28 December 2008

The real meltdown

The snow cover, some of it two feet deep, has nearly vanished after a day of rain that rose to +8 C. Rain at this time of year is not so very unusual, but after all the snow and cold this month, it seems truly bizarre. Well, that's life in the last days of '08.

Life itself is the imperative to continue by self-renewal. No force in the universe is more ruthless, or more creative, than life. It is the root of all suffering; it drives the mutual interference among life-forms; it is therefore the ground of compassion. It is the source of suffering and of release from suffering: when we learn from suffering, we go beyond it. Only by learning from experience of life-and-death can we know something deeper.

25 December 2008

Happy Birthday to The Anointed One

Winter mornings on Manitoulin are always quiet, but Christmas morning especially so. The loudest sound in the universe is coming from the goldfinches complaining about the encrusted icy snow on their favorite feeder. Yesterday's very wet snow has frozen overnight to coat everything, including every branch of every tree, in a hard whiteness. I had to scrape some of it off the satellite dish to find out of there's still another world beyond all this beauty. And to upload this appreciation of it.

Maybe it would be just as well to keep my silence. But a bird gotta sing, even if it's only about the hard and white. And i'm happy that, since there's nowhere to go today or tomorrow, i won't have to shovel any more of that frozen slush today.

I wonder how the outer world is doing — but hardly enough to find out.

23 December 2008

The explicit intricacy

Today i'd like to introduce a passage from Blake's Milton, a long poem about its own genesis. In Book 1
Milton, who walkd about in Eternity
One hundred years, pondring the intricate mazes of Providence
descends back into the fallen world of everyday life to unite his prophetic inspiration with Blake's, and thus to correct some errors of his earlier life's work. Blake and Milton together become one with Los, who might be defined as the Creative Imagination who expresses, or makes explicit, what Eugene Gendlin has called the implicit intricacy.

The division of being into beings or systems, each with its inside and outside, is what makes it all so intricate. On Plate 26 of Milton we find a vision of the natural environment as the work of Los. Here it is (replacing some of Blake's remarkably quirky punctuation with my own):
Thou seest the gorgeous clothed Flies that dance & sport in summer
Upon the sunny brooks & meadows: every one the dance
Knows in its intricate mazes of delight, artful to weave;
Each one to sound his instruments of music in the dance,
To touch each other & recede, to cross & change & return –
These are the Children of Los; thou seest the Trees on mountains
The wind blows heavy, loud they thunder thro' the darksom sky
Uttering prophecies & speaking instructive words to the sons
Of men: These are the Sons of Los! These the Visions of Eternity.
But we see only as it were the hem of their garments
When with our vegetable eyes we view these wond'rous Visions.
Our eyes are ‘vegetable’ when they are not animated with the creative power of vision – the same power with which you the universe are at once wholly guided and animated.

19 December 2008


The current credit bubble – which has hardly begun to burst – inflated because systematic inflation was a way for clever and powerful people to make money instead of providing real goods or services to others.
Good for what? Service to whom?
Nothing permanent, that's for sure.
Mutual good or service depends on differences.
Even the web of life is a bubble, held together by surface tension.
Yes, it's bubbles all the way down.
I think the Buddhists call this ‘emptiness’ – or ‘interbeing’.
It's the source of inspiration, which Jesus calls the bubbling spring that I have tended (Gospel of Thomas 13.5)

Take a deep breath.

17 December 2008

Snowshoe musings

A day and a night of rain this past weekend made the blanket of snow here quite a bit thinner – the ditches are still running like rivers even though the temperature has dropped again to around –10. But today the snow cover has been refreshed, and since there was hardly any wind, the trees are once again wearing white. There's still a surprising amount left on the ground despite the rain, and the deer tracks i found today in the snowshoe trail i made yesterday seemed to show that they appreciated my efforts. It's only fair, since i like following their trails too. Though it would be hard not to – the bush here is riddled with them.

A flock of goldfinches also brightened up the day today. A real service, now that we're less than a week from the winter solstice and the sun hardly shows his face. And a free service too! (unless you count the bit of birdseed i provide for them).

16 December 2008

All over now

All that matters is what's present to the mind. This is what mattering means.
(What mind? Whooth?)
It's the wind in the woods.
It's a quiet Little Current Conversation.
It's the crash of collapsing economies,
or the groan of ever-growing debt.
It's Blake's Jerusalem, or John's Apocalypse.
It's all over now, baby blue.
It's written all over your face.

12 December 2008

Stuck in the tar sands

This article from the David Suzuki Foundation's ‘Science Matters’ column shows how far we are from a sensible energy policy.

11 December 2008

Re: vision

The artist possessed by the creative process is inspired, in the groove, in the flow. When the work is complete, it quickly turns into an anchor he has to cast off, a skin she has to shed, in order to re-enter the zone of inspiration.

The seeker of truth wants only to pin it down; her goal is the ‘fixation of belief’, as Peirce expressed it in a famous essay. He imagines a fully understood world in the distant future, and aims to contribute something to that final knowledge. And yet any belief which becomes a ‘fixation’ weighs her down like a heavy chain, or a cross he has to bear. If Truth really is eternal and unchanging, it can only be kept alive by the constant turning of time, presenting it every day from a different angle.

10 December 2008

Everything that happens will happen today

This is the title of a new collaboration by David Byrne and Brian Eno, two major contributors to the late-20th-century music scene. Their 1980 release My Life In the Bush of Ghosts is still a favorite of mine. (I may live in the backwoods, but i still have a weakness for innovative music – ‘city music’, if i can call it that … )

This new one is mostly music by Eno, lyrics and vocals by Byrne, and the result is something quite different from what either of them would have come up with on his own, as they say in their own notes on the process. ‘Electronic gospel’, they call it. The lyrics are not ‘religious’ in the sense that most gospel music is, but some of them are quite profound – a quality that Byrne sometimes takes pains to avoid, or so it seems. Some of his lines here, like the title above, are well worth pondering. And all work well with Eno's music, to give us an unexpected and welcome gift from two veterans of the Talking Heads era who haven't lost their creative edge.

09 December 2008

Snow job

So much snow has fallen on Manitoulin Island in recent days that i've spent a lot of time shovelling when i could have been blogging. Well, no great loss for blog readers, i'm sure … and moving this much snow does get the blood pumping, even better than walking. Besides, there's nothing more beautiful (especially in the sunlight, if you're lucky enough to get any) than a field of totally undisturbed snow.

A day like this erases all tracks, here in the woods, and the preoccupations of civilization seem even more distant and strange. Of course i wouldn't need to clear the driveway at all if we were really cut off from busy world – but still, once Pam's taken the car off to work, it feels almost like i'm hibernating while awake.

I do intend to make some tracks, though, next time i get a break from shovelling. Last winter the snowfall was so thin that i hardly had to use my snowshoes at all. This one, so far, looks like a new kind of winter, with a new kind of walking ahead.

05 December 2008

A brief political interlude

Woke up this morning at 6 to a starry sky, glittering with that brilliance which is unique to cold, clear winter nights. City dwellers never get to see this spectacle – another good reason for living in the woods. Maybe that's why politicians, who are nearly all city people, have such a shortsighted view of the world …

Here in Canada, political history was made yesterday when the Governor General agreed to shut down Parliament for 7 weeks at the request of the Prime Minister. (The technical term for ‘shut down’ is prorogue – a verb suddenly in wide use by millions of people who didn't know what it meant a week ago.)

Here's my perspective – broadened by starlight, i hope – on how this situation came about.

All over the world, and most notably in the United States, the political trend is finally turning toward a more sustainable economy. The recent bursting of the credit bubble and stock market crash has reversed the trend toward deregulated, free-swinging, robber-baron capitalism. The Friedmanite Shock Doctrine (as Naomi Klein calls it), which has destroyed so many lives, seems to be on the way out. This is a first step toward waking up to the dangers of the consumptive economy, which widens the gap between rich and poor while degrading ecological systems. But the government of Canada continues to distinguish itself by lagging behind the global trend toward economic accountability and democracy.

PM Stephen Harper – a ‘lite’ version of George Bush, you might say – is still at the service of the wealthy and the big corporations, fighting a rearguard action against socio-political-economic reform. In the recent election, the Liberal platform included a carbon tax, while the NDP campaigned for a cap-and-trade system. Without getting into the question of which is better, it's clear that one or the other is essential to any policy that will be viable over long term. But Harper managed to pull the wool over many voters' eyes with fraudulent claims that the Liberal plan would take money out of their pockets. Both Harper's Conservatives and the NDP made gains in the election, at the expense of the Liberals (the Green Party was also a factor in the election but didn't win a seat in Parliament).

After the election Harper, who didn't get the majority he wanted, talked in a vaguely conciliatory fashion about cooperation with the other parties; but his government's first presentation to Pariament after the Throne Speech, an ‘economic update’ as they called it, made it clear that he is more determined than ever to impose his brand of economic ‘shock treatment’ on Canada. The position taken by the government was so extreme that it united the opposition parties, a feat which would have seemed impossible a few weeks earlier. In a matter of days they put together a Liberal-NDP coalition which could have taken power, with the support of the Bloc Quebecois, after the government was brought down by a non-confidence motion to be presented next Monday. So Harper chose to shut down Parliament rather than face the non-confidence motion, and the Governor General went along with that – something unprecedented in Canadian history.

