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Charles Sanders Peirce

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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.

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[1] 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).[2] "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).[3] 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.[4] "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 [1903]; 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;[5] 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.[6] 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).[7] 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).[8] 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.

Bernstein, R.J. 1964. Peirce's Theory of Perception. In Studies in the Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce. E.C. Moore and R.S. Robin, editors. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Boehner, P., editor, 1990. Ockham: Philosophical Writings. P. Boehner and S.F. Brown, translators. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Boler, J 1963. Charles Peirce and Scholastic Realism. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
——. 1983. Peirce, Ockham, and Scholastic Realism. In Freeman 1983.

Buchler, J., editor, 1940. Philosophical Writings of Peirce. New York: Dover.

Buchler, J. 1980 [1939]. Charles Peirce's Empiricism. New York: Octagon Books.

Freeman, E., editor, 1983. The Relevance of Charles Peirce. LaSalle, IL: The Hegeler Institute.

Hookway, C. 1985. Peirce. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Hoopes, J. editor, 1991. Peirce on Signs: Writings on Semiotic by Charles Sanders Peirce. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Houser, N., editor, 1998. The Essential Peirce. Volume 2. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

James W. 1890. Principles of Psychology. New York: Dover.

Macar, F. 1985. Time Psychophysics and Related Models. In Time, Mind, and Behavior. J.A. Michon and J.L. Jackson, editors. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Newman, J.R. 1956. The World of Mathematics. Volume 3. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Parker, K.A. 1998. The Continuity of Peirce's Thought. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.

Peirce, C.S. 1863. The Place of Our Age in the History of Civilization. In Wiener (W) 1958.
——. 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).

Wiener, P.P., editor, 1958. Charles S. Peirce: Selected Writings. New York: Dover.

Zeman, J.J. 1983. Peirce on Abstraction. In Freeman 1983.


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.

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It is interesting to compare this content to how Ayn Rand portrayed pragmatism in her writing. Most of the time when she used "pragmatist" she referred to politicians. The word appears frequently in The Ayn Rand Letter, many times describing Richard Nixon. To a much lesser extent she referred to John Dewey, and even less to William James. She never even mentions Peirce. Two issues of The Ayn Rand Letter (V3 #16 and V3 #17) are devoted to pragmatism. They are titled "Pragmatism Versus America" and the author is Peikoff, but likely Rand had much influence.

James (1842-1910) and Dewey (1859-1952) called themselves pragmatists and claimed to be followers of Peirce (1839-1914). Peirce was very unhappy with how his alleged followers were using "pragmatism." So for his own philosophy he adopted a new term "pragmaticism", which he coined because it was "ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers."

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Yes, Merlin. Thanks for those observations. In his lectures on the history of philosophy in the early 70’s I recall that Dr. Peikoff gave considerable time for Peirce, as well as for James and Dewey. I unfortunately no longer remember any particulars of this lecture, but do remember a general impression that he took Peirce as rather closer than the other two to getting things right.

Merlin has written on the Pragmatist theory of truth, and the portion on Peirce in this preeminent survey of truth theory in relation to Objectivism is right here.

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C.S.Peirce is America's greatest philosopher and also one of its most under appreciated philosophers. He was fifty or sixty years ahead of Popper. He also was a leading discoverer in mathematical logic having originated material for which others are more noted. He was ahead of Frege for example.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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Contra Intuition and Self-Evidence


In 1868 at age 29, Peirce wrote “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man” (QF), in which he argued we have no cognitive faculty of intuition. The concept of intuition Peirce denies is “a cognition not determined by a previous cognition of the same object, and therefore so determined by something outside of the consciousness. . . . Intuition here will be nearly the same as ‘premise not itself a conclusion’; the only difference being that premises and conclusions are judgments, whereas an intuition may, as far as its definition states, be any kind of cognition whatever” (QF 35).

To that essay, Peirce penned a companion, which appeared the same year. The companion is titled “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities” (CF). It is here we find what Peirce means by cognition, and it is a usual meaning: Cognition is a process in which consciousness is modified so as to follow fact external to consciousness. The closest such follower and the one whose laws are best known to us is valid reasoning, including not only apodictic deductive inference, but valid inferences from evidence (CF 57–65).

On the face of it, Peirce would seem to be claiming, in QF 35, that whenever we have cognition of some object, we have always had some cognition of it. That cannot be what he means, can it?

Peirce mentions in a footnote that the type of alleged intuition he is considering is intuition in contrast to discursive cognition (QF 35n1). He thought this meaning close to the meaning of intuition in Duns Scotus and in Kant. Denote that sense of intuition I-d. There had been another definition of intuitive cognition, also current in the Middle Ages, Peirce writes: intuition as knowledge of the present as present, which was in contrast to abstractive cognition. Denote this sense of intuition I-a. He has no reservations about I-a. We obviously have that ability. “Every cognition, as something present, is, of course, an intuition of itself” (QF 35). In the experience of something present, we know without inference the experiencing of it as present.

Peirce understands Kant to have absorbed I-a together with I-d under his technical concept sensuous intuition and to have absorbed I-d under intellectual intuition. It is a salient doctrine of the Critique of Pure Reason that we possess no faculty of intellectual intuition. Peirce would have known that Kantian teaching. Peirce misunderstands Kant’s sensuous intuition and thinks his own analysis of perceptual cognition not very different from Kant’s (QF 41n4).

Peirce argues that we have no faculty of intuition operating in perceptual cognition. The latter proceeds in a way analogous to discursive reasoning. As discursive reason is monarch of intellectual cognition, a domain from which intuition has been expelled by both Kant and Peirce, so a process analogous to discursive reason is monarch, in Peirce’s view, of perceptual cognition (QF 35; CF 57–58, 71-72, 81–82).

Peirce maintains there is no evidence we have a faculty of intuition, under his conception of it, other than the feeling that we have it. “But the weight of that testimony depends entirely on our being supposed to have the power of distinguishing in this feeling whether the feeling be the result of education, old associations, etc., or whether it is an intuitive cognition; or, in other words, it depends on presupposing the very matter testified to. Is this feeling infallible?” (QF 36).

Peirce could as well have said we have no faculty of intuition other than the sense that we have it, or other than the perception that we have it, or other than the apperception that we have it. His subsequent argument could oppose indifferently all of those possibilities for discernment of a faculty of intuition. Unless episodes of intuition are discerned as not some other type of cognition through an infallible self-evidential faculty, rather than through inference from or association with other episodes of cognition, the thesis that we have a faculty of intuition is undermined, according to Peirce. If truth of a cognition is to be infallibly self-evident, then whether it is self-evident must be infallibly self-evident.

Peirce is opposing the infallibly self-evident per se, though his initial particular approach to the citadel is through the particular case of intuition. His argument could be applied against the infallibly self-evident in perception.

To the contrary of Peirce’s sweeping thesis, I say as follows. In one’s present perception is this text. That one perceives these marks now, perceptually knowing their existence and character, is self-evident. They are not only perceived as present, but as having the particular character they have. Furthermore, they are not only perceived as present, but as self-evident. Their status as self-evident does not require they have no connections with previous cognitions. Then too, the judgments that these cognitions are perceptions, self-evident ones, merely acknowledge as fact what is known in perceptual experience.

Peirce would deny we know character of things in perception. Until the mind thinks predicates of the object of perception, we know from perception only that something is present. Or so he held in his composition of 1867 “On a New List of Categories” (§3).

Rand held a similar view, expressed in 1957: “The task of [man’s] senses is to give him the evidence of existence, but the task of identifying it belongs to his reason, his senses tell him only that something is, but what it is must be learned by his mind” (1016). To reason as an identifying faculty, Rand would later add the mind’s automatic formation of percepts from sensory inputs. “A percept is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain. It is in the form of percepts that man grasps the evidence of his senses and apprehends reality. . . . Percepts, not sensations, are the given, the self-evident” (1966, 5; cf. Aristotle). Sensations are parts of the percept, but their integration to form the whole percept has already been accomplished by automatic brain processing. Consciously directed identification proceeds, reason proceeds, upon whatever percepts are possible to us. I should add to Rand’s account that the minimal memory commensurate with percepts is working memory, as distinct from iconic memory. Rand characterizes the integration in the formation of percept differently than Peirce, as we shall see. Rand shares with later Peirce the idea that human knowledge begins with percepts, not with subsidiary sensory elements composing them. Rand may have adopted the term percept from Peirce for her concept nearby his; the third paragraph of the Foreward of her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (1966) is a quotation from American Pragmatism: Peirce, James, & Dewey (Moore 1961).

We should notice that evidence, like truth, is an epistemologically normative concept. Self-evidence, too, is epistemologically normative. Rand’s talk of tasks of faculties of identification is talk of the epistemologically normative. In Peirce’s theory of perception, epistemological normativity of perception is expressed by analogy with the epistemological normativity of consciously directed reason. In some way, so far obscure, that seems to impute epistemological normativity to perceptual processes not under conscious direction. Peirce has actually at this early stage (1868) already a nascent source of epistemological normativity second to that of logic. He thinks of the difference between a mere conception and a conception one believes true to be incorporation of the latter within a judgment on which one is prepared to act (QF 47). In Rand’s theory of perception, epistemological normativity of perception, and of all other faculties of identification, is from biological normativity.*

From his position at this early stage of his philosophic development, Peirce would maintain that for these marks to be perceived immediately and immune from error as they are presented, rather than judged or inferred to be present as they are, requires we know they are so discerned by an infallible self-evidentiary faculty. Otherwise, the perception of these marks cannot be self-evident and immune to correction.

Sextus Empiricus writes: “If external things are not apprehended by the senses, neither will thought be able to apprehend them” (Pyrrhoneae Hypothyposes, I.99). Similarly, Rand writes: “Man’s senses are his only direct cognitive contact with reality and, therefore, his only source of information. Without sensory evidence, there can be no concepts; without concepts, there can be no language; without language, there can be no knowledge and no science” (1970, 90). Naturally, then, there can be no valid conceptual undercutting of all deliverances of the senses (Rand 1966, 3).

I say, more generally, there can be no knowledge that, or fact-knowledge, that enfolds no thing-knowledge (borrowing the terminology of Tye 2009). Moreover, knowledge of our experience of things is not only knowledge that; we have some thing-knowledge of our experiences, thing-knowledge of our thing-knowledge of things. There is some immediate, manifestly non-inferential, knowledge in our knowledge of our acts and experiences. For important example, in acts of abstraction or judgment or inference, there are acts of working memory; and manifestly, this is an arena of direct inner acquaintance.

It is clear that our knowledge that perception of these marks is a perception is: a judgment, not a perception nor an intuition. However, I say it is erroneous to think that fallibility in discerning which of our faculties is in operation in a particular episode of cognition entails fallibility in all our cognitive faculties. Full-blooded fallibility is only possible in knowledge that. Not all anomalies are errors. If there are anomalies among what one experiences as immediate, they are resolvable by knowledge that encompassing them. But knowledge that, or fact-knowledge, is in no position to revise the immediacy of thing-knowledge. What is immediate and what is not is given immediately, and fact-knowledge must integrate information continuously in tune with the automatic integrations of the brain. The integrations of reason over percepts, for example, must continue, not contradict, the integrations the brain performed in producing the percepts. The identifications of reason must not contradict the identifications given in and as immediate perception.

In my paragraph before last, Peirce would want disambiguation of “immediate, manifestly non-inferential, knowledge in our knowledge of our acts and experiences” and “arena of direct inner acquaintance.” He would want to know if this alleged self-knowledge is simply what Kant called inner sense or perhaps the form of self-consciousness Kant called pure apperception (scroll down to 3.2.3).

If either of those, then Peirce has no qualms about the ways they are made part of epistemology (QF 43). In addition to those, one has recognition of one’s personal self, which Peirce calls self-knowledge. Is this knowledge intuitive or is it at least partly “a cognition determined by others,” where others means other cognitions?

Peirce takes the burden of proof to lie on the side maintaining self-knowledge to be intuitive knowledge. He assumes that there is no need to invoke intuition as the means to self-knowledge unless it were shown that self-knowledge cannot be the result of connections to other cognitions. He then tries to compose a plausible story of how self-knowledge comes about by such connections. In summation, “At the age at which we know children to be self-conscious, we know that they have been made aware of ignorance and error; and we know them to possess at that age powers of understanding sufficient to enable them to infer from ignorance and error their own existence. Thus we find that known faculties, acting under conditions known to exist, would rise to self-consciousness” (45). There is then no need to invoke intuition.

I think his assumption as to where the burden of proof lies is incorrect. That I was an instant ago looking out the window or that I earlier this morning included a cedar bough in the kindling for the fire, engages not only connections with other episodes of consciousness, it relies on direct memories. That is the phenomenology. It is not enough to show that our direct memories, experienced as direct, in contrast to our memories composed by inferences, could be accounted for entirely by unnoticed inferences. It must be shown that such an eliminative reduction does not covertly rely on direct veridical memories. Moreover, as indicated earlier, it is manifest that inference presupposes memory. That manifest asymmetry must be explained as an illusion if it is to be credible that it is an illusion and if Peirce’s case against “intuition” is going to make good.

