Commitment and Reality: From Kant to Peirce

Jeff Carreira Philosophy 13 Comments

There was more implied in Kant’s theory of knowledge than the fact that what we see is not an objective world in itself, but rather a picture that is created by us based on sense experience. (As if that wasn’t enough.) Besides stating that we are in an essential way the creators of the world as we see it, he was also saying that creating that world as it did had a responsibility inherent in it.

Kant recognized that as we go through life we are bombarded by sensual impressions and from those we compose an ongoing moving picture of reality. The picture of reality that we create must conform to certain rules of necessity in order to create a picture that is intelligible. As we put together our moving picture of reality all sorts of laws of necessity will demand our picture of reality must look a certain way so as to remain consistent and therefore intelligible. Some of these laws are enforced apriori, or prior to thought. Kant identified certain categories such as, time, space and being that all sensations were necessarily ordered into.

Other aspects of ordering are done more consciously using thought and reason. Every way in which we order reality has implied within it certain other necessary orderings. For instance, let’s say that we perceive a certain sequence of sensations – a shape, that is furry, has four legs and two eyes and barks and we put these sensations together into a dog. To remain consistent seeing this mental object as a dog means that by necessity the same object cannot also be a cat. In order to be consistent something being a dog makes it impossible for it to also be a cat. Within all of our conceptual categories there are uncountable numbers of implied laws that order and structure the rest of reality.

To put it another way, Kant understood human reason to be a constantly integrative process. As human beings are bombarded with a barrage of varied and incoherent sensations. These sensations are instantaneously filtered, ordered and congealed into a coherent picture of reality. This picture of reality, what Kant called a necessary transcendental unity, is the contextual background of all of our experience. The demand that this contextual background remain coherent from moment to moment places a constant demand on the way we order our perceptions.

Kant went beyond this more mechanical understanding of how reality is constructed by the mind by recognizing that by seeing objects in certain ways we were also committing to them being that way. In other words, if we see the object as a dog, we are committing ourselves to acting as if it is a dog. If it is a dog then we don’t go up and start talking to it and expecting it to answer back in human language. The laws of necessity are not only rules for how we must perceive things. They are also laws governing how we must act in relationship to things. When we see things a certain way we are committing ourselves to acting as if that is the way they are and we are responsible for acting in accordance with the way we see things.

It is a small leap from Kant here to William James’ conception of “The Will to Believe” in which he sees that what we choose to believe in fundamentally orients our perception of reality and as a result the way we act in the world. Truth in James’ brand of Pragmatism was created by our actions and our actions were determined by what we chose to believe.

Of all the American Pragmatists, however, it was Charles Sanders Peirce who was following on most directly from Kant. He held an integrated view of reality in which he simultaneously acknowledged the existence of different modes of being while insisting that all were equally real. His three modes of being were a rethinking of Kant’s fundamental categories.

Peirce claimed that reality was comprised of three modes of being that he called “Firstness,” “Secondness” and “Thirdness.” These were his three catagories. Firstness is the quality or character of things. It is “redness” or “hardness” or “coldness.” Secondness is the brute actuality of things. It is the event of experiencing the quality of something. Thirdness is the laws and habits that allow us to create a mental understanding of reality by relating things and qualities. In this we hear echos of Kant’s unknowable thing in itself, firstness, his concept of sensations, Secondness, and his transendental unity, Thirdness.

To Peirce, Thirdness was not a view of some external reality; it was an actual part of reality itself. Peirce did not see ideas as simply mirrors of the “real world;” they were as real as anything else. To appreciate the metaphysics of the Pragmatists, this point is critical and it has also become central to all forms of Evolutionary Spirituality that we find in the popular literature today.

It was in this third domain of reality that Peirce’s evolutionary philosophy was rooted because he saw our growth in knowledge about the universe as part of the growth of the universe itself. In Peirce’s understanding, the fate of the universe was in human hands because it would ultimately be determined by what Peirce imagined as an “unlimited community” of investigators. These investigators, through their shared inquiry into the nature of reality, would slowly converge toward a final agreement about what was ultimately true, and that truth would define the concluding state of the universe.

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
Learn More
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
13 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Carl
11 years ago

Something that seems to be missing from the thinking of Kant and many of those who followed him is an understanding of the development of “mind.” Reading them, one gets the impression that there is some kind of unformed entity, the mind, that does all of this creative construction of the universe. I think that our contemporary understanding of development, based on experimental and observational science rather than on conjecture, of the emergence of verbal and conceptual behavior, and of the co-emergent impact of culture on the creation of “mind,” adds quite a bit to these relatively archaic pre-scientific ideas.… Read more »

Nishad
Nishad
11 years ago

Peirce’s ideas are so “integral” by today’s definitions – reality is not just “third-person” but also “first-person” and “second person” – as these evolve, reality itself is evolving – just brilliant – and, of course, it makes the evolution of our own cognition so vital – the very universe is evolving in and through us

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

Jeff, I’m looking forward to reading your dismantling of the scientific worldview. Good luck with that!

Carl
11 years ago

My take on this is that in any comparison between a “scientific worldview” and pre-modern philosophy based on conjecture and logic, it’s all relative. I certainly don’t think that scientific method, given the methods and measurement tools we have now, can give us answers to “everything.” But I believe that a way to connect ideas to what actually happens, to empirical facts, represents an evolutionary advance over reliance on ideas disconnected from empirical investigation. I am a modern follower of Thomas Aquinas, I guess — thinking that the findings of science and faith should be consistent with one another. It… Read more »

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

OK Jeff, my guess is you will attempt to transcend and include the scientific worldview rather than dismantle it. See I’m learning…lets see it!

Catherine
Catherine
11 years ago

I come late again and it was a pleasure to read. I am happy that Carl is a modern re-incarnation of Thomas Aquinas and I find myself completely agreeing that the findings of science and faith should agree with each other. my take at the scientific worldview. The problem is certainly not the scientific Method (testing ideas on experimental results and in parallel getting ideas from careful observation of phenomena), which is so far quite an unparalleled way of making up our way in the Universe. The problem is the interpretation of what we do when investigate the world this… Read more »

Chuck R
Chuck R
10 years ago

The word “transcend” is one of those annoying words that has a wide variety of meanings and implications, not all of which the writer may intend. No writer can possibly figure out all the ways all readers may misinterpret or “add onto” the meaning he intended for any word, phrase, or sentence. Many people (including me, much of the time) typically interpret “transcend” as having connotations of “above, greater, bigger, better, superior, more inclusive.” (transcendental meditation, anyone?) I’m not convinced this is what Kant intended. I think it may be more like our “picture of reality, what Kant called a… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Thinking aloud about truth and our acceptance of certain feedback and info and ignoring or not accepting other info:

1) It seems a matter of recognizing, choosing to believe, choosing not to believe, dismissing/ignoring info.

2) Familiarity and frequent exposure to info that convinces us of its reality.

3) Sources we respect and feel confident in believing convince us of truth, including numbers of people–the persuasiveness of the many

4) A commonsense acceptance of pragmatic matter of matter of factness of something–avoiding danger and pain, seeing in the dark, touching things, etc.

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Continuing the train above:

In the matter of abstract ideas it becomes much more complicated deciding and being persuaded of truth. Some factors:

1) Respect for authoritative people and institutions, sources deemed reliable,

2) Obtaining real-life verification through empiric experiences and careful examination and thought given to the info

3) Large numbers of credible people believe the matter

4) A suspension of doubt with a sense of credibility, objections laid to rest comfortably for the while