Truth, Rationality, and Pragmatism.  (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000)

Introduction:  Pragmatism and the materials of rational self-control


1. Introduction

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1913) was a philosopher with a very great range. He is best known to the wider philosophical community for his writings about the nature of truth and for the papers in which he formulated and defended his ‘pragmatist principle’. He also wrote on probability and the foundations of statistical reasoning and constructed a complex account of meaning and representation which he called ‘semiotic’ or ‘semeiotic’. Mindful of the Kantian roots of his thought, he relied upon an original theory of categories, one which, from the late 1890s, was grounded in a kind of phenomenological investigation. He also worked on ethics and aesthetics, on the foundations of mathematics, on the nature of mind, and on the construction of an ambitious system of evolutionary metaphysics. This list merely samples his philosophical interests and does not touch on his mathematical and scientific work.

            The best way of finding unity in this wide range of philosophical activities is to respect Peirce’s own favoured self-description: he was a ‘logician’. His contributions to formal logic were extensive and seminal, their importance only now being fully appreciated (See Houser, Roberts and van Evra, 1997). However, in Peirce’s usage, ‘logic’ also encompasses much of what contemporary philosophers would include in epistemology and the philosophy of language. He had a deep interest in the normative standards, rules and methods, that guide us when we carry out inquiries, when we try to solve problems and arrive at settled beliefs. These standards enable us to exercise rational or ‘logical’ self-control, to inquire in a responsible and effective manner. Some of them will be derived from the formal character of thought and representation, and others reflect the abstract structure of deductive and inductive arguments. Still more may offer methodological advice on how to plan inquiries and assess our progress.

            A major focus for Peirce’s work was to describe the normative standards we follow and to explain how our use of them is rational, to show that inquiring well and responsibly will take us to the truth. Studies in logic show what logical self-control consists in and explain how it is possible. Even those of his writings which did not deal directly with issues of this kind were concerned with how we can be confident that these normative standards are objectively ‘correct’; how we can be warranted in relying upon them. Thus his work on ‘logic’, properly so-called, was embedded in a subtle and complex philosophical system with a carefully worked out structure. The semiotic theory, for example, was actually part of logic; but the phenomenological study of categories and his investigations of ethical and aesthetic normative standards form part of the wider context in which questions about truth, correctness and objectivity can be addressed. As is explained in chapter seven, Peirce’s attempt to develop a system of scientific metaphysics and his ambitious evolutionary cosmology were seen as required for the legitimation of these norms of rational inquiry. Hence if we are to understand Peirce’s logical views, it will not be enough to take account of his detailed discussions of issues about representation, deductive and inductive reasoning and methodology. We must also understand how these discussions are embedded in this more extensive ‘system’, and the architectonic structure that he imposed upon it.

My previous book on Peirce (1985) was primarily about this overall architectonic structure and with placing his more detailed views within the perspective that it provides. I was concerned with the ways in which his architectonic reflected his reading of Kant’s philosophy and with such issues as: Why did he take mathematics to be a discipline which needs no foundations but can provide foundations for philosophy? Why did he believe that his work in logic required a system of categories, and why did he seek to ground his categories through a phenomenological investigation? Why did he then think that the study of logical norms should depend upon work in the other normative sciences: ethics and aesthetics? Finally why, having developed his logical ideas, did he find it necessary to work on a system of scientific metaphysics? Why are all these resources needed in order to explain how objective standards of inquiry - including the principle of pragmatism itself - are possible. I was concerned with the overall picture; how was it all meant to hang together? Why did it take the form that it did?

I still stand by the general structure of the interpretation offered in that book.1 The present volume explores a range of issues in greater depth than was possible then and examines at length topics that were passed over in little more than a few sentences in the first one. This means that there is more focus on themes in Peirce which are relevant to contemporary work on epistemic norms, for example, an extended discussion of Peirce’s views on truth. Although his own writings contain rather little on that topic, these have had a large impact on non-scholarly discussion of Peirce’s views. The chapters that follow are concerned with a related set of three broad issues: Peirce’s views about truth and the progress of inquiry; his views about the materials that contribute to our ability to exercise rational self-control in carrying out inquiries; and his initially puzzling but important views about the different requirements of theory and practice, and the role of sentiments and emotions in rational self-control. There is one other focus. The present book contains detailed discussions of some issues in the development of Peirce’s thought, how his ideas changed and what stimulated him to add new ingredients to the mix. I have been particularly interested in the unresolved problems he faced in the 1870s, at the time that he published his most famous papers, ‘The Fixation of Belief’ and ‘How to Make our Ideas Clear’; and in the developments in the early 1880s which enabled him to respond to those very real problems.

The rest of this introduction attempts to sketch in some background. Section two introduces the issues that are central to the book and provides a preliminary overview of the subsequent chapters. This is followed by a brief sketch of some of Peirce’s most characteristic philosophical commitments, introducing ideas and doctrines that are referred to frequently in the remainder of the book. I hope that this will help to make it accessible to those who are not closely acquainted with Peirce’s thought. The final two sections discuss two issues which surface in a number of later papers: first, Peirce’s views about theory and practice and some similarities between his thought and that of William James; and second, some questions about how we should think about the development of Peirce’s thought.


