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Peirce´s pragmatic meanings of mind and synechism

Lucia Santaella
Full professor-Graduate program in Communication and Semiotics São Paulo Catholic University; member of the Advisory Board of the Peirce Edition Project



As early as 1967, at a time when a good number of commentators were almost convinced that Peirce´s thought was "merely a patchwork of incomprehensible tendencies", Vincent Potter (1967 [1997): xix) consistently argued that Peirce´s work "does show considerable unity and a good number of the alleged inconsistencies are only apparent. Large blocks of his work are remarkably interwoven and interdependent" (ibid.: x). Following this idea, Potter (ibid.: 3) then stated that Peirce´s revision of pragmatism around 1903, brought with it the conviction that pragmatism was inextricably linked with logic, ethics, and esthetics to the extent that the normative sciences get us "upon the trail of the secret of pragmatism" (CP 5.129). "Peirce´s realization of the place of these sciences", Potter concluded, "put in his hands the capstone which unified all that he had been trying to do more or less successfully for some forty years". As the normative sciences were founded on the three universal categories, and as pragmatism, in its turn, depended on synechism, as much as the latter was based on Peirce´s radical realism, for Potter (ibid.: 6), the categories, the normative sciences, pragmatism, synechism and realism are of a piece (Santaella 2001: 177).

I do agree that the above sequence is the most coherent one if we want to take Peirce on his own terms, that is, if we intend to understand his position from the "inside". However, for reasons of lack of time, in this presentation I will restrict myself to the discussion of synechism, focusing especially on its relation with pragmatism.


1. The various aspects of synechism

Peirce´s notion of synechism appears in his “The Law of Mind”, a paper included in the 1890-93 Monist series (CP 6.102-6.163). Synechism, a Greek word that means continuity is the complementary opposite of Tychism, also a Greek word that means chance. Esposito (1973: 63) says that in later life, Peirce came to believe that he had outlined a philosophical system that could serve as a matrix for his entire thought. The name he gave to that metaphysical system was synechism (CP 6.202). In a letter to William James, on November 25, 1902, when Peirce spoke of his “completely developed system, which all hangs together and cannot receive any proper presentation in fragments, he went on to descrive synechism as the keystone of the arch” (CP 8.255-257, Potter and Shields 1977: 20).

Metaphysics is the first science in Peirce´s architetonic classification of the sciences which inquires into the nature of the objective world rather than into the structure of thought as his semiotics does. This means that there is a difference between thought and the world (Parker 1994: 52). Peirce´s synechism, as we shall see, rejects this difference as being one of kind, but considers it instead as a difference only of degree.

Besides the development of his synechistic ideas, Peirce also gave ample thought to tychism or absolute chance. This latter was proposed because Peirce considered mechanistic and deterministic explanation insufficient in the light of his doctrine of categories. Despite its importance, tychism could not be taken as central to his metaphysics, since this centrality was due to synechism. That is why Peirce objected at having his metaphysical system as a whole called tychism. He explained that


"Although tychism does enter into it, it only enters as subsidiary to that which is really, as I regard it, the characteristic of my doctrine, namely, that I chiefly insist upon continuity, or Thirdness, and, in order to secure to thirdness its really commanding function, I find it indispensable fully [to] recognize that it is a third, and that Firstness, or chance, and Secondness, or Brute reaction, are other elements, without the independence of which Thirdness would not have anything upon which to operate. Accordingly I like to call my theory Synechism, because it rests on the study of continuity. I would not object to Tritism. And if anybody can prove that it is trite, that would delight me [in] the chiefest degree" (CP 6.202).


Synechism is defined as “that tendency of philosophical thought which insists upon the idea of continuity as of prime importance in philosophy”. The continuum, on its turn, is defined as “something whose possibilities of determination no multitude of individuals can exhaust” (CP 6.169-170). A rudimentary form of continuity is generality, since continuity is nothing but perfect generality of a law of relationship (CP 6.172).


