Excerpts from Improving the Mind

I have finally received my copy of the following book, and spent an entirely enjoyable afternoon reading it from cover to cover. It is just as relevant now as it was in 1741, and the language use is sufficiently quaint to add an enticing quality to the text possibly above and beyond its original intent. I recommend the book highly.

Dr Isaac Watts, 1741, Improvement of the Mind
edited and abridged by Stephen B Helfant and J. David Coccoli, 1987,
Helfant Publishing House, Groton, Massachusetts
ISBN 0-942969-00-6

According to Dr Isaac Watts, there are five methods for “improving the mind”, each of which has its individual merits, but all of which should be integrated for best results. I have taken the liberty of transcribing a few paragraphs of the text to give a sense of the writing style, and to provide the basis for some further discussion and to provide the context for my further writings, since the book itself was hard to get hold of.

In this post, I’ve reproduced some basic content, and in future posts, I will comment further on what has been written.

1. Observation

Observation is the notice we take of all occurrences … whether they are sensible or intellectual, whether relating to persons or things, to ourselves or others … All those things which we see, which we hear or feel, which we perceive by sense or consciousness, or which we know in a direct manner, with scarce any exercise of our reflecting faculties, or our reasoning powers, may be included under the general name of observation … When this observation relates to any thing that immediately concerns ourselves, and of which we are conscious, it may be called experience … When we are searching out the nature or properties of any being by various methods of trial … this sort of observation is called experiment … All these belong to the first method of knowledge: which I shall call observation”

2. Reading

Reading is where we acquaint ourselves with what other men have written, or published to the world in their writings. These arts of reading and writing are of infinite advantage; for by them we are made partakers of the sentiments, observations, reasonings and improvements of all the learned world, in the most remote nations, and in former ages almost from the beginning of mankind.”

3. Lectures

Public or private lectures are such verbal instructions as are given by a teacher while the learners attend in silence. This is the way of learning … philosophy … from the professor’s chair; or of mathematics, by a teacher shewing us various theorems or problems, i.e., speculations or practices by demonstration and operation, with all the instruments of that art necessary to those operations.”

4. Conversation

Conversation is another method of improving our minds, wherein, by mutual discourse and inquiry, we learn the sentiments of others, as well as communicate our sentiments to others in the same manner … under this head of conversation we may also rank disputes of various kinds.”

5. Meditation

Meditation or study includes all those exercises of the mind, whereby we render all the former methods useful for our increase in true knowledge and wisdom. It is by meditation we come to confirm our memory of things that pass through our thoughts in the occurrences of life, in our own experiences, and in the observations we make. It is by meditation that we draw various inferences, and establish in our minds general principles of knowledge. It is by meditation that we compare the various ideas which we derive from our senses, or from the operations of our souls, and join them in propositions. It is by meditation that we fix in our memory what we learn, and form our own judgement of the truth or falsehood, the strength or weakness, of what others speak and write. It is meditation … that draws out long chains of argument, and searches or finds deep and difficult truths which before lay concealed in darkness.”

Dr Watts goes on to compare and contrast the various methods of improving the mind, and some of his observations deserve re-examination in the modern context. His analysis is still very insightful today and I reproduce some snippets below.

“It would be a needless thing to prove, that our own solitary meditations, together with a few observations that the most part of mankind are capable of making, are not sufficient, of themselves, to lead us into the attainment of any considerable proportion of knowledge, at least in an age so much improved as ours is, without the assistance of conversation and reading, and other proper instructions that are to be attained in our days. Yet each of these methods have their peculiar advantages, whereby they assist each other, and their peculiar defects which have need to be supplied by the other’s assistance.”


“(An) advantage of observation is, that we may gain knowledge all the day long … and every moment of our existences we may be adding something to our intellectual treasures. “


“By reading, we acquaint ourselves, in a very extensive manner, with the affairs, actions, and thoughts of the living and the dead, in the most remote nations, and most distant ages, and that with as much ease as though they lived in our own age and nation. By reading books, we may learn something from all parts of mankind; whereas by observation we learn all from ourselves, and only what comes within our own direct cognizance. By conversation we can only enjoy the assistance of a few persons, viz., those who are near us, and live at the same time as we do, that is, our neighbours and contemporaries; but our knowledge is much more narrowed still, if we confine ourselves merely to our own solitary reasonings, without much observation or reading: for then all our improvement must arise only from our own inward powers and meditations … When we read good authors, we learn the best, the most laboured, the most refined sentiments, even of those wise and learned men; for they have studied hard, and have committed to writing their maturest thoughts, and the result of their long study and experience: whereas by conversation, and in some lectures, we obtain many times only the present thoughts of our tutors and friends, which (though they might be bright and useful) yet, at first perhaps, may be sudden and undigested, and are mere hints which have risen to no maturity … It is another advantage of reading, that we may review what we have read; we may consult the page again and again, and meditate on it, at successive seasons, in our serenest and retired hours, having the book always at hand: but what we obtain by conversation and in lectures, is oftentimes lost again as soon as the company breaks up, or at least when the day vanishes, unless we happen to have the talent of a good memory, or quickly retire and note down what remarkables we have found in those discourses. And for the same reason, for the want of retiring and writing, many a learned man has lost several useful meditations of his own, and could never recall them again.”