2. Truth and the elements of logical self-control

Pragmatism is a form of empiricism that employs a much richer understanding of experience than is familiar from the work of Hume and from twentieth century logical empiricists. We can see this clearly in William James’s ‘radical empiricism’. Having declared that ‘the only things that shall be debatable among philosophers shall be things definable in terms drawn from experience’, he insisted that the parts of experience are ‘held together from next to next by relations that are themselves parts of experience.’(James 1909 [1975b, p. 6-7], and also James 1912 [1976, passim]). He was thus able to conclude that the ‘directly apprehended universe… possesses in its own right a concatenated or continuous structure’. As we shall see in section three below, Peirce’s theory of categories supports a similar view. In the work of both Peirce and James, pragmatism encourages us to clarify hypotheses by examining what difference their truth would make to the future run of experience and to dismiss as cognitively empty any claims whose truth would make no such difference. Peirce’s pragmatism, and his developing ideas about how to argue for it, are explored in the final chapter.

            Central to the philosophy of both Peirce and James was a philosophical account of truth, one that explained the ‘practical’ or experiential difference it would make if something were true. James notoriously identified the true with what it is good or satisfactory to believe, or with what is ‘expedient in the way of belief’. However he also appreciated the force of an idea which was central to Peirce’s own work on truth: it is a mark of a proposition’s being true that those who investigate the matter come to agree in believing it, at least in the long run. Peirce thus defined truth in terms of a long run fated or destined convergence in opinion. Although he repeated this view of truth on a number of occasions, and although it is very important for the overall structure of his thought, his treatments of the topic generally have a throwaway character: nowhere did he provide an extended and detailed presentation and defence of his position. Questions are thus raised about the precise nature of the proposed link between truth and long run convergence in opinion, and about just how plausible his claims are. Given that there are some truths which are forever lost to us - what Peirce once memorably called ‘buried secrets’ - it is natural to conclude that the theory is fatally flawed.

            Such difficulties aside, it is unclear how distinctive the pragmatist account of truth is. Some commentators, for example, interpret Peirce’s position as a kind of coherence theory of truth. Others are struck by how ready he is to adopt the rhetoric of correspondence with reality. Chapter two is an attempt to describe the content of Peirce’s theory of truth. It is argued that he was largely untroubled by the difficulties posed by ‘buried secrets’; and that he may be justified in doing so once we take note of the special features possessed by pragmatist clarifications of concepts and hypotheses. The pragmatists opposed something that they sometimes described as the ‘copy theory of truth’ and it is thus unsurprising that they rejected classical versions of the correspondence theory of truth. However Peirce, and also James, were anxious to retain the rhetoric of correspondence to fact or agreement with reality, and Peirce argued (after 1885) that true propositions provide reliable iconic representations of reality. Propositions and theories give us diagrams or maps of our surroundings, and would lack cognitive value if they did not do this. Chapter three takes up the relations between pragmatist theories of truth and the ‘correspondence intuition’ in some detail, discussing in passing some of the relations between pragmatism and realism. During his last two decades, Peirce came to insist that it was essential to his theory of truth that, when we put something forward as true, we commit ourselves only to its approximate truth: when I present something as true, I anticipate that some permissible refinement or qualification of it will prove to be defensible in the long run. The issues raised by this claim are discussed in the second chapter and raised again elsewhere in the book. Chapter four, an exploration of some of Peirce’s views about reference and false belief, discusses how we can refer to individuals and kinds of whose character our understanding is flawed, and chapter five surveys some of his claims about the importance of vagueness and approximate truth.

            One set of issues raised by Peirce’s theory of truth concerns how this fated convergence on the truth occurs. The scientific method will supposedly take us, eventually, to the truth, but how does it do this? Some critics have supposed that Peirce was committed to a fixed canon of scientific methods whose consistent application could not fail to take any responsible inquirer to the same fated answer to the question under investigation. The model for Peirce’s understanding of science was statistical sampling. Just as repeated fair sampling of a population will lead to a settled view about the proportion of its members which possesses some specified property, and would lead anyone to the same view, so steady sampling of the available evidence would take anyone to the same view about the truth value of some specified proposition. However Peirce was aware of the contingent obstacles that could distort statistical sampling, and he understood the disanalogies between statistical sampling and other kinds of scientific testing. The scientific method is not a simple algorithm for measuring the force of evidence, and we can see how bad luck could hold up progress for a long time. Use of the scientific method is supposed to enable us to be responsible in our inquiries, to exercise rational self control over the development of our opinions. Several chapters discuss some themes in Peirce’s thought which are relevant to this.2