Synechism envolves several aspects, namely the ontological, metaphysical and the methodological. Although the aim of this paper is to emphasize the latter, it would not be possible to understand the relation of synechism to pragmatism without a brief clarification of the ontological and metaphysical aspects of synechism.


2. The relevance of anthropomorfic concepts in philosophy

In “The Doctrine of Necessity Examined” (CP 6.35- 6.65, 1892) Peirce rejected the universality of the uniformity of nature and its consequent mechanism. According to Cosculluela (1992: 743), against the suggestion that the observation of nature proves that determinism is true, Peirce claimed that observation merely shows that there is an element of uniformity in nature; it does not show that such regularity is “exact and universal” (CP 6.46, 1.55). “No observation or set of observations which human beings are physically capable of making can prove that every fact is precisely determined by law” (Cosculluela ibid.: 743). In sum: facts do not conform precisely and uniformly to law.

Peirce did not deny that there are laws in nature. On the contrary, he asserted that laws of nature are real generals which means that there is an element of regularity in nature. The regularity of the laws, however, are constantly being violated to some degree (CP 6.59, 6.588). Peirce´s tychism resulted from the imperfect regularity of nature provoked by the “infinitesimal departures from law” with which nature is literally infected. The more precise our observations become, the more likely it is that we shall encounter facts which seem to depart from laws (CP 6.46). This is a proof that chance is an objective feature of nature.

Hookway (1997: 18-21) remarked that, since 1884, in his “Design and Chance” (W4: 544-554), Peirce had been aware of the sporadic violation of the laws of nature in some infinitesimal degree. Noticing that chance is governed by the laws of the probability calculus, he argued that chance “has the property of being able to produce uniformities far more strict than those from which it works (W4: 551). From the indication that certain laws of nature are “statistical facts”, Peirce concluded that all known laws are statistical facts, although some laws are so well established that the deviations they do undergo are so rare and minute as to be unnoticed. Peirce’s further step, which was taken in a supplement to “Design and Chance” (W4: 553), was to propose that the laws of physics may be “habits gradually acquired by systems”. This anthropomorphic suggestion of habits of nature as an analogue of the processes whereby human beings acquire habits of conduct was not new, since it had already been endorsed in Peirce’s manuscript “Methods of Reasoning” of 1881 (see Hookway ibid.: 20).

From 1884 on, habits of nature became the central concept in Peirce´s synechism at the same time that he became a defender of the relevance of anthropomorfic concepts in philosophy.


“In fact, habits, from the mode of their formation necessarily consist in the permanence of some relation, and, therefore [...] each law of nature would consist in some permanence, such as the permanence of mass, momentum, and energy. In this respect, the theory suits the facts admirably” (W6: 210).


Hence, Peirce´s insistence on the importance of absolute chance was appropriately counterbalanced by the role that habits perform in nature. In 1886, in a manuscript entitled “One, Two, Three: Kantian Categories” (W5: 293), nature’s tendency to take habits was clearly postulated. We must [...] suppose”, Peirce said


“an element of absolute chance, sporting, spontaneity, originality, freedom in nature. We must further suppose that this element in the ages of the past was indefinitely more prominent than now, and that the present almost exact conformity to law is something that has been gradually brought about [...]. If the universe is thus progressing from a state of all but pure chance to a state of all but complete determination by law, we must suppose that there is an original elemental tendency of things to acquire determinate properties, to take habits. This is the third or mediating element between chance which brings forth First and original events, and law which produces sequences of Seconds. [T]his tendency must itself have been gradually evolved; and it would evidently tend to strengthen itself”.

In 1887, three years later, in his “A Guess at the Riddle” (W6: 166-210), “habit taking” did not “introduce something which is categorially distinct from law. This tendency is itself a law which explains the evolution of laws, including itself” (Hookway ibid.: 20). At this point, Peirce could find his explanation for the evolutionary character of all laws, a character that comes from their being subject to growth and change.


