3 Jul 2016

Peirce (CP1.306-1.311) Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Vol1/Bk3/Ch2/A/§6, "A Definition of Feeling"


by Corry Shores


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[The following is summary. Boldface and bracketed commentary are mine. Proofreading is incomplete, so please forgive my typos.]



Summary of


Charles Sanders Peirce


Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce


Volume 1: Principles of Philosophy


Book 3: Phenomenology


Chapter 2: The Categories in Detail


A: Firstness


§6: A Definition of Feeling [1.306-1.311]



Brief summary:

We are to conceive of a feeling only on its own terms and not in relation to other concepts we normally bind up with it. Feelings are always entire and complete and thus do not admit of temporal variation. They are qualities of immediate consciousness that cannot be reproduced in any way. This means it is the same feeling each moment it manifests, and to recall a feeling is not really to have that feeling again, as it can never have its original vibrancy which was essential to it when it was manifest. This vividness of the feeling is different both from the feeling’s qualitative components and as well from the feeling itself on a whole. This vividness is also like a mark of the immediacy of consciousness of the feeling, and feelings can only be given in immediate consciousness. Were we to try to analyze a presently given feeling, we would find ourselves unable to do so, because it will have already passed by the time we bring our reflective awareness upon it. And also reflecting upon it to further conceptualize it will place it into relations that will mischaracterize it, as a feeling cannot be conceptualized in relation to other things. Finally, it is not that our qualitative sense impressions are caused by an inert physical world outside us, which is characterizable on the basis of quantitative variations like how small differences in light frequency can cause very drastic qualitative differences in the colors we see. Rather, the world around us already itself contains psychic feelings of these sense qualities, and they arouse in our senses sympathetic feelings of those same qualities.






[A feeling is a kind of consciousness that is to be conceived purely by and as itself and independently of any other concept, no matter how much the other concept might seem to be bound up with it.]


[Recall from the prior section 1.305 that Peirce argued it is possible to conceive of a pure feeling independently of any other notion, including concepts of time, the physical world, and our minds.] Peirce defines a feeling in the first place as a “kind of consciousness”. What makes this conception of feeling remarkable is that it is an absolutely purified conception of feeling. The concept is not in any way bound up with concepts of the act by which we have the feeling, the time during which it manifests, its physical or physiological causes, or from other feelings which might be seen comparatively as distinct from it and thereby as being a means to specify it. It has “its own positive quality which consists in nothing else”.

By a feeling, I mean an instance of that kind of consciousness which involves no analysis, comparison or any process whatsoever, nor consists in whole or in part of any act by which one stretch of consciousness is distinguished from another, which has its own positive quality which consists in nothing else, and which is of itself all that it is, however it may have been brought about; so that if this feeling is present during a lapse of time, it is wholly and equally present at every moment of that time. To reduce this description to a simple definition, I will say that by a feeling I mean an instance of that sort of element of consciousness which is all that it is positively, in itself, regardless of anything else.

(Peirce 152)




[A feeling is not an event, as it does not have variable phases of manifestation over time. Rather so long as it is manifesting, it is doing so entirely and without further qualification or quantification of it. A feeling by definition cannot be understood as something that is reproduced. It is simply a quality of immediate consciousness.]


