Charles S. Peirce

Of Reality

MS 203 (Robin 373): Writings 3, 47-54
Fall 1872

        According to what has been said everyone who investigates assumes that investigation will lead to some conclusion, not known beforehand but predestinated in this sense that every investigator who pushes his research far enough will certainly rest in it. Thus, the conclusion which is finally reached is independent of the state of opinion at the outset. Investigation, therefore, involves the springing up of new elements of belief in the mind. There is no term which precisely designates this introduction of something into thought not produced by anything which was in the mind before. We shall do well to reserve the word sensation as the name for the element introduced into consciousness. The operation of introduction itself may be termed mental affection or less exactly though more expressively an observation. But affection is not the whole of investigation. It involves also the production of new beliefs out of old ones according to logical laws. This process is the logical process, but by an extension of the meaning of a familiar word I call it also inference. That inference is an essential part of investigation not merely with us but with any mind that can investigate at all is perhaps not quite clear. I suppose it however to be so; for otherwise the process of investigation would be reduced to a simple exertion of the will and there could be no wrong method and right method. Now the existence of this distinction is what separates investigation from the third method of settling opinion described in the last chapter.

        Investigation then necessarily consists of observation and inference. In other words, the conclusion of a rightly conducted investigation ultimately depends entirely on the observations. Now in few cases, if in any, is it necessary that the first products of observation should be the same for all successful investigators of any one question. Mental affections, indeed, cannot in any case be said to produce like sensations independent of inference, for likeness consists in the fact that a certain conception will result from a comparison, and therefore supposes inference. But it is conceivable, perhaps, that no man could reach a certain conclusion except through one determinate series of judgments.

        It may seem conceivable that any two investigators must traverse the same path, and that all their successive steps must be the same if their conclusions are to agree. This however is very far from being the fact. We may with equal certainty infer the rotation of the earth from the diurnal motions of the heavenly bodies or from the manner of swinging a pendulum. Nor do observers in different situations or at different times ever observe the same facts. Indeed, it is impossible that two investigators should agree until some steps of inference have been made; for agreement or likeness consists only in the fact that a comparison of two objects will result in a certain conception, so that independent of such a logical act the immediate results of two mental affections have no agreement but are entirely sui generis.

        The final conclusion of an investigation then depends entirely on observations and these observations are entirely private and peculiar for each investigator. Yet the conclusions themselves necessarily agree, if the process has been carried far enough. As fate in the fairy stories is the inevitableness of a certain result, which will surely be brought about however the antecedent conditions may be, so we may say that there is something like this in the fact that two series of sensations without any similarity experienced by two minds will ultimately lead them with perfect certainty to one conclusion.
        It is true that we may avoid this strange and paradoxical way of conceiving the fact, since we are clearly warranted by it in saying that there are certain external realities, whose characters do not depend on what we think about them and that these things cause our mental affections from which by the logical process we arrive at a knowledge of how the external things are. Thus, our sensations are as various as our relations to the external things but the cause of the agreement in our final conclusions is the identity in the real external object which through the affections of sense has been the origin of them.

        This statement of the matter is entirely justified upon logical principles & perhaps no modern philosopher has questioned it. Yet I entertain no doubt that it is only another form of stating the fact that a fate leads every investigator to a predestined conclusion & not a solution of that paradox by means of any new fact. Could I have the advantage of making use of the principles of logic which are hereafter to be demonstrated in this book, I do not think I should have much difficulty in convincing the reader that this is so. But without such aid I confess the question is a difficult one to clear up.

        The distinction between a reality and a fiction is plain enough. A fiction is something whose character depends on what some mind imagines it to be; a reality is s6mething which is independent of how you or I or any number of persons think about it. The distinction between the external and the internal is also plain. The internal is that whose real existence depends on what I (or you or somebody) think of something. The external is that which so far as it is real is independent not only of what I think about it but also of what I think about anything. But the distinction between what is not merely external to my mind or yours but is absolutely independent of thought and what exists in thought, generally speaking, is I think far from being so clear.

        Let us see then how we acquire the conception of the mind for when we gain this we must be in possession of the distinction in question.

        I believe it is a current opinion that we are aware of our own existence from the very moment of birth or earlier; though Kant seems to think we do not realize the fact until we are three or four years old.

