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Sunday, April 12, 2009

What is meant by 'in the mind'? (part 2)

Ben's post of last Wednesday quotes a key passage from Peirce's 1871 review of a new edition of Berkeley, in which he explained the scholastic debate between realists and nominalists on the reality of universals. According to Peirce, nominalists and realists differ in their concept of reality, and ‘the distinction between these two views of the real – one as the fountain of the current of human thought, the other as the unmoving form to which it is flowing – is what really occasions their disagreement on the question concerning universals’ (EP1:91). For the nominalist, anything real must be external to the mind, and anything internal to the mind can't be also external to it. The realist also believes in an external reality, but not that an object's being internal to the mind necessarily disqualifies it as real. ‘When a thing is in such a relation to the individual mind that that mind cognizes it, it is in the mind; and its being so in the mind will not in the least diminish its external existence.’

In one of his last writings on logic, Peirce returned to the difference between reality and externality. According to the CP editors, this was written for the 1908-9 Monist series ‘Some Amazing Mazes’, but not published at the time. I would recommend reading the whole text beginning at CP 6.318, but that's a bit much for a blog post, so i will jump to CP 6.327-8:

What is meant by calling anything real? I can tell you in what sense I always use the word. According to my use of it, there is a certain resemblance between the Real and the External which renders the discrimination of each from the other important for right reason. Any object whose attributes, i.e. all that may truly be predicated, or asserted, of it, will, and always would, remain exactly what they are, unchanged, though you or I or any man or men should think or should have thought as variously as you please, I term external, in contradistinction to mental. For example, a dream is mental, because it depends upon what passed in the thoughts of the dreamer whether it be true that the dream was of a dog or was of the Round Table of King Arthur or of anything else. On the other hand, the colors of objects of human experience and in particular the contrast between the color of the petals of a Jaqueminot rose and that of the leaves of the bush, although it is relative to the sense of sight, is not mental, in my sense of that word.

[I omit here Peirce's discussion of the ‘difference between a color and a sensation of color’.]

Color, therefore, is a quite remarkably vague quality, as well as being relative to the normal sense of sight. If by ‘normal’ were meant merely the average (or any other kind of mean) of actually occurring instances, say the average sensation of all the inhabitants of the globe on a certain date, then this might have been modified by some disease affecting a large part of the people who happened to be living at the time; and since ‘color’ refers to normal chromatic sense, it would depend upon what passed in the minds of a certain body of men. But, in fact, the ‘normal’ is not the average (or any other kind of mean) of what actually occurs, but of what would, in the long run, occur under certain circumstances. Now what would be, can, it is true, only be learned through observation of what happens to be; but nevertheless no collection of happenings can constitute one trillionth of one per cent of what might be, and would be under supposable conditions; and therefore, though it might conceivably prevent many generations from rightly determining what is normal, it could not affect the true – and ultimately ascertainable (provided there were anybody to ascertain it) – mean and normal; and thus, the result is that no such accident could affect the normal or the true color. So, in general, what I mean by the external might vary with how persons of a given general description would think under supposable circumstances; but it will not vary with how any finite body of individuals have thought, do now think, or will actually think.

So much for what I mean by the external. The main difference between the external, as I use the term, and the real, as I employ that term, seems to be that the question whether anything is external or not is the question of what a word or other symbol or concept (for thinking proper is always conducted in general signs of some sort) is, I say, a question of what a symbol signifies; while the question of whether anything is real or is a figment is the question what a word or other symbol or concept denotes. If the attributes of or possible true assertions about an object could vary according to the way in which you or I or any man or actual body of single men, living at any time or times, might think about that object, then that object is what I call a figment. But if even although its attributes, or what is true of it, should possibly vary according to what some man or men might think, yet if no attribute could vary between being true and being false, according to what any plural of single men could think about that thing, then, and though it were accordingly not external but mental, it would nevertheless be real, since precisely that is what I mean by calling an object real.



This might have some bearing on the question Ben posed in the Addendum to his message: ‘what would be the practical difference between the immediate object and the dynamic object of a TRUE proposition?’ My guess is that there would be no difference at the end of inquiry, but the difference does make a difference in the actual practice of inquiry, because that process can never be known to have reached its end, which is truth itself.

I have another question arising from Peirce's Berkeley review, specifically his comments about Kant's view of reality as Peirce describes it there and in some later writings. But i'd better save that for another post.

