Peirce: Questions on William James’s Principles of Psychology

J’ai partagé dans un autre post un « dialogue » entre James et Renouvier. Je reproduis ici un document de travail qui m’avait été utile en 2002 quand j’avais écrit un article sur la lecture que Peirce faisait des Principles of Psychology de James. J’ai communiqué depuis ce moment-là plusieurs fois ce document à d’autres chercheurs intéressés par le dialogue Peirce/James et je le reproduis ici à toutes fins utiles. Il est plus complet que les questions reproduites dans les Collected Papers et permet de voir immédiatement quelles thèses Peirce est en train de commenter et de critiquer.

For my English-speaking contacts: this was a working document I made and used in 2002 when writing I’ve shared it from time to time since, but thought it might be useful here. I had used the manuscripts to fill the blanks of the Collected Papers and inserted the relevant portions of James’s Principles. It’s delivered « as is », but you can post suggestions in the « comments » sections if you see things that can be updated.

Capture d’écran 2016-03-06 à 17.41.43
Rencontre imaginaire entre Peirce et James, qui était le logo du Groupe d’études sur le pragmatisme et la philosophie Américaine (Paris 1, 2000-2006)


Source:  Ms. 1099. Questions on William James’s Principles of Psychology, Volume 1 [Un. MS., carnet] .

[Edit: dans l’article de 2003, il m’avait semblé utile de revenir sur la datation de ce manuscrit, auparavant daté de 1891. En attente de l’édition par le Peirce Project, ces pistes sont hypothétiques, mais elles militent en faveur d’une datation plus tardive. Voici ce que je proposais: « This a set of forty-five questions (there are two ‘Question 40’) relating to Volume I of James’s Principles of Psychology. Questions 3, 5, 12, 14, 21-23, 29-33, 36, 41-42 were published as 8.72-90. R.B. Perry, in Perry (1935), vol. II, 105-108, quotes this manuscript in part. It is generally dated c.1891, but there seems to be material evidence that it was written a little later: André de Tienne told me in recent correspondence that its publication was not scheduled before Volume 11 of the Writings. Questions 41-42 in particular fit well with the correspondence between WJ and CSP in 1894. More surprisingly, Question 28 objects to PP1 : 220-221 that “there is too much “will to believe” here”, which seems to suggest that the question was written after 1896 (date for this essay) or 1897 (date for the book). It is possible that Peirce rewrote all or part of them in the course of time (there are only a few alterations on the manuscript). « ]

Quarante-cinq questions relatives au Volume I des Principles of Psychology de James. Les questions 3, 5, 12, 14, 21-23, 29-33, 36, 41-42 ont été publiées en 8.72-90. Peirce se contente de renvoyer aux pages de l’ouvrage; nous avons mis les portions de texte concernées en regard des questions.

  Suppose now (these assumptions being granted) that we have a baby before us who sees a candle-flame for the first [p. 25] time, and, by virtue of a reflex tendency common in babies of a certain age, extends his hand to grasp it, so that his fingers get burned. So far we have two reflex currents in play: first, from the eye to the extension movement, along the line 1-1-1-1 of Fig. 3; and second, from the finger to the movement of drawing back the hand, along the line 2-2-2-2.

If this were the baby’s whole nervous system, and if the reflexes were once for all organic, we should have no alteration in his behavior, no matter how often the experience recurred. The retinal image of the flame would always make the arm shoot forward, the burning of the finger would always send it back. But we know that ‘the burnt child dreads the fire,’ and that one experience usually protects the fingers forever. The point is to see how the hemispheres may bring this result to pass. (WJ, Principles, I, Ch. II, « Functions of the Brain »).

Qu: 1         p. 25. Is not this kind of conception too mechanical?


  In presence of such discord as that between Munk and his opponents one must carefully note how differently significant is loss, from preservation, of a function after an operation on the brain. The loss of the function does not necessarily show that it is dependent on the part cut out; but its preservation does show that it is not dependent: and this is true though the loss should be observed ninety-nine times and the preservation only once in a hundred similar excisions. (Ch. II, « Functions of the Brain »).

Qu: 2.         p. 43. Left-handedness is common and does not surprise us. In view of the great similarity of different parts of the cortex, is not a great range of individual variation likely?

The traces of sight found (supra, p. 46) in dogs and monkeys whose occipital lobes were entirely destroyed, may possibly have been due to the fact that the lower centres of these animals saw, and that what they saw was not ejective but objective to the remaining cortex, i.e. it formed part of one and the same inner world with the things which that cortex perceived. It may be, however, that the phenomena were due to the fact that in these animals the cortical ‘centres’ for vision reach outside of the occipital zone, and that destruction of the latter fails to remove them as completely as in man. This, as we know, is the opinion of the experimenters themselves. For practical purposes, nevertheless, and limiting the meaning of the word consciousness to the personal self of the individual, we can pretty confidently answer the question prefixed to this paragraph by saying that the cortex is the sole organ of consciousness in man.[66] If there [p.67] be any consciousness pertaining to the lower centres, it is a consciousness of which the self knows nothing. (Ch. II, « Functions of the Brain »).

Qu: 3         p. 66. « The cortex is the sole organ of consciousness in man. » The reasoning seems pretty loose for settling all the important positions implied in this statement. What is consciousness anyway?


  It must never be forgotten that a current that runs in has got to run out somewhere; and if it only once succeeds by accident in striking into its old place of exit again, the thrill of satisfaction which the consciousness connected with the whole residual brain then receives will reinforce and fix the paths of that moment and make them more likely to be struck into again. (Ch. II, « Functions of the Brain »).

Qu: 4.         p. 71. How do you prove that a current that runs in must run out?


The diagram of the baby and the candle (see page 25) can be re-edited, if need be, as an entirely cortical transaction. The original tendency to touch will be a cortical instinct; the burn will leave an image in another part of the cortex, which, being recalled by association, will inhibit the touching tendency the next time the candle is perceived, and excite the tendency to withdraw-so that the retinal picture will, upon that next time, be coupled with the original motor partner of the pain. We thus get whatever psychological truth the Meynert scheme possesses without entangling ourselves on a dubious anatomy and physiology.

