where terms begin

In the process of living, attainment of a period of equilibrium is at the same time the initiation of a new relation to the environment, one that brings with it potency of new adjustments to be made through struggle. The time of consummation is also one of beginning anew.

— John Dewey (1934, 16)

If one can begin, ever, there is nothing against beginning often; I mean developing new and further conceptual patterns that are not logically derivative from the earlier concepts alone. But neither is it necessary to have sheer gaps which don’t enable one to think, except with either these or those concepts. The continuity between concepts is such, rather, that the new developments further inform and precision the earlier ones. Terms are definable and derivable in terms of each other.

Gendlin (1998, note 15)

The Vico road goes round and round to meet where terms begin.

Finnegans Wake 452

Vico was the 18th-century scholar whose theory of the origin of language fascinated James Joyce, and whose cyclic model of history became the framework of Finnegans Wake. And by the way, one of the Wake‘s recurring episodes is the discovery by a hen of a mysterious letter buried in a midden-heap, riddled with holes and stains. Five years after the death of Joyce, the letter was dug up yet again: the Nag Hammadi Library.

The names of things are fixed by custom, habit and history. But symbols are subversive as they turn, breaking what’s fixed and fixing what’s broken. Likewise the habit of living seems eternally intent on breaking and fixing itself.


At the beginning of the movie, they know they have to find each other. But they ride off in opposite directions.

— Laurie Anderson, ‘Sharkey’s Day’

The best that I could write would never be more than philosophical remarks; my thoughts were soon crippled if I tried to force them on in any single direction against their natural inclination. – And this was, of course, connected with the very nature of the investigation. For this compels us to travel over a wide field of thought criss-cross in every direction.

Wittgenstein, Preface to the Philosophical Investigations

I fear I may be producing the impression of talking at random. It is that I wish the reader to “catch on” to my conception, my point of view; and just as one cannot make a man see that a thing is red, or is beautiful, or is touching, by describing redness, beauty, or pathos, but can only point to something else that is red, beautiful, or pathetic, and say, “Look here too for something like that there,” so if the reader has not been in the habit of conceiving ideas as I conceive them, I can only cast a sort of dragnet into his experience and hope that it may fish up some instance in which he shall have had a similar conception.

— Peirce, EP2:122

But I must remember, Reader, that your conceptions may penetrate far deeper than mine; and it is to be devoutly hoped they may.

— Peirce, CP 4.535 (1906)

If I were you, who would be reading this sentence?


Tomasello (1999) begins his examination of The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition with a quotation from Peirce: ‘all the greatest achievements of mind have been beyond the powers of unaided individuals’ (EP1:369). Although it is always the first person speaking, yet a whole history speaks through that voice. One example: precursors of Tomasello’s central ideas can be found in Merleau-Ponty (1964), ‘The Child’s Relations with Others.’ – Yet Tomasello does not cite Merleau-Ponty; nor is there any reason why he should. The deeper an idea, the more primary and pervasive it is, the less we are able to locate its origin. Indeed it is ‘easily traced back to almost any desired antiquity’ (Peirce again).

Like any text (or any life), Turning Signs is woven out of path-crossings; like any conscientious researcher, i’ve done my best to point toward some of the paths i’ve crossed with other authors. Wherever i have drawn upon specific “sources,” i’ve documented them in the parenthetical way standard in the sciences of the time. But the more pervasive an idea becomes in one’s thinking and reading, the less point there is in citing “sources” for it.

Some of my “sources” may go uncited simply because their thoughts have sunk so deeply into mine that i can no longer trace them. However, all the sources of which i have been conscious during the writing are listed in the reference list at the back of the book. (The quote marks around “sources” are reminders that a text like this one is not and cannot be assembled from others, any more than your body is assembled from preexisting parts. Rather, each quotation or reference marks a point where another line of thought has crossed paths with this one. (‘Strictly speaking, every word in the book should be in quotation marks’ (Gregory Bateson (1979, 108)).))

Long after inserting this Bateson quote into my draft, i found what amounts to an explanation of it by Michael Polanyi. As he explains it, using quotation marks in this way calls the usage of the word thus marked into question.

We may place a word in quotation marks, while using language confidently through the rest of the sentence. But the questioning of each word in turn would never question all at the same time. Accordingly, it would never reveal a comprehensive error which underlies our entire descriptive idiom. We can of course write down a text and withdraw our confidence from all its words simultaneously, by putting each descriptive word between quotation marks. But then none of the words would mean anything and the whole text would be meaningless.

