The Continuist Hypothesis. A Peircean Defense of Organicism.

For the philosopher is confronted not by one complex many-dimensional picture, the unity of which, such as it is, he must come to appreciate; but by two pictures of essentially the same order of complexity, each of which purports to be a complete picture of man-in-the-world, and which, after separate scrutiny, he must fuse into one vision. Let me refer to these two perspectives, respectively, as the manifest and the scientific images of man-in-the-world. (Wilfrid Sellars, “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man”)

[N]ature and experience are not enemies or alien. Experience is not a veil that shuts man off from nature; it is a means of penetrating continually further into the heart of nature. (John Dewey, Experience and Nature)

The tendency to regard continuity, in the sense in which I shall define it, as an idea of prime importance in philosophy may conveniently be termed synechism. (Charles Sanders Peirce, “The Law of Mind”)

[Synechism is t]hat tendency of philosophical thought which insists upon the idea of continuity as of prime importance in philosophy and, in particular, upon the necessity of hypotheses involving true continuity.  (Charles Sanders Peirce, “Synechism”)

Part I.

That mind and body are not two separate things is something evident from our ordinary experience.

We see through our eyes, we act in order to satisfy our goals, we fear what causes harms to us; in short, we experience the world from the perspective of embodied minded animals living in a world full of unknown potentialities.

We are constantly navigating on this world and actualizing the potentialities hidden in our environment.

We like things that help us survive and we dislike those that cause us harm. Some of those things are sources of pleasure and some of them are sources of pain.

We say that some things are right and that others are wrong, and we evaluate our actions – and the action of others – on such basis.

Our humanity, that is, the traits that make us human, are continuous aspects of our ordinary experience of the world.

We become humans by existing in the world.

Human existence has many different dimensions.

A ripe apple can trigger an infinite number of different experiences, which are in themselves responsible for the richness of each individual’s experience of the world. We see the apple and we ask why it looks red instead of blue. We ask what it means for an apple to be “ripe”. We taste the apple and observe that it is sweet. This sweetness is the source of a pleasant experience, which makes us want to have another bite of the apple.

Moreover, we ask whether it is right to throw a ripe apple away if we are not going to eat it. We have different kinds of experiences relating to the same object, which reveal the richness of the world in their own right. No particular experience is fundamental.

It has been the task of philosophy to understand human existence in those many different dimensions.

As a unified approach to human affairs, philosophy was considered by Socrates to be an attempt to lead a better life.

This could be achieved by cultivating a love for wisdom. But wisdom is not merely knowing better than others, or of knowing what is true of the world; it is rather our capacity to reflect on the multiple dimensions of human existence with the aim to enhance or improve the way we live.

The philosopher is therefore the individual who reflects on human ordinary experience with the aim of leading a better life.

This activity of reflection is seen by many as the core “skill” of the philosopher.

Philosophers are experts in reflecting upon things. However, when employing their reflective skills, early modern philosophers and 19th century philosophers, of whom we are the heirs, and especially 20th and 21st century professional academic philosophers, treat human ordinary experience as a butcher treats a rough piece of meat: that is, he chops experience in different pieces and sells them according to their alleged “quality.”

Thus we end up with different “areas” of philosophical inquiry, such as ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, and epistemology.

But there is no harm in doing this, one might say.

The butcher does an important job in chopping the meat and separating the pieces to sell. So does philosophy in establishing clear-cut distinctions between different areas of philosophical inquiry.

That would be right if modern philosophers, unlike butchers, did not suffer from what we might call “unreflected selectivity,” as John Dewey nicely pointed almost a century ago.

What sets the butcher and the modern philosopher apart is the butcher’s awareness of his selectivity. The butcher chops the meat and sell the pieces according to their use. The cook will buy a given piece because they either like it more, or because they are cooking a certain recipe that requires a specific cut.

But neither the butcher nor the cook will arbitrarily say that a given cut is the “right” cut, and therefore that it should be the proper object of butchery and cookery.

Like the butcher, modern philosophy chops human ordinary experience into pieces and picks up only one of those to make it the proper object of philosophical reflection. But unlike the butcher, the modern philosopher forgets why he is chopping human experience, and he goes on to select one of those pieces to claim its priority over the others.

In terms of the historical development of modern philosophy, we are taught to distinguish between the “objective” or “natural” and the “subjective” or “human” aspects of ordinary experience.

