Varieties of Synechism: Peirce and James on Mind–World Continuity

Rosa M. Calcaterra

The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, New Series, Volume 25, Number 4, 2011, pp. 412-424 (Article) Published by Penn State University Press DOI: 10.1353/jsp.2011.0023

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was the reason for John journal of speculative philosophy. in particular. Calcaterra università roma tre The issue of continuity and/or the difference between the human mind and the natural world is certainly one of the most fascinating and controversial in the history of philosophy. this topic challenges the logicalsemantic categories of “spirit” and “matter. empirical and conceptual. vol. science and ethics. ­ we have to endorse the typical. 25 . metaphysical contents and with all the intricate methodological issues related to their treatment. The same dichotomies emerge in the distinction between physical-natural sciences and philosophy. To give a few examples. freedom and determination. in fact. 2011 Copyright © 2012 The Pennsylvania State University.” with all their more or less explicit. and. we have to avoid considering as disconnected what is distinct or distinguishable.” of “psychic” and “physical. pragmatist commitment that overcomes any dualistic mentality. we can recall the dichotomies between facts and values. PA . I refer. a mentality that usually dominates in such distinctions. 4 . In order to defend a philosophical position that could host both continuity and difference between human beings and the natural world. and more or less recognized. no. Indeed. finally. This attitude. More precisely. subjective and objective. University Park. normative and descriptive or foundation and description. to theoretical and methodological dichotomies that are collected around such categories.jsp Varieties of Synechism: Peirce and James on Mind–World Continuity Rosa M.

I believe. instead. from Charles S. and extends to the last writings insistently devoted to establishing a structural link between his pragmatism and his new form of realism .varieties of synechism 413 Dewey’s fight against the “false antitheses” that appear throughout Western philosophical tradition. Peirce called him the “coryphaeus” of the young intellectuals who belonged to the Metaphysical Club and the “boxing master” of their debates on science. had a major role in the club itself. one can say that the pragmatist reception of Darwin’s evolutionism consisted mainly in developing an antidualistic style of thinking. Mead. along with Alexander Bain’s psychology. As it is well known. This is the enlightening standpoint that we have to assume in order to understand the naturalistic vein that runs through the works of all classic pragmatists. this ­ aspect is present throughout the work of Peirce and James. a first step in examining the purpose of this philosophical attitude concerns Peirce’s synechism. and Clarence Irving Lewis. so much so that Darwin’s evolutionism has to be regarded as a constitutive element in the genesis of pragmatism. focusing on James’s and Peirce’s efforts to go beyond the dualistic approach to the relationship between mind and world. prove the fecundity of the pragmatist perspective of the two founders. Chauncey Wright. These ways. In both classic and contemporary pragmatists the link between mind and world is subjected to their understanding of evolutionism and in particular Darwin’s theory. The working out of the concept of continuity goes back to the so-called anti-Cartesian essays of 1868–69. religion. It is worth recalling that Darwin’s biology. animated the discussions of the famous “Meta­ physical Club. we should ask whether focusing on these aspects is really useful in order to clarify their particular suggestions about contemporary philosophical issues. which involved both the logical-semantic and the ontological-metaphysical fields. Now. and law. philosophy. Although with quite different emphases. From an overall point of view. a personal friend and lively interlocutor of ­ Darwin. I will now try to apply this interpretative hypothesis. in which Peirce grounded his cognitive semiotics. Many authors have emphasized the differences between Peirce’s and James’s pragmatism.” the original scenario of pragmatism. rather than reciprocally exclusive. However. Peirce and William James to Dewey. Therefore. that their speculative contrasts should be considered as different ways of working out a common set of assumptions and objectives. the logical and metaphysical theory of continuity that constitutes—using his own words— “the cornerstone” of his thought.