If a more viable economic policy – one which addresses the real economy, not just corporate profits, and looks beyond the next election – comes out of all of this political maneuvering, then it might be worth closing down the business of government for 7 weeks. But i will be very surprised if the Harper government comes up with anything close to that; they will more likely try to break the coalition, or come up with some scheme for clinging to power. And even if the coalition does take over and manages to stay together – which in itself would be quite a political feat – the addiction to economic ‘growth’ will probably still take top priority, in the form of some ‘stimulus package’ which gives insufficient attention to renewable energy sources. Canadians will have to kick the consumption-and-debt habit for themselves rather than waiting for any government; and many will find this hard to do because they are employed in resource-extraction industries. As for the politicians, too many still think – some of them quite sincerely – that ‘growth’ is the solution, when in fact it's the problem. And they are too wrapped up in power struggles to have any realistic vision of the future.

God grant us the serenity of the stars looking down on all this, and a steadier light to live by than the creed of greed.

03 December 2008

The old urge for the new

Grant (me) what no angel has seen nor archon heard, and what has not entered the human heart.

I came across this line from an ancient Valentinian prayer on April DeConick's Forbidden Gospels Blog. It expresses an aspiration as old and as new as humanity itself: to see or feel what's never been seen or felt before. This represents the opposite pole from the desire to be totally secure in a stable, no-surprises world. Most of us inhabit a ‘comfort zone’ somewhere along the spectrum between those two extremes.

William James commented on that spectrum in the chapter on perception in his 1890 Principles of Psychology:
There is an everlasting struggle in every mind between the tendency to keep unchanged, and the tendency to renovate, its ideas. Our education is a cease-less compromise between the conservative and the progressive factors. Every new experience must be disposed of under some old head. The great point is to find the head which has to be least altered to take it in. Certain Polynesian natives, seeing horses for the first time, called them pigs, that being the nearest head. My child of two played for a week with the first orange that was given him, calling it a ‘ball.’ He called the first whole eggs he saw ‘potatoes’ having been accustomed to see his ‘eggs’ broken into a glass, and his potatoes without the skin. A folding pocket-corkscrew he unhesitatingly called ‘bad-scissors.’ Hardly any one of us can make new heads easily when fresh experiences come. Most of us grow more and more enslaved to the stock conceptions with which we have once become familiar, and less and less capable of assimilating impressions in any but the old ways. Old-fogyism, in short, is the inevitable terminus to which life sweeps us on. … Genius, in truth, means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way.
— James (1890, v.2, 109-10)

You might think that psychology has changed a lot since James, with all the new tools and techniques we have devised to study the biological basis of thinking, feeling and so on. But when it comes to the patterns of everyday experience – old patterns constantly renewed – the descriptions of James are still hard to beat for elegance and clarity.

02 December 2008

The swing

A song of Kabir, translated by Rabindranath Tagore (you can find more at the Internet Sacred Texts Archive):

II.59. jânh, cet acet khambh dôû

BETWEEN the poles of the conscious and the unconscious, there has the mind made a swing:
Thereon hang all beings and all worlds, and that swing never ceases its sway.
Millions of beings are there: the sun and the moon in their courses are there:
Millions of ages pass, and the swing goes on.
All swing! the sky and the earth and the air and the water; and the Lord Himself taking form:
And the sight of this has made Kabîr a servant.

There are servant leaders, and then there are servant singers: they serve by singing the praises of the Lord.

01 December 2008

Signs and pictures, Peirce and Dogen

There is no meaning without signs, but no sign can say more than its reader can mean with it. The act of meaning is never fully determined by the sign.

C.S. Peirce makes a
distinction between the two kinds of indeterminacy, viz.: indefiniteness and generality, of which the former consists in the sign's not sufficiently expressing itself to allow of an indubitable determinate interpretation, while the latter turns over to the interpreter the right to complete the determination as he please. It seems a strange thing, when one comes to ponder over it, that a sign should leave its interpreter to supply a part of its meaning; but the explanation of the phenomenon lies in the fact that the entire universe — not merely the universe of existents, but all that wider universe, embracing the universe of existents as a part, the universe which we are all accustomed to refer to as “the truth” — that all this universe is perfused with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs.
— EP2:394 (1906)

What Peirce says there about signs can be compared to what Eihei Dogen says here about pictures:
Because the entire universe and all things are, as such, pictures, both humans and things actualize themselves through pictures. The Buddha-ancestors perfect themselves through pictures.
— Dogen, ‘Gabyo’ (Kim 2007, 116)

Is ‘pictures’ a sign of signs? Is ‘signs’ a picture of pictures? Consider this comment by Hee-jin Kim (2007, 118):
Dogen once wrote: ‘The monastics of future generations will be able to understand one-taste Zen based on words and letters, if they devote efforts to spiritual practice by seeing the universe through words and letters, and words and letters through the universe.’ Replace ‘words and letters’ in the above passage with ‘pictures,’ and its gist is the same — the reason is that for Dogen, picture is language and language is picture. Both in turn belong to thinking. Thus the visual and linguistic, the spatial and temporal, imagination and conceptualization, the material and the mental, the sensuous and rational coalesce in Dogen's religious method and hermeneutics.

Kim also comments that Dogen's method ‘amounted, in essence, to critical, reflective thinking as an integral part of meditation’ (Kim 2007, 122). Peirce's ‘critical common-sensism’ was likewise an integral part of his philosophical practice.

As for me, i'm taking a break from digging out after the first big snowstorm of this winter. It seems all the time i've been shovelling signs.

30 November 2008

Who's here?

Who am i really? An imaginary being, like the square root of -1.
O, and u2? No wonder we get along so well together!

We tend to push our way along, with the illusion that while liberally whispering, smoothly saying, and shouting messages back and forth at will, we are effectively communicating, though we are by and large oblivious to our frequent backfires, misfires, and blanks.
— Floyd Merrell (1997, 244)

29 November 2008

Faces of truth

Faces of truth

Yesterday's post was partly about the ‘lamenting’ which was necessary in order for Black Elk to receive guidance from the thunder beings. The next problem is how to make the guidance available to the community for whose sake it was given. Since the Ogalala Sioux were not ‘people of the Book’, the medium of a written text was not an option. The tribal elders decided on a heyoka ceremony. Heyokas are sacred clowns; the next chapter of Black Elk Speaks describes how they carried out their mission on this occasion. Black Elk has this to say about the practice:
Only those who have had visions of the thunder beings of the west can act as heyokas. They have sacred power and they share some of this with all the people, but they do it through funny actions. When a vision comes from the thunder beings of the west, it comes with terror like a thunder storm; but when the storm of vision has passed, the world is greener and happier; for wherever the truth of vision comes upon the world, it is like a rain. The world, you see, is happier after the terror of the storm.

But in the heyoka ceremony, everything is backwards, and it is planned that the people shall be made to feel jolly and happy first, so that it may be easier for the power to come to them. You have noticed that the truth comes into this world with two faces. One is sad with suffering, and the other laughs; but it is the same face, laughing or weeping. When people are already in despair, maybe the laughing face is better for them; and when they feel too good and are too sure of being safe, maybe the weeping face is better for them to see. And so I think that is what the heyoka ceremony is for.

The ‘two faces of the truth’ will ring a bell, as it were, for those familiar with Case 3 of the Buddhist koan collection called the Blue Cliff Record:
Great Master Ma was unwell. The temple superintendent asked him, ‘Teacher, how has your venerable health been in recent days?’ The Great Master said, ‘Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha.’
— Cleary and Cleary (1977, 18)

Buddhist writings also share another natural image with Black Elk when they refer to ‘the truth of vision’ coming upon the world as ‘the rain of dharma’. Buddhas bestow this rain in whatever form it must take in order to be absorbed — for a sign is not a sign unless somebody reads it. Sometimes it takes tears to open the heart, and sometimes a bit of clowning.

28 November 2008

‘Abdu'l-Bahá and Black Elk

On this day, Bahá'ís around the world commemorate the Ascension of ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, the head of the Bahá'í faith from the passing of his father Bahá'u'lláh in 1892 until his own death in 1921. Throughout his life he was most commonly known as ‘The Master’, but the name he chose for himself means ‘servant of Baha’. ‘Abdu'l-Bahá was an examplar of servant leadership long before Robert Greenleaf coined the term.

‘Abdu'l-Bahá was the author of many prayers, and one of the most typical begins like this:

He is the All-Glorious!
O God, my God! Lowly and tearful, I raise my suppliant hands to Thee and cover my face in the dust of that Threshold of Thine, exalted above the knowledge of the learned, and the praise of all that glorify Thee.

Tears come naturally to a servant leader, especially when he contemplates the state of the world and the condition to which so many of its people are reduced because of human ignorance and error. I see another example in the Ogalala Sioux visionary Black Elk — especially in the ‘Dog Vision’ chapter of Black Elk Speaks. At the age of 18 he was acutely aware that his visionary power had been given to be used in service to his people, but also that he didn't yet know how to render that service.

I had made a good start to fulfill my duty to the Grandfathers, but I had much more to do; and so the winter was like a long night of waiting for the daybreak.

When the grasses began to show their faces again, I was happy, for I could hear the thunder beings coming in the earth and I could hear them saying: ‘It is time to do the work of your Grandfathers.’

After the long winter of waiting, it was my first duty to go out lamenting. So after the first rain storm I began to get ready.

When going out to lament it is necessary to choose a wise old medicine man, who is quiet and generous, to help.

Black Elk chose a medicine man named Few Tails to guide him through the long and arduous preparation for ‘lamenting’.

Few Tails now told me what I was to do so that the spirits would hear me and make clear my next duty. I was to stand in the middle, crying and praying for understanding. Then I was to advance from the center to the quarter of the west and mourn there awhile. Then I was to back up to the center, and from there approach the quarter of the north, wailing and praying there, and so on all around the circle. This I had to do all night long.