            Some of these themes involve strategies which reflect Peirce’s modifications of his Kantian heritage. In ‘The Fixation of Belief’, Peirce asked how we can identify and defend the most fundamental and important logical norms (W3: 246). We raise the question: what methods ought we to employ when we try to replace doubt or uncertainty by settled belief in some proposition? Peirce refers to this as the ‘logical question’. The fundamental norms are those that are ‘absolutely essential as guiding principles’, and he proposes an apparently Kantian strategy for identifying them. A variety of facts are ‘already assumed when the logical question is first asked’: these facts serve as presuppositions of inquiry. Then, ‘those rules of reasoning which are deduced from the very idea of the process are the ones that are most essential.’ We identify the most fundamental norms by showing that they are implicitly assumed when we ask what standards of inquiry we ought to follow. Moreover reliance on such rules is legitimate: it will not lead from true premisses to false conclusions; and the importance of what can be deduced in this way ‘turns out to be greater than might be supposed’. This description suggests that he is engaged in constructing what is now often called a ‘transcendental argument’.

            In fact, Peirce soon came to question the value of transcendental arguments (see chapters four, seven and twelve). The fact that something is a presupposition of inquiry or of experience or of thought may provide a good practical reason for hoping that it is true; and it may make it rational for us to plan our inquiries on the basis of this hope. But the fact that we should adopt such assumptions as regulative ideas, as hopes, provides no basis for believing them to be true. However, even accepting such propositions as hopes imposes some rational obligations upon the development of our philosophical views. We should not accept any scientific or metaphysical views which are inconsistent with the truth of those hopes. If participation in inquiry must proceed against the background of the hope that our sense of plausibility is attuned to the character of reality, or that there are real laws and ‘would-be’s, then Peirce’s philosophical system must explain how this is possible. He takes this to require the construction of a system of scientific metaphysics which explains how what we hope can actually be the case. Chapters six and seven explore the development of Peirce’s search for a scientific metaphysics after 1880, emphasizing how these views emerge from the need to make sense of regulative ideas, hopes and assumptions that we bring to our practice of inquiry.

            The strategy we have just described takes what Kant called constitutive principles and transforms them into regulative ideas which require further legitimation from subsequent empirical (scientific or metaphysical) inquiry. In Peirce’s writings, this co-exists with another strategy, one that draws on the philosophical tradition of common-sense. He claims that we possess a range of common-sense certainties. These are propositions that provide a framework for our thought and inquiry, both scientific and practical. Although certain, they are vague and this leaves room for judgement about how they should be applied in particular cases. Moreover, although their application in connection with primitive concerns of life is secure, their use in novel situations and in the far reaches of theoretical science is much more controversial. Peirce’s critical common-sensism enjoins us to trust these natural beliefs, but to reflect upon them, trying to question them, particularly when they are applied to new situations. This aspect of Peirce’s account of self-control is discussed in chapter eight; it introduces themes which are then explored more fully in the remaining chapters.

            Peirce’s ideas about truth and inquiry are explored in some details in chapters two, three and four. Chapters three to five contain discussions of how some of his views about meaning, understanding, and reference contribute to his story about how our inquiries are fated to reach the truth. Peirce’s reasons for rejecting a transcendental approach to philosophy are then discussed when we look at the role of his system of scientific metaphysics in chapters six and seven. For most of the remainder of the book, we turn to the second of the two themes just described, the influence of the common-sense tradition. Chapter eight explores his use of common-sense ideas. concentrating upon their role in his philosophy and upon how his adoption of ‘critical’ common-senism reflected his Kantian heritage. This is followed by a general discussion of the role of sentiments and emotions in his account of our use of epistemic and logical norms. The discussion of doubt in chapter ten provides a more concrete illustration of how these ideas work: doubt is seen as embodying an affective evaluation of our cognitive position, one that motivates us to carry out inquiries. And chapter eleven then develops that idea, examining his argument for the reality of God and suggesting that he thought that scientific observation was itself a kind of religious experience. The first chapter, ‘Belief, Confidence, and the Method of Science’ introduces many of the issues that are addressed in more detail in subsequent chapters. It argues that there were important tensions in Peirce’s thought when he produced his most famous writings in the 1870s thus preparing us for the account to be given of the importance of ideas that became important during the following decade. It also raises the questions about theory and practice - and the practice of science - which will be discussed in section four of the introduction. The final chapter explores some of Peirce’s arguments for his most famous doctrine, his pragmatist principle.


3. Peirce’s philosophical ‘picture’

Since this book is not intended as a general introduction to Peirce’s thought as a whole, I shall now sketch the main elements in his overall philosophical picture or system. This will involve explaining some important doctrines that are referred to, but perhaps not explained in detail, in later chapters.

