Turning Signs (Contents) References blog

presign: Phenoscopy


Look around, ahead, behind, within,
with all your senses
and thoughts
and memory
and imagination
to whatever appears.
Study the nature of appearing itself,
its ways of happening.

That study is called phenoscopy in the Century Dictionary Supplement (1910, p. 981):

phenoscopy (fe-nos'ko-pi), n. [Irreg. < Gr. (φαίνεσθαι, appear, + σκοπεῖν, contemplate, examine.] That study which observes, generalizes, and analyzes the elements that are always or very often present in, or along with, whatever is before the mind in any way, as percept, image, experience, thought, habit, hypothesis, etc. C. S. Peirce.
(Peirce apparently coined this term but did not often use it; his writings on the subject mostly call it phenomenology or phaneroscopy. A relatively brief introduction to Peirce's writings about it can be found here.)

This essay will try to show how to start the practice of phenoscopy “from scratch,” and record some results of my own phenoscopic investigations. No prior knowledge is required for this study, and no special training or equipment. You can study very distant things with a telescope, and very tiny things with a microscope, but you can only study what's in front of or under your nose with a phenoscope, which is nothing but your control of your attention. But you must be willing to let go of some fixed beliefs, to set aside for the moment any ideas that you normally take for granted, to ‘open the hand of thought’ (as Kōshō Uchiyama put it.)

Consider: whatever you know must appear
before you know it.


Phenoscopy includes the observation of many kinds of appearing. We might begin with a percept. For instance, you might close your eyes and notice some sound that you hear.

I hear the call of a crow.

Or rather, i call it that, because the sound reminds me of a kind of large black bird that i've seen and heard before.

What i heard just now was an instance, a manifestation, of that general type of sound. Like every percept, it appeared momentarily, and then vanished into a timespace we call the past. What i have in mind now is a memory trace of it, which purports to represent the actual event. This is a phenomenon, an appearance, very different from what i actually heard, but connected with it by a shared quality of sound.

Of course, my memory of the sound does not appear to you at all. If you have a roughly similar memory of a similar event, and the words ‘call of a crow’ evoked that memory for you, it's likely that the quality we are talking about is an element of all three phenomena: the call of the crow, my memory of it, and your memory of crow calls. It is not likely that the quality of all three is exactly the same: all similarity is more or less vague. But we can generalize to say that any phenomenon, anything that appears in any way, must have some quality.

That quality is the Firstness of the appearing, in Peircean terms. At the highest level of phenoscopic generality, we can call this Firstness an element of the phenomenon – of any possible appearing.

It is not the only element. The actuality of the sound i heard, breaking the stillness of a particular Sunday morning in the woods where i live, was another element of its appearing. We might call that element its otherness, the fact of its forcing itself upon my attention and altering the course of my stream of consciousness. Peirce called this element its Secondness because, unlike its Firstness (‘which is such as it is positively and regardless of anything else’), it can be what it is only by being second to, or other than, something else. In this case, the actuality or Secondness of the sound was its otherness to the soundscape it broke into, including the sounds occurring before and after it. Likewise, but more generally, the Secondness of an existing “thing” is its otherness or reactivity to other “things” in the same universe.

One more element of the phenomenon appeared when i recognized the sound as that of a crow. A connection appeared between a unique event and a familiar concept, so that the event in its Secondness appeared as an instance of the type of “thing” represented by that concept. This is different from the way existing things relate to, or react to, one another. A recognition is a perceptual judgment, and brings the element of generality into the phenomenon which i said i heard.

Then i represented my judgment to you by naming it ‘the call of a crow,’ which in turn activated whatever concept you would give that name to. That ‘activation’ was the Secondness of the phenomenon of your meaning something by those words, something more or less similar in quality to my meaning something when i wrote them. That quality is the Firstness of this appearing, this experience of meaning that we share. The other element of this phenomenon is its Thirdness, which is not its quality or its actuality but its ability to represent a second “thing” to a third “thing,” or to mediate between the two. Peirce sometimes calls it ‘thought’: ‘It is genuine Thirdness that gives thought its characteristic, although Thirdness consists in nothing but one thing's bringing two into a Secondness’ (EP2:269). Peirce's dictionary definitions of the three ‘elements’ will be given below.


Getting back to that crow i heard:

Actually i'm only guessing that the sound i heard came from a crow. For all i know, it could have been made by some other animal, or could even have originated inside my head, or in my ears, like the constant rhythmic swishing sound of my blood in circulation. (Apparently most people don't hear this all the time, as i do, but you can probably imagine what i mean.)

What i can say for sure is that the sound was an event in a universe of events. This makes it different from a color, for instance, which is not an event like a flash of light or a sudden change of color (say from red to green). A sound is inherently temporal, while a color, as a quality abstracted from any colored object, is eternal.

Theoretically, of course, we can say that both sounds and colors are vibrations whose frequencies account for their perceived qualities, and vibration necessarily takes time. We humans are always trying to explain things in this way, just as i explained the sound i heard by making a hypothesis that a crow made it. But explanations are signs, and highly complex signs at that. The sign is a very different phenomenon from a sound, or a color, as experienced. Signs inhabit a universe that is both qualitative and temporal: they don't function as signs unless they are interpreted, which takes time. Any functioning whatsoever takes time as well as place.

To actually experience the pure quality of a sound, you have to set aside all such explanations. Try listening for awhile to the sonic universe, the audiverse, without trying to identify or name the sounds according to (your guesses at) their causes. This forces their Firstness and their Secondness to the foreground while relegating their Thirdness (and any meaning they might have) to the background. (The Canadian composer Murray Schafer called this ‘ear cleaning,’ in a booklet by that name.)