        As nobody now supposes that there are actually any innate ideas and especially as the existence of any individual mind is a contingent fact, it must be granted that the knowledge of it comes by experience. But many philosophers hold that any thought at once informs us that we exist. To know and to know that I know are one and the same thing, says Hamilton. The "I think" must accompany all my thoughts, says Kant. If Hamilton means to say that no distinction can be drawn between knowing and knowing that one knows it is very easy to refute him. We have seen that the characters of belief are three. First, there is a certain feeling with regard to a proposition. Second, there is a disposition to be satisfied with the proposition. And third, there is a clear impulse to act in certain ways, in consequence. Now there is certainly a distinction between any fact and the fact of my belief in that fact. That fire will burn the fingers and that C. S. Peirce believes that fire will burn the fingers, are distinguishable things, and as distinguishable by me as by any one else. There is nothing self-contradictory, then, in supposing that one of these excites in me a different feeling from the other, and that I should have a satisfaction in the one that I have not in the other. Nor is it inconceivable that I should act in a very decided way when the question actually came up of putting my fingers in the fire, although I was by no means sure that I should be so decided; or I might think I should be decided for example to put my hand in the fire rather than commit some disgraceful act and yet when the moment of choice came, I might find myself undecided or decided the other way. It is perfectly conceivable, therefore, that all three characters of belief should be present in regard to a proposition and yet absent in regard to the proposition "I believe in that proposition"; or vice versa. But it is unnecessary that the reader should admit as much as this. It suffices to say that it is conceivable I should believe something and yet not have reflected that it is a belief and not have thought of myself in reference to it, at all. The tendency to act in a certain way implies no thought of self, because even inanimate objects have tendencies to act. Neither does the absence of the irritation of doubt. The only question is whether the having a sensation does not imply a knowledge of it as a sensation and therefore of myself as sensitive. Most philosophers say no to this, but James Mill and others think that there is no possible distinction between feeling and regarding that feeling as the affection of a sensitive Ego; in short they hold that the words feeling and self-consciousness are synonymous. Of course the moment you reflect upon a feeling and retain it in the imagination for examination (which is the method of study pursued by these psychologists) you do regard it as a feeling. But is that the case with the countless impressions of sense which do not attract any particular attention? Is it self-contradictory to say that it is not the case? It is well enough known that a man may have a dyspeptic sensation and yet not for hours refer it to his stomach, it merely having the effect of casting a gloom over his views of things. The moment he considers it separately, he perceives what it is. It seems strange to admit that he can do this and yet to deny that he can for one moment forget the relativity of the objects of his thought, and even to insist that there is no literal signification in the words forgetfulness of self. These very writers who say there is no conceivable distinction between feeling and regarding that feeling as something which belongs to one's self, take great credit to themselves for proclaiming and spreading the doctrine of relativity, which is simply that every object is relative to the mind as an affection of it. Now, if this cannot be overlooked for an instant their doctrine is a mere form of words, like A is A. I don't know that anybody ever attempted to offer any evidence that to feel and to know that one feels are synonymous phrases. In the absence of such evidence we ought to presume that as a distinction appears to be plainly discernible that there really is one just as there is between seeing and knowing that color exists only in the eyes.

        But Kant holds that though there is a distinction between cognition with self-consciousness and cognition without self-consciousness, yet the "I think" accompanies all our judgments; or rather (if I remember rightly) that it must be able to accompany every judgment. For, he says, if this were not so there would be no separation between the propositions I believe and those which I do not believe. And he goes on to explain how in his opinion the unity of the ego accounts for the consistency of facts and the continuity of time and space. He certainly seems to have shown that these things are closely connected together. But it is only necessary for this that there should be a recognized unity in the objects of thought and that there should be a unity of the ego, but not that I should always refer the one to the other. And this seems to be nearly Kant's own opinion. For he does not, if I understand him rightly, hold that the "I think" of which he speaks is a perception of one's own existence or that it is any knowledge of fact at all, but only that it is a form or point of view from which objects are conceived. To think consistently is one thing, to think about our selves is surely quite another.