[This next idea is fascinating. A feeling is not something temporally variable. So, a feeling cannot be an event, because events happen, meaning that there is a time before them when they were not yet happening and a time after when they are no longer happening. However, feelings do not admit of such variability over temporal variation. A feeling is a state, which means that it is entire so long as it endures. Here the concept becomes a bit confusing. If a feeling endures, then is it not bound up with finite temporality? So we cannot see the feeling it seems as eternal. But it is not clear to me yet how otherwise to understand its temporality. Perhaps the idea is that its coming into manifestation and its passing away happening not gradually but instantaneously. This part is unclear for me. The next idea is even more difficult. We need to distinguish the feeling as a single state from a feeling as “an exact reproduction of itself”. I think the notion here is that the feeling is not something that repeats every instant. For, he will say that the feeling is to be understood without relation to other things like other moments. But here a feeling understood as a reproduction grasps it in reference to its different moments of manifesting. He also notes a possible situation where there is a reproduction of the feeling that is simultaneous with it. I am not sure why one would think that. I am also not sure why Peirce claims that this is only possible were the reproduction to happen in another mind. At any rate, in that conception the feeling is understood in relation to the mind in which it occurs, and thus is not conceived properly. His final point is again fascinating, but I am not sure I have it well. He says that a feeling is identical with any given duplication of it. I think here the identity is numerical identity. But what he says next is the fascinating but difficult part, (giving the full sentence) “Thus, any feeling must be identical with any exact duplicate of it, which is as much as to say that the feeling is simply a quality of immediate consciousness”. I am not exactly sure how the second part means the same as the first part of the sentence. But let me offer a suggestion. The second sort of reproduction suggested that any simultaneous reproduction of a feeling would have to be a part of the mind that is having that feeling rather than happening in some other mind. (In other words, it is not really a reproduction anyway, as it would be numerically the same as the one actually being experienced.) In that sense, it is a quality of immediate consciousness, because it is not a quality of some other’s consciousness. The first sort of reproduction said that the feeling understood as happening at different times must not be understood  in terms of those different times during which it manifests. Instead, it would seem to be one numerically same feeling despite the various moments of manifestation that we might upon further evaluation attribute to it. (So again, it is not really reproducible over time but is fully given as itself at any moment of its manifestation.) So in this sense it would be a quality of immediate consciousness, because any time we have the feeling, it would have to be in a present immediate act of consciousness. But I am not so sure I am getting the thinking here. The basic idea seems to be that a feeling cannot be anything other than what it is in the present moment of its immediate givenness. Let me quote.]

A feeling, then, is not an event, a happening, a coming to pass, since a coming to pass cannot be such unless there was a time when it had not come to pass; and so it is not in itself all that it is, but is relative to a previous state. A feeling is a state, which is in its entirety in every moment of time as long as it endures. But a feeling is not a single state which is other than an exact reproduction of itself. For if that reproduction is in the same mind, it must be at a different time, and then the being of the feeling would be relative to the particular time in which it occurred, which would be something different from the feeling itself, violating the definition which makes the feeling to be all that it is regardless of anything else. Or, if the reproduction were simultaneous with the feeling, it must be in another mind, and thus the identity of the feeling would depend upon the mind in which it was, which is other than the feeling; and again the definition would be violated in the same way. Thus, any feeling must be identical with any exact duplicate of it, which is as much as to say that the feeling is simply a quality of immediate consciousness.





[A recollection of a feeling is not a reproduction of it; for, although it may have all the defining characteristics of the feeling, the recollection will never have the same vividness.]


[So we just established that a feeling is not reproducible. But then there is the objection that we can recall a feeling we had in the past and thereby reproduce it. It is not clear to me yet, but it seems Peirce’s reply is that this is not a true reproduction, because while it might be 100% accurate with regard to its qualitative features that characterize it, the recollection will never have nearly the same vividness of the original. It therefore can never be the same feeling. Let me quote as I may have that wrong.]

But it must be admitted that a feeling experienced in an outward sensation may be reproduced in memory. For to deny this would be idle nonsense. For instance, you experience, let us say, a certain color sensation due to red-lead. It has a definite hue, luminosity, and chroma. These [are] three elements – which are not separate in the feeling, it is true, and | are not, therefore, in the feeling at all, but are said to be in it, as a way of expressing the results which would follow, according to the principles of chromatics, from certain experiments with a color disk, color-box, or other similar apparatus. In that sense, the color sensation which you derive from looking at the red-lead has a certain hue, luminosity, and chroma which completely define the quality of the color. The vividness, however, is independent of all three of these elements; and it is very different in the memory of the color a quarter of a second after the actual sensation from what it is in the sensation itself, although this memory is conceivably perfectly true as to hue, luminosity, and chroma, which truth constitutes it an exact reproduction of the entire quality of the feeling.





[The vividness of the feeling is different both from the feeling’s qualitative components and as well from the feeling itself on a whole.]


[The vividness of the feeling is really the vividness of the consciousness of the feeling. We just saw that it is independent of every component of the quality of that consciousness (these components in the example I think were the hue, luminosity, etc. of the color). Peirce then says this means it is also independent of the effect of these components, which is that feeling itself. This inference is harder for me to follow. Peirce seems to be assuming that anything independent of a cause must also necessarily be independent of that cause’s effect. I am not sure if I am right about that, and I am also not sure if I can think of a counter example, although I would be inclined to think some would be possible. The idea might be the following. The consciousness of the feeling has certain qualitative components. For consciousness of a feeling of color, there are such components of the consciousness as the hue, luminosity, etc. Now note two things. Vividness is not a part of the components of the consciousness. But something cannot have features that its own components lack. Therefore the vividness of the experience is independent of the feeling-consciousness itself.  That is probably not be right, because he previously said that the elements are not in the feeling but are said to be in it “as a way of expressing the results that would follow” from certain controlled experiments that would determine explicitly these other components. Let me quote:]

It follows that since the vividness of a feeling – which would be more accurately described as the vividness of a consciousness of the feeling – is independent of every component of the quality of that consciousness, and consequently is independent of the resultant of those components, which resultant quality is the feeling itself. We thus learn what vividness is not; and it only remains to ascertain what else it is.





