Shopping Cart Theory

Shopping Cart Theory

It is difficult to avoid picking up bits of this and that and trying to apply them to questions that concern me. One of the graduate faculty here labels this “shopping cart theory.” The difficulty, of course, is that most people who do that sort of thing have a very limited grasp of the theories that they appropriate and hence bind together ideas that are really in opposition as if they might be simultaneously true, treating them uncritically. However, it seems to me that if one is critical about what one appropriates that the benefits outweigh the hazards.

One of the most eloquent arguments from multiple perspectives can be found in C.S. Peirce’s Some Consequences of Four Incapacities:

Philosophy ought to imitate the successful sciences in its methods, so far as to proceed only from tangible premises which can be subjected to careful scrutiny, and to trust rather to the multitude and variety of its arguments rather than to the conclusiveness of any one. Its reasoning should not form a chain which is no stronger than its weakest link, but a cable whose fibres may be ever so slender, provided they are sufficiently numerous and intimately connected. (1.29)

Peirce’s position explicated in this essay, and in a previous essay Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man is of great interest to me. I might as well throw it on the cart. Peirce proposes:

  1. We have no power of Introspection, but all knowledge of the internal world is derived by hypothetical reasoning from our knowledge of external facts.
  2. We have no power of Intuition, but every cognition is determined logically from previous cognitions.
  3. We have no power of thinking without signs.
  4. We have no conception of the absolutely incognizable.

The first proposal is taken to be certain by much of twentieth century philosophy, except phenomenology. None of these assertions were considered certain by Peirce, but they represent an interesting point of departure. The second proposal tends to predict “social constructionism” fairly nicely. However, I have some issues with the concept of cognition being “determined logically.” Lakoff and others in cognitive science suggest (I think rightly) that around 95% of our cognition takes place at an unconscious level, so the definition of logic would need to be stretched to accommodate this. Peirce anticipates this objection in an interesting way:

But does the mind go through the syllogistic process? It is certainly doubtful whether a conclusion—as something in the mind independently, like an image (emphasis mine)—suddenly displaces two premises existing in the mind in a similar way. But it is a matter of constant experience, that if a man is made to believe in the premises, in the sense that he will act on them and will say that they are true, under favorable conditions he will also be ready to act from their conclusion and say that they are true. Something, therefore, takes place within an organism that is equivalent to the syllogistic process (30-31)

A conclusion then is not a sudden synthesis of thought, but rather an action brought about by the acceptance of premises—previous cognitions, not intuitive insights.

The third proposition casts an interesting light on the question of cognition itself. Rather than the Aristotelian proposition that thought necessarily involves images, or the Hegelian proposition that thought necessarily involves words (both assertions are echoed in Wittgenstein), Peirce in a way embodies both—signs may be images or words or neither. Thought proceeds through signs. I find this fascinating, and at the same time it increases the difficulty in arguing a cross-modal approach. That we cannot cognize the uncognizable does seem to be a tautology, and might best have been left out. But philosophers seldom shut up when they should.