“The tendency to obey laws has always been and will always be growing. [...] Moreover, all things have a tendency to take habits. [...] This tendency itself constitutes a regularity and is continually on the increase. In looking back into the past we are looking towards periods when it was a less and less decided tendency. But its own essential nature is to grow. It is a generalizing tendency; it causes actions in the future to follow some generalization of past actions; and this tendency is something capable of similar generalization; and thus it is self-generative. We have therefore only to suppose the smallest spur of it in the past, and that germ would have been bound to develop into a mighty and over-ruling principle, until it supersedes itself by strengthening habits into absolute laws regulating the action of all things in every respect in the indefinite future.

According to this, three elements are active in the world, first, chance; second, law; and third, habit-taking.

Such is our guess at the secret of the sphynx” (W6: 208).


This guess suggests that habit-taking or continuity, thirdness, is the bridge, that is, mediation between possibility or chance, firstness, and actuality or operative law, secondness. Peirce’s categories should be understood here as categories of relation and modality rather than of substance and quality. They are neither limited within the mode of being of possibility alone nor within the mode of an individual thing or actual fact alone. According to synechism, there is nothing about actuality that just is. On the one hand, actuality always retains an element of arbitrary chance, an element of sporting which disposes it to be something other than what it is. On the other hand, the law of habit prescribes that actual events can not escape the governance of laws. However, the regularity of the laws are constantly being violated to some infinitesimal degree by the element of arbitrary chance. Hence, “in a dialectic of becoming, actual fact or existence, secondness, is only partially real; its destiny lies within the wider context of Thirdness” (Esposito 1973: 67). A thoroughgoing synechistic evolutionism implies that nothing escapes the guiding hand of habit-taking or thirdness.

In the light of synechism, thirdness means continuity, that is, relational thirdness which implies the interrelation of the three categories and their coexistence inside thirdness. Thus, continuity should not be understood as generalization fully spread out or taken to the limit of generalization. Continuity is rather a dispositional state that infinitely tends toward such spreading out. This is possible because continuity possesses within it the principle of discontinuity, since the originality of chance may violate the conformity of an envent to the strict guidance of the law. That is why laws are approximations which retain a dispositional propensity for habit taking or continuity.


3. Peirce´s radical anti-dualistic metaphysics

For Peirce, a system of philosophy must be able to account for the following distinctive traits of the observable universe: growth and developing complexity; variety; regularity (i.e.) laws of nature; consciousness (or feeling) (CP 6.613, Reynolds 1996: 404). His synechistic idea of habits of nature as a complementary opposite to chance, as we have seen, enabled him to account for the first three of these demands: growth, variety, and laws of nature. Although a better clarification of these issues implies the discussion of Peirce´s concept of final and efficient causation, I will not face this discussion now so that we can go straight to the forth issue, the existence of consciousness or feeling in the universe. Peirce vehemently rejected any dualistic separation of consciousness and matter since this would betray his synechism which prescribed a thoroughgoing evolutionism and, consequently, a radical anti-dualism. To suppose that dead matter was capable of feeling was a rather improbable hypothesis. How could Peirce find a route out of this dilema?

Given a choice between Cartesian dualism and some variety of monism, for Peirce, philosophy must adopt the latter. There are three possible directions in which monism can be developed.: (a) neutralism, which takes physical and psychical laws as independent of each other and steming from some third Urstoff; (b) materialism, which takes the psychical laws to be derived from the physical and (c)idealism, which take the physical as derived from the psychical. Occam’s razor guided Peirce against neutralism and the first principle of scientific thought, that is, do not resort to the ultimate and inexplicable as an explanation (CP 6.24), guided him against materialism. Objective idealism is the only rational alternative: matter is effete mind (Potter 1997: 133).

If matter is effete mind, and physical laws are derived from psychical, there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and that is mind, the great law of the universe is that of mind. What is the law of mind?


“Logical analysis aplied to mental phenomena shows that there is but one law of mind, namely, that ideas tend to spread continuously and to affect certain others which stand to them in a peculiar relation of affectibility. In this spreading they lose intensity, and specially the power of affecting others, but gain generality and become welded with other ideas” (CP 6.104).


This is the tendency to generalize and to form associations which is also the tendency to form habits, itself a habit (CP 6.612).