[Because feelings are immediate consciousness, we cannot become reflectively conscious of them so to formulate knowledge of them. For, just as soon as we turn our reflective gaze upon our present instant of awareness, it has passed. And also, were we to try to form explicit knowledge of that present feeling, we would do so by placing it into relation with other factors. But a feeling is not properly conceived unless it is conceived independently of all other things.]


[Peirce just established that the vividness of a feeling is neither a part of the components nor a part of the whole. But this only tells us what a feeling is not. He will now try to tell us what it is. He makes two remarks. (I cannot discern exactly what the two separate remarks are, so I will not try to distinguish them here.) The first will be that regardless of what is in our mind and regardless of the mode of consciousness at work at that moment, there is nonetheless an immediate consciousness and thus as well a feeling. He will then give a proof for this claim. I cannot disern what the proof is for that claim, so please consult the text to follow. He does however develop a point that builds from this. The idea seems to be that because the feeling is given only in immediate consciousness, it is not available directly for reflection and therefore the science of psychology cannot tell us about feelings (as they would need to be immediately present in order to be studied). I am not following the next point, but it seems to be this: the reason we cannot analyze just-passed moments of consciousness is because we cannot recall them in their original entirety. We can only recall certain qualitative aspects but not their own undivided wholeness. The next idea is a little complicated too. He says that feeling is immediately present consciousness, but, there is no consciousness in the feeling, because it (the present moment or the present act of consciousness) is instantaneous. He also says that since a feeling is a quality, it is not conscious but is rather a mere possibility. (Recall from section 1.304 the notion of feeling as a “may-be”. For that section I wrote in summation of the text,

the pure quality of feeling of hearing the train whistle is something that somehow is to be understood as existing apart of our experience of it. So they do not merely exist as being something concretely experienced in the present. Rather, they exist as “may-bes”, because in some way they are distinct from the concrete experiences that may or may not be experiences of these qualities. He seems to demonstrate this distinction with an odd example. He writes, “the word red means something when I say that the precession of the equinoxes is no more red than it is blue, and that it means just what it means when I say that aniline red is red.” But normally we think that qualities are qualities of one thing or another. But qualities of feeling are not to be thought of as inhering in anything. He contrasts qualities of feeling with things like laws. We cannot think of the law of gravity without also thinking that it would have to involve some physical objects with mass. In other words, how can the law of gravity exist if there were not things which could behave in accordance with it? However, we can think of pure qualities of feeling existing without them inhering in some object.

) Peirce then further elaborates on this notion that we cannot be reflectively aware of the feeling we are having in the present moment. He says that while we can have some particular feeling for some duration, we cannot have any explicit propositional knowledge of that feeling. The reason for this is that just as soon as we begin to conceptualize the feeling, we will be doing so by means of comparisons or by relating the feeling to what is causing the feeling and so on. But by doing so, we have taken our awareness away from the feeling, because it can only be grasped in its purity and not in relation to anything else.]

To this end two remarks will be useful. The first is that of whatever is in the mind in any mode of consciousness there is necessarily an immediate consciousness and consequently a feeling. The proof of this proposition is very instructive as to the nature of feeling; for it shows that, if by psychology we mean the positive, or observational, science of the mind or of consciousness, then although the entire consciousness at any one instant is nothing but a feeling, yet psychology can teach us nothing of the nature of feeling, nor can we gain knowledge of any feeling by introspection, the feeling being completely veiled from introspection, for the very reason that it is our immediate consciousness. Possibly this curious truth was what Emerson was trying to grasp – but if so, pretty unsuccessfully – when he wrote the lines,

The old Sphinx bit her thick lip –

Said, “Who taught thee me to name?

I am thy spirit, yoke-fellow,

Of thine eye I am eyebeam. |

“Thou art the unanswered question;

Couldst see thy proper eye,

Always it asketh, asketh;

And each answer is a lie.”