            We have already encountered the two most familiar elements of Peirce’s philosophical picture: his pragmatism and his account of truth. The former was introduced as a rule for clarifying the contents of concepts and hypotheses, one that many have seen as a forerunner of the logical positivists’ verification principle. He held that once we are clear about the differences that the truth of a proposition would make to future experience, we have achieved total clarity about its content. Since Peirce thought of his pragmatism as a ‘laboratory philosophy’, he tended to express this by saying that we achieve full clarity about a concept, proposition or hypothesis by explaining what difference our actions would make to future experience if the concept were correctly applied to something or the proposition or hypothesis were true. If my car is in the garage, then, if I open the garage door, I shall see it; if the powder in the dish is soluble, then if I stir it in unsaturated water, it will dissolve; and so on. He was committed to showing that science employed no standards or techniques which required an understanding of hypotheses which would not be clarified through this process. And he claimed that any hypothesis that resisted this kind of clarification was empty or devoid of content. ‘Ontological metaphysics’ - by which he meant a priori or non-scientific metaphysics - could be dismissed; as could the ideas of reality which were employed in formulating familiar philosophical sceptical arguments. If the hypothesis that I am the victim of an evil demon who ensures that my beliefs do not correspond to reality cannot be tested through its experiential consequences, then it is empty. This explanation of why the idea of a ‘thing in itself’ was incoherent was present in his work from the 1860s, although the principle of pragmatism itself was not formulated until the following decade. The first elements of the picture are thus a pair of ideas: concepts and hypotheses that do not relate to possible experience can be dismissed as incoherent; and it can contribute to good scientific practice to try to clarify our hypotheses by investigating what experiential consequences they would have.

     The theory of truth is an application of this idea, and it emerged from a search for a conception of reality which did not carry with it the possibility that there might be ‘things-in-themselves’ that were in principle unknowable. True propositions are those that we are fated or destined to agree upon if only we inquire diligently enough; they are the propositions that would be the objects of long run convergence among inquirers (see chapter two). If the whole content of a proposition can be unpacked in terms of possible experiences, then anyone who assiduously seeks relevant experiences would eventually reach the truth. And if I think that some proposition is true, then I expect that such a convergence of opinion would be experienced if only everyone inquired into the matter. This idea is present in papers and lectures from the late 1860s; it was explicitly formulated as a pragmatist clarification of truth in 1877; and continued to be endorsed by Peirce throughout his career.

     A third element of the picture is the idea that the method of science, properly applied, is sure to take us to this truth. It emerges in an important early paper, ‘Grounds of Validity of the Laws of Logic’. Peirce consistently attacked psychologicism in logic: the goodness of an argument (or a method) was an objective matter, a matter of whether it took us from true premises or inputs to true conclusions. The validity of induction was then explained by showing that continued use of inductive arguments - such as techniques of statistical sampling - would eventually eliminate error and take us to the truth. Although Peirce’s understanding of the scientific method developed, and although he came to recognize many assumptions that must be made before we can be confident that we will reach the truth through its use, this general picture of how we are able to improve our fallible opinions and make progress toward the truth was a constant feature of his work.

     Early papers written during the late 1860s made much of a fourth element of the picture, Peirce’s semiotic, his account of reference and understanding. I shall not attempt to explain this in detail, but will sketch some main ideas.3 It is natural to think of meaning and representation as involving a dyadic relationship between a sign (a thought or utterance, for example) and some object or state of affairs which it represents. The name ‘Rome’ stands for a particular city in Italy; the predicate expression ‘… is red’ stands for redness; the thought that Caesar crossed the Rubicon stands for the state of affairs of Caesar crossing the Rubicon. Peirce insisted that this dyadic picture was too simple: the expression or thought has the content that it does only because it is (or can be) understood or interpreted in that way. Its meaning is determined by how it can affect subsequent thought; signs are always ‘directed to’ subsequent thoughts which count as their ‘interpretants’. An account of meaning and reference must be, fundamentally, an account of how signs are understood or ‘interpreted’. The fundamental semiotic relation is triadic: sign s denotes object o according to interpretant i. ‘Rome’, for example, refers to that Italian city in virtue of its being interpreted as so doing.

     ‘Interpretation’ need not involve forming a conscious thought about what a sign means, about what it has as an object. My interpretation of a sign can be manifested in the ways in which I use it as a premise in inference, form expectations about the future run of experience, show surprise when experience clashes with it, and so on. The meaning of a sign is fixed by its inferential role, and by the ways in which I am able to track its object through future inquiry. Peirce’s later work classified the kinds of interpretants which signs can receive, the variety of objects that each possesses, and about the ways in which the objects of signs are determined and identified. Some of Peirce’s most famous classifications of signs - such as that between icon, index and symbol - emerge from these discussions. Chapter four discusses Peirce’s reasons for thinking that our fundamental ways of referring to external things must involve indexical representation; and chapter three explores his claim that systems of concepts, and languages, which are adequate for thought and inquiry must make use of iconic representations.