Some such shadowy view of the evolution of the centres, of the relation of consciousness to them, and of the hemispheres to the, other lobes, is, it seems to me, that in which it is safest to indulge. If it has no other advantage, it at any rate makes us realize how enormous are the gaps in our knowledge, the moment we try to cover the facts by any one formula of a general kind. (Ch. II, « Functions of the Brain »).

Qu: 5 .        p. 80. Is not the conscious element of any conception, – as Kant would say, its matter, — pretty accidental and unimportant? It must, no doubt, be there, but will not anything there do? Shall we not take tongue sensations as the skeleton or corpus of our conception of language, etc.?



Qu: 6.         p. 101. May we not say that the formation of habits probably takes place in assimilation?


For the entire nervous system is nothing but a system of paths between a sensory terminus a quo and a muscular, glandular, or other terminus ad quem. A path once traversed by a nerve-current might be expected to follow the law of most of the paths we know, and to be scooped out and made more permeable than before;[4] and this ought to be repeated with each new passage of the current. (Ch. IV, « Habit »).

Qu: 7 .        p. 108. What proves the nervous system is nothing but a system of paths in and out?


Whatever obstructions may have kept it at first from being a path should then, little by little, and more and more, be swept out of the way, until at last it might become a natural drainage-channel. This is what happens where either solids or liquids pass over a path; there seems no reason why is should not happen where the thing that passes is a mere wave of rearrangement in matter that does not displace itself, but merely changes chemically or turns itself round in place, or vibrates across the line. The most plausible views of the nerve-current make it out to be the passage of some such wave of rearrangement as this. (Ch. IV, « Habit »).

Qu: 8.         p. 108. Is it a sufficient explanation to say there “seems no reason why it should not happen” when there certainly seems no reason why it should?


So nothing is easier than to imagine how, when a current once has traversed a path, it should traverse it more readily still a second time. But what made it ever traverse it the first time?[5] In answering this question we can only fall back on our general conception of a nervous system as a mass of matter whose parts, constantly kept in states of different tension, are as constantly tending to equalize their states. The equalization between any two points occurs through whatever path may at the moment be most pervious. (Ch. IV, « Habit »).

Qu: 9          p. 109. Is anything harder to imagine how when a current has once traverses a path, it should traverse it more readily a second time, consistently with the conservation of energy? How does water wear a channel? Is it not by lifting a grain of sand from a state of rest and depositing it in a state of rest? Can a differential equation be produced consistent with the law of energy which should have such a solution? Can a positional force bring a particle from rest to motion or from motion to rest without discontinuity and does not the conservation of energy imply continuity? Is it sufficient to explain psychical action by saying it is like something else which is utterly inexplicable?


A third maxim may be added to the preceding pair: Seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on every emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of the habits you aspire to gain. It is not in the moment of their forming, but in the moment of their producing motor effects, that resolves and aspirations communicate the new ‘set’ to the brain. As the author last quoted remarks:

« The actual presence of the practical opportunity alone furnishes the fulcrum upon which the lever can rest, by means of which the moral will may multiply its strength, and raise itself aloft. He who has no solid ground to press against will never get beyond the stage of empty gesture-making. »

[p.125] No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one’s sentiments may be, if one have not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one’s character may remain entirely unaffected for the better. With mere good intentions, hell is proverbially paved. An this is an obvious consequence of the principles we have laid down. A ‘character,’ as J.S. Mill says, ‘is a completely fashioned will’; and a will, in the sense in which he means it, is an aggregate of tendencies to act in a firm and prompt and definite way upon all the principal emergencies of life. (Ch. IV, « Habit »).


Qu: 10        p. 124. Is it strictly true that resolves and aspirations communicate no new “set” to the brain until they have produced motor effects?


  The physiological study of mental conditions is thus the most powerful ally of hortatory ethics. The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way. Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state. We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar. The drunken Rip Van Winkle, in Jefferson’s play, excuses himself for every fresh dereliction by saying, ‘I won’t count this time!’ Well! he may not count it, and a kind Heaven may not count it; but it is being counted none the less. Down among his nerve-cells and fibres the molecules are counting it, registering and storing it up to be used against him when the next temptation comes. (Ch. IV, « Habit »).

Qu: 11        p. 127. Is this introduction of extra-scientific methods good tact or keen psychology? Why omit higher habits?


  One must be impartially naif or impartially critical. If the latter, the reconstruction must be thorough-going or ‘metaphysical,’ and will probably preserve the common-sense view that ideas are forces, in some translated form. But Psychology is a mere natural science, accepting certain terms uncritically as her data, and stopping short of metaphysical reconstruction. Like physics, she must be naïve; and if she finds that in her very peculiar field of study ideas seem to be causes, she had better continue to talk of them as such. She gains absolutely nothing by a breach with common-sense in this matter, and she loses, to say the least, all naturalness of speech. (Ch. V, « The Automaton Theory »).

Qu: 12        p. 137. Had physics taken the course you wish psychology to take would she not have stuck to the idea of explaining everything by hot and cold, moist and dry? Is not the lesson of physics rather not to attack the most difficult problems first?


All this is said of the brain as a physical machine pure and simple. Can consciousness increase its efficiency by loading its dice? Such is the problem.

Loading its dice would mean bringing a more or less constant pressure to bear in favor of those of its performances which make for the most permanent interests of the brain’s owner; it would mean a constant inhibition of the tendencies to stray aside.

