25 Jul 2016

Peirce (CP1.330-1.331) Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Vol1/Bk3/Ch2/B/§5, "Polar Distinction and Volition", summary


by Corry Shores


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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


B: Secondness


§5: Polar Distinction and Volition [1.330-1.331]



Brief summary:

A polar distinction is one where {a} two equally prevalent things are lacking a third one that is in coordination with them and also where {b} there is a neutrality of some sort separating these two poles. In the natural world, there are a limited number of polar distinctions. For example, there is past and future, the two sexes, and magnetic poles. However, our psychic life is full of polar distinctions, like pleasure and pain and right and wrong. They are always a matter of volition, as they involve us trying to attain one pole while avoiding its polar opposite, as with the case of pleasure and pain for example. Our actions are volitional only if along with our intentions and efforts to effect a change we also perceive that change happening. But if we only just perceive the change without intending and striving to have effected it, our experience is just perception. And if we are intending and striving to make a change, but there is a delay before we see it effected, then until it is effected it is just a longing, and only after when we see it accomplished is the act one of willing. And acts of attention are necessarily volitional.








[A polar distinction is one where there are two equally prevalent parties, without a third related to them, but with a neutrality that separates them. In the natural world there is just a limited number of polar distinctions, like past and future, and the two sexes. However, in psychic life there are many more, like pleasure and pain and right and wrong. These distinctions arise from our volition striving for one thing in avoidance of its polar opposite.]


[Peirce defines polar distinction as “any distinction between two equally decided characters to which no third seems to be coordinate (although a neutrality separates them).” The natural world does not have many such polar distinctions. Peirce thinks that the list of polar distinctions in nature is limited nearly to the following: the past and the future, the two ways of passing over a line, right-and left-handed spirals and helices, the magnetic poles, the electric poles (the prior set are related), the right and left sides of our bodies, and the two sexes. But in human psychology we have many more polar distinctions, with most of them being matters of volition, for example, pleasure and pain (where the factor of volition is found in the fact that we strive for the one and avoid the other), right and wrong (where again we aim for the one and try not to aim for the other), necessity and impossibility (I am not sure the volitional element here; Peirce says it is apparent when we need to consider their rational modifications), and reasonable and perverse (I also do not follow the volitional element here, but Peirce says they “imply that assent is as free as choice ever is, and so proclaim their volitional strain”. Perhaps the idea is that we volitionally choose and effect our acceptance of the situation when things are necessary or when they are impossible.). Peirce notes that we can find many antonyms in the thesaurus that show how there are various polar psychic sorts of distinctions. Peirce also says that for our purposes here, we do not need to reflect more on the volitional element involved in these psychic cases. But were we do so, we would find that these dichotomies are the result of volition. (I am not sure why, but perhaps the idea is that volition involves choosing and directing ones actions  in accordance with some polar element rather than its opposite.)


Calling any distinction between two equally decided characters to which no third seems to be coördinate (although a neutrality separates them) a polar distinction, in the external world polar distinctions are few. That of past and future, with the resulting two ways of passing over a line (and consequent right-and left-handed spirals and helices, whence probably the magnetic and possibly the electric poles – supposing the latter to be truly “polar” in our sense), with the right and left sides of our bodies, and the two sexes, seems pretty much to exhaust the list of them. Yet for the much smaller universe of psychology, polar distinctions abound, most of them referring to volition. Thus, pleasure is any kind of sensation that one immediately seeks, pain any that one immediately shuns. Right and wrong are expressly volitional. Necessity and impossibility so obviously refer to volition that the words often need qualification to show that rational modifications of them are meant. The words reasonable and perverse imply that assent is as free as choice ever is, and so proclaim their volitional strain. Roget’s Thesaurus illustrates the great aptitude of the psychical to polar distinction. Any very close examination of how far this is due to volition would cause us to wander quite away from the subject of this essay. It would show that dichotomy, meaning the fact that the elements that a distinction separates are just two in number, is strikingly often – perhaps that it is presumably always – due to volition ....







[Our actions are just perceptual if they are only aware of changes that are happening. But they are volitional if we are aware of our role in those changes having taken place. Until the change happens, we are longing for the change rather than willing it. Attention itself is something volitional.]



[Peirce will now elaborate more on the volition. (I do not follow this paragraph very well, so please consult the quotation to follow.) He says that in the mode of consciousness which is purely perceptual, we are aware just of something having been done. But in the mode of consciousness which is volitional, and that thus involves our willing, we are aware of something being done when it is actually effected (by us). And even if someone is given a physical task that they struggle to effect but cannot, as it is too difficult, it is still a volitional act, as they have commanded their muscles to work and resist with all their force. Peirce then makes a distinction between desire and willing. He describes “table-turning”, which I do not know anything about. (It is explained here at this wikipedia page.) The idea seems to be the Peirce sat around a table with other people. They all were positioned fairly far from the table, but still just close enough that their finger tips touched the table. They did not actively try to move the table with their muscles, but rather they just tried to use the pure force of their will to move the table. Then, after a short period during which they willed with all their might, the table would begin turning. Peirce says that before the table moved, their involvement was merely a longing, but not a willing. However, it becomes a willing when that longing and intention to effect change are met with the perception of the intended change in the world. Peirce then discusses a notion that some psychologists of his time use, namely, the concept of involuntary attention. Peirce says that this is not a very well conceived idea. It could mean either of two things. It could mean unpremeditated attention or it could mean attention influenced by conflicting desires. We are aware of conflicting desires, and we also know how what we desire to do might not accord with what we will to do. In fact, consciousness of this situation lies “at the root of our consciousness of free will.” Peirce thinks that “involuntary attention” is a contradiction in terms. Perhaps his point here is simply that any act of attention requires volition. As I did not grasp these ideas very well, please check the quotation below.]

Although the mode of consciousness we call volition, or willing, contrasts decidedly with the mere perception that something has been done, yet it is not perfected, and perhaps does not take place at all, until something is actually effected. Trying to shove something too heavy for the man to stir nevertheless accomplishes, in considerable measure, the only thing that he directly willed to do – namely, to contract certain muscles. In the days of table-turning we used to be commanded to sit quite away from a table, and “with all our might” to will that the table should move; and since the whole weight of our outstretched arms soon made our finger-tips unconsciously numb (for things are not apt to be consciously unconscious; and there were other concurring physiological effects that we did not suspect), while we were possessed of no other “might” over the table than through our muscles, we used to be speedily rewarded, by a direct consciousness of willing that the table move, accompanied by the vision of its wondrous obedience. Until it moved, we were only longing, not willing. So when certain psychologists write, chiefly in French – a language abounding in exquisite distinctions, but one in which any analytical method of interpretation is so sure to lead to misunderstandings, that the language is not well adapted to psychology or philosophy – about “involuntary attention,” they can only mean one of two things, either unpremeditated attention or attention influenced by conflicting desires. Though “desire” implies a tendency to volition, and though it is a natural hypothesis that a man cannot will to do that which he has no sort of desire to do, yet we all know conflicting desires but too well, and how treacherous they are apt to be; and a desire may perfectly well be discontented with volition, i.e., with what the man will do. The consciousness of that truth seems to me to be the root of our consciousness of free will. “Involuntary attention” involves in correct English a contradiction in adjecto.





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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