Mental Syntheses, Categories and Individual Items

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One way of looking at the term (spyi) that is often translated as “universal” or “generality” is as a “category.” That is the term that I prefer to use. And when I use “category,” category means a specific category. So I’d like to avoid the implication that one might have of a "generality" being general, vague. It is not vague. We are talking about specific categories. The category of “dog” or the category of “cat” are specific, although it is a generality of all cats and all dogs. “Universal” has some other misunderstandings that can come in because that is a term that is used so often in Western philosophy. So I try to avoid as much possible misunderstanding by using this word “category.” Unfortunately, “category” doesn’t work for all the different examples in which the Buddhist terms is used, either. So it is very hard to find a word for it.

We can speak about categories in reference to conventional objects and categories in reference to language. Now all these, by the way, are involved with our cognition, our awareness of things. That’s why the topic is relevant. We are not just talking abstract philosophy. Now in reference to conventional objects, it is a little bit easier to now not use the word “category” and use the term “mental synthesis.” When I give examples, then I think you will understand why I choose this term.

Collection Mental Synthesis

We have “collection mental syntheses” (tshogs-spyi). What type of mental synthesis is it? The kind that it is, is a collection kind. So the example would be a whole and its parts. The whole is a mental synthesis of all the parts. A forest, for example, with all the trees, that’s a type of mental synthesis. Putting together all the trees is a collection of it. And we can have something else, a category of many different kinds of forests. But an individual forest, here, is a collection type of mental synthesis. It is a collection of parts. So a whole is an imputation on spatial parts. The spatial parts would be all the individual trees, and then a forest is an imputation that pervades all of them.

A collection mental synthesis can also be an imputation on sensorial parts. For instance, what’s the fruit orange? It’s not just the sight. It’s not just the smell. It’s not just the taste. It’s not just the physical sensation of one in your hand. An orange is a whole which is an imputation on all these aspects, isn’t it?

So that is an imputation on sensorial parts. And then there are collection mental syntheses that is an imputation on temporal parts. For instance, the example of the movie “Star Wars.” As a whole, the movie "Star Wars" is an imputation on different parts, little different scenes, different moments that extend over time. So this is a mental synthesis of the whole thing. What kind? A collection type of mental synthesis. So you can see in this case, “category,” “universal,” “generality” – what word are you going to use for it?

Kind Mental Synthesis

That is one type of mental synthesis with regard to objects. Then we have a “kind mental synthesis” (rigs-spyi). What kind of mental synthesis is it? It is a mental synthesis concerning “what type of thing” things are. It’s a kind – what kind of thing is this? Like for instance, cat or dog. What kind of thing is this? This is a “cat.” This is a “dog.” That is a mental synthesis of many different kinds of dogs. Or the kind synthesis “dog.”

Object Mental Synthesis

And then we have an “object mental synthesis” (don-spyi). These are conceptual categories. Here is where the word “categories” works. It is a conceptual category of commonsense objects ('jig-rten-la grags-pa). Commonsense objects – things that we experience all day long. Ordinary commonsense objects used when thinking of, verbalizing, imagining, or remembering commonsense objects. So this is when we are thinking about it, the category – I’m thinking about a “dog.”

Objective and Metaphysical Entities

There is a division of objects into objective entities (rang-mtshan) and metaphysical entities (spyi-mtshan). Objective entities are nonstatic phenomena (mi-rtag-pa), functional phenomena (dngos-po) – they do something. Metaphysical entities are static phenomena (rtag-pa), they don’t do anything. They are nonfunctional (dngos-med). The various Indian schools of philosophy differ as to what level of reality each of these two types of entities or phenomena have. Let’s not go into that.

In terms of these mental syntheses, collection mental syntheses and kind mental syntheses are objective entities. They are nonstatic. Whereas, object mental syntheses are metaphysical and static. What I am explaining here is the general Gelugpa explanation. The other Tibetan schools have different explanations of all of this.

So, bare perception. When I see this animal, what do I see? I see objective entities. They are known as the “involved objects” ('jug-yul). They can be an involved object of either a conceptual or non-conceptual cognition. So an objective entity can be the involved object for both conceptual and non-conceptual cognition. So the main thing you are cognizing is the involved object.