Peirce was onto a truth in saying that children have gotten hold of the concept of a self as mind over against reality when they have gotten hold of the concepts of ignorance and error. (Cf. Augustine CG XI, chap. 26.) The three-year-old who says things like “It’s just in his head” has some conceptual recognition of personal, mental selves, including his own (Wellman 1992, 32). Peirce thinks that personal self-consciousness arises by adding cognizance of ignorance and error to the ego of pure apperception. This will not bring his argument success. It needs to be shown that this level of cognizance of ignorance and error is in hand before the target level of personal self-consciousness is entered. It would also need to be shown that the self-awareness of the preverbal child is nothing more than pure apperception (see VS p. 118). Then, too, the fact that the package of capabilities consisting of personal self-consciousness and cognizance of ignorance and error has a developmental history does not itself show that the package arises from earlier capabilities in a way analogous to inference; that it be a an intuitive capability is not ruled out by having developmental precursors. Is there a general argument that intuitive capabilities are less amenable than discursive capabilities to having their emergence accounted for? I don’t see one.

The “arena of direct inner acquaintance” I spoke of in connection with working memory requires only inner sense and apperception, not conceptual recognition of a personal mental self. One has attained working memory by around 12 months (with distraction intervals up to 10 sec.), well before any conceptual recognition of one’s personal mental self. Peirce would be content with all that, but with my further contention that we possess “immediate, manifestly non-inferential, knowledge in our knowledge of our acts and experiences,” he would say, No. Peirce denies we have a power of introspection, whether by intuition or otherwise, where he takes introspection to be “direct perception of the internal world” (QF 47). He argues that any knowledge we have of internal fact is gotten from knowledge of external fact. True, part of the character of the sensation of redness in a perception is “owing to the constitution of the mind; and in this sense it is a sensation of something internal” (QF 48). But such knowledge of mind would be “an inference from redness as a predicate of something external” (QF 48).

To characterize the redness of an apple in a perception of an apple as a predicate of the apple, rather than as an isolated attribute of an apple, goes beyond the phenomenology and asserts a thesis that Peirce needs to demonstrate (see 1867). That aside, it only makes good sense to think that before one can get hold of the idea that something of redness as in experience is from the constitution of the aware subject—that redness is partly from the internal, not only from the external—one needs to have gotten hold of the distinction between one’s consciousness of red objects and the red objects. Distinction between internal and external in that sense is surely an intellectual attainment, not a purely perceptual one. That redness is or might be in part owing to the constitution of the mind is a conceptual comprehension, a discursive comprehension of category.

Peirce, however, was aiming to assess the idea that we have “direct perception of the internal world, but not necessarily a perception of it as internal” (QF 47). His discussion of the sensation of redness does not do much to help this assessment. When he turns from sensations to feelings, he gets some traction. He considers the feeling of anger, observing that there is in one’s anger some relativity to the outward thing over which one is angry. Anger is not an attribute of the external object, but there is an external object to which the anger is relative (QF 48). A person’s anger consists in “his saying to himself, ‘this thing is vile, abominable, etc.’, and . . . it is rather a mark of returning reason to say, ‘I am angry’ (QF 48). So it goes, too, for the sense of beauty and the moral sense. “Good and bad are feelings which first arise as predicates, and therefore are either predicates of the not-I, or are determined by previous cognitions, . . .)” (QF 48). Even emotions such as melancholy, which have no definite object, “come to consciousness through tingeing the objects of thought” (CF 72).

Does the act of volition show that one has direct perception of one’s internal world? No, according to Peirce, the power that is volition is known by inference from its objects (QF 48–49). Peirce is thinking of volition as the power of concentrating attention. “By the force of attention, an emphasis is put upon one of the objective elements of consciousness. This emphasis is . . . not itself an object of immediate consciousness” (CF 75). I should say against Peirce’s analysis that the circumstance that (i) volition requires objects of consciousness and (ii) knowledge of volition requires awareness of certain acts of consciousness over its objects does not show that awareness of volitional operations is indirect. The awareness is directly upon the acts. There is inner thing-knowledge of those acts, else there is no fact-knowledge of those acts. Though they are related to objects, the acts are nevertheless directly perceived as present and as having the particular character they have, including being inner and being one’s own. The judgment that these cognitions are concentrations of attention merely acknowledge as fact what is known directly in such inner acts.

Peirce’s attempt at actually specifying the premises and inferences that are inarticulately at work in knowledge of volition is not at all plausible (CF 75–76). The proposed inferential structure fits poorly the full phenomenology structure.

One phenomenological character of attention Peirce stresses, rightly so, is that “attention is a matter of continuous quantity,” specifically temporality. He also correctly observes that there is continuity in one’s perceptual experience in one’s waking state. He correctly observes that in dream states the present state is connected to previous states in the dream by associations (QF 38). He insinuates that, in the waking state, association with preceding perceptions in the sequence of a perceptual experience is the leading mechanism by which perceptions are entrained. He concludes that neither in our dreams nor in our waking hours do we know immediately and infallibly that the objects of our experience are really present. I maintain that this text is really present in one’s reading, that one is not (entirely) asleep, and that the reader knows both those truths directly and infallibly. No further realistic considerations can overrule the truth than one is reading this very text just now.

It is a distinctively human continual option in perceptual experience that one can consider, while perceiving, whether an object of one’s perception is real and whether one is having a waking and well experience. As Rand observed, the higher animals are guided by percepts. The actions of such an animal “are not single, discrete responses to single, separate stimuli, but are directed by an integrated awareness of the perceptual reality confronting it” (OE 19). “An animal has no critical faculty. . . . To an animal, whatever strikes his awareness is an absolute that corresponds to reality—or rather, it is a distinction he is incapable of making: reality, to him, is whatever he senses or feels” (FNI 17). However shy of being fully correct this description of perception in higher animals might be, the description is a helpful contrast with the critical, intellectual direction of human perception.

Our perceptual sequences can be intelligently directed while being co-directed by animal vigilant responses to certain stimuli. Peirce would accept that. He would say that the fact that each percept is connected to other cognitions, whether to other percepts or to thoughts interpretive or to thoughts guiding, means that their presentations or contents are not self-evident and that they are subject to correction. I have countered that that conception of self-evidence is too restrictive. But if, as I have conceived it, self-evidence is in contrast with evidence from elsewhere, when both are connected with previous cognitions, cannot a self-evident percept be erroneous on account of its connections with previous cognitions? I do not see how that is possible. What is given to awareness by brain processing may be anomalous, as when we have afterimages, but anomaly is not error, nor—in perception—a sign of error.

We have seen that the concept of intuitive cognition Peirce aims to expunge is intuitive cognition as in contrast to discursive cognition. He tries to conceive of ordinary perceptual experience such that however free it is of conscious thinking—concept connections, judgments, and inferences—it figures in some cognitive processing analogous to conscious thinking. Peirce observes “that it is not always very easy to distinguish between a premise and a conclusion, that we have no infallible power of doing so, and that in fact our only security in difficult cases is in some signs from which we can infer that a given fact must have been seen or must have been observed” (QF 38).

Similarly, we hear a tone and take it as a simple present thing. But there is previous hearing determining the tone, according to Peirce, for we know by going outside consideration of only the tone, by going to the experimental laboratory, that production of the tone requires a succession of impulses upon the ear and a response of the ear to the frequency in the succession. Peirce thought that the experimental evidence points to each impulse being heard, so he thought this to be a case in which we are having difficulty discerning, without going beyond experience of the tone itself, whether the tone is a product of preceding conscious elements or is itself an occasion of consciousness with no conscious elements preceding it. Peirce is here mistaken in his interpretation of the experimental evidence: it did not point to our having heard the individual impulses of a 440 cycles-per-second tone, for example (QF 39; CF 71–72). Peirce erred also in his interpretation of the experimental evidence concerning a variety of visual experiences (QF 38–41).

A more plausible candidate from which Peirce would launch his account of perceptual experience, as analogous to discursive cognition, is the perception of texture. “A man can distinguish different textures of cloth by feeling; but not immediately, for he requires to move his fingers over the cloth, which shows that he is obliged to compare the sensations of one instant with those of another” (QF 39). I move my fingers over my corduroy shirt and feel its texture. I ply my fingers statically to the fabric and faintly feel its texture. It is a different feel than when moving fingers over the fabric.

Peirce did not seem to realize that we can discern something of textures by static contact, but he could readily bring that capability under his account. Peirce says that in the dynamic case one is making a comparison of impressions on the fingers at successive instants of time. For the static case, he could say a comparison is being made between smaller regions composing each patch of skin plying the fabric. He insinuates that such comparisons are made within consciousness. He concludes in the dynamic case that the resulting felt texture is a resultant of static felt impressions and is therefore not an immediate feeling. We take the dynamic feel to be an immediate presentation, but in truth it is a result of more elementary static presentations. We cannot rely on the apparent immediacy of the presentation in the dynamic case. Likewise it would go for the static case.

According to Peirce, whether a perceptual given is the result of other perceptual givens or is an elementary irreducible within experience cannot be determined within the experience. Whether a proposition is a premise or a conclusion cannot be determined by attending only to that proposition. Similarly, whether a perceptual given is immediate or mediate cannot be determined without wider investigation. All perceptual givens should be treated as evidence, as natural signs, of what is in the world. Some may indeed give directly what is in the world, but that is something to be settled by all the evidence, not only their own evidence.

Before digging further into Peirce’s critique of intuition and self-evidence, as well as his positive account of perception and signs, I want to get before us some history of the ideas of intuition and self-evidence.


Hoopes, J., editor. 1991. Peirce on Signs. Chapel Hill.

Moore, E. C. 1961. American Pragmatism: Peirce, James, & Dewey. Columbia.

Peirce, C. S. 1867. On a New List of Categories. In Hoopes 1991 (H).

——. 1868 (QF). Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man. (H).

——. 1868 (CF). Some Consequences of Four Incapacities. (H).

Rand, A. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. Random House.

——. 1961 (FNI). For the New Intellectual. Signet.

——. 1961 (OE). The Objectivist Ethics. In The Virtue of Selfishness (1964). Signet.

——. 1966. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. 2nd ed. Meridian.

——. 1970. Kant versus Sullivan. In Philosophy: Who Needs It (1982). Signet.

Tye, M. 2009. Consciousness Revisited. MIT.

Wellman, H. M. 1990. The Child’s Theory of Mind. MIT.

Edited by Stephen Boydstun

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Contra Intuition and Self-Evidence

I. Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109)

The main influences on Anselm’s thought were Augustine, Boethius, and Aristotle. Anselm knew only the parts of Aristotle in Latin translation by Boethius, in particular, On Interpretation and The Categories. He was acquainted with Cicero’s Topics. His knowledge of Plato was mainly through Augustine’s comments, although he may have read a Latin translation of the Timaeus.

In a manuscript of November 1867, Peirce writes: “The distinction between abstractive and intuitive cognition is found in St. Anselm (Monologium, Caps. 62, 63, 66, 67), but the word [abstractive] first occurs in Scotus” (2:117). Peirce reports in a footnote to “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man” (QF) that “the word intuitus first occurs as a technical term in St. Anselm’s Monologium. He wished to distinguish between our knowledge of God and our knowledge of finite things (and, in the next world, of God, also) . . . he called the former speculation and the latter intuition. . . . As opposed to abstractive cognition, [intuitive cognition] meant the knowledge of the present as present.” (QF 2:193).[1]

Happily, Anselm’s Monologium has been translated into English.* ° Anselm is known as the father of Scholasticism. Right philosophy and theology, in his view, are for increase of rational understanding of tenets of faith. Such would be the belief that God is three persons of one substance: The Father, maker of all things; the Son, begotten, not made by, the Father; and the Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father (Nicene Creed, 381 A.D.). The enlarged understanding that Anselm seeks for such a doctrine issues from rational argument that the doctrine is not incoherent or self-contradictory and that there is no contrary view more reasonable than it.

Earthly human understanding of God is slight. It is woefully incomplete. “Now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known [by God]” (1 Cor. 13:12). We can think about things God has created by speaking, aloud or silently, but that is not the only way. There are universal natural signs by which all peoples know things and know them more closely than by linguistic signs. In the natural sign is “that likeness which is expressed in the acute gaze of the mind as it conceives the object itself” (chap. 10). There are two forms of natural signs: in image and in reason. So, for the being man, one’s mind can behold him by imagining his perceptible shape or by thinking “his universal being, viz., rational, mortal animal” (10).

In that last manner of thought, if I understand him correctly, Anselm is saying we can think the object rational, mortal animal without words of any particular language, indeed, without any perceptible marks at all. It is in that sort of thought about a created being that our thought is most like God’s thought of all things. However, our thought in thinking a being in this way remains thinking a thing by its kind and from likeness, whereas God knows things identically as they are in their existence, which is without kind or magnitude (16, 36, 62, 65–67).

“As best it can the mind tries to express in its thoughts a likeness of whatever thing it desires to think of truly (whether through imagining a material object or through reason). The more truly it expresses this likeness, the more truly it thinks of the object itself” (33).