     The next element of the Peircean picture that I shall introduce here is his theory of categories. When we consider the predicates or general terms we use to describe our surroundings, we note that we use relational expressions with different numbers of terms or subjects; in Peirce’s phrase, they have different numbers of ‘unsaturated bonds’ (CP3.421, 3.469). An expression such ‘ ( ) hits ( )’ expresses a dyadic relation, a relation holding between two objects; and ‘( ) gives ( ) to ( )’ expresses a triadic relation, it has three unsaturated bonds. A simple predicate such as ‘( ) is red’ is monadic, taking only one ‘subject’. General terms can be classified according to their number of bonds or subjects; and properties or qualities can be classified in an analogous manner. This provides the basis of an abstract system for classifying phenomena: some involve monadic characters; others involve dyadic relations; yet others involve triadic relations. Peirce claimed that there were irreducible properties of all these kinds: monadic, dyadic and triadic. He also argued that there were no irreducible properties or phenomena with more than three terms. This observation provided the basis of a classification of the primitive terms of an adequate language, of the kinds of properties and states of affairs found in reality, and of the contents of experiences. Phenomena were described as forms of Firstness, Secondness or Thirdness according to whether they manifested monadic, dyadic or triadic characteristics. Thus he often described the underlying insights of his semiotic, that signs have objects only because they can be understood as having them, by claiming that semantic and semiotic properties were forms of Thirdness: the representation relation is irreducibly triadic. Indeed the claim that there were irreducible triadic relations was one which, he thought, distinguished his philosophy from that of his more nominalist forebears. Semiotic and mental phenomena were all triadic, as were elements of reality such as laws and natural kinds. The resulting theory of categories is used extensively throughout Peirce’s work, not least in his complex systems for classifying signs and representations.

     It may be useful to present one illustration of this. When we interpret signs, identifying their objects, we make use of information about the sign, the object and the relations between them. If s is a symbol of o, then our grounds for identifying it as such are that there exists a practice of using and interpreting s as a sign of o which the utterance of the sign is exploiting. Interpretation exploits information about triadic relations in which s and o have previously stood: the ground of interpretation is a form of thirdness. Understanding an indexical sign exploits information about a dyadic relation between the sign and object: a ‘real existential relation’ between the pointing the finger and the object it points at, or between the utterance of ‘I’ or ‘That’ and the contextually salient object that it denotes. Of course, as Peirce acknowledged, such signs generally depend upon conventions and thus also have a symbolic character. But these conventions do not fix the objects of the signs unaided. Rather they determine how the signs should be interpreted in context, how we should make use of dyadic relations between signs and objects in order to determine what the sign refers to. Iconic signs (Peirce’s examples include predicates in natural languages and systems of mathematical notation as well as maps and pictures) exploit similarities between signs and their objects, features which each could have even had the other not existed. The shared abstract similarities on which iconic representation depends are thus forms of Firstness. Once again, we appeal to conventions to establish which sorts of similarities are relevant to the interpretation of particular kinds of iconic sign. The classification of signs employs the theory of categories to distinguish the different sorts of relation in which signs can stand to their objects.

     The final element in the Peircean picture is much more difficult to introduce. From the beginning to the end, Peirce described himself as a ‘realist’.4 Around 1870, he was confident that his philosophical picture undermined such anti-realist doctrines as nominalism and Berkeleyan idealism. And after 1900, he insisted that pragmatism could only be taken seriously by someone who shared this commitment to realism. A number of themes are involved in this ‘realism’. First he claimed that many treatments of realism and nominalism, many discussions of universals, rest on the mistaken assumption that if general characters such as redness or solidity are real, they must be special kinds of particulars. Instead, Peirce insisted, the issue is one of objectivity (CP 8.14). If it is objectively the case that a book is red, or that the ice is solid, then general characters form part of reality. If propositions involving predicates and relational descriptions provide objectively true descriptions of the world, then nominalism about universals has been defeated. Secondly, from the 1870s, he urged that there are real things ‘whose characters are entirely independent of our opinions about them’ (W3: 254), and, soon after that, he argued that we could directly perceive this mind-independent external world. Finally we should a note a passage in which he called himself a ‘realist of a somewhat extreme stripe’ (CP 5.470).

     Here, more than anywhere else, there is controversy about how much continuity his views displayed. During the 1870s, Peirce described his position as ‘the realism of Kant’, and his accounts of reality largely involved explaining how objectivity and truth were possible and identifying the real as the object of a true representation. In later years, Kant was criticised for his closet nominalism and Peirce came to believe that realism required a substantial metaphysical grounding. We would normally describe something as real, he may have thought, when it would be a matter of agreement among competent inquirers; but there are further questions, he came to feel, about what the ‘mode of being’ of these ‘reals’ consists in. This later realism becomes steadily more robust: Peirce felt obliged to show that Thirdness was really operative in nature, and to show that we are aware of triadic phenomena such as law, necessity and continuity in experience. However, although his views about the further commitments that were carried by a serious acceptance of realism appear to have changed and developed, there can be no doubt that, from the late 1860s, he placed himself on the realist side of most debates which can be formulated in terms of that notion.

     There are other themes we could have discussed here, all of which are examined in the chapters that follow. For example, Peirce displayed a continuous sympathy for the common-sense doctrines which dominated Harvard philosophy in the early part of the century. He mistrusted the role of theory in vital and theological matters, and disdained the philosophical practice of taking seriously sceptical doubts that were supported by philosophical speculation but which we did not feel ‘in our hearts’. After 1905 he recommended his ‘critical common-sensism’ as the position that ‘Kantism’ should lead to when freed of egregious errors. Furthermore, he was always out of sympathy with individualist approaches to philosophy: we investigate the world as members of a community of investigators, sharing information and engaging in critical discussion, and sensitive to the responses of others as a control on our own reasoning and inquiry. Another theme is that he was always a religious believer. His mistrust for theology ensured that he wrote little on the philosophy of religion until late in his career, but he shared the aspiration of other pragmatists to forge a view of mind, knowledge and reality which could bring religious belief and serious scientific activity into harmony.