Well, just such pressure and such inhibition are what consciousness seems to be exerting all the while. And the interests in whose favor it seems to exert them are its interests and its alone, interests which it creates, and which, but for it, would have no status in the realm of being whatever. We talk, it is true, when we are darwinizing, as if the mere body that owns the brain had interests; we speak about the utilities of its various organs and how they help or hinder the body’s survival; and we treat the survival as [p.141] if it were an absolute end, existing as such in the physical world, a sort of actual should-be, presiding over the animal and judging his reactions, quite apart from the presence of any commenting intelligence outside. We forget that in the absence of some such superadded commenting intelligence (whether it be that of the animal itself, or only ours or Mr. Darwin’s), the reactions cannot be properly talked of as ‘useful’ or ‘hurtful’ at all. Considered merely physically, all that can be said of them is that if they occur in a certain way survival will as a matter of fact prove to be their incidental consequence. The organs themselves, and all the rest of the physical world, will, however, all the time be quite indifferent to this consequence, and would quite as cheerfully, the circumstances changed, compass the animal’s destruction. In a word, survival can enter into a purely physiological discussion only as an hypothesis made by an onlooker about the future. But the moment you bring a consciousness into the midst, survival ceases to be a mere hypothesis. No longer is it, « if survival is to occur, then so and so must brain and other organs work. » It has now become an imperative decree: « Survival shall occur, and therefore organs must so work! » Real ends appear for the first time now upon the world’s stage. The conception of consciousness as a purely cognitive form of being, which is the pet way of regarding it in many idealistic-modern as well as ancient schools, is thoroughly anti-psychological, as the remainder of this book will show. Every actually existing consciousness seems to itself at any rate to be a fighter for ends, of which many, but for its presence, would not be ends at all. Its powers of cognition are mainly subservient to these ends, discerning which facts further them and which do not. (Ch. V, « The Automaton Theory »).

Qu: 13        p. 141. I cannot understand this argument. When we are “darwinizing” all we are saying is that variations in reproduction cannot be carried in certain directions beyond certain limits without bringing the race to an end, while in opposite directions they are not so narrowly limited. I do not see how this treats survival as an absolute end, in the sense of a “should-be”. I cannot see how consciousness is going to alter the case. We are all aware that this country has a fatal disease of government which must prove fatal in the end. But for all that we can do nothing about it. Does feeling even seem to itself to be a fighter for ends?


But if pleasures and pains have no efficacy, one does not see (without some such à priori rational harmony as would be scouted by the ‘scientific’ champions of the automaton-theory) why the most noxious acts, such as burning, might not give thrills of delight, and the most necessary ones, such as breathing, cause agony. (Ch. V, « The Automaton Theory »).

Qu: 14        p. 144. Why would it not be equally logical to say, « if pleasures and pains have no efficacy, one does not see why men should not shun the pleasurable as much as the painful. » But the obvious answer would be, because, as this fact shows, pleasure and pain are more than pure monadic feelings. Is not this the answer to the question that is put?


In short, the two separate ideas can never by any logic be made to figure as one and the same thing as the ‘associated’ idea.

This is what the spiritualists keep saying; and since we do, as a matter of fact, have the ‘compounded’ idea, and do know a and b together, they adopt a farther hypothesis to explain that fact. The separate ideas exist, they say, but affect a third entity, the soul. This has the ‘compounded’ idea, if you please so to call it; and the compounded idea is an altogether new psychic fact to which the separate ideas stand in the relation, not of constituents, but of occasions of production. (Ch. VI, « The Mind-Stuff Theory »).

Qu : 15       p. 161 Did anybody ever pretend that two separate ideas were one and the same as a compound idea ? The associationalists invented the term « mental chemistry » to avoid their being so misunderstood. You say the spiritualists constantly talk so. Give an instance.


This argument of the spiritualists against the associationists has never been answered by the latter. (Ch. VI, « The Mind-Stuff Theory »).

Qu : 16       p. 161. Is it not a sufficient answer to the « argument » of the spiritualists to point out, 1st, that it is a purely arbitrary hypothesis, without antecedent support, and 2nd, that there is no phenomenon whatever which it helps in any measure to explain ? It seems to me odd to call it an « argument ».


This argument of the spiritualists against the associationists has never been answered by the latter. It holds good against any talk about self-compounding amongst feelings, against any ‘blending,’ or ‘complication,’ or ‘mental chemistry,’ or ‘psychic synthesis,’ which supposes a resultant consciousness to float off from the constituents per se, in the absence of a supernumerary principle of consciousness which they may affect. The mind-stuff theory, in short, is unintelligible. Atoms of feeling cannot compose higher feelings, any more than atoms of matter can compose physical things! The ‘things,’ for a clear-headed atomistic evolutionist, are not. Nothing is but the everlasting atoms. When grouped in a certain way, we name them this ‘thing’ or that; but the thing we name has no existence out of our mind. So of the states of mind which are supposed to be compound because they know many different things together. Since indubitably such states do exist, they must exist as single new facts, effects, possibly, as the spiritualists say, on the Soul (we will not decide that [p.162] point here), but at any rate independent and integral, and not compounded of psychic atoms. (Ch. VI, « The Mind-Stuff Theory »).

Qu : 17       p. 161. The « clear-headed » atomist seems to me to lay himself open very badly, when he talks of nothing existing but the atoms, and their relations as not real because we discover them by our intelligence. He seems to me to be maintaining a hypothesis perfectly unfounded on anything but his own penchant for it, in spite of all the facts in the world.


I confess, therefore, that to posit a soul influenced in some mysterious way by the brain-states and responding to them by conscious affections of its own, seems to me the line of least logical resistance, so far as we yet have attained.

[p.182] If it does not strictly explain anything, it is at any rate less positively objectionable than either mind-stuff or a material-monad creed. The bare PHENOMENON, however, the IMMEDIATELY KNOWN thing which on the mental side is in apposition with the entire brain-process is the state of consciousness and not the soul itself. (Ch. VI, « The Mind-Stuff Theory »).

Qu : 18       p. 182. Does it give any value to a hypothesis which « explains nothing », and is therefore destitute of all logical support, to say that it is not open to objections that some other hypotheses are open to ? It seems to me like a man who being on trial for vagrancy, answers that he doesn’t sport a land lond loud ? waistcoast nor eat sugar on his salad.


