Continuity is deeper than difference.
Category: Meaning Time
21 years ago my wife Pam and i settled on M’nidoo M’nissing, better known to settlers as Manitoulin Island. The Anishinaabe word manitou is often rendered in English as “spirit.” But what does that mean? Anishinaabe scholar Dolleen Tisawii’ashii Manning relates what she learned about mnidoo from her mother:
The big and little spirits correspond more or less to the Big and Little Currents in Turning Signs (Chapter 9). The mnidoo which is ‘something that is happening and is about to happen at the same time’ also corresponds to Dogen’s being-time, and with the Buddhist Heart Sutra:
This concept mnidoo derives from the word Gizhemnidoo, from my mothers’ dialect …. She translated Gizhemnidoo in several ways; primary among these was Great Spirit (the most common translation in our area). Gizhe (great) is similar to chi (big). We can separate gizhe from mnidoo, which she called spirit, potency, potential— dynamic energy. She said that the word spirit is the anglicized interpretation, but mnidoo is something that is happening, and is about to happen at the same time. Gizhemnidoo is the Great Mystery/Spirit, mind boggling, because it is beyond human comprehension. But virtually everything is mnidoo, little spirits. Everything has a little spirit that is propelled by, and exists, due to this energy.Mnidoo-Worlding: Merleau-Ponty and Anishinaabe Philosophical Translations, p. 3
the Heart Sutra mantra — Gaté, gaté, paragaté, parasamgaté, Bodhi! Svaha! — can be interpreted as “Arriving, arriving, arriving all the way, arriving all the way together: awakening. Joy!” This is a marvelous reminder for our meditation practice that each moment of our practice is, as Dogen suggests, not separate from awakening or enlightenment. Each moment of our practice and of our life is blessed.Tanahashi 2014, 44-45
The languages are many, but as far as we call tell, the meaning is one. Now is the time we need to hear it, especially from the First Peoples of the Earth.
If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.Hamlet, V.iv.210
The rest is silence.
Swimming through uncertainty
The principle of continuity is the idea of fallibilism objectified. For fallibilism is the doctrine that our knowledge is never absolute but always swims, as it were, in a continuum of uncertainty and of indeterminacy. Now the doctrine of continuity is that all things so swim in continua.C. S. Peirce, CP 1.171 (c. 1897)
Chapter 13 of Turning Signs (the netbook), on meaning spaces, has now been revamped for the 2nd edition. Now included is a sketch of Peirce’s Existential Graph system, which illustrates one of the paradoxes of inquiry: in order to learn how a whole system works, we usually have to analyze it and study how its parts are related.
Peirce did this with the continuous thought process, and his graph system was his favorite method of analysis. He did not limit himself to the human thought process, but tried to model the thought process of any being capable of learning by experience – even the “thought” of Nature herself. (What do those quotation marks around “thought” mean? The newly revised chapter delves into that as well.) Anyway, i hope it helps to give some fallible inkling of why we’re all swimming in a continuum of indeterminacy.
Faith and semiosis
Inkling of the day:
There is no time for more than a little consciousness.— Gregory Bateson
If your car could travel at the speed of light, would your headlights work?— Steven Wright
If you could live at the speed of time, would your anticipatory systems work?
Among the bad habits of humanity (see previous post) which now threaten the biosphere, two of the worst are population growth and economic growth. The first is easy enough to understand: in my own lifetime, the human population of the world has tripled from 2.5 billion to 7.7 billion, and this explosive growth continues to this day. It’s bad news for the many life forms who have been displaced by human settlement (and human travel!), because living space is limited on this planet. Even if every human lived economically, i.e. lived “within their means” by making more efficient use of energy and resources, humanity would run out of Earthroom sooner or later – and not before driving most of our wild neighbors to extinction.
But the growth of “the economy,” as measured in most countries by GDP (Gross Domestic Product), makes the situation far worse, and this is not as obvious. GDP measures the amount of money in circulation, and thus it grows with every oil spill, every war, and every case of cancer, because these cost money to deal with. It also grows when people consume energy and resources they don’t need, when the rich get richer, and when working people are well paid for doing jobs that pollute the earth and steal resources from future generations. What does this have to do with the real economy or with human well-being? Why are we so addicted to economic growth when there are healthier ways to run an economy?
Maybe the very concept of growth has something to do with our addiction. That concept is a symbol, and so is the word we use to invoke the concept. According to C.S. Peirce, Symbols grow. What did he mean by that? Certainly those of us connected to the Internet have more access to information than anyone did in Peirce’s time, but how is that fact related to the kind of growth he had in mind? Just what is that kind of growth, and how is it related to the growth of living things? Concerning situations like climate change, is it part of the problem, or part of the solution, or both?
First let’s have a look at how Peirce developed the idea. The following is taken from a book chapter he wrote in 1894:
Symbols grow. They come into being by development out of other signs, particularly from likenesses or from mixed signs partaking of the nature of likenesses and symbols. We think only in signs. These mental signs are of mixed nature; the symbol-parts of them are called concepts. If a man makes a new symbol, it is by thoughts involving concepts. So it is only out of symbols that a new symbol can grow. Omne symbolum de symbolo. A symbol, once in being, spreads among the peoples. In use and in experience, its meaning grows. Such words as force, law, wealth, marriage, bear for us very different meanings from those they bore to our barbarous ancestors. The symbol may, with Emerson’s sphynx, say to man,
Of thine eye I am eyebeam.
