Improvement of the Mind

Dr. Isaac Watts

The following synopsis of Improvement of the Mind was taken from the version edited and abridged by Stephen B. Helfant and J. David Coccoli, Copyright © 1987 Helfant Publishing House, Groton, MA 01450. Reproduced by permission.

The major themes corresponding to each numbered section of each chapter have been extracted and compiled in this synopsis. Generally, the themes are direct extracts of the author's words. However, because the major themes may occasionally be found ambiguous when taken out of context, the editors, when necessary, have provided additional words or expressions (indicated by italic type) to clarify meanings.


  1. Deeply possess your mind with the vast importance of a good judgment, and the rich and inestimable advantage of right reasoning.
  2. Consider the weaknesses, frailties, and mistakes of human nature in general, which arise from the very constitution of a soul united to an animal body.
  3. Contrive and practice some proper methods to acquaint yourself with your own ignorance.
    1. Take a wide survey now and then of the vast and unlimited regions of learning.
    2. Think what a numberless variety of questions and difficulties there are belonging even to that particular science in which you have made the greatest progress.
    3. Spend a few thoughts sometimes on puzzling inquiries to give you a more sensible impression of the poverty of your understanding and the imperfection of your knowledge.
    4. Read the accounts of those vast treasures of knowledge which some of the dead have possessed, and some of the living do possess.
  4. Presume not too much upon a bright genius, a ready wit, and good parts; for this, without labour and study, will never make a man of knowledge and wisdom.
  5. As you are not to fancy yourself a learned man because you are blessed with a ready wit; so neither must you imagine that large and laborious reading, and a strong memory, can denominate you truly wise.
  6. Be not so weak as to imagine that a life of learning is a life of laziness and ease.
  7. Let the hope of new discoveries, as well as the satisfaction and pleasure of known truths, animate your daily industry.
  8. Do not hover always on the surface of things.
  9. Once a day, especially in the early years of life and study, call yourselves to an account what new ideas, what new proposition or truth you have gained, what further confirmation of known truths, and what advances you have made in any part of knowledge.
  10. Maintain a constant watch at all times against a dogmatical spirit.
    1. It stops the ear against all further reasoning upon that subject, and shuts up the mind from all further improvements of knowledge.
    2. A dogmatical spirit naturally leads us to arrogance of mind, and gives a man some airs in conversation which are too haughty and assuming.
  11. Though caution and slow assent will guard you against frequent mistakes and retractions; yet you should get humility and courage enough to retract any mistake, and confess an error.
  12. He that would raise his judgment above the vulgar rank of mankind, and learn to pass a just sentence on persons and things, must take heed of a fanciful temper of mind, and a humorous conduct in his affairs.
  13. Have a care of trifling with things important and momentous, or to sporting with things awful and sacred: do not indulge a spirit of ridicule.
  14. Ever maintain a virtuous and pious frame of spirit.
  15. Watch against the pride of your own reason, and a vain conceit of your own intellectual powers.


General Definitions
  1. Observation is the notice that we take of all occurrences.
  2. Reading is that means or method of knowledge whereby we acquaint ourselves with what other men have written.
  3. Public or private lectures are such verbal instructions as are given by a teacher.
  4. Conversation is another method of improving our minds, wherein, by mutual discourse and inquiry, we learn the sentiments of others.
  5. Meditation or study includes all those exercises of the mind, whereby we render all the former methods useful.
Advantages of each method
  1. Observation
    1. Furnishes first simple and complex ideas.
    2. Knowledge gotten at first hand.
    3. Gain knowledge all the day long.
  2. Reading
    1. We acquaint ourselves with the affairs, actions, and thoughts of the living and the dead.
    2. We transfer to ourselves products of great and wise men in their several ages and nations.
    3. We learn the best, the most laboured, and most refined sentiments.
    4. We may review what we have read.
  3. Lectures
    1. Lectures are more delightful and entertaining than reading.
    2. A tutor or instructor, when he paraphrases and explains other authors can mark out the precise point of difficulty or controversy.
    3. Lectures can convey to our senses those notions which cannot so well be done by mere reading.
    4. We have the opportunity to inquire how a difficulty may be explained and removed.
  4. Conversation
    1. When we converse familiarly with a learned friend we have his own help at hand to explain to us.
    2. We may propose our doubts and objections and have them solved and answered at once.
    3. Difficulties we meet with in books, and in our private studies, may find a relief by friendly conference.
    4. Conversation calls out into light what has been lodged in all the recesses and secret chambers of the soul.
    5. Our intellectual powers are more animated.
    6. We have a great advantage of proposing our private opinions and bringing our own sentiments to the test.
    7. Conversation furnishes us with the knowledge of men and the affairs of life.
  5. Meditation or study
    1. Our own meditation and the labour of our own thoughts form our judgment of things.
    2. Meditation transfers and conveys the notions and sentiments of others to ourselves.
    3. We improve the hints that we have acquired by observation, conversation, lecture, and reading.