‘The Psychologist’s Fallacy.’ The great snare of the psychologist is the confusion of his own standpoint with that of the mental fact about which he is making his report. I shall hereafter call this the ‘psychologist’s fallacy’ par excellence. For some of the mischief, here too, language is to blame. The psychologist, as we remarked above (p. 183), stands outside of the mental state he speaks of. Both itself and its object are objects for him. Now when it is a cognitive state (percept, thought, concept, etc.), he ordinarily has no other way of naming it than as the thought, percept, etc., of that object. He himself, meanwhile, knowing the self-same object in his way, gets easily led to suppose that the thought, which is of it, knows it in the same way in which he knows it, although this is often very far from being the case.[11] The most fictitious puzzles have been introduced into our science by this means. The so-called question of presentative or representative perception, of whether an [p.197] object is present to the thought that thinks it by a counterfeit image of itself, or directly and without any intervening image at all ; the question of nominalism and conceptualism, of the shape in which things are present when only a general notion of them is before the mind ; are comparatively easy questions when once the psychologist’s fallacy is eliminated from their treatment, – as we shall ere long see (in Chapter XII). (Ch. VII, « The Methods and Snares of Psychology »).

Qu : 19       p. 196. I don’t get a clear notion from this passage on the Psychologist’s Fallacy.


Summary. To sum up the chapter, Psychology assumes that thoughts successively occur, and that they know objects in a world which the psychologist also knows. These thoughts are the subjective data of which he treats, and their relations to their objects, to the brain, and to the rest of the world constitute the subject-matter of psychologic science. Its methods are introspection, experimentation, and comparison. But introspection is no sure guide to truths about our mental states ; and in particular the poverty of the psychological vocabu. [sic] lary leads us to drop out certain states from our consideration, and to treat others as if they knew themselves and their objects as the psychologist knows both, which is a disastrous fallacy in the science. (Ch. VII, « The Methods and Snares of Psychology »).

Qu : 20       p. 198. It seems strange that nothing has been said of the method incessantly employed by the author himself of judging of the mind by cerebral anatomy.


The truth is that if the thinking principle is extended we neither know its form nor its seat; whilst if unextended, it is absurd to speak of its having any space-relations at all. Space-relations we shall see hereafter to be sensible things. The only objects that can have mutual relations of position are objects that are perceived coexisting in the same felt space. A thing not perceived at all, such as the inextended soul must be, cannot coexist with any perceived objects in this way. No lines can be felt stretching from it to the other objects. (Ch. VIII, « The Relations of Minds to Other Things »).

 Qu: 21        p. 215. The two centres of gyration of a reversible pendulum are unextended points. No lines can be felt stretching from them to other objects. They form no termini to any space-interval. Will you then say they « can have no mutual relations of position, » or that « in no intelligible sense can they ‘enjoy’ position »?


Its relations cannot be spatial, but must be exclusively cognitive or dynamic, as we have seen. So far as they are dynamic to talk of the soul being ‘present’ is only a figure of speech. (Ch. VIII, « The Relations of Minds to Other Things »).

 Qu: 22        p. 215. Is anything « present » in space except in the sense of being in dynamic reaction with other objects in space? If so, in what does the figure of speech consist?


  Hamilton’s doctrine that the soul is present to the whole body is at any rate false: for cognitively its presence extends far beyond the body, and dynamically it does not extent beyond the brain. (Ch. VIII, « The Relations of Minds to Other Things »).

Qu: 23        p. 215. There is an attempt in the last sentence of the text of this page (and the idea has been vaguely running along) to establish a great contrast between the mode of the mind’s cognitive reactions with things and its dynamic reactions. The former is direct, or there is, at least, no sense in calling it indirect. The latter is direct only with the brain, and mainly indirect. Is this tenable? The soul reacts dynamically with the future, cognitively with the past. Both are mediate. In the immediate present, volition and experience are indistinguishable, are they not? What is the distinction that can exist in that instant? If I am right here, is there not a pretty accurate correspondence between our dealings with the Future and the Past, as far as mediacy is concerned, at any rate?


The mind’s relations to other objects than the brain are cognitive and emotional relations exclusively, so far as we know. It knows them, and it inwardly welcomes or rejects them, but it has no other dealings with them. When it seems to act upon them, it only does so through the intermediary of its own body, so that not it but the body is what acts on them, and the brain must first act upon the body. The same is true when other things seem to act on it – they only act on its body, and through that on its brain.[14] All that it can do directly is to know other things, misknow or ignore them, and to find that they interest it, in this fashion or in that. (Ch. VIII, « The Relations of Minds to Other Things »).

Qu:24.        p. 216. So here : in what way can it be maintained we are in experiential relations to objects outside the skull but in no volitional relations to them ? You say it only acts upon outward things through the intermediary of the body : does it then know outward things otherwise than through the intermediary of the body. Perhaps if telepathy is true. But if telepathy is true cannot the soul act otherwise that through such intermediary. In short, is there not a clinging parallelism between the two cases ?

Qu: 25.       p. 216. Would it not be fair for the psychologist either to consider the question of experience more curiously or that of the volition less so, with a view to a balanced attitude ?


Were our topic Absolute Mind instead of being the concrete minds of individuals dwelling in the natural world, we could not tell whether that Mind had the function of knowing or not, as knowing is commonly understood. We [p. 217] might learn the complexion of its thoughts; but, as we should have no realities outside of it to compare them with, – for if we had, the Mind would not be Absolute, – we could not criticise them, and find them either right or wrong; and we should have to call them simply the thoughts, and not the knowledge, of the Absolute Mind. Finite minds, however, can be judged in a different way, because the psychologist himself can go bail for the independent reality of the objects of which they think. He knows these to exist outside as well as inside the minds in question; he thus knows whether the minds think and know, or only think; and though his knowledge is of course that of a fallible mortal, there is nothing in the conditions that should make it more likely to wrong in this case than in any other. (Ch. VIII, « The Relations of Minds to Other Things »).

