Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Peirce on Present-Day God

Thinking a little bit more about the Kim Jong-Il Present-Day God issue, here's a little discussion of one of my favorite philosophers, Charles Peirce, on the nature of the present. Since we haven't had much philosophy recently.... If you don't like, scroll further down for more interesting stuff.

The present is the most abstruse mode of time in Peirce’s account because it is janus-faced. Emblazoned by fact and by expectation, it is “half past and half to come.” (EP, 322). Caught between, yet comprising, a continuity of past and future it is the mode of “conative externality.” (SW, 223). This is to say that the consciousness of the present is not itself describable in terms of an atomic present since it is a function of inference. The present involves the felt impulse of immediacy, but the idea of the present itself is a construct of inferential processes. There is no “intellectual value” or meaning in a present thought. (PW, 236). To grasp the contents of consciousness in a present instant is to grasp at the air or, rather, at the past because the grasping always comes too late. Peirce refers to the present--this moment or this result--as the “nascent state of the actual,” and time more generally then as “brute compulsion.” (SW, 223). The present is the existential mode of consciousness reflecting on a past and continually extending it into the other, future side of what is an inferentially constructed present. It is in this sense that Peirce can claim that “the consciousness of the present is then a struggle over what shall be.” (SW, 223). “What shall be” is what makes it through inference, what successfully completes the examination of relations in regard to accumulated knowledge and the habits by which this knowledge is organized.

Peirce, as pragmaticist, considers the importance of the present (or other modes of time; or propositions, for that matter) in terms of its relation to conduct. Yet, he combines external impulses into a collection of moments in the process of inference, so that conduct appears based on a construct in terms of present in our case. However, the present--a third--is only comprehensible in terms of a secondness, a recent past to the degree that inference involves immediate experience, resistance to habits and expectations, and mediative generalizing.

In his essay, “The Order of Nature,” Peirce writes, “that time is not directly perceived is evident, since no lapse of time is present, and we only perceive what is present. That, not having the idea of time, we should ever be able to perceive the flow in our sensations without some particular aptitude for it, will probably also be admitted.” (EP, 180). He writes this in the context of making the broader Kantian claim that particular formal conceptions are inherent in the human mind. But Peirce’s view of immediate perception seems to be that it is illusory and so a futile investigative quest: “I am forced to content myself not with the fleeting percepts, but with the crude and possibly erroneous thoughts, or self-informations, of what the percepts were.” (CP2.141). And just as it is an impossible task to return to the atoms of perceptual experience, it is also impossible to gain understanding of the present in any sense beyond inference other than that it comprises objective resistances and volitional efforts. The present is therefore a conceptual abstraction, and concepts dependent on the flow of time.

As Peirce further argues, “an abstraction, however, is no longer a modification of consciousness at all, for it has no longer the accident of belonging to a special time, to a special person, and to a special subject of thought.... Nobody can think pure abstraction on account of the necessity of doing it at a particular time, etc.” Since time in general is continuity but a continuity of some thing, and is therefore a continuous relating of past and future, and since concepts require time, the present in effect does not exist other than as a prescinded conceptual condition for the possibility of past meeting future. Or, to put this another way, Peirce argues for the immediacy of feeling--consciousness of firstness--and since time is a relation of concepts and the present instant an immediate feeling, the present may be said to be non-existent (or simply qualitative feeling) if to be is to be cognizable. Peirce writes, “feeling is nothing but a quality, and a quality is not conscious: it is a mere possibility.” (PW, 84: CP1.310). But “qualities merge into one another. They have no perfect identities...,” and they are thus understood only as prescinded. (PW, 77).

The present then is, in a sense, partially the near past of actuality and the near future of possibility, but by going to the core of the matter we see that it is, in fact, inference as well as inferred--the relation of the two. Again, in “The Law of Mind” Peirce contends, “let there be an indefinite succession of these inferential acts of comparative perception; and it is plain that the last moment will contain objectively the whole series. Let there be, not merely an indefinite succession, but a continuous flow of inference through a finite time; and the result will be a mediate objective consciousness of the whole time in the last moment, which of course will be absolutely unrecognizable to itself.” (EP, 315). We see Peirce at different points referring to the present as both thirdness and firstness, relation and immediacy. From the vantage of a phenomenology of consciousness and experience the present is felt quality, but since we can only infer the present--since it is always mediated--from a logical vantage it is unity or relation.

Thus, on a Peircean view... Kim Jong-Il is for himself qualitative immediacy and, for us, a prescinded conceptual condition for the possibility of past meeting future. Comments?


barba de chiva said...

Walker Percy, with the peanut brittlean, Kierkegaardian, moviegone conclusion:

"A repetition is the re-enactment of past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment that has lapsed in order that it, the lapsed time, can be savored of itself and without the usual adulteration of events that clog time like peanuts in brittle. Last week, for example, I experienced and accidental repetition. I picked up a German-language weekly in the library. In it I noticed an advertisement for Nivea Creme, showing a woman with a grainy face turned up to the sun. Then I remembered that twenty years ago I saw the same advertisement in a magazine on my father’s desk, the same woman, the same grainy face, the same Nivea Creme. The events of the intervening twenty years were neutralized, the thirty million deaths, the countless torturings, uprootings and wanderings to and fro. Nothing of consequence could have happened because Nivea Creme was exactly as it was before. There remained only time itself, like a yard of smooth peanut brittle."

I wonder if Kim Jong-Il likes peanut brittle? Sure, he probably makes the best PB in NK, (but it's just a small part of the rationale for the title "Eternal Munificent Inserter of the Candy Thermometer") but that may just be another in a long line of selfless acts.

helmut said...

Peanut crop was bad this year (and last, and the year before that,....). Taffy is the new "It".