Perception and Conception
Man was not made to turn his eye inward, was not made for himself alone,
but for the sake of what he should do in the outward world. (1863)
In perception we know a thing as existing (1868b, 66). "There are real things, whose characters are entirely independent of our opinions about them: those realities affect our senses according to regular laws" (1877, 107). A percept "is immediately known as external, . . . in the sense of being present regardless of the perceiver's will or wish" (1905b, 223; cf. 1871, 83); but more, a percept (leaving aside hallucinations and dreams) "is not inside our skulls, either, but out in the open. It is the external world that we directly observe" (1901a, 62).
To be sure, percepts are formed of sensations arising through sense impressions (1868b, 56–57, 59), but Peirce stresses that sense impressions are not first in our knowledge. We are not shut out from the external world,
informed only by sense impressions. Not at all! Few things are more completely hidden from observation than those hypothetical elements of thought which the psychologist finds reason to pronounce "immediate," in his sense. But the starting point of all our reasoning is not in those sense impressions, but in our percepts. When we first wake up to the fact that we are thinking beings and can exercise some control over our reasonings, we have to set out upon our intellectual travels from the home where we already find ourselves. Now, this home is the parish of percepts. (1901a, 62)
Knowledge of the power of seeing is an inference from experience, for instance, from experience of colored objects (1868a, 33). "We first see blue and red things. It is quite a discovery when we find the eye has anything to do with them, and a discovery still more recondite when we learn that there is an ego behind the eye, to which these qualities properly belong" (1901a, 62). Our sensations and percepts are themselves purely psychical. "Everything which is present to us is a phenomenal manifestation of ourselves. This does not prevent its being a phenomenon of something without us, just as a rainbow is at once a manifestation both of the sun and of the rain" (1868b, 51). "Red is relative to sight, but the fact that this or that is in that relation to vision that we call red is not itself relative to sight; it is a real fact" (1905a, 198; also 1868a, 32, 36; 1871, 83).
Sensations, such as colors or tones, are simple; simpler anyway than the myriad sense impressions, or nervous activities, that give rise to them. Being lawfully formed by the constitution of our biological nature, sensations are for us natural signs, natural representations (1868b, 57). If we consider, however, only the feeling, or qualia, of a sensation without relation to any other or consider only a single sensitive instant without relation to other instants, then representational merit would be nil. We should be left with only a raw feel of an occult power, an inexplicable that, inexplicable in the mild sense of being unsusceptible to reflective knowing (1868a, 34; 1868b, 52, 56–57; 1885, 185; 1891a, 150–51; 1905b, 223). "We can know a quality only by means of its contrast with or similarity to another" (1867, 29; also 1891a, 151).
Though perceptions be direct or nearly so (1868a, 31; 1871, 84; 1878, 120; 1901a, 62), Peirce maintained that perceptions are interpretations (1871, 85; 1903a, 229), a semi-automatic sort of inference (1868b, 42–51, 57, 62, 67–68, 70; 1871, 85; 1877, 96–98; 1891b, 207–11; 1905b, 204–7) conditioned by previous cognitions (1868a, 36–38; 1878, 120). In vision we are routinely filling in the blind spot of each eye. We are routinely inferring the third dimension of space from the two-dimensional arrays of stimulations at the retinas. Indeed, two-dimensional surfaces out in the field of view must be constructed from effectively zero-dimensional, point receptions in the retinas (1868a, 21–24, 64–66). In audition we experience not repeating mechanical vibrations in the ear as such, not the frequency of impinging stresses and strains as such, but a certain relatively simple pitch of tone constructed by the auditory system from those vibrations (1868a, 22; 1868b, 57). The arising of a sensation resembles a hypothetic, abductive sort of inference.
"In perception, the conclusion has the peculiarity of not being abstractly thought, but actually seen, so that it is not exactly a judgment, though it is tantamount to one. . . . Perception attains a virtual judgement, it subsumes something under a class, and not only so, but virtually attaches to the proposition the seal of assent" (1891b, 208–9; also, 1901a 62). Our subconscious abductive inferences in the process that is perception coalesce smoothly into articulate perceptual judgments which are forced upon our acceptance (1903a, 210–11, 227).
If by the term intuition the epistemologist were to mean only some immediate apprehension that is, in fine, an individual representation resulting from some mental process or other, then Peirce would allow there is such a thing as intuition (1868a, n2, n5). But if by intuition one means a cognition whose determinations come not at all from previous cognitions, and therefore come entirely from something outside of consciousness; then Peirce argues, inductively, as above, that we have no such intuitions, no such cognitions (1868a, 18–25, 30–32, 36–38). Were we to have such cognitions, they would be cognitions of the absolutely incognizable. There are no absolute incognizables.