Qu. 26.       p. 217. There seems to be a mixture here of questions that only the greenest student could confound. It is well enough for his sake to notice the matter, but the gulf between the two things, of how we know we have any knowledge (the answer to which is that our conception of indépendant existence is merely the conception of resistance to our will, which we directly experience) and how we know that a particular belief, or dictum, of ourselves, of another, or found recorded on tablet by we know not whom, is any measure determined by the fact itself or is mere whimsey (which we test not so muchby setting up our own opinion as a standard as we do just as we continually test our own impressions, asking ourselves, « Now am I just and unbiassed ? » etc).


The psychologist’s attitude towards cognition will be so important in the sequel that we must not leave it until it is made perfectly clear. It is a thoroughgoing dualism. It supposes two elements, mind knowing and thing known, and treats them as irreducible. Neither gets out of itself or into the other, neither in any way is the other, neither makes the other. They just stand face to face in a common world, and one simply knows, or is known unto, its counterpart. This singular relation is not to be expressed in any lower terms, or translated into any more intelligible name. Some sort of signal must be given by the thing to the mind’s brain, or the knowing will not occur – we find as a matter [p. 219] of fact that the mere existence of a thing outside the brain is not a sufficient cause for our knowing it: it must strike the brain in some way, as well as be there, to be known. But the brain being struck, the knowledge is constituted by a new construction that occurs altogether in the mind. The thing remains the same whether known or not.[15] And when once there, the knowledge may remain there, whatever becomes of the thing. (Ch. VIII, « The Relations of Minds to Other Things »).

 Qu. 27.       p. 218. So the psychologist is obliged to assume an extreme metaphysical position and cannot maintain anything like the physicist cool attitude. Whatever may be the merits of this as psychology, it seems to me bad metaphysics quite irrespective of the truth or falsity of dualism.


 The dualism of Object and Subject and their pre-established harmony are what the psychologist as such must assume, whatever ulterior monistic philosophy he may, as an individual who has the right also to be a metaphysician, have in reserve. I hope that this general point is now [p. 221] made clear, so that we may leave it, and descend to some distinctions of detail.

Qu. 28.       p. 220. So the psychologist must further adopt preëstablished harmony. He seems to be in a pitiable position. I should think it would be far better to abandon a study which for the present, can only be built on such foundations. But how can a « thorough-going dualist » entertain an « ulterior monistic philosophy ». ? This general point is anything but clear. All that is clear is the very strenuous metaphysicism. It seems to me, however, to be pretty plainly uncalled for, and the long quotation from Bowne is given as though it amounted to an argument. But it is only necessary to try a little to stand where the other side, which includes almost all modern thinkers, stand, to see that it is easily answered. There is too much « will to believe », here. The truth as the matter of conceptions is unimportant (as being of such and such a sort) the relations between them are the thing. We grant the reality of the outer world. All that we deny is the « irreducibility» which is here (p. 218) said to be something the psychologist must not give up.


The grammatical sentence expresses this. Its ‘subject’ stands for an object of acquaintance which, by the addition of the predicate, is to get something known about it. We may already know a good deal, when we hear the subject named – its name may have rich connotations. But, know we much or little then, we know more still when the sentence is done. We can relapse at will into a mere condition of acquaintance with an object by scattering our attention and staring at it in a vacuous trance-like way. We can ascend to knowledge about it by rallying our wits and proceeding to notice and analyze and think. What we are only acquainted with is only present to our minds; we have it, or the idea of it. But when we know about it, we do more than merely have it; we seem, as we think over its relations, to subject it to a sort of treatment and to operate upon it with our thought. The words feeling and thought give voice to the antithesis. Through feelings we become acquainted with things, but only by our thoughts do we know about them. Feelings are the germ and starting point of cognition, thoughts the developed tree. The minimum of grammatical subject, of objective presence, of reality known about, the mere beginning of knowledge, must be named by the word that says the least. Such a word is the interjection, as lo! there! ecco! voilà! or the article or demonstrative pronoun introducing the sentence, as the, it, that. (Ch. VIII, « The Relations of Minds to Other Things »).

 Qu: 29        p. 222.   « Through feelings we become acquainted with things. » This seems to me to be at the root of a good deal of bad metaphysics. On the contrary, the feelings are matters of indifference (in their qualities). It is by the reactions of ourselves upon things and of their parts on one another that we become acquainted with things, as it seems to me.


The mental states usually distinguished as feelings are the emotions, and the sensations we get from skin, muscle, viscus, eye, ear, nose, and palate. The ‘thoughts,’ as recognized in popular parlance, are the conceptions and judgments. (Ch. VIII, « The Relations of Minds to Other Things »).

Qu: 30        p. 222. Is this classification of « mental states » as feelings and thoughts sufficiently scientific? Is it not better to adopt the logical division not of « mental states » but of mental elements, into feeling-qualities, reactions (volition and experience), and habit-taking?


In this room – this lecture-room, say – there are a multitude of thoughts, yours and mine, some of which cohere mutually, and some not. They are as little each-for-itself and reciprocally independent as they are all-belonging- together. They are neither: no one of them is separate, [p. 226] but each belongs with certain others and with none beside. My thought belongs with my other thoughts, and your thought with your other thoughts. Whether anywhere in the room there be a mere thought, which is nobody’s thought, we have no means of ascertaining, for we have no experience of its like. The only states of consciousness that we naturally deal with are found in personal consciousnesses, minds, selves, concrete particular I’s and you’s.

Each of these minds keeps its own thoughts to itself. There is no giving or bartering between them. No thought even comes into direct sight of a thought in another personal consciousness than its own. Absolute insulation, irreducible pluralism, is the law. It seems as if the elementary psychic fact were not thought or this thought or that thought, but my thought, every thought being owned. (Ch. IX, « The Stream of Thought »).