Behind its speaking of itself, the rational mind understands itself by a thinking of itself in which: “an image of the mind is begotten in the mind’s thought—or better, the mind’s thought of itself is its own image, formed according to the likeness of the mind and formed, as it were, from an ‘impression’ of the mind” (33). In that way, too, the “Supreme Wisdom begets its own consubstantial likeness, i.e., its Word, when it understands itself by speaking of itself. . . . The Word can (not unsuitably) be called the image, figure, and form (caracter)—as well as the likeness—of the Supreme Wisdom” (33).[2]

Anselm regards our thinking of a thing by its image as a kind of word, a natural sign, for the thing. In themselves things exist “in virtue of their own being; but in our knowledge their likenesses exist, not their own being” (36). When we think of something outside the mind, “the word [or image] of the object is not begotten from the object itself, since the object itself is not present in the mental vision” (62). This is the case not only when thinking a thing from memory, but when cognizant of a thing currently present to the senses, according to Anselm. An image with a likeness to the object and pertaining to the object is conducted from the object into the mind by the senses (62).

Peirce states he does not mean to deny we have a faculty of intuitive cognition where all that is meant is “knowledge of the present as present” (QF 2:193n1). He adds that this was its meaning in Anselm.

That claim about Anselm is half right. As we have seen, Anselm trumpets the fact that we do not hold the present object, of itself, in our cognitions. The pen with which I wrote these sentences was in my hand and in my optical view and in my conscious grasp. But it was in my hand, not in my nerves nor anywhere on up into my mind. In my consciousness of the pen there was awareness of its presence. Peirce agrees that far. Anselm maintains that beyond that incomplete and relative perceptual knowledge of the pen is a complete mode of knowing the pen. That would be knowing it of its own existence, not as a present relative in sense (Mono. 33, 36, 65). Peirce’s claim about Anselm is half wrong.

Peirce agrees we have knowledge of the present as present. His error is only that he represents Anselm as not upholding further intuitive knowledge, a form of knowledge whose existence Peirce denies. He denies there is possible such a thing as knowledge of the object as in its own existence without relation to other things, including relation to the percipient subject and its prior experience.

In 1903 Peirce delivered his important Lectures on Pragmatism at Harvard. In the second draft for the second lecture, he writes:

When anything is present to the mind, what is the very first and simple character to be noted in it, in every case, no matter how little elevated the object may be? Certainly, it is presentness. . . . The present is just what it is regardless of the absent, regardless of past and future. It is such as it is, utterly ignoring anything else. . . . The present . . . is positively such as it is. Imagine, if you please, a consciousness in which there is no comparison, no relation, no recognized multiplicity (since parts would be other than the whole), no change, no imagination of any modification of what is positively there, no reflexion,—nothing but a simple positive character.” (1903, 154–55)

Peirce gives as examples: a certain odor or “an infinite dead ache” or a “piercing eternal whistle” (1903, 155; see also his 1867 “On a New List of Categories” 2:49–54). Peirce does not think such isolated qualities are sufficient of themselves to occasion our actual consciousness of them. For that they must become signs employed in the compulsory representations that are perceptual judgments (1903, 160–61). It remains that all our cognitions bear the influence of other cognitions past and present. That is, we have no intuition of any object in the sense of “a cognition not determined by a previous cognition of the object” (QF 2:193; also CF 2:235–36 and 1903, 221; see also Bernstein 1964, 173–76, and Rosenthal 2004, 196).

If it be objected that the peculiar character of red is not determined by any previous cognition, I reply that that character is not a character of red as a cognition; for if there be a man to whom red things look as blue ones do to me and vice versa, that man’s eyes teach him the same facts that they would if he were like me. [Similarly, Peikoff 1991, 42–44; cf. Locke 1690, 2.13.12]

. . . Besides, all the cognitive faculties we know of are relative, and consequently their products are relations. But the cognition of a relation is determined by previous cognitions. No cognition not determined by a previous cognition, then, can be known. It does not exist . . . because a cognition only exists so far as it is known. (QF 2:209–10)

There is some parallel with Rand here. The character of red as a cognition is the character of red as an identification. Implicit in the identification of red is the knowledge that one exists as in an identifier relation to that red (Rand 1957, 1015, 1040–41; see further, Kelley 1986, 81–111). Every existent stands in relationships to other existents. Among the relationships in which any existent stands will be measurement relationships (Rand 1966–67 [iTOE], 39; U&M 271–72). Similarity relationships to be found in perception are borne by certain measurement relationships among existents (ITOE 13; U&M 291–93). Cognitive relations are measurement relations (ITOE 11–15, 21–24). Perceptual similarity relations are measurement relations. They are magnitude relations (as in synthetic geometry), and all such relations can be scaled (as in analytic geometry). Conceptual identifications, as in perceptual judgments, characterize similarity relations (and comparative similarity relations and spatiotemporal relations) by suspension of particularity of values along certain measurable dimensions (ITOE 13; U&M 274–80).

Peirce would deny Anselm’s conception that we have knowledge of God as a present being even though the object of that knowledge is ineffable, or incognizable (Mono. 36, 64–65). There is no such thing as knowledge of an incognizable. Any signs we have for such a thing are meaningless (QF 2:208; CF 2:213, 238, 240).[3]

Anselm takes the image of present thing (say, a chair in which one is about to sit) as a word, as a signifying expression of the thing. Peirce argues that all cognition is with signs (QF 2:207–8 [Q5]). Perception is by signs. In perception we have sensations on which we are compelled to affirm an external object of such and such character (1903, 155, 160–61, 199–200). We have no image before us in visual perception. Sensations are signs. The stimulations at the retina do not amount to a determinate picture, or image, of what is before us. The knowledge given to us by sight is a joint result of (i) present sensations and (ii) recognition abilities acquired by unconscious enumerative induction over previous like sensations (CF 2:233–36).

Peirce opposes the idea that resemblance-images are the rudimentary elements in our perception of objects, Anselm’s idea. Peirce denies also Anselm’s idea that when we imagine an absent object, we have a determinate image of it. Rather, we have activation of our powers for recognizing the object were it present. The same goes for “images” in dreams (CF 2:235.) Those are novel and important corrections to Anselm and to his modern heirs in philosophy of perception. But Peirce retains a general idea from Anselm, an idea important and originating with Anselm: elementary sensibles in perception—images for Anselm, sensations for Pierce—are signs.

Like Anselm also, Peirce takes one’s own inner self to be a sign (or word [Verbum], as Anselm puts it [Mono. 33]). Peirce contends, very plausibly, that if a young child hears the sound of a bell, she will think of the bell or some other object as sounding. She will not think of herself as hearing. If she wills to move an object, she will not be thinking of herself as desiring, only of the object as fit to be moved (QF 2:201–2).*

We have been thinking about external objects before we learn to think about ourselves as conscious subjects or as desiring agents. Indeed, all knowledge of the internal world must derive from the external world (QF 2:206). As all thought of external things is only with signs, all thinking of thought or other elements in our internal world is only with signs (QF 2:207).

Whenever we think, we have present to the consciousness some feeling, image, conception, or other representation, which serves as a sign. But it follows from our own existence (which is proved by the occurrence of ignorance and error) that 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. When we think, then, we ourselves, as we are at that moment, appear as a sign. (CF 2:223; further, 2:240–41)

Continued – (Roger Bacon is next.)


1. Anselm writes of intuitive cognition as a mental seeing, or beholding, in Chapters 62, 63, and 66. It is in 63 that he writes of intuition as beholding presence. Peirce’s reading of Anselm’s use of speculation for Scotus’ abstractive cognition is subtle. Speculating (speculatione) appears in 66. The English translators render this as contemplating. What Anselm is writing of with this term is the way in which the human mind in beholding itself, as its own mirror, is beholding darkly the image of God. In all the created world, the human mind is most like God, possessing self-remembrance, understanding, and love (67). To best see God in this life, direct yourself to your own mind’s self-consciousness. In that inspection, or intuition, God is also seen, though only as in a dark mirror. This way of seeing God is an example of what Scotus would later call abstractive cognition, which is cognition “directed to the thing as to its existence,” yet “not so directed to it that the presence of [its] object is discerned” (quoted by Peirce 2:117).

2. This is an example of Anselm attempting to bring rational coherence to articles of faith, specifically, to the text in which God informs Moses how to express who God is—“I AM; that is who I am” (Exod. 3:14)—joined with the text “The Word was at the creation. The Word dwelt with God, and what God was, the Word was” (John 1:1) and with “The Word became flesh; he came to dwell among us, and we saw his glory, such glory as befits the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus is spoken of in Christianity as the perceptible Word of eternal life (1 John 1:1–3). “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. A draught from the water-springs of life will be my free gift to the thirsty” (Rev. 21:6). —The New English Bible (1972)

3. In “The Law of Mind” Peirce mentions his exposure to Concord Transcendentalism “when Emerson, Hedge, and their friends were disseminating the ideas that they had caught from Schelling, and Schelling from Plotinus, from Boehm, or from God knows what minds stricken with the monstrous mysticism of the East” (1892, 339). Peirce’s express abhorrence of mysticism fits with something I have come to wonder about him. I wonder if his opposition to intuition was in part motivated by the worry that it opens the floodgates of mysticism and to stopping-points for science. Frederick Beiser stresses that Schelling and Hegel aimed “to revive a rational knowledge of the absolute . . . . [They] wanted to avoid the excesses of mysticism, of any appeal to intuition that transcended conceptual elaboration and methodological guidance” (2002, 579). Beiser adds an endnote citing “Schelling’s critical allusions to Schleiermacher’s intuition of the universe . . . and Hegel’s similar references” (692–93). I do not know if Peirce had been aware of these lines drawn by Schelling and Hegel. He certainly would have known of the intuitionism (variegated) of Coleridge, Marsh, and Emerson and would have known of their distorted understanding of Kant. I wonder how much Peirce knew of Fries, De Wette, and Schleiermacher and the intuitionist tendencies they buoyed in American religion.


Anselm 1075–76. Monologion. In Complete Philosophical and Theological Treatises of Anselm of Canterbury. J. Hopkins and H. Richardson, translators. 2000. Arthur J. Banning Press.

Beiser, F. C. 2002. German Idealism. Harvard.

Bernstein, R. J. 1964. Peirce’s Theory of Perception. In Studies in the Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce. E. C. Moore and R. S. Robin, editors. Massachusetts.

Kelley, D. 1986. The Evidence of the Senses. Louisiana State.

Locke, J. 1690. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Vol. 1. Dover.

Piekoff, L. 1991. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. Dutton.

Peirce C. S. 1867–71. Writings of Charles S. Peirce – A Chronological Edition. Volume 2. E. C. Moore, editor. 1984. Indiana.

——. 1892. The Law of Mind. In Philosophical Writings of Peirce. J. Buchler, editor. 1955 [1940]. Dover.

——. 1903. Pragmatism as a Principle and Method of Right Thinking. P. A. Turrisi, editor. 1997. SUNY.

Rand, A. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. Random House.

——. 1966–67. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. 2nd ed. H. Binswanger and L. Peikoff, editors. Meridian.

Rosenthal, S. 2004. Peirce’s Pragmatic Account of Perception. In The Cambridge Companion to Peirce. C. Misak, editor. Cambridge.

Edited by Stephen Boydstun

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The only way to actually know the present as present is to know change for everything is moving. Therefore the "present" consists of what we know through experience and evaluation and past and future are only subcategories of the concept. The only way for the present to exist as commonly understood is if there were no movement, but that would be a contradiction on different levels, both metaphysical and epistemological.


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Brant, the present being spoken of here is that which is present in contrast to that which is absent. Thanks for mentioning the other sense of the present, as I imagine other readers might also take that meaning at the outset of this section on Anselm, and that would be a mistake.

Beginning at the point of the first block quote from Peirce (1903), there enters temporal aspects of that which is present as opposed to absent. From there forward, the present is used back and forth between the two senses. By the way, I think Peirce agrees with your thoughts about the temporal present. At least he does not think there can be any consciousness that has no duration and is unconnected to other consciousness (of some level) preceding or following it. He takes this to count against the idea of intuitive knowledge because the kind of direct and isolated intuitive cognition he is rejecting is conceived as being an absolutely instantaneous apprehension of the intuited object. Then too, intuitive cognition with reason, in Anselm’s view, is detached from time because universals are timeless. Peirce, as we, will reject that platonic element.

All of the aspects of or conceptions of intuitive cognition in Anselm will continue in the further development of epistemology to the time of Peirce. Beyond Anselm I plan to cover intuitive cognition as conceived by the following thinkers, in their chronological order: Bacon, Scotus, Ockham, Locke, Descartes-Spinoza-Leibniz, Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. This should advance not only our understanding of philosophy of perception historically and in our own time, it constitutes some of what I need to learn in pulling together the philosophic influences on German science and theology in the nineteenth century, which will feed into my account of German philosophy’s influence on the German politics of WWI and later the Nazis (the thread on Kant, Dewey, and Peikoff). The present thread will also feed into my program developing the idea that cognitive systems are measurement systems.

Edited by Stephen Boydstun

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Stephen, I'm certainly interested in "intuitive cognition" and want to know more about it, but isn't it only a way of labeling what is already going on? What's going to be the hopeful bottom line? Or is that question too much of the cart before the horse?


