Teaching American philosophy this semester has given me an opportunity to revisit the texts of Peirce. I’ve long drawn great intellectual sustenance from Peirce’s thought, using some of his concepts for example as part of a general critique of Badiou in an essay I published a few years back in the Southern Journal of Philosophy. But I’ve not read Peirce recently and in the interim I’ve been delving into speculative realism, Latour, Hume, and a number of other areas not directly connected to Peirce. It therefore came as a pleasant surprise to come across this passage from “Synechism, Fallibilism, and Evolution”:
If all things are continuous, the universe must be undergoing a continuous growth from non-existence to existence. There is no difficulty in conceiving existence as a matter of degree. The reality of things consists in their persistent forcing themselves upon our recognition. If a thing has no such persistence, it is a mere dream. Reality, then, is persistence, is regularity.
Upon reading this I immediately thought of Latour’s concept of relative existence (which I discuss here in an earlier post). For Latour, as for Peirce, existence is not an all or nothing affair but is a matter of degree. For Latour a thing gains in relative existence as it gains in the number of associations and loses relative existence as these associations decline. For Peirce, moreover, and as is true for Latour as well, this is not a matter of a thing’s gaining or losing in relative existence as they gain or lose associations relative to us. Relative existence is not correlated with human access. For Peirce it is in the nature of things themselves to settle into habits, and when they do so they acquire greater persistence and regularity — that is, greater reality. Peirce is quite clear on this point:
The hypothesis suggested by the present writer [Peirce referring to himself] is that all laws are results of evolution; that underlying all other laws is the only tendency which can grow by its own virtue, the tendency of all things to take habits…In view of the principle of continuity, the supreme guide in framing philosophical hypotheses, we must, under this theory, regard matter as mind whose habits have become fixed so as to lose the powers of forming them and losing them, while mind is to be regarded as a chemical genus of extreme complexity and instability. It has acquired in a remarkable degree a habit of taking and laying aside habits.
The difference between mind and world, or mind and things is simply a difference in the habits of things themselves, whereby grey stones (to use Whitehead’s famous example) have well-entrenched habits and humans have, among their many habits, the habit of laying mental habits aside. We humans are the type of thing that can change its mind, or we can dump the cartload of beliefs as Peirce puts it.
There are many things about Peirce, however, that I find problematic. For one, I find that he is too quick to dismiss Aristotle. In his inimitable way, Peirce rejects Aristotle’s philosophy, seeing in it a philosophy ‘that has dominated the world for so many ages and still in great measure tyrannizes over the thoughts of butchers and bakers that never heard of him…’ Aristotle has thus become for Peirce the metaphysical bad habit that has spread throughout society, such that butchers and bakers (and candlestick makers?) simply interpret the world through an Aristotelian metaphysical lens. One should not throw the baby out with the bathwater, however, and there is much in Aristotle that we should continue to draw from, especially his concept of substance (this is especially important, for me, in understanding the intellectual tension between Spinoza and Leibniz). The other area I find problematic (and there may be more) is his conception of truth and reality. As Peirce puts it,
The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real. That is the way I would explain reality.
The real, in short, is in the end correlated with what we take to be true at the end of the road of inquiry, when all the surprises of the real have been overcome. Peirce, it turns out, despite his claims regarding the habits of things, is thus a correlationist in the end, and yet I don’t think he needed to go down this path. If he had stuck to his guns regarding the habit of things the real could be understood without reducing it to being what we ultimately agree to be real. This is the path Latour took, at least as I understand it.