“But no mental action seems to be necessary or invariable in its character. In whatever manner the mind has reacted under a given sensation, in that manner it is more likely to react again: were this, however, an absolute necessity, habits would become wooden and ineradicable and, no room being left for the formation of new habits, intellectual life would come to a speedy close. Thus the uncertainty of the mental law is no mere defect of it, but on the contrary its essence” (CP 6.148).


At this point the law of mind appears as the prototypical dispositional state of continuity or thirdness, a kind of law that is proper of final causation. Leaving the discussion of final causation to the third step of my argument, let me now clarify the relation between mind and matter.

What Peirce found out in nature and in thought is a general tendency of possibilities or chance events to turn into sequences of events that coalesce by taking habits. This is relational generality from which dynamism and growth generate. The protopype of this tendency is in the human mind, in the way ideas are associated in our minds which is analogous to the probabilistic laws of nature (Menno 2000, Ency: 7).

With chance, Peirce introduced rudimentary consciousness in nature. What inside is feeling, outside is chance. With the extension of the notion of habit-taking down to the world of chemistry and physics, down to the world of physical laws he accomplished to develop his thoroughgoing evolutionism.

Hence, his monism on mind or objective idealism is not just an inversion of the physicalist conception of mind according to which mental states are simply physical states. What Peirce asserted is that all of reality, in an infinite series of differentiations, is governed by the law of mind. He did not mean that matter has the substance of mind, neither “substance” in the old sense of a thing nor in the modern chemical sense. In sum:


“The truth is, the mind is not subject to “law” in the same rigid sense that matter is. It only experiences gentle forces which merely render it more likely to act in a given way than otherwise would. There always remains a certain amount of arbitrary spontaneity in its action, without which it would be dead” (CP 6.148).


In contrast, what we call matter is merely mind so hindebound with habit (so regular) that it ceases to exhibit the same behavior of spontaneity and feeling which is so abundant in mind (CP 6.25, Reynolds 1996.: 405-406). While mind is anarchic, matter is law abiding. However, human mind and physical matter are only the two extremes of a very subtle and complex range of differentiations in the continuous time-arrow that constitutes nature. Peirce took the time´s arrow principles of mind as paradigmatic of any evolutionary process be it in mind or in nature. What he sought was a definition of an irreversible process which was sufficiently abstract to take in both the mental and the physical. Thus, mind has to be understood in a very broad sense. In the metaphysical context of synechism it is synonimous to continuity, in the logical context of semiotics, it is synonimous to semiosis. Mind is continuity and semiosis.


4. Pragmatism as a step to synechism

Peirce frequently remarked that his pragmatism was intimately related to synechism, that is, his version of pragmatism leads to synechism in the sense that synechism includes pragmatism as a step. At the same time, pragmatism dependes on synechism. That is why Peirce emphasized the methodological aspect of synechism when he stated that synechism is not “an ultimate and absolute metaphysical doctrine but like the pragmatic maxim itself “is a regulative principle of logic” (CP 6.173). While this maxim deals with the meaning of concepts, the synechistic principle prescribes


”what sort of hypothesis is fit to be entertained and examined The synechist, for example, would never be satisfied with the hypothesis that matter is composed of atoms, all spherical and exactly alike. If this is the only hypothesis that the mathematicians are as yet in condition to handle, it may be supposed that it may have features of resemblance with the truth. But neither the eternity of the atoms nor their precise resemblance is, in the synechist’s view, an element of the hypothesis that is even admissible hypothetically. For that would be to attempt to explain the phenomena by means of an absolute inexplicability. In a like manner, it is not a hypothesis fit to be entertained that any given law is absolutely accurate [...] In short, synechism amounts to the principle that inexplicabilities are not to be considered as possible explanations" (CP 6. 173).

Hence, in the light of synechism, hypothesis to be entertained are those involving true continuity.