4. Theory, practice and sentiments: Peirce and the will to believe

A recurrent theme of these papers concerns how we should read one of Peirce’s most famous papers, ‘The Fixation of Belief’. Superficially it is one of the most accessible of his writings. On careful re-reading it reveals some intriguing and often illuminating unclarities - see chapter one for a discussion of this. Peirce’s conclusion appears to be that the only respectable method for settling belief, for coming up with answers to theoretical questions, is the method of science. This involves testing beliefs against experience, and results from the rejection of the a priori method of inquiry. The latter requires confidence in our natural inclinations to believe, and urges us to accept what is ‘agreeable to reason’. It is rejected because it makes belief a matter of taste; ‘but taste, unfortunately, is always more or less a matter of fashion’ (CP5.383, and see 2.20). Peirce concludes that we want our beliefs to be fixed by nothing ‘extraneous to the facts’. It would be natural to expect Peirce to endorse W. K. Clifford’s famous injunction that it is always wrong to believe anything on the basis of insufficient evidence. And in that case he would line up against fellow pragmatist William James’s insistence that it is often obligatory to believe ‘in advance of the evidence’ and on the basis of ‘passional considerations’. Indeed the arguments of the latter’s ‘The Will to Believe’ are often used to mark the great philosophical gulf between the two pragmatists.

            When James urges us to believe ‘in advance of the evidence’, he has several different kinds of cases in mind. One concerns beliefs that are self-fulfilling: if I believe that someone likes me, or if I believe that I can jump the wide chasm that stands in from of me, then this will affect my behaviour in ways that make it more likely that the person will indeed like me, or make it more likely that I will possess the confidence required to get across the chasm. A second kind of case emerges when we note that what we experience can be influenced by what we believe and what we expect. James is particularly concerned about the possibility that there may indeed be evidence that supports God’s existence, but this evidence may only be available to those who have already formed that belief on non-evidential grounds. The evidence may be salient or significant only to those who are already drawn to the proposition for which it is evidence. Accepting the belief that seems natural, that appeals to our passions and sentiments, is defensible particularly in the face of cases which are of vital importance. These are cases were an urgent resolution of the question is required and the costs of agnosticism may be high. Indeed James thinks that ‘the passions’ shape all our beliefs: the decision to accept Clifford’s injunction and remain agnostic when very strong evidence does not support a candidate for belief is itself a passional choice. In all our cognitive activities, at some point we must trust our ‘passional’ standards or our natural inclinations to believe.

            As is discussed in chapter one, Peirce gave some lectures in Cambridge Massachusetts in 1898 in which he defended views that fit poorly with the most natural reading of ‘The Fixation of Belief’. First he claimed that belief had no place in science, that it was always irrational to believe results arrived at on the basis of the method of science. And second he argued that it was wrong to trust theory or scientific reflection in connection with ‘vitally important matters’. Vital matters should be settled with the aid of instinct, sentiment; we should trust our common-sense standards in making major decisions. Rather than wait for ‘evidence’, we must go by what is agreeable according to standards that are manifested in our sentimental or ‘passional’ responses. Although he had always questioned the relevance of theoretical reflection to matters of religious belief, by the time he wrote his 1908 paper ‘A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God’, he took a step further towards James, urging that a natural religious belief was required before we can obtain the evidence that can fuel a ‘scientific’ argument for God’s reality. It is harder to find traces of James’s insistence that belief in advance of sufficient evidence can be supportable because the belief is self-fulfilling. However Peirce did hold that confidence in our natural sense of plausibility, in our ability to guess which theories are most promising, was required for us to be effective and successful inquirers. Indeed this raises some interesting issues about the interplay between the two strategies described in the section two: cognitive success may often depend upon our possessing confident common-sense belief in propositions that we are only really warranted in hoping are true.

            Chapters one and eleven explore some of Peirce’s views about how we should resolve vital questions, while taking seriously the thought that participation in science is itself usually the result of a vital decision, the adoption of a particular way of life. Chapters nine and ten take up a related set of issues about the role of ‘sentiments’ within the method of science itself. From the 1860s, Peirce had insisted that science depended upon a distinctive set of altruistic moral views; and in a sequel to ‘The Fixation of Belief’ he claimed that these took the form of sentiments. Chapter nine discusses how sentiments can serve this role within science, and chapter ten explores some particular examples in connection with Peirce’s anti-Cartesian view of doubt.