Qu: 31        p. 226. « No thought even comes into direct sight of a thought in another personal consciousness than its own. Absolute insulation, irreducible pluralism, is the law. » Is not the direct contrary nearer observed facts? Is not this pure metaphysical speculation? You think there must be such isolation, because you confound thoughts with feeling-qualities; but all observation is against you. There are some small particulars that a man can keep to himself. He exaggerates them and his personality sadly.


The breaches between such thoughts are the most absolute breaches in nature. Everyone will recognize this to be true, so long as the existence of something corresponding to the term ‘personal mind’ is all that is insisted on, without any particular view of its nature being implied. On these terms the personal self rather than the thought might be treated as the immediate datum in psychology. (Ch. IX, « The Stream of Thought »).

Qu: 32        p. 226.   Everybody will admit a personal self exists in the same sense in which a snark exists; that is, there is a phenomenon to which that name is given. It is an illusory phenomenon; but still it is a phenomenon. It is not quite purely illusory, but only mainly so. It is true, for instance, that men are selfish, that is, that they are really deluded into supposing themselves to have some isolated existence; and in so far, they have it. To deny the reality of personality is not anti-spiritualistic; it is only anti-nominalistic. It is true that there are certain phenomena, really quite slight and insignificant, but exaggerated, because they are connected with the tongue, which may be described as personality. The agility of the tongue is shown in its insisting that the world depends upon it. The phenomena of personality consist mainly in ability to hold the tongue. This is what the tongue brags so about.

But all this business will appear dark and mysterious until the three categories are mastered and applied.

Meantime, physicians are highly privileged that they can ask to see people’s tongues; for this is inspecting the very organ of personality. It is largely because this organ is so sensitive that personality is so vivid. But it is more because it is so agile and complex a muscle. Its muscular habits are the basis of personality, which need not be lodged in the brain. The inhibition however which makes the strong personality comes from some exterior ganglion, no doubt.

This is a specimen of how other « thoughts » ought to be conceived. They are readily adoptable habits, taken, lost, replaced continually, and felt, no matter how. Mostly no doubt lodged in nerve matter, but not necessarily so.

…it is, and must remain, true that the thoughts which psychology studies do continually tend to appear as parts of personal selves.

I say ‘tend to appear’ rather than ‘appear,’ on account of those facts of sub-conscious personality, automatic writing, etc., of which we studied a few in the last chapter. The buried feelings and thoughts proved now to exist in hysterical anæsthetics, in recipients of post-hypnotic suggestion, etc.,themselves are parts of secondary personal selves. (Ch. IX, « The Stream of Thought »).

The cases of double personality show that the cunning right hand can in a measure replace the tongue. But till a personality can control the tongue, it is very obscure. The principal personality resides there. Its superiority is shown by this that if cut out the person soon gets along and talks very well, with the remaining fragments. Farmers sometimes slit the tongues of self milking cows. But they soon learn to make use of the slit tongue just the same. So if a man’s right hand is cut off, it is marvellous how much he can do with the stump. But the hand altogether lacks the extreme subtilty of the tongue. The school-boy writes with his tongue. That is the tongue teaching the fingers language. Some people roll up their tongues, or bite them, or shove them down when they do something sly or tricky. Some people stick them into their cheeks. These are the gestures of pure egotism. The tobacco chewer shifts his quid when he betrays his vanity.

All animals capable of domestication have good tongues.


And the view of these philosophers has been called little into question, for our common experience seems at first
sight to corroborate it entirely. Are not the sensations we get from the same object, for example, always the same? Does not the same piano-key, struck with the same force, make us hear in the same way? Does not the same grass give us the same feeling of green, the same sky the same feeling of blue, and do we not get the same olfactory sensation no matter how many times we put our nose to the same flask of cologne? It seems a piece of metaphysical sophistry to suggest that we do not; and yet a close attention to the matter shows that there is no proof that the same bodily sensation is ever got by us twice. (Ch. IX, « The Stream of Thought »).

Qu: 33        p. 231. Is it not plain that two feelings cannot be compared as they are as pure feelings? If so can a « likeness » between two feelings possibly consist in anything but their being naturally associated? That granted, is it not certain that feelings ever so much alike do, in that only possible sense, recur? As for sameness, this is a relation which by its nature is restricted to individuals. Feelings are in so far the same as they are alike.


The entire history of Sensation is a commentary on our inability to tell whether two sensations received apart are exactly alike. What appeals to our [p. 232] attention far more than the absolute quality or quantity of a given sensation is its ratio to whatever other sensations we may have at the same time. When everything is dark a somewhat less dark sensation makes us see an object white. Helmholtz calculates that the white marble painted in a picture representing an architectural view by moonlight is, when seen by daylight, from ten to twenty thousand times brighter than the real moonlit marble would be. (Ch. IX, « The Stream of Thought »).

Qu. 34        p. 231. The fact about the moonlight would be heightened by stating that white bristol bound ( ?) is less than 100 times brighter than the blackest velvet viewed by ordinary north daylight indoors. But this has nothing at all to do with the sensations per se ; nor the facts in the text. They are dragged in out of place.


The eye’s sensibility to light is at its maximum when the eye is first exposed, and blunts itself with surprising rapidity. A long night’s sleep will make it see things twice as brightly on wakening, as simple rest by closure will make it see them later in the day. (Ch. IX, « The Stream of Thought »).

Qu. 35        p. 232. To say that a night’s sleep only adds to sensation the equivalent of a multiplication of the excitation by two, is an understatement. Though it is pure guess-work, as far as I know, it would be fair to say that twenty times is no exageration.


I am sure that this concrete and total manner of regarding the mind’s changes is the only true manner, difficult as it may be to carry it out in detail. If anything seems obscure about it, it will grow clearer as we advance. Meanwhile, if it be true, it is certainly also true that no two ‘ideas’ are ever exactly the same, which is the proposition we started to prove. The proposition is more important theoretically than it at first sight seems. (Ch. IX, « The Stream of Thought »).