        No doubt the common opinion among people who have not considered the master critically is that the mind has a direct experience of its own existence from the moment when it is first conscious of anything. But the only thing of which we can have a direct experience is a sensation. It may be said, however, that what constitutes the existence of the mind is the existence of its sensations, so that the experience of a sensation is the experience of the mind's existence. There is some reason in this, but if it be true, then the knowledge of a sensation as a sensation that is to say the knowledge of it as relative to the mind is not itself a sensation, for clearly if there were but one sensation, no matter what that were, it could not be relative to the mind if the mind is only the system of sensations, for that would be to say it were relative to itself. Thus, to have a sensation is one thing, but to know it as a sensation cannot on this view of the matter be a sensation. Indeed, if we are to say that consciousness or having feeling, or the capacity for feeling, in any way constitutes the existence of the mind—which has been a very common opinion among philosophers, and to which I myself subscribe—then to say that the existence of a feeling is relative to the mind can only mean that the whole system of feelings of one mind are connected together and that for a feeling to enter into that system it is necessary that it should produce an effect upon subsequent states of consciousness and that unless it does so it is for that mind no feeling but a perfect non-entity. Now the action of one state of mind upon another which follows it is not direct sensation but is what in another aspect is called inference. So that on this view of the nature of the mind the recognition of a sensation as such is a matter of inferences. This ought to be the view of any person who holds that all existence is relative; that sensations exist relatively to the mind, and the mind relatively to sensations. Yet the point has been overlooked by several metaphysicians of the sensational school.

        If, on the other hand, the mind has an absolute existence and is something more than sensation or the capacity for sensations, then so much the more is the knowledge of it a matter of inference and not given in any direct experience which is allowed on all hands to be mere sensation.

        The data for drawing this inference may be present from a very early period of life but we are not so much concerned with the question when it is drawn as with how it is drawn.

        Does the general consciousness or feeling of life, that feeling which is strong in waking and vigorous moments and is weak in old age, sickness, and slumber—does this afford a sufficient ground for inferring one's own existence? To answer this question rightly it is necessary never to lose sight of the fact that a sensation as first presented does not appear as relative but as an absolute thing. The word objective etymologically and in its original use implies the aspect of a sensation as relative. But as the words are now generally used the subjective aspect of a sensation is its aspect as relative to the mind, and its objective aspect is its aspect as an absolute self-existence. A sensation then as first given does not appear in its subjective aspect but as an object. The ambiguity of words has produced great confusion upon this point. It has been said that because the knowledge of relatives is one, therefore, in thinking of color for example as an object, that is as a self-existence, external to our bodies, without referring it to sense, we must also be thinking of the subject-ego! But in fact color is only thought of as an object in the relative sense when we come to reflect that it is merely an affection of vision. We have proved then a sensation is not in its first presentation, any more than most of them are commonly afterwards, regarded as a sensation. The feeling of life has a certain analogy to light, and like that would at first be objectified—that is, thought of as an absolute existence and not as in us. There is no difficulty in referring the liveliness of waking times to nature, and there is a particular circumstance to aid this conception; namely that we are sleepy when our surroundings are quiet and dark and more lively the more there is going on about us. There is no sensation whatever which cannot be and which is not at first so objectified. We very early learn that hunger is to be referred entirely to ourselves, but there is no reason to doubt that a baby thinks only of milk as good. Every body knows how when other desires first manifest themselves, at the first experience of them the only conception is that of the beauty and perfection of the object, and that it takes a boy or girl a good while to discover that it is only they themselves who are in love. As all sensations are thus first presented to us as independent existences or as dependent only upon one another, without being referred to ourselves, as the idea of an ego must arise first when something is thought of as relative to that ego, for we have seen that its existence is only inferred, so that it is known only by, what is relative to it, our knowledge of our selves must appear as a correction of our original objective view of things. This is a most important point, and I beg the reader's attention to it. The mind is known as we have seen only through sensations, and therefore only in its relations to those sensations. There can, therefore, be no other knowledge of the mind than that which comes by our finding that sensations are relative to something, because that is the only relation which the sensations have to the mind. But as sensations first appear and are interpreted without taking into account this relativity, our knowledge of the mind comes when we find it necessary to apply a correction to our interpretation on that account. Here the term sensation must be held to include everything which is directly known to us by our feelings such as a judgment or imagination, all of which have an existence relative to the mind.