On Peirce.

Peirce was--to understate the case--not the most popular reading of the seminar. (I have to put in a plug for Gombrich here). Like the Constructivists, Peirce was a thinker who saw the grand whole and would not settle for anything less. As one critic puts it, he was continually working on the house of philosophy from within, refining and rearranging its furniture in accordance with a grand scheme only he could fully percieve.

While this explanation pushes under the rug some of the inconsistencies in Peirce's work, it is an apt description of his overall methodology. What does it matter if the couch is in the kitchen, as long as the walls are solid?

The structure of philosophy, Peirce-style.
Firstness Secondness Thirdness
Origin: being independent of any other End: reaction with something else Process: these two brought together
Feeling, Chance, Mind Law, Heredity, Matter Habit, Evolution, Fixing of Arbitrariness
"State of mind having its own living quality.... independent of any other state." Sudden relation between feelings: reactions, actions, disturbances Generalizing of habits, feelings to unfamiliar situations

"As the Philosopher has taught us, Genius is simply the ability to perceive objects under ten Categories, and these are Substance, Quantity, Quality, Relation, Action, Affection, Position, Time, Place & State... Every Thing that I have found so far must be analyzed in its turn from the aspect of the ten Categories..." A fictional example from my favorite semiotician, Umberto Eco, perhaps best illustrates Peirce. A little background on the book, titled The Island of the Day Before: In 1643, an Italian named Roberto della Griva is sent by Cardinal Mazarin of France as a spy on a Dutch ship on a journey to discover the Punto Fijo: the secret of longitude. (This was one of the major scientific problems of the century, essential for navigation but not solved until the invention of the chronometer in 1714. The problem is essentially this: while latitude can easily be calculated by way of celestial navigation, longitude depends on your distance from an essentially arbitrary line (now in Greenwich, England), measured in terms of time. Without an accurate clock, there is essentially no way to fix position exactlyu- a major problem for the navigating imperial powers of the time. As befits his curious mind--not to mention the enormous material reward that would be involved in a solution-- Galileo was interested in this problem as well).

The ship is wrecked, and Roberto-oddly enough- finds refuge on a deserted ship called the Daphne, anchored off an island he thinks is on the edge of the meridian.

The Daphne is full of exotic wonders and a multitude of clocks, revealing that it too came to grief in the search for the meridian. Roberto's days of leisure on board give way to a remembrance of his past, including a most ingeneous machine that could easily be a precursor of Peirce: an Aristotelian Machine seeks to assemble thousands of atoms of concepts into set categories. Some of Padre Emanuele's mechanical slots echo Peirce's "firstness, secondness, and thirdness" in an uncanny accuracy. He too seems to perceive knowledge as something valued by its place in the synthetic whole.

Eco, of course, is on the other end of the spectrum entirely. It's clear that he's enjoying a gentle laugh at the good Padre's machine, but at the same time there's a certain respect for the eternal human need to organize and categorize experience. If we can reduce an understanding of consciousness to the most basic chemical level, does it invalidate the search for truth? With such a reductionist vision, the danger of not seeing the forest for the trees is ever-present. As Roberto discovers, the pursuit of knowledge is a dangerous endeavor- a vast ocean of meaning, from which only fleeting allegories and colorful bits of truth can be drawn.

Is there anything more?

On to Cassirer

More on Peirce

A lovely vision to distract you

this page written by Sheri Simmons '99

May 25, 1996

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