But whatever he may have meant, it is plain enough that all that is immediately present to a man is what is in his mind in the present instant. His whole life is in the present. But when he asks what is the content of the present instant, his question always comes too late. The present has gone by, and what remains of it is greatly metamorphosed. He can, it is true, recognize that he was at that time, for example, looking at a specimen of red-lead, and must have seen that color, which, he perceives, is something positive and sui generis, of the nature of feeling. But nobody’s immediate consciousness, unless when he was much more than half asleep, ever consisted wholly of a color-sensation; and since a feeling is absolutely simple and without parts – as it evidently is, since it is whatever it is regardless of anything else, and therefore regardless of any part, which would be something other than the whole – it follows that if the red color-sensation was not the whole feeling of the instant it has nothing in common with the feeling of the instant. Indeed, although a feeling is immediate consciousness, that is, is whatever of consciousness there may be that is immediately present, yet there is no consciousness in it because it is instantaneous. For we have seen already that feeling is nothing but a quality, and a quality is not conscious: it is a mere possibility. We can, it is true, see what a feeling in general is like; that, for example, this or that red is a feeling; and it is perfectly conceivable that a being should have that color for its entire consciousness, throughout a lapse of time, and therefore at every instant of that time. But such a being could never know anything about its own consciousness. It could not think anything that is expressible as a proposition. It could have no idea of such a thing. It would be confined to feeling that color. Thus, if you perceive that you must at the instant in question have been looking at a given specimen of red-lead, you know that that color has some resemblance to your feeling at that instant. But this only means that when the feeling gives place to comparison this resemblance appears. | But there is no resemblance at all in feeling, since feeling is whatever it is, positively and regardless of anything else, while the resemblance of anything lies in the comparison of that thing with something else. . . .

(Peirce 153-155)




[It is not that our qualitative sense impressions are caused by an inert physical world outside us, which is characterizable on the basis of quantitative variations like how small differences in light frequency can cause very drastic qualitative differences in the colors we see. Rather, the world around us already itself contains psychic feelings of these sense qualities, and they arouse in our senses sympathetic feelings of those same qualities.]


[The ideas in this paragraph are somewhat difficult to grasp clearly but are very exciting nonetheless. The first notion is that even if our state of consciousness involves many different elements, perhaps on account of different types of sense and mental data all being processed simultaneously, we nonetheless still have one overall feeling that characterizes the mental state as a whole. It is both absolutely simple and yet it is a secondary feeling or sensation. Perhaps for that reason it is something like a syntheses of the parts, but I am not sure. He then draws an analogy. This overall feeling comes from (or are “excited”) within our mind, just like the qualities of our perceptual senses come from (or “are excited by”) something psychic outside is. One reason this notion is somewhat hard to follow is because he seems to be saying not that there are physical external sources of our sense data but rather they are external psychic ones. He then observes that a small difference in light frequency can have a notable qualitative difference in our perception of color. His point here is not that this means there is something inaccurate or exaggerative about the ways our sense perception works but rather that our scientific way of representing sensible things like color is missing something. Peirce in fact does not buy into a model of phenomenal givenness which says that the world is made of inert matter that then somehow gets a new qualitative life in the world of human consciousness. He in fact thinks for example that we perceive red because outside us in the world there is a psychic feeling of red that arouses in our senses the sympathetic feeling of red. Wow!]

Every operation of the mind, however complex, has its absolutely simple feeling, the emotion of the tout ensemble. This is a secondary feeling or sensation excited from within the mind, just as the qualities of outward sense are excited by something psychic without us. It seems at first glance unaccountable that a mere slight difference in the speed of vibration should make such a difference of quality as that between deep vermillion and violet blue. But then it is to be remembered that it is doubtless our imperfect knowledge of those vibrations which has led us to represent them abstractly as differing only in quantity. There is already a hint in the behavior of electrons that a lower speed and a greater one have differences which we have not been aware of. People wonder, too, how dead matter can excite feelings in the mind. For my part, instead of wondering how it can be, I feel much disposed to deny downright that it is possible. These new discoveries have reminded us how very little we know of the constitution of matter; and I prefer to guess that it is a psychic feeling of red without us which arouses a sympathetic feeling of red in our senses.

(Peirce 155)





Peirce, C.S. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Vol 1: Principles of Philosophy.  In Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce [Two Volumes in One], Vols. 1 and 2. Edited by Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss. Cambridge, Massachusetts: 1965 [1931].



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