Peircean phenomenology

According to Peirce (CP 1.522, 1903), the first of seven ‘mental qualifications of a philosopher’ is the ‘ability to discern what is before one’s consciousness.’ In other words, philosophy begins with phenomenology.

Phenomenology is often said to be “the study of experience,” but its name points rather to the logos of the phenonomenon (Heidegger 1927, 28). As Peirce puts it,

Phenomenology ascertains and studies the kinds of elements universally present in the phenomenon; meaning by the phenomenon, whatever is present at any time to the mind in any way.

EP2:259, CP 1.186

The term was introduced by Hegel, but Peirce’s usage differed from Hegel’s.

I will so far follow Hegel as to call this science Phenomenology although I will not restrict it to the observation and analysis of experience but extend it to describing all the features that are common to whatever is experienced or might conceivably be experienced or become an object of study in any way direct or indirect.

EP2:143, CP 5.37

Peirce wrote in ‘Phaneroscopy or the Natural History of Concepts’ (c. 1905):

It is more particularly to changes and contrasts of perception that we apply the word ‘experience.’ We experience vicissitudes, especially. We cannot experience the vicissitude without experiencing the perception which undergoes the change; but the concept of experience is broader than that of perception, and includes much that is not, strictly speaking, an object of perception. It is the compulsion, the absolute constraint upon us to think otherwise than we have been thinking that constitutes experience. Now constraint and compulsion cannot exist without resistance, and resistance is effort opposing change. Therefore there must be an element of effort in experience; and it is this which gives it its peculiar character.

CP 1.336

In a letter to William James, Peirce wrote of his phenomenological categories as

three modes of consciousness, that of feeling, that of EXPERIENCE (experience meaning precisely that which the history of my life has FORCED me to think … and thirdly the consciousness of the future (whether veridical or not is aside from the question) in expectation, which enters into all general ideas according to my variety of pragmatism.

CP 8.291

In this context, ‘experience’ as Secondness belongs to the past (because it is already determined), while Thirdness or generality is ‘of the future’ (that which is not yet fully determinate). ‘Feeling’ or Firstness could then be called ‘present,’ but only in a sense not involving the passage of time at all (since that belongs properly to Thirdness). In the still earlier context of his cosmological writings, Peirce used ‘consciousness’ more in connection with Firstness or feeling, and thus could not speak of all three categories as ‘modes of consciousness.’ In the ‘Trichotomic’ manuscript of 1888 (EP1:280), he had summarized them as follows: ‘First is the beginning, that which is fresh, original, spontaneous, free. Second is that which is determined, terminated, ended, correlative, object, necessitated, reacting. Third is the medium, becoming, developing, bringing about.’ In 1902, the year he first used the term ‘phenomenology,’ Peirce gave several sets of labels for the triad of categories; for example, one of them calls Firstness quality, Secondness occurrence, and Thirdness meaning (MS L75).

These variations illustrate the kind of polyversity which makes it so difficult to practice philosophy, and especially phenomenology, as a science – a difficulty of which Peirce was acutely aware, although (optimistically) he kept on trying. In a letter to Victoria Welby, he distinguished between experience and feeling:

The experience of effort cannot exist without the experience of resistance. Effort only is effort by virtue of its being opposed; and no third element enters. Note that I speak of the experience, not of the feeling, of effort.

SS, 12 Oct. 1904; CP 8.330

Later, in his ‘Neglected Argument for the Reality of God,’ Peirce asserted the reality of all three categories, or ‘Universes of Experience’:

Of the three Universes of Experience familiar to us all, the first comprises all mere Ideas, those airy nothings to which the mind of poet, pure mathematician, or another might give local habitation and a name within that mind. Their very airy-nothingness, the fact that their Being consists in mere capability of getting thought, not in anybody’s Actually thinking them, saves their Reality. The second Universe is that of the Brute Actuality of things and facts. I am confident that their Being consists in reactions against Brute forces, notwithstanding objections redoubtable until they are closely and fairly examined. The third Universe comprises everything whose being consists in active power to establish connections between different objects, especially between objects in different Universes. Such is everything which is essentially a Sign – not the mere body of the Sign, which is not essentially such, but, so to speak, the Sign’s Soul, which has its Being in its power of serving as intermediary between its Object and a Mind. Such, too, is a living consciousness, and such the life, the power of growth, of a plant. Such is a living constitution – a daily newspaper, a great fortune, a social ‘movement.’

EP2:435 (1908)

Even in that same essay, Peirce’s definition of the word experience as ‘brutally produced’ emphasizes the element of Secondness. But in the appearing of ordinary phenomena the three Universes are throughly entangled, and not merely mixed like the classical four ‘elements,’ which are more like kinds of matter than like universal modes of being. The universality and ubiquity of the three ‘categories’ or ‘elements’ is a key feature of Peirce’s phenomenology and phaneroscopy.

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