5. The development of Peirce’s thought

The topically organised eight-volume Harvard Collected Papers disguised the fact that Peirce’s ideas and concerns changed and developed from the 1860s until his death nearly fifty years later. The issues that dominated his writings in the 1880s seem very different from those that concerned him around 1870; and if we look at his published papers and manuscripts from the 1890s or from ten years later, we find yet further differences of focus and formulation. The importance of taking these changes questions seriously was first emphasized by Murray Murphey in his seminal work The Development of Peirce’s Philosophy. Under Murphey’s influence, scholars are now sensitive to these developmental questions, and their work has been aided by the new Chronological Edition of Peirce’s work and by the two volume Essential Peirce, a by-product of work on that edition. Since a number of the papers in this volume are concerned with the pressures that led to these developments, I should say something about how it should be understood.5

How much continuity is there in the development of Peirce’s thought? Murphey approached this question by asking whether Peirce defended one philosophical system or several. He concluded that there is a succession of different systems, arguing that each in turn succumbed to problems that it could not solve, to be replaced by a new system which was grounded in new ideas in formal logic. Apparent similarities between earlier and later views are thus superficial, concealing underlying differences of substantial importance. A contrasting view might see much more continuity, in its most extreme form holding that Peirce’s ideas developed through accumulation, later work filling gaps and extending the range of applications of familiar ideas, but with early ideas surviving in large part.

We probably do best to resist the question when it is put by asking: how many different philosophical systems did Peirce adopt during his career? Our criteria for counting philosophical systems are very unclear, and there may be no fact of the matter whether some change is sufficient to lead us to say that there has been a change from one ‘system’ to another. Some of Peirce’s own ideas about how scientific ideas develop may help us to adopt an alternative approach. Discussing the history of the kinetical theory of gases, he commented that it began with ‘a number of spheres almost infinitesimally small occasionally colliding’. As the theory developed, it was allowed that the forces between the particles included attractive ones as well as those that result from collisions, that molecules were not infinitesimal spheres but were, rather, systems, and that there are considerable limits to the freedom of movement of these molecules. Through this historical developments, people’s beliefs about the constituents of gases changed a good deal: much that was believed at the beginning was later rejected. But Peirce claimed that these changes involved ‘no new hypothetical element’ (CP 7.216). We might express this by saying that the theory was based upon a general vague ‘picture’ of how gases worked, and it was allowed from the beginning that this picture might be refined and developed in ways other than those first employed. Changes in our view of matter and in our view of how gases work can be seen as moves within this general picture, as refinements and modifications in the light of problems that arose in the course of applying and developing the theory. Perhaps we should think of the continuities in Peirce’s thought in a similar way: from the beginning to the end, there is a general ‘philosophical picture’ which is common to his evolving body of ideas. But as he attempted to work out this picture in detail, problems became pressing which, a decade earlier, he would not have foreseen. And this can lead to refinements and reformulations of familiar parts of the picture whose necessity could not previously have been anticipated.6 It can even lead to changes in the structure of his thought and the ways he argues for his positions.

If it is accepted that this is how we should look at the development of Peirce’s thought, then a strategy for understanding it is suggested which reflects his own ideas about inquiry. A settled body of views can be disturbed by surprising experience or by uncovering other difficulties when we try to work out its implications or apply it. This gives rise to a doubt, to a problem that must be addressed before we can recover our confidence in our body of views. Inquiry, whether philosophical or within the special sciences, attempts to solve these problems, to eliminate these doubts. As the example of the kinetical theory of gases makes clear, this can often involve refining and developing familiar conceptions, recognizing that what seemed simple is complex, that earlier views represent a partial grasp of a more complex reality. In that case, our best way of approaching Peirce’s work is to focus on the problems, the doubts, that preoccupied him at any particular time. We must then ask how those doubts were resolved, how those problems were solved, by the new doctrines, or by the refinements of old doctrines, that enter his work at that time. The history of Peirce’s thought is the history of the new doubts that emerged and the new ideas that were employed to settle them. At any stage we should expect Peirce to be preoccupied with problems that emerged from his earlier ideas, but which he is struggling to see how to settle.

During the later 1860s, Peirce published a series of papers which introduced his philosophical picture: many of the elements of his thought are there in germ. We encounter the idea that truth can be understood in terms of the long run agreement of inquirers. We also read that the idea of something incognizable, something that can never be known, is nonsensical. We learn that the validity of induction rests on the fact that repeated inductions will inevitably eventually take us to the truth. Much emphasis is laid on the claim that all thought is in signs which are interpreted in inference, and there are hints of the central distinctions of Peirce’s semiotic. Finally an early form of Peirce’s theory of categories is presented. We make sense of our experience by forming propositions about it in which we ascribe qualities to things. We can do this only because we can make relational judgements: qualities are things in virtue of which we can conclude that one things is similar to another. Unless we could judge that a is similar to b we could not judge that a is F. And we can make these judgments of similarity only because we can understand a as a representation of b: thought depends upon mastery of the triadic relation of representation (W2: 49-59, see Hookway 1985:90-7).