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Brant, my own working hypothesis is that we have perception without intuition in the sense of intuition that Peirce also found objectionable. That is, I will be looking for whether a realist theory of perception can be given that does not rely on that sense of intuition (whether explicitly or implicitly). We’ll see. Similarly with abstract understanding, the question will be whether conceptualization and inference can be adequate to comprehending the world without a faculty of intellectual intuition. I think so, as had Kant. But here too, we need to see what are the reasons for thinkers having proposed such faculties complementing the powers of perception, imagination, conceptualization, and rational inference. Then we can see which versions of intuition, in the sequence of philosophers I mentioned, can be done without.

Peirce thinks somewhat along the lines you suggest, at least in this way, in regard to putative intuition in the process of perception: He points out that when we take a proposition as a premise in an argument, the premise might very well be derivable as the conclusion of some other argument. Similarly, what we experience as an unmediated sensory apprehension of something might not be such an absolute start as it appears. Rather, it might itself be the result of finer processes mediating the external thing and our resulting unitary experience of it. He thinks the latter is the case and that this means we have no need to pose a faculty of intuition to have realistic perceptions.

However, I should mention that Peirce does not think of a human perception as completed until it has issued in a perceptual judgment. That judgment he takes to be irresistible, yet fallible. We’ll have to see how far his own theories of perception and conception are sustainable, however much error of his predecessors he circumvented.

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However, I should mention that Peirce does not think of a human perception as completed until it has issued in a perceptual judgment. That judgment he takes to be irresistible, yet fallible. We'll have to see how far his own theories of perception and conception are sustainable, however much error of his predecessors he circumvented.

Animals do this all the time. Some end up as roadkill, consequently.


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Brant, my own working hypothesis is that we have perception without intuition in the sense of intuition that Peirce also found objectionable. That is, I will be looking for whether a realist theory of perception can be given that does not rely on that sense of intuition (whether explicitly or implicitly). We'll see. Similarly with abstract understanding, the question will be whether conceptualization and inference can be adequate to comprehending the world without a faculty of intellectual intuition. I think so, as had Kant. But here too, we need to see what are the reasons for thinkers having proposed such faculties complementing the powers of perception, imagination, conceptualization, and rational inference. Then we can see which versions of intuition, in the sequence of philosophers I mentioned, can be done without.

Are we talking about creativity and the subconscious mind?


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#11 – Agreed (VS, Part 3).

#12 – No, at least not with Anselm, back at the beginning of the conception intuition. When people today speak of intuition in human creativity, they are not speaking of intuition as a faculty appealed to in the history of epistemology up to and including Kant. I think that significant connection between the two ideas will emerge in the last decade of the eighteenth century. But we'll have to see for sure as the history unfolds.

By the time of Peirce for sure, perception (with no such thing as intuition) is seen as arising in part from unconscious elements. But it will be worthwhile to consider whether any notion of the unconscious is in play in perception, in concept formation, and in their intuitional character as portrayed by our very next contributor Roger Bacon. I'll have to drop off here and return to that composition at this time.

Edited by Stephen Boydstun

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Contra Intuition and Self-Evidence

II. Roger Bacon (c. 1214–1292)


Peirce writes:

To Roger Bacon, that remarkable mind who in the middle of the thirteenth century was almost a scientific man, the schoolmen’s conception of reasoning appeared only an obstacle to truth. He saw that experience alone teaches anything . . . . Of all kinds of experience, the best, he thought, was interior illumination, which teaches many things about Nature which the external senses could never discover, such as the transubstantiation of bread. (1877)

Overlapping the days of Anselm and before the days of Bacon, there had been Abelard (1079–1142). After Anselm and before Bacon, there had been translations into Latin of more Aristotle (Posterior Analytics, Physics, Meteorology, On the Heavens, Generation and Corruption, Metaphysics, On the Soul, Sense and Sensibility . . . ) and the commentaries of Averroes on Aristotle. There had been the translations of Euclid (Elements, Optics, Catoptrics), Ptolemy (Almagest, Planisphere, Optics), Avicenna (The Healing, Canon of Medicine), and Alhacen (De aspectibus). The great philosophic and scientific influences on Roger Bacon were Aristotle, Ptolemy, Avicenna, Avicebron, Alhacen, and Robert Grosseteste (c. 1168–1253).

Bacon held Avicenna to be “the perfect imitator and expositor of Aristotle and the commander and prince of philosophy after him” (Perspectiva I.1.5). Avicenna (980–1037) was an heir of Aristotle and Galen and of Plotinus, the Neoplatonist. Augustine, too, had been influenced by Plotinus. Grosseteste was influenced by Aristotle, by Augustine, by the Neoplatonist now known as Pseudo-Dionysius, by Avicenna, and by Avicenbron.

In the view of Aristotle, every concrete thing consists of specific sensible and intelligible forms together with matter occasioning those forms (Metaphysics 1036a26–1037b7; contrast with Rand 1970, 277, 286). “As sunlight is in the eye, so is intellect in the soul” (Topics 108a10–11). Thinking, however, “is different from perceiving and is held to be in part imagination, in part judgment” (Anima 427b28–29). The senses perceive the special objects (often called the proper objects) to which they are dedicated, such as color in the case of vision. There is also perception of the sensible object incidental with the special objects of sense. An example would be the leaf incidental with the color green. “Thirdly, comes the perception of the common attributes which accompany the incidental objects to which the special sensibles attach (I mean e.g. of movement and magnitude)” (428b22–24).

Imagination has what can be sensed for its content. “And because imaginations remain in the organs of sense and resemble sensations, animals in their actions are largely guided by them, some (i.e. the brutes) because of the non-existence in them of thought, others (i.e. men) because of the temporary eclipse in them of thought by feeling or disease or sleep” (429a5–9).

The thinking part of the soul must be “capable of receiving the form of an object; that is, must be potentially identical in character with its object without being the object. Thought must be related to what is thinkable, as sense is to what is sensible” (429a15–18). Because everything is a possible object of thought, the faculty whereby the soul thinks and judges cannot have a nature of its own (429a21; contrast with Rand 1966–67, 79–80). If it had a nature apart from the natures it must comprehend, it would hinder that comprehension. Before it thinks, the intellect is “not actually any real thing,” only a certain capacity (429a22–24). “For this reason it cannot reasonably be regarded as blended with the body: if so it would acquire some quality, e.g. warmth or cold, or even have an organ like the sensitive faculty: as it is, it has none” (429a24–27).

Within the intellective soul, there is the activity of becoming all things, but there is also the making of all those things as they are in the intellective soul. The latter element “is a sort of positive state like light; for in a sense light makes potential colors into actual colors” (430a24–27). This active element—the active intellect, the agent intellect—is pure activity, separable from the body and immortal (430a18–24). Alexander of Aphrodisias (c. 200),* in his commentary on De anima, removes the active intellect from the individual soul to a universally shared, separate sphere of being. De anima and the commentaries of Alexander and the more platonic Themistius (c. 320–29) were translated into Arabic by the ninth century (D’Ancona 2009, 4). The Theology of Aristotle, which was a translation and emendation of parts of Enneads (c. 270), Porphyry’s edition of the works of Plotinus (c. 203–70), was also available to Arabian scholars by the ninth century (3).

Bacon had available Augustine’s analogy between the role of sunlight in our vision of objects and the role of divine, spiritual light in our grasp of the immutable truths of things (cf. Republic 507d–509b; see further, Lindberg 1998, xxxv–xli). Bacon had available Avicenna’s use of the Peripatetic comparison of active intellect to the sun: Illumination from the active intellect, taken as external to the individual soul, makes it possible for potentially intelligible things to become actually intelligible (Hasse 2001, 41, 52).

Bacon had available Anselm’s theory of knowledge, human and divine. (Avicenna would have known nothing of Augustine [further, Matthews 2010, 88], and he lived before Anselm.) As we have seen, Anselm included an element of direct or close-to-direct, intuitive apprehension of presence and existence, an apprehension not tied to words or images.

One impetus for Avicenna’s theory of intuition was the Posterior Analytics. Aristotle writes:

Acumen is a talent for hitting upon the middle term in an imperceptible time; e.g. if someone sees that the moon always holds its bright side towards the sun and quickly grasps why this is—because it gets light from the sun . . . . // The bright side’s being towards the sun, A; getting light from the sun, B; the moon, C. Well, B, getting light from the sun, belongs to C; and A, the bright side’s being toward that from which it gets light, [belongs] to B; hence A belongs to C. (89b10–20; further, 74b27–37)

The accurate and spontaneous movement of the conceptualizing mind in tracking down the middle term, Avicenna called intuition (hads). Aristotle’s acumen is then taken to be an operation of intuition occurring in an infinitesimally short time. Thought is the broad movement of the mind towards the principles of a problem for which a solution is sought. Intuition is included within thought when solution of a problem requires discovery of a middle term (Gutas 2001, 4–5). Intuition is necessary for all intelligible knowledge, “that is, all non a priori knowledge of universals that depends on syllogistic reasoning” (ibid., 3). Obtaining middle terms in syllogisms is generally required, in Avicenna’s account, to acquire a corresponding intelligible form (Hasse 2000, 176).

That was Avicenna’s early conception of intuition. In one respect, such a conception of intuition would not be objectionable to Peirce, for this intuitive cognition is not cut off from prior cognitions, indeed intuitive cognitions are traceable all the way back to sensory processes.

In later writings, Avicenna does not mention acumen. He came to define intuition by the function he formerly had assigned acumen. “Intuition is no longer a movement of the Mind for tracking down the middle term, but its instantaneous discovery” (Gutas 2001, 3). In Avicenna’s mature scheme, middle terms can also be acquired by the movement of the soul he calls thinking. In his mature view, intuition is in sharp contrast with thought (and the latter rises in importance).

In Avicenna there is a pronounced strain of materialism rooted in Galenic medicine. Avicenna locates particular faculties of the animal soul of humans in particular ventricles, or chambers, of the human brain. Avicenna was working within the Aristotelian explanatory paradigm of the faculties of the soul. Avicenna’s physiological psychology subdivided Aristotle’s vegetative, sensitive, and intellective soul into finer parts, and each component was ascribed to a particular region in the brain. As with Aristotle, Avicenna took the sensitive soul as performing cognitive functions that join the cognitive functions of the intellective soul (Tachau 1988, 10).

The stubborn wrinkle in the rug for Avicenna and later medieval thinkers was how our immaterial intellect can grasp essentially material entities (ibid., 34). Muslim philosophy was not bounded as Christian philosophy was bounded by the theological doctrines of divine ex nihilo creation of the world, the holy trinity, and transubstantiation. Muslim philosophy was bounded by theological doctrines of divine creation of the world (somehow)* and doctrines of the immaterial and immortal nature of the intellective human soul.

In Avicenna’s view, intellectual abstraction, or essential form, stands as single unit in the mind, but as multiplicity, as universal, in relation to concrete particulars having determinate material quality, quantity, and place (Hasse 2001, 48–50, 60; Bäck 1994, 42–45). We do not, however, form intellectual abstractions such as man or animal directly from individual specimens external to our minds. We form abstractions from the products of prior processing of sense data by our inner animal faculties: the common sense, imagination, and estimation.

The common sense receives and perceives the forms of objects conveyed by the senses. Imagination combines, separates, and reconfigures sensory images. Estimation judges what the non-sensible connotations of objects are. The estimative faculty is a critical faculty and one we share with other animals. For them it is the highest of their internal sensory faculties. Our imaginative faculty differs from imagination in the animal by having a further use beyond the combination and separation of images. The human soul is able to use imagination to combine and separate conceptual images, which is to say: to think. In those episodes, the imaginative faculty becomes what Avicenna calls the cogitative faculty (Gutas 2001, 8; Hasse 2001, 43–44; Smith 2001, xlv–vi).

On heritage from Aristotle in all this, see De anima 416b32–430a26. Avicenna’s specification of faculties and their brain locations were adopted by Roger Bacon; see Perspectiva I.1.2–2.1, I.5.2, I.10.1, I.10.3, II.3.9, and De multiplicatione specierum I.2, III.2.

Is the soul that puts the cogitative faculty to work the human animal soul or the human intellective soul? The latter. Sensory images can be stored in the brain. Connotative concepts from the estimative power can be stored in the brain. Sensory images and connotative concepts belong to the animal soul. Intellective abstractions, or intelligibles, cannot be stored in the brain. They cannot be stored in the human intellect itself either. The intellect is a spiritual being, a purely simple being, which can only hold the intelligible while it thinks it. Intelligibles must be stored in and retrieved from a realm outside the individual, from the separate, universal active intellect. Intuition in Avicenna’s initial sense, the hitting upon the middle term of a syllogism, is retrieval of an intelligible from the active intellect (Gutas 2001, 13).

If, as in Avicenna’s initial formulation, intuition is the success stage of a thought process looking for the middle term of a syllogism, then it requires that preceding thinking. In Avicenna’s early writings, that thinking would seem to be activity of the cogitative faculty of the human being’s animal soul. How then could we have our intelligibles after death? Furthermore, in the view of Avicenna, all intelligible knowledge is constituted by the formation of concepts according to definitions and the granting of assent by means of a syllogism. “Thinking needs to come into contact with the principles in order to bring forward definitions and form concepts of them, and in order to bring forward middle terms” (quoted in Gutas 2001, 19). Such contact and such thinking is not possible to the animal soul in man, only to his intellective soul. Avicenna’s early conception of intuition needed revision.

