Charles S. Peirce

Chap. 5th

MS 217 (Robin 379): Writings 3, 75-77
March 10, 1873

        We have seen that an inference is the process by which one belief (determines another. But a belief is itself a habit of the mind by virtue of which one idea gives rise to another. When I say that I know the French language, I do not mean that as long as I know it I have all the words which compose it in my mind, or a single one of them. But only that when I think of an object, the French word for it will occur to me, and that when a French word is brought to my attention I shall think of the object it signifies. What is true of knowledge is equally true of belief, since the truth or falsehood of the cognition does not alter its character in this respect. I believe that prussic acid is poison, and always have believed it. This does not mean that I have always had the idea of prussic acid in my mind, but only that on the proper occasion, on thinking of drinking it, for example, the idea of poison and all the other ideas that that idea would bring up, would arise in my mind. Thus there are three elements of cognition; thoughts, the habitual connection between thoughts, and processes establishing a habitual cm meet ion between thoughts. We have seen already that an idea can not be instantaneously present, that consciousness occupies time, and that we have no consciousness in an instant. So that at no time have we a thought. But now it further appears that in reference to a belief not only can we not have it in an instant, but it can not be present to the mind in any period of time. It does not consist in anything which is present to the mind, but in an habitual connection among the things which are successively present. That is to say, it consists in ideas succeeding one another according to a general rule; but not in the mere thinking of this general rule, nor in the mere succession of ideas one upon another, nor in both together. A thought must therefore be a sign of a belief; but is never the belief itself. The same thing is obviously true in regard to an inference; and even a simple idea is of intellectual value to us not for what it is in itself but as standing for some object to which it relates. Now a thing which stands for another thing is a representation or sign. So that it appears that every species of actual cognition is of the nature of a sign. It will be found highly advantageous to consider the subject from this point of view, because many general properties of signs can be discovered by a set of words and the like which are free from the intricacies which perplex us in the direct study of thought. Let us examine some of the characters of signs in general. A sign must in the first place have some qualities in itself which serve to distinguish it, a word must have a peculiar sound different from the sound of another word; but it makes no difference what the sound is, so long as it is something distinguishable. In the next place, a sign must have a real physical connection with the thing it signifies so as to be affected by that thing. A weather-cock, which is a sign of the direction of the wind, must really turn with the wind. This word in this connection is an indirect one; but unless there be some way or other which shall connect words with the things they signify, and shall ensure their correspondence with them, they have no value as signs of those things. Whatever has these two characters is fit to become a sign. It is at least a symptom, but it is not actually a sign unless it is used as such; that is unless it is interpreted to thought and addresses itself to some mind. As thought is itself a sign we may express this by saying that the sign must be interpreted as another sign. Let us see however, whether this is true of thought itself that it must address itself to some other thought. There are some cases in which it is not difficult to see that this must be the case. I have no belief that prussic acid is poisonous unless when the particular occasion comes up I am led to the further belief that that particular acid is poisonous; and unless I am further led to the belief that it is a thing to avoid drinking. For all these things are necessary to my acting on my belief. A belief which will not be acted on ceases to be a belief. It may be that I shall finally come to a belief which is a motive for action directly without the intervention of a more special belief. In this case how does the belief address itself to a sign? When a person is said to act upon a certain belief the meaning is that his actions have a certain consistency; that is to say, that they possess a certain intellectual unity. But this implies that they are interpreted in the light of thought. So that even if a belief is a direct motive to action it still is a belief only because that action is interpretable again. And thus the intellectual character of beliefs at least are dependent upon the capability of the endless translation of sign into sign. An inference translates itself directly into a belief. A thought which is not capable of affecting belief in any way, obviously has no signification or intellectual value at all. If it does affect belief it is then translated from one sign to another as the belief itself is interpreted. And therefore this character of signs that they must be capable of interpretation in every sense belongs to every kind of cognition. And consequently no cognition is such or has an intellectual significance for what it is in itself, but only for what it is in its effects upon other thoughts. And the existence of a cognition is not something actual, but consists in the fact that under certain circumstances some other cognition will arise.