Black Elk's prayer was essentially the same as ‘Abdu'l-Bahá's — despite many obvious differences — and motivated by the same spirit of servant leadership. And for me there is a special poignancy in this passage from that same chapter in Black Elk's story:

And now when I look about me upon my people in despair, I feel like crying and I wish and wish my vision could have been given to a man more worthy. I wonder why it came to me, a pitiful old man who can do nothing. Men and women and children I have cured of sickness with the power the vision gave me; but my nation I could not help. If a man or woman or child dies, it does not matter long, for the nation lives on. It was the nation that was dying, and the vision was for the nation; but I have done nothing with it.

A century and a half later, the same forces of greed and ignorance which nearly destroyed the Sioux nation are still at work, only on a much bigger scale — the entire planetary ecosystem is at risk, and the suffering people of far outnumber the entire human population of the earth in Black Elk's time. I certainly feel like crying when i think about it, and even more so when i think of how little i have done to help — for i haven't even healed a single person, as Black Elk did many times. Yet i see that Black Elk's vision lives on through the story told in Black Elk Speaks, and may yet make a difference — perhaps even because this blog post has directed your attention to it!

I am neither a visionary like Black Elk nor a servant leader like ‘Abdu'l-Bahá; neither my work in progress nor this blog can begin to compare with what they accomplished. Yet i confess to a faint flickering hope that my work may serve some purpose, especially in its blending of spiritual and scientific visions. ‘Abdu'l-Bahá said that ‘religion and science are the two wings upon which man's intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress.’ And i'm encouraged that at least one precursor along this double path — C.S. Peirce — did his best work in his mid-60s. That's why i haven't succumbed entirely to despair …

27 November 2008

Symbolic and other inheritance systems

Can we guide our own evolution?

Yes, because changing our own habits changes the context in which natural selection operates.

No, because we don't control the effects of what we do. Some of those effects are always unanticipated, and you don't control what you can't anticipate.

Eva Jablonka has identified four different ‘inheritance systems’ which have roles in evolution: genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic. For the full story see Jablonka and Lamb, Evolution in Four Dimensions (2005). Since the discovery of DNA and its structure, the genetic inheritance system has dominated evolutionary theory, but the other three are finally being recognized as sources of variation on which natural selection can operate.

Of course language — the primary symbolic system — has long been recognized as a source of variation on which conscious selection can operate. Biosemiotics, based on the pioneering work of Peirce, is beginning to bridge the gap between natural and conscious selection as factors in evolution — just as Jablonka has done, except that semiotics begins with the symbolic (linguistic) level and works downwards while Jablonka and colleagues are working upwards from the genetic.

My blog post yesterday commented on some similarities between the genetic and symbolic inheritance systems (GIS and SIS) which are not shared by the other two: both are modular and combinatorial. This allows them both to encode information, a vitally important function in the evolutionary process, as Jablonka points out:
Because of the ability to encode information, both the GIS and SIS transmit a lot of unexpressed information. Nonfunctional genes are transmitted, as also are nonimplemented ideas. This provides a huge reservoir of variation, which may become useful in new conditions. I believe that this ever-present potential gives these systems a particularly important role in long-term evolution. However, no inheritance system acts in isolation: inheritance systems interact both directly and indirectly. For example, the social animal, with its behavioral information systems, determines the selective regime in which genes are ultimately selected.
— Jablonka (Oyama, Griffiths and Gray 2001, 112)

This implies that in a time of crisis like the one we are now living through, we can affect the course of our own evolution by consciously changing our actual habits to realize ideas which have already been ‘transmitted’ but not yet implemented. That may sound obvious, but i wonder whether the possibility has really ‘sunk in’ to our awareness. Maybe it can help to place it on a scientific basis, as Jablonka does, and as Peirce did a century ago.

26 November 2008

Natural symbols

From the beginning of his semiotic work — before he called it that — C.S. Peirce recognized three kinds of sign: icon, index and symbol. Symbolic signs are essential to human language, and that makes all the difference between language and other kinds of communication found in nature. Peirce wrote in 1909 that symbols ‘represent their objects, independently alike of any resemblance or any real connection, because dispositions or factitious habits of their interpreters insure their being so understood’ (EP 2:461). A language is a complex set of habits common to all who speak the language. ‘Factitious habits’ are artificial conventions; ‘dispositions’ however need not be artificial. Obviously the primary reference here is to the use of language, which is partly conventional, but not entirely so in the case of ‘natural languages’: the ‘dispositions’ which guide the interpretive process can be as deeply grounded in human nature as the habits of laughing, crying or smiling.

And what about the larger natural context of human nature? Could the dispositions of language-interpreters be grounded in pre-linguistic habits? Is there a kind of interpretation older than language, a kind of symbol older than humanity? What about the genome: it is obviously a sign of the organism, but can we call it a symbol?

The analogy between genetic and linguistic structures has been made many times, because both are modular and combinatorial. That is, the molecular structures within the genome consist of parts which hang together as units and can be rearranged to generate a somewhat different organism, just as a new arrangement of word-symbols can mean something new. (Of course there are constraints on this rearranging — not every structure is viable in either domain, genetic or linguistic.) Both genetic and linguistic ‘statements’ are holarchic, i.e. they are multilevel structures, each level consisting of units which are both parts of larger wholes and wholes made up of their own parts. The main difference seems to be that statements in language are intentionally (consciously, deliberately) meant to be interpreted, while genetic ‘utterances’ are not. But is this an absolute difference, or are there levels of intentionality mediating between those two extremes? If so, then it's more than metaphor or analogy to say that genes are symbols.

There is of course a big difference between the interpretation of a linguistic sign and that of the genome, but not so big a difference that the latter can't be called interpretation.

Language is a social phenomenon, which means that the interpreter of a sign is a different person from its producer. We do talk to ourselves — usually not out loud — but you first learn to talk by interacting with others, and later internalize a virtual other as yourself, i.e. a self you can talk to while you're alone (we call this thinking, or internal dialogue).

The interpreter of your genome, on the other hand, is your biological self (rather than a social or virtual self). Each replica of the genome is read by the cell in which it is embedded, and the reading process is guided from without by indexical signs of the cell's environment. The collective interpretant of all these cellular-semiotic processes is the growth, differentiation, self-organization and behavior of your body — including your verbal behavior!

As with any linguistic utterance, the meaning of the genome is context-dependent. Why not, then, call it a symbol?

25 November 2008

Thought for the winter of our discontent

Even the smallest candle burns brighter in the dark. — anonymous

23 November 2008

Sniffing snow and Morning Earth

Walking is different with snow on the ground because it's so much easier to see who else has been walking there (snowshoe hare, white-tailed deer, red fox, ...). Of course if i kept my nose to the ground like the dog does, and my nose were as finely discriminating as his, i'd be tracking all the time too. But we gave all that up for the privilege of bipedality, so now we rely on the snow to supply us with easily read signs.

When it comes to reading outdoor signs, though, this blog is no match for John Caddy's Morning Earth site. I recommend subscribing to his daily poem if you like what you see there.

19 November 2008

Freesup and uncover (a pack o' lips)

Ah but sure it can't be a real bubble without it finally breaks and Finnegan Wakes.

18 November 2008

Meltdown and cover-up

It's remarkable how the term meltdown has come to dominate all references to the current financial crisis. It's very apt, in a sense, because it's caused by an ‘overheated’ economy — the financial world having apparently forgotten that in our system, money is made of debt, and becomes ‘hot money’ (cf. ‘hot air’) when the debt which constitutes the currency grows to several times the total value of goods and services produced in the real economy. But it's equally apt to call this inflation of the money supply a ‘bubble’, since it is so insubstantial. When the bubble breaks, though, ordinary terms like ‘pop’ feel too light to suit the seriousness of the situation. ‘Correction’ would be technically correct, since the credit bubble was a kind of delusion which is now being revealed for what it is; but using it would be an admission of having been deluded, if you're a financial speculator, and the term is too bland to catch on in the popular media. ‘Crash’ on the other hand evokes vague memories of the Great Depression, which is maybe too serious for folks to contemplate — though the fallout from this crash could actually turn out to be worse than the 1930s version.

Meltdown works because it sounds both serious and substantial, and the word isn't associated with an earlier financial collapse because it only entered the lexicon with the rise of nuclear technology. (Like fallout, which i found myself using in the previous paragraph … ) I wonder how many of today's children will grow up thinking that the word refers ‘literally’ (i.e. primarily) to a financial collapse, or to this one in particular, and only by extension does it mean the kind of major nuclear accident that happened at Chernobyl. Or maybe we'll be lucky and there won't be any more meltdowns of nuclear reactors.

But there, perhaps, is the real reason why the people most responsible for the ‘meltdown’ like the term so much: it makes the whole thing sound like an accident, something that couldn't be foreseen. Calling it a ‘meltdown’ amounts to a cover-up of the fact that it was inevitable (though the exact timetable of events was unpredictable) and could have been foreseen by anyone who understood the post-Bretton Woods financial system. It was allowed to happen because the system, while it lasted, was very profitable for those in charge of it. The bailout packages are designed mainly to squeeze the last bit of financial gain out of the situation, before handing over the insupportable debt to those already impoverished by it — the American taxpayers, and their counterparts around the world.

17 November 2008

On reading translations

The Internet connection is not always working here in the backwoods — hence the hiatus in posting here, if anyone noticed —

Still not healthy enough to do much walking in the woods, i'm reduced to walking through words. Often this means relying on translators to help me engage with a writer i can count on to shake me out of a mental rut, such as Dogen. So it's cause for celebration to discover, as i did last week, a complete English translation of Dogen's masterwork, the Shobogenzo, at the Shasta Abbey website.

The translation is by Rev. Hubert Nearman, who dedicated 14 years to the task and seems well qualified for it. Of course i can't compare his translation with the original, since i don't read medieval Japanese, so there's no point in my passing judgment on the quality of his translation. But this observation opens a deeper question about the wholehearted reading of ‘scriptures’ in translation.