  1. Let the enlargement of knowledge be one constant view and design in life.
  2. The laudable curiosity of young people should be indulged and gratified, rather than discouraged.
  3. Write down what is most remarkable and uncommon.
  4. Keep our minds as free as possible from passions and prejudices.
  5. Beware of indulging that busy curiosity which is ever inquiring into private and domestic affairs.
  6. Let your observation be chiefly designed to lead you to a better acquaintance with things.
  7. Remarks you make on particular persons, especially to their disadvantage, should for the most part lie hid in your own breast.
  8. Be not too hasty to erect general theories from a few particular observations, appearances, or experiments.


Selecting Books
  1. It is of vast advantage to have the most proper books for reading recommended by a judicious friend.
Books of Importance
  1. Books of importance of any kind should be first read in a more general and cursory manner.
  2. If three or four persons agree to read the same book, it will render the reading beneficial to every one of them.
  3. Several persons engaged in the same study promote each other's improvement.
  4. Your chief business is to consider whether the authors' opinions are right or no, and to improve your own solid knowledge.
  5. If a writer does not explain his ideas or prove the positions well, mark the faults or defects and endeavour to do it better.
  6. If the method of a book be irregular, reduce it into form by a little analysis of your own.
  7. If a book has no index to it, or good table of contents, make one.
  8. Make all your reading subservient not only to the enlargement of your treasures of knowledge, but also to the improvement of your reasoning powers.
  9. Be diligent into the sense and arguments of the authors.
  10. Never apply yourselves to read any author with a determination beforehand either for or against him.
    1. Nor should any of our opinions be so resolved upon, especially in younger years, as never to hear or to bear opposition to them.
    2. When we peruse those authors who defend our own settled sentiments, we should not take all their arguments for just and solid.
    3. When we read those authors which oppose our most certain and established principles, we should be ready to receive any informations from them in other points.
  11. When our consciences are convinced that these rules of prudence or duty belong to us, and require our conformity to them, we should then call ourselves to account.
Books of Diversion and Amusement
  1. All those paragraphs or sentiments deserve a remark, which are new and uncommon, noble and excellent, strong and convincing, beautiful and elegant, or any way worthy.
  2. Writings as may happen to be remarkably stupid or silly, false or mistaken, should become subjects of an occasional criticism.
  3. Where the poesy, oratory, etc. shine, a single reading is not sufficient.
Books that Sharpen our Literary Comprehension
  1. Vocabularies and dictionaries are to be consulted, and never let an unknown word pass in your reading without seeking for its sense and meaning.
Scholar vs. Mere Collector
  1. Be not satisfied with a mere knowledge of the best authors that treat of any subject. Otherwise, you are under a great temptation to practise the following two follies:
    1. Furnish your library infinitely better than your understanding.
    2. At best your learning reaches no further than the indexes and table of contents.


