3 Jul 2016

Peirce (CP1.313) Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Vol1/Bk3/Ch2/A/§8, "Presentments as Signs"


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


§8: Presentments as Signs [1.313]



Brief summary:

A feeling or presentment can serve as a phenomenal sign by calling forth to our mind some other resembling feeling or idea. Odor especially has this effect, because it has the power to presentmentate, that is, to fully dominate our conscious states. But the reason for these associations is not simply from the contingent fact of us having past experiences that for one arbitrary reason or another have come to be grouped together, as with empiricist theories of association. Rather, the things themselves in the world causing these presentments have certain qualitative feels. Violet for example has the qualitative feel of delicate fineness. It is not that most people we see wearing violet have delicate fineness inherently, and we thus come to associate the color with the personality trait. Rather, it is by wearing violet that their own essences come to be mixed with the essence of violet, and thereby when we look at the people wearing violet, we see that they themselves have violet’s essential feeling of delicate fineness.






[A feeling or presentment can serve as a phenomenal sign that calls to mind other resembling and thus associated feelings. This is not from arbitrary connections between experiences but rather because the things causing the presentments have a spiritual qualitative essence that mixes with that of whatever physical things are combined with them.]


[In the prior sections we were discussing feeling, and just previously we examined the example of the blind person wondering if a trumpet’s blare is like the color scarlet. Now instead of the term “feeling” Peirce is now using the term “presentment”. (The editor notes that this part of the text comes from a different source than the just prior one.) But given that the example of the blind man hearing a trumpet blare is repeated here, we might think of a presentment as a feeling, more or less. Peirce’s notion here seems to be that feelings or presentments are evocative of similar feelings and in that sense also perform a phenomenal sign function. A color can be sad or happy, for instance. So by seeing the color, it can call to mind another feeling like happiness, and thereby be something like a sign for happiness as well. Peirce then says that odors especially have this power. We might smell something and then call to mind a very distinct memory. Peirce’s explanation for this is that smell experiences completely dominate our consciousness. For this he uses the term “presentmentate” which means “to occupy the entire field of consciousness, so that one almost lives for the moment in a world of odor [or whatever sense modality is at work].” Then, by means of association, the smell or other feeling can call to mind other feelings, mental contents, states of mind, and so on. His next idea is difficult and yet absolutely fascinating. He says that presentments, odors especially, “have a remarkable power of calling to mind mental and spiritual qualities”. I am not entirely sure what is meant by “spiritual”, but let us continue to the examples. He then says that “A lady’s  favorite perfume seems to me somehow to agree with that of her spiritual being.” And, if the woman wears the color violet, “she herself will have the very same delicate fineness” of the color itself. He then gives a more specific example. He notes two woman he knows, each with a distinct personality. One is “an artistic old virgin, a grand dame”, and the other is a “noisy young matron” who is “very ignorant.” So he has established certain basic properties of their personality which are not identical. However, both wore rose perfume, and he says that the two woman “were strangely alike”. So it is not that their personalities were alike, but that something else about them, perhaps something “spiritual” was alike about them. He says that “surely there must be some subtle resemblance between the odor and the impression I get of this or that woman’s nature.” At this point we might wonder if he is merely saying something like what Hume says about association. So in this case, does Peirce associate the second woman with the first, simply because the perfume makes him recall the first when smelling the second? In light of what Peirce said in the prior section about the world outside us having psychic qualities to it, and also in light of his current use of the term “spiritual”, perhaps he means something different than that simple sort of association. Possibly he is saying that the perfume itself has a certain feeling or character or to it, which is not based on mental associations but rather on some aspect it has inherently. Since Peirce tells us specifically what feeling violet has (and not the feeling that rose perfume has), let us work with this color example first. Violet as a presentment serves as a phenomenal sign for “delicate fineness”. This is because the actual perfume odor itself bears that psychic quality. So regardless of the character of the woman wearing it, she will call to our minds the trait of delicate fineness. Thereby by extension, any woman wearing violet can remind us of any others who wear violet.  Furthermore, it seems another idea might be that the woman’s inherent spiritual essence is transformed by it becoming mixed with that of the color or odor she wears. (As he says, the perfume will agree with her spiritual being, and that by wearing the color they then have that color’s quality.) So in other words, our essence is something intimately bound up with the essences (that is, with the “spiritual beings” or the psychic qualitative feelings) of the physical things we combine to ourselves. What I am wondering is the following. Suppose we see this more from a metaphysical perspective than a phenomenological one. Is Peirce suggesting that the world is composed of things with psychic essences that mix synthetically when the objects physically mix? It would be interesting to see the world and our behaviors this way. Perhaps we might not want to be seen doing certain actions or possessing certain things, for fear that other people will see these things or actions and associate us with bad notions. But perhaps instead we might think that we should not do these actions or possess these things, because our very essence / spiritual being / psychic being will be contaminated by them. (This idea also makes me think of a superstitious kind of thinking.)]

A mere presentment may be a sign. When the traditional blind man said he thought scarlet must be something like the sound of a trumpet, he had caught its blatancy very well; and the sound is certainly a presentment, whether the color is so or not. Some colors are called gay, others sad. The sentiment of tones is even more familiar; that is, tones are signs of visceral qualities of feeling. But the best example is that of odors, for these are signs in more than one way. It is a common observation that odors bring back old memories. This I think must be due, in part at least, to the fact that, whether from the peculiar connection of the olfactory nerve with the brain or from some other cause, odors have a remarkable tendency to | presentmentate themselves, that is to occupy the entire field of consciousness, so that one almost lives for the moment in a world of odor. Now in the vacuity of this world, there is nothing to obstruct the suggestions of association. That is one way, namely by contiguous association, in which odors are particularly apt to act as signs. But they also have a remarkable power of calling to mind mental and spiritual qualities. This must be an effect of resemblance-association, if under resemblance-association we include all natural associations of different ideas. I certainly would do this; for I do not know what else resemblance can consist in.


A lady’s favorite perfume seems to me somehow to agree with that of her spiritual being. If she uses none at all her nature will lack perfume. If she wears violet she herself will have the very same delicate fineness. Of the only two I have known to use rose, one was an artistic old virgin, a grande dame; the other a noisy young matron and very ignorant; but they were strangely alike. As for those who use heliotrope, frangipanni, etc., I know them as well as I desire to know them. Surely there must be some subtle resemblance between the odor and the impression I get of this or that woman's nature.

(Peirce 156-157)





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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