Charles S. