153. (Charles Sanders Peirce)

He has almost no interest in the field of aesthetics, and though his theory of semiotics might be thought most germane to the study of literature, it is not necessarily most germane to what is most literary in Peirce. I’m hardly an expert on the great American philosopher, but as I read his essays not for the first time, but for what feels like the first time, I experience a strong disinclination to read explicators: his own words are right.

Of the rightness of his words, he might say that he has offered a true and illuminating arrangement of facts. Peirce would deny that an idea cannot be paraphrased. It is of the essence of an idea for Peirce that it can be; the failure to arrange facts properly leads to philosophers asking the wrong questions (the grammar, as Wittgenstein might say, leads them astray), and a proper arrangement can bring an idea into true clarity.

He might seem to be opposed, if not to literature, then to any claims on behalf of literature. For not only does he claim that an arrangement of facts can clarify or obscure ideas, as if there were a single ideal, probably not accomplished by the diversity of poets and authors, but he also makes the claim that a movement of any thought is concluded with the formation of a belief, which is itself to be understood as the foundation or motivation for a habit of action; must poetry generate beliefs and make something happen, and if not, then what does it do? Finally, he would seem to be opposed to the notion that an arrangement of words would ideally accomplish more than to communicate a true idea of what is real; that the experience of language, as a seine of feelings and judgments catching hold of numerous aspects of life, is not essential to its highest function. It might seem, though he nowhere says so, that he desires a purified language; he might seem, that is, to entertain the fantasy of logical symbols that would blossom in the early twentieth century.


But in my foray into Peirce, I find something quite opposite–an extraordinary sensitivity to metaphor and an impassioned defense of the emotion inherent in thought (and also, though I won’t develop the idea here, of thought inherent in emotion).

To make the point that what is “real” does not need to be recoverable or immediately available, in “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” Peirce quotes Gray’s elegy: “Full many a gem of purest ray serene…” He defends himself on the grounds that his notion of convergence of opinion on a settled truth of the real supposes an infinite expanse of futurity. Then, anticipating the objection that, on the grounds of his argument that “only practical distinctions have a meaning,” and that such an inconceivable futurity could have no practical distinction, he turns back to Gray’s lines and explains: “Well, I must confess that it makes very little difference whether we say that a stone on the bottom of the ocean, in complete darkness, is brilliant or not–that is to say, that it probably makes no difference, remembering always that stone may be fished up to-morrow. But that there are gems at the bottom of the sea, flowers in the untraveled desert, etc are propositions which, like that about a diamond being hard when it is not pressed, concern much more the arrangement of our language than they do the meaning of our ideas.”

Peirce might be thought to back out of his alliance with poetry; the “arrangement of language” upon which poetry stands and falls may not be the same arrangement upon which the clarity of ideas stands and falls.  An “arrangement of language” in poetry might warp thought, tempt it to accept what is false:

“Consequently, reasoning is good if it be such as to give a true conclusion from true premises, and not otherwise. Thus, the question of its validity is purely one of fact and not of thinking. A being the premises and B the conclusion is, whether these facts are really so related that if A is B is. If so, the inference is valid; if not, not. It is not in the least the question whether, when the premises are accepted by the mind, we feel an impulse to accept the conclusion also. It is true that we do generally reason correctly by nature. But that is an accident; the true conclusion would remain true if we had no impulse to accept it; and the false one would remain false, though we could not resist the tendency to believe in it.”

But Peirce writes that thought must guard against feeling only because thought is necessarily guided by feeling. His theory of cognition is emotional; his theory of emotions cognitive.

What he disdains is the suggestion that the imagination can, left to its own devices, accomplish valuable ends:

Lavoisier’s method was not to read and pray, not to dream that some long and complicate chemical process would have a certain effect, to put it into practice with dull patience, after its inevitable failure to dream that with some modification it would have another result, ad to end by publishing the last dream as fact: his way was to carry his mind into the laboratory, and to make of his alembics and cucurbits instruments of thought, giving a new conception of reasoning, as something which was to be done with one’s eyes open, by manipulating real things instead of words and fancies.

The last phrase would seem to be a vicious strike against literature and its defenders. But, speaking as someone invested in both literature and criticism, I find it difficult to argue with Peirce: the manipulation of words and fancies will not lead to a new conception of reasoning.

I can accept what Peirce is saying against my own experience of literature, without feeling that I have been foolish, because he is also capable of writing the following account of thought:

In this process we observe two sorts of elements of consciousness, the distinction between which may best be made clear by means of an illustration. In a piece of music there are the separate notes, and there is the air. A single tone may be prolonged for an hour or a day, and it exists as perfectly in each second of that time as in the whole taken together; so that, as long as it is sounding, it might be present to a sense from which everything in the past was as completely absent as the future itself. But it is different with the air, the performance of which occupies a certain time, during the portions of which only portions of it are played. It consists in an orderliness in the succession of sounds which strike the ear at different times; and to perceive it there must be some continuity of consciousness which makes the events of a lapse of time present to us. We certainly only perceive the air by hearing the separate notes; yet we cannot be said to directly hear it, for we hear only what is present at the instant, and an orderliness of succession cannot exist in an instant. These two sorts of objects, what we are immediately conscious of and what we are mediately conscious of, are found in all consciousness. Some elements (the sensations) are completely present at every instant so long as they last, while others (like thought) are actions having beginning, middle, and end, and consist in a congruence in the succession of sensations which flow through the mind. They cannot be immediately present to us, but must cover some portion of the past or future. Thought is a thread of melody running through the succession of our sensations.

We may add that just as a piece of music may be written in parts, each part having its own air, so various systems of relationship of succession subsist together between the same sensations. These different systems are distinguished by having different motives, ideas, or functions. Thought is only one such system, for its sole motive, idea, and function is to produce belief, and whatever does not concern that purpose belongs to some other system of relations. The action of thinking may incidentally have other results; it may serve to amuse us, for example, and among dilettanti it is not rare to find those who have so perverted thought to the purposes of pleasure that it seems to vex them to think that the questions upon which they delight to exercise it may ever get finally settled; and a positive discovery which takes a favorite subject out of the arena of literary debate is met with ill-concealed dislike. This disposition is the very debauchery of thought. But the soul and meaning of thought, abstracted from the other elements which accompany it, though it may be voluntarily thwarted, can never be made to direct itself toward anything but the production of belief. Thought in action has for its only possible motive the attainment of thought at rest; and whatever does not refer to belief is no part of the thought itself.

And what, then, is belief? It is the demi-cadence which closes a musical phrase in the symphony of our intellectual life. We have seen that it has just three properties: First, it is something that we are aware of; second, it appeases the irritation of doubt; and, third, it involves the establishment in our nature of a rule of action, or, say for short, a habit. As it appeases the irritation of doubt, which is the motive for thinking, thought relaxes, and comes to rest for a moment when belief is reached. But, since belief is a rule for action, the application of which involves further doubt and further thought, at the same time that it is a stopping-place, it is also a new starting-place for thought. That is why I have permitted myself to call it thought at rest, although thought is essentially an action. The final upshot of thinking is the exercise of volition, and of this thought no longer forms a part; but belief is only a stadium of mental action, an effect upon our nature due to thought, which will influence future thinking.

The essence of belief is the establishment of a habit; and different beliefs are distinguished by the different modes of action to which they give rise. If beliefs do not differ in this respect, if they appease the same doubt by producing the same rule of action, then no mere differences in the manner of consciousness of them can make them different beliefs, any more than playing a tune in different keys is playing different tunes.

How could someone with such a mind for metaphor as Peirce here demonstrates be insensitive to poetry and literature? How could he object to “the manipulation of words and fancies”?

And again, the response must be that Peirce does not object. But he likewise does not believe that new forms of reasoning can be generated by pure metaphysics, pure logic, or pure fiction; the “manipulation of words and fancies” is not enough. But it might have a role to play–literature might play a role, as Peirce demonstrates in his essay, in clarifying, in bringing to immediate relevance, what reasoning and validated thought discovers (or to bringing into focus the full consequences of their practical action; the felt experience and limitations and opportunities of the habits that belief forms–Literature might, that is, though Peirce doesn’t say so, validate or scrutinize the experience of habit that belief inspires, among other things); and what is more, though it cannot be sufficient to that the arduous laboratory labor of Lavoisier, it might be a means by which the attention can fix itself on the world so as to open up the prospect of solving problems.

“There is no royal road to logic,” writes Peirce, “and really valuable ideas can only be had at the price of close attention.”  But what is Peirce’s metaphor if not a function of close attention to music and thought simultaneously, validly?

But there is also, consistently in Peirce, alongside a vigilance against the warping to which thought is susceptible, an awareness that the emotional charge of thought is inherent to the human openness to reality (Leibnitz, says Peirce, who is a fervent admirer, “missed the most essential point of the Cartesian philosophy, which is, that to accept propositions which seem perfectly evident to us is a thing which, whether it be logical or illogical, we cannot help doing”), and that it might contribute variously to the formation of valuable ideas:

The principles set forth in the first part of this essay lead, at once, to a method of reaching a clearness of thought of higher grade than the “distinctness” of the logicians. It was there noticed that the action of thought is excited by the irritation of doubt, and ceases when belief is attained; so that the production of belief is the sole function of thought. All these words, however, are too strong for my purpose. It is as if I had described the phenomena as they appear under a mental microscope. Doubt and Belief, as the words are commonly employed, relate to religious or other grave discussions. But here I use them to designate the starting of any question, no matter how small or how great, and the resolution of it. If, for instance, in a horse-car, I pull out my purse and find a five-cent nickel and five coppers, I decide, while my hand is going to the purse, in which way I will pay my fare. To call such a question Doubt, and my decision Belief, is certainly to use words very disproportionate to the occasion. To speak of such a doubt as causing an irritation which needs to be appeased, suggests a temper which is uncomfortable to the verge of insanity. Yet, looking at the matter minutely, it must be admitted that, if there is the least hesitation as to whether I shall pay the five coppers or the nickel (as there will be sure to be, unless I act from some previously contracted habit in the matter), though irritation is too strong a word, yet I am excited to such small mental activity as may be necessary to deciding how I shall act. Most frequently doubts arise from some indecision, however momentary, in our action. Sometimes it is not so. I have, for example, to wait in a railway-station, and to pass the time I read the advertisements on the walls. I compare the advantages of different trains and different routes which I never expect to take, merely fancying myself to be in a state of hesitancy, because I am bored with having nothing to trouble me. Feigned hesitancy, whether feigned for mere amusement or with a lofty purpose, plays a great part in the production of scientific inquiry. However the doubt may originate, it stimulates the mind to an activity which may be slight or energetic, calm or turbulent. Images pass rapidly through consciousness, one incessantly melting into another, until at last, when all is over — it may be in a fraction of a second, in an hour, or after long years — we find ourselves decided as to how we should act under such circumstances as those which occasioned our hesitation. In other words, we have attained belief.

“Scientific inquiry” is, for Peirce, the royal road to the most valuable ideas; but in this account, the inadvertent and nonchalant experience of feigned hesitancy, the purposeless absorption into a fiction, is a road to scientific inquiry. It would be indulgent to read the account as an allegory of fiction, but the point is that the play of the imagination, the willing entrance into an experience of doubt and opposition, a surrendering to ambivalence or even ambiguity, is an essential activity of the mind. Peirce does not take a step to claim that literature or art provides the opportunity of which he speaks–but he might–and if he were to do so, it would not be difficult to imagine that he would demand of literature that it inspire and embody the same “close attention” as he expects from other forms of thought.

And yet another reading of Peirce’s words is possible: in that final description of “images passing rapidly through consciousness, one incessantly melting into another, until at last…we find ourselves decided as to how we should act under such circumstances as those which occasioned our hesitation,” might he not be describing the movement of a literary work, comparable to a movement of music in its achievement of a resolution that leaves one, experiencing it through the time of reading or listening, with an attitude towards the world that, even if it does not translate into propositional form, decide a course of action, and so count as something like a “belief”? Peirce’s metaphors, owing as they do to art, suggest that the movement of thought may be carried through the movement of a work of art, with its own responsibilities for scrupulous attention, and its own issuance in action.  If thought follows the movement of art, then why not the converse; and why not the possibility that it, too, is similar and justifiable in terms of a “habit” of conduct?

The trouble comes when art is considered a repository of ideas rather than a movement of thought; when an instant of art is mistaken for the course of its development, with a consideration of its resolution and structure.

One might object that such a claim places an inordinate burden on art and its relation to conduct. And it might. But it might be a challenge to all that Peirce writes; if a belief is to be judged by the habit of action it inculcates, then what are the standards by which that habit of action is to judged? Or, more generously, how is any one action or habit of conduct to be said to depend upon a single belief; habits and actions represent a convergence of beliefs. If these burdens are to be shaken off, or called irrelevant, it might be through the defense that Peirce’s claims can only be practically comprehended in relation to simple actions based on scientific inquiry, and that for more complex actions, social, political, or otherwise, the theoretical explanation of a “belief” in terms of action still holds, even if the belief is a compound or less easily discerned in isolation from others. That, though, would not touch on the problem of art-as-thought differently than thought otherwise conceived.

If “thought is a thread of melody running through the succession of our sensations,” then could not melody be a thread of thought carried by the succession of our sensations?



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