The human intellect rummages through images in thinking to aid the appearance of middle terms. Imagination and the cogitative faculty aid thought, but do not amount to thought. Similarly, drawing by a geometer is not his thought (Gutas 2001, 20–24).

The intellective soul initiates the search for the middle term. Preliminary movement among conceptual images by the cogitative faculty of the human animal soul facilitates the quests of the intellective soul in this life. But the body is also a hindrance; slowness in tracking down universals comes from the body. After death we retain our knowledge, our contact with the active intellect (ibid., 24–28, 30–31).

In life the intellective soul is prepared for receiving emanations from the active intellect by moving among conceptual images in imagination. The active intellect shines upon them in us, and the particulars in imagination are transformed into something entirely abstracted from matter. These pure forms get imprinted in the intellective soul. The illumination by the active intellect of the conceptual images is like the falling of light on colored glass. The color of the glass is not transformed into the light received at the eye. Similarly, the conceptual images are not transformed into the abstractions received by the intellective soul. The abstractions are related to and gathered from the illuminated conceptual images, as perceived light is related to colored glass (Hasse 2001, 54–56; see further, Hasse 2000, 177–89).

Let intuition, then, consist only of those occasions in which the middle term appears in a startling flash, a striking reception in the intellective soul from the separate active intellect. Let intuition be only those special receptions, not the reception at the end of every successful quest of the intellective soul for a middle term.

Our first acquisition of every universal is by reception from the active intellect. The active intellect is ontologically prior to us. “[it] makes our potential powers of thinking actual by being itself incessantly an actual thinker and hence the real ‘locus’ of all intelligibles, or all thought actually being thought” (Gutas 2001, 29). That, however, is only the ontological basis of our ability to think. Avicenna does not take it as a substitute for the psychological and epistemological account of how we think. The cognitive processes described by Avicenna as preparatory for the reception of intelligibles are real and necessary for our corporeal existence (ibid., 30).

The separate active intellect itself is—is at all—by emanation or procession from the One. Thank the Neoplatonists.

It is not only through engagement with universals that processions from the One are encountered by human beings. In the tradition of Plotinus, particular physical existents have their existence by procession of multiplicity from the One. It is not too surprising, then, that essential forms of material beings, such as man or humanity, should dwell in the active intellect. Purely formless, purely passive matter receives particular existence by receiving substantial forms, such as animality, and a suite of traits in terms of Aristotle’s categories. The set of traits in full specification is unique for each individual existent.

In the view of Avicenna, that unique set of specifications for an individual existent is not a sufficient basis for our recognition of the individual. “Rather, Avicenna says, we have direct, intuitive experience of the existence and individuality of a sensible individual. Our conception of being a real, singular existence is immediate and given by direct acquaintance” (Bäck 1994, 49). Alhacen and Roger Bacon, possibly influenced by Ptolemy (Smith 1996, 28–30), ascribe the power of perceptual recognition to the final sensor, which they locate in the common sense or at the juncture of the optic nerves (Alhacen, De aspectibus II.3.45–46; Bacon, Perspectiva I.5.3, 10.3, II.3.9; Smith 1981, 584). Final-sensor verdicts are fallible because judgmental.

Peirce could warm to that sort of perceptual intuition, an intuition that cognizes presence of an existing object of perception at the end of an abstractive and interpretative sensory process. On the other hand, intellectual intuitive cognition, insofar as it is in contrast to discursive cognition, is out the window.

(To be continued.)


Alhacen c. 1028–38. De aspectibus. Translated in Smith 2001.

Aristotle c. 348–322 B.C. The Complete Works of Aristotle. J. Barnes, editor. 1984. Princeton.

Bäck, A. 1994. The Islamic Background: Avicenna and Averroes. In Individuation in Scholasticism: The Later Middle Ages and the Counter-Reformation, 1150–1650. J. J. E. Gracia, editor. SUNY.

Bacon, R. c. 1262. De multiplicatione specierum. Translated in Lindberg 1998.

——. c. 1263. Perspectiva. Translated in Lindberg 1996.

Gutas, D. 2001. Intuition and Thinking: The Evolving Structure of Avicenna’s Epistemology. In Wisnovsky 2001.

Hasse, D. N. 2000. Avicenna’s De anima in the Latin West. Warburg Institute.

——. 2001. Avicenna on Abstraction. In Wiskovsky 2001.

Lindberg, D. C. 1996. Roger Bacon and the Origins of Perspectiva in the Middle Ages. Oxford.

——. 1998 [1983]. Roger Bacon’s Philosophy of Nature. St. Augustine’s Press.

Matthews, G. B. 2010. Augustinianism. In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Philosophy. R. Pasnau, editor. Cambridge.

Peirce, C. S. 1877. The Fixation of Belief. In Peirce on Signs. J. Hoopes, editor. 1991. North Carolina.

Plato c. 428–348 B.C. The Collected Dialogues of Plato. E. Hamilton and H. Cairns, editors. 1961. Princeton.

Rand, A. 1966–67. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. H. Binswanger and L. Peikoff, editors. 1990. Meridian.

——. 1970. Transcript of Epistemology Seminar. In Rand 1966–67, Appendix.

Smith, A. M. 1981. Getting the Big Picture in Perspectivist Optics. Isis 72(264):568–89.

——. 1996. Ptolemy’s Theory of Visual Perception. American Philosophical Society.

——. 2001. Alhacen’s Theory of Visual Perception. American Philosophical Society.

Tachau, K. H. 1988. Vision and Certitude in the Age of Ockham. E. J. Brill.

Wisnovsky, R., editor, 2001. Aspects of Avicenna. Princeton.

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Contra Intuition and Self-Evidence

II. Roger Bacon (c. 1214–1292)


In a broad, historically extended sense, Bacon was an Aristotelian. With Bacon, as with his colleagues, “it was an Aristotelianism that was being assimilated into a system in which Neoplatonic influences, tempered by the Christian faith, predominated. The thought of Aristotle is interpreted in the light of authors and commentators without any attempt being made to control their exegesis and criticize their findings. Aristotle is called upon to lend the weight of his authority to doctrines that were in vogue. He is not studied with a view to determining exactly what doctrine was contained in his authentic writings” (Crowley 1950, 90).

We saw in §IIA some of the Avicennian background for Bacon concerning intuitive cognition. Avicenna’s De anima is his comprehensive work on the soul. It was written in the early 1020’s in Hamadan. It was translated into Latin jointly by a Jew known as Avendauth (who was probably Ibn Daud) and by Gundissalinus, a Christian, sometime between 1152 and 1166 in Toledo. As we have seen, Aristotle was one of the main influences on Avicenna. The latter’s De anima is not, however, a commentary on or a paraphrase of Aristotle’s work of that same Latin name (Peri psyches in Greek, On the Soul in English). Avicenna’s De anima is “arranged for the most part according to the Peripatetic tradition but represents Avicenna’s own philosophy” (Hasse 2000, 2).

Aristotle’s Peri psyches had been translated into Arabic by at least the ninth century. Peri psyches, along with Averroes’ commentary on it, was translated from Arabic into Latin around 1220. It had been translated from Greek into Latin at about the same time Avicenna’s De anima had been translated into Latin, roughly, the middle of the twelfth century.

Gundissalinus and Avendauth, the co-translators of Avicenna’s De anima, co-translated into Latin also Fons vitae (The Fountain of Life) by Avicebron (c. 1021–59; also commonly called Avicenbrol). Bacon was influenced—in his early thought of the 1240’s and beyond—by both of those works as well as by Gundissalinus’ own De processione mundi (The Procession of the World). Avicebron’s philosophy was Neoplatonic with strains of Empedocles and Aristotle. At the time of Bacon, it was not known that Avicebron was a Jew, in particular, the Jewish poet Solomon Ibn Gabirol. It was thought that he was an Augustinian Christian. His Fons vitae was read as Augustinian in Latin Christendom and was read favorably by the Franciscans, the order Bacon would eventually join.

What has been called Neoplatonism since the nineteenth century was the variety of Platonism developed fundamentally by Plotinus in the third century (c. 205–70). Plotinus was Hellene, not Christian. He composed seventy-five treatises, which were edited by his student Porphyry into the Enneads. That work was lost to Western Europe from the sixth to the fifteenth centuries. The influence of Plotinus on Latin Christian theologian-philosophers between those centuries was indirect, though considerable.

Augustine (354–430) assimilated into Christian theology some Platonic conceptions that had been elaborated by Plotinus and Porphyry.* Another Christian theologian of late antiquity was a man known as Dionysius the Areopagite, known in modern times as Pseudo-Dionysius (c. 500),* who embraced much of the Neoplatonism of Plotinus and of Proclus (412–85).*

In her essay “For the New Intellectual,” Rand mentioned that in European philosophy of the Middle Ages up to the thirteenth century, “the dominant influence was . . . Plato’s in the form of Plotinus and Augustine” (1961, 23). That is correct.

Plotinus’ first principle of reality was the Neopythagorean* One, which he identified with Plato’s Good (Republic 507–9, 414–17; on Plato’s theology, see Rheins 2010). Having compared the Good with the sun, enabler of vision and life, Plato maintained: “Not only do the objects of knowledge owe their being known to the good, but their being is also due to it, although the good is not being, but superior to it in rank and power” (Republic 509b; cf. Enneads [E] III.8.1; V.1.8).

Plotinus’ One, or Good, is a principle transcending being.[1]

There is the One beyond being, . . . and next in order there is Being and Intellect, and the nature of the Soul in the third place. And just as in nature there are these three of which we have spoken, so we ought to think that they are present also in ourselves. I do not mean in [ourselves as] beings of the sense-world—for these three are separate [from the things of sense]—but in [ourselves as] beings outside the realm of sense–perception; “outside” here is used in the same sense as those realities are also said to be “outside” the whole universe, so the corresponding realities in man are said to be “outside,” as Plato speaks of the “inner man.” (E V.1.10; also IV.4.16; V.4; VI.9.8)

That second reality, universal Intellect, has being; specifically, it has self-reflexive being (E IV.4.2; V.1.3, 3.3). Aristotle had held, concerning human beings: “If we perceive, we perceive that we perceive, and if we think, that we think; and . . . to perceive that we perceive or think is to perceive that we exist” (EN 1170a31–35; also Sens. 448a27). Plotinus accepts this view that self-reflexion is essential to consciousness and that such consciousness entails consciousness of the subject’s existence. Plotinus writes these traits into Intellect.

The One does not have being and intellect within itself, except as potency towards them, an atemporal letting-emerge from itself without self-diminution (E III.8.10; Schürmann 2002, 170–71, 176n59). The One does not construct Intellect; it begets Intellect.

The man who has contemplated the intelligible world and observed it closely and wondered at it must seek its maker . . . and enquire who it is who has brought into being something like this, and how, he who produced a son like Intellect, a beautiful boy filled full from himself” (E III.8.11).

Intellect is an image of that Good . . . first of all we must say that what has come into being must be in a way that Good, and retain much of it and be a likeness of it, as light is of the sun. But Intellect is not that Good. How then does it generate Intellect? Because by its {Intellect’s} return to it {One} it {Intellect} sees: and this seeing is Intellect. . . . Intellect, certainly, by its own means even defines its being for itself by the power which comes from the One . . . . Intellect sees, by means of itself, like something divided proceeding from the undivided, that life and thought and all things come from the One, because that God is not one of all things; for this is how all things come from him; because he is not confined by any shape . . . . (E V.1.7; also VI.7.32–33)

Plotinus is a synthesizer of all Greek philosophy before him, and his final clause of the preceding quotation may have been a pattern transplanted to the One from Aristotle’s view of the mind, which pattern Plotinus had also adopted for the mind. Concerning our own individual minds, Aristotle had written in On the Soul: “Since everything is a possible object of thought, mind in order . . . to dominate, that is, to know, must be pure from all admixture; . . . it can have no nature of its own other than having a certain capacity” (429a18–21). Similarly, Plotinus conceives thinking to be the active actuality of the Intellect, and “thinking, which sees the intelligible and turns towards it and is, in a way, being perfected by it, is itself indefinite like seeing, but is defined by the intelligible” (E V.4.2).

Aristotle also maintained: “Actual knowledge is identical with its object” (431a1). Plotinus: “What knows, in so far as it knows, . . . comes into unity with what is known” (E III.8.6). “In the soul of the good and wise man the objects known tend to become identical with the knowing subject, {and} since they are pressing on towards intellect, it is clear that in intellect both are one, not by becoming akin, as in the best soul, but substantially, and because ‘thinking and being are the same’ {Parmenides}” (E III.8.8).

Yet Intellect is two things at once, for it is intellect and intelligible at once. That which comes before intellect and intelligible can be neither one of them alone, for they always are coupled. That which comes before must be beyond either (E III.8.9; V.3.11).

Pause a moment to contrast Plotinus and his intellectual descendants with Rand. Her ontology of the good is radically different. The good arises with life, which is a form of existence. Knowing is set within life, and for Rand, life and knowing are located exactly where our senses show they are. The living existence of the conscious subject is not ontologically prior to object-existence, and grasp of the former is not epistemologically prior to grasp of the latter. Then too, Rand has no urge to reify abstractions; existence, for example, is not a unity real apart from its particular occasions and specific identities. Finally, Rand’s perfect unity of knower and known is not identity of knower and known. It is this: Existence is identity. Consciousness is identification.

