Bereft of Reason:

On the Decline of Social Thought and Prospects for its Renewal

by Eugene Halton

Published by The University of Chicago Press, 1995, paper, 1997.


from chapter 5: The Transilluminated Vision of Charles Peirce
    ......Given the "progress" of twentieth-century philosophy into a cul-de-sac of its own making, it is no wonder that Peirce's general philosophy has only recently begun to attract increasing attention. Peirce's writing is difficult, though in my opinion always clear, but this only partly explains his marginal status until recently. The deeper reason why Peirce has remained obscured in the thought of the twentieth-century, I claim, is that he represented a new and non-modern mind struggling to form, one in which Rational mind, the motive source and aim of the modern era, is transilluminated by Instinctive mind: a new configuration of reason occulted by and contrary to the twentieth-century and its excessive rationalism.
    From the standpoint of the contemporary mind of the late modern era, Peirce's concepts and forms of expression often seem contradictory or baffling. He chooses his words with a mathematician's precision and an etymologist's passion, retaining meanings to words such as "reality," "observation," and "pragmatism" that clash with current use. His semeiotic is frequently cited as a forerunner of language philosophy, and when he says, "Thus my language is the sum total of myself; for the man is the thought," one can see why Peirce might be identified with Wittgenstein's "language game" perspective. Yet Peirce also insisted that language does not exhaust intelligent signification, and that interpretation, including scientific interpretation, involves modes of signification transcending language conventions and rationality.
    In a revealing critique of Hume's empiricism and concept of "balancing likelihoods," Peirce showed why both conjecture and experience are necessary yet not alone independently sufficient for science: Against Hume's arguments for experience as the sole source of knowledge and induction as the only way to pass from the "known to the unknown," Peirce said, "Not only is our knowledge not exclusively derived from experience, but every item of science came originally from conjecture, which has only been pruned down by experience....The entire matter of our works of solid science consists of conjectures checked by experience.  The entire matter of those works which have been written upon the method of judging of testimony by balancing likelihoods consists of conjecture running rough-shod over the pertinent facts."  Or as William Blake put it at the beginning of the nineteenth century in one of his Proverbs of Hell: "What is now proved was once only imagined." As simple as Blake's proverb is, it nevertheless expresses the reality of imagination as a vital source of intelligence that is neither rational or critical, nor empirical. What Blake termed the "Poetic Imagination," is as crucial to Blake's romantic world-view as it is to Peirce's logic of science. It is precisely this generative modality of intelligence which was increasingly devalued and denied by the rise of Western nominalistic science and culture, because no place could be found for it within the ghost in the machine. Consider too Peirce's appreciation for the conjecture-like power of memory: "Memory would be nothing but a dream if it were not that predictions are based on it that get verified.  When we think how slight and entangled must be the ultimate bits of feeling out of which memory constructs her mosaic, we are compelled to liken it to conjecture.  It is a wonderful power of contructing quasi-conjectures or dreams that will get borne out by future experience. The power of performing this feat, which is the power of the past, is a gentle compulsiveness". [7.667]
    Peirce also claimed that interpretation is guided by the summum bonum, Beauty, Goodness, and Truth, which are utterly unfashionable today, even in uncapitalized form. In his classification of the normative sciences logic is conceived not as rational calculation, but as self-controlled thought, which is a sub-species of self-controlled conduct, or ethics, which in turn is dependent upon the intrinsically admirable, or aesthetics. Though himself a master logician, Peirce's classification reverses the tendency in modern thought to make ethics and esthetics separate from or subsidiary to logic.  ....

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