The category of continuity involves the concept of “chance-spontaneity” introduced in a famous essay from 1891. rather. “The Doctrine of Necessity Examined. between “physical” and “mental. The same lack of explanation occurs when we try to understand how the necessary laws that rule all natural phenomena came about. According to Peirce’s theory. happens in Spencer’s theory. Peirce argues that the category of chance-spontaneity implies a degree of regularity. Peirce was well aware that the entanglement between chance-­ spontaneity and law was not a sufficient answer to all the questions about the relationships between “psychic” and “physical” facts. the mathematical continuum is not the largest set but the “true continuity” of which any series of points is a realization. any series. as a metaphysical conjecture that could offer an alternative to determinism. each natural specification makes sense in relation to the overall natural order. the spontaneity of nature. Cantor. The theory of synechism aims at offering logical and epistemological tools that help in addressing precisely these questions. which is indeed noticeable in evolutionary continuity. as. From a logical point of view. calcaterra based on the category of continuity. That is why Peirce builds a new theory of a mathematical continuum based on an examination that takes into consideration Aristotle. namely. as shown by the diversification of nature. Peirce’s suggestion is to consider the idea of chance-spontaneity ­ not as opposed to the idea that the universe is governed by principles of legality or necessity but. This is an issue that coincides with the question about a single human being’s reality within the evolution of the universe.414 rosa m. in the increasing complexity of reality.” Here Peirce introduces the idea of chance because he finds that the factual analysis of objective reality does not account for the issue of diversification in nature. can be considered part of the continuum. The crucial point is that the effectiveness of chance-spontaneity is considered to be an intrinsic element in the evolution of nature and not as its only cause: in other words.” is quite clear. and both go beyond the possible accounts of science. In particular. explains changes in the objective world. The importance of this mathematical theory of continuity for setting an antidualistic relationship between mind and world. Kant. especially. Therefore. and. the mathematical foundation of synechism . both questions can only be considered in relation to one another. which does not coincide with absolute randomness. which often intrudes in evolutionary theories. and also its interruptions. for example. In fact. In this way.

” thus suggesting that continuity is the result of a conceptual organization that would bring out unknown or hidden relationships and interexchanges. leaving as the ultimate elements. all alike present that mixture of freedom and constraint. the synechist will not admit that physical and psychical phenomena are entirely distinct. unrelated chunks of being. an “open question” that he is asking in The Architecture of Theories while trying to define the legality of the ­ theoretical-scientific classification of natural facts. the evolutionary continuum is nothing less than the justificatory hypothesis of the other cornerstone of his thought: fallibilism. for Peirce. precisely because of the inextricable link between ­ freedom/spontaneity and necessity/law.2 The synechist—he continues— “does not wish to exterminate the conception of twoness”.—whether as belonging to different categories of substance.” To be sure. he is hostile to dualism “as the philosophy which performs its analysis with an axe. This second premise is the insurmountable normative criterion of scientific research. so that synechism indicates “continuity of parts brought about by surgery.varieties of synechism 415 is the ontological equivalent of the methodological significance Peirce assigns to it. Peirce is absolutely right in saying that “of all conceptions Continuity is by far the most difficult for Philosophy to handle” because there has never been a satisfactory definition of it. or as entirely separate sides of one shield. However.—­ but will insist that all phenomena are of one character. here it is worthwhile to note the epistemological centrality of the concept of law: namely. to the spirit of scientific research. rather. synechism is to him primarily a method of investigation. that is. a working hypothesis. Still.”3 The intrinsic unity of freedom/spontaneity and necessity/law is. setting aside the difficulties implied in Peirce’s cosmology. a scientific-philosophical attitude that has to be implemented and increased. a criterion to which .1 That is why he concentrated all his efforts on trying to achieve it. which allows them to be. ­ In a manuscript from 1892. However. On the other hand. The following passage is especially interesting regarding this point: “In particular. according to Peirce. makes them to be teleological or purposive. nay. others more material and regular. the claim that this concept constitutes the link between the evolution of the objective world and operations of the mind through which the world itself can be known. the very concept of “ultimate element” is contrary. the founder of pragmatism claims to refer to the ancient meaning of the word sinechisis. especially during the mature phase of his research. though some are more mental and spontaneous.

