer), the scheme refers to either the influence of the society on the formation of one's ideas (like in prejudice or moral), or the cultural conditioning of one's actions (e.g. conscience, or responsibility). This multiplicity of interpretations corresponds to the objective complexity of cognition itself.


Cognition is, in a sense, the primary mental process, since it is closely related to the objective world. In the affective process, ... → C ⇒ S → C ⇒ S → ..., the active (intentional) component R of the subject is lifted up, and the mediation by outer activity implicitly contained in the link R  S is entirely hidden, which makes this mental process even deeper immersed in the subject. In the affective process, the passive aspect of the subject's activity is accentuated, with the operational component R replaced by the inner state C. Such a process resembles cognition in that a hierarchical picture of the world S is being built, but here, this hierarchy seems to be spontaneously produced from inside the subject, rather than through the subject's observable behavior. In particular, the subject's awareness of an emotion seems to be a result of some inner processes (self-reflection), rather than an outer activity; this illusion lied in the foundation of the psychophysical theory of emotions by James and Lange.

However, affective processes imply virtual outer activity, and the indirect character of this dependence only means that the development of a rich emotionality lags behind the development of cognition, and conscious emotions form much later than conscious knowledge. On the other hand, this indicates that the affective sphere is relatively independent of cognition, and the relations between them require a special analysis. Basically, one can distinguish "wise" feelings based on knowledge and understanding from "indicative" emotions, presentiment. Of course, this distinction is relative to the level of hierarchy concerned.

On the lowest level, where the structures S, C and R refer to the distinct physiological mechanisms, the mental act C ⇒ S appears as dependence of human sensations on the organic processes. In a somewhat refined form, the same idea says that one's instincts determine one's life; the absolutization of the relative independence of affective processes picture al the human psychology as a kind of inner dialog between consciousness and the subconscious (Freud). However, already in psychoanalysis, the only possible way of controlling this mental loop was found to unfold the link C ⇒ S into a complete action C → R  S and thus restoring the underlying activity, and possibly replacing it with another.

Since the ancient times, emotions were often related to attitudes, and the common description of emotion divided them into "positive" and "negative". This function was said to be in the core of any emotion at all, and all the human feelings were stretched under this dichotomy; the intellectual emotions (like inspiration or curiosity) did not fit into the scheme, and hence they were declared to entirely belong to cognition. In the scheme of affective process C ⇒ S → C, all kinds of affects are described, and the discriminative attitudes are placed elsewhere, namely, in cognition. Indeed, the very distinction of the inner structures S and R is already a dichotomy, which is related to the complementarity of the passive and active aspects of the subject's interaction with the world. This means that complex intellectual feelings have much more to do with affective processes than simple binary evaluations, in contrast to the traditional intuitive picture. Such an inversion of objective relation in the subject is a natural property of reflection, and it is only in conscious, activity mediated reflection that the correct order of things is restored.

Similarly, the distinction of object oriented and general emotions is due to the admixture of the cognitive component. Affective processes are indifferent to the object on themselves, but, since they can only develop on the basis of a certain productive activity, they are always projected onto some reflection of reality. When this prototype is a product of an inner activity rather than external thing, the feeling becomes vague and apparently objectless.

As soon as one goes beyond the primitive organic reactions, the weight of mental feelings will rapidly increase, as compared to all kinds of adaptive self-sensation. In a well-developed subject, each external act is mediated by an inner process, and the affective processes constitute its important aspect. From the viewpoint of biological adaptation, long lasting sentiments are excessive, they only interfere with adaptive reactions and decrease the individual's survival threshold. One can easily observe that animals do not normally have prolonged emotional states, and their feelings are situation driven and transient. In animals, a stagnant mood is an indication of illness. On the contrary, a human without deep feelings is defective, inferior, underdeveloped.

The scheme C ⇒ S → C also covers such an important class of affective processes as social affects. When the components S and C can belong to a collective rather than individual subject, one obtains the framework for the description of various mass emotions and moods, as well as the affective interaction of an individual with the society. Social psychology thus becomes a full-fledged area of psychological research, dealing with the collective analogs of all the psychological phenomena that are known in individuals.


