Note: This was written up as a brief review of the initial segment of Phi 381 in Spring 2005, as students were preparing to choose questions for their first take-home exam.
E PLURIBUS UNUM.
American Philosophy has frequently occupied itself with complex unities.
Peirce, whose initial passion was understanding the natural world, worked his way from ground up (starting with studies of astronomy, physics, geological and biological evolution) to the study of increasingly complex self-regulatory and self-transformative systems such as those operative in creative expression, interpretive thought, and cooperative social endeavors.
In their most inclusive and subtly differentiated forms, the results of his work are expressed in his conceptualization of three Categories of Phenomena and in his theory of Signs or semiosis (the action of signs). Thirdness is surely a key form of complex unity. The Sign-relation is a key form of complex unity.
As Dewey says of experience itself, so may we say of Thirdness and of the Sign-relation: they are stable AND precarious. Moreover, they are self-sustaining AND self-transformative.
In our introductory study of Peirce, we jumped directly to those most inclusive patterns of complex unity: the phenomenological Categories and the basic Sign relation(s).
When we moved to our introduction to James, we dwelt primarily on a particular complex unity: that of the self. This is the complex unity of a “stream of consciousness” that configures itself as an “I—me” complex. Moreover, the “me” is itself a complex unity (the material me, the social me, the spiritual me); and the “I” is, James concludes, a functional unity but not a substantive unity. We are a far cry from the “I” as a Cartesian mental substance, and from the composite Cartesian self as a mental substance contingently linked to a material substance (the body).
Peirce showed us a paradigm of self-generative, self-transformative complex unities, and James focused our attention on the complex unity of the self. Royce too asserts the complex unity of the self; but he then moves also to the complex unity of the Other. Self-consciousness is Social Consciousness (the simple is complex); and, furthermore, social experience is nature’s experience only in a new idiom (again, the apparently singular fact of human society is singular only as a configuration achieved in and through complex natural processes). But this gets heady, and nearly as abstract as Peirce’s Categories and Sign-relations; so let’s return to the complexity of a single self. Consider “loyalty to loyalty.” This expression indicates the complexity of the Other-self. It indicates that complexity in the other-self that invites, enables, us to distinguish the quality of the act (the act engaged in by the other-self) from the aim of the act. In distinguishing the value of your loyalty from the verity of the cause to which you are loyal, I distinguish the Firstness of your act from its Thirdness.
Dewey too is occupied with complex unities—in particular, with their reconstruction and with the generation of new complex unities. The reconstructive processes that most interest him are those that configure themselves, control themselves, from within. He studies the processes of locating immanent values and standards, projecting and reconstructing these, and thereby allowing the initiating processes to redirect and transform themselves.
Mead gives his attention, in our introductory selections, to a particular kind of complex unity: that of the “significant symbol,” starting with the vocal gesture. Mead unpacks the function of the vocal gesture both in self-organization and social-organization.
Jane Addams too concerns herself with the complexities of selfhood, or society, and of inclusive communities. Like Peirce and Dewey she calls us to be attentive to and receptive to the “aesthetic,” i.e., directly sensed, directly experienced, strand of ordinary experience; like them, too, she finds in ordinary experience reflexive moments or functions that constitute values and standards worthy of extension as organizing principles of larger complex unities, more inclusive communities sustained by more vigorously creative individuals.
Locke challenges us to find and to create vital complex unities on a world-wide scale by discovering value-cognates among different cultures that are functionally equivalent without being identical. He cautions us against our paradoxical tendency to “promote” tolerance intolerantly; to “promote” democracy undemocratically. He calls on social activists and on socially conscious artists to adopt the “tentative” and “revisionist” methods that the pragmatists, starting with Peirce, identify as the strength of the natural sciences. We must exercise critical intelligence to uncover “unreconstructed” absolutisms in our value attitudes. As we work to establish complex unities on a world scale, Locke keeps us keenly sensitive to the dual dangers of losing the complex diversity within the unity, on the one hand, and losing the unity to anarchic complexity and antagonisms on the other hand.