Нов български университет - Semiotics and Philosophy

Reni Yankova

The Dynamic Universe – the Role of Habit and Habit-Change in Charles’ Peirce’s Metaphysics


We are used to considering habit and habit-change only as everyday phenomena but, since Plato and Aristotle, philosophy recognizes their universality. Yet it was not until Charles Peirce that these phenomena were turned into metaphysical conceptions. In his philosophy, habit is the most essential organizing phenomenon - it is seen as the highest stage of clearness and determination in the universe. Habit is related to the crystalized meaning of signs and everything in the universe is seen in a constant development from chaos to determination. Without the metaphysical understanding of habit and habit-taking tendency, this movement would be impossible. Following the ideas of the German idealist Friedrich Schelling, Peirce accepts the concept of habit as a milestone of his metaphysics which allows him to analyze the universe as developing Mind and matter - as “effete mind”.

           The concept of habit is well defined in Peirce`s philosophy, while the idea of habit-change is vague and only briefly mentioned. But the problem is as important as any other aspect of his metaphysics. If we exclude habit-change from Peirce`s architectonic philosophy, its foundations will be seriously shaken. Without this phenomenon, endless semiosis could not exist, and the universe would reach a state of effeteness where the sign would exhaust its object – something Peirce deems impossible.

           In this course, the problems of habit and habit-change will be researched and discussed together in the light of Peirce`s metaphysics, semiotics and phaneroscopy (Peirce`s system of categories). The foundations of habit-change and the arguments for its validity in terms of Peircean philosophy will also be examined in some of the classical writings of Aristotle, David Hume, etc.


Course requirements

           The course combines lectures with discussion. The latter is based on primary source readings and written focus questions. Each student is required to do a 5 minutes’ oral presentation on selected items based on the current topic. A mid-term paper and a final paper are mandatory. These should not exceed 5 pages.


Learning outcomes

           The main purpose of the course is to provide a general overview of Peirce`s metaphysics and its relations with all other conceptions which construct his philosophical system. The course also provides a profound understanding of the problem of habit as a foundation of Peircean thought. On the other hand, habit-change is a provocative and highly discussable philosophical question which will allow the students to develop their research and rhetorical skills.


General structure of the course


Part I. Introduction to Charles Peirce`s metaphysics

Which are the milestones of Peirce`s metaphysics and why can it be taken as a starting point in the construction of a new hypothesis? What makes Peirce`s metaphysics a common ground for the correct understanding of all other ideas in his system?


Part II. Introduction of the problem of habit in Charles Peirce`s philosophy

The problem of habit will be traced in its relation to all other Peircean concepts. The different faces of habit will be presented and discussed: habit is the moment where interpretation stops fixing a clear meaning of the concept; it is a rule of thinking and a rule of action; it is a phenomenon which forms the exhausted layer of reality called by Peirce “effete mind”; it is also a general rule in the development of the universe.


Part III. Researching the problem of habit-change and constructing new hypothesis 

Keeping in mind that the problem of habit-change is not clearly solved by Peirce himself, in this last part of the class, students are going to formulate, present and discuss their own hypothesis about it, using the knowledge they already have about Peirce’s philosophical system.