Charles S. Peirce

On Reality

MS 198 (Robin 374, 396): Writings 3, 98-99
Fall 1872

        The difficulties and doubts of logicians begin with questions about reality. These questions cannot be evaded without ceasing to reflect. To pronounce them unanswerable is an unwarranted metaphysical hypothesis; but no answer is yet agreed upon, and what men cannot come to agreement upon no one of them can be said to know.

        The first of these questions is, what is meant by reality; and to answer this it is necessary to investigate what meaning in general is.

        A word has a meaning only so far as it is translated into a thought; that is, it must in some way enter into a mind before it actually has a meaning. A thought is something that we feel we have; at least, this is usually the case and the exceptions can conveniently be considered separately. I neither exclude these exceptions or admit them; but if they are possible and actually occur, then this process of thinking which takes place unconsciously, at least, leads to some results which are consciously thought or all will admit they are nothing. They may then be regarded like the operations of a calculating engine which are processes of thought only in a derivative sense; that is to say they are thought only in the sense of being accepted as agreeing with thought. Strictly then every actual thought is felt. Now let any feeling have a meaning in the mind of the feeler, and that fact will constitute a thought; so that a thought may be defined, in the first place, as a feeling with a meaning.

        To answer the question what meaning, in general, is, it will be sufficient to ascertain how a feeling can have meaning. In order to determine this, it is first necessary to observe that every feeling is in itself quite incomplex. True, a feeling may be highly complicated; but its recognition as such is an act of reflection, a thought about the feeling. The feeling so far as it was immediately present to itself and independent of its analysis, was not complex. So the question is, how can an incomplex feeling have meaning? The question can be brought to this point in another way also. Every feeling is complex or incomplex. The only way of having meaning which is peculiar to complex feelings, is by a complication of the meaning of its parts. The first question, therefore, is as before how an incomplex feeling can have a meaning.

        For an incomplex feeling to have a meaning, it must in the first place be considered to have a meaning. This involves a great deal. It can have no meaning which it is not considered to have. It must be considered to refer to some definite object; this object must itself be some immediate object of consciousness, some other feeling upon the occasion of which the feeling in question arises. It will not be necessary, however, that this occasion should be any actual feeling; it will be sufficient if it is something virtually present in the consciousness just before. Nor will it be necessary that it should be clearly apprehended; it will be sufficient if it is in any degree in the consciousness. Thus, a certain complication of feelings may give rise to a feeling which is a sign of that particular complication. Now this complication was not actually felt except by this very feeling, nor perhaps even then very clearly, yet it is sufficient that there is held to be some element in the preexisting state of feeling which the feeling indicates to make this feeling mean that. The feeling must not only refer to some apprehended objects, but there must be some apprehended regularity in its application to objects. The feelings which are its objects must be seen (however dimly) to have something in common.

        Finally let us lay the accent upon held. For a feeling to mean anything it must be held to mean something. That is there must be another feeling which means that it means something, and indeed there must be an infinite series of these feelings. In other words the present means nothing except so far as it appeals to the future. What we call the present is necessarily past. Time will not stop for us to think, or rather to state the matter more philosophically, a feeling is not a feeling until there is an infinite series of feelings between that feeling and the present. In other words, thought cannot be comprehended in terms of the feelings which are its ultimate elements—it is a continuum of feelings, & is related to a feeling as a line to a point.