.” one can find surprising insights that anticipate the antimechanistic attitude of contemporary biology. A great part. . In a nutshell. I am referring in particular to James’s theory that all of reality.”5 In Peirce’s jargon. Peirce sums up his position as follows: “The idea of continuity traced through the history of the Human Mind.” a capacity that can break through the mere mechanism of reproduction. a topic that is crucial in Peirce’s cosmology. that reality consists of a unique “stuff. according to which nature is a collection of entities governed by rigid material relations of cause and effect. the essential characteristic of any real entity. infallibilism. that is. Much like Peirce’s. or in its more dire scientist and materialistic apparitions. is multifaceted and yet continuous. of evolution in all departments. the “pure spontaneity of life as a character of the universe. . producing infinitesimal departures from law continually. scientism fails to recognize the semiotic nature of cognitive propositions or the conceptually mediated characteristic of “truths” and “realities” that human knowledge might achieve. . Peirce’s evolutionary cosmology entails the plasticity of nature. calcaterra Peirce entrusts the authentic spirit of science.416 rosa m. notwithstanding Peirce’s obsolete language. whether in its milder ecclesiastic form.” This is the view . “The principle of ­ continuity is the idea of fallibilism objec4 tified. its specific epistemic and ethical validity. In this essay Peirce talks about the ability of the protoplasm “to feel. . and shown to be the great idea which has been working itself out. in his famous essay “Man’s Glassy Essence. and at all times. and empirical/conceptual involve a metaphysical hypothesis. settled ab eternal and ad eternum. At the same time. this dogmatic attitude is the unavoidable consequence of the deterministic conception of the natural world. .” he affirms. the theoretical meaning of synechism. the term scientism is the name given to the dogmatic lack of philosophical awareness about the complexity of cognitive processes: more precisely. and great ones with infinite infrequency. On the contrary. And in a letter to William James. and is in logic. acting always and everywhere though restrained within narrow bounds by law. The great opponent of this philosophy has been in history. mental/physical. as well as the whole fabric of our experience. Modern science due to it exclusively. consists in asserting the fundamental unity of existence or in conceiving of the differences between phenomena and aspects of reality not as ontological fractures but as different expressions of its development.”6 Most important. probably to be ascribed to the action of this principle. James’s efforts to overcome the dichotomies of subject/object. if not all.

James implemented this philosophical perspective throughout his epistemological work. Monism would also miss the activity of human intelligence: the particularities and the differences of meaning that permeate the accomplishments of our mind. in brief. on the one hand. In particular. the core of James’s radical empiricism. In other words. These attempts try to include overall reality in exclusive principles such as “the matter” or “the spirit. guarantees the ­ realist implications of the empiricist tradition and. which is by far the strongest point of his philosophical alliance with Peirce. which characterize reality. and the deep unity of the vital flow that “the stream of thought” consists of—namely. This is. what would be missed is the acknowledgment of discontinuities. substances. a perspective in which the rejection of the atomistic conception of sensory experience (previously formulated in the Principles of Psychology) merges with the firm refusal of Descartes’s psychophysical dualism and with the argument against “the efforts of rationalism to correct its incoherencies by the addition of trans-experiential agents of unification. which would fail to grasp the vast multiplicity of relations that constitute the objective world.” where the main argument is against the construction of absolutist metaphysics.varieties of synechism 417 James maintained in the Essays in Radical Empiricism. and powers. Here James has in mind any kind of philosophical effort to build metaphysical systems. on cosmic pessimism. This argument accounts also for James’s attack on materialism and idealism. or Selves. intellectual categories. but I would at least emphasize the strict correlation of James’s struggle against rationalist abstractions with the principle of fallibilism. its fringes as well as the differences between “transitive” and “substantive” phases.” Such an assertion would mean to endorse a metaphysical monism (of a spiritualist or materialist kind). And this attack matches up with James’s emphasis on the inadequacy of theoretical-logical classifications when understood as an explanation for the complexity of human experience.” understood as exclusive foundational elements of the life of the universe. makes a . he did it through his proposal for a new form of correspondentism that. James’s fallibilism is declared even as long ago as the famous paper “The Sentiment of Rationality.” Certainly. on the other hand. and on the philosophical optimism à la Wolff or à la Spencer.”7 I am not going over these issues here. James’s theory does not amount to maintaining “a general stuff of which experience at large is made. and Bertrand Russell assumed it afterward in his “neutral monism.