— Polanyi (1962, 251)

More generally: there is no belief that can’t be questioned, but in practice you can only question one at a time, because the questioning process itself requires the rest of your belief system to function implicitly.

In the beginning is the deed

Now here this: symbols grow.

The relation between thought and word is a living process; thought is born through words. A word devoid of thought is a dead thing, and a thought unembodied in words remains a shadow. The connection between them, however, is not a preformed and constant one. It emerges in the course of development, and itself evolves. To the Biblical ‘In the beginning was the Word’, Goethe makes Faust reply, ‘In the beginning was the deed.’ The intent here is to detract from the value of the word, but we can accept this version if we emphasise it differently: In the beginning was the deed. The word was not the beginning – action was there first; it is the end of development, crowning the deed.

— Vygotsky (1934, 153)

Continuous practice that actualizes itself is no other than your continuous practice right now. The now of this practice is not originally possessed by the self. The now of this practice does not come and go, enter and depart. The word “now” does not exist before continuous practice. The moment when it is actualized is called now.

— Dogen, SBGZ ‘Gyoji’ (Tanahashi 2010, 333)

The ring of time

In Kabbalah, the ineffable ‘flow’ of creation or emanation manifests itself first as a ‘point.’ In the Zohar, the ‘point’ or ‘beginning’ is the second sefirah, Hokhmah, because it is ‘the first aspect of God that can be known’ (Matt 1995, 175). ‘Before’ that (as we might say ‘before time’) is the first sefirah, Kether; and ‘before’ that is Ein Sof, which (like the apeiron of Anaximander) could be translated ‘boundless’ or ‘infinite’. Here is the Zohar’s rendering of the proto-creation process represented by the opening phrase of Genesis, ‘In the beginning’:

A spark of impenetrable darkness flashed within the concealed of the concealed, from the head of Infinity — a cluster of vapor forming in formlessness, thrust in a ring, not white, not black, not red, not green, no color at all. As a cord surveyed, it yielded radiant colors. Deep within the spark gushed a flow, splaying colors below, concealed within the concealed of the mystery of Ein Sof. It split and did not split its aura, was not known at all, until under the impact of splitting, a single, concealed, supernal point shone. Beyond that point, nothing is known, so it is called Reshit, Beginning, first command of all.

Zohar 1:15a (ZP I.107-9)

With this we might compare Peirce‘s speculations about the beginning of time, starting around 1888 with his ‘Guess at the Riddle’:

Our conceptions of the first stages of the development, before time yet existed, must be as vague and figurative as the expressions of the first chapter of Genesis. Out of the womb of indeterminacy we must say that there would have come something, by the principle of Firstness, which we may call a flash. Then by the principle of habit there would have been a second flash. Though time would not yet have been, this second flash was in some sense after the first, because resulting from it. Then there would have come other successions ever more and more closely connected, the habits and the tendency to take them ever strengthening themselves, until the events would have been bound together into something like a continuous flow.


Ten years later, in his Cambridge Conferences Lectures, Peirce argued that if time is a continuum, its “beginning” or “end” can only be imagined as an ideal point infinitely distant from the present. If either actually occurred, it would be a secondness, a discontinuity; but a continuum

must be assumed to be devoid of all topical singularities. For any such singularity is a locus of discontinuity; and from the nature of the continuum there may be no room to suppose any such secondness. But now, a continuum which is without singularities must, in the first place, return into itself. Here is a remarkable consequence.

Take, for example, Time. It makes no difference what singularities you may see reason to impose upon this continuum. You may, for example, say that all evolution began at this instant, which you may call the infinite past, and comes to a close at that other instant, which you may call the infinite future. But all this is quite extrinsic to time itself. Let it be, if you please, that evolutionary time, our section of time, is contained between those limits. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that time itself, unless it be discontinuous, as we have every reason to suppose it is not, stretches on beyond those limits, infinite though they be, returns into itself, and begins again.

CP 6.210, RLT 264

Of course it does not return into itself at any determinate point in ‘evolutionary time’ – nothing that has actually happened can happen again – so it must ‘begin again’ continuously.