If I think "white," . . . what I think is of the nature of a cognition, and so of anything else which can be experienced. Consequently the highest concept which can be reached by abstractions from judgments of experience—and therefore, the highest concept which can be reached at all—is the concept of something of the nature of a cognition. . . . Over against any cognition, there is an unknown but knowable reality; but over against all possible cognition, there is only the self-contradictory. In short, cognizability (in its widest sense) and being are not merely metaphysically the same, but are synonymous terms. (1868a, 35; also 1868b, 41, 60–61; 1871, 82–83; 1905b, 215)
The real is cognizable. "There is no thing which is in-itself in the sense of not being relative to the mind, though things which are relative to the mind doubtless are, apart from that relation" (1868b, 68–69; also, 1871, 82–84). The objects of true cognitions are real. "That which is thought in these cognitions is the real, as it really is. There is nothing, then, to prevent our knowing outward things as they really are, and it is most likely that we do thus know them in numberless cases, although we can never be absolutely certain of doing so in any special case" (1868b, 69).
Peirce thinks it likely we each acquired the notion real "when we discovered that there was an unreal, an illusion; that is, when we first corrected ourselves" (1868b, 69). Illusions will not stand in the long run; thanks in part to corrections from other people, starting with Mama (1868b, 69; 1868a, 28). "The real, then, is that which, sooner or later, information and reasoning would finally result in, and which is therefore independent of the vagaries of me and you. Thus, the very origin of the conception of reality shows that this conception essentially involves the notion of a COMMUNITY, without definite limits, and capable of a definite increase of knowledge" (1868b, 69; also 1868b, 72; 1871, 80–83, 88; 1877, 103, 107; 1878, 130–34; 1901a, 62; 1905a, 197–99; 1905b, 215–20; 1908a, 358).
Relations of resemblance and similarity, of contiguity and continuity, of causality, and of representation are real (1868b, 54, 67, 69–70; 1869, 88; 1878n2 ; 1901b, 295; 1905a, 201–2; 1905b, 215; 1908b, 405). In addition, though Peirce regarded the following relation of relations also as real, he adjudged it to be, in part, a relation of reason (in a generalized sense of the term reason; cf. 1891b, 207) in that it arises with reference to our senses, needs, and purposes: relative degrees of resemblance (1885+, 195; cf. 1871, 80–81, 83–84, 126–29; 1902c, 116–29; 1905a, 198–99; 1905b, 215–16). Our discernment of natural kinds is based on relative degrees of resemblance. We find, in some contexts, that a tree and grass are more alike than either is like a tiger; realities external to the mind produce sensations that may be embraced under the contrasting conceptions vegetative or predatory.
"All our conceptions are obtained by abstractions and combinations of cognitions first occurring in judgments of experience" (1868a, 35). Peirce speaks of each of the senses being "abstracting mechanisms" (1868b, 66). Vision conveys information about the colors and forms of things, and visual percepts are indeterminate with respect to the gustatory qualities of things. Peirce is here extending abstracting to sensory processing, in step with his pervasive extensions of inferring, reasoning, and so forth. Indetermination is a crucial element of Peirce's theory of abstract conceptions proper. General conceptions are "modes of determination of existent particulars" (1905b, 215). A conception is determinate in some respects and indeterminate in (silent on) other respects (1905b, 210). A conception is a representation formed by a process of prescinding abstraction, that is, by attention to (1868b, 52, 61–62), then selection of (1867, 25–26; 1891a, 151–52; 1903b, 270–71; 1905b, 212), certain telling features, such as relative likeness, among one's objects of perception; to be retained in one's conception of a class of objects, leaving aside other aspects of the objects as experienced in perception, including the aspect existence (1868b, 66). The resulting mental formation, our conception, is a hypostatic abstraction, that is, an ens rationis (1905b, 212–13, 210n7).
Certain conceptions, as hypostatic abstractions, are released for the imaginative flight of mathematics, where they are creatively developed (1900, 269–70) and whence they may return for service to empirical science (1905b, 205, 212–13). Our conceptions in empirical science and the conceptions we live by more generally are, in their ways, also susceptible of development and being made more definite (1878, 117, 123–30). Conceptions, by nature, have meanings (1868b, 54). Insofar as our conceptions have definite meaning, they are cast in terms of possible sensory experience and possible actions (1878, 124; 1905b, 204). "There is no distinction of meaning so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of practice" (1878, 123; cf. 1868a, 36; 1871, 83). It is indeed impossible "that we should have an idea in our minds which relates to anything but conceivable sensible effects of things. Our idea of anything is our idea of its sensible effects; and if we fancy we have any other we deceive ourselves, and mistake a mere sensation accompanying the thought for part of the thought itself" (1878, 124). In speaking of possible (or conceivable) sensible effects or possible (or conceivable) differences in practice, Peirce does not mean possible "merely under such circumstances as are likely to arise, but under such as might possibly occur, no matter how improbable they might be" (1878, 123; also 1905b, 190–91, 215–20; 1908, 378–79).