"The general motive is to avoid the hypothesis that this or that is inexplicable. For the synechist maintains that the only possible justification for so much as entertaining a hypothesis is that it affords an explanation of the phenomena. Now, to suppose a thing inexplicable is not only to fail to explain it, and so to make an unjustifiable hypothesis, but, much worse, it is to set up a barrier across the road of science, and to forbid all attempt to understand the phenomena (CP 6.171).

Peirce intended to show a close relationship between the pragmatic meaning of synechism and the pragmatic meaning of mind. Ideas are events or actions which operate in synechism (Wells 1996: 218). Although there is an element of the inexplicable and ultimate in secondness, namely, in what is directly forced upon us, the tendency for generalizing from this experience cannot be avoided, "since it is only so far as facts can be generalized that they can be understood; [...] that is, "the form under which alone anything can be understood is the form of generality, which is the same thing as continuity" [...] and the very reality [...] is nothing else than the way in which facts must ultimately come to be understood". This ultimacy, however, cannot be looked upon as something to be absolutely realized since "continuity is the absence of ultimate parts in that which is divisible"(CP 6.173). Hence, "continuity is not generalization fully spread out or taken to the limit of generalization. Rather, continuity is the dispositional state which tends toward such spreading out" (Wells ibid.: 234).

Although this dispositional state manifests itself throughout the realms of nature, its optimization is found in mind, and its utmost accomplishment is found in Peirce´s idea of the scientific method. In fact, he states that "Mental law follows the forms of logic (CP 6.144). It is not by chance that Turrisi (1997: 92-98) ends her comments about Peirce´s seventh Harvard Lecture on Pragmatism putting a due enphasis on the three types of reasoning -- abduction, deduction and induction. In methodeutics, in fact, pragmatism finds its logical home. But to state the question of the scientific method pragmatically would come to this: what is the ultimate purpose of inquiry? It is said that "the prediction of facts" should be the end of reasoning. After a hypothesis is raised,


"the deductive process works out what sorts of conclusions are necessary. The inductive process finds the ratio of the frequency by which these logically necessary results determined by deduction do in fact occur. Should the abduction hit its target, and the the deductive analysis be performed soundly, the inductive results will demonstrate a high frequency. That is, the concept initially posed in the abduction will turn out to have been a fairly accurate approximation of experience, an explanation of experience" (Turrisi ibid.: 97-98).

In this sense, the ultimate purpose of inquiry would be to fix opinions after giving due weight to experience and reality. However, if attention is paid to the fact that explanations of experience can never be completely accurate but only approximative, here we find the explanation why the methodological aspect of synechism came to give support to Peirce´s logic of vagueness. Moreover, according to Peirce´s evolutionism tout court of which synechism is a corolary, the external world and our knowledge of it is continuosly evolving. However, to pursue a pragmatic purpose, experience is necessary. Without it there would be no way of introducing new ideas into our thoughts. Under the impact of experience and as a result of self correction which is proper of the inductive method, there will always be a tendency toward the uniformity of opinions, so that they can be incorporated into a higher order of generality and continuity. However, there is an element of objective chance in the universe which is responsible for fortuitous variations. Hence, ther can be no definitive answers to our questions. Moreover, the propensity of all living and even non-living things to acquire habits is not a law among others but it is the law that governs laws.

General laws are responsible for the regularity and inteligibility of things. That is why they are the most completely real phenomena in the universe. This explains why action, and, even less, individual actions cannot be the summum bonum of human species. As evolution grows, human intelligence should perform a more intense role toward the development of the pragmatic end, namely, the growth of concrete reasonableness, through human mind´s most peculiar characteristic, that is, self-control. At the beginning, human mind was born as a fruit of this evolution, but, once it was born, it acquired the increasing power to influence the course of evolution through a deliberate conduct that listens to the voice of nature. Even if the perversity of whole generations of human beings choose opposite ways, in the long run, human beings will be forced by experience to recognize nature and our own nature as growing in reasonableness. For Peirce, inquiry is worthwhile because it is a privileged way of developing an open and neverending conversation with nature. This conversation begins in abduction. However, given the lack of space, the especial subject of this conversation will be left for another occasion.




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