There is, on the one hand, the way the world is independent of human existence (the natural world), and, on the other hand, the way this world appears to human beings (the human world).

Moreover, given the modern philosopher’s attempts to find certain and indubitable metaphysical systems capable of explaining our existence, and given the myriad of potentialities present in human ordinary experience, it follows that the human world cannot provide the foundations for such account. It is thus delegated to secondary and less important realm of philosophical reflection.

The modern philosopher chops human ordinary experience and arbitrarily selects one of its pieces to be the proper object of philosophical reflection.

The unreflected selectivity of modern philosophy ultimately leaves us with a discontinuous picture of human experience.

We learn that there is a world that exists independent of any human being, and that this world has determinate and finite characteristics that are equally independent of human beings.

We also learn that we somehow inhabit this world, and that we interact with it.

However, the way this interaction happens, that is, the way this world presents itself to us conflicts with our idea of how this world is independent of us.

And given the embeddedness of modern philosophical thinking in our education, added to our unawareness of the unreflected selectivity that sits at its basis, we are led to believe in a set of problems concerning the reconciliation of the human world with the natural world.

Part II.

The discontinuous view of human nature accounts for many of the basic developments of modern philosophy.

Dualism, materialism, idealism, physicalism, etc. are all discontinuist attempts to explain human experience in the natural world.

But, as we have seen, their starting point is flawed. The assumption that there is a question to be answered, namely of how human experience can be a part of the natural world is blatantly mistaken.

Human experience is embodied human experience, and as such, it is essentially a part of the world in which we live.

The concept of a “natural world,” and the idea that it is something different from human experience, arises only later in the process of reflecting on our immediate ordinary experience.

And then, by a process of “unreflected selectivity,” we forget the origins of this reflection, and start to consider the “natural world” as an entity with a metaphysical status of its own.

One of the tasks of philosophical reflection is to call attention to our unreflected prejudices.

The process of “unreflected selectivity,” and the discontinuous view of human experience that results from it, are two of such prejudices, and, in order to fully make sense of human experience, we must abandon them.

Some brilliant early- and mid-20th century philosophers were well aware of this need.

The works of James, Peirce, Whitehead, Bergson, Dewey, and Merleau-Ponty represent the first attempts to overcome those prejudices.

However, with the exception of Merleau-Ponty, those works are largely ignored by most contemporary professional academic philosophers.

As an attempt to revive the spirit of those works, we should adopt a new way to look at the world influenced by the works of those philosophers.

This new way of thinking about human experience, which we call the organicist conception of the world, views the world as itself an organism full of potentialities that can be more or less developed in certain periods of its history.

The organicist conception adopts a comprehensive reflection of human experience that modern philosophy lacks.

Organicism recognizes the need for “selectivity” in philosophical reflection, but it does not accept that this selectivity be unreflected.

In other words, the organicist conception adopts a non-hierarchical worldview in which the objects of different philosophical selective reflections are recognized as such, that is, merely as objects arbitrarily selected according to a philosopher’s interests.

Therefore, the organicist conception reminds us that philosophical reflection should be always critical of its selectivity impetus, or else it runs the risk of becoming discontinuist and dogmatic.

And, in order to not lose track of this important aspect of philosophical reflection, the organicist proposes that philosophical reflection should always be guided by the continuist hypothesis.

The continuist hypothesis takes as its starting point the view that all human experience is continuous, meaning that the different dimensions of human experience are developments stemming from the ordinary human experience of the world.

Therefore, the continuist hypothesis reminds us that when we feel pressured to select the objects of philosophical reflection, we should not forget that those objects are developments of the same human ordinary experience of the world, and that as such, those objects do not hold any status of metaphysical priority.

The continuist hypothesis allows for “reflected selectivity” in philosophical reflection, for it insists on the continuity of philosophical reflection with ordinary human experience.

Therefore, it allows the philosopher to overcome intricate quarrels, such as whether mind or matter is the most essential substance, whether the social world can be reduced to the material world, or how the human world can find a place in the natural world.

This does not mean that the continuist hypothesis prevents the philosopher from considering mind and matter in their own right: it is instead a gentle yet firm reminder, comfortably yet critically sitting at the back of our minds, which says that those are, above all, only selected pieces from a much more complex whole that is human experience.