Rationality, or logical self-control, is for the furtherance of human life (1877, 96; 1905a, 189–91; 1905b, 204–7). To grasp the rational meaning of a conception, Peirce would have us look exclusively at "its conceivable bearing upon the conduct of life" (1905a, 183). Conceptions that could directly bear on rational conduct are such as have differential implications for experimental phenomena. The complete rational meaning of a conception is just all of its possible implications for general kinds of future experimental phenomena (1905a, 184–85, 194). This is pragmatic conception. The past is real, and it is from experience that we have formed our conceptions, but the rational bearing of our conceptions is upon present and future conduct (1905a, 194; 1905b, 220–23). Peirce would want to add, however, that the essence of an experiment is its purpose and plan (1905a, 194), and that humans do not "live for the mere sake of action, as action, without the thought it carries out" (1905a, 196).
Nothing is incognizable. The apparent is rightly taken as real until there are specific reasons to think it not so. We directly perceive things as external, as in space and as independent of us. We perceive basic relations, in addition to spatial relations, as they lie in external reality.
In development we first perceive external things, then perceptual system and self. At least as adults, our access to sensations is by isolating them within our perceptions.
The contents of our perceptions are purely psychical, modifications of self, though they import the character of external physical objects causing them. Perceptions are interpretive constructions by quasi-logical processes. Perceptions are taken into a stream of ongoing cognitions and actions. Perceptions are had mainly by active exploration and experimentation. Perceptions sometimes mislead, but these can be found out by other perceptions.
Conceptions arise by attending, selecting, isolating, and fixing in the mind, in accordance with our interests, elements in perceptual experience experimentally treated. Conceptions are generals. Universals lie in particular things and the particular relations among them, sometimes things and relations composed by our organizing actions.
Conceptions are rational only insofar as they specify, in service to human life, definite performable operations and definite sensible consequences to be expected from such performances.
1. About 50ms; James 1890, 523–28, 611–18, 642; Macar 1985.
2. See further, Parker 1998, 20, 108–9, 125–26, 164–65, 220; Hookway 1985, 156–60; Bernstein 1964, 178–79; Buchler 1980, 20–23, 122.
3. It is my impression that in epistemological discussions wherein Peirce uses the word determined, he often means it in the sense of conditioned, or receiving determinations.
4. For relations of Peirce to Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Ockham, and Kant on intelligibility and being, see Boler 1983, 97–99, and Boler 1963, 32–35, 122.
5. Ockham likewise noticed the importance of comparative similarities for universal concepts: Boehner 1990, 29–30, 44–45.
6. For concordance with Peirce's semiotic, see Parker 1998, 149.
7. See further, Zeman 1983 and Parker 1998, 32–33; and Peirce's "The Essence of Mathematics" in Newman 1956.
8. Cf. Peirce's image of the mind of Faraday in Peirce 1900, 272.
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——. 1867. On a New List of Categories. In Hoopes (H) 1991.
——. 1868a. Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man (W).
——. 1868b. Some Consequences of Four Incapacities (W).
——. 1869. Grounds of Validity of the Laws of Logic: Further Consequences of Four Incapacities (H).
——. 1871. Critical Review of Berkeley's Idealism (W:74–88) (H:116–40).
——. 1877. The Fixation of Belief (W).
——. 1878. How to Make Our Ideas Clear (W).
——. 1885. One, Two, Three: Fundamental Categories of Thought and Nature (H).
——. 1885+. A Guess at the Riddle (H).
——. 1891a. The Architecture of Theories (W).
——. 1891b. Review of William James' Principles of Psychology (H).
——. 1900. The Century's Great Men in Science (W).
——. 1901a. Pearson's Grammar of Science. In Houser (EP) 1998.
——. 1901b. The Laws of Nature and Hume's Argument against Miracles (W).
——. 1902a. Perceptual Judgments. In Buchler (B ) 1940.
——. 1902b. Leading Principle (B ).
——. 1902c. On Science and Natural Classes (EP).
——. 1903a. Harvard Lectures on Pragmatism (EP).
——. 1903b. Sundry Logical Conceptions (EP).
——. 1905a. What Pragmatism Is (W).
——. 1905b. Issues of Pragmaticism (W).
——. 1908a. A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God (W).
——. 1908b. Letter to Lady Welby, Dec. 23 (W).
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One thing I will be discussing in the Peirce thread is the commonalities and differences between Peirce and Rand concerning the nature of perception and conception. Along the way, I will point out commonalities and differences between Peirce, James, and Dewey in this area. I will not neglect Marc Champagne’s 2006 study “The Realism of Peirce and Rand” that appeared in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 8(1):19–39.