(The difference between symbols and other signs is introduced in Chapter 3 of Turning Signs, and Emerson’s sphynx makes an appearance in rePatch ·12.) For now, let us focus on Peirce’s vague remark about what happens when a symbol ‘spreads among the peoples’: ‘In use and in experience, its meaning grows.’ Surely there must be more to the growth of meaning than mere increase in the number of people using the symbol. Peirce gives examples of words which ‘bear for us very different meanings from those they bore to our barbarous ancestors.’ Does he mean that concepts have changed while the words naming them have remained the same? If so, why should we think that the concepts are growing rather than changing in some other way?
Indeed, how do we know what those words meant to our ancestors in the first place? Who were these ‘barbarous’ ancestors, anyway? The English root word “barbar-” is derived from a Greek word which originally referred to people who didn’t speak Greek but some other language which sounded ‘barbarous,’ meaning uncivilized, to Greek ears. But if our barbarous ancestors didn’t speak English, what could it mean to say that they meant something by an English word which bears a different meaning for us? Probably Peirce didn’t mean that at all; rather he meant, by the word ‘word’, something that takes different forms in different languages, and yet differs in meaning only to the extent that children differ from their parents and more distant ancestors.
It seems that in order to understand how meanings grow over generations and centuries and millennia of word usage, we should take a closer look at how languages evolve. In my next post or two, I propose to start doing this by tracing the history of the verb grow back about 5000 years to the time of our ‘our barbarous ancestors’ who spoke a Proto-Indo-European language.
Maybe, eventually, we’ll be able to look the sphynx in the eyebeam.
Sometimes you have to rest in silence for awhile before you can start again with something to say.
When I describe Turning Signs as a ‘philosophical essay,’ this is what I have in mind:
Philosophy is systematic reflection on our existence, seeking to answer questions like “What is our place in the cosmos?” or “How should we best live our lives?” For many philosophers – very much including the Greeks who stood at the beginnings of western philosophy – the asking and answering of such questions was part of a philosophical way of life: that is, philosophy is not confined to abstract, intellectual pursuits but is implemented in one’s daily life.
This is also what I had in mind when I started Chapter 1 of Turning Signs:
Suppose you’ve been selected for a secret mission.
Supposing means imagining a certain situation in order to see what follows from it. It doesn’t commit us to believing that you really are in that situation. You are free to imagine other possible situations. Maybe you have no ‘mission’ in life, no specific “role” to play in the world drama, no “destiny” or destination pulling you in any particular direction. Maybe ‘missions’ are nothing but figments of the human imagination. Or maybe you do have a ‘mission’ but it’s no secret: you know exactly what it is and you could spell it out in 25 words or less. Maybe you were born to do exactly what you are doing to “make a living,” as we say. But I didn’t invite the reader to suppose either of those situations, because they don’t seem to generate the kind of philosophical questions that Angle and Tiwald refer to above, the questions that seem most real to me (and, I suppose, to any reader likely to get very far in Turning Signs).
When I ask you to suppose you’ve been selected for a secret mission, I am not asking you to believe that any person or agency (divine or human or corporate) selected you for your ‘mission’ or your ‘mission’ for you. You might have selected it yourself, consciously or not, or your situation might result from a process of natural selection. Of course, being a user of language (and probably other symbolic media), your mission is also rooted in cultural selection. But a culture is itself an outgrowth of nature. Cultural systems evolve just as biological and ecological systems do, following the same natural principles – with the addition of an emergent level of consciousness that enables deliberate choices to be made. A crucial part of that cultural selection process is supposing that imagined possibilities can be “realized” and anticipating the consequences that would follow.
Another crucial part of the cultural selection process, especially for those of us living the time of the 21st Century, is reflection on how our cultures have developed the forms and core concepts which are now dominant on this planet, and how those core concepts might need to change in order to avoid the collapse of the natural systems that sustain us all. This kind of reflection is implicit in Turning Signs, but I’ve just been reading another book which addresses the question more explicitly: The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, by Jeremy Lent. It’s inspired me to reflect on some of the core concepts of Turning Signs in future blog posts. Maybe it won’t make a difference to the future of humanity, but maybe that’s not my mission anyway.
How do you mean?
Lass dich die Bedeutung der Worte von ihren Verwendungen lehren! (Ähnlich kann man in der Mathematik oft sagen: Lass den Beweis dich lehren, was bewiesen wurde.)
Let the use of words teach you their meaning. (Similarly one can often say in mathematics: Let the proof teach you what was being proved.)— Wittgenstein, PI II.xi (p. 220)
When one phrase or one verse permeates your body and mind, it becomes a seed of illumination for limitless kalpas, and this brings you to unsurpassable enlightenment. When one dharma or one wholesome action permeates your body and mind, it is also like this.— Dogen, SBGZ “Kesa kodoku” (Tanahashi 2010, 117)
Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.