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.

Sex, life and logic

Merleau-Ponty speaks of perception as the ‘coition, so to speak, of our body with things’. The phrase ‘so to speak’ marks this as a metaphor, but there’s more here than superficial wordplay: in English the idea of coition is linked to verbal as well as sexual ‘communication’ because we can use intercourse as a synonym for either one. The link between communication and communion is even more obvious. There is also a link between knowing and coition in the English of the King James Bible – ‘And Adam knew his wife…’ – which link is also implicit in the original Hebrew (Scholem 1946, 235). Likewise the reader’s intercourse with the sacred text can generate enlightenment, and the conversation with nature as scientific inquiry can lead us toward the truth about the universe. But as Charles Peirce observed, the problem of finding a sound method of inquiry can be difficult. In a 1906 essay, he used the metaphor of the two sexes and their intercourse to explain the Aristotelian concept of growth as a fruitful key to this problem:

The idea of growth,— the stately tree springing from the tiny grain,— was the key that Aristotle brought to be tried upon this intricate grim lock. In such trials he came upon those wonderful conceptions, δύναμις and ἐνέργεια, ὕλη and μορφή or εἶδος, or, as he might still better have said, τύπος, the blow, the coup.

— Peirce, EP2:373

The terms δύναμις and ἐνέργεια are typically translated as “potentiality” and “actuality” respectively; ὕλη is the term for matter, μορφή and εἶδος terms for form, in this distinction between two kinds of beings (which was basic to Aristotle’s ontology). But why does Peirce suggest that ‘τύπος, the blow, the coup’ might be a better term for the form side of this duality? The history of the word (including the English word “type”) is outlined in this 2018 blog post; but the Peirce essay quoted here uses the metaphor of sexuality to explain how τύπος is related to the key concept of ‘growth.’

Peirce does not mention here the Aristotelian term which he is translating as ‘Growth’, but probably it would be ἐντελέχεια, entelechy, meaning something like “full realization of potential.” This is an organic kind of growth, not merely increase in size or amount of anything. Peirce refers to it as ‘perfecting growth’ in his further development of the idea:

Let us lose sight of no side of it; Growth,—the idea,— the act,— the lifegiving principle.

One special feature of growth has always received great attention; yet its lessons are far from having today been completely learned. It is that growth cannot proceed very far until those elements of it which constitute the functions of the two sexes get well separated. The female function, the function of the seed, has always been recognized as the δύναμις. The female is the general and essential sex; the male merely executes a hunch, the τύπος of the μορφή. It is the principle of unrest. But do not forget that the seed needs to be left to itself to grow as far as it can alone, before the coup of fertilization disturbs it. In order that it could so have grown alone, and indeed, in low organisms have reached the height of their attained potentiality, the female must have had an admixture of the restless. Pure femininity is not to be found even in the nucleus of the crystal of alum quietly growing out of its evaporating solution. Pure femininity can be conceived in a general way, but it cannot be realized even in consistent imagination. As for pure masculinity, it is an absurdity and nonsense, vox et praeterea nihil.

Besides those two requisites of perfecting growth, there is a third, not implied in either of them, nor in both together. It is the congress of those two. It is something demonstrably additional to them. When this comes a new life begins.

Now apply these ideas to knowledge. Observe that this will itself [be] an act of copulation. There is nothing in the feminine conception of knowledge, nor in the masculine conception of sexuality, to prove that there will be any fruit for philosophy in bringing them together. An incomprehensible instinct urges us to it; nothing else.

The seed of knowledge is the mind, the field of available consciousness,— all that is present or that can be called up. The rude τύπος is experience. He who may not have felt quite sure of understanding why the entrance of the element of Form should be called [experience] will find enlightenment in thinking of the matter from this point of view.

— Peirce, EP2:373-4

To retrace Peirce’s steps, the process of cognitive Growth (i.e. learning by experience) requires the duality of Matter and Form. Matter is the female function, the potential, the capacity of mind to be determined (as the sign is determined by its object). Form is the male function, the experience impinging on the mind from the outside (the unknown), as the sperm enters the egg, to disturb and fertilize it (generating an interpretant). This ‘congress’ (conversation, copulation, coitus) of the two leads to conception of a new life as the disturbance is integrated into the sense-making mind. Semiotically, the ‘rude blow’ of experience determines the mind to a new interpretant, transforming the subject’s prior knowledge and thus inForming it.