That existence is identity was known by Plotinus. “Being must not fluctuate, so to speak in the indefinite, but must be fixed by limit and stability; and stability in the intelligible world is limitation and shape, and it is by these that it receives existence” (E V.1.7; also VI.9.3). Plotinus, however, does not realize that that is all. “Beyond” existence or being is nothing. To propose realities beyond existence with identity is nonsense. Plotinus would not accede to the full import of “existence is identity” as we find it in Rand.

Plotinus’ theory of Intellect is regarded as “one of the most original concepts of Greek philosophy. . . . Plotinus’ innovation lies in integrating into one concept (1) Plato’s world of Forms, (2) the Middle Platonists’ idea of the Forms as thoughts of God, (3) the Aristotelian theory of the self-thinking God, and (4) Parmenides’ theory of Being. Fundamentally, it is a synthesis of Plato’s theory of the Forms . . . with Aristotle’s account of the divine mind as a pure thinker in Metaphysics and of the active intellect in De Anima” (Stamatellos 2007, 59).

Plotinus knew the commentaries on Aristotle by Alexander of Aphrodisius (c. 200), which identified Aristotle’s active intellect with the divine intellect of Aristotle’s unmoved mover and which relocated the active intellect from the individual soul to a mutually shared, separate sphere of being. Plotinus adopted those views.

Aristotle had held that the unmoved mover is eternally in a condition with which we are acquainted from our own thinking. “Thought thinks itself because it shares the nature of the object of thought; for it becomes an object of thought in coming into contact with and thinking its objects; so that thought and object of thought are the same” (Metaph. 1072b20–21). E. K. Emilsson observes that Plotinus’ conception of Intellect goes beyond the bare thought Aristotle had ascribed to God. Plotinus conceives of Intellect as thinking “I am being” and thinking this in a manner of first-person self-discovery (E V 3.10, 13; Emilsson 2007, 110, 117–22, 146–52). Notice that Plotinus’ Intellect would be thinking itself to be something or other, however broadly, in thinking “I am being” (putting the thought discursively), for it would not identify itself as the Good, it would not identify itself as the One (E VI.7.38; Emilsson 2007, 117).

In his identity of intellect and intelligible within Intellect, Plotinus is immune to the battery of arguments accumulated by Hellenic skeptics to their purpose of inducing suspension of assent to or concern for any claims of abstract knowledge.[2] Plotinus lays out an infallible form of knowledge in his version of Intellect (E V.5.1–2). Such knowledge is possible to us, though only intermittently. In such knowledge, there are no intermediate representational elements (no impressions or images) between knower and known, nothing to be known external to the knower, therefore no platform for error, no playroom for skepticism (cf. “Plato’s” Letter VII 342–43). Plotinus places all that is intelligible within Intellect, there for the perfectly sure case of knowing.

In sense perception, according to Plotinus, we can ordinarily grasp mentally the object of perception as it is in itself. One does not see the tree before one as though it were the size of its projection on the eye; one sees it as it’s own size (E IV.5.3, 5). It is possible to see through sensibles the intelligibles sensible objects approximate. How so? If and only if sense organs are not only bodily but ensouled (E IV.4.23, 7.6, 9.3). The senses show the qualities of objects in an intelligible form. They show the qualities of the object, though not the object-essence producing those qualities. Our discursive reason and intellect then penetrate the intelligible essence of those objects in judgments (E IV.3.23, 26; V.3.2–3; Emilsson 2007, 127–41; Remes 2007, 143–49).

Humans are beings who reason and “make the acts of intelligence in discursive reasoning” (E V.3.3; see also E IV.3.18). Discursive reason has the power to assimilate and make judgments based on images arising from sense and on imprints received from Intellect. “Sense-perception is our messenger, but Intellect is our king” (E V.3.3; cf. Augustine 416, VII.20.14).

What is that First, which, for Plotinus, is the source of both intellect and intelligible in Intellect, their sum?

Even if we say that it is the Good and absolutely simple, we shall not be saying anything clear and distinct, even though we are speaking the truth, as long as we do not have anything on which to base our reasoning when we speak. For, again, since knowledge of other things comes to us from intellect, . . . by what sort of simple intuition could one grasp this which transcends the nature of intellect? We shall say to the person to whom we have to explain how this is possible, that it is by the likeness {to the Good} in ourselves. For there is something of it in us too; or rather there is nowhere where it is not, in the things that can participate in it.” (E III.8.9, emphasis added; also IV.3.12; V.3.14)

The universal Intellect and the world Soul and we humans individually have existence by procession from the One (E V.3.15; VI.9.1). The World Soul “is an expression and a kind of activity of Intellect, just as Intellect is of the One. . . . Everything longs for its parent and loves it, especially when parent and offspring are alone; but when the parent is the highest good, the offspring is necessarily with him and separate from him only in otherness” (E V.1.6). All beings who seek life and all intelligent souls in their virtue and learning are animated by and are in pursuit of the One, the Good (E III.2.3, IV.7.10; 8.4, 6–7; VI 7.20–23, 9.9). Furthermore, by intellectual and emotional preparations, some in this earthly life mystically return to and abide in perfect rest—temporarily—with their ultimate, perpetual, and transcendent source (E VI. 7.34–35, 9.3–4, 10–11). Cosmic and personal procession from and return to the One is a conception from Plotinus that was adopted within Christianity, from Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–94)* to Roger Bacon and beyond (Rist 1996, 390).

A less sophisticated version of mystical return was given by the early Christian theologian Origen (c. 185–253) in On First Principles (I.6, III.5–6). The return as envisioned by Origen stemmed from scripture. “When everything has been subjected to him, then the Son himself will be subjected to the One who has subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all” (I Cor. 15:28, New Jerusalem). The return elaborated by the non-Christian Plotinus was readily wrapped around scripture by Christian apologists. [3]

Another strand in Christianity fortified by its assimilation of Plotinus was the tradition of negative theology* (Rist 1996, 391). The negative way (via negativa) is associated most famously with the Christian Pseudo-Dionysus (c. 500), whom Bonaventure called “the prince of mystics” (a compliment). Negative theology had been developed prior to Plotinus by Middle Platonists, such as second-century Alcinous in The Handbook of Platonism (10.4; see also commentary of Dillion 1993, 107–9). Its entry into Christianity was evidently through Clement of Alexandria (150–219),* who held we only know truly what God is not. Positive predications such as the perfections said of God are inadequate to the object.

Plotinus, the Hellene, would reason: Because the One transcends all realms of multiplicity and is their prior, “there is ‘no concept or knowledge’ of it” (E V.4.1). Because the One is the principle of all particular things, “it is impossible to apprehend the One as a particular thing” (E V.5.6). Because the One is none among particular things, “it can only be said to go beyond them. But these things are beings, and being: so it is ‘beyond being’. This phrase ‘beyond being’ does not mean that it is a particular thing—for it makes no positive statement about it—and it does not say its name, but all it implies is that it is ‘not this’” (E V.5.6; also V.3.13, VI.2.3).

We can speak about the One, though we cannot speak it. We can have it, though we do not have it in knowledge. “We say what it is not, but we do not say what it is: so that we speak about it from what comes after it” (E V.3.14).

Readers of Rand have heard of ideas close to those in the preceding two paragraphs.

The good, say the mystics of spirit, is God, a being whose only definition is that he is beyond man’s power to conceive—a definition that invalidates man’s consciousness and nullifies his concepts of existence. (AS 1027)

They claim that they perceive a mode of being superior to your existence on this earth. The mystics of spirit call it ‘another dimension’, which consists of denying dimensions. . . . To exist is to possess identity. What identity are they able to give to their superior realm? They keep telling you what it is not, but never tell you what it is. All their identifications consist of negating: . . . soul is non-body, . . . perception is non-sensory, knowledge is non-reason. Their definitions are not acts of defining, but of wiping out. (AS 1035)

Perhaps Rand had known of the negative way of Eastern Orthodox Christianity* or of Latin Christianity (such as in Aquinas) when she wrote those lines. Then again, perhaps it had been only a pattern she had discerned among mystics of spirit. In the non-Christian Plotinus, we have seen he did not suppose his negative characterizations of the One were definitions; he conceded that no definition could be given. He thought of the One as not having being or existence or identity, yet not as nothing (E VI.8.20, 9.3; see further Bussanich1996, 57–63; Schürmann 2002). Rand’s direct address is to more pedestrian mystical talk, although her points in the preceding quotations do tell against Plotinus and Christian theologians. Aquinas, I should say, embraced a moderated version of the negative way. He took God to exist and reason capable of proving that. But he took God to belong to no genus, so no univocal positive differentiations with other existents is possible in characterizing rationally what God is (ST IQ12, 13; CG I.26, III.51).

Notice the consonance of negative-way theologies with these scriptures:

It is true that no one has ever seen God at any time. Yet the divine and only Son, who lives in the closest intimacy with the Father, has made him known. (John 1:18)

This will be, in his own time, the final dénouement of God, who is the blessed controller of all things, the king over all kings and the master of all masters, the only source of immortality, the One who lives in unapproachable light, the One whom no mortal eye has ever seen or ever can see. (I Timothy 6:16)


Porphyry’s edition of Plotinus’ Enneads appeared around A.D. 300. Enneads was translated into Latin by mid-fourth century (but was lost to Latin readers by end of the sixth century). The Plotinian version of Platonism led Augustine towards Christianity. John Rist observes, moreover, “the necessity for some part of Plotinian (and not simply Platonic) underpinnings for Christian theology is as strong now as when Augustine first came to grasp the facts of the case” (1996, 409; see also Hankey 2005). I should add, with Peirce 1870, that theosophists have availed themselves of Plotinian ideas (a, b).[4] Also, recall the 1892 remark of Peirce on intellectual lineage that I quoted in Part I, note 3.

Latin Christian theologians in the fourth century imported Plotinian conceptions of the One and its causality of being into their triune God. Such Christians would be Marius Victorinus and Augustine (D’Ancona Costa 1996, 363–64; Rist 1996, 402–9). Of course they contracted Intellect into the One, into their God.

The Greek Pseudo-Dionysius was the Christian most responsible for making the negative way of the Middle Platonists and Plotinus a fixture of Christian theology, East and West. Works of Pseudo-Dionysius were translated into Latin by John Scotus Eriugena in the ninth century and translated anew by Robert Grosseteste in the thirteenth century. Through the time of Grosseteste, Bacon, and Aquinas, it was erroneously thought that this author was Dionysius the Areopagite, the personal disciple of the apostle Paul mentioned in Acts 17:34. That mistake gave the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius enormous weight. Pseudo-Dionysius was in fact a Neoplatonic Christian writing under the pseudonym Dionysius the Areopagite around A.D. 500 (Pelikan 1987). Behind him was not only Plotinus, I should mention, but notably the Hellenic Neoplatonists Iamblichus* and Proclus*. I shall return to Proclus below.

Pseudo-Dionysius makes much use of ideas from Plotinus (D’Ancona Costa 1996, 366–67). In The Divine Names (DN), he writes:

We must not dare resort to words or conceptions concerning that hidden divinity which transcends being, apart from what sacred scriptures have divinely revealed. Since the unknowing of what is beyond being is something above and beyond speech, mind, or being itself, one should ascribe to it an understanding beyond being. . . . The inscrutable One is out of reach of every rational process. Nor can any words come up to the inexpressible Good, this One, this Source of all unity, the supra-existent Being. Mind beyond mind, word beyond speech, it is gathered up by no discourse, by no intuition, by no name. It is and it is as no other being is. Cause of all existence and therefore itself transcending existence, it alone could give an authoritative account of what really is. (DN 588A–B; see also 816B–17B)

In The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy (EH), Pseudo-Dionysius maintains that for human beings “it is by way of the perceptible images that we are uplifted as far as we can be in the contemplation of what is divine. Actually, it is the same one whom all one-like beings desire, but they do not participate in the same way in this one and the same being” (EH 373B). Salvation is cashed in terms of divinization of human beings, which consists “of being as much as possible like and in union with God” (EH 376A; further MT 1000C–1001A). Divinization comports with Neoplatonism and with Christian scripture.[5] The instigating perceptible images to which Pseudo-Dionysus refers are those of symbolic scripture and sacraments, not the continual undecorated perceptual information with which we manage earthly survival (EH 392A–C, 473B–76A).

Pseudo-Dionysius avers that his “hidden tradition of inspired teachers” (his Neoplatonic forebears) is “a tradition at one with scripture” (DN 592B). In page after page of his writings, it is remarkable how often Neoplatonic conceptions are purported to be the basis of sayings in scripture. Against the current, through the centuries, there were some churchmen who doubted Dionysius’ theology was squarely Christian. In the sixteenth century, Luther would decide the Church could well do without such Platonizing of Christianity and such intellectual pride. Early in his teaching, Luther would see theological merit in the negative way set forth in Pseudo-Dionysius’ The Mystical Theology (MT), although Luther would be recasting that process as the experience of God’s farness from and impeachment of man (Froehlich 1987, 43).