9 comments:

Joe Ransdell said...

Two things immediately occur to me: The first is that this is an excellent definition of "normal" and it should be picked up on for the Commens definitions of Peirce's terminology. The second is that, supposing that what one regards as so really is identical with the opinion that would be held at the end of inquiry, i.e. identical with the ultimate opinion, then there is no basis for distinguishing them; for one is in posession of the ultimate opinion as soon as one arrives at the opinion even if inquiry de facto continues after one has satisfied oneself and is no longer inquiring. Thus it is not a difference that makes a difference.
I wonder if we are not misled by the redundancy in the phrase "the ultimate opinion at the end of inquiry"? The redundancy suggests, misleadingly, that you don't get the truth until that impossibly remote time, whereas the idea is rather that you get the truth as soon as you get the opinion that would be held, were the end ever to be reached.

JOe Ransdell

Ben Udell said...

The definition of "normal" struck me too and I added it to the quotes widget in the page's upper left corner.

I think that Gnox has a point here. If, even when one believes that one has reached the truth, one allows for some vagueness and for some possibility of error, then that's to allow for some vagueness in the immediate object regarding the dynamic object and for some possibility, howsoever small, of discrepancy between the immediate object and the dynamic object. There seems therein a typical fork in the road into fallibilist and infallibilist practices.

I also had the notion that the dynamic object seems "deeper" than the immediate object, which is founded on the dynamic object "as on bedrock" as Peirce put it. The object as it is in the sign, the immediate object, seems an abstraction, a manifestation of something in just those aspects referenced by the sign. Or is the dynamic object, analogously, a kind of abstraction from an underlying thing or things in just those aspects referenced by the true sign? If the question starts to have an eerie metaphysical glow, then that's the time to try to bring it back to the logic of reference. What one considers as a well defined or well delimited thing seems a question of negotiation between oneself (or a community of inquirers) and the world, and relevant norms emerge as contexts for propositions. Really in both cases (immediate object and dynamic object) there is usually the understanding that the sign refers not only directly to the highlighted object but also indirectly to a larger complex of objects, up to and including the object's whole universe of discourse.

Joe Ransdell said...

I agree with all that you say, Ben. i was over-simplifying: I think maybe I'm right, though, that it is the tendency to state the principle in some implicitly redundant way that causes us to seem to be assuming that there is supposed to be some actual occurrence in an impossibly remote future which is the temporal end of the game when we will finally arrive at the truth. The subjunctive conditional form is such a curious locution, though, isn't it?

Ben Udell said...

I was just posting this when your comment appeared.

"I should also affirm Joe's point, that we should not lose sight of the fact that to believe that one has reached the truth is to believe that one has reached a final interpretant. It is an everyday occurrence. Furthermore one's mind is chockablock with things which one holds as final interpretants (of particular lines of inquiry)."

There is as you say a tendency to think of an impossibly remote future as the end of inquiry, partly because of one's fallibilism about one's current views. But even the putative ultimate end of inquiry, there could be some vagueness or some imprecision, which Peirce would tend to attribute to reality itself.

Beyond ultimate actual ends of particular lines of inquiry one starts to imagine a grand ultimate actual end of all inquiries. But that seems to involve a higher order of infinity than the "usual" kind of end of inquiry, so one should tread even more carefully with that conception.

gnox said...

Joe, i'm in total agreement with what you said in the first comment, about [[ the redundancy in the phrase "the ultimate opinion at the end of inquiry" ]] which [[ suggests, misleadingly, that you don't get the truth until that impossibly remote time, whereas the idea is rather that you get the truth as soon as you get the opinion that would be held, were the end ever to be reached. ]] Peirce says somewhere that we've already arrived at the truth on many questions ... though we can't be quite sure which ones! But it's pretty hard to find a wording that gets this definition of truth right without being misleading. And if one succeeds, as Peirce usually did (in my opinion), the results tend to sound like obfuscation to many readers anyway. But i don't think my post was quite up to Peirce's terminological standard.

Ben Udell said...

Gnox wrote,

"Peirce says somewhere that we've already arrived at the truth on many questions ... though we can't be quite sure which ones! But it's pretty hard to find a wording that gets this definition of truth right without being misleading."