Why would you want to engage in such a practice? Your purpose could be contemplative, meditative, spiritual, scientific, philosophical or all or none of the above. Peirce engaged in his phenomenology, or phaneroscopy, because he was a logician and needed to clarify what was truly elementary about anything that anyone could think, sense or experience. For me, it's a way of getting back in touch with what's actually happening all around and within me, instead of taking most of it for granted, as we all habitually (and necessarily) do. Writing about it like this doesn't make my experience accessible to you, but it might suggest ways of paying closer attention to your own experience. That's what i hope for, anyway.


The object of study in phenoscopy is any phenomenon (appearing), or all phenomena, or the phenomenon (as Peirce often put it), or the phaneron (the term coined by Peirce when he became dissatisfied with all of the above). What he was looking for was (and is) ‘the elements that are always or very often present in, or along with, whatever is before the mind in any way.’ Studying the phenomenon in this way, we dismiss from our attention the more accidental aspects of it, in order to focus on the ‘elements’ which are essential to appearing itself, or being ‘before the mind in any way’ as Peirce puts it. There are no perfect names for these elements, but Peirce assures us that there are only three of them, and so far i've used the terms ‘quality’ and ‘actuality’ for the first two. For the third, we might use ‘mediation’ or even ‘meaning.’

The phenoscopic practice of dismissing some aspects of an object from our attention in order to focus on the more ‘elementary’ is called prescinding. This practice may also be called ‘prescissive abstraction,’ or even simply ‘abstraction,’ except that the latter word has other uses, so that we must rely on the context to clarify exactly what practice we are referring to.

Phenoscopy being analytical and prescissive in this way, there are some common distinctions we can dismiss from our attention in order to focus on the more universal elements of the phenomenon. For example, we can dismiss the usual distinction between “appearance” and “reality.” We are accustomed to thinking that things are not always what they appear to be; but here we are attending only to the appearance itself, not asking whether it is the mere appearance or representation of “something” other than itself. We also drop the typical distinction between a “thing” and our experience of it. The phenomenon simply appears, or ‘is before the mind’: those expressions are two ways of saying the same thing. If the expression ‘before the mind’ is too suggestive of difference between the mind and the thing ‘before’ it, we can say instead ‘in the mind,’ or not mention “mind” at all; but no verbal expression is quite free of irrelevant suggestions, so we must be ready to improvise with language if we are to talk about phenoscopy at all.


Here are Peirce's Century Dictionary definitions of the three ‘formal elements of the phaneron’ (as he called them in 1905):

firstness, n. 2. In the phenomenology of C. S. Peirce, the mode of being of that which is whatever it is regardless of anything else. This is true only of qualities of feeling, such as red or scarlet, and of such qualities of a similar nature as we suppose things to possess. Thus, although hardness consists in resistance to being scratched by a second thing, yet our ordinary common-sense conception is that a hard body possesses in itself a quality which it retains although it never comes into contact with another, and that this quality, which it possesses regardless of anything else and would possess though all the rest of the universe never existed, is the cause of the difficulty of scratching it. The mode of being of such an internal quality is firstness. That which has firstness can have no parts, because the being of an object which has parts consists in the being of the parts, which are none of them the whole. Any analysis of the constituents of a quality is a description of something found to be true of whatever possesses that quality. But a quality of feeling, as it is in its mode of being as a quality, has no parts. (Century Dictionary Supplement, p. 475)

secondness, n. —2. (a) The mode of being of an object which is such as it is by virtue of being connected with or related to another object or objects, regardless of any triadic relation. (b) The mode of connection or relation of such an object, with such other. (c) In a looser sense, the secundal, or relative, character which belongs to an individual object, as having such a mode of being. (CD Supplement, p. 1189)

thirdness, n. —2. The mode of being of that which is such as it is by virtue of a triadic relation which is incapable of being defined in terms of dyadic relations. (CD Supplement, p. 1344)

Peirce also referred to these as the ‘universal categories’; but …

I must explain that in saying that the three, Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness, complete the list, I by no means deny that there are other categories. On the contrary, at every step of every analysis, conceptions are met with which presumably do not belong to this series of ideas. Nor did an investigation of them occupying me for two years reveal any analysis of them into these as their constituents.
— Peirce, Lowell Lecture 3 (1903)
Your own practice of phenoscopy may reveal any number of these ‘other categories’ as well as the ‘formal elements.’ For instance, Peirce recognized many material categories. But the number of those is very large, if not infinite, and the very short list of formal elements is more important because it is relational, or ‘according to structure’ as Peirce put it later:
My three categories are nothing but Hegel's three grades of thinking. I know very well that there are other categories, those which Hegel calls by that name. But I never succeeded in satisfying myself with any list of them. We may classify objects according to their matter; as wooden things, iron things, silver things, ivory things, etc. But classification according to structure is generally more important. And it is the same with ideas. Much as I would like to see Hegel's list of categories reformed, I hold that a classification of the elements of thought and consciousness according to their formal structure is more important.
CP 8.213, c. 1905; see also CP 1.288]


All things and all phenomena are just one mind; nothing is excluded or unrelated.
— Dogen, ‘Bendowa’ (Tanahashi 2010, 15)
Everthing is related
to everything else. More or less.
All right. But do you see, feel or know
how this relates to that?
Do you relate to that relation?

Or as we say, Does it make any sense?

Sense-making is semiosis,
the Thirdness of things,
triadic relations
waking up the wind
making up the mind,
winding up the wake
for the time being.