Beginner’s mind

Whether the object of your quest is the source of inspiration, the origin of language, the origin of life, or the origin of the universe, the origin of wholehearted inquiry is here in the time you are now living.

It is so difficult to find the beginning. Or, better: it is difficult to begin at the beginning. And not try to go further back.

— Wittgenstein (1969, #471)

Philosophers of very diverse stripes propose that philosophy shall take its start from one or another state of mind in which no man, least of all a beginner in philosophy, actually is. One proposes that you shall begin by doubting everything, and says that there is only one thing that you cannot doubt, as if doubting were “as easy as lying.” Another proposes that we should begin by observing “the first impressions of sense,” forgetting that our very percepts are the results of cognitive elaboration. But in truth, there is but one state of mind from which you can “set out,” namely, the very state of mind in which you actually find yourself at the time you do “set out” — a state in which you are laden with an immense mass of cognition already formed, of which you cannot divest yourself if you would; and who knows whether, if you could, you would not have made all knowledge impossible to yourself?

— Peirce (EP2:335-6, CP 5.416)

You can’t divest yourself of the immense mass of cognition (knowledge, beliefs, ….. ) implicit in your present state of mind. But from that mass you can try to extract, or rather abstract, the simplest and most elementary features that must be implicit in any possible state of mind or of cognition, regardless of any other features it may have. This effort is what Peirce calls phaneroscopy, because it necessarily involves observing the phaneron, ‘the total content of any one consciousness (for any one is substantially any other), the sum of all we have in mind in any way whatever, regardless of its cognitive value’ (EP2:362).

The world that is coming

The rabbinic Hebrew ha-olam ha-ba, translated by Daniel Matt as the world that is coming, ‘is often understood as referring to the hereafter and is usually translated as “the world to come”’(Matt, ZP I.44). The difference in translation may suffice, but is not necessary, to get the point: ‘“The world to come” does not succeed “this world” in time, but exists from eternity as a reality outside and above time, to which the soul ascends’ (Guttmann, quoted by Matt, ZP I.44). ‘In Kabbalah “the world that is coming” often refers to Binah, the ceaseless stream of emanation, who engenders and nourishes the lower sefirot’ (Matt, ZP II.81). To put it another way, the streaming is time, and its ceaselessness is eternity.

True naming

In the beginning (Genesis 1), God creates the world by uttering it: creation is a speech act. In Genesis 2 Adam, being created in the image of God, gives all creatures their true names (see Eco 1998, ‘Languages in Paradise’). The original act of naming is the revelation which turns the use of the name into recognition. ‘The denomination of objects does not follow upon recognition: it is itself recognition’ (Merleau-Ponty 1945, 206). A 1934 essay by Edward Sapir explains this in terms of a ‘psychological characteristic of language’:

while it may be looked upon as a symbolic system which reports or refers to or otherwise substitutes for direct experience, it does not as a matter of actual behavior stand apart from or run parallel to direct experience but completely interpenetrates with it. This is indicated by the widespread feeling, particularly among primitive people, of that virtual identity or close correspondence of word and thing which leads to the magic of spells. On our own level it is generally difficult to make a complete divorce between objective reality and our linguistic symbols of reference to it; and things, qualities, and events are on the whole felt to be what they are called.

— Sapir (1949, 8-9)

The indexical function of a name, especially a proper name – and even more especially a divine name – resists being swallowed up its symbolic function, because that function compromises the direct apprehension or experiencing of the object so named. When apprehension is diluted by comprehension, the name loses its ‘magic’ for the community which shares that apprehension; so they are naturally apprehensive about sharing the word with outsiders! (See James N. Baker, ‘The Presence of the Name: Reading Scripture in an Indonesian Village,’ in Boyarin 1993.) This psychological tendency is probably at work in every esoteric tradition, as well as in the phenomenon of ‘taboo.’

Appearing in time

One of the enlightening night goddesses in the Gandhavyuha Sutra tells of a ‘sphere of knowledge’ beyond the cognitive bubble:

Because the sphere of knowledge of enlightening beings is utterly pure in its essential nature, it is outside the net of all conceptions, it is beyond the mountains of all obstructions. It appears in the mind and sheds light on beings who can be guided, according to their mentalities, when the time is ripe for their development.

— Cleary (1984, 1372)

It is outside the net, yet appears in the mind when the time is ripe. Its purity is its Firstness. The time is its Thirdness.