“There is something more sprightly, more delightful and entertaining in the living discourse of a wise, learned, and well-qualified teacher than there is in the silent and sedentary practice of reading … A tutor or instructor, when he paraphrases and explains other authors, can mark out the precise point of difficulty or controversy, and unfold it. He can shew you which paragraphs are of greatest importance, and which are of less moment … He can inform you what new doctrines or sentiments are arising in the world before they come to be public; as well as acquaint you with his own private thoughts, and his own experiments and observations, which never were, and perhaps never will be, published to the world, and yet may be very valuable and useful … A living instructor can convey to our senses those notions … which cannot so well be done by mere reading … He can describe figures and diagrams, point to lines and angles, and make out the demonstration in a more intelligible manner … even though we should have the same figures lying in a book before our eyes. A living teacher, therefore, is a most necessary help in these studies … When an instructor in his lectures delivers any matter of difficulty, or expresses himself in such a manner as seems obscure, so that you do not take up his ideas clearly or fully, you have opportunity at least when the lecture is finished, or at other proper seasons, to inquire how such a sentence should be understood, or how such a difficulty may be explained and removed. If there be permission given to free converse with the tutor, either in the midst of the lecture, or rather at the end of it, concerning any doubts or difficulties that occur to the hearer, this brings it nearer to conversation or discourse.”


“When we converse familiarly with a learned friend, we have his own help at hand to explain to us every word and sentiment that seems obscure in his discourse … we may propose our doubts and objections against his sentiments and have them solved and answered at once … difficulties we meet with in books, and in our private studies, may find relief by friendly conference … if we note down this difficulty when we read it, we may propose it to an ingenious correspondent when we see him; we may be relieved in a moment, and find the difficulty vanish: he beholds the object perhaps in a different view, sets it before us in quite another light, leads us at once to evidence and truth, and that with a delightful surprise …”

“Conversation calls out into light what has been lodged in all the recesses and secret chambers of the soul: by occasional hints and incidents it brings old useful notions into remembrance; it unfolds and displays the hidden treasures of knowledge with which reading, observation, and study had before furnished the mind. By mutual discourse, the soul is awakened and allured to bring forth its hoards of knowledge, and it learns how to render them most useful to mankind. A man of vast reading without conversation, is like a miser, who lives only to himself. In free and friendly conversation, our intellectual powers are more animated, and our spirits act with superior vigour in the quest and pursuit of unknown truths. There is a sharpness and sagacity of thought that attends conversation, beyond what we find when we are shut up reading and musing in our retirements. Our souls may be serene in solitude, but not sparkling, though perhaps we are employed in reading the works of the brightest writers. Often has it happened in free discourse, that new thoughts are strangely struck out, and the seeds of truth sparkle and blaze through the company, which in calm and silent reading would never have been excited. By conversation you will both give and receive this benefit; as flints when put into motion, and striking against each other, produce living fire on both sides which would never have arisen from the same hard materials in a state of rest.”

“A man who dwells all his days among books, may have amassed together a vast heap of notions; but he may be a mere scholar, which is a contemptible sort of character in the world. A hermit who has been shut up in his cell in a college, has contracted a sort of mould and rust upon his soul, and all his airs of behaviour have a certain awkwardness in them; but these awkward airs are worn away by degrees in company … The scholar now becomes a citizen or a gentlemen, a neighbour and a friend; he learns how to dress his sentiments in the fairest colours, as well as to set them in the strongest light. Thus he brings out his notions with honour; he makes some use of them in the world, and improves the theory by practice.”

“Mere observation, lectures, reading and conversation, without thinking, are not sufficient to make a man of knowledge and wisdom. It is our thought and reflection, study and meditation, that must attend all the other methods of improvement, and perfect them.


“By a survey of these things we may justly conclude,

  • that he who spends all his time in hearing lectures, or poring upon books, without observation, meditation or … conversation, will have but a mere historical knowledge of learning, and be able only to tell what others have known or said on the subject
  • he that lets all his time flow away in conversation, without due observation, reading or study, will gain but a slight and superficial knowledge, which will be in danger of vanishing with the voice of the speaker
  • and he that confines himself merely to his closet, and his own narrow observation of things, and is taught only by his own solitary thoughts, without instruction by lectures, reading, or free conversation, will be in danger of a narrow spirit, a vain conceit of himself, and an unreasonable contempt of others

and after all, he will obtain but a limited and imperfect view and knowledge of things, and he will seldom learn how to make that knowledge useful.”


“These five methods of improvement should be pursued jointly, and go hand in hand, where our circumstances are so happy as to find opportunity and conveniency to enjoy them all: though I must give my opinion that two of them, viz., reading and meditation, should employ much more of our time than public lectures, or conversation and discourse. As for observation, we may always be acquiring knowledge that way, whether we are alone or be in company.”

1 thought on “Excerpts from Improving the Mind”

  1. It would seem to me that what Dr. Isaac Watts is advocating is a mixture of learning contexts. This is a reasonable proposition. A mixture of approaches can lead us to be more balanced, less fundamentalist and/or fixated with our own views. What Watts is advocating is really just commonsence isn’t he?

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