So the whole coil and ball of truth. The Principles of Psychology. where he treats many topics of contemporary psychological research with more critical attention than many contemporary cognitive scholars of science. Truths emerge from facts. and as fast as they do so. progressive character of the relationship among mind.” he tells us in Pragmatism. which facts again create or reveal new truth (the word is indifferent) and so on indefinitely. They simply are. ­ Just to give an example. is the product of a double influence. But these beliefs make us act. the “static” interpretation of the threefold relationship mind–reality–truth.9 He had already thoroughly outlined . The following passage is illuminating: In the realm of truth-processes facts come independently and determine our beliefs provisionally. whereas what is needed is a tight connection between our claims about “truth” and “facts” and the real process of their validation (valid-action). James’s radical empiricism is relevant to a philosophical ­ ­ outlook respectful of the specificity of human beings as well as of their inseparableness from the living processes of nature. The “facts” themselves meanwhile are not true. I mention James’s constant invitation to consider  the entanglement of any cognitive assertion about reality with the network of conceptual. In fact. he addresses his criticism to the intellectualist version of the correspondence theory of knowledge. which re-determine the beliefs accordingly. as it rolls up.8 We should pay special attention to the inextricable connection between James’s confidence in the experimental methods and Peirce’s principle of fallibilism. “The human serpent is everywhere. Truth is the function of the beliefs that start and terminate among them. and biological factors that together make up the activities of the human mind. In fact. In particular. they bring into sight or into existence new facts. This perspective runs all the way through the complex interplay between philosophy and experimental psychology in James’s opus magnum. the importance of James’s radical empiricism to the contemporary debate between naturalists and antinaturalists lies in these relationships. calcaterra claim for the interactive. namely. Here I will only point out the connection of James’s controversial concept of “pure experience” to his deep sense of the fallibility of human knowledge and to the “social” conception of epistemic justifications. reality. but they dip forward into facts again and add to them. empirical. and truth.418 rosa m.

He then analyzed the mind both as cognitive function ­ and as volition or as function directed to objects that exist outside the mind. regardless of their capacity to engage our needs and interests or their consistency with interactive experiences with the environment. In particular. the relationship between knowing subject and known object necessarily requires the same conceptual tools that scientific psychology should account for. A fluid image of reality was thus outlined. and even ideas of space.” between “descriptive” and “normative. Yet it is difficult to understand how much our mental structures—our logical and semantic categories—are the result of a purely causal relationship between the accumulated experience of the human species and the functioning of the brain.varieties of synechism 419 such a ­ perspective in the Principles. offers a variety of forms of life. certain emotions. so that man’s position in the natural world should be identified by our specific capacities and performances. however. according to James it is true that experimental psychology can enlighten us about the organic basis of a series of mental phenomena such as elementary sensations. the scientific resources of psychology can satisfactorily detect human capacities to grasp the “facts” of external reality. finally. mentalist vocabulary ­ inevitably . James is aware that many of the issues concerning the mental domain imply an unavoidable blending of psychophysiological research with metaphysics. between philosophy and experimental psychology: in a typical Jamesian spirit. As for James.” and. instead. especially in the pages dedicated to the intentionality of mind. or a “positivistic” point of view. which in turn are selected according to various vital needs of human subjects.11 On the other hand. In the chapter “The Perception of Reality. or causality. suffice it to say that the incipit of the Principles of Psychology is a statement in favor of the experimental method. Following Lotze’s philosophy. In other words. we should recognize that the debate is still unresolved by or. can be resolved only in principle by recent developments in neuroscience.” this fluid image was offered as an alternative to the idea of an objective world independent from us with which our concepts should agree unconditionally. Nonetheless. at most. the invitation to be cautious about the supposed certainties of scientific psychology is only apparently in contrast with the strong confidence in the methodology of natural sciences that old and new pragmatists maintain.10 Certainly. James tended to maintain that nature does not establish a hierarchy of beings but. We are touching here on a crucial divergence between “psychologism” and “antipsychologism. time.

