Architecture in Peirce’s Continuum

September 5, 2013

Continuity is one of the central conceptions in Peirce’s philosophy, even though―or precisely because―of “all conceptions Continuity is by far the most difficult for Philosophy to handle“1, as he stated in 1898 in his 8th Cambridge Lecture entitled The Logic of Continuity. Particularly because of his extensive work on the mathematical and geometrical conception of the continuum as well as on its metaphysical generalization he has been called “the American Leibniz” (P. Weiss). It has even been proposed that the concept of continuity is the leitmotif of the development of Peirce’s entire philosophy, but that claim seems to be a little bit exaggerated as also the concept of continuity is subject to profound modifications in the course of Peirce’s development.

Peirce’s main argument for the reality of continuity is the possibility of communication between different subjects: if it is possible that two minds communicate, they cannot be completely alien to one another. And if they hypothesize about the empirical world, there must also be some sort of continuity between knowledge and the objects of knowledge; if there wouldn’t be, knowledge would be impossible because it simply had no object.

For Peirce, the „principle of continuity is the idea of fallibilism objectified. For fallibilism is the doctrine that our knowledge is never absolute but always swims, as it were, in a continuum of uncertainty and of indeterminacy. Now the doctrine of continuity is that all things so swim in continua“2. This has profound consequences on all areas of his philosophy:  from his ideas on mathematics through his metaphysics and cosmology, his epistemology and theory of the development of knowledge, and his semiotics and logic. Peirce liked to call his whole philosophy synechism „because it rests on the study of continuity“3. Synechism is the doctrine that “gives room for explanations of many facts which without it are absolutely and hopelessly inexplicable“4, and „it carries along with it the following doctrines: first a logical realism of the most profound type; second, objective idealism; third tychism, with its consequent thorough-going evolutionism“5.

After the principle of continuity, there can be no categorical bias between knowledge and the known. The medium that connects the two is signs. There is strictly no knowledge external to sign processes―which leads Peirce to refuting Kant’s Ding an sich. Thus for Peirce, epistemology converges to the logic of signs, i.e. semiotics. Not coincidentally the most famous version of his three categories firstness, secondness, and thirdness, which he developed especially in his examination of Kant’s philosophical system, is the triple of the different relations between a sign and its object: icon, index, and symbol. Put in a nutshell (and indeed a very small one), a sign for Peirce, seen from the perspective of logic, is a three-digit relation in the logical form of S(a,b,c). In natural language the relation S means “a is a sign of b for c”. These signs are like little, temporal ruptures in the continuous flow of reality that we use collectively [gemeinschaftlich] in order to get to know more about the world by way of constructive hypothesis. But there is no possibility of completely determining the continuum by way of signs because „no multitude of existent things could exhaust“6 it. Connected to his principle of tychism or “evolutionary realism”7 this dynamic experimentation will only lead to complete knowledge in the infinite future.

For architecture, a few points related to Peirce’s principle of continuity are of particular interest. First, if there is any such thing as an architectonical archetype, it is nothing we can find somewhere in the past, like in the figure of a myth of origin of architecture à la Vitruvius, but something that lies ahead of us and that we can only hope to develop collectively by way of fallibilistic, pragmatic procedures. Second, there can be no objective way of symbolic representation of architecture, as all signs are only temporarily stable vehicles of epistemic mediation. So, even though the understanding of the sign processes involved in all aspects of architecture is favorable, a fixed universal semiotic system of architecture can never be achieved. The semiotic system of architecture evolves as does reality in general―so I suggest to follow Aristotelian methodologies and always start working pragmatically from concrete buildings or projects. Third, there must always be a real continuity between the material form/gestalt of architecture and the idea(s) that are involved in its generation. From the point of view of objective idealism, these ideas are as real as the build architecture. Thus architecture should look not only for functional solutions, but for coherent forms in an idealistic sense. And forth, no architecture can ever achieve a completely fixed form, as per tychism absolute chance is real in the evolution of reality and thus also all architecture is never fixed in an absolute form. This is, so to say, an explanation for the context relativity of architecture from the point of view of Peircean semiological epistemology.

— this is only a sketch of how and which kind of ‚premisses‘ for architecture and a theory about architecture one could draw from Peirce’s philosophy. If it would be worth it doing this systematically? I don’t know. Anybody out there caring to find out?

  1. Peirce, Charles Sanders. Reasoning and the Logic of Things: The Cambridge Conferences Lectures of 1898. Herausgegeben von Kenneth Laine Ketner. Cambridge  Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992, 242 []
  2. Peirce, Charles Sanders. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Herausgegeben von Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss, und Arthur W. Burke. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1931, Abschn. 1.170 []
  3. Peirce, Charles Sanders. Reasoning and the Logic of Things: The Cambridge Conferences Lectures of 1898. Herausgegeben von Kenneth Laine Ketner. Cambridge  Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992, 261 []
  4. Peirce, Charles Sanders. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Herausgegeben von Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss, und Arthur W. Burke. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1931, Abschn. 6.174 []
  5. Peirce, Charles Sanders. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Herausgegeben von Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss, und Arthur W. Burke. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1931, Abschn. 6.163 []
  6. Peirce, Charles Sanders. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Herausgegeben von Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss, und Arthur W. Burke. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1931, Abschn. 5.103 []
  7. Hausman 1993, 190 []

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