Through Pseudo-Dionysius Latin Christianity received a semi-Plotinian vision of the procession and return of all from and to the One, faintly supported by scripture. From The Celestial Hierarchy (CH):

Inspired by the Father, each procession of the Light spreads itself generously toward us, and, in its power to unify, it stirs us by lifting us up. It returns us back to the oneness and deifying simplicity of the Father who gathers us in. For, as the sacred Word says, “from him and to him are all things.” (CH 120B–21A)[6]

Of course this ray never abandons its own proper nature, or its own interior unity. Even though it works itself outward to multiplicity and proceeds outside of itself . . . . (CH 121B)

Proclus was head of the revived Academy in Athens from A.D. 437 to 485. This was an Academy we should call not simply Platonist, but Neoplatonist. I mentioned that Pseudo-Dionysius received Neoplatonic ideas from Proclus, who had authored Elements of Theology. In the ninth century, Elements of Theology and Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Plotinus’ Enneads IV–VI were translated from Greek into Arabic.

An important Arabic summary and interpretation of Elements of Theology came to be wrongly attributed to Aristotle in the Arabic-speaking world. This work was there titled Book by Aristotle on the Pure Good. In its Latin translation, in the second half of the twelfth century, it was titled Book of Causes (Liber de Causis). It became a major conduit for Neoplatonic ideas in the Latin west. It continued to be wrongly attributed to Aristotle until Aquinas, with new resources, realized that it was in truth derived from Proclus’ Elements of Theology.

Among Greek-Arabic translations of material from Plotinus’ Enneads IV–VI, the most important one came to be attributed wrongly to Aristotle. That misattribution was carried forward into the Latin translation, where its title was Theology of Aristotle (Theologia Aristotelis). In this rather free Arabic translation, thence in Latin, there are significant alterations to parts of Plotinus’ system that make them more Aristotelian, in contradiction of Plotinus. I expect conformance to the Islamic conception of God prompted some of these switches towards what we now know to be truly Aristotle. For example, Theology of Aristotle erases “Plotinus’ distinction between Aristotle’s self-thinking intellective god and the truly first, highest principle,” that is, it erases Plotinus’ distinction of One and Intellect (Adamson 2008).

Notwithstanding its occasional coincidence with Aristotle and contradiction with Plotinus, Theology of Aristotle is fundamentally the scheme of Plotinus drawn from the last three books of Enneads. Grosseteste and Bacon took Theology of Aristotle and Book of Causes to be simply works of Aristotle integral with what we understand to be truly his works.

It is likely Grosseteste and Bacon took Avicenna’s Neoplatonic adaptation of Aristotelian psychology to be representative of Aristotelian psychology. James McEvoy remarks that in general they and their colleagues “lacked a differential grasp of the conflicts between purely Aristotelian doctrine and Neoplatonic infiltrations into it and interpretations of it” (1982, 167n54).

From the Arabs, Grosseteste and Bacon received Neoplatonic renditions of Aristotle’s metaphysics, epistemology, and psychology. They received as Aristotle’s the Book of Causes, which consisted of extracts from Proclus’ Elements of Theology. They received as Aristotelian the Theology of Aristotle, which consisted mainly of Plotinus’ Enneads IV–VI. They received Neoplatonism in Avicenna; particularly important for our study of intuition, they received an Aristotle colored Neoplatonic in Avicenna’s De anima.

From their own Latin Christianity, Grosseteste and Bacon received Neoplatonic conceptions as virtually biblical through Pseudo–Dionysius. They received the Plotinian elements in Augustine. Further, they received mistakenly as Augustine’s a work filled with psychology from Proclus. This work De spiritu et anima is important for the history of intellectual-faculty theory, including intuition. The unknown author is now called Pseudo-Augustine.

In the next installment, I shall delineate the concepts of intuition in epistemology and in psychology for Grosseteste and for Bacon. I shall try to isolate, in ancient and medieval philosophy, the origins and lineage of the parts of the concept that Peirce found false. Under Rand’s epistemology, in some overlap with Peirce, some elements of intuition make it a concept to be cast out. For Rand held that there is no such thing as direct, unprocessed knowledge and that all awareness is “an active process that consists of two essentials: differentiation and integration” (1966, 5).

Plotinus was the greatest philosopher in the seven centuries between Aristotle and Augustine. The present installment’s step back from Bacon—back even from Avicenna or Anselm or Augustine—to set out some of Plotinus will serve to understand the story of intuition and self-evidence in Bacon and Scotus. It is also good background to have for the story, to which we shall come, of the revival of intuition in early nineteenth-century German philosophy, theology, and science, the revival coming immediately after all Kant’s efforts to eliminate intellectual intuition.

(To be continued.)


1. The idea that the One is beyond being may go back to the Pythagoreans. That origin is attested by Speusippus, who was Plato’s successor as head of the Academy.

2. On Hellenic skepticism, see Sedley 1983; Potts 1996; and Vogt 2010; and Hallie 1985. On relation to Plotinus, see Emilsson 2007, 169–70.

3. On the assimilation of Plato and Neoplatonism into Christianity more generally, often with much distortion by the Christian apologists, see Siniossoglou 2008.

4. From Peirce’s review of The Secret of Swedenborg: Being an Elucidation of His Doctrine of the Divine Natural Humanity (1869):

If we understand the theory which is here presented as Swedenborg’s, it is essentially as follows:

Philosophy and religion are one. The matter of deepest moment to the heart is the matter of deepest moment to the head. That root of existence for which metaphysics inquires is God. The business of philosophy is to explain the relation between being and appearing . . . . (433)

Distinct traces of the influence of Platonism upon Swedenborg appear in this philosophy. What Mr. James calls the form is the Platonic idea or form, and the doctrine that God is the highest idea or form, the idea of good, and the form of forms, belongs of course to Plato. The singular conception that form is from its nature living is decidedly Platonic. So also is making numerical unity to depend upon form, and quantity upon matter. The statement that matter, or what exists besides God, is nonentity, is made with equal clearness by Mr. James and by Plato. The doctrines that there is a spiritual perception which is at the same time an act of abstraction of quantities from qualities, that nature is a mere manifestation or revelation of the Divine idea, that this manifestation is, in some sense an inverted one, that there is a world-soul or maximus homo, and that the divine part of the human soul corresponds to it, that the divinity in the soul is to be compared to the sun shining on the world, that our cognition of necessary truths is a sort of memory, are doctrines which are to be found both in this book and in Plato or Plotinus; though they doubtless occupy very different positions and have very different colors in the two theosophies. (437)

5. “His divine power has bestowed on us everything that makes for life and true religion, enabling us to know the One who called us by his own splendour and might. Through this might and splendour he has given us his promises, great beyond all price, and through them you may escape the corruption with which lust has infected the world, and come to share in the very being of God” (II Peter 1:3–4, New English; see further, Russell 2004).

6. The verse Pseudo-Dionysus quotes is Romans 11:36, which in this appearance he has abbreviated to focus on procession and return. Elsewhere he quotes the verse more fully: “For from Him and through Him and in Him and to Him are all things” (DN 708A). Those and the most common modern translations of the verse are no clear corroboration of the returns proclaimed by Plotinus or Origen. The modern translation I have that is most concordant with Neoplatonic return is that of J. B. Philips: “For everything began with him, continues its existence because of him, and ends in him.”


Aquinas, T. c. 1265–73. Summa Theologica. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, translators. 1947. Benziger Bros.

——. c. 1270. Contra Gentiles. A. C. Pegis, translator, 1955. Hanover House.

Aristotle c. 348–322 B.C. The Complete Works of Aristotle. J. Barnes, editor. 1984. Princeton.

Augustine 416. The Literal Meaning of Genesis. In Rotelle 2002.

Bussanich, J. 1996. Plotinus’ Metaphysics of the One. In Gerson 1996.

Crowley, T. 1950. Roger Bacon – The Problem of the Soul in His Philosophical Commentaries. James Duffy.

Dillon, J. 1993. Alcinous – The Handbook of Platonism. Oxford.

D’Ancona Costa, C. 1996. Plotinus and Later Platonic Philosophers on the Causality of the First Principle. In Gerson 1996.

Emilsson, E. 2007. Plotinus on Intellect. Oxford.

Froehlich, K. 1987. Pseudo-Dionysius in the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century. In Rorem 1987.

Gerson, L. P. 1996. The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus. Cambridge.

Hallie, P. 1985 [1964]. Sextus Empiricus. Hackett.

Hankey, W. J. 2005. Neoplatonism and Contemporary French Philosophy. Dionysius 23:161–90.

McEvoy, J. 1982. The Philosophy of Robert Grosseteste. Clarendon.

Origen d. 253. On First Principles. G. W. Butterworth, translator. 1936. Harper & Row.

Peirce, C. S. 1870. Review of The Secret of Swedenborg. In Writings of Charles S. Peirce, volume 2. E. C. Moore, editor. Indiana.

——. 1892. The Law of the Mind. In Philosophical Writings of Peirce. J. Buchler, editor. 1955 [1940]. Dover.

Pelikan, J. 1987. The Odyssey of Dionysian Spirituality. In Rorem 1987.

Plato c. 428–348 B.C. The Collected Dialogues of Plato. E. Hamilton and H. Cairns, editors. 1961. Princeton.

Plotinus d. 270. Enneads III, IV, V, VI. A. H. Armstrong, translator. 1967–88. Harvard.

Rand, A. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. Random House.

——. 1961. For the New Intellectual. Title essay. Signet.

——. 1966. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. 2nd ed. H. Binswanger and L. Peikoff, editors. Meridian.

Remes, P. 2007. Plotinus on Self. Oxford.

Rist, J. 1996. Plotinus and Christianity. In Gerson 1996.

Rorem, P., editor, 1987. Pseudo-Dionysius – The Complete Works. C. Luibheid, translator. Paulist.

Rotelle, J. E., editor, 2002. The Works of St. Augustine – On Genesis. E. Hill, translator. New City.

Russell, N. 2004. The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition. Oxford.

Schürmann, R. 2002. The One: Substance or Function? In Neoplatonism and Nature – Studies in Plotinus’ Enneads. M. F. Wagner, editor. SUNY.

Sedley, D. 1983. The Motivation of Greek Skepticism. In The Skeptical Tradition. M. Burnyeat, editor. California.

Siniossoglou, N. 2008. Plato and Theodoret. Cambridge.

Stamatellos, G. 2007. Plotinus and the Presocratics. SUNY.

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Stephen, have you ever read the novels of Mary Renault, in which Socrates and Plato are characters, their lives and philosophy are brought beautifully and vividly to the lay reader (at least this one.) If so I would be interested in your comments on them.


Hi Carol,

No, I never read them. Two of my best friends in college were reading them in those years. They liked them very much. Both of those friends were approximately Objectivists at that time. I did not get to read very much fiction in college years or in the decades since. That's because I always had so much nonfiction reading to do in connection with physics, in school and some years after, then in connection with philosophy writing projects.

--Stephen (with thank-you for the *)

Contra Intuition and Self-Evidence

II. Roger Bacon (c. 1214–1292)


I said that in getting back to the role of intuition in epistemology and psychology in the time of Grosseteste and Bacon I would try to track down the origins of the objectionable elements in the concept of intuition in earlier history of philosophy. It has turned out that Plato, a prime suspect, deserved lengthy interrogation, which I here set off as its own installment.

In Phaedo Plato gives fresh voice to Pythagorean doctrines of the soul’s pre-existence and immortality (Cooper 1997, 49; Kahn 2001, 48–53). Plato has Socrates declare to friends in his prison cell that in dying he will be not simply leaving behind the gods and men of life, but going on to be with “other wise and good gods, and then to men who have died and are better than men are here” (Phd. 63b). Death is the separation of the soul from the body. In life the true philosopher turns away from the body, its pleasures and adornments, and turns towards the soul as much as possible. The body is an obstacle to knowledge. Sight and hearing do not provide truths, but deception. Truth is attainable by reason, when undisturbed by “neither hearing nor sight, nor pain nor pleasure, but when it is most by itself, taking leave of the body and as far as possible having no contact or association with it in its search for reality” (65c; also Tht. 184c–186e).

There are things such as the Just itself, the Beautiful itself, and the Good itself. These, as well as Size, Health, and Strength, are what the things they name are essentially, in themselves. The effective way to know these essences is by thought alone. “No thought of any kind ever comes to us from the body” (Phd. 66c). “If we are ever to have pure knowledge, we must escape from the body and observe things in themselves with the soul by itself” (66c–e).

Is thought of essential Form, such as Beauty or Health, intellectual intuition? It is allied in the text with mystical purifications, as intuition would be for many philosophers after Plato, but Plato does not here spell out enough character of this body-free thought for us to say it is intuition and not simply abstract thought (e.g. geometric proof) that is not following sensory experience. There is no indication that the intellectual grasp of Beauty or Health, nor one’s grasp through them of the beauty and health of the body, are nondiscursive or nonpropositional insights. (Similarly, in Theatetus, see Cooper 1970.)

Correct explanatory thought for Plato is not sourced in the experience of earthly life (Phd. 73a–b). We know that no two sticks we have ever observed have been exactly and fixedly equal (74–75; White 1992, 280–85, 292–302). Our idea of the Equal is already in us as we compare lengths of sticks. Nevertheless, it is an idea with name and discursive meaning, and it is a cognition connectible with others, such as thought about equal and unequal material things.