  1. If we would form a judgment of a book which we have not seen before, the title-page, the author's name, the preface, and the table of contents may assist our judgment.
  2. Run through several chapters to judge whether the treatise be worth a complete perusal or no.
  3. General mistakes.
    1. We are ready to pass a favourable judgment if a book agrees with our own principles.
    2. We may admire a treatise whereas if we had but attained a good degree of skill in that science, perhaps we would find that the author had written very poorly.
    3. When we have made ourselves masters of any particular theme of knowledge, we knew most of those things before, and therefore they strike us not, and are in danger of discommending them.
  4. More of these follies.
    1. There are some persons who will give their judgment on a book as soon as the title of it is mentioned, though they have neither studied nor understood it.
    2. Another sort of judges become mere echoes of the praises or censures of other men.
  5. It is a paltry humour that inclines a man to rail at any human performance because it is not absolutely perfect.
  6. Another very frequent fault is this, that persons spread the same praises or the same reproaches over a whole treatise, and all the chapters in it, which are due only to some of them.
  7. When you hear any person pretending to give his judgment of a book, consider whether he be a capable judge.


  1. Assistance of teachers is absolutely necessary for most persons.
Selection of Instructors
  1. It is best to enjoy the instructions of two or three tutors at least.
  2. Instructors should have skill in the art or method of teaching and practice of it.
  3. A good tutor will apply himself with diligence and concern.
  4. The tutor should take particular care that there be nothing in him which may be of ill example.
Rules for the Learner
  1. The learner should attend with constancy and care on all the instructions of his tutor.
  2. A student should never satisfy himself with bare attendance.
  3. Let the learner endeavour to maintain an honourable opinion of his instructor.
    1. Pert young disciples soon fancy themselves wiser than those who teach them.
    2. Teachers and masters are not infallible.
  4. Authority of a teacher must not absolutely determine the judgment of his pupil.


  1. It is a great happiness to be acquainted with persons wiser than ourselves.
  2. Waste not the time in trifle and impertinence.
  3. Lead persons into a discourse of the matters of their own peculiar province or profession.
  4. Confine not yourself always to one sort of company lest you should be confirmed and established in the same mistake by conversing with persons of the same sentiments.
  5. In mixed company among acquaintance and strangers, endeavour to learn something from all.
  6. Be not frighted nor provoked at opinions different from your own.
  7. Believe that it is possible to learn something from persons much below yourself.
  8. It is of considerable advantage, when we are pursuing any difficult point of knowledge, to have a society of ingenious correspondents at hand, to whom we may propose it.
  9. Let some one person take a book which may be agreeable to the whole company, and by common consent let him read in it.
  10. Whensoever it lies in your power to lead the conversation, let it be directed to some profitable point of knowledge or practice.
  11. Attend with sincere diligence.
  12. When a man gives his opinion in the plainest language of common sense do not presently imagine you shall gain nothing by his company.
  13. If you have not a clear idea of what is spoken, endeavour to obtain a clearer conception of it by a decent manner of inquiry.
  14. Represent what objection some persons would be ready to make against the sentiments of the speaker, without telling him you oppose.
  15. When you are forced to differ, represent how far you agree.
  16. Let your correspondent fairly finish his speech before you reply.
  17. Never remain in ignorance for want of asking.
  18. Be not too forward to determine any question with an infallible and peremptory sentence.
  19. Truth itself is in danger of being betrayed or lost, if there be no opposition made to a pretending talker.
    1. A wise and a modest man may repel insolence with its own weapons.
    2. A triumphant assurance hath sometimes supported gross falsehoods, and a whole company have been captivated to error till some man with equal assurance has rescued them.
  20. Be not fond of disputing every thing pro and con.
  21. Do not bring a warm party spirit into a conversation which is designed for mutual improvement in the search of truth.
  22. If you perceive a person unskilful in the matter of debate, lead him into a clearer knowledge of the subject.
  23. Take heed of affecting always to shine in company above the rest.
  24. Though you should not affect to flourish in a copious harangue and a diffusive style in company, yet neither should you rudely interrupt and reproach him that happens to use it: but reduce his sentiments into a more contracted form.
  25. Be not so ready to charge ignorance, prejudice, and mistake upon others as you are to suspect yourself of it.
  26. Banish utterly out of all conversation everything that tends to provoke passion or raise a fire in the blood.
  27. Whensoever any unhappy word shall arise in company command your tongue into silence. If this should not be sufficient, let a grave admonition, or a soft and gentle turn of wit give an occasion to stop the progress of his indecent fire.
  28. Inure yourself to a candid and obliging manner in all conversation.
  29. Choose such companions as may be capable of administering to your improvement.
  30. Nor is it every sober person of your acquaintance, no, nor every man of bright parts, or rich in learning, that is fit to engage in free conversation for the inquiry after truth if he lie under any of the following infirmities.
    1. Exceedingly reserved.
    2. Haughty and proud.
    3. Positive and dogmatical.
    4. Affects to outshine all the company.
    5. Whiffling and unsteady turn of mind.
    6. Fretful and peevish.
    7. Affects wit on all occasions.
    8. Crafty and cunning.
  31. You should watch against the working of these evil qualities in your breast.
  32. When you retire from company, converse with yourself in solitude.
    1. If reason, decency, and civility have not been well observed amongst your associates, take notice of those defects for your own improvement.
    2. By a review of irregularities you may learn to avoid follies.
  1. When persons begin a debate, they should always take care that they are agreed in some general principles or propositions.
  2. Let them search farther, and inquire how near they approach to each other's sentiments; and whatsoever propositions they agree in.
  3. The question should be cleared from all doubtful terms and needless additions.
  4. The precise point of inquiry should be distinctly fixed.
  5. A resolute design of victory is the bane of all real improvement.
  6. Enter the debate with a sincere design of yielding to reason, on which side soever it appears.
  7. Watch narrowly in every dispute, that your opponent does not lead you unwarily to grant some principle of the proposition though it be far astray from the truth.
  8. Make any such concession as may turn to your real advantage in maintaining the truth.
  9. When you are engaged in dispute with a person of very different principles from yourself you may fairly make use of his own principles to shew him his mistake.
  10. Great care must be taken, lest your debates break in upon your passions.