The question can perhaps be put best in semiotic terms, since translation is paradigmatic of semiosis itself: a sign-process produces an interpretant, and translation is prototypical of interpretation. For example, take one fascicle or ‘chapter’ of Dogen's Shobogenzo: the title, ‘Kokyo’, is translated ‘On the Ancient Mirror’ by Nearman; the Nishijima/Cross translation (the only other one i've seen) calls it ‘The Eternal Mirror’. The whole essay is about this ‘mirror’ — in other words, the whole Japanese text is a sign and this Mirror is its object. Like any sign, Dogen's essay ‘determines its interpretant to stand in the same triadic relation to the same object for some interpretant’ (Peirce, CP 1.541). The original text ‘determines’ the text of the translation by constraining it to say the same thing as the original in another language; if it didn't, we wouldn't call the new text a ‘translation’.

This implies at least that both texts are about something which can be spoken of in either language (and perhaps in any language). The object of these signs is therefore independent of, and external to, any language used to direct attention to it. And each sign of that dynamic object, as Peirce called it, generates an interpretant which works in turn as another sign, generating a further interpretant, and so on — each sign in the sequence having the same object.

The catch is that whatever this object called a Mirror is, you must already have some acquaintance with it before you can interpret any signs as describing, defining or informing you about it. The sign itself can't supply this acquaintance; it can only give you some hints about how to renew that acquaintance and carry it forward. In terms of Dogen's essay, this is equally true of the original Japanese text and of any translation of it. Indeed the original text was itself a translation, namely of the eternal buddha-dharma, as reflected in Dogen's own reflections on his experience of the Ancient Mirror. And your reading of any translation is another translation of these signs directing your attention to the ancient mirror itself.

The word mirror is a symbol of the object of this infinite succession of signs. Most of Dogen's essay is about how to read this symbol, as used by various ancient masters in their koans and conversations. And this blog post is about how we read translations of that essay.

In that last sentence, i put ‘translations’ in the plural for a reason. It is obvious, but perhaps worth noticing for that very reason, that a single text can be translated in more than one way. In practice, this implies that if we compare two translations, we begin with the assumption that they are equivalent, even when they are different. This has to be our assumption because we are reading them as interpretant signs which have the same dynamic object as Dogen's original essay. So our working assumption is that where they differ, they have chosen different ways of directing our attention to that object, namely the Ancient or Eternal Mirror. For example, compare these two translations of a single Dogen sentence:

We should by all means have as our investigation through training and practice an exploration that broadly spans the sayings of all the Buddhas and Ancestors.

There must be learning in practice that widely covers the teachings of all the buddhas and all the patriarchs.

We notice right away that latter parts of the two translations, from the word ‘that’ to the end of the sentence, are quite similar. But the part of the sentence before that consists of 15 words in the first translation, but only 6 words in the second. Yet we must assume that both say what Dogen was saying in the source text. We might decide eventually that one says it better than the other, but we certainly can't begin with such an assumption. Besides, the differences may be entirely a matter of style, and quirks of style should be considered innocent of misrepresentation until proven guilty of it. Since ancient Japanese and Chinese tend to be more economical in their use of words than contemporary English, i would guess that the Nishijima/Cross translation is closer to being word-for-word than the Nearman. But that in itself doesn't make it a better or more accurate translation. Nearman's Dogen appears a bit more verbose than the Dogen of other translators (for instance, the famous Genjokoan has a four-word title in many English translations; Nearman entitles it ‘On the Spiritual Question as It Manifests Before Your Very Eyes’). But perhaps Nearman captures more of the nuances of the text this way.

One implication of all this is that a translation can work as well as the original text, or maybe better, for ‘scriptural’ purposes — just as one artist can sometimes perform a song better than the artist who wrote it in the first place. A translation need not be a ‘second-hand’ substitute for the original. It can be the real Word itself, if it successfully ‘determines’ your reading to recognize the universal Truth, or some face of it, which dwells in the deepest layers of experience, which is your own because it is everyone's. Just don't be too sure that your reading is the right one! The trick is to recognize the Truth when it comes to you in another new (dis)guise. Are you ready for that?

14 November 2008

Little mind

Except for a trip to the medical lab today — having some tests done to see why this illness of mine is hanging on so long — i'm still mostly confined indoors. This is a bit like being enclosed within the consciously thinking part of the mind; not much space to roam about in!

That the conscious part of the mind is only a small part of the whole — the tip of the iceberg, as the cliché has it — is now widely acknowledged, but this is a relatively recent development among thinkers. C.S. Peirce was somewhat ahead of the game, as usual, when he wrote this around 1905:
Swarming facts positively leave no doubt that vivid consciousness, subject to attention and control, embraces at any one moment a mere scrap of our psychical activity. Without attempting accuracy of statement demanding long explanations, and irrelevant to present purposes, three propositions may be laid down. (1) The obscure part of the mind is the principal part. (2) It acts with far more unerring accuracy than the rest. (3) It is almost infinitely more delicate in its sensibilities. Man's fully-conscious inferences have no quantitative delicacy, except where they repose on arithmetic and measurement, which are mechanical processes; and they are almost as likely as not to be downright blunders. But unconscious or semi-conscious irreflective judgments of mother-wit, like instinctive inferences of brutes, answer questions of ‘how much’ with curious accuracy; and are seldom totally mistaken.
— (CP 6.569)

13 November 2008

Just saying

I have nothing to say, I am saying it, and that is poetry.
— John Cage

12 November 2008

The birds of winter

In a climate like we have here on Manitoulin Island, the movements of migratory birds are among the pleasures of the changing seasons. But i must confess a special affection for the birds who don't migrate at all, but stay here through the winter — the blue jays, woodpeckers, nuthatches, and above all, the chickadees. Unlike the raucous and greedy jays, they rarely fight at the feeder; they wait their turn, zoom in and grab a seed, and zip off to a nearby perch to eat or stash it. I like the way they fly, too — in aphoristic bursts of wingflapping, allowing themselves to fall a bit between bursts. Bloggers and journal keepers write the way chickadees fly.

The way they move, call and occasionally sing, it's hard not to see them as cheerful, friendly little tykes. And fearless, too. They'll eat out of your hand if you can manage to hold still for a minute or two. If the feeder's empty, they let me know by calling when they see me, or landing on a branch inches away from my head and staring at me pointedly. A few days ago, one of them flew right up to me and hovered fluttering about a foot in front of my face for a second or two. I got the message, and refreshed the supply of sunflower seeds. But i also tried to say a few cheerful words of my own, and i trust that they understand my clumsy language as well as i understand theirs.

11 November 2008

Signs of life-and-death

Thoreau's journals are especially pointed and profound when they take on the prophetic tone of an oracle. The same is true of the fragments of Heraclitus, such as this one:
Ἓν τὸ σοφὸν μοῦνον λέγεσθαι οὐκ ἐθέλει καὶ ἐθέλει Ζηνὸς ὄνομα.
(‘The wise is one alone, unwilling and willing to be spoken of by the name of Zeus.’)
The genetive form Ζηνὸς for ‘of Zeus’ is one of those meaningful puns often deployed by Heraclitus, as it could also mean ‘of life’. This connects the polyversity of names with the per-versity (the pervasive or ‘thorough turning’) of life-and-death, or birth-and-death as Buddhists call it.

Charles Kahn's comment on this fragment sums up the whole practice and purpose of the oracular style:
If Heraclitus must, like the oracle, ‘neither declare (legei) nor conceal but give a sign’, that is because his listeners cannot follow a plain tale. If they had what it takes to comprehend his message, the truth would already be apparent to them. But since words alone cannot make them understand ‘when their souls do not speak the language’, he must resort to enigmas, image, paradox, and even contradiction, to tease or shock the audience into giving thought to the obvious, and thus enable them so see what is staring them in the face. If they succeed, they will understand not this sentence alone but the unified world view that Heraclitus means to communicate. And central to such understanding will be a recognition that the principle of cosmic order is indeed a principle of life, but that it is not willing to be called by this name alone. For it is also a principle of death. Human wisdom culminates in this insight that life and death are two sides of the same coin. And cosmic wisdom is truly spoken of only when identified with both sides of the coin.
— Kahn (1979, 270-1)

10 November 2008

Just walking

Awoke this morning to a white surprise: not only the ground but the trees, now stripped of their leaves, are covered with snow, the first of this coming winter. Since it's barely below the freezing point, the snow sticks to the branches despite the fairly strong breeze. This burst of brightness in the normally dismal November weather must be beautiful even to those who don't like winter.

I've been out this morning only long enough to bring in the day's supply of firewood. Some kind of cold or flu has kept me mostly indoors for over a week now, which is even more of a nuisance than the sluggishness of bodymind it brings. I can't claim as much outdoor time as Thoreau did, but enough to bear witness to the truth of this journal entry (4 Nov. 1852):
Must be out-of-doors enough to get experience of wholesome reality, as a ballast to thought and sentiment. Health requires this relaxation, this aimless life. This life in the present. Let a man have thought what he will of Nature in the house, she will still be novel outdoors. I keep out of doors for the sake of the mineral, vegetable, and animal in me.

It's important to escape from an artificial environment for at least part of each day — something difficult for city dwellers to do, since the surroundings of the buildings are hardly less artificial than the interiors. We are blessed to live here in the backwoods of Manitoulin! But that's not the only factor in Thoreau's practice which kept him grounded in reality: the aimlessness of his walking was equally important. Just walking, or ‘sauntering’ as he called it, corresponds to what Dogen called ‘just sitting’ — not trying to get somewhere, not aiming to become a Buddha. Even an indoor-oriented thinker such as Peirce could see the value of aimless thinking, or the ‘play of musement’ as he called it. It seems to short-circuit our self-deceptive tendencies. Thoreau was as much a reader as a walker, but his reading too was often aimless, ‘just reading’ as i might call it — aimless and yet urgent in its immediacy, its being-time.