Qu: 36        p. 235. I should be glad to know what possible relevancy all that has been so skillfully said about the total states of mind, that its commonplace is forgotten, has with the proposition that no two ideas can ever be exactly the same. This seems perfectly absurd. The essence of thought lies in the law of relationship that it implies. Do you mean to say that I never can have again my present view of the essence of the system of whole numbers? That is what it means to say I have the same idea I had yesterday.


For it makes it [p. 236] already impossible for us to follow obediently in the footprints of either the Lockian or the Herbartian school, schools which have had almost unlimited influence in Germany and among ourselves. No doubt it is often convenient to formulate the mental facts in an atomistic sort of way, aud to treat the higher states of consciousness as if they were all built out of unchanging simple ideas. It is convenient often to treat curves as if they were composed of small straight lines, and electricity and nerve-force as if they were fluids. But in the one case as in the other we must never forget that we are talking symbolically, and that there is nothing in nature to answer to our words. A permanently existing ‘idea’ or ‘Vorstellung’ which makes its appearance before the footlights of consciousness at periodical intervals, is as mythological an entity as the Jack of Spades. (Ch. IX, « The Stream of Thought »).

Qu. 37        p. 236. Is not the objection itself « atomistic » ? – that is, based entirely on a fallacious nominalistic view ? Electricity certainly is a fluid in the only sense in which anything is a fluid. « We must never forget that we are talking symbolically » (that is must not forget when we are talking truly) « and that there is nothing in nature to answer to our words ». Then you mean that there is nothing in nature to answer any statement whatever. That is all you can mean to be consistent. It seems the psychologist has to be a complete sceptic in Metaphysics. He is losing the scientific standpoint altogether.


I can only define ‘continuous’ as that which is without breach, crack, or division. I have already said that the breach from one mind to another is perhaps the greatest breach in nature. The only breaches that can well be conceived to occur within the limits of a single mind would either be interruptions, time-gaps during which the consciousness went out altogether to come into existence again at a later moment; or they would be breaks in the quality, or content, of the thought, so abrupt that the segment that followed had no connection whatever with the one that went before. The proposition that within each personal consciousness thought feels continuous, means two things:


  1. That even where there is a time-gap the consciousness after it feels as if it belonged together with the consciousness before it, as another part of the same self;


  1. That the changes from one moment to another in the quality of the consciousness are never absolutely abrupt. (Ch. IX, « The Stream of Thought »).


Qu. 38        p.237. It appears that no other kind of continuity except continuity in time is contemplated. Even within that narrow limit, only certain kinds of discontinuity are considered. Nothing is said of splitting of consciousness, or of beginning and ending. Moreover, the series of rational fractions is not continuous, and yet there is no gap anywhere in it.


…The proposition that within each personal consciousness thought feels continuous, means two things… (Ch. IX, « The Stream of Thought »).

Qu. 39.       p. 237. To say that consciousness feels as if it were continuous, – that is, as if it had been continuous, – for all experience relates exclusively to the past, is a very different proposition than saying that it is continuous.

The fact is there is a utter want of understanding of continuity here, as well as of the kind of evidence required to establish it.

It is most important to know whether consciousness is in time distributed like the values of rational fractions, that is, like an infinitely fine powder or in fluid continuity or in some intermediate way.


When Paul and Peter wake up in the same bed, and recognize that they have been asleep, each one of them mentally reaches back and makes connection with but one of the two streams of thought which were broken by the sleeping hours. As the current of an electrode buried in the ground unerringly finds its way to its own similarly buried mate, across no matter how much intervening earth; so Peter’s present instantly finds out Peter’s past, and never by mistake knits itself on to that of Paul. (Ch. IX, « The Stream of Thought »).

Qu. 40.  p. 238. The illustation of the electrodes is not happy sm- ? ? (ee ?) [since?] the electric current would divide in such a case.


On this gradualness in the changes of our mental content the principles of nerve-action can throw some more light. When studying, in Chapter III, the summation of nervous activities, we saw that no state of the brain can be supposed instantly to die away. If a new state comes, the inertia of the old state will still be there and modify the result accordingly. Of course we cannot tell, in our ignorance, what in each instance the modifications ought to be. The commonest modifications in sense-perception are known as the phenomena of contrast. In æsthetics they are the feelings of delight or displeasure which certain particular orders in a series of impressions give. In thought, strictly and narrowly so called, they are unquestionably that consciousness of the whence and the whither that always accompanies its flows. If recently the brain-tract a was vividly excited, and then b, and now vividly c, the total present consciousness is not produced simply by c‘s excitement, but also by the dying vibrations of a and b as well. If we want to represent the brain-process we must write it thus: abc – three different processes coexisting, and correlated with them a thought which is no one of the three thoughts which they would have produced had each of them occurred alone. But whatever this fourth thought may exactly be, it seems impossible that it should not be something like each of the three other thoughts whose tracts are concerned in its production, though in a fast-waning phase. (Ch. IX, « The Stream of Thought »).

Qu. 40 (sic).  p. 242. It is delightful to come accross a little psychology. If some numbers had been given so as to give the argument a little more positive substantiality it would have been still more refreshing. But even as it is, it comes very a propos, just as the reader is wondering how long the rather partisan metaphysics is going to hold the scene.


This difference in the rate of change lies at the basis of a difference of subjective states of which we ought immediately to speak. When the rate is slow we are aware of the object of our thought in a comparatively restful and stable way. When rapid, we are aware of a passage, a relation, a transition from it, or between it and something else. As we take, in fact, a general view of the wonderful stream of our consciousness, what strikes us first is this different pace of its parts. Like a bird’s life, it seems to be made of an alternation of flights and perchings. The rhythm of language expresses this, where every thought is expressed in a sentence, and every sentence closed by a period. The resting-places are usually occupied by sensorial imaginations of some sort, whose peculiarity is that they can be held before the mind for an indefinite time, and contemplated without changing; the places of flight are filled with thoughts of relations, static or dynamic, that for the most part obtain between the matters contemplated in the periods of comparative rest.

