Metaphysical Continuity in Peirce. Thought of the Day 122.0


Continuity has wide implications in the different parts of Peirce’s architectonics of theories. Time and time again, Peirce refers to his ‘principle of continuity’ which has not immediately anything to do with Poncelet’s famous such principle in geometry, but, is rather, a metaphysical implication taken to follow from fallibilism: if all more or less distinct phenomena swim in a vague sea of continuity then it is no wonder that fallibilism must be accepted. And if the world is basically continuous, we should not expect conceptual borders to be definitive but rather conceive of terminological distinctions as relative to an underlying, monist continuity. In this system, mathematics is first science. Thereafter follows philosophy which is distinguished form purely hypothetical mathematics by having an empirical basis. Philosophy, in turn, has three parts, phenomenology, the normative sciences, and metaphysics. The first investigates solely ‘the Phaneron’ which is all what could be imagined to appear as an object for experience: ‘ by the word phaneron I mean the collective total of all that is in any way or in any sense present to the mind, quite regardless whether it corresponds to any real thing or not.’ (Charles Sanders Peirce – Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce) As is evident, this definition of Peirce’s ‘phenomenology’ is parallel to Husserl’s phenomenological reduction in bracketing the issue of the existence of the phenomenon in question. Even if it thus is built on introspection and general experience, it is – analogous to Husserl and other Brentano disciples at the same time – conceived in a completely antipsychological manner: ‘It religiously abstains from all speculation as to any relations between its categories and physiological facts, cerebral or other.’ and ‘ I abstain from psychology which has nothing to do with ideoscopy.’ (Letter to Lady Welby). The normative sciences fall in three: aesthetics, ethics, logic, in that order (and hence decreasing generality), among which Peirce does not spend very much time on the former two. Aesthetics is the investigation of which possible goals it is possible to aim at (Good, Truth, Beauty, etc.), and ethics how they may be reached. Logic is concerned with the grasping and conservation of Truth and takes up the larger part of Peirce’s interest among the normative sciences. As it deals with how truth can be obtained by means of signs, it is also called semiotics (‘logic is formal semiotics’) which is thus coextensive with theory of science – logic in this broad sense contains all parts of philosophy of science, including contexts of discovery as well as contexts of justification. Semiotics has, in turn, three branches: grammatica speculativa (or stekheiotics), critical logic, and methodeutic (inspired by mediaeval trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric). The middle one of these three lies closest to our days’ conception of logic; it is concerned with the formal conditions for truth in symbols – that is, propositions, arguments, their validity and how to calculate them, including Peirce’s many developments of the logic of his time: quantifiers, logic of relations, ab-, de-, and induction, logic notation systems, etc. All of these, however, presuppose the existence of simple signs which are investigated by what is often seen as semiotics proper, the grammatica speculativa; it may also be called formal grammar. It investigates the formal condition for symbols having meaning, and it is here we find Peirce’s definition of signs and his trichotomies of different types of sign aspects. Methodeutic or formal rhetorics, on the other hand, concerns the pragmatical use of the former two branches, that is, the study of how to use logic in a fertile way in research, the formal conditions for the ‘power’ of symbols, that is, their reference to their interpretants; here can be found, e.g., Peirce’s famous definitions of pragmati(ci)sm and his directions for scientific investigation. To phenomenology – again in analogy to Husserl – logic adds the interest in signs and their truth. After logic, metaphysics follows in Peirce’s system, concerning the inventarium of existing objects, conceived in general – and strongly influenced by logic in the Kantian tradition for seeing metaphysics mirroring logic. Also here, Peirce has several proposals for subtypologies, even if none of them seem stable, and under this headline classical metaphysical issues mix freely with generalizations of scientific results and cosmological speculations.

Peirce himself saw this classification in an almost sociological manner, so that the criteria of distinction do not stem directly from the implied objects’ natural kinds, but after which groups of persons study which objects: ‘the only natural lines of demarcation between nearly related sciences are the divisions between the social groups of devotees of those sciences’. Science collects scientists into bundles, because they are defined by their causa finalis, a teleologial intention demanding of them to solve a central problem.

Measured on this definition, one has to say that Peirce himself was not modest, not only does he continuously transgress such boundaries in his production, he frequently does so even within the scope of single papers. There is always, in his writings, a brief distance only from mathematics to metaphysics – or between any other two issues in mathematics and philosophy, and this implies, first, that the investigation of continuity and generality in Peirce’s system is more systematic than any actually existing exposition of these issues in Peirce’s texts, second, that the discussion must constantly rely on cross-references. This has the structural motivation that as soon as you are below the level of mathematics in Peirce’s system, inspired by the Comtean system, the single science receives determinations from three different directions, each science consisting of material and formal aspects alike. First, it receives formal directives ‘from above’, from those more general sciences which stand above it, providing the general frameworks in which it must unfold. Second, it receives material determinations from its own object, requiring it to make certain choices in its use of formal insights from the higher sciences. The cosmological issue of the character of empirical space, for instance, can take from mathematics the different (non-)Euclidean geometries and investigate which of these are fit to describe spatial aspects of our universe, but it does not, in itself, provide the formal tools. Finally, the single sciences receive in practice determinations ‘from below’, from more specific sciences, when their results by means of abstraction, prescission, induction, and other procedures provide insights on its more general, material level. Even if cosmology is, for instance, part of metaphysics, it receives influences from the empirical results of physics (or biology, from where Peirce takes the generalized principle of evolution). The distinction between formal and material is thus level specific: what is material on one level is a formal bundle of possibilities for the level below; what is formal on one level is material on the level above.

For these reasons, the single step on the ladder of sciences is only partially independent in Peirce, hence also the tendency of his own investigations to zigzag between the levels. His architecture of theories thus forms a sort of phenomenological theory of aspects: the hierarchy of sciences is an architecture of more and less general aspects of the phenomena, not completely independent domains. Finally, Peirce’s realism has as a result a somewhat disturbing style of thinking: many of his central concepts receive many, often highly different determinations which has often led interpreters to assume inconsistencies or theoretical developments in Peirce where none necessarily exist. When Peirce, for instance, determines the icon as the sign possessing a similarity to its object, and elsewhere determines it as the sign by the contemplation of which it is possible to learn more about its object, then they are not conflicting definitions. Peirce’s determinations of concepts are rarely definitions at all in the sense that they provide necessary and sufficient conditions exhausting the phenomenon in question. His determinations should rather be seen as descriptions from different perspectives of a real (and maybe ideal) object – without these descriptions necessarily conflicting. This style of thinking can, however, be seen as motivated by metaphysical continuity. When continuous grading between concepts is the rule, definitions in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions should not be expected to be exhaustive.

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