13 Indeed. the Jamesian concept of pluriverse brings a significant contribution to the current debate on the relationship between philosophy and experimental psychology. it means a psychology particularly fragile. mind. supporting a nonreductionist form of naturalism. but I find it extremely helpful: When we talk of “psychology as a natural science.” when into the real elements and forces which the word covers not the first glimpse of clear insight exists.” we must not assume that that means a sort of psychology that stands at last on solid ground. an overall examination of James’s epistemology. and into which the waters of metaphysical criticism leak at every joint. a phrase of diffidence.15 In . I will only recall here the centrality of the agent in James’s work. of course. the most relevant one is that there is “an interface between the knower and everything ‘outside. James tried to demonstrate that there are different kinds of relationships among truth.14 Among these. Given the amazing results in neurosciences today. but clearly this task exceeds the purpose of the present essay. It means just the reverse.” and write “Histories of Psychology. and not of arrogance. we would need to presuppose an absolute or transcendent truth/reality to which knowledge should conform regardless of the intraand intersubjective activities of individual human minds and the practices that justify theoretical-scientific claims. or between mind and nature. It is. Putnam points out in it those elements that are relevant to fundamental philosophical issues that still have to be resolved.’” an idea that he himself acknowledges that he has defended for a long time.12 As Hilary Putnam notes. calcaterra intrudes into the propositions of experimental psychology. in short. and reality. the famous line “There are more things in heaven and earth. An appropriate clarification of this assertion would require. Horatio. a psychology all of whose elementary assumptions and data must be reconsidered in wider connections and translated into other terms. than are dreamt of in your philosophy” may well represent the “pluriverse” emerging from the theory of perception that James maintained in his Essays in Radical Empiricism.420 rosa m. otherwise. Commenting on the theory of radical empiricism. it may perhaps appear extrava­ gant to quote the final statement of Psychology: Briefer Course. and it is indeed strange to hear people talk triumphantly of “the New Psychology.

Direct realism à la James. I would say that James’s conception of experience is an essential step in overcoming the contrast between empirical and conceptual elements of knowledge.17 and accordingly. instead. As Putnam suggests in the essay “James’s Theory of Perception. more exactly: “James’s idea is that the ­ traditional claim that we must conceive of our sensory experiences as intermediaries between us and the world has no sound arguments to support it and. worse. James challenges the traditional belief that “immediacy” coincides with “incorrigibility”: hence. he states the criterion of intersubjective verification as an essential prerequisite of any assertion about reality. that it is necessary to postulate “reality” as a prerequisite of pragmatist philosophy but also stresses that the agreement of our ideas with reality consists in testing external reality by acquaintance. This traditional view—also in the revised version of analytic philosophy—implies the emphasis on the subjective nature of perceptual experiences. however. exemplified by the case of an imaginary fire in the Essays in Radical Empiricism.” Putnam stresses the importance of fallibilism and the social conception of epistemic justification but above all underlines James’s effort to discard the meaning of the term experience that has always prevailed in the Anglo-Saxon philosophical world.”19 . As I previously mentioned.” In the first case. namely. affecting the ­ keystones of the traditional theory of perceptions. rejects the idea that truthful perceptions are simply subjective affections. the meaning according to which “experience” is equivalent to some sort of feeling. This is indeed the crucial aspect of the distinction between real and illusory.16 For my part. The lexicon of current cognitive science replaces the expression “sensory data” with “perceptual states. for James these two aspects merge in the continuity between observational facts and their logical-scientific settlement.18 Moreover. in the essay “James’s Theory of Perception. objects of veridical perceptions are conceived as “external things” or aspects of a reality that is “outside” the subject.” James has to be considered the first post-Cartesian philosopher who rejects the idea that perceptions require an interface.” without. his statements in favor of epistemological realism are quite strong.” To avoid this way of thinking we have to distinguish “natural realism” from “direct realism. and this is the most significant point. the understanding of them as something that is “within us” and regards “appearances. he not only claims.varieties of synechism 421 particular. makes it impossible to see how persons can be in genuine cognitive contact with a world at all. once again. In The Meaning of Truth. namely.