My own reading practice is similar. And even that i often interrupt by immersing myself in music, usually the wordless kind. But as Thoreau says, it's not enough to dwell in the world of words and feelings, and you need to get outdoors to shed that cultural cocoon. So i'm looking forward to getting out there again, when my lungs will let me.

09 November 2008


Last week i discovered The Blog of Henry David Thoreau, in which Greg Perry posts every day an entry selected from one of Thoreau's Journal entries for that same date (except the year of course). I'm now ‘following’ this blog — part of a rediscovery of Thoreau for me (see the
entry on Thoreau in my SourceNet page). This was triggered by a piece i read recently in Loren Eiseley's Star Thrower, which includes some superb readings of Thoreau among other treasures.

Thoreau would probably have been a blogger if the technology had existed at the time. For the last ten years of his life he wrote something in his Journal almost every day. This became the core of his discipline as a writer, rather than temporary place to keep the notes and jottings which he would later recast into essays and books such as Walden. I'm thinking now that any blogger might do well to emulate his practice and try to match the level of Thoreau's daily journal entries. I'm still working on my big book (Turning Words), because some things i need to say will only make complete sense in that context, or so it seems to me. But the bigger the project, the more distant and contingent its completion becomes. Why not try every day to write something that will keep the time in more immediate focus and honor its current significance? After all, the opportunity gnox but once …

05 November 2008

Turning point for America?

Well, the two elections of which i wrote in my last post are behind us now. Americans at least have voted for a change. But the task of electing someone other than a white man as president, enormous as it seemed a couple of years ago, pales in comparison to the challenge of reversing the headlong U.S. drive toward self-destruction — which is rapidly taking the rest of planet down with it. The Democrats may be in charge now, but they are taking over a government that is insolvent in the technical sense of the term, just when the resources which could have been used to make the transition to a sustainable society are nearly all used up.

In my last post (about the real economy), i neglected to mention the real effects which the money economy can have on both natural and social ecosystems. That was partly because i don't know much about economics, especially on the national or global scale. Since then i've learned a lot from an online ‘crash course’ which explains the situation in terms accessible even to dummies like me. It's a series of 22 talks by Chris Martenson, illustrated with graphics and totalling a bit over three hours; you can go through it in whatever time-slices suit your schedule. I highly recommend it, unless you already know how the United States came to be scores of trillions of dollars in debt, and how the American people have been systematically hoodwinked into burning their bridges before them.

I don't think any president has ever taken office with the country in such dire straits — we can only hope that Obama and his colleagues have the right balance of hope and realism to make a difference. They might start by telling the American people the truth about the situation they're in (and no, it can't all be blamed on Bush and the Republicans, the roots are much deeper than that). Even that would be an unprecedented revelation.

01 October 2008

Elections and the real economy

With federal election campaigns under way in both Canada and the U.S., this is a good season to be noticing rank abuses of language. One example, which has become so familiar as to render us oblivious to it, is the way politicians (and the corporate media) talk about ‘the economy’.

The real economy is the structured flow of materials, energy and information through the systems that sustain and enhance our lives — that is, through our bodies and those extensions of them which constitute our communities. When the real economy is healthy, our communities and most of us are healthy too, by definition. The most basic and essential economic reality is the global ecosystem and its energy source, the sun. That's where all the wealth on this planet comes from — but we have managed to conceal this reality from ourselves by devising artificial means of measuring wealth.

This was inevitable, i suppose, once we learned how money, as a medium of exchange, can help to facilitate the flow of wealth. But it also facilitates the accumulation of wealth by some people at the expense of others. Money makes it possible to extract wealth from the real economy without contributing anything to it (other than toxic waste). In the past century, this process has been enormously accelerated by the invention of artificial ‘persons’ called corporations. These have now grown into gargantuan entities with almost unlimited power to manipulate the real economy while also insulating their owners from the consequences. Now the movement of money consists mostly of currency trading and other manipulations almost wholly divorced from economic reality. The stock market, as an index of ‘the economy’, amounts to a vast delusion.

All of this is just common sense for any adult citizen these days, but you wouldn't know it from the way most politicians talk about ‘the economy’. Coming from them, it's really a code for corporate profits. They try to conceal this by talking about ‘jobs’, as if every ‘job’ were a genuine means of subsistence for some real person or family, rather than a means for the corporate employer to extract wealth from the real economy (as most jobs are nowadays). Political images, advertising and careers are routinely bought and paid for by the same corporations who dominate the delusional ‘economy’.

The current financial shakeup in the U.S. could be an opportunity for people to wake up from this delusion and reassert democratic control of the real economy. But this can only happen if we turn our political attention to the real economy. Fortunately there are nonpartisan resources for doing this; one of them is the Vote Environment website hosted by the David Suzuki Foundation, which includes briefing papers on the vital issues and a blog for discussing them.

17 September 2008

Ungraspable mind

The Diamond Sutra says that ‘Past mind cannot be grasped, present mind cannot be grasped, and future mind cannot be grasped.’ (For an extended elucidation of this, see Dogen's ‘Shin fukatoku’ (Heine 1994, 153-6; Nishijima and Cross 1994, 189-205)). Perhaps Peirce is pointing in the same direction when he says that a sign must generate an interpretant in order to function as a sign (i.e. to enter into a real relation with its object), and beyond that, the interpretant in turn must function as another sign in the same relation to that object, and so on ad infinitum. This is the triadic nature of all genuine signs. Knowing and thinking, cognition and representation, being continuous relational processes, necessarily take time, and thus cannot be pegged to any specific location in time or space.
At no one instant in my state of mind is there cognition or representation, but in the relation of my states of mind at different instants there is. [note by CSP: Accordingly, just as we say that a body is in motion, and not that motion is in a body we ought to say that we are in thought and not that thoughts are in us.]
— (EP1:42)

Just because thinking is unstoppable, and mind ungraspable, does not imply that the object of cognition, or thought, is itself unreal. The laws of nature really do govern what actually happens and are not merely ‘results of thinking’, as ‘conceptualists’ believe. Peirce considered this doctrine a form of nominalism, and thus rejected it, as the scholastic realists had several centures earlier:
The great realists had brought out all the truth there is in that much more distinctly long before modern conceptualism appeared in the world. They showed that the general is not capable of full actualization in the world of action and reaction but is of the nature of what is thought, but that our thinking only apprehends and does not create thought, and that that thought may and does as much govern outward things as it does our thinking. But those realists did not fall into any confusion between the real fact of having a dream and the illusory object dreamed. The conceptualist doctrine is an undisputed truism about thinking, while the question between nominalists and realists relates to thoughts, that is, to the objects which thinking enables us to know.
— CP 1.27 (1909)

The apprehension of thought by thinking could be called ‘grasping’, but it cannot be completed—just as mind cannot be grasped—because it takes time. Since we are in time just as we are in thought, there is no way to get one ‘handle’ on either without letting go of another.

07 September 2008

Popper and Peirce on science vs. certainty

Karl Popper, in his Logic of Scientific Discovery (originally published 1934; p. 93-4) used the metaphor of building on a swamp to emphasize that science and absolute certainty don't mix:
The empirical basis of objective science has nothing ‘absolute’ about it. Science does not rest upon solid bedrock. The bold structure of its theories rises, as it were, above a swamp. It is like a building erected on piles. The piles are driven down from above into the swamp, but not down to any natural or ‘given’ base; and if we stop driving the piles deeper, it is not because we have reached firm ground. We simply stop when we are satisfied that the piles are firm enough to carry the structure, at least for the time being.

Popper was at that time unaware that C. S. Peirce, in his Cambridge Lectures of 1898, had used the same metaphor to make the same point, though expressed with a more religious feeling for the scientific enterprise:
The only end of science, as such, is to learn the lesson that the universe has to teach it. In Induction it simply surrenders itself to the force of facts. But it finds, at once—I am partially inverting the historical order, in order to state the process in its logical order—it finds I say that this is not enough. It is driven in desperation to call upon its inward sympathy with nature, its instinct for aid, just as we find Galileo at the dawn of modern science making his appeal to il lume naturale. But in so far as it does this, the solid ground of fact fails it. It feels from that moment that its position is only provisional. It must then find confirmations or else shift its footing. Even if it does find confirmations, they are only partial. It still is not standing upon the bedrock of fact. It is walking upon a bog, and can only say, this ground seems to hold for the present. Here I will stay till it begins to give way. Moreover, in all its progress, science vaguely feels that it is only learning a lesson. The value of Facts to it, lies only in this, that they belong to Nature; and Nature is something great, and beautiful, and sacred, and eternal, and real—the object of its worship and its aspiration.
— (CP 5.589)

31 August 2008

Peirce and the implicit intricacy

In one of his Lowell lectures of 1903, C.S. Peirce listed seven ‘mental qualifications of a philosopher’:
1. The ability to discern what is before one's consciousness.
2. Inventive originality.
3. Generalizing power.
4. Subtlety.
5. Critical severity and sense of fact.
6. Systematic procedure.
7. Energy, diligence, persistency, and exclusive devotion to philosophy.
— CP 1.522

He remarked that ‘Kant possessed in a high degree all seven’ of these; and although he didn't say so at the time, we may infer that Peirce considered himself to possess them too. But he also had something that Kant didn't have, for he says in the next paragraph that ‘Kant had not the slightest suspicion of the inexhaustible intricacy of the fabric of conceptions, which is such that I do not flatter myself that I have ever analyzed a single idea into its constituent elements.’