So I look at this animal, what do I see? I see the legs, the head, the tail, the body. But I also see the whole dog, the whole thing. So I see the collection synthesis as well. I also see a dog, don’t I? So, a kind synthesis. I don’t have to know that it’s a dog. I don’t have to give it a name. But you can’t say that I don’t see a dog. I mean, others will say that, but the Gelugpa says that you actually do see the dog. And a dog, we only see – I mean you could argue that you only see a colored shape. So is this just a colored shape that is in front of me? Well, no. So we have the collection synthesis, because there is a sound to it, there is a smell to it, etc., etc. It’s a collection of all this sense information, isn’t it? Even though we don’t actually see the smell of the dog. But we do see a dog, which is a collection of all these things.

In fact there are a lot things that we see. It’s quite interesting. We see the dog running. Well, what do you see? We see just one moment after another, don’t we? So here we have this type of nonstatic phenomenon of the “neither” category (ldan-min ‘du-byed) – neither a form of physical phenomenon nor a way of being aware of something. We see the imputation "motion." It is an imputation on the dog in consecutive moments in different locations: “this moment it is in this position,” “that moment it is in that position,” “that moment it is in that position.” So. motion is an imputation on these and you see motion as an objective entitiy.

Okay? That’s the involved object. There’s the colored shape. There is the dog. It is a dog. And the whole terms of all the sense information, etc., and it running. And implicitly also what is involved here, but it doesn’t actually appear, is “not a cat.” We see that. So these are some of the objects involved in bare perception, non-conceptual.

There is also something called an “appearing object” (snang-yul). The appearing object is what is directly in front of the consciousness. That would be a mental hologram. And this mental hologram, in the Gelug tradition, is explained as something that is fully transparent. So through this mental hologram, we see the colored shape, we see the dog, etc. We see the involved object.

Individual Items

When we talk about individual items, there are many types of “individual.” So there is individual sense information, there is an individual dog, and there is this larger kind synthesis of “dogs” (What is it? It is a dog). We also see an individual, and there is mental synthesis. What kind it is – it is a dog. That’s also individual. So this becomes confusing, doesn’t it? Because, in a sense, it is category, but it is an individual category. So it’s both. It’s an individual category in the larger category of “animals” – “dog.” So things are not so simple, in terms of this is only an individual and this is only a category (or a synthesis, or a generality, or whatever). Also, by the way, these collection types of syntheses can be also thought of in terms collections of atoms and particles as well.

When we get to conceptual cognition, that becomes much more complicated. This is now dealing with these object categories, object mental syntheses. These are static phenomena, they don’t do anything. It is a category with which we think of “dogs,” for example. What happens when you think of a dog? Imagine a dog. Think of a dog! Now I’m sure each of us has a slightly different picture, mental image, that represents what a dog is to us, don’t we? But we are all thinking “dog.” So what do we have here? How do we analyze what is going on, the components of this conceptual cognition?

We have certain components that are essential to it.

We have certain components that are essential to it. Yes. That gets into defining characteristics (mtshan-nyid). Let’s not get into defining characteristics. That becomes even more complicated. Where are these defining characteristics? Are they at the side of the objects or is it something that people made up? That somebody made up, a mind made up, that this is what defines what a dog is. This is what defines what a cat is. It is more obvious when you think in terms of emotions. This defines what is love. This defines what is patience. It’s all made up, isn’t it? If you think of that – a dictionary. Somebody made up words out of meaningless sounds and a group of people decided on what they mean. Defining characteristic. When language developed, a group of people, minds, ascribed to a certain set of sounds a meaning, and they made up a definition of what it means.

Did you ever think of that? How did the word “love” – who invented the word “love”? Everybody felt all sorts of different things and then, somehow, they got together and they said “Hey. Are we all feeling the same thing?” Well, actually what I feel is not the same as you, but how are we going to communicate this? So, okay, here’s some sounds and let’s use that to represent this emotion. Even what an emotion is, this is pretty weird if you think about it. How would you even identify, in experience, what’s emotion? When we start to analyze language, it is unbelievable – how it possibly evolved and people actually agreed on it.

