Phenoscopy 3

Getting back to that crow i heard (Phenoscopy 2):

Actually i’m only guessing that the sound i heard came from a crow. For all i know, it could have been made by some other animal, or could even have originated inside my head, or in my ears, like the constant rhythmic swishing sound of my blood in circulation. (Apparently most people don’t hear this all the time, as i do, but you can probably imagine what i mean.)

What i can say for sure is that the sound was an event in a universe of events. This makes it different from a color, for instance, which is not an event like a flash of light or a sudden change of color (say from red to green). A sound is inherently temporal, while a color, abstracted from any colored object, is eternal.

Theoretically, of course, we can say that both sounds and colors are vibrations whose frequencies account for their perceived qualities, and vibration necessarily takes time. We humans are always trying to explain things in this way, just as i explained the sound i heard by making a hypothesis that a crow made it. But explanations are signs, and highly complex signs at that. The sign is a very different phenomenon from a sound, or a color, as experienced. Signs inhabit a universe that is both qualitative and temporal: they don’t function as signs unless they are interpreted, which takes time. Any functioning whatsoever takes time as well as place.

To actually experience the pure quality of a sound, you have to set aside all such explanations. Try listening for awhile to the sonic universe, the audiverse, without trying to name the sounds according to (your guesses at) their causes. This forces their Firstness and their Secondness to the foreground while relegating their Thirdness (and any meaning they might have) to the background. (The Canadian composer Murray Schafer called this ‘ear cleaning,’ in a booklet by that name.)

Why would you want to engage in such a practice? Your purpose could be contemplative, meditative, spiritual, scientific, philosophical or all or none of the above. Peirce engaged in his phenomenology, or phaneroscopy, because he was a logician and needed to clarify what was truly elementary about anything that anyone could think, sense or experience. For me, it’s a way of getting back in touch with what’s actually happening all around and within me, instead of taking most of it for granted, as we all habitually (and necessarily) do. Writing about it like this doesn’t make my experience accessible to you, but it might suggest ways of paying closer attention to your own experience. That’s what i hope for, anyway.

Phenoscopy 2

Phenoscopy includes the observation of many kinds of appearing. We might begin with a percept. For instance, you might close your eyes and notice some sound that you hear.

I hear the call of a crow.
Or rather, i call it that, because the sound reminds me of a kind of large black bird that i’ve seen and heard before.
What i heard just now was an instance, a manifestation, of that general type of sound. Like every percept, it appeared momentarily, and then vanished into a timespace we call the past.
What i have in mind now is a memory trace of it, which purports to represent the actual event. This is a phenomenon, an appearance, very different from what i actually heard, but connected with it by a shared quality of sound.

Of course, my memory of the sound does not appear to you at all. If you have a roughly similar memory of a similar event, and the words ‘call of a crow’ evoked that memory for you, it’s likely that the quality we are talking about is an element of all three phenomena: the call of the crow, my memory of it, and your memory of crow calls. It is not likely that the quality of all three is exactly the same: all similarity is more or less vague. But we can generalize to say that any phenomenon, anything that appears in any way, must have some quality.

That quality is the Firstness of the appearing, in Peircean terms. At the highest level of phenoscopic generality, we can call this Firstness an element of the phenomenon – of any possible appearing.

It is not the only element. The actuality of the sound i heard, breaking the stillness of a particular Sunday morning in the woods where i live, was another element of its appearing. We might call that element its otherness, the fact of its forcing itself upon my attention and altering the course of my stream of consciousness. Peirce called this element its Secondness because, unlike its Firstness (‘which is such as it is positively and regardless of anything else’), it can be what it is only by being second to, or other than, something else. In this case, the actuality or Secondness of the sound was its otherness to the soundscape it broke into, including the sounds occurring before and after it. Likewise, but more generally, the Secondness of an existing thing is its otherness or reactivity to other things in the same universe.

One more element of the phenomenon appeared when i recognized the sound as that of a crow. A connection appeared between a unique event and a familiar concept, so that the event in its Secondness appeared as an instance of the type represented by that concept. This is different from the way existing things relate to, or react to, one another. A recognition is a perceptual judgment, and brings the element of generality into the phenomenon which i said i heard. Then i represented my judgment to you by naming it ‘the call of a crow,’ which in turn activated whatever concept you would give that name to. That ‘activation’ was the Secondness of the phenomenon of your meaning something by those words, something more or less similar in quality to my meaning something when i wrote them. That quality is the Firstness of this appearing, this experience of meaning that we share. The other element of this phenomenon is its Thirdness, which is not its quality or its actuality but its ability to represent a second “thing” to a third “thing.” Peirce sometimes calls it ‘thought’: ‘It is genuine Thirdness that gives thought its characteristic, although Thirdness consists in nothing but one thing’s bringing two into a Secondness’ (EP2:269).

Phenoscopy 1

Look around, ahead, behind, within,
with all your senses
and thoughts
and memory
and imagination
to whatever appears.
Study the nature of appearing itself,
its ways of happening.

That study is called phenoscopy in the Century Dictionary Supplement (1910, p. 981):

phenoscopy (fe-nos’ko-pi), n. [Irreg. < Gr. (φαίνεσθαι, appear, + σκοπεῖν, contemplate, examine.] That study which observes, generalizes, and analyzes the elements that are always or very often present in, or along with, whatever is before the mind in any way, as percept, image, experience, thought, habit, hypothesis, etc. C. S. Peirce.

(Peirce apparently coined this term but did not often use it; his writings on the subject mostly call it phenomenology or phaneroscopy. Some of Peirce’s thoughts on the subject can be found by searching his works (or my Turning Signs) for those terms, or for “firstness”, “secondness,” “thirdness” or “categories.”)

This post begins an irregular series intended to start phenoscopy “from scratch” and record the results of my own phenoscopic investigations. No prior knowledge is required for this study, and no special training or equipment. You can study very distant things with a telescope, and very tiny things with a microscope, but you can only study what’s in front of or under your nose with a phenoscope, which is nothing but your control of your attention. But you must be willing to set aside any ideas that you normally take for granted.

Consider: whatever you know must appear
before you know it.