  1. Learn betimes to distinguish between words and things.
  2. Let not young students search out far above their reach.
  3. Nor yet let any student fright himself at every turn with insurmountable difficulties.
  4. In learning any new thing, there should be as little as possible first proposed to the mind at once.
  5. Engage not the mind in the intense pursuit of too many things at once.
  6. Where two or three sciences are pursued at the same time, if one of them be dry, let another be more entertaining and agreeable, to secure the mind from weariness.
  7. Keep the end always in your eye.
  8. Exert your care, skill, and diligence, about every subject and every question, in a just proportion to the importance of it.
    1. Be very careful in gaining some general and fundamental truth.
    2. In matters of practice we should be most careful to fix our end right.
    3. Avoid such mistakes whose influence would be yet more extensive and injurious to others.
  9. Have a care lest some beloved notion, or some darling science, so far prevail over your mind as to give a sovereign tincture to all your other studies.
  10. Suffer not any beloved study to prejudice your mind so far in favour of it as to despise all other learning.
  11. Let every particular study have due and proper time assigned it.
  12. Do not apply yourself to any one study at one time longer than the mind is capable of giving a close attention to it without weariness or wandering.
  13. In the beginning of your application to any new subject, be not too uneasy under present difficulties that occur.
  14. Do not expect to arrive at certainty in every subject which you pursue.
  15. Endeavour to apply every speculative study to some practical use.
  16. Truth does not always depend upon the most convenient method.


  1. Get a good liking to the study or knowledge you would pursue.
  2. Sometimes we may make use of sensible things and corporeal images for the illustration of those notions which are more abstracted and intellectual.
  3. Apply yourself to those studies, and read those authors who draw out their subjects into a perpetual chain of connected reasonings.
  4. Do not choose your constant place of study by the finery of its prospects, or the most various and entertaining scenes of sensible things.
  5. Be not in too much haste to come to the determination of a difficult or important point.
  6. Have a care of indulging the more sensual passions and appetites of animal nature; they are great enemies to attention.


Noble Characteristics
  1. An ample and capacious mind which is ready to take in vast and sublime ideas without pain or difficulty.
  2. A mind that is free to receive new and strange ideas and propositions upon just evidence without any great surprise or aversion.
  3. An ability to receive many ideas at once without confusion.
  1. Labour by all means to gain an attentive and patient temper of mind.
  2. Accustom yourself to clear and distinct ideas in every thing you think of.
  3. Use all diligence to acquire and treasure up a large store of ideas and notions.
  4. Entertain and lay up daily new ideas in a regular order.
  5. Observe a regular progressive method.