So now I’m thinking of a dog. Thinking “dog” in general or I can think of my dog, a specific dog. But anyway we are thinking of “dog.” Even if we are all thinking of “my dog.” I mean, like, one participant here brought her dog with us, so we can all think of her dog. And even though it is the same dog, the mental image that each of us has will be quite different. The position of the dog, etc., would be quite different, wouldn’t it? Even though we are all thinking about the same dog. Of course you can represent the dog by the name, rather than represent the dog by a visual image. The dog could represent various people by a smell, not necessarily by what they look like. There are many different ways that things can be represented conceptually.

So we are thinking of a dog. What is the involved object? Now it gets a very complicated. It could be an actual dog, whether the dog is present or not it doesn’t matter. We have a mental hologram, and what is arising here is what is called “nothing other than (ma-yin-pa-las log-pa) a dog.” So “nothing other than a dog” is – it gets complicated – “nothing other than a dog” is fully transparent; through it one perceives an actual dog, an objective dog. But “nothing other than a dog” doesn’t have a visual form. Remember we had in forms of physical phenomena, there’s some which can only be known by the mind? So we have this sort of imaginary form, a form of physical phenomenon. That is actually what is appearing. It represents a dog for us. And unless it is really weird, there is an actual dog that this represents, isn’t there? Whether we knew that dog or not.

Semi-transparent Phenomena

Now there is this object mental synthesis which is this category “dog.” So I am thinking “dog” (whether I verbalize it or not is secondary). This is known as a “semi-transparent phenomenon” because it’s confused with what is appearing. Not only is it mixed, the word (‘dres-pa) means both “mixed” and “confused.” There are both meanings. So one translator can translate it one way, one can translate it the other way. It’s hard to translate it both ways. It’s mixed and because it’s mixed, it’s confused. It’s confused with the dog. I’m thinking “dog,” and to me this is what a dog is. Well, there are many things that can be a dog. But for me, I’m confusing (or mixing) my category, what this thing look like, this representation, with the whole category of “dog.” To me, that is what a dog is. So they are mixed together and confused. Do you follow? It’s my conception of a dog. It’s just a conception, but there is a representation of that conception. And that representation of a dog – there is an actual dog like that, usually. Even if we imagine a cartoon dog, there is an actual drawing of Mickey Mouse’s dog.

So this category of “dog” by itself doesn’t have any form. It’s static. It is not a form of physical phenomenon, it is a category. So it’s some sort of abstraction, isn’t it? So through that – and we get a little bit graphic – it’s like the mental consciousness is behind it, so the different lenses in front of the mental consciousness. So you have the category, that’s the first thing that is there. That’s the appearing object. That is semitransparent, it’s said – this is what we mean when we say it is mixed or confused with what you see through it. What you see through it, but it’s semi-veiled, is a representation of a dog. But you think that’s really what a dog is, and that is just a representation of “nothing other than a dog.” “Nothing other than a dog” specifies a dog.

And through these two filters, then, there is an actual dog (whether the dog is present or not), which would correspond to this representation, this mental form. So there are these many filters. And the confusion here is that this is what I think a dog is, or this is what I think love is. This is what I think the perfect partner is. This is what I think I deserve in life. I mean we have these categories. So we are confusing the category with some individual item that is representing the category. An individual. And now we get into our individualities. One can talk about this abstractly, but I think it is much more relevant when we talk about it in terms of our experience. Because this causes a lot of problems when we have this mixing and confusion.

To think “dog,” you have to have some sort of mental representation for the way our minds work. Or to think “love,” you have to have something that sort of represents what love is. Might not have a physical form, but there is something that represents love for us – a loving relationship – when we think of it. But the problem is if we think that’s only what it is, that the individual representation, the example, is the whole category. So everything, every relationship has to be this. See the problem? Where our trouble can come from?

So the involved object, the appearing object here, which is right in front of the consciousness, the mental consciousness, is this object category. But that is not what is appearing. What is appearing is some representation which is “nothing other than a dog,” but there is a physical form that represents it. And the involved object would be an actual dog, an objective dog.

So we have the category, category “dog.” It is metaphysical phenomenon, static. Through it, “nothing other than a dog” – that is what is appearing, but actually that is represented by a mental hologram. The category doesn’t have a shape or form. The category “dog” is just an abstraction. That doesn’t have a shape or form. So we have a representation, a mental hologram, of a dog. It is chosen from a specific dog, an involved object, and that mental hologram is also a specific object. These are objective things. And it is representing “nothing other than a dog.” And all these things get mixed together!