This scenario for the process of inquiry maps easily onto our meaning cycle diagram, and has roots in Aristotle’s De Anima (412a 6-9):

We describe one class of existing things [ὄντων] as substance [οὐσίαν], and this we subdivide into three: (1) matter, which in itself is not an individual thing; (2) shape or form, in virtue of which individuality is directly attributed; and (3) the compound of the two.

(W. S. Hett translation)

This suggests Peirce’s three ‘elements of the phaneron,’ but in Peirce’s account of the cognitive process above, the brute blow of experience plays the role of Secondness, which thus corresponds to ‘the entrance of the element of Form’ (into Matter) rather than Form itself. Also, if we identify Form and the male function with Secondness, and the ‘congress’ of the sexes with Thirdness, that leaves the female (Matter) as corresponding to Firstness, which seems rather odd. These correspondences are neither complete nor exact, as Peirce reminds us by warning (above) that the functions of the ‘sexes’ cannot be completely separated, just as the elements of all phenomena are always intermixed to some degree.

Growth as a ‘lifegiving principle’ is implied in Aristotle’s definition of ‘life’ as ‘the capacity for self-sustenance, growth and decay’ (τὴν δι’ αὑτοῦ τροφήν τε καὶ αὔξησιν καὶ φθίσιν, 412b 14). Peirce frequently attributes both life and growth to symbols, which grow from the copulation of predicates with subjects, but rarely mentions decay in this connection. Perhaps semiotic or cognitive growth, for Peirce, shares the autotrophic or self-organizing characteristic of organisms, but the progressive nature of ‘heuretic’ science (inquiry) makes it oblivious to decay: members of the community of inquiry have to hope that the ‘perfecting growth’ of their knowledge will continue indefinitely rather than succumbing to decay or death as they themselves will. Why else would they devote their own lives to it?

Perhaps nothing but an incomprehensible instinct urges them to comprehend reality, or to die trying.


My wife Pam and i recently visited the Art Gallery of Ontario to take in the Anthropocene exhibit. Anthropocene is the name proposed for the geological epoch in which we are now living, and though it has not yet been officially adopted by the international commission which has the power to do so, it’s becoming a household word. I’ve posted about it twice in the past year (you can use the search box on this blog to find those posts), but words can’t evoke the feeling of the Anthropocene as powerfully as the images in the exhibit and the feature film bearing the name. In this post i’ll focus on the name.

Infographic by Barr Gilmore, AGO: Anthropocene, p.39

The graphic above, taken from the book published by the AGO to document the exhibit, shows the Anthropocene as the epoch following the Holocene. But some sources use it as another name for the Holocene, or a subdivision of it. This makes a kind of sense because the Holocene is defined as beginning about 11,700 years ago, with the retreat of the glaciers from the last ice age, which was also around the time when humanity began to make its mark on the biosphere, especially with the new technology called agriculture. But why was this most recent geological epoch called the Holocene? It’s hard to see anything “holistic” about it, with all these humans messing up the planet.

According to Wikipedia, ‘the name Holocene comes from the Ancient Greek words ὅλος (holos, whole or entire) and καινός (kainos, new), meaning “entirely recent.”’ So the concept of “wholeness” is applied here adverbially, to modify the ‘-cene’ suffix which (with its Latinized Greek root) is etymologically related to recent. The habit of adding that suffix to the names of ‘recent’ geological periods was introduced by Sir Charles Lyell, who called the preceding epoch the Pleistocene, from the Greek superlative pleistos meaning ‘most.’ But when you have an epoch named ‘most recent,’ how do you name one that is even more recent? Lyell’s choice was Holocene, or ‘entirely recent.’

