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.

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