Dynamics of Inquiry (C.S. Peirce)

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Dynamics of Inquiry (C.S. Peirce)

Dynamics of inquiry.

C.S. Peirce, "On Time and Thought", MS 215, 8 Mar 1873.

Every mind which passes from doubt to belief must have ideas which follow after one another in time. Every mind which reasons must have ideas which not only follow after others but are caused by them. Every mind which is capable of logical criticism of its inferences, must be aware of this determination of its ideas by previous ideas. But is it pre-supposed in the conception of a logical mind, that the temporal succession in its ideas is continuous, and not by discrete steps? A continuum such as we suppose time and space to be, is defined as something any part of which itself has parts of the same kind. So that the point of time or the point of space is nothing but the ideal limit towards which we approach, but which we can never reach in dividing time or space; and consequently nothing is true of a point which is not true of a space or a time. A discrete quantum, on the other hand, has ultimate parts which differ from any other part of the quantum in their absolute separation from one another. If the succession of images in the mind is by discrete steps, time for that mind will be made up of indivisible instants. Any one idea will be absolutely distinguished from every other idea by its being present only in the passing moment. And the same idea can not exist in two different moments, however similar the ideas felt in the two different moments may, for the sake of argument, be allowed to be. Now an idea exists only so far as the mind thinks it; and only when it is present to the mind. An idea therefore has no characters or qualities but what the mind thinks of it at the time when it is present to the mind. It follows from this that if the succession of time were by separate steps, no idea could resemble another; for these ideas if they are distinct, are present to the mind at different times. Therefore at no time when one is present to the mind, is the other present. Consequently the mind never compares them nor thinks them to be alike; and consequently they are not alike; since they are only what they are thought to be at the time when they are present. It may be objected that though the mind does not directly think them to be alike; yet it may think together reproductions of them, and thus think them to be alike. This would be a valid objection were it not necessary, in the first place, in order that one idea should be the representative of another, that it should resemble that idea, which it could only do by means of some representation of it again, and so on to infinity; the link which is to bind the first two together which are to be pronounced alike, never being found. In short the resemblance of ideas implies that some two ideas are to be thought together which are present to the mind at different times. And this never can be, if instants are separated from one another by absolute steps. This conception is therefore to be abandoned, and it must be acknowledged to be already presupposed in the conception of a logical mind that the flow of time should be continuous. Let us consider then how we are to conceive what is present to the mind. We are accustomed to say that nothing is present but a fleeting instant, a point of time. But this is a wrong view of the matter because a point differs in no respect from a space of time, except that it is the ideal limit which, in the division of time, we never reach. It can not therefore be that it differs from an interval of time in this respect that what is present is only in a fleeting instant, and does not occupy a whole interval of time, unless what is present be an ideal something which can never be reached, and not something real. The true conception is, that ideas which succeed one another during an interval of time, become present to the mind through the successive presence of the ideas which occupy the parts of that time. So that the ideas which are present in each of these parts are more immediately present, or rather less mediately present than those of the whole time. And this division may be carried to any extent. But you never reach an idea which is quite immediately present to the mind, and is not made present by the ideas which occupy the parts of the time that it occupies. Accordingly, it takes time for ideas to be present to the mind. They are present during a time. And they are present by means of the presence of the ideas which are in the parts of that time. Nothing is therefore present to the mind in an instant, but only during a time. The events of a day are less mediately present to the mind than the events of a year; the events of a second less mediately present than the events of a day. (C.S. Peirce, CE 3, pp. 6870).


Peirce, C.S. (1873), MS 215, ["On Time and Thought"], pp. 6871 in Writings of Charles S. Peirce : A Chronological Edition, Volume 3, 18721878, Peirce Edition Project, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN, 1986.

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