     Already in the 1870s, these ideas are undergoing refinement: the theory of categories is formulated more abstractly as the claim that logic requires there to be irreducible dyadic and triadic relations as well as simple monadic characters of things. Much of Peirce’s philosophical energy during that decade was devoted to an unsuccessful attempt to write a systematic logic text. All that appeared was a series of papers in the Popular Science Monthly, ‘The Illustrations of the logic of science’ which included the papers we have mentioned above: ‘The Fixation of Belief’ and ‘How to Make our Ideas Clear’. One reason these papers are so readable is that some of the most important elements of the picture - Peirce’s theory of signs and his system of categories - are entirely absent. However, their importance for his thought is reasserted during the early 1880s. From 1879, Peirce was launched on a series of metaphysical investigations which led by the end of that decade to a system of evolutionary cosmology, a system of ‘scientific metaphysics’ central to which is the extensive development of Peirce’s ideas about his categories. And by 1885 Peirce was developing his theory of signs, emphasizing the importance of indexical and iconic representations in language that would be adequate for scientific purposes. So we face two questions: why was there nothing about signs and categories in the papers in the Popular Science Monthly? Why did Peirce develop these ideas about indexical and iconic signs and begin to work on a scientific cosmology after 1880?

     These issues are addressed by several papers in this volume. I argue that when Peirce attempted to work out the details of his philosophical picture for his logic text in the early 1870s, he was forced to confront some problems which he could not answer. He was confident that they could be solved within the framework of views provided by the picture, but could not then see how this should be done. The Popular Science Monthly papers do much to refine the picture and make it precise, but they do not engage with the problems that we see Peirce confronting in the manuscripts that were intended for his Logic text. His writings in the 1880s engage with those problems directly: once his theory of signs enabled him to acknowledge the importance of indexical reference to external things, he could see the way forwards. And other problems led him to believe that a fuller working out of his picture required him to embed his theory of categories in a system of scientific metaphysics, in an evolutionary cosmology. We can understand these developments only by identifying the problems or doubts that led Peirce to consider them.

It is against this background that the first chapter, ‘Belief, Confidence, and the Method of Science’ considers the interpretation of ‘The Fixation of Belief’. It is natural, or at least common, to read that paper as arguing that the ‘method of science’ is indeed an effective method for ‘fixing belief’ and that it is the only truly effective one. The paper examines the lectures in which Peirce appeared to retract that claim: it is wrong, he suggests, to trust the scientific method when we confront issues of vital practical importance; and, he says, the method of science does not actually fix belief at all -’belief has no place in science’. As we saw in the last section, the claims about practice, about ‘vital questions’ suggest that there may be more continuity between Peirce’s views and the position defended by William James in ‘The Will to Believe’ than is commonly supposed. Moreover (see chapters one and ten ) the views supporting these claims about practice and the method of science were already present in writings from the 1860s and 1870s. ‘Belief, Confidence, and the Method of Science’ uses these puzzles to identify some problems that Peirce struggled with when he was writing ‘The Fixation of Belief’. Many of these problems have already been mentioned: they concern Peirce’s changing attitudes towards the transcendental philosophy and his changing use of ideas from the common-sense tradition. Two more issues should be noticed here.

Chapter four, a discussion of Peirce’s reaction to the central argument of Royce’s 1885 book The Religious Aspect of Philosophy, turns directly to the difficulties that Peirce seems to have faced in formulating his ideas about truth in the 1870s. According to Peirce, Royce’s criticisms of the theory of truth that Peirce had presented in the 1870s, and his argument that the need for an adequate account of false belief required us to accept a version of absolute idealism, rested upon a flawed philosophical understanding of reference. So long as we suppose that reference to external things is always mediated through general descriptions of them, that we refer to them as whatever fits some description, the criticisms were hard to answer. By 1885, new developments in Peirce’s logic and his semiotic theories enabled him to claim that indexical or demonstrative reference had a fundamental role in anchoring our beliefs to the world; it explains how we can have beliefs about things about whose properties we have many false beliefs. The chapter explores the importance of this development for dealing with the problems that appeared to hold up Peirce’s attempt to write a logic text in the early 1870s.

Another source of these difficulties may have been a different issue about realism. Peirce came to see that his pragmatism and his theory of truth both called for a non-Humean view about causation. He needed to be a realist about classification, about causal interactions, about laws and about subjunctive idioms generally. Although he had always claimed to be a ‘realist’, he did not begin to explain the metaphysical backing of this realism until 1879-80. Chapter six explores Peirce’s reasons for claiming that the universe contains elements of absolute chance and considers how far this development in his views enabled him to confront problems that he wrestled with through the 1870s.

Many of the issues raised in Peirce’s papers are of continuing philosophical importance. Thinking about on his views about truth and normativity, and about the nature of rational reflection and self-control, can offer new perspectives on current issues and new ways of formulating important issues. Most of the chapters that follow have an ostensibly historical focus, being attempts to understand and evaluate Peirce’s often difficult texts. The main exception is chapter ten which is explicitly borrowing some ideas from Peirce in discussing contemporary issues. However I think that nearly all treat issues where Peirce can make valuable contributions to current debates, and the issues I have discussed about truth and rational self-control reflect my own interest in those topics.