… and animals, both wild and tame, feeding in the air or on the earth or in the water, all are born and come to their prime and decay in obedience to the ordinances of God; for, in the words of Heraclitus, ‘every creeping thing grazes at the blow of God’s goad’.

— Pseudo-Aristotle, De Mundo (Περὶ Κόσμου), tr. E.S. Forster (Oxford, 1914)

In the original Greek of Heraclitus, as quoted here by the author of On the Cosmos, there is no “God” and no “goad”. A more literal translation of πᾶν ἑρπετὸν πληγῇ νέμεται would be “All beasts [πᾶν ἑρπετὸν] are driven [νέμεται] by blows [πληγῇ].” But the verb νέμεται was ordinarily used with reference to herdsmen “tending” their flocks or herds; driving the beasts to a pasture where they could ‘graze’ was a regular part of this “tending,” and this was often done with a stick like the one in the picture.

This explains the grazing and the ‘goad’ in Forster’s translation. But the Greek does not specify who is delivering these benevolent ‘blows’ to the beasts. The context indicates that the class of “creeping things” includes not only domestic cattle but all animals throughout their life cycles, including wild and human animals as well (Kahn 1979, 194). Who or what drives the deer to their pasture? What kind of “blows” compel us to carry our own lives forward?

“Pseudo-Aristotle” tells us that all life cycles proceed according to ‘the ordinances of God,’ who is metaphorically the “pastor” driving us all to “pasture.” Others might substitute for those ordinances the laws of nature, governing everything impersonally. But if all animals are guided from within and powered by their own metabolism, it would seem that we are driven by internal “blows” or “motivations” rather than external forces, whether divine or natural. We are “driven” to dinner by the same “force” that drives the deer to their pasture, namely hunger.

But this is not the whole story either. We are all shaped, physically and mentally, by the same sacred laws of nature that formed the worlds we inhabit and the habits that inform our relations with the world and one another. These Laws have made us all anticipatory systems, and the “blows” driving us are the blows of experience, which happens to us as some kind of collision between our guidance systems and our circumstances. An experience feels real here and now because of the difference, the Secondness, between our own needs and the necessities of external world. But what really determines the kind of experience that strikes us at the moment is the Laws in their Thirdness.

For reality is compulsive. But the compulsiveness is absolutely hic et nunc. It is for an instant and it is gone. Let it be no more and it is absolutely nothing. The reality only exists as an element of the regularity. And the regularity is the symbol. Reality, therefore, can only be regarded as the limit of the endless series of symbols.

— Peirce, EP2:323

Our lack of control over existing things and actual events, their way of forcing themselves on our attention, is what makes them real to us at the moment. But the laws governing these things are equally real – or more real, considering that they will continue to determine what form the future will take long after the immediate past and present are gone. To the extent that we have self-control – that is, control over the form and the enforcement of our inner “laws” or habits – we can participate in this determination of the future. We never break the laws of nature, but we have ways of co-operating with it to realize imagined possibilities; and these may include our ways of responding to the “blows” of experience.

Life cycles, like meaning cycles, are governed by the reciprocity of practice and perception. They are driven by the “blows” of experience just as inquiries are set in motion by surprises. This is a law of nature which we can only symbolize in some kind of diagram. We can’t make a photograph of it as we can an existing ‘goad’ or an actual ‘blow.’ The image of ‘God’s goad’ confuses the regularity of law with the the force of law. A law (natural, human or divine) has a general form but can’t be adequately represented by any specific image – unless that image is read as a metaphor. Metaphors, in their aspiration to the generality of symbols, reveal those realities which images conceal by their very presence to our sense perception. Only symbols can express the Law turning the wheel of life.

to be continued

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.