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.

Growing

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.

— Peirce, EP2:10

(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.

Mission Possible?

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.

— Stephen C. Angle and Justin Tiwald, Neo-Confucianism: A Philosophical Introduction (2017, Kindle location 407)

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)

Type, sign and word

According to Chapter 13 of Turning Signs,

A niche in a meaning space is a type of meaning. A niche in a symbolic meaning space can only be occupied by a Legisign, ‘a law that is a Sign.… Every conventional sign is a legisign. It is not a single object, but a general type which, it has been agreed, shall be significant’ (— Peirce, EP2:291).

If we consider a language (such as English or Greek) as a semantic or meaning space, we might say that a niche in that space is occupied by a word. But we might say instead that a word, being a legisign or type and not a single object, is the meaning space, which is ‘occupied’ in actual linguistic practice by tokens of that type or instances of that word, as Peirce says (CP 4.537, 1906).

On the other hand, Peirce also says that ‘Man, homo, ἄνθρωπος are the same sign’ (MS 9), although we would not usually say that they are the same word. This would imply a cross-linguistic meaning space in which different words are instances of the same sign. This would still be a symbolic space, but we might call it a semiotic meaning space, as it is more inclusive than a linguistic one (constituted by a single language). Likewise in his fifth Harvard Lecture of 1903:

Take, for example, any proverb. “Evil communications corrupt good manners.” Every time this is written or spoken in English, Greek, or any other language, and every time it is thought of it is one and the same representamen. It is the same with a diagram or picture. It is the same with a physical sign or symptom. If two weathercocks are different signs, it is only in so far as they refer to different parts of the air. … “Evil communications corrupt good manners” and φθείρουσιν ἤθη χρήσθʼ ὁμιλίαι κακαί are one and the same representamen. They are so, however, only so far as they are represented as being so; and it is one thing to say that “Evil communications corrupt good manners” and quite a different thing to say that “Evil communications corrupt good manners” and φθείρουσιν ἤθη χρήσθʼ ὁμιλίαι κακαί are two expressions of the same proverb.

EP2:203

The distinction in that last sentence is essentially the distinction between a language and a metalanguage, or between use and mention – or between semiosis and semiotics.

Phenomoment

Every moment has its momentum.
Something behind it has just been determined,
and something before it is about to be.
— if we think of time as a thing in motion, like an arrow.
But what if time is the motion itself?
Is the past then before and the future behind?

And what if time is the continuity of presence?

Phenoscopy analyzes ‘whatever is before the mind in any way, as percept, image, experience, thought, habit, hypothesis, etc.’ (Peirce).
What does it mean for something (X) to be ‘before the mind’? Most obviously, X can be an object of your attention, something you are “minding” or conscious of. The sound of the rain, say. But there must be other ways of being ‘before the mind,’ – or ‘in the mind,’ as Peirce sometimes put it. He included ‘thoughts’ and ‘habits’ in his ‘whatever’ list, but you cannot be directly conscious of either.

Thought is often supposed to be something in consciousness; but on the contrary, it is impossible ever actually to be directly conscious of thought. It is something to which consciousness will conform, as a writing may conform to it. Thought is rather of the nature of a habit, which determines the suchness of that which may come into existence, when it does come into existence. Of such a habit one may be conscious of a symptom; but to speak of being directly conscious of a habit, as such, is nonsense.

— Peirce, EP2:269

You can be indirectly conscious of a habit, by using a sign to refer to it, as this sentence has just done. The sign at the moment has to be a replica of a legisign. But habits – including the habits or “laws” of nature – are themselves legisigns. They determine the momentum of the moment by determining what comes into (or goes out of) existence at this time – just as the Thought determines where your thinking and feeling are presently going.

The only kind of sign that can embody this momentum is the argument: for ‘“urging” is the mode of representation proper to Arguments’ (Peirce, EP2:293). Likewise some kind of urging seems to be the mode of life itself, driving all the creatures in its urgent grip like ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’ (Dylan Thomas).

Every moment has its momentum.