Implied Objects

Now there is something called an implied object (zhen-yul). The implied object – what is implied by my thinking of a dog? What is implied by it is an actual dog. Zhenyul (zhen-yul) means “implied.” Literally it is the object that this clings to (zhen means “to cling”). Let’s not use “grasping,” because that’s used for “grasping for true existence,” etc. That’s another term.

So sometimes the implied object is an existent thing, like a dog. But it could be something nonexistent. So I could have, let’s say, a category of “unicorn” and there can even be a mental representation, a mental hologram, of a unicorn. But the implied object of that, an actual unicorn, there is no such thing. So that is relevant in terms of impossible ways of existing. Things appear to be solidly existent because it’s a category, here, of a way of existing. So things appear solid, for example. But what is implied by that – actual solid truly existent objects – they don’t exist. That manner of existing is impossible, something existing totally by itself, independent of everything else.

Think of it. I have a category of solidly existent independent phenomena, and what represents that would be like in a children’s coloring book – something with a solid line around it. So there is a black line around it. But nothing exists with a black line around it, does it? The implied object, actual objects with a line around them, or encapsulated in plastic – nothing exists that way, existing all by itself, out of a context. But this is like the mental hologram that appears. It appears like that. Even in terms of physics, if you really go down small with an electron microscope. Where do the atoms and particles of your body end, and the atoms and particles of the air next to you begin? And is there a big solid barrier between the two? No. Same thing in terms of colors. Is there a solid line separating red from orange, like a wall? No. Or between one emotion and another emotion? So you see there are many implications of all of this.

So these are categories in reference to objects. Then we have categories in reference to language. We have audio categories and meaning categories.

Audio Categories

So audio categories (sgra-spyi) are acoustic patterns adopted as conventions in a particular language by the members of a specific society. An audio category. I use the example “table,” but that is not so good because that’s a one syllable word in German. Let’s find a two syllable or three syllable word. Choose a two or three-syllable word.

Okay. Window.

Window and “Fenster.”

Now this is actually really quite incredible when you think about it. We are not talking here about the sounds. The sound “win” and the sound “dow,” and the sound “fen” and the sound “ster,” putting it together to a word – that is a collection synthesis. Whereas, here we are talking about a category that is imputable on sounds made in a variety of voices, pitches, volumes, and pronunciations. I say “Fenster” with my voice, you say “Fenster” (or “window”) in your voice. It’s a different sound, isn’t it? I say it softly, you say it loudly. Lots of people say it. Some people say “vindow” rather than “window.” But there is an audio category of the word that you are saying.

Somehow all these individual pronunciations and sounds fit into this audio category. It’s amazing how you recognize it. And it could be made audible by a voice or a mechanical device, a computer voice. Or a natural phenomenon, like wind. There is an audio category, the sound of wind, isn’t there? Or of rain. Or they can be merely mental, mental holograms of sounds. And by extension, although it is not discussed in the text, you could also include different written representations of words, in different handwritings, different size types, different type fonts. They all fit into the category of “words.” Very interesting, isn’t it. How in the world do you recognize that?

If you think of a word, we have a mental hologram, a mental representation of the sound of the word “window,” and there is an actual sound that that would correspond to. But then we fit in everybody’s way of saying it, and it corresponds – what is implied by it would be an actual sound of a word. It could be spoken, it could be heard. I’m thinking “window.” Well, there is a mental sound there, and that mental sound corresponds to an audible sound, doesn’t it?

But audio categories themselves don’t have any meanings associated with them. And again we can go by extension to this of gesture categories, like sign languages for deaf people, or tactile sensations, Braille for blind people. So we can think of further examples besides what is discussed in the text.

Meaning Categories

Then meaning categories (don-spyi) are patterns of significance of acoustic patterns. A pattern of significance, or meaning (you don’t want to use the same word “meaning”)… It is a pattern of significance of these acoustic patterns adopted as the meaning of words in a particular language by members of a specific society. You do know that the same sound, an audio category, could mean one thing in one language and something else in another language, but here we are talking about within one language, one society.

So we can know, “I’m listening to a language that I don’t know,” and I could recognize that two people are saying the same words to each other, but I don’t know what they mean. So here we are talking about the meaning, and the meanings do not exist inherently in the sound, do they? Or in the physical gestures of sign language? These are merely coined as a convention by a society or a group of people, in order to be able to communicate with each other.

