Opinion vs. the Will to Learn

Peirce (EP2:47): ‘The first thing that the Will to Learn supposes is a dissatisfaction with one’s present state of opinion.’ But we often like to feel that we are in the right, and opinions seem to have their own will to grow, that is, to be more widely shared. Gadamer (1960, 362-6) puts it this way:

We cannot have experiences without asking questions.

In order to be able to ask, one must want to know, and that means knowing that one does not know.

It is opinion that suppresses questions. Opinion has a curious tendency to propagate itself. It would always like to be the general opinion, just as the word that the Greeks have for opinion, doxa, also means the decision made by the majority in the council assembly. How, then, can ignorance be admitted and questions arise?

the priority of the question over the answer … is the basis of knowledge. Knowledge always means, precisely, considering opposites. Its superiority over preconceived opinion consists in the fact that it is able to conceive of possibilities as possibilities.

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.

Mere ideas and memories

If a message doesn’t make a difference when you receive it, your memory is not likely to retain it (although you can still use external media to store it for later perusal). Likewise, a possibility which occurs to you without affecting your actions or your habits does not count as an experience, as Peirce defines it here:

An “Experience” is a brutally produced conscious effect that contributes to a habit, self-controlled, yet so satisfying, on deliberation, as to be destructible by no positive exercise of internal vigour. … Take for illustration the sensation undergone by a child that puts its forefinger into a flame with the acquisition of a habit of keeping all its members out of all flames. A compulsion is “Brute,” whose immediate efficacy nowise consists in conformity to rule or reason.

EP2:435 (1908)

This is followed, in Peirce’s ‘Neglected Argument for the Reality of God,’ by the explication of the ‘three Universes of Experience familiar to us all.’ The point here is that ‘mere Ideas’ do not count as ‘experience’ unless they affect your habits in some way beyond your control. Your memory of an event – that is, your ability to recall it not only now but in the future – is itself a habit; and you can’t count something as ‘an experience’ unless you at least remember it. (Your memory edits itself, as it were, in the very act of remembering, but this too is beyond your control – which makes it a real memory.)

Prove it again

As Mary Catherine Bateson points out, human learning tends to follow a spiral path: ‘Lessons too complex to grasp in a single occurrence spiral past again and again, small examples gradually revealing greater and greater implications’ (Bateson 1994, 30). Thus it is that a scripture continues to gather meaning with each re-reading, as Gandhi said in his commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita:

If we do not feel a new interest in this every time we read it, the fault must lie with us, it cannot be that of the author of the Gita.

— Gandhi (1926/2000, 233)

But human learning has often been hampered by the ‘transmission’ model – the assumption that the teacher knows and sends, and the learner merely receives passively, and that learning can take place without trial and without incorporation of feedback from trials. The great teachers know better, as their methods show: Socrates led the learner through trial by dialog, and the Buddha encouraged his followers to apply his own trial-and-error method rather than claiming to have received an authoritative revelation. The sutras even record some of his failed experiments (see e.g. Thich Nhat Hanh 1998, 14).

Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.

Thessalonians 5:21 [KJV]

The King James translation of this verse employs the primary sense of ‘prove’ in English, which according to the OED is ‘to make trial of, try, test’ – the meaning of the root Latin verb probare. To prove a statement or proposition in this sense is to investigate whether it really works as an act of meaning – whether it fits a niche in meaning space. Since context, occasion and meaning space are always transforming themselves with each act of meaning, the fit is always more or less temporary.

In recent centuries, the word prove in English most commonly invokes the secondary meaning, ‘to establish something as true’ – and ‘truth’ is taken to be a permanent and context-free quality of any ‘proven’ statement. ‘Proof’ in this sense is usually “demonstrated” by deduction from already-established principles or assumptions.

Scientific method is a matter of investigation, not of ‘proof’ in this secondary sense. ‘Science probes; it does not prove’ (Bateson 1979, 32). Its ‘conclusions’ are always tentative and probable, never established and certain. This is the only sensible approach to truth, which includes ‘proving’ verses in scriptures or metaphysical assertions. If they mean anything to us, we can only try them out in practice and learn from the results. As Peirce put it: ‘Demonstrative proof is not to be thought of. The demonstrations of the metaphysicians are all moonshine’ (CP 1.7). The realistic and pragmatic path is to live by those principles we have tried, and ‘hold fast’ to them because we are still trying them, not because we think our beliefs are permanently and absolutely true.

The seeds of time

A revelation or discovery must come as a surprise, but that is only the beginning of its integration into the guidance system. It can make a lasting difference in your map of the world, and thus become a better habit, only to the extent that its representation is tested against your experience of the reality beyond the map. The surprise is the spark, the trigger, sending you out on the path of inquiry. In order to grow into meaning, seed-signs need the water of life, which is your current experience; it also requires the soil, which is the residue of all past experience, the accumulated habits of the biosphere. And like all of the learning, development and evolution taking place on this planet, it also requires the sun (energy) and the continuous turning-out of time.

