Experience and cognition

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 (1906)

The cognition of experience is a sign which, ‘in order to fulfill its office, to actualize its potency, must be compelled by its object’ (Peirce, EP2:380). The reality of its dynamical object is its compulsiveness, its forcing itself upon the attention. As Peirce observed (NEM3, 917), ‘Experience is first forced upon us in the form of a flow of images’ which act like a series of blows upon the bubble of perception – especially when they are unexpected. As the little current of cognition begins to “make sense” of these sense impressions, it is forced by its own nature to extract facts from the flow. These facts may be represented in propositional form, but the truth of these signs is ‘forced upon the recognition of the experient’ by their indexicality, their genuine dyadic relation to their objects.

Experience is re-cognized as such when the immediate object of the cognition or thought-sign is understood to be not merely flotsam in the little current of internal dialogue but an actual feature of the Big Current, i.e. of Nature’s dynamics. This can happen when the reader (interpreter) understands the writer (utterer) of a sign to be speaking from experience, whether the sign itself is factual or fictional: the experient feels the shock of recognition.

For genius, all over the world, stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round.

— Herman Melville, ‘Hawthorne and His Mosses’ (1850)

This kind of shock delivers a “blow” combining the Secondness of the unexpected with the closure of a circuit connecting the genius of an individual mind with that ‘Poetic Genius which is every where call’d the Spirit of Prophecy’ (Blake).

Actually, that universal ‘genius’ goes by many other names, and the word genius is related to many others, including general, generate, genuine, gnosis, cognition, know, as well as nature and innate. All of these have their source in the Proto-Indo-European root *gn- or *gen-, meaning give birth or beget. It all springs from the encounter of inner and outer Nature, enhanced by the sexuality of cognition.

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