This reminds me of something that I read, some fellow tried to find a way to weight one's particular opinions with a certain degree of doubt which one has about one's own opinions generally, but he couldn't make it work mathematically - the calculations kept leading to confidence levels too low for the particular opinions, or something like that. I guess that's if one didn't already have 100% confidence in each individual case already. Or maybe the fellow should have included the general doubt as one of the opinions that could be wrong. Aw heck, I'll never remember where I read it, it was years ago.

Maybe the problem is that of using more precision than is feasible in practice. As I recall, the man was discussing things like a set of seventeen opinions, weighted with one's general doubt that one could be right all seventeen times. How does one measure and compare confidence levels of one's opinions which have been selected merely for being one's opinions? It's rather different from comparing one's levels of confidence in one's various suspicions about the same subject and based on the same evidence. One might order one's opinions on various subjects in terms of greater or lesser confidence, but then to quantify it, maybe it's apples and oranges and so on, different things. Anyway, I started out with idea that it has something to do with the idea that it's hard to avoid being misleading when one discusses general doubts and beliefs about whether one has reached the truth and so on. But instead this comment is just petering out!

Joe Ransdell said...

Here's a relevant quote, from 1873, MS 218 (Robin 379) in Writings 3, p. 79:

The truth is independent of what we may think about it and the object of an opinion is a creation of thought which is entirely dependent on what that opinion is: it exists by virtue of that opinion. There seems to be a contradiction here. But the secret of the matter is this. The final settled opinion is not any particular cognition, in such and such a mind, at such and such a time, although an individual opinion may chance to coincide with it. If an opinion coincides with the final settled opinion, it is because the general current of investigation will not affect it. The object of that individual opinion is whatever is thought at that time. But if anything else than that one thing is thought, the object of that opinion changes and it thereby ceases to coincide with the object of the final opinion[,] which does not change. The perversity or ignorance of mankind may make this thing or that to be held for true, for any number of generations, but it can not affect what would be the result of sufficient experience and reasoning. And this it is which is meant by the final settled opinion.

This therefore is no particular opinion but is entirely independent of what you, I, or any number of men may think about it; and therefore it directly satisfies the definition of reality. But the object of the final opinion is something which is capable of being thought, and does not transcend thought altogether, and therefore the reality is something which is capable of being thought, and in no case can transcend thought altogether.

Ben Udell said...

I like that term "coincides" in this context and have occasionally used it accordingly. Now that I know that Peirce used it, I'll use it more confidently in describing his views.

"This therefore is no particular opinion but is entirely independent of what you, I, or any number of men may think about it; and therefore it directly satisfies the definition of reality."

Nice!

At The Peirce Pages in a new page "Peirce's Terms: Comparative Tables" I've begun a comparative table of Peirce's terms "real", "figment", "mental", and "external", based on the passage which Gnox quoted.

Joe Ransdell said...

And here is another one, from 1872, MS 218 (Robin 372) in Writings 3, p. 57:


Suppose that we were all of us omniscient and knew the full and precise truth about everything. Then the beliefs of all of us would be identical. So much so that the barriers of individuality would be partly broken down. We should have separate minds indeed because while one of us was attending particularly to one thing another might be attending to another, and our desires might to a certain extent centre about ourselves and our surroundings as they do now. Imagine these limitations removed and there would be no respect left in which one man's thought would differ from another's. Mind would cease to be a private belonging. But I won't suppose this but only that we all should know everything. The agreement then in the objects of belief would amount to identity. And these objects would not be fictions but realities. To draw any distinction whatever in that case between the object of belief and the reality would be idle. It would be a distinction without a difference, for any discrepancy between the object believed to exist and the reality is error. This is a simple demonstration that the conception of the reality as it is for itself in contradistinction to the reality as it may be known is a self-contradictory conception. For in the case we have supposed the very reality would be an object of belief—a thought. The race, the community is perpetually tending toward such a state. It is true we shall never know the true answer to every question, but in regard to any question concerning which there is doubt, a struggle to rid ourselves from doubt, and an attempt at investigation, we go on the assumption that sufficient research—involving perhaps more experience and reasoning than our race will ever attain to—would produce this state of true belief. If the agreement between belief and reality were perfect the object of belief and the very reality would be completely identical. If then the agreement is partly attained a partial identity is established. That which is believed in, in true knowledge, is real. It appears then that the reality is something with which thought may be identified and frequently is partially identified, not using the word thought to mean what takes place in the brain but as the object which is brought before us when the act of cerebration takes place.