Like sentiment, the conative process ... → R ⇒ C → R ⇒ C → ... does not contain the link R → S, and hence any direct relation to outer behavior. However, while affective processes stress the passive side of the subject, volition is an abstraction of the active aspect, the ability to change the world. In the folded form, this ability presents itself as self-control, complete determination of one's inner state by one's intentions. In this context, without direct attribution to real activity, the transition R ⇒ C seems to spontaneously modify the physical states by mere desire to do something. This illusion feeds the numerous self-regulation (or magic) practices based on the idea that once you have imagined some change, you automatically cause it by the very act of mental concentration. The inverse side of the same illusion is the impression of arbitrariness, as if one's actions were only determined by one's inner impulses. In reality the both abilities are limited by the underlying processes of material production and communication. This circumstance was subjectively interpreted in the same volitional terms as an abstract "superior" will that can intervene with one's plans and even entirely destroy them. In popular beliefs, this "higher" will was known under the names of "destiny", "fate", or "god".

Nevertheless, this vulgar picture can be stripped of all the mystic elements and comprehended within the general scheme of conscious activity. Due to the subject's reflectivity, each outer action is normally preceded by a complex inner motion, and conative processes are its indispensable part. All the three classes of mental processes are involved in inner activity, influencing each other or, rather, being the three aspects of the same. While affects are often confused with cognition, will is usually mixed with emotions, and even identified with them. It seems like one wants to do something, or is driven to do it. Such a confusion is explained by the absence of the S component in the scheme of a conative process, so that it is in no way presented to the subject. That is why it can only be indirectly reflected through cognition and feeling, as a characteristic tint.

The subject obtains the idea of will through lifting the cycle ... → R ⇒ C → R ⇒ C → ... into some higher level image structure S, which can be schematically drawn as


In the first case, the stress is on one's preparation to acting in a particular way, which corresponds to the aspect of will that could be called determination. The second scheme represents the development of the subject's inner readiness for action, resolution. Both aspects are present in every volitional act.

The active will has long remained the worst understood aspect of people's inner life, as its systematic study was hindered by ideological premises. The religious idea of the godly will as the source of any activity resulted in moral objection to any scientific investigation, since science had nothing to do with what was attributed to gods. As a reaction, the philosophies advocating unlimited freedom of will have appeared, with no gods to influence it. However, despite of all the demonstrative opposition to religions (Nitzsche) apology of the human will does not much differ from them. Productive activity as the source and purpose of any mental development is equally overlooked by the both extremities. As a result, the origin of will remained unclear, and it was attributed either to mystical influences or mere instincts. The understanding of the subject as universal mediation allows to reveal the reflective nature of will as a projection of objective necessity into the subject. The organization of the society suggests the available modes of action, which become the inner states on the subject in the conative process. The availability of all the possible behavioral modes is called freedom. Of course, no real society can provide an individual absolute freedom. The current level of economic development limits the scope of possible operations; this deficiency is reflected in various social limitations, and finally, in the individual's feeling of stress. However, provided the economic conditions are adequately incorporated in the subject's inner activity, one's intentions do not contradict to the cultural environment, and one can remain free even in a non-free society. This how infinity can exist through final things: what is potential in the outer world is potential in the thing itself. For the subject, freedom thus appears as comprehended necessity.

Social will is a special kind of will that refers to a collective rather than individual subject. In social psychology, it is well known that a group can behave like a single body, as if it were an individual subject. Unlike chaotic mass motion (such as panic, or economic migration), group behavior phenomena (e.g. xenophobia, fashions) are characterized by a significant uniformity of intentions within the group. This uniformity reflects the existence of a particular socioeconomic position occupied by the group, and the stability of the collective subject depends on the conservation of social and economic distinctions. However, in some cases, groups can continue to exist after their economic necessity has long since faded. This is yet another manifestation of the relative independence of mental processes from the outer activity.

In Marxism, the notion of class will was introduced to describe the objective unity of actions within the class as opposed to another class in class struggle. Despite all the differences in individual intentions, the general bias towards denial of the other class' values, and imposing a different kind of values, makes individuals representatives of the common will, rather than mere seekers for personal advantage. This situation is different from, for instance, panic, when everybody is acting with no regard of the others, in an animal way. The existence of class will is closely related to the development of class consciousness. This is what allows application of the schemes of mental processes to a class subject.

The same schemes can also describe various interlevel processes. On one hand, one finds the examples of prejudice, superstition, religious beliefs; on the other hand, this mechanism underlies leadership, selflessness, or heroism. Thus, if R denotes social action, while C stands for personal moods, the resulting conative process corresponds to tuning one's attitudes to the demands of the common deed; inversely, individual actions R can be adjusted to public sentiments. In more complex cases, several levels of the subject can be combined in a single mental process, which results in a peculiar interplay of individual, collective and global interests in the same activity.

[Philosophy of consciousness] [Philosophy] [Unism]