Let us call the resting-places the ‘substantive parts,’ and the places of flight the ‘transitive parts,’ of the stream of thought. It then appears that the main end of our thinking is at all times the attainment of some other substantive part than the one from which we have just been dislodged. And we may say that the main use of the transitive parts is to lead us from one substantive conclusion to another. (Ch. IX, « The Stream of Thought »).

Qu: 41        p. 243.  This is one of the finest, if not the finest, passage in the whole book. It is a direful pity the author could not have sufficient acquaintance with the history of words, and of knowledge of their importance, to avoid two of the most objectionable terms he could possibly have selected, for the trade marks of his invention. Why could he not have said “transitory” instead of taking a word already over burdened with ambiguities. Not that still better terms might not have been discovered. As for « substantive, » it wouldn’t have been much worse if he had called it « absolute » . . .


Let anyone try to cut a thought across in the middle and get a look at its section, and he will see how difficult the introspective observation of the transitive tracts is. The rush of the thought is so headlong that it almost always brings us up at the conclusion before we can arrest it. (Ch. IX, « The Stream of Thought »).

Qu: 42        p. 244. To cut a thought across and look at the section requires no introspection. It is one of the principal methods in mathematics, which is in no degree introspective. Treating operations as quantities is one of a hundred familiar examples.


The attempt at introspective analysis in these cases is in fact like seizing a spinning top to catch its motion, or trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks. And the challenge to produce these psychoses, which is sure to be thrown by doubting psychologists at anyone who contends for their existence, is as unfair as Zeno’s treatment of the advocates of motion, when, asking them to point out in what place an arrow is when it moves, he argues the falsity of their thesis from their inability to make to so preposterous a question an immediate reply. (Ch. IX, « The Stream of Thought »).

Qu : 43       p. 244. It ought not to trouble anybody to point out where the arrow is when it moves, and to remark that this is not [? ? ?] saying it remains there while it moves. Accurate logical analysis is needed for all accurate reasoning, especially in metaphysics.


The results of this introspective difficulty are baleful. If to hold fast and observe the transitive parts of thought’s stream be so hard, then the great blunder to which all schools are liable must be the failure to register them, and the undue emphasizing of the more substantive parts of the stream. Were we not ourselves a moment since in danger of ignoring any feeling transitive between the silence and the thunder, and of treating their boundary as a sort of break in the mind? Now such ignoring as this has historically worked in two ways. One set of thinkers have been led by it to Sensationalism. Unable to lay their hands on any coarse feelings corresponding to the innumerable relations and forms of connection between the facts of the world, finding no named subjective modifications mirroring such relations, they have for the most part denied that feelings of relation exist, and many of them, like Hume, have gone [p. 245] so far as to deny the reality of most relations out of the mind as well as in it. Substantive psychoses, sensations and their copies and derivatives, juxtaposed like dominoes in a game, but really separate, everything else verbal illusion, – such is the upshot of this view. The Intellectualists, on the other hand, unable to give up the reality of relations extra mentem, but equally unable to point to any distinct substantive feelings in which they were known, have made the same admission that the feelings do not exist. But they have drawn an opposite conclusion. The relations must be known, they say, in something that is no feeling, no mental modification continuous and consubstantial with the subjective tissue out of which sensations
and other substantive states are made. They are known, these relations, by something that lies on an entirely different plane, by an actus purus of Thought, Intellect, or Reason, all written with capitals and considered to mean something unutterably superior to any fact of sensibility whatever.

But from our point of view both Intellectualists and Sensationalists are wrong. If there be such things as feelings at all, thenso surely as relations between objects exist in rerum naturâ, so surely, and more surely, do feelings exist to which theserelations are known. (Ch. IX, « The Stream of Thought »).

Qu : 44       p. 245. Why are the shallow blunderers alone noticed and those who study the subject of relation closely and accurately, undeterred by its requiring « hard » thinking ignored ?



Lettre de C. S. Peirce à William James, 27 Octobre 1887.

Source : ALS: MH bMS Am 1092 (663); Corr. Of WJ, 6:279-280

Milford, Pa., 1887 Oct 27

My dear William


I have read your admirable work on Space, though not so carefully as I could wish, and have learned much from it. I have taken many notes which I will not inflict upon you. The impression made upon me is that your assertions will many of them stand, but your denials of the usual philosophy will fall. I fancy that all which is present to consciousness is sensation & nothing assignable is a first sensation. I am easily persuaded that we have a sensation of distance & one of size through every avenue of sense. Though the muscular sense, or whatever may really exist corresponding to that phrase,-of moving the eye ball and of adjusting the focus, are I do not doubt important factors, I am ready to admit that Idomenians destitute of this sense might probably get a good knowledge of space without it. Indeed, I have always thought that while the muscular sense was operative, it was not at all indispensible to space cognition. But I cannot as yet bring myself to see that size is so nearly a primary sensation as red or blue.

This synthesis of fragmentary spaces seems to me perhaps the best thing in your work. Is not objective space built up in much the same way? Can we not suppose that the unity & uniformity of space has been developed out of coalescing Fragments, both adjacent & superposed? I would even permit myself to speculate about the origin of time itself by supposing that when I use words implying that there is a second time behind time, there is some analogical truth in the expressions; and so I would suppose that the unity of objective time is due to a synthesis of fragmentary times.

As for the muscular sense, it seems pretty clear that we do not know how to describe it. I should suppose it might be pretty complicated. It is said to be a symptom of partial muscular paralysis to overrate the distances dependent on the motions caused by those muscles.

I hope I have not expressed myself as if I were making criticisms. For I could not think of attempting any judgment on a piece of work so solid without long study. I merely mention a few of the impres­sions it leaves on my mind.

Yours very faithfully, C. S. Peirce

You have not seen Mayer’s argument against Helmholtz’s theory of audition’


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