Now a meaning category, they are categories in the sense that they are imputable on all the slightly different meanings that each person in a language group associates with a particular acoustic pattern of a word. How are they categories? How is it that they are categories? What do we mean when we say it’s a category? It is a category in the sense that they are imputable on all the slightly different meanings that each person in a language group associates with a particular acoustic pattern of a word. To me, “love” means something. To you, “love” means something slightly different. To the other person, it means something slightly different. The dictionary says something else. But, nevertheless, we all understand a meaning category, the meaning of the word “love,” regardless of who says it and how loudly they say it or how they pronounce it. It is amazing, isn’t it?

And they are also categories in the sense that they are imputable on acoustic patterns every time the acoustic pattern is used by any person, or even the same person. So I hear something that vaguely sounds like “love” or “window” and each time that I hear it, whether it is spoken by the same person several times in a conversation, or it’s spoken by different people, I still associate a meaning category to it. If you think about it, this is amazing because each time we hear it, it is a different sound. Imagine if you didn’t have these categories. How in the world would you understand anything that anybody said, because every sound they make is different.

And so, again, when we are thinking conceptually or it’s conceptual when you actually associate words and meanings and so on with sounds, it’s the same type of structure as we had when we discussed conceptual cognition. Remember we spoke about object syntheses, object categories, in conceptual cognition. So the word for object category and the word for meaning category is the same word (don-spyi). So when you think something, you are thinking of an object – it doesn’t have to be a physical object, it could be “love” – it’s both the meaning of it (like words) and it’s also an object (it’s a thing).

Now usually we have to have a meaning category together with an audio category. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that. How does an infant have the category of “mother”? It doesn’t have a word does it? And again one gets into a whole debate of how does a baby know and recognize mother. And what is the conceptual thought process of a dog? So we shouldn’t think of conceptual as being intellectual. I’m talking about categories. And this is involved with memory. How do you remember? How does a cow remember where the barn is? It’s conceptual thought, a category representing barn. “My barn, not your barn. My barn.”

So we have all these different types of objects. And when we talk about these so-called generalities and particulars, what we are speaking about here (at least in the presentation that I’m familiar with, that I’m giving here) are these mental syntheses and these categories. You can also think of it in terms of sets, like in set theory, and that’s what our next discussion will be about – which has to do with set theory, the logical relationships between things.

And when we talk about particulars, we are talking about items that fit into a category. But, as I mentioned, categories themselves can be individual categories fitting into larger categories. Like the category of “dog” and “cat” fitting into the larger category of “animal.”

So I hope through this you appreciate what I said in the beginning of this lecture, which is that it is really, really difficult to find any word in our languages that covers all these different meanings of the original term. Because this word for category or synthesis or generality or universal (or whatever you want to call it) is also the same word that is used for these metaphysical entities. It’s the same word. So how in the world do you translate it? And each translator will either choose one word to cover all the meanings, which obviously can only cover really a few of the meanings. Or they will choose different terms for the different meanings. So of course it’s confusing. So one has to be patient with all of this.

In the Tibetan language are there specific words for all of these?

Yes. But part of the word repeats (spyi), and that is the word that is being translated as mental synthesis, or generality or category. That part, that syllable, repeats in all these different usages. And not just in Tibetan, but it’s repeating what you find in Sanskrit.

Categorical Thinking

It is necessary to have conceptual categories in order to communicate to each other as limited beings, as we are, and to be able to put together various things that we perceive – like different dogs, different apples, etc. Although a Buddha perceives everything non-conceptually – in other words, without these categories – so obviously there must be other ways of putting information together. Buddha uses what is called equalizing deep awareness (mnyam-nyid ye-shes), but I don’t really want to go into that. But the point that I wanted to make is that the big problem with conceptual thought, with these conceptual categories, is that we tend to think that things exist in boxes, as if they were actually inside these categories. A category implies a box, like an entry in the dictionary, and if we have an item then it fits into that box. But that is not the way that things exist; things don’t exist in a box. That it is just “this.” So one has to think what it would mean to exist in a box – that it is definitely “this.” You are my “friend,” just “friend,” and nothing else. And I have my definition of what a “friend” should be, so you have to always fulfill this definition – you are in a box. So although we need a concept of “friend” to be able to communicate and deal with things, limited beings as we are, one has to be quite careful not to get into this – what we would call “categorical thinking.”