Present awareness, or awareness of what is currently happening, cannot be separated from memory of past events, or from anticipation of future events. Time, as the presence of impermanence, is simply the means by which the future both differs and continues from the already-determined, unalterable past. Experience is memory, while experiencing is time.

Stepping in

You could say that experiencing is living the difference between the inner world and the outer. Language, as a social institution, is adapted to reference to the world which we have in common because it is external to each of us. To speak of what is common to all experiencing, even the primal, we use metaphors which refer to that external world.

Heraclitus, for example, says that you cannot step twice into the same river. Think of any river you can find on a map of the world, and it’s clear that if you can step into it once, then you can step into it twice. But that’s because the river is a continuous flow, and so are you. ‘Stepping in’ is a general term that covers any number of instances; on the other foot, an actual ‘stepping into’ the river is a singular event and a unique experience. You can’t have that same experience twice, because the waters are always changing, and so are you. The next time you commit the act, you and the river have both moved on, and the difference between you is not the same as it was.

Intentionality and language

Full MoonIndexical signs inform an organism by redirecting attention within its Umwelt, which includes only those entities with which the animal is equipped to interact. An animal without ears, or rather lacking any sense of hearing, lives in a silent world. For us humans, this external world includes all sorts of things we can think and speak about. When we talk about it, we say that the object out there is ‘intended’ by the term we use in reference to it (which relates it to our Innenwelt). Some philosophers refer to this ‘aboutness’ as ‘intentionality.’ It is a universal feature of language, and of what Damasio calls ‘extended consciousness.’ This very special kind of intentionality develops out of the more universal kind introduced in Chapter 4, which is characteristic of all life forms. But we humans are – as far as we know – unique on this planet in having developed an ability to talk about development, or about experience.


Experiencing is the appearing of things, or the happening of events, ‘before’ they are designated as things, events, (ideas, images, people, places, processes, …..). Experience then is the appearance of phenomena – the noun forms here signalling that some‘thing’ has been identified as a single event or entity in the ongoing, undifferentiated stream of experiencing. This formulation or ‘reification’ is a necessary step toward discourse or dialogue.

Experience itself does not appear; it is the channel through which things appear or happen. Afterwards, though, we call a remembered appearance or happening an experience.

The experience of revelation

An experiencing system is one to whom things occur. Now, as far as you can feel, everything that happens happens to you. But if you are only human, you can only have human experience. And part of the human experience is to speak or think of whatever happens to any system as experience, or even as feeling. For instance, John Gribbin (2004, 11) writes that ‘Newton’s first law says that every object stays still or keeps moving in a straight line unless it experiences – or feels – a force.’ This usage of ‘experience’ (as a verb) in physics is not unusual. Whatever ‘feels’ a force in that physical sense is affected thereby, and we can and do say this of inanimate objects. Yet ‘affect’ (as a noun, accent on the first syllable) refers in psychology to the realm of feeling, as opposed to ‘detached’ cognition or observable behavior.

Likewise, when Peirce speaks of Firstness as pure ‘feeling’, he is speaking in a human way – the only way we have – but is not speaking only of the peculiarly human kind of feeling. He is speaking of happening viewed from within the entity to which it occurs. And when he speaks of Secondness as ‘reaction’, he is speaking of the opposition (or to put it more mildly, the difference) between entities, each of which is Second to the other. This is the core of ‘experience’ as Peirce generally uses the word: feeling is Firstness, experience Secondness.

Feeling devoid of the ‘Outward Clash’ of ‘reaction’ does not count as genuine experience for Peirce, because the possibility of its being internally generated can’t be ruled out, and its independence of anyone’s belief is therefore questionable. ‘Spiritual illumination from on high,’ for instance, is not experience in this Peircean sense (EP 1:234). If someone claims to have received a direct revelation from God, and our knowledge of it is based entirely on that person’s own testimony, then belief in the authenticity or authority of that revelation is not based on experience. The prophet may be absolutely sure that his message comes from God and not from himself, and the believer may feel strongly that he is forced to accept the prophet’s authority (even against his will); but these beliefs are ‘fixed’ by tenacity or authority – not by experience (or induction, which is the only kind of reasoning based directly on experience). This is especially clear when the revelation is given privately, i.e. is received by only one person.

If an original (unprecedented) message were given to many people unacquainted with each other, and they all simultaneously published it independently of one another, and all recorded versions were identical, then we would have good evidence that the source of this revelation really was independent of anyone claiming to have received it. If there were any such case in the public record of human experience, surely we would have heard about it. Lacking that kind of evidence, we can only take the revealer’s claim about his private experience of the revelation as irrefutable and thus untestable. Considering that revelation as a sign, the interpreter who hears and believes in it has no collateral experience of its object, or at least no way of knowing that the present interpretant is a sign of that same object. You can believe in a revelation – that is, you can be determined to act according to your understanding of it – but you can’t know that you know what it refers to, or what its Author’s intention was.

The experience of being a sentient agent is no less than being the locus of something that is incessantly and spontaneously emerging. This experience is itself an emerging locus at the center of a vast but only weakly constraining, weakly determinate web of semiotic and physiological influences.

— Terrence W. Deacon (Weber and Depew 2003, 305-6)