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36 - Intuition, experience, generalization - part one

"How many years has it been since I could allow
myself some disinterested reading?How many years
has it been since I could abandon myself to a bok
written by another, with no relation to what I must
write myself?"1.

We have seen that Peirce's model consisting of sign - interpretant - object is very productive when applied to the decoding of a text, to its perception, its aesthetics (from the Greek aisthánesthai, "to know through senses, to perceive"). Extremely innovative in the semiosis triangle is the interpretant vertex, opening the passage connecting general perception psychology - applicable to the perception of any text by any individual - and individual psychology of the processing of perception data on the basis of the conscious and unconscious memory repertoire of the perceiver.
  With a little help from Douglas Robinson, one of the foremost contemporary translation scientists[,] who tried to apply some of Peirce's principles in different forms to different aspects of the translation activity, we will analyze another Peircean triad in this unit. No surprise if in this case, too, there are three vertexes: Peirce's - abductive - intuition, from a methodological point of view, which consists in the overcoming of dichotomies in general, as they are considered not dynamic enough, in order to embrace trichotomies. Peirce has been accused of "triadomany"2, but he defended himself, in part by arguing in favor of triads, in part by giving examples of fields in which he wrote without applying any triads.
  In the expert reader's perception of the text, two mental states alternate. The first consists of a subliminal flow allowing a fast (relatively to individual canons) reading. The temporary suspension of the conscious control over the decoding process lets the mind function in an automatic, or semiautomatic, mode. Attention, which is watchful, but kept, in a sense, in the background, does not trigger the conscious-control mode, unless abnormalities in the decoding process occur, particular problems, marked-text passages or other requiring the specific, targeted intervention of the reader's analytic mind.
  The latter mental state, activated, by the insurgence of the abnormalities we have just mentioned, is a state of conscious analytic control. Reading speed dramatically slows down because a sort of alarm is tripped owing to the localization of an abnormal text string. Such abnormality can be attributed to the fact that the reader is not used to reading that kind of text passages (he does not have enough experience for decoding some words, expression modes, slang expressions, local expressions, syntactic anomalies etc.) or the alarm can be triggered by a drop in conscious attention that, if uncontrolled, could compromise the success of the decoding; or else by the fact that the author has produced determined features at that point in the text with the purpose of drawing the reader's attention to that particular point.
  The two mental states are equally useful. And it is useful for them to alternate and for mechanisms to exist that enable a shift from one to the other at the right moment. Without the former, semiautomatic, mode reading would be a very long process (which explains why experience in reading is helpful in speeding subsequent readings). Without the latter, reading speed would compromise the quality of the decoding, the attention to detail, to the marked, the strange and the alien passage. It would be an engulfing reading, appropriating the text, and unable to use it to enrich the individual's "data bank".
  Let us see, then, which of Peirce's triads helps us systematize and schematize the mechanism according to which part of reading functions in semiautomatic mode. The three vertexes are, in Peirce's terms (parenthetically, another version for our use), instinct (perception), experience (data collection), habit (generalization). Here is the triangle:

The knowledge acquisition triangle according to Peirce

Since the term "instinct" is rather vague and unpopular in contemporary science, let us try to limit our investigation about what it means and see only what Peirce meant by this word.

[...] the three essential characters of instinctive conduct are that it is conscious, is determined to a quasi-purpose, and that in definite respects it escapes all control3.

As far as we are concerned, to the specific intent of text perception, we can say that by "instinct" we mean here a generic readiness, disposition of a man to decode a text, which is possible thanks to the knowledge of the code in which a text is written, and thanks to previous reading experiences. The "instinctive" aim of our reading consists in locating a sense in the text and, to do that, we often use intuition. To say that does not mean to say that we get a text's sense exclusively by intuition and that, therefore, our understanding is dangling by the intuitive thread.
But, as Peirce makes us notice, intuition is that something extra that allows us to take a dramatic, quantum leap at the opportunity to imagine ele-ments of novelty, to hypothesize new knowledge, save then considering fundamental the need to test the hypothesis, to verify you are on the right path.

The purpose of reasoning is to proceed from the recognition of the truth we already know to the knowledge of novel truth. This we may do by instinct or by a habit of which we are hardly conscious4.

The purpose for reasoning, such as it is described, is to proceed toward the knowledge of new truth, of fresh knowledge, which eliminates all kinds of rea-soning that do not add anything to acquired knowl-edge from focus, like deduction. The intuition that is linked to the perceptive phase of the text gives us a set of hypothetical elements that form a structure to constitute the whole meaning of the text.


Bibliographical references

CALVINO I. If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, London, Random House, 1998, ISBN 0-749-39923-6.

PEIRCE, C. S., The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, edited by Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss, Arthur W. Burks, Cambridge (Massachusetts), Harvard University Press, 1931-1958.

ROBINSON D. Becoming a Translator. An Accelerated Course, London and New York, Routledge, 1997, ISBN 0-415-14861-8

1 Calvino 1998, p. 169.
2 Peirce, 1, 568.
3 «[...] the three essential characters of instinctive conduct are that it is conscious, is determined to a quasi-purpose, and that in definite respects it escapes all control». Peirce, 7, nota 19, traduzione nostra. [Come è consuetudine, le coordinate bibliografiche delle citazioni da Peirce vengono date senza l'indicazione della pagina, ma solo con il numero del volume delle Collected Papers seguito dal numero del paragrafo.]
4 «The purpose of reasoning is to proceed from the recognition of the truth we already know to the knowledge of novel truth. This we may do by instinct or by a habit of which we are hardly conscious». Peirce, 4, 476, traduzione nostra.