Now, ‘analyzing into constituent elements’ might be described as the core activity of Peirce's logic and philosophy. That includes his phenomenology, which is the part of philosophy directly grounded in the ability listed first above. As Peirce defined the discipline, it ‘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’ (CP 2.186, 1903). From a semiotic perspective, we could say that ideas or concepts are signs of various aspects of the phenomenon, while words and phrases are signs of these conceptions. What Peirce is implicitly claiming for himself, then, is a highly developed awareness of how difficult the core philosophical task of analysis is—and how difficult it is (therefore) to use words with the kind of exactitude Peirce was after. This might account for Peirce's lifelong interest in lexicography and his obsession with ‘the ethics of terminology’. Hypersensitivity to ‘the inexhaustible intricacy of the fabric of conceptions’ might also account for the notoriously tortuous qualities of his style. To me at least, that seems a more promising hypothesis than the claim that he had difficulty putting his thoughts into words because he was left-handed (Brent 1998, 15).

However much it might have contributed to the density of Peirce's style, his sensitivity to ‘the inexhaustible intricacy of the fabric of conceptions’ might also explain why his work continues to be so fruitful for the discerning reader. Eugene Gendlin ascribes this kind of fruitfulness to the functions of ‘implicit intricacy’ itself in the creation of meaning. This is the main point of Gendlin's essay ‘Thinking Beyond Patterns’ (1992a)—which i highly recommend!
A philosophy re-positions the old words to make new sense. That is possible only because more than forms is at work in thinking. The process of making new sense involves more than new distinctions displacing the old ones. It involves functions of implicit intricacy.

It may not have occurred to Peirce to think of these functions as the engine of abduction, or of that ‘inventive originality’ which he listed second among the ‘mental qualifications of a philosopher’ (above). Indeed, of the seven, this may be the one which Peirce was least inclined to claim for himself. But his awareness of that ‘intricacy’ might well have enhanced its implicit functioning, and thus contributed to those qualities in his work which his deeper readers continue to ‘carry forward’, as Gendlin would put it.

27 July 2008

Biosemiotics and symbols

It's been quiet in this space for awhile but this rather long and complex post should make up for that! Here goes:

Biosemiotically speaking, sense perception is a fundamental form of semiosis. But if a sense experience is a sign of some external object, what kind of sign is it—icon, index or symbol? It seems obvious, at first, that a visual image is an icon of its object. But if we take a closer look, especially at a perceptual process which is not visual, it becomes clear that the relation between sign (as sense image) and object (as external reality) is not that simple.
It makes intuitive sense that the perception of high-frequency sound requires receptors that convert sound waves into neural energy. These are the hair cells of the auditory apparatus, which respond to high-frequency sound with a correspondingly high rate of firing. Similarly, hair cells respond with a low rate of firing when presented with low-frequency sound.
Llinás (2001, 219)

The hair cells code sound waves iconically. But as the coded message is transmitted through various stages to the auditory cortex, with one burst of neural activity triggering the next at every stage, it loses in translation its iconic relation to the initial ‘stimulus’.
This tells us something very important: it is not the code or message coming from the outside world that is being transmitted, but rather it is the neuronal element that responds to the message from the outside that is itself the message!
— Llinás (same page)

In other words, the neural activity as interpretant of external events impinging on the senses is now a sign which in turn determines further interpretation. As the semiotic sequence becomes less iconic with respect to the external events, it becomes more relevant to the system's habits, and thus more symbolic. By the time it contributes to a conscious experience, the signal has become a symbol filling a niche in meaning space.

Habits linking neural signals with responses are symbolic, incorporating both iconic and indexical signs into self-organizing systems guided by the mapping of internal models onto pragmatic situations into which behavioral patterns are interwoven. Since this mapping is an outgrowth of intentionality, it is habitual and symbolic: for symbols ‘represent their objects, independently alike of any resemblance or any real connection, because dispositions or factitious habits of their interpreters insure their being so understood’ (Peirce, EP2:460-461, 1909). Though the indexical component of perception is necessary to the system's structural coupling with the external world, the symbolic component is essential to the system's autonomy—that is, to its being a system in the first place.

The main difference between human minds and those of other animals is the extent to which humans make deliberate use of symbols—which we can do because our symbol use can be decoupled from immediate situations. However, this does not mean that symbol use is restricted to humans; the semiotic continuity between human and other lives is unbroken. Indeed the genetic code itself is symbolic. For Baldwin's Dictionary, Peirce wrote that a symbol ‘is constituted a sign merely or mainly by the fact that it is used and understood as such, whether the habit is natural or conventional, and without regard to the motives which originally governed its selection.’ The genome is a sign of the genotype because it is interpreted as such by the system incorporating it.

It seems to follow from this that habits of symbol use can be established by natural selection, given a regular system of sign production, interpretation and replication. Such a system is incorporated in every organism, and in every cell of multicellular organisms. The facts that the genome can be modified by natural selection, and that its expression changes with circumstances in ways that usually turn out to be appropriate, show that it is symbolic, ‘constituted a sign mainly by the fact that it is used as such’ in the course of development. Learning is a similar process within the nervous system, parallel to the evolutionary process (as Bateson pointed out) but at a much faster time scale.

This interpretation of ‘symbolic’ seems at first incompatible with views which take symbol use to be the exclusive province of humans—for instance, Deacon (1997) and Jablonka and Lamb (2005). But this may be due to the habit of taking all symbols to be conventional, whereas for Peirce this was not the case. In a 1904 letter to Welby, he wrote:
I define a Symbol as a sign which is determined by its dynamic object only in the sense that it will be so interpreted. It thus depends either upon a convention, a habit, or a natural disposition of its interpretant, or of the field of its interpretant (that of which the interpretant is a determination).
— PW, 33 (1904)

The ‘field’ here could be taken as a domain or ‘space’ such as a lexicon, and ‘determination’ as selecting or locating an item in that domain. In perception, any given object is perceived to the extent that it determines selection of some pattern from the experiential repertoire of the perceiver (i.e. her Umwelt). Neurodynamically, the pattern can be represented as an attractor in the space of brain activity. These patterns no doubt overlap, accompany or associate with each other in much the same way as the common words in a lexicon. The analogy between the genetic code and language is even more obvious; researchers in genetics are constantly speaking of ‘transcription’, ‘translation’, ‘reading’ and so on, without thinking of their usage as metaphorical. From this it seems clear enough that symbols pervade not only human life but all forms of life which employ the genetic code.

12 July 2008

The testimony of scripture

Lately i've been dipping into Baldwin's Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology (1901-2) in connection with my ongoing study of Charles S. Peirce and his semiotic. I noticed that an entry on ‘Testimony’, co-authored by Peirce and Baldwin, contains a very concise and cogent set of hermeneutic principles—in other words it gives some very sound guidance on critical reading of scripture—under the guise of a comment on the logic of considering testimony as evidence. I think it pretty well speaks for itself, so here it is:

There is a general tendency to believe what one is told; and, as in the case of other such tendencies, it should at first be followed, although cautiously and tentatively. Even when experience is wanting, as for example in examining a prisoner, although greater caution is required, the proper course is to begin with the presumption that the testimony is true, for unless we make such a presumption, no truth can ever be discovered. It is true that the unlikelihood of the matter of the testimony may cause immediate distrust, or even disbelief of it, but no persons are so frequently deceived as those who stop to weigh likelihoods before accepting or rejecting testimony, and who then form a confident opinion pro or con. Testimony should almost always be accepted as approximately correct, but always strictly on probation, as a subject of examination. In our legal proceedings, witnesses are subject to cross-examination. Everybody is agreed that this is an essential step in the inquiry, but in a historical inquiry no such thing is possible. Still the testimony can be tested in various ways; and this must be done. But in any case, the rendering of the testimony is a fact which needs to be accounted for; and by whatever theory it be proposed to account for it, that theory needs to be checked and tested. Properly handled, false testimony may often yield a great deal of information.

An experimental test may be readily performed by considering the least antecedently likely but necessary or highly probable consequence of the theory, which is susceptible of being confronted with observation direct or indirect. If this consequence is found, notwithstanding its unlikelihood, to be true, there is then some reason for believing in the theory proposed to account for the testimony.

The complete entry (including the first paragraph, omitted here) is on my Peirce-Baldwin page.

10 June 2008

Burrowing light

However immense our science may become, we are only burrowing light into an infinitude of darkness. Once an infinitude, always an infinitude.
— C. S. Peirce, 1859 (W1:8)

Even though you have exhausted the abstruse doctrines, it is like placing a hair in vast space. Even though you have learned all the secrets of the world, it is like letting a single drop of water fall into an enormous valley.
— Te-shan (Wumenkuan, Case 28; Aitken 1991, 177)

Te-shan said this just before he burned all his notes and commentaries on the Diamond Sutra. This was the turning point in his life, from scriptural scholar to the Zen patriarch he later became. Or perhaps the turning point came a little earlier, when he was about to depart into the darkness after a long talk with Lung-tan—who handed him a candle, but then as he was taking it, suddenly blew it out.

In any case, whether you burn your notes or write a book is not important. Special transmission, inside or outside the scriptures, is nothing but burrowing into the darkness, which is undiminished thereby. All that grows is your sense of its vastness, which thus affords a way to be that burrowing.

I can't borrow your light and you can't borrow mine. And yet there is only one light: what does it now illuminate?

06 June 2008

The bubble

The world is turning transparent. Any day now you can see right through it.

Tell me then where you are standing.

