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.
The subconscious is an integrating mechanism. Man’s conscious mind observes and establishes connections among his experiences; the subconscious integrates the connections and makes them become automatic. For example, the skill of walking is acquired, after many faltering attempts, by the automatization of countless connections controlling muscular movements; once he learns to walk, a child needs no conscious awareness of such problems as posture, balance, length of step, etc. — the mere decision to walk brings the integrated total into his control.
A mind’s cognitive development involves a continual process of automatization. For example, you cannot perceive a table as an infant perceives it — as a mysterious object with four legs. You perceive it as a table, i.e., a man-made piece of furniture, serving a certain purpose belonging to a human habitation, etc.; you cannot separate these attributes from your sight of the table, you experience it as a single, indivisible percept — yet all you see is a four-legged object; the rest is an automatized integration of a vast amount of conceptual knowledge which, at one time, you had to learn bit by bit. The same is true of everything you perceive or experience; as an adult, you cannot perceive or experience in a vacuum, you do it in a certain automatized context — and the efficiency of your mental operations depends on the kind of context your subconscious has automatized.
“Learning to speak is a process of automatizing the use (i.e., the meaning and the application) of concepts. And more: all learning involves a process of automatizing, i.e., of first acquiring knowledge by fully conscious, focused attention and observation, then of establishing mental connections which make that knowledge automatic (instantly available as a context), thus freeing man’s mind to pursue further, more complex knowledge.” (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.)
The process of forming, integrating and using concepts is not an automatic, but a volitional process — i.e., a process which uses both new and automatized material, but which is directed volitionally. It is not an innate, but an acquired skill; it has to be learned — it is the most crucially important part of learning — and all of man’s other capacities depend on how well or how badly he learns it.
This skill does not pertain to the particular content of a man’s knowledge at any given age, but to the method by which he acquires and organizes knowledge — the method by which his mind deals with its content. The method programs his subconscious computer, determining how efficiently, lamely or disastrously his cognitive processes will function. The programming of a man’s subconscious consists of the kind of cognitive habits he acquires; these habits constitute his psycho-epistemology.
It is a child’s early experiences, observations and subverbal conclusions that determine this programming. Thereafter, the interaction of content and method establishes a certain reciprocity: the method of acquiring knowledge affects its content, which affects the further development of the method, and so on.
Most people know nothing about psycho-epistemology. They take their habitual method of thought for granted, leaving it unidentified and unquestioned. Yet this kind of ignorance can be disastrous. . . . Men can automatize wrong methods of thought without even knowing it. In order to achieve intellectual control, therefore, in order to enjoy the full power over your mind that volition makes possible, you must identify your psycho-epistemological methods, and correct those, if any, which are not consonant with your adult knowledge.
This is a crucial discovery of Miss Rand’s — the discovery of psycho-epistemology, and of its roots, forms, and errors. Without such knowledge, men would be left at the mercy of unidentified mental habits that they hardly even suspected — habits that perhaps derived unknowingly from childhood errors that they long since had consciously renounced. Psycho-epistemology represents a whole science, a new branch of psychology.
Men’s epistemology — or, more precisely, their psycho-epistemology, their method of awareness — is the most fundamental standard by which they can be classified. Few men are consistent in that respect; most men keep switching from one level of awareness to another, according to the circumstances or the issues involved, ranging from moments of full rationality to an almost somnambulistic stupor. But the battle of human history is fought and determined by those who are predominantly consistent, those who, for good or evil, are committed to and motivated by their chosen psycho-epistemology and its corollary view of existence.
While the alleged advocates of reason oppose “system-building” and haggle apologetically over concrete-bound words or mystically floating abstractions, its enemies seem to know that integration is the psycho-epistemological key to reason, that art is man’s psycho-epistemological conditioner, and that if reason is to be destroyed, it is man’s integrating capacity that has to be destroyed.