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.

Is that a fact?

A proposition is a statement of fact.

A Fact may be defined as the Secondness which consists between anything and a possibility, or Firstness, realized in that thing.

— Peirce, EP2:271

A proposition is a symbolic Dicisign or informational sign, which ‘must profess to refer or relate to something as having a real being independently of the representation of it as such’ (EP2:275).

Thus every kind of proposition is either meaningless or has a real Secondness as its object. This is a fact that every reader of philosophy should constantly bear in mind, translating every abstractly expressed proposition into its precise meaning in reference to an individual experience.

— Peirce, EP2:279

In fact, then, meaning can only grow from the ground of experience, from reading the time of your life.

They said to him, ‘Tell us who you are so that we may believe in you.’
He said to them, ‘You read the face of the sky and of the earth, but you have not recognized the one who is before you, and you do not know how to read this moment.’

Gospel of Thomas 91 (tr. Lambdin)

Real meaning and true guidance grow in the soil of experience as ‘the total cognitive result of living’.

What you plant well can’t be uprooted.
What you hold well can’t be taken away.

Cultivated in yourself, virtue becomes real.
Cultivated in your family, virtue grows.
Cultivated in your village. virtue multiplies.
Cultivated in your state, virtue abounds.
Cultivated in your world, virtue is everywhere.
Thus view others through yourself,
view families through your family,
view villages through your village,
view states through your state,
view other worlds through your world.

How do you know what other worlds are like?
Through this one.

— Daodejing 54 (Red Pine, repunctuated)

The nexus of experience

Experience is what happens just before you notice that something just happened.
Afterwards, “the experience” is what you happen to remember.
Until you notice that remembering is happening.
Or you notice that you are dreaming.
Then you can really dream.
Or you can wake up.
But how do you know that you won’t wake up again?
Or wake further up?
Remember not knowing? The nexperience comes to pass.


A person can do what he wants, but not want what he wants. Der Mensch kann tun was er will; er kann aber nicht wollen was er will.

— Schopenhauer, On The Freedom Of The Will (1839)

In the last of his 1903 Harvard lectures, Peirce pointed out that ‘self-control of any kind is purely inhibitory. It originates nothing’ (EP2:233). What then is the ground of the guidance system governing the practice of a bodymind? Ultimately, says Peirce, ‘it must come from the uncontrolled part of the mind, because a series of controlled acts must have a first’ (EP2:233).

The same goes for acts of meaning. All of our reasoning, including the very form of the process, originates in what is “given” to us in perceptual judgments. Every such judgment is ‘the result of a process’ which is ‘not controllable and therefore not fully conscious’ (EP2:227). Consciousness takes up the task of controlling the process, domesticating it, harnessing a ‘logical energy’ which is originally wild. In its Firstness it is spontaneous and free, and yet the very origin of self-control. Logic as the ethic of inquiry is the heart of self-control in the use of symbols, but is grounded in a process continuous with direct perception, even with creation.

A consciousness for which the world is “self-evident,” that finds the world “already constituted” and present even within consciousness itself, absolutely chooses neither its being nor its manner of being.

What then is freedom? To be born is to be simultaneously born of the world and to be born into the world. The world is always already constituted, but also never completely constituted. In the first relation we are solicited, in the second we are open to an infinity of possibilities.…

We choose our world and the world chooses us.

— Merleau-Ponty (1945, 527)

There’s a split in the infinitive from to have to have been to will be.

Try this

The philosopher as creative artist proposes a new system of connections between language and experience. It is up to the reader to actually make those connections, or rather to try whatever connections suggest themselves and see whether they make more or less sense of the system as a whole. Only then can the reader investigate whether the meaning which thus emerges from her reading makes more or less sense of the experiential universe – that is, whether the philosophical argument is valid and its conclusions true.

Phenomenology and Zen

In their introduction to Dogen’s Eihei Shingi (the collection of his writings about the organization and standard practices in a Buddhist monastery), Leighton and Okumura explain that the practice of zazen ‘promotes active attentiveness to our present life experience just as it is.’ Zen monastic life is ‘directed at helping practitioners together to embody and actualize this awareness in every aspect of ordinary life’ (Leighton and Okumura 1996, 16).