Practical Application

What is the practical use of, for instance, this last topic about conceptual thought?

If we just use our ordinary terminology in the West, the thing is that often we have a fixed concept of something which is represented by something which we ourselves have chosen – a concept of how things should be, how I should be treated. Or a self-concept, a self-image.

Actually it’s very interesting. When you think about yourself, what do you think? Often when we have made a mistake or done something that we regret, we tend to think “me.” So there’s this general category “me,” and now what do we represent it with? We represent it with this particular incident of what we did, and we label it “idiot” and “I’m such an idiot.” We think that’s truly who I am, and we get stuck with this thing: “I’m such an idiot.” We confuse and mix “me” with what is representing me now in my thought, which is “idiot,” and then we think that’s really me. We might have acted like an idiot. That is a possibility. But that is only one item, one individual item, in this whole synthesis of “me,” isn’t it?

So here we are introducing a method for being able to deconstruct these conceptual thoughts that we have, and see that “me” can be represented in many, many different ways, not just one. And that’s not truly who I am, and the only thing that I am – an idiot. The category “me” is static. Static means that it doesn’t do anything. So the category itself is not something which is changing from moment to moment. We can substitute what will represent this category “me”; we can substitute one thing for another, but to substitute one thing for another is not the same as something organically growing into something else.

I have a concept of the meaning of the word “voidness.” We have the audio category “voidness” or “emptiness” (people translate it so many ways). And I have a meaning category. That meaning category – when anybody says the word “voidness,” I think it means this. That meaning category is static. That meaning category itself doesn’t do anything. Now I can substitute one meaning for another, but it’s still the category of the meaning of the word “voidness,” isn’t it? But now I’m substituting something to represent what that meaning is with something else. And if you think in terms of the substitution process, it’s not like we can say, “Well, my understanding grew.” It didn’t really grow the way that a plant grows, did it – in terms of each moment, it’s growing.

So there are many different ways in which things change. This affects our understanding of learning theory, how you learn things and how you conceptually think of things, and so on. The most important aspect here, in terms of the Buddhist path, is how I think of “me” and “you” and what I’m experiencing, because all sorts of disturbing emotions come up when we are confused about that.

We’re using this example: I’m thinking “me,” the category “me,” and what’s representing it is the most important person in the world, the center of the universe. Now the implied object of that, a me who actually is the center of the universe, of course that doesn’t exist, that’s nonexistent. “I should always have my way.” The implied object – of somebody who should always have their way – is absurd, isn’t it? There is no such thing. And so when we think that, when we mix “me” with this representation (the one that should always get their way), what happens? Disturbing emotions – greed, anger when I don’t get my way. Based on that, then we yell, we do nasty things, we do all sorts of destructivetypes of actions. And it produces unhappiness. It makes us repeat these types of things. People are nasty back to us. That’s samsara, uncontrollably recurring (from the Buddhist point of view) rebirth. Or you can think of it just even in this lifetime – it’s just going on and on. And we experience other people doing things similar back to us. We have all these different types of results. So this whole sort of cycle, this pattern, is almost self-perpetuating. We have to stop it, and to do that it’s necessary to deconstruct what we’re experiencing. See what are the problematic areas. Which is correct? What can be corrected? How to correct it? Cause and effect, etc. That’s the practical application of all of this.

Everything is intended – they say that everything that Buddhataught was for the purpose of benefiting others. Therefore it’s up to you to figure out, well, what is the benefit of this? Because the intention was to benefit us. And that’s how you learn to apply all these various teachings – by not necessarily having somebody else point out to you how it is relevant to your life, but try to figure it out yourself. A teacher or a book can give an example, but then you have to work with it yourself. All of this material is intended to work on yourself. If you remember, we have the process of first be sure that you got it right, you heard it right, you wrote your notes correctly. And then you think about it so you understand it, become convinced that it’s true. And then use it, habituate yourself. Try to understand, to view things that way. That’s meditation.

Meditation can be done sitting quietly in a controlled environment, but also can be done all the time, as you are dealing with life. Remember it means to accustom yourself to something, to habituate yourself with a certain state of mind, or viewpoint, or understanding.