C. S. Peirce on Chaos and Law–On the Mystery of Naming the Real

After Nature/Leon has brought my attention to a review of a new book, Peirce and the Threat of Nominalism by Paul Forster. 

“[Peirce’s] opposition to nominalism motivated him as nothing else did and, as Forster shows, is central to his philosophical program. While Peirce’s argument against nominalism was strictly philosophical, his objection to it extended beyond logic to what he regarded as the undesirable consequences of nominalism for civilization. This gave Peirce a sense of urgency in his effort to provide a realist alternative for philosophy and science.”

To defend realism from nominalism and her four daughters (sensationalism, phenomenalism, individualism, and materialism), Peirce had to argue for the existence of true symbols conveying real things to actual minds. In order to prove that laws are real (which is also to prove that ideas are real), he had to account for the emergence of lawfulness out of chaos. Chaos had to be granted memory to account for its accidental acquisition of increasingly organized habits.

There are striking conceptual parallels here with James, Bergson, and Whitehead, not to mention Coleridge (who I’ve been studying of late).

Speaking of realism… What in scientific cosmology is real, and what is theoretical? What is the relation between naming and knowing? There seem to be real things in the universe that we have names for and yet do not understand (see video below). Some of cosmology is systematic, but much of it is still classificatory. Astronomers and physicists are often forced to give names to objects they haven’t yet grasped conceptually (that is, understood in a coherent way in connection with all other known laws and theories).

It seems the electromagnetic age needs a Goethe who can rewind what has today become a much extended spectrum of “colors.” What is the electromagnetic spectrum? What does it mean that we are using technological sensory extensions to detect a whole spectrum of things beyond the phenomenal reach of our biological senses? If the stars are not only material, but semiotic, then what hieroglyph might they be painting for our eye? Of course, the eye, too, must be seen as part of the symbol. “There is nothing in external nature but is an emblem, a hieroglyphic, of some thing in us,” says Emerson.



5 Comments Add yours

  1. Jason Hills says:

    Peirce did found the tradition from which James and Whitehead sprang. Bergson, however, was a contemporary competitor. There should be no surprise in the (almost literal) family resemblance.

  2. Billy Bob Dumpling says:

    Nominalism and holism are not at odds when you employ higher-dimensional thinking. It is literally as simple as imagining two lines intersecting. By one dimension, eg, we are all at the same value (holism, laws, etc) and by another dimension our values vary(nominalism, individualism). Plus, basic experience shows that this is the situation we actually are dealing with…individuality is not a specter nor are physical laws.

    I would recommend the book Flatland.

    1. Jason Hills says:

      I do not see how that explains a relationship between holism and nominalism. I do think that they can be reconciled, but then the question would be to what end? I am looking for when holism comes up in the post–maybe I missed it or an implication?

  3. John Fornaro says:

    ”There is nothing in external nature but is an emblem, a hieroglyphic, of some thing in us,” says Emerson. Emerson, by my take since about 1970, proposed the Buddheo-Christian viewpoint.

    Excellent review of a review. I have only in the past few months learned about CS Peirce. Found your website [footnotes2plato] in online studies. Many thanks for your contribution.

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