Phenomenology (and philosophy), as Peirce described it, begins with this same ‘attentiveness to our present life experience,’ but then proceeds to a description or analysis of it, with the goal of articulating what is essential to any possible experience, quite apart from anything peculiar to any individual subject of that experience. In other words, it generalizes from present experience to Experiencing. The formulations arrived at in this way furnish ‘fundamental principles’ to philosophy and other sciences (EP 2:258) in their quest for truth.

Innocent experience

Innocence is a word for the advent of an experience before meaning arrived to subdue and relegate it to the background.

Annie Dillard (1974) writes of the ‘newly sighted,’ people given a visual world by removal of cataracts after years or lifetimes of blindness: some refused the gift of sight and space because it was too disturbing. Likewise, mind-blind autistics may reject whatever interferes with their familiar routines, preferring to remain in oblivion unless dragged out of it by the concerted efforts of others (Baron-Cohen 1995, Park 2001).

Our whole experience of the external world arrives by way of perturbations, often accompanied by a sense of loss. As Dillard says, ‘Form is condemned to an eternal danse macabre with meaning’ (1974, 35). ‘The fluttering patch I saw in my nursery window – silver and green and shape-shifting blue – is gone; a row of Lombardy poplars takes its place, mute, across the distant lawn’ (36). They are mute because they turned out to be what the fluttering patch had to say, and once this has been heard, the magic is gone. We are driven out of the mythical Garden when we feel this sense of loss. Yet the emergence of meaning is hardly less amazing, when we step back from that. And those condemned to live in a world of pure ‘magic’ undiluted by memory – like Zasetsky in Luria (1972), or amnesics like Clive Wearing (Restak 1998, 29-31) – feel an even greater sense of loss, feel as if they have been dead or asleep up to now.

Reading the Net

Adding a search function to Turning Signs has caused me to reflect a bit on different modes of reading and the effect of the internet on them. Searching – looking for something very specific in a text or a network of texts – has been vastly speeded up and extended by access to search engines, as compared to the searching one can do in printed texts.

local browser

Browsing – meandering casually from text to text (site to site, page to page) on the chance of finding something interesting – is almost the opposite of searching, but has also been facilitated by the internet. It’s no accident that the software you are using to read this webpage is called a ‘browser’; it’s optimized for dealing with the miscellaneous. But if you have actually read this far into the page, you’ve entered a different reading mode, either skimming or scanning.

Skimming is the speed-reading mode you use for a newspaper or facebook page, when you just want to get the gist of the information offered there without getting deeply involved in the text (which you don’t expect to be carefully constructed). Scanning is a much more intense and concentrated mode in which you study the text closely without skipping over any of the details. However, even scanning does not necessarily involve the kind of deep immersion in a text that i call whole-body reading or the experiencing of a turning sign. In order to do that, you have to focus on the dynamic object of the sign through the text, in order to deepen your experience of it, your intimacy with it.

Using the internet for this last and deepest kind of reading is certainly possible, but the practice seems to get swept aside by the habits of skimming and browsing encouraged by this medium. When we do get immersed in an e-text, it’s often something we found by searching, which makes it all too likely that it will confirm our prejudices instead of challenging them. This will discourage critical thinking – which is an important part of experiencing or deep reading – unless we make a conscious effort to choose our modes of reading with care.

Doing what it says

Can you act on scripture without understanding it? This would be like claiming to understand scripture without reading it. Reading it without understanding will not furnish guidance, and how can you know that your understanding is right? (Perhaps you feel you know because you simply can’t imagine any other understandings.)

A reading or ‘recital’ of scripture is a performance; an actual interpretation of it is a more extended kind of performance. And the more compressed and seedlike the scripture, the more the performer has to improvise in the realization of its interpretant. However much faith we invest in the text, the true guide in the end is trial and error, experiment – as in science.

Crease points out that experiments have the character of ‘performances.’ What enters into a performance is more than the script or score. It includes a whole background of intuitive practices. All sorts of trials and errors, hunches and wildly derived ideas enter into the design of experiments. In a laboratory many improvised moves occur. One may employ procedures that lack theory for years, as well as theory that lacks procedures.

— Gendlin (1997)

Dewey (1929) argued that an intelligent ethical (guidance) system treats every course of action as an experiment, i.e. considers every principle modifiable by experience.