Sunday, July 1, 2012

Peirce and the Continuity of Time

In manuscripts 215-217 and 237-238, Peirce argues against the notion that it is coherent to speak of “instantaneous” time. There is no such thing as an instant of time, because any such instant must include more than an instant. In manuscript 237, he articulates the difference between what mathematicians now call “continuity” vs. a “continuum,” or what Peirce calls “continuity” and “discrete continuity.” In short, if time is continuous, then an instant must have parts that are not confined to a discrete instant. 

My prior posts about time, especially about its structure, inherit this insight.

Consciousness cannot be instantaneous, argues Peirce in manuscripts 215-217. Moreover, in manuscript 239, he argues that the significance of thought is its reference to the future, which is a core position in pragmatism and my own thought. In Dewey’s terminology, meaning is the anticipated consequences of action, and thus an experience is meaningful only insomuch as we grasp the situation as something to respond to.

C.S. Peirce on Time and Thought
Credit goes to Arisbe: The Peirce Gateway for the original collection.

I have annotated some of the manuscripts differently, since my focus is on time and thought in contrast to thought as semiosis.

Why no thought is an instant.

Consciousness cannot be instantaneous, but must be a process.

Yet another account of why thought takes time.
Introduces the notion that thought is a sign that requires an interpretant.

Time as continuous continuum, not a discrete continuum.
A continuous instant must have parts not confined to an absolutely discrete point.

Restatement of MS 237

“That the significance of thought lies in reference to the future”


  1. By the way, Peirce called his theory of continuity "synechism." Dewey kept the word "continuity."

  2. great, thanks for the compilation and the "MS" source, did not know about it!

    So, if (1) thought comprises signs, and (2) signs are sign situations, then (A) it does not make sense to speak about “instantaneous” time regarding thought and consciousness in particular, but also regarding interpretation in general, as interpretation is always part of a sign (-situation). Then, we also can say (B) that presence lasts as long as a particular interpretation is "running". Yet, finally we would have to acknowledge (C) that - since interpretation is not a "simple" = "flat" thing, but rather always refers to firstness, secondness and thirdness, it is open (until it is closed by contingency or by will) - we actually deal with a multiplicity of continua, would we?
    Here then, we would be quite close to Bergson's durée!

    cheers, and thanks again

  3. Yes, you have it precisely. We should add a qualification. The past is always actual, the present is the moment of real possibilities, and the future is just possible. Without the actual or completed to ground a "continuum"--I am thinking of it as a vector of change atm--,which is a case of temporal asymmetry, then it would be nothing but possibilities and no determinateness.

    Bergson is usually read together with James and Dewey because they were all on the same page concerning time.