18 May 2008

Hermeneutics, history and scripture

Chapter 6 of my work in progress delves into the process of reading scripture, with a special focus on one example, the Gospel of Thomas. For the purpose of outlining the historical context from which this Gospel emerged, my chapter draws upon April DeConick's book The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation (2007). However, my way of reading this (or any) scripture is quite different from DeConick's in some respects. The crucial difference is that my way of reading is dialogic: the role of the reader is to search for possible ways in which the text may express her own primary experience, which thus constitutes a common ground for author and reader.

DeConick's approach, by contrast, is quite strictly that of a historian: the ancient text is taken as evidence of what other people believed at some other time, and the possibility that it may connect with the reader's own primary experience is irrelevant. This way of reading is certainly useful as an aid to critical thinking, which is needed in order to avoid indulging in excessively subjective readings. However, it lends itself to indulging in the opposite tendency, which is to treat every ancient text as a museum piece. The historical specialist, relieved of any responsibility to relate the text to primary experience, tends to cut its meaning to fit some Procrustean framework, asking only how to label this particular exhibit. We study the text to learn about it, or to fill in some details in our picture of a fossilized past—never considering that we might learn something from a scripture that could affect our own path into the future. But according to the gnoxic way of reading, that very possibility defines scripture as such.

The purely historical approach is so anxious to avoid bending the text to the reader's beliefs that it sometimes uses extremely strained logic to rationalize a more conventional reading, one that bends the text to suit the historian's habitual category structures. One example is the reading of Saying 13 in Thomas, which is among those examined in my Chapter 6. Here is DeConick's own translation as given in her book on Thomas (p. 83):
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Speculate about me. Tell me, who am I like?’
Simon Peter said to him, ‘You are like a righteous angel.’
Matthew said to him, ‘You are like a sage, a temperate person.’
Thomas said to him, ‘Master, my mouth cannot attempt to say whom you are like.’
Jesus said, ‘I am not your master. After you drank, you became intoxicated from the bubbling fount which I had measured out.’
And he took him and retreated. He told him three words.
Then when Thomas returned to his friends, they asked him, ‘What did Jesus say to you?’
Thomas said to them, ‘If I tell you one of the words which he told me, you will pick up stones and throw them at me. Then fire will come out of the stones and burn you up.’

DeConick guesses that the ‘words’ spoken privately to Thomas by Jesus include the ‘unpronouncable [sic] Name of God’; and, based on some rather oblique references in another text called the Acts of Thomas, she claims that this would by implication reveal his own ‘true Name’ as ‘Jesus the Messiah’ (p. 85). She continues as follows: ‘This Christology is quite cogent with that expressed in the Gospel of John, especially 10.30-39 …’

To me it seems quite odd to speak of ‘Christology’ in reference to the Gospel of Thomas, a book which never once uses the term ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’. My chapter also draws a conclusion opposed to DeConick's concerning the relationship between the Gospels of Thomas and John. As Elaine Pagels does in Beyond Belief (2003), i stress the contrast between the two—though she does not frame it in quite the same way i do, as the way of inquiry vs. the way of belief.

DeConick returns to the subject in her more recent book on the Gospel of Judas (The Thirteenth Apostle, 2007). Here again she is referring to Thomas 13:
Thomas' confession is quite remarkable in that it overrides two of the confessions of the other disciples (Peter and Matthew), who understand Jesus in terms of angels and sages. Since stoning is the punishment for blasphemy in early Judaism, it is quite certain that the secret words Jesus confided to Thomas included the pronunciation of the unutterable divine Name of God, Yahweh. So Thomas' confession places Jesus on the level of God, bearer of his great Name. This is quite consistent with the opinion of the author of the Gospel of John.
— DeConick (2007b, 97)

I think any reader who tries to follow this reasoning step by step will see how illogical it is. It seems to me a dubious rationalization of an eisegesis, or reading of DeConick's own (highly specialized) idea into the text—in this case an idea which is not explicitly expressed anywhere in the Gospel of Thomas. The way of inquiry, on the other hand, could hardly be more explicit in Thomas, as i try to show in my chapter.

I am arguing here that DeConick's historical approach to the reading of scripture does not necessarily produce a more reasonable understanding than other approaches. I am not saying that DeConick's approach is without value—on the contrary, i consider her work to be essential reading for anyone deeply interested in the Gospel of Thomas or other texts from that era. My point is that a sound reading of scripture must be grounded in both one's own primary experience and the historical facts about the culture which generated the text, as gleaned from the work of specialists such as DeConick (and Pagels and many others).

16 May 2008

Peirce: growth of reason as continuous creation

This week i've reorganized and expanded several pages on my website devoted to the work of C. S. Peirce. That work is so comprehensive that intensive study of it is highly rewarding, but for the same reason it's difficult to convey a sense of those rewards by taking quotes out of context. Nevertheless i keep trying to do that …

Late in 1903, Peirce gave a series of lectures on logic at the Lowell Institute in Boston. The first was entitled ‘What Makes a Reasoning Sound?’ The bottom line according to one school of thought is that ‘If it feels sound, it must be sound’—or in terms of conduct, ‘If it feels right, do it.’ Peirce shows this to be a fallacy, and then gives his own answer: sound reasoning bears its fruit in future conduct which, upon later reflection, we judge to approach an implicit or explicit ideal—which itself is constantly evolving and never ‘fully manifested’, but none the less real for all that. (Thinking is itself one kind of ‘conduct’.) Here are two excerpts from near the end of this lecture.
The very being of the General, of Reason, consists in its governing individual events. So, then, the essence of Reason is such that its being never can have been completely perfected. It always must be in a state of incipiency, of growth. It is like the character of a man which consists in the ideas that he will conceive and in the efforts that he will make, and which only develops as the occasions actually arise. Yet in all his life long no son of Adam has ever fully manifested what there was in him. So, then, the development of Reason requires as a part of it the occurrence of more individual events than ever can occur. It requires, too, all the coloring of all qualities of feeling, including pleasure in its proper place among the rest. This development of Reason consists, you will observe, in embodiment, that is, in manifestation. The creation of the universe, which did not take place during a certain busy week, in the year 4004 B.C., but is going on today and never will be done, is this very development of Reason. I do not see how one can have a more satisfying ideal of the admirable than the development of Reason so understood. The one thing whose admirableness is not due to an ulterior reason is Reason itself comprehended in all its fullness, so far as we can comprehend it. Under this conception, the ideal of conduct will be to execute our little function in the operation of the creation by giving a hand toward rendering the world more reasonable whenever, as the slang is, it is ‘up to us’ to do so.
— Peirce, first Lowell Lecture, 1903 (EP2, 255; CP 4.615)

The other excerpt here refers to the work of Victoria Welby; an earlier post of mine dealt with their relationship.
A little book by Lady Victoria Welby has lately appeared, entitled What is Meaning?. The book has sundry merits, among them that of showing that there are three modes of meaning. But the best feature of it is that it presses home the question ‘What is meaning?’ A word has meaning for us in so far as we are able to make use of it in communicating our knowledge to others and in getting at the knowledge that these others seek to communicate to us. That is the lowest grade of meaning. The meaning of a word is more fully the sum total of all the conditional predictions which the person who uses it intends to make himself responsible for or intends to deny. That conscious or quasi-conscious intention in using the word is the second grade of meaning. But besides the consequences to which the person who accepts a word knowingly commits himself to, there is a vast ocean of unforeseen consequences which the acceptance of the word is destined to bring about, not merely consequences of knowing but perhaps revolutions of society. One cannot tell what power there may be in a word or a phrase to change the face of the world; and the sum of these consequences makes up the third grade of meaning.
(EP2, 255-6; CP 8.176)

09 May 2008


The process of revising the first draft of my book Turning Words has been surprising in many ways. I now have six chapters online from each ‘side’ of the book; the sixth, uploaded this week, had to be almost totally rewritten, which took over two months. It's about ‘revelation’, with special reference to the Gospel of Thomas, and my take on both has been developing and deepening over the 5 years or so since the first draft was completed.

All this effort on the book would make no sense if i didn't believe the outcome to be as true, clear and concise as i can make it. In these days of information overload, adding another 300 pages or so to the millions spewed forth every day is not something i take lightly. However, as you know if you've ever tried it, intense concentration on a text tends to make its rough spots invisible to the writer. That's why i'm placing the chapters online as i finish each one in this round of revision—hoping that a reader or two can respond to it, and thus give me a few clues that might help to carry the process further. It does make some demands on the reader's attention. That's intentional—i think it's important to push the envelope of language a little—but how can you tell in advance whether it will be worth the effort? You can't be sure, but you should be able to guess well enough by the end of Chapter 1, if you follow it closely enough to catch the clues. Anyway, if i didn't think it was already worth a reader's while, i wouldn't be doing any of this. In fact, i'm pretty sure that the current draft of this book has been more carefully thought and written out than many published books. I suppose that makes me a ‘perfectionist’ … Well, nobody's perfect!

A few prospective readers have told me that they need a printed text, since it's too much of a strain to read from a screen. If so, you should be able to print it with your browser, but you may need to make some adjustments before printing in order to reduce the amount of paper you use. (No chapter in this book should take more than 20 pages to print—or 10 if you print on both sides.) First, you can reduce the text size with your browser settings (since i have deliberately refrained from specifying the text size in my HTML coding). Second, you should probably set the side margins at zero in your print settings, because this text has margins ‘built in’ (to make it more presentable on the screen). If you still have trouble printing a chapter, you can always e-mail me for help: gnox -at- xplornet (dot) com. By the way, i still haven't decided whether conventional printing is the way this book should be published after it's finished—which may take a couple more years …

Meanwhile, most of what i need to say these days seems to need the context of the book in order to make adequate sense; so this blog's been pretty quiet. But perhaps this too will change, now that i'm liberated from Chapter 6! We shall see.

04 May 2008


We live in a world which is an impressive and irresistible mixture of sufficiencies, tight completenesses, order, recurrences which make possible prediction and control, and singularities, ambiguities, uncertain possibilities, processes going on to consequences as yet indeterminate. They are mixed not mechanically but vitally like the wheat and tares of the parable. We may recognize them separately but we cannot divide them, for unlike wheat and tares they grow from the same root. Qualities have defects as necessary conditions of their excellencies; the instrumentalities of truth are the causes of error; change gives meaning to permanence and recurrence makes novelty possible. A world that was wholly risky would be a world in which adventure is impossible, and only a living world can include death.
— John Dewey, Experience and Nature (1929, 43)

01 April 2008

Selective Information Overload

The title above links to an article on the David Suzuki Foundation website which deals with the problem of information overload and its effect on decision-making. A couple of paragraphs from the article:
When I began my television career in 1962, I thought that all the public needed was more information about science and technology so it could make better decisions based on facts. Well, people are getting far more information today than they ever did 45 years ago. Although there are more facts, there are also more opinions. And we still make ill-informed decisions.

I now believe we are experiencing a major problem in the early-21st century: selective information overload. And by this I mean that we can sift through mountains of information to find anything to confirm whatever misconceptions, prejudices or superstitions we already believe. In other words, we don’t have to change our minds. All we have to do is find something to confirm our opinions, no matter how misguided or wrong they may be.

Read the rest at the Suzuki Foundation website.

16 March 2008

Learning change: a global warning

Once upon a time
learning meant hunting the wild truth
and gathering fruits of wisdom

Then came knowledge, cultivation
and competing greenhouse cults—

Now we are drowning in data
and don't know where to put it, or how
to find it when we need it.

In this flood of incompatible information
where do you find a cool clear head
among the overweight and overheated?

14 March 2008

Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization

This is the latest from Lester Brown and the Earth Policy Institute. “Plan B 3.0 is a comprehensive plan for reversing the trends that are fast undermining our future. Its four overriding goals are to stabilize climate, stabilize population, eradicate poverty, and restore the earth’s damaged ecosystems,” says Brown. “Failure to reach any one of these goals will likely mean failure to reach the others as well.”

A well-considered summary of what will work and what won't when it comes to saving civilization from itself. And you can download it for free!

13 March 2008

Tricks and tracks

Though i never see him,
the fox leaves his line in the snow
for me to read.
His path is a straight one,

not wandering like the dog's,
who is pulled by his nose
this way and that …
nor like the snowshoe hare's.
Fox knows exactly where he's going.

I did see him one morning, a couple of years ago,
brazenly surmounting a pile of planks
to survey his meadow for a minute—
in plain sight, hardly ten metres from the house.
Now why would he do that?

He turned and trotted off,
and nothing since then but his signature.

06 March 2008

A tribute to Ursula Le Guin

I've been neglecting this blog for awhile because the continuing research and revision of my book has been absorbing all my thoughts. But now and then some bit of ‘outside’ reading knocks my socks off, as they say. The other night it was a story of Ursula K. Le Guin's, in her collection The Birthday of the World.

Le Guin's best work (for me anyway) is what i call fictional anthropology. Each of us is immersed in our own culture, and the only way to get some perspective on it is to encounter a different one. Leguin learned this as a child growing up among anthropologists, but must have realized that the genuine encounter depends on your ability to imagine the possibility of people thinking and acting in very different ways, for very different reasons, from those you have taken for granted. Whether this possible otherness has been realized by an actual culture on this planet is not all that important. What counts is that the possibility feels genuine, feels like a life you could be living in other circumstances.

Le Guin's command of imaginative but plausible detail, along with the eloquence and elegant simplicity of her language, make her imaginary worlds seem real enough to care about. But best of all, the reader cares because he sees these alternative cultures from the inside, and not as a detached observer. This is what makes it possible to think and feel outside the familiar box of your own culture. And this in turn gives you a feel for something deeper than opinions and convictions, something closer to the core sense of being alive.

19 February 2008

Chief Seattle's scripture

A bit of 20th-Century scripture:

Man does not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

These words have been widely quoted since the 1970s, and encapsulate much of the ecological awareness developing since then. They are usually attributed to ‘Chief Seattle,’ and thus taken to speak for authentic Native American culture. The real story (like the web of life) is a little more complex.

On October 29, 1887, Henry A. Smith published a column in the Seattle Sunday Star entitled ‘Scraps from a Diary—Chief Seattle.’ This column included what Smith said was a reconstruction, based on his notes taken at the time, of a speech given in 1854 by Chief Seattle, or Seath'tl, of the Duwamish people. There is no other record of this speech. Blaisdell (2000, 117-120) reprints the Smith text as given in Frederic James Grant's History of Seattle (1891).

The Smith text was rediscovered, touched up and rendered into a more contemporary idiom by later writers, notably the poet William Arrowsmith in 1969. His version was used by screenwriter Ted Perry in producing the script for a documentary aired on television in 1971; and this is the source of the famous ‘web of life’ statement. But the producers of the film failed to credit Perry with the script, thus leaving the impression that the words were Chief Seattle's. Perry's text (given in Seed et al. 1988, 67-73) though doubtless very different from whatever the Chief originally said, is now the most widely quoted version of it, and deservedly so: its power and beauty leave the Smith text in the dust. Many cite it as an authentic expression of Native American culture; Joseph Campbell, who recited it in his PBS TV series with Bill Moyers, attributed it to ‘one of the last spokesmen of the Paleolithic moral order’ (Campbell 1988, 41). Fritjof Capra helped to set the record straight by using it for the title and epigraph of his 1996 book The Web of Life, crediting ‘Ted Perry, inspired by Chief Seattle.’ There is no question that Perry's stirring words have inspired many others in their turn.

The Perry text is related to Chief Seattle's original speech in much the same way as the Gospels are related to the original words of Jesus. However much editing, translation and revision took place along the way, the resulting texts have undoubtedly served some readers as a revelation. The history of that revision process may not matter to those readers, but it's an interesting case study for those of us trying to understand the genesis of scriptures.

10 February 2008

Nobody in here but us

To be a consciousness or rather to be an experience is to hold inner communication with the world, the body and other people, to be with them instead of being beside them.
Merleau-Ponty (1945, 111)

What are we here for? We are here to bear withness.

06 February 2008

Meaning and the logic of vagueness

My work in progress, Turning Words, documents an inquiry guided by the question How do you mean?. The question is not What do you mean?—although that is sometimes a good question for clarification purposes. The root question is how meaning happens, or how semiosis works.

Writers, thinkers and scholars have been asking this kind of question for a long time, but their work tends to be ignored because most of us are either too busy committing our acts of meaning to reflect on how we do it, or don't see the point of thus reflecting. A century ago, C. S. Peirce and Victoria Welby were both looking into the nature of meaning, but they didn't learn of each other's work until near the end of their lives. The correspondence between them began in 1903, and parts of it are among the clearest explanations of Peirce's mature semiotics. Most of it was published in 1977 under the title Semiotic and Significs (which i cite as PW), but copies of this are hard to find, and i only got hold of one recently.

In one of his earliest letters to Welby, Peirce explained why the study of what we mean, important as it is, should not be taken too far:

I fully and heartily agree that the study of what we mean ought to be the … general purpose of a liberal education, as distinguished from special education,—of that education which should be required of everybody with whose society and conversation we are expected to be content. But, then, perfect accuracy of thought is unattainable,—theoretically unattainable. And undue striving for it is worse than time wasted. It positively renders thought unclear.
— Peirce to Welby (PW 11, 1903)

When a theorist like Peirce says that something is theoretically unattainable, he is not implying that it might be attained in practice (because theory is unreliable); he is saying just the opposite, that ‘perfect accuracy’ is unattainable because of the way meaning works. The very logic of meaning guarantees that all language is necessarily vague to some degree. Here's a fuller explanation of the point, written a year or two later (CP 5.506):
No communication of one person to another can be entirely definite, i.e., non-vague. We may reasonably hope that physiologists will some day find some means of comparing the qualities of one person's feelings with those of another, so that it would not be fair to insist upon their present incomparability as an inevitable source of misunderstanding. Besides, it does not affect the intellectual purport of communications. But wherever degree or any other possibility of continuous variation subsists, absolute precision is impossible. Much else must be vague, because no man's interpretation of words is based on exactly the same experience as any other man's. Even in our most intellectual conceptions, the more we strive to be precise, the more unattainable precision seems. It should never be forgotten that our own thinking is carried on as a dialogue, and though mostly in a lesser degree, is subject to almost every imperfection of language. I have worked out the logic of vagueness with something like completeness, but need not inflict more of it upon you, at present.

That last sentence has inspired scholars to look for a text among Peirce's papers that ‘works out the logic of vagueness with something like completeness’, but as far as i know, nobody has claimed to find it. And considering how well that final sentence works as a pragmatic ‘punchline’ to Peirce's argument, it would be at least a little ironic if anyone did find such a text.

When Peirce says that ‘no man's interpretation of words is based on exactly the same experience as any other man's’, he is talking about what i call polyversity (see TW Chapter 2). In the earlier stages of writing this book, i collected quite a few examples of what i took to be statements of the same idea expressed in diverse ways. But there's a limit to the usefulness of that, just as there's a limit to how exactly you can say what you mean. Indeed, as Peirce said, ‘the multiplication of equivalent modes of expression is itself a burden’ (PW 20). I hope that my final draft will not burden the reader too much in this way.

The ‘trust’ in dialog includes a willingness to let most of the meaning process work implicitly—trusting that it can become explicit, can bear the spotlight beam of attention, if that becomes necessary. Genuine dialogue requires an exquisite sense of what needs to be explicated and what needs to work implicitly.