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Connections Between Peirce's "Some Consequences of Four Incapacities" and "How to Make Our Ideas Clear"

Updated on September 11, 2017
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Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly improve it.


In "Some Consequences of Four Incapacities" (SCFC) and a follow-up paper "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" (HMOIC), part of Peirce’s discussion covers the temporal nature of thoughts. In SCFC he discusses what constitutes a thought and its meaning or representation (both physical and mental), known as the sign. In one part of his exploration on the topic, he writes about how, “two thoughts are two events separated in time.” (Pierce 235). In his follow up paper HMOIC he discusses the progression of thoughts, or consciousness, by extending a comparison between notes and melodies (27-28). Objects exist that we are “immediately” conscious of, such as sensations, and that we are “mediatly” conscious of, such as thoughts (28). So if thoughts are like melodies, then like those melodies they cannot exist in the same span of time, overlapping one another. Two melodies played at the same time make for cacophony. Much is the same with thoughts, one cannot conceptualize two thoughts, made up of a magnitude of objects that are known to use immediately, trying to occupy the same time span. That would lead to no clear result and is counterproductive to a thought’s purpose of representing reality. It is best to let the melody play out and build the notes when appropriate.

Instead of occupying the same length of time, thoughts are, as Peirce describes, only in the mind and can only be “regarded as similar if they are compared and brought together in the mind… one cannot literally be contained in the other” (235). Using the analogy of thoughts as melodies again from HMOIC, if a note has a value that is infinite no matter when you observe it, then a melody has a finite number of values which are eternal in their singular worth. So by bringing thoughts together in the mind, we have melodies which certainly have notes in common, but it is the ordering that is important and makes the disstinction. It is because of that ordering of the notes that no two thoughts are exactly alike but they can be similar or have similar progressions (perhaps to the difference in key – a major versus a minor) based on those eternal values, just as SCFC says above. Melodies can have similarities but each is distinct and unique.

Building upon the idea that “thought is a thread of melody running through the succession of our sensations” (28), since thoughts are a flow of objects, like the melody metaphor they follow from one to another. The tune cannot be completed by starting in the middle of the melody or abruptly ending it before you get to the final note, it is a progression that needs each note to complete it and thus distinguish it from others. This is exactly what Peirce alludes to in SCFC, for, “the thought is determined by a previous thought of the same object…The subsequent thought denotes what was thought in the previous thought” (234). In other words, our thoughts can lead to future expectations we may have about the world or actions we will commit. For one who is well versed in music theory, anticipations of the next note based on the previous note are entirely possible, further extending the music metaphor from HMOIC.

Also, both thoughts and melodies can be revised based upon future input. Sometimes a composer working on a melody likes the transition from one note to another just fine, but upon revisiting the melody, he/she finds a different note that works better in the transition and substitutes it. Just like this, a thought process can seem fine as we plow through it, but upon receiving new sensations, new signs from our external world, we feel the old thought needs to be revised in light of this. This is one of the cornerstones of Peirce’s philosophies: to bring the scientific process to philosophy. Nothing is with 100% certainty, and mistakes happen. It is the hope that as we progress further into the world we will attain a higher level of completeness but we can approach it ever closer. We will never have perfect melodies or thoughts, but we will get ever closer as we allow for revision and change.

Works Cited

Pierce. "How To Make Our Ideas Clear.” Philosophical Writings of Peirce. Ed. Justus Buchler. New York: Dover, 1955. Print. 27,28.

Pierce. "Some Consequences of the Four Capacities.” Philosophical Writings of Peirce. Ed. Justus Buchler. New York: Dover, 1955. Print. 234, 235.

© 2012 Leonard Kelley


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