That pretty well exhausts the possibilities for naming a new geological period according to how recent it is. Anthropocene (‘humanly recent’?) is more informative than Holocene because it names the current epoch after its most remarkable characteristic: the collective impact of humans on their home planet. The idea is that geologists (of whatever species) studying the rock strata of the Earth hundreds of thousands of years hence will find a layer full of ‘technofossils’ and other traces of the human rearrangements of nature we are now making.

But there is another side to this ‘human epoch’: the same technology that is causing mass extinction of other species is giving us more, and more useful, information about our planet, its history, and its predictable future than we’ve ever had. With this predictability comes a new sense of responsibility. Now that we are aware of the unintended consequences of our past actions, it’s our global mission to revise our intentions and observe more carefully what happens when we try to carry them out. This is the only way we can harmonize and integrate anthropomorphic systems with the more inclusive natural systems of the planet.

The challenge is not so much technological as political, even spiritual. For instance, we have the technology to halt or possibly even reverse anthropogenic climate change, but so far lack the global common sense to make it a priority. It seems we’d rather put our energy into petty squabbles and paranoid schemes, judging from the leaders we’ve following lately. But if we could overcome this tendency and unify human practices for the common good of all life on Earth, maybe the Holocene could turn more holistic after all.

Speaking of the common, there is another Greek root Latinized as -cen- which is highly relevant in the Anthropocene. This one is derived not from καινός (“new”) but from κοινός (“common”). It’s the root idea of Cenoscopy, which bases itself on experiences common to all, and is closely allied to what Peirce called ‘critical common-sensism.’ Common sense in our time sees that philosophy, and even religion, ought to be working hand in hand with globally-based sciences such as ecology and climate science. Ironically, it’s the so-called “populist” politicians of our time, with their hate speech and antiscientific disinformation, who are working against the common sense that could save us from ourselves.

Cooking up signs

In a Zen community, the monk in charge of cooking for the other monks is called the tenzo. Zen master Dogen, in his youth, learned some very important lessons from the tenzo of one community. Later he incorporated those lessons into a manual written as guidance for his own community. Here are two translations of a short passage from Dogen’s Tenzokyokun (Instructions for the Tenzo):

If you cannot even know what categories you fall into, how can you know about others? If you judge others from your own limited point of view, how can you avoid being mistaken? Although the seniors and those who come after differ in appearance, all members of the community are equal. Furthermore, those who had shortcomings yesterday can act correctly today. Who can know what is sacred and what is ordinary?

— Tanahashi 1985, 62

Even the self does not know where the self will settle down; how could others determine where others will settle down? How could it not be a mistake to find others’ faults with our own faults? Although there is a difference between the senior and the junior and the wise and the stupid, as members of the sangha they are the same. Moreover, the wrong in the past may be right in the present, so who could distinguish the sage from the common person?

— Leighton and Okumura 1996, 45

Charles Peirce would regard these as two interpretants of one sign. As he remarked of a proverb, ‘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’ (EP2:203). In Peircean texts like this one, ‘representamen’ and ‘sign’ are two words for the same thing – which is obviously not an existing physical “thing,” since it can be embodied many times in many ways. But each translation, each embodiment, is also a sign in its own right; for ‘every representamen must be capable of contributing to the determination of a representamen different from itself’ (Peirce, same paragraph).

Each person who actually follows Dogen’s guidance has to translate it into a functional part of his or her own habit-system, an interpretant sign which will in turn determine actual behavior. That interpretant behavior may contribute to the guidance systems of other monks … and so on. If that happens, the monk’s potential to be a sign is realized. All of this is part of what it means for Dogen’s expressed thought to mean anything. And part of what it means for you to read the two translations above is to read them as interpretants of one sign even though they are two signs. Try that …


What do you consider the most important topics and/or contributions in the theory of meaning and signs?