and the role of agency in the dynamics of cognitive processes. namely. Sellars. consisting in replacing the theory of perception with the problem of the way in which language relates to the world.”21 James’s suggestion to check the conformity of the contents of perception with the aspects of external reality they represent sets us free from the dichotomy subject/object and from the separation internal/external and mind/world. and the American realists (Perry and Mountague). on the one hand. the dominant view in Anglo-­ American philosophy of mind is a combination of materialism and Cartesianism ­ (“Cartesianism cum materialism. James introduces new heuristic criteria such as the social dimension. Russell. With Peirce. abilities that depend upon our brains and upon various transactions between the environment and the organism but that do not have to be reductively explained using the vocabulary of physics and biology. All other core issues of Western philosophical thought have been shaped on the basis of these dichotomies. to abandon the rigid alternatives that constitute the main source of philosophical paradoxes: “Rejecting ‘Cartesianism cum materialism’ does not. The blending of realism and pragmatism that Putnam suggests that we should .” he says). calcaterra Post-Cartesian philosophy neglected this point of view for a long time. We should not think that if we refuse to identify the mind with the brain we will find ourselves committed to thinking of it as an immaterial part of us. It reappeared in the early twentieth century thanks to Moore. the interweaving of logical and empirical factors of knowledge. However. of course. Strawson. I urged. is best understood as talk of certain abilities we possess. and McDowell defended it in a new form. refuses to give up perceptions as a direct contact with the surrounding environment. mean going back to Cartesian dualism itself.422 rosa m. in other words. Such a combination (which Putnam ascribes to Austin and Fodor as well as to Dennett and Davidson) does not change the dichotomy inside/outside that pervades traditional representationalism. this interface is what we should overcome by adopting a perspective that. or even the vocabulary of computer science. mind talk. recognizes what both mentalists and materialists consider as a problem and. and then it disappeared again until Austin. On the contrary. all those dualisms that James’s radical empiricism and natural realism tried to contrast. on the other hand. What matters most is to escape reductionism. according to Putnam.20 Nor have theories that define the perceptual and representational functions as brain processes been able to offer a satisfactory solution to the ­ subject because they assume that there is an interface between mind and world.

S. 8. ed. ed. December 26. For a more detailed account of Putnam’s interpretation of Jamesian thought. Essays in Radical Empiricism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.. Putnam (Cambridge: Harvard University Press. S. 108. 2000).varieties of synechism 423 adopt is possibly a way for rewriting these issues according to ­ synechism. W. 1893. 7–8. Body. 413–16. 1984). K. Italy: Quodlibet. ed. 1931–35). L’uomo indeterminato. 2009). N. 2. Hookway. Annotated Catalogue of ­ the Papers of Charles S. Psychology: Briefer Course (Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ­ . H. 6:60. Calcaterra (Macerata. in Pragmatismo e Filosofia analitica. 1:171. see R. see S. ed. “Comparing the Major Theories of Consciousness. Pragmatism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 30ff. W.” in The ­ Cognitive Neurosciences IV. James. 1967). Ibid. Saggio su William James (Rome: D’Anselmi. the ­ principle upon which the most original insight of the founders of pragmatism relies: their fallibilistic. L 224. 1–6. C.. 1111–22. Franzese. ­ notes 1. Collected Papers. Burks (Cambridge: Harvard University Press. The Works of William James. Weiss and C. 7. 1958). Il James di Putnam. Ketner and H. 2006). approach to the potentialities of human reason. 12. See T. 1990). Hartshorne (Cambridge: Harvard University Press. James. 9. 5. Robin. “Lotze and the Classical Pragmatists. 242. 1975). W. Realism with a Human Face (Cambridge: Harvard University Press. The passage is in a letter from Charles Sanders Peirce to William James. Ibid. The Threefold Cord: Mind. R. 1984). S. Reasoning and the Logic of Things. “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Philosophical Review 4 (1974): 435–50. 400. 4. 7:565. 207–25. James. 15. Peirce. Peirce. 7:570. C. 1999). Putnam. 1992). vols. 37. 36. Michael Gazzaniga (Cambridge: MIT Press. and the World (New York: Columbia University Press. Collected Papers. M. while antiskeptic. Putnam. 3. ­ Differenze e interazioni. Block. P. W. Nagel. Peirce (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. 14. C. ed. 13.. M. Letters are classified according to the catalog R. Ibid. Calcaterra. Peirce. For Lotze’s influence on James’s thought. 10.” European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy 1 (2010): 44–52. 43.. 6. A. and vols. CSP-WJ. H. ­ 11.

Ibid. 10–11. 18. Putnam.. 17. calcaterra 16. 20. 44. Realism with a Human Face. 190ff. Ibid. Threefold Cord.424 rosa m. The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to Pragmatism (New York: Prometheus Books. 1997). Putnam. 407–47. ­ 19. See W.. Ibid. 21. 100–102. . James.

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