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PROUST AND PEIRCE, TIME AND MEMORY by Bruce E. Fleming Some of us may cherish visions of an Homeric intellectual afterlife where thinkers and artists of the past will stand and talk, no longer separated by the constraints of time, discipline, geography, or language —perhaps balancing tea cups full of ambrosia as they chat. One of the more interesting of such conversations (one which, in fact, we as intellectual host or hostess may initiate by steering one shade in the direction ofthe other) would be that between Charles Peirce and Marcel Proust. For both are concerned with the themes of time and memory, and both propose or exemplify alternatives to and resolutions of the Cartesian mind/body (or self/outside world) dualism. It turns out, moreover , that they interrelate in a particularly interesting way: as (so to say) donutand hole, Peirce's notions on time and memory somehow framing or flanking those of Proust to which they are simUar in nature. Though the two share a vision of a fundamental interrelation of past and present, for Proust this is achieved only in the art work. For Peirce, on the other hand, the fusion is both smaller and larger than this, both something we achieve at each moment ofconception as well as a process operative on the largest structures of the universe. In the context of their own conversation, that is, they disagree; for us who hover around them listening to their spectral voices, they complement each other. And it is in order to reach a larger synthesis ofthought than that offered by either of the two taken alone that we may initiate this conversation in the first place. Proust, we may say, related the two halves of the dyad of self and 127 128Philosophy and Literature outside world by causing one to swaUow the other. Remembrance ofThings Past is temporarily circular: the child Marcel is only the recollection of the old Marcel; the old Marcel only a character within the book beginning with the young one. Recollection (the time arrow pointing backwards ) and story-telling (pointing forwards) superimpose upon one another; time is the sine qua non of existence, both that which separates the past from us, and makes possible its retrieval. And as for memory, the entire work is perhaps most essentially about nothing but this. For the recollections of chUdhood of which Combray consists are explained in The Past Recaptured as having been evoked by the madeleine; the world that follows in the time of the story (rather than the plot, to appeal to the Russian Formalist distinction) produces the older man who has a number of subsequent such loopings around other objects (the unevenness of the sidewalk outside the house of the Guermantes in Paris, the sound of the spoon against the plate, and the feel of the napkin) which show him the possibility of writing at all.1 Now, though we—as inteUectual host or hostess—may tend to associate more immediately with Proust the themes of time and memory, Peirce is concerned with them as well. To be sure, his most extended considerations of these topics lie in a few of his relatively early papers, among them "Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man" and "Some Consequences of Four Incapacities" (1868), and in several ofthe later ones, among them "The Law of Mind" (1892) and "Uniformity" (1902).2 It is in the middle where the mechanics of the semiotic are worked out. These two early articles offer revisions of Cartesian positions. One of Peirce's major objections in the first is that Descartes essentially ignores time, emphasizing instead the state of congruence between self and external world. He attacks the Cartesian notion of "intuition" (which he understands as being identical to "the immediate present") on the grounds that "thought cannot happen in an instant, but requires a time." And he explains this last assertion to mean "that every thought must be interpreted in another, or that all thought is in signs" (p. 34). The end of the paper poses Zeno's paradox with respect to the mind, left unanswered—as unresolved paradox whose nature proves his point: if cognitions are in fact (as the Cartesians...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 127-133
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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