John F. Sowa (www.jfsowa.com/pubs/5qsigns.htm, accessed 21 May 2017) answered this question as follows:

The single most important contribution was Peirce’s integration of the theories by the Greeks and Scholastics with modern logic, science, and philosophy. Aristotle laid the foundation in his treatise On Interpretation. His opening paragraph relates language to internal affections (pathêmata), whose existence is not in doubt, but whose nature is unknown:

First we must determine what are noun (onoma)
and verb (rhêma); and after that, what are negation (apophasis), assertion (kataphasis), proposition (apophansis), and sentence (logos). Those in speech (phonê) are symbols (symbola) of affections (pathêmata) in the psyche, and those written (graphomena) are symbols of those in speech. As letters (grammata), so are speech sounds not the same for everyone. But they are signs (sêmeia) primarily of the affections in the psyche, which are the same for everyone, and so are the objects (pragmata) of which they are likenesses (homoiômata). On these matters we speak in the treatise on the psyche, for it is a different subject. (16a1)

In this short passage, Aristotle introduced ideas that have been adopted, ignored, revised, rejected, and dissected over the centuries. By using two different words for sign, he recognized two distinct ways of signifying: sêmeion for a natural sign and symbolon for a conventional sign. With the word sêmeion, which was used for omens and for symptoms of a disease, Aristotle implied that the verbal sign is primarily a natural sign of the mental affection or concept and secondarily a symbol of the object it refers to.

The implication that ‘the verbal sign is primarily a natural sign’ and only ‘secondarily a symbol’ is very suggestive about the nature of what we call ‘natural languages.’ Peirce’s refinements of Aristotle’s semeiotic made such insights more explicit, and sometimes adapted Aristotle’s terms to that end. For instance, Peirce used Aristotle’s ῥῆμα (rhêma) to designate the first in a trichotomy of signs (representamens) which goes back to the logic of the Scholastics:

A representamen is either a rhema, a proposition, or an argument. An argument is a representamen which separately shows what interpretant it is intended to determine. A proposition is a representamen which is not an argument, but which separately indicates what object it is intended to represent. A rhema is a simple representation without such separate part.

Esthetic goodness, or expressiveness, may be possessed, and in some degree must be possessed, by any kind of representamen,— rhema, proposition, or argument.

Moral goodness, or veracity, may be possessed by a proposition or by an argument, but cannot be possessed by a rhema. A mental judgment or inference must possess some degree of veracity.


Peirce’s distinction between esthetic and moral goodness is basic to his account of the ‘normative sciences,’ which include logic as the means of judging the veracity or truth of a proposition. The observation that a rhema can possess ‘expressiveness’ but not ‘veracity’ reflects its Firstness in this trichotomy as ‘a simple representation’ which can only represent a possibility, and not a fact or a reason.

As Peirce put it later in the same year (1903), this trichotomy is a division according to how the sign’s ‘Interpretant represents it as a sign of possibility or as a sign of fact or a sign of reason’ (EP2:291). For this presentation of the trichotomy, Peirce refined the terminology: rhema became rheme (‘a Sign of qualitative Possibility’), and proposition became dicisign (‘a Sign of actual existence’). He kept the term argument for ‘a Sign of law’ (EP2:292).

In his ‘Prolegomena to an Apology for Pragmaticism’ (1906), Peirce departed still further from the traditional trichotomy:

A familiar logical triplet is Term, Proposition, Argument. In order to make this a division of all signs, the first two members have to be much widened.

CP 4.538

For this purpose Peirce coined new terms based on Greek roots, Seme and Pheme. But his explanation of Existential Graphs in that same article employed the term ‘rheme’ to denote a predicate or ‘blank form of proposition,’ where the blanks could be filled by subject-names to compose a complete proposition.

By a rheme, or predicate, will here be meant a blank form of proposition which might have resulted by striking out certain parts of a proposition, and leaving a blank in the place of each, the parts stricken out being such that if each blank were filled with a proper name, a proposition (however nonsensical) would thereby be recomposed.

CP 4.560

Through all these conceptual and terminological changes, there is a kind of continuity with Aristotle’s usage of rhema for a “verb” as distinguished from a “noun” (onoma). Peirce uses rheme for a predicate as opposed to a subject of a proposition. Both predicates and subjects can be called “terms,” but in Existential Graphs that represent propositions, rhemes are primarily signs of qualitative possibility or Firstness while the latter are primarily signs of actual existence or Secondness. The joining or copulation of predicate and subject is the key to the act of meaning performed by the proposition, just as the joining of icon and index is key to the informing power of a symbol, its genuine Thirdness.