The fixed, determinate identities of the Forms are the cause (or explanation) of the determinate regularity in the mutable world (Phd. 100–105). It is perfectly fitting then that thought of Forms is connectible to thought of earthly things (see further, Tait 1986; Bailey 2005).

On the other hand, the Beautiful itself and the Equal itself are conceived by Plato as changeless simple ideas whose being is independent of composite things such as body (Phd. 78c–e). They are independent, furthermore, of our express knowledge of them. “The Form itself deserves its own name for all time” (103c; see also Cra. 438a–439b; cf. Miller 1986, 155). Beautiful particulars and equal particulars (speaking ordinarily) are changeable and are perceivable by the senses. But the constants such as the Beautiful and the Equal are invisible and “can only be grasped by the reasoning power of the mind” (Phd. 79a). Peirce and Rand should agree that concepts such as beautiful and equal entertained apart from particular instance are not grasped by perception, but by reason. However, in their different ways, they should object to the view that such concepts are independent of our cognitions with them (see also Tieszen 2011, 98–104, 139–62). Right concepts are not only as fitting realities, but as we conceive them, with degrees of indefiniteness and potential for reform.

Plato’s conception that reality most true lies in changeless simple ideas employed in the practices of reason provides a gate for later thinkers’ concept intuitive cognition as related to reason, but higher than reason. Plato unlatches that gate, perhaps inadvertently, with passages such as the following:

But when the soul investigates by itself it passes into the realm of what is pure, ever existing, immortal and unchanging, and being akin to this, it always stays with it whenever it is by itself and can do so; it ceases to stray and remains in the same state as it is in touch with things of the same kind, and its experience then is what is called wisdom?

Altogether well said and very true, Socrates. (Phd. 79d; see also 83a–b)

The soul of the philosopher . . . follows reason and ever stays with it contemplating the true, the divine. (84a)

Is not the allegedly immortal soul the harmony of the body? Does it not cease with death as the harmony of the lyre ceases forever upon destruction of the instrument? (85e–86d). Socrates answers No to the first question, dissolving the second (92–94). Harmony of the lyre does not exist before the lyre. The soul does exist before its present body, for all earthly learning entails recollection. Rand rightly took all cognition to entail differentiation and integration. There is a coarse precursor of that view in Plato, who has knowledge of a present thing be accompanied by recollection of things not present, things having affinity or difference with the present known thing. To judge the equality of the lengths of present things, for example, requires a profound recollection: the Equal. Only an immortal soul could be familiar with and recollect such eternal, invisible realities as the Equal (73–76).

The agreements among earthly things according to Forms are harmonious unities, not simply lack of contradiction between such things (Mueller 1992, 181–83; Bailey 2005, 104–15). Integration is essential in Plato’s conception of knowledge advanced in Phaedo (96–105).[1] I conclude on balance that intellectual intuition is not born in Phaedo. Let us turn to Republic.

In §B I quoted Plato: “Not only do the objects of knowledge owe their being known to the good, but their being is also due to it, although the good is not being, but superior to it in rank and power” (Rep. 509b). One might well think that if the good surpasses being, it is not something whose nature could be known in an articulate way. Perhaps it could be known by acquaintance, more, by mystical intuition. The latter, I shall argue, is not the view of Plato judged by his texts.

The Good becomes known by oral dialectic among suitable minds thinking for themselves (Phdr. 274b–276c). A thinker who has mastered the fields of pure number and calculation, plane and solid geometry, mathematical astronomy, and harmonics (Rep. 522–31; cf. L. 817e–822b) can come to dialectic and course the intelligible with pure understanding unclouded by sensory perceptions and material utility. By such dialectic, even the Good can become known as it is in itself (Rep. 517b, 518c, 532; see further, Miller 2007). In Republic Plato drops his appeal to recollection from before earthly life in his explanation of how earthly knowledge of Forms and the Good is accomplished (Tait 2002, 179).

There are passages in Republic that could lead one to read Plato as taking dialectic to culminate in perfectly simple intellectual seeing of the Good, even an intellectual intuition of it. Men are incapable of discerning the fine or just or good for institution in earthly human existence if they lack knowledge of what each thing is, knowledge by a “clear model in their souls, [whereby they may] . . .—in the manner of painters—look to what is most true, make constant reference to it, and study it as exactly as possible” (484c–d). Education is not “the craft of putting sight into the soul. Education takes for granted that sight is there but that it isn’t turned the right way or looking where it ought to look, and it tries to redirect it appropriately” (518d). Potential guardian-rulers of the ideal city Callipolis, having received decades of right training in practical matters and in the sciences, can be “led to the goal and compelled to lift up the radiant light of their souls to what provides light for everything. And once they’ve seen the good itself, they must . . . put the city, its citizens, and themselves in order, using it as their model” (540a–b).

Talk of models; inward looking, seeing, and sight; and light of intelligibility does not intellectual intuition make. Grasp of the Good, joined with one’s attraction and inner likeness to the Good, does not in Republic amount to apprehension unconnected with other knowledge of or discursive thinking about existence. Grasp of the Good, as presented in Republic, is itself propositional, contiguously with other intellection (534b–c; Sorabji 1983, 142–44).

Were grasp of the invisible Good entirely nonpropositional, how could grasp of the Good be an informative model by which to organize the city? (Cf. Remes 2007, 127.) A painter does not follow forms of a model without mapping—for which acquaintance is an element—and sustained deliberate mapping requires some thought in words (Boydstun 1996, 230–32). Intellectual mappings from invisible Forms requires thought in words all the more. In Cratylus Plato has the originally given, true name of a Form say not only the truth of the Form itself, but tell how true a likeness the Form is captured in discourse (439a–b). This is conceptual, worded understanding.

Returning to Republic, the visible comes in two varieties: images, such as the reflection of a tree in water, and objects directly seen, such as the tree and pond. The intelligible comes in two varieties: opinion and knowledge. As to their trueness and clarity, the opined is to the known as the image is to the imaged object seen directly (Rep. 508d; 509d–510a).

The opined is of the visible, whose source is the sun. The opined is cast in a perspective. It is of becoming. The known is of the intelligible, whose source is the Good. The known is independent of perspective. It is of being. The opined and the known each consist of two subdivisions. The opined is divided into imaging and belief. The known is divided into thought (dianoia) and understanding (noesis) (510b–511, 532–34).

Later in the dialogue, Plato expresses doubts about including the realm of thought—pure arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and harmonics (522–31)—as a realm for attaining knowledge. Such thought, fine as it is, is a dreamlike knowledge, in contrast to the waking knowledge that is understanding (533b–c). We might more safely say that such thinking belongs together with understanding under intellect, rather than under knowledge (533e–34a). (This is a bit confusing because noesis itself is so often denominated intellect in English writings on Plato and his ancient descendants.) Notice that such a change does not remove the close kinship of thought and understanding. Such a shift does not sever the two and make understanding (noesis) into intuition in the objectionable sense.

Only understanding is knowing, strictly speaking. The way to understanding is by the thinking in the exact, mathematical sciences and by instruction in their widest context. Study of pure arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and harmonics turns the soul away from the senses and from the world always becoming. They can be used to orient one to being and to the Form of the Good (522e–523a, 526d–e, 528e–530b, 531c–532b).

In geometry we use visible figures to support our thinking of invisible ones. By visible aids and postulates we reason to truths not attainable by remaining with images and their manipulation (510d–511a). What is the method by which we know that the diagonal of a square is incommensurable with its side? (a, b, also Mueller 1997). Is this truth evident in sensory perception? Certainly not. Even imagining a perfect square and its perfect diagonals is not enough to make manifest the incommensurability of diagonal and side.

Plato’s vision of how the soul could gain highest facility with the Just and so forth and how the postulates of geometry and other exact sciences could be backed by indubitable first principles is imitative of geometry (prior to Euclid), though it also differs from it substantially. Dialectic for perfectly solid understanding is to be like the reasoning to the incommensurability of the square’s diagonal and side, like such geometric reasoning moving “from forms to forms, and ending in forms” (513c; further, Denyer 2007, 302–8; Tait 2002, 183–85, 195n10). This dialectic should start with the postulates of the exact sciences, take them as questionable hypotheses, and ascend by analysis to the indubitable principles behind them, warranted by the Form of the Good. Then, from these principles, demonstrate conclusions without appeal to sensibles, thereby fully certifying those conclusions (Rep. 510–11, 531d–532b, 533b–d; Tait 2002, 188–92, 196n12).

Plato’s program of dialectic in this sense is not a program he ever succeeds in executing. It would be another 2300 years before there were breakthroughs in mathematical logic capable of illuminating the assumptions on which (broad swaths of) mathematics can be based (Epstein 2006; Tait 2001, 97–98; Tieszen 2011, 17). We moderns would say also that Plato’s program of dialectic could not possibly succeed because there is no such thing as intrinsic goodness, no principles concerning merit from which postulates of mathematics derive, only functions we rationally require of propositions to qualify as such postulates. Rand would say further, to her immortal credit, that it is only the concept of life that makes the concept of value possible. The loveliness of mathematics, science, and the world is from our place in the last, from the role of the mind in human life, and from the nature of the mind as an organic organization.

In works thought to have been composed after Republic, Plato incorporates an idea dear to Pythagoreans into his method of dialectic. In Philibus he observes that constant unities such as Man or the Beautiful or the Good are found as themselves, each a single self-same thing, yet these unities are “afterwards found again among the things that come to be and are unlimited,” they are found not simply ones, but multiples, not limited, but unlimited (Phlb. 15b). “Whatever is said to be consists of one and many, having in its nature limit and unlimitedness” (16d). That and Plato’s subsequent appeals to numerical ratios and harmonies in right dialectic put to new purpose doctrines of Pythagorean cosmology as set out in a work by Philolaus in the last half of the fifth century B.C. (Kahn 2001, 13–14, 23–30, 55–58). “Every investigation should search for the one and many” (Phlb. 17d; further, 24–27c; cf. Phdr. 265d–266d; the technique is applied in Philibus, Sophist, and Statesman). Plato does not concur with Philolaus’ view (which we have seen in Neoplatonists) that all we can know of the truly first principles of things is that without them there could not be the things we know (see Kahn 2001, 25).

Plato’s method of dialectic in his later works retains connectivity of dialectic with scientific thought and connectivity of their products. Dialectic shows “which kinds harmonize with which and which kinds exclude each other,” and it show which further kinds make possible the blending and division among such kinds (Sph. 253b–c). “It’s inept to try to separate everything from everything else. . . . / . . . The weaving together of forms is what makes speech possible for us” (Sph. 259d–e; cf. Remes 2007, 141–43; Miller 1986, 181–83).

Republic develops the general Pythagorean view that mathematics is the key to knowledge (see Kahn 2001, 53–55; Barker 2007, 25–27, 34–36, 310–18; Creese 2010, 146–51, 157–62). Timaeus runs wild with that Pythagorean inspiration. Cosmic soul and body are given their order by a craft-god using a Pythagorean blend of number theory, geometry, musical harmony, and astronomy (Ti. 30–39, 47–58a; Kahn 2001, 55–58; Barker 2007, 318–26; Creese 2020, 159–60).[2] Small wonder then that mathematics is our key to knowledge of cosmic order. In Timaeus it remains that what “always is and has no becoming . . . . is grasped by understanding, which involves a reasoned account” (27d–28a; further, 37a–c).

The cause and purpose of this supreme good [eyesight] is this: the god invented sight and gave it to us so that we might observe the orbits of intelligence in the universe [orbits of celestial bodies] and apply them to the revolutions of our own understanding. For there is a kinship between them, even though our revolutions are disturbed, whereas the universal orbits are undisturbed. So once we have come to know them and to share in the ability to make correct calculations according to nature, we should stabilize the straying revolutions within ourselves by imitating the completely unstraying revolutions of the god.

Likewise, the same account goes for sound and hearing—these too are the gods’ gifts, given for the same purpose and intended to achieve the same result. Speech was designed for this very purpose—it plays the greatest part in its achievement. (Ti. 47b–d; cf. L. 821–22a)

(To be continued.)


1. Plato’s conception of difference, affinity, contrariety, and agreement in earthly things under their Forms should be compared with Rand 1957:

To exist is to be something, . . . it is to be an entity of a specific nature made of specific attributes. . . . / Whatever you choose to consider, be it an object, an attribute or an action, the law of identity remains the same. A leaf cannot be a stone at the same time, it cannot be all red and all green at the same time, it cannot freeze and burn at the same time. . . . / All thinking is a process of identification and integration. . . . An atom is itself, and so is the universe; neither can contradict its own identity; nor can a part contradict the whole. No concept man forms is valid unless he integrates it without contradiction into the total sum of his knowledge. (1016)

2. Jason Rheins (2010) argues that this craft-god, known mythically as Demiurge, is not a soul and not an intelligence. It is an intelligible. Specifically, it is the transcendent Form of the Good.


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Stephen, have you ever read the novels of Mary Renault, in which Socrates and Plato are characters, their lives and philosophy are brought beautifully and vividly to the lay reader (at least this one.) If so I would be interested in your comments on them. --->

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