C H A R L E S S A N D E R S P E I R C E
from SOME CONSEQUENCES OF FOUR INCAPACITIES
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We have seen that the content of consciousness, the entire phenomenal manifestation of mind, is a sign resulting from inference. Upon our principle, therefore, that the absolutely incognizable does not exist, so that the phenomenal manifestation of a substance is the substance, we must conclude that the mind is a sign developing according to the laws of inference. What distinguishes a man from a word? There is a distinction doubtless. The material qualities, the forces which constitute the pure denotative application, and the meaning of the human sign, are all exceedingly complicated in comparison with those of the word. But these differences are only relative. What other is there? It may be said that man is conscious, while a word is not. But consciousness is a very vague term. It may mean that emotion which accompanies the reflection that we have animal life. This is a consciousness which is dimmed when animal life is at its ebb in old age, or sleep, but which is not dimmed when the spiritual life is at its ebb: which is the more lively the better animal a man is, but which is not so, the better man he is. We do not attribute this sensation to words, because we have reason to believe that it is dependent upon the possession of an animal body. But this consciousness, being a mere sensation, is only a part of the material quality of the man-sign. Again, consciousness is sometimes used to signify the I think, or unity in thought: but this unity is nothing but consistency, or the recognition of it. Consistency belongs to every sign, so far as it is a sign: and therefore every sign, since it signifies primarily that it is a sign, signifies its own consistency. The mansign acquires information, and comes to mean more than he did before. But so do words. Does not electricity mean more now than it did in the days of Franklin ? Man makes the word, and the word means nothing which the man has not made it mean, and that only to some man. But since man can think only by means of words or other external symbols, these might turn round and say: “You mean nothing which we have not taught you, and then only so far as you address some word as the interpretant of your thought.” In fact, therefore, men and words reciprocally educate each other: each increase of a man's information involves and is involved by, a corresponding increase of a word's information.
Without fatiguing the reader by stretching this parallelism too far, it is sufficient to say that there is no element whatever of man's consciousness which has not something corresponding to it in the word; and the reason is obvious. It is that the word or sign which man uses is the man himself. For, as the fact that every thought is a sign, taken in conjunction with the fact that life is a train of thought, proves that man is a sign: so, that every thought is an external sign, proves that man is an external sign. That is to say, the man and the external sign are identical, in the same sense in which the words homo and man are identical. Thus my language is the sum total of myself: for the man is the thought.
It is hard for man to understand this, because he persists in identifying himself with his will, his power over the animal organism, with brute force. Now the organism is only an instrument of thought. But the identity of a man consists in the consistency of what he does and thinks, and consistency is the intellectual character of a thing: that is, is its expressing something.
Finally, as what anything really is, is what it may finally come to be known to be in the ideal state of complete information, so that reality depends on the ultimate decision of the community; so thought is what it is, only by virtue of its addressing a future thought which is in its value as thought identical with it, though more developed. In this way, the existence of thought now, depends on what is to be hereafter: so that it has only a potential existence, dependent on the future thought of the community.
The individual man, since his separate existence is manifested only by ignorance and error, so far as he is anything apart from his fellows, and from what he and they are to be, is only a negation. This is man,
Most ignorant of what he's most assured,
His glassy essence.
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