  1. Pay due attention and diligence to learn and know things which we would commit to our remembrance.
  2. Every thing which we learn should be conveyed to the understanding in the plainest expressions without any ambiguity.
    1. Take heed that you do not take up with words instead of things, nor sounds instead of sentiments and ideas.
  3. Method and regularity in the things we commit to memory is necessary.
    1. Whatsoever you would trust to your memory, let it be disposed in a proper method, connected well together and referred to distinct and particular heads or classes.
    2. The mutual dependence of things on each other help the memory of both.
  4. A frequent review, and careful repetition of the things we would learn will help fix them in the memory.
    1. Even when a person is hearing a lecture, he may give his thoughts leave now and then to step back so far as to recollect the several heads of it from the beginning.
    2. If we would fix in the memory the discourses we hear, let us abstract them into brief compends, and review them often.
    3. Do not plunge yourself into other businesses or studies, amusements or recreations, immediately after you have attended upon instruction.
    4. Talking over the things which you have read with your companions is a most useful manner of review or repetition.
  5. Pleasure and delight in the things we learn give great assistance towards the remembrance of them.
  6. The memory of useful things may receive considerable aid if they are thrown into verse.
  7. When you would remember new things or words, endeavour to associate and connect them with some words or things which you have well known before.
    1. It is also by this association of ideas that we may better imprint any new idea upon the memory, by joining with it some circumstance wherein we first observed, heard, or learned it.
    2. Refer remembrance of names and things from our recollection of their likeness to other things.
    3. A new or strange idea may be fixed in the memory by considering its contrary or opposite.
  8. In such cases wherein it may be done, seek after a local memory, or a remembrance of what you have read by the side or page of where it is written or printed.
  9. Let every thing we desire to remember be legibly and distinctly written.
    1. Take notice of the advantage which the memory gains by schemes and tables.
    2. Once writing over what we design to remember, and giving due attention to what we write, will fix it more in the mind than reading it five times.
  10. It has sometimes been the practice of men to imprint names or sentences on their memory by taking the first letters of every word of that sentence, or of those names, and making a new word out of it.


  1. Consider whether it be knowable at all.
  2. Consider whether the matter be worthy of your inquiry.
  3. Consider whether you have sufficient foundation or skill for the pursuit of it.
  4. Consider whether the subject be any ways useful.
  5. Consider what tendency it has to make you wiser and better.
Preparing the Question
  1. If it be dressed up and entangled in more words than is needful endeavour to reduce it to a greater simplicity and plainness.
  2. The stating a question with clearness goes a great way toward the answering of it.
  3. If the question relates to an axiom it should not be suddenly admitted or received.
    1. It is not enough to say that it has been believed through many ages.
    2. Nor is it enough to forbid any proposition the title of axiom, because it has been denied.
  4. While in search after truth keep up a just indifference to either side of the question.
    1. Men without any industry or acquisition of their own inherit local truths.
    2. If a man can bring his mind once to be positive and fierce for propositions whose evidence he hath never examined he will build all his opinions upon insufficient grounds.
Determining the Question
  1. Do not take up with partial examination, but turn your thoughts on all sides.
  2. Take heed lest some darling notion be made a test of the truth or falsehood of all other propositions about the same subject.
  3. Have a care of suddenly determining any one question on which the determination of any kindred or parallel cases will follow.
  4. Raillery and wit were never made to answer our inquiries after truth, and to determine a question of rational controversy.
  5. Let the force of argument alone influence your assent or dissent.
  6. Sometimes a question is so large and extensive as ought not to be determined by a single argument or answer.
  7. Take a full survey of the objections against it, as well as of the arguments for it, and see on which side the preponderation falls.
  8. In matters of moment and importance, it is our duty indeed to seek after certain and conclusive arguments.
  9. Many things which we believe with very different degrees of assent should be regulated according to the different degrees of evidence.
Judging of Probabilities
  1. That which agrees most with the constitution of nature carries the greatest probability in it.
  2. That which is most conformable to the constant observations of men, is most likely to be true.
  3. Where neither nature, nor observation, nor custom gives us any sufficient information, we may derive a probability from the attestation of wise and honest men.