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)

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