Specially general

It is of the very essence of thought and purpose that it should be special, just as truly as it is of the essence of either that it should be general.

This statement by Charles S. Peirce is from his Lowell Lecture 8 of 1903 – and more specifically, from a little meditation on ethics and esthetics within that lecture:

The question is what theories and conceptions we ought to entertain. Now the word “ought” has no meaning except relatively to an end. That ought to be done which is conducive to a certain end. The inquiry therefore should begin with searching for the end of thinking. What do we think for? What is the physiological function of thought? If we say it is action, we must mean the government of action to some end. To what end? It must be something good or admirable, regardless of any ulterior reason. This can only be the esthetically good. But what is esthetically good? Perhaps we may say the full expression of an idea? Thought, however, is in itself essentially of the nature of a sign. But a sign is not a sign unless it translates itself into another sign in which it is more fully developed. Thought requires achievement for its own development, and without this development it is nothing. Thought must live and grow in incessant new and higher translations, or it proves itself not to be genuine thought.

But the mind loses itself in such general questions and seems to be floating in a limitless vacuity. It is of the very essence of thought and purpose that it should be special, just as truly as it is of the essence of either that it should be general. Some writers have called the circle beautiful: but it has no features: it is expressionless. No curve can be very beautiful, because the thought it embodies is too meagre. But as curves go, bicyclic quartics are as a matter of fact pleasing; and I think the reason is that they have something of the perfect regularity of the circle, with a continuity of a kind which developes special features. Hogarth’s line of beauty is the simplest case of a special feature, a singularity, as it is called by geometers, which the law of the continuity itself engenders, without destroying the continuity. All this may seem to be very foreign to logic, and perhaps it is so. Yet it illustrates the point that the valuable idea must be eminently fruitful in special applications, while at the same time it is always growing to wider and wider alliances.

This appears to be one more example of Peirce’s recurring idea that ‘symbols grow.’ It also serves as an application of the creative tension (or tention) which is found to be a core attibute of both life and semiosis in Turning Signs. In this case, the tension is between the generality and the specificity of thought.

True science

Genuine science is the expression of a ‘will to learn’ driven by curiosity about how Nature works, and not by curiosity about how the newly gained knowledge will serve our practical purposes as presently conceived.

Some would say that inquiry is not “pragmatic” if we have no idea of the practical applications that might result from it.

Now to this, to be sure, one can reply that no curiosity is more disadvantageous to the expansion of our knowledge than that which would always know its utility in advance, before one has entered into the investigations, and before one could have the least concept of this utility even if it were placed before one’s eyes.

— Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B296-7

The deeper the inquiry, the more it may cause us to revise our concept of “utility.” As Peirce put it (CP 1.76), ‘True science is distinctively the study of useless things.’

Type, sign and word

According to Chapter 13 of Turning Signs,

A niche in a meaning space is a type of meaning. A niche in a symbolic meaning space can only be occupied by a Legisign, ‘a law that is a Sign.… Every conventional sign is a legisign. It is not a single object, but a general type which, it has been agreed, shall be significant’ (— Peirce, EP2:291).

If we consider a language (such as English or Greek) as a semantic or meaning space, we might say that a niche in that space is occupied by a word. But we might say instead that a word, being a legisign or type and not a single object, is the meaning space, which is ‘occupied’ in actual linguistic practice by tokens of that type or instances of that word, as Peirce says (CP 4.537, 1906).

On the other hand, Peirce also says that ‘Man, homo, ἄνθρωπος are the same sign’ (MS 9), although we would not usually say that they are the same word. This would imply a cross-linguistic meaning space in which different words are instances of the same sign. This would still be a symbolic space, but we might call it a semiotic meaning space, as it is more inclusive than a linguistic one (constituted by a single language). Likewise in his fifth Harvard Lecture of 1903:

Take, for example, any proverb. “Evil communications corrupt good manners.” Every time this is written or spoken in English, Greek, or any other language, and every time it is thought of it is one and the same representamen. It is the same with a diagram or picture. It is the same with a physical sign or symptom. If two weathercocks are different signs, it is only in so far as they refer to different parts of the air. … “Evil communications corrupt good manners” and φθείρουσιν ἤθη χρήσθʼ ὁμιλίαι κακαί are one and the same representamen. They are so, however, only so far as they are represented as being so; and it is one thing to say that “Evil communications corrupt good manners” and quite a different thing to say that “Evil communications corrupt good manners” and φθείρουσιν ἤθη χρήσθʼ ὁμιλίαι κακαί are two expressions of the same proverb.


The distinction in that last sentence is essentially the distinction between a language and a metalanguage, or between use and mention – or between semiosis and semiotics.

Wild wide web

The semiotic point of view is the perspective that results from the sustained attempt to live reflectively with and follow out the consequences of one simple realization: the whole of our experience, from its most primitive origins in sensation to its most refined achievements of understanding, is a network or web of sign relations.

— John Deely (1990, Chapter 2)

Experience and cognition

Around 1906, C.S. Peirce attempted to define ‘experience’ in cognitive-semiotic terms:

What do we mean by ‘Experience’? Surely, a correct and precise analysis of that will be worth more than a little pains, as long as we hold that all human knowledge, and especially all assurance of knowledge, springs from the soil of Experience. I answer the question thus: Experience is that state of cognition which the course of life, by some part thereof, has forced upon the recognition of the experient, or person who undergoes the experience, under conditions due usually, in part, at least, to his own action; and the Immediate object of the cognition of Experience is understood to be what I call its ‘Dynamical,’ that is, its real object.

— Peirce, MS 299 CSP 8

The link just above, by the way, takes you to a somewhat revised version of Chapter 12 of Turning Signs. For the first time since i published it almost three years ago (and promised not to change Chapters 1–19), i am reading the whole book critically, and have found a few parts that i am no longer quite satisfied with – so i’m revising them online. Usually the revisions change a word or two, but sometimes as much as a whole paragraph. Perhaps i can finish this revision by September and call it the Second Edition. Blame it on excessive scrupulosity.

The real economy

Food, shelter, clothing, fuels, minerals, forests, fisheries, land, buildings, art, music and information are real wealth. Money by itself is not. Money is circulated among people who use it to buy real wealth.

— Odum and Odum (2001, 91)

Unfortunately, almost everything we hear about “the economy” through the media reflects an obsession with “growth,” as defined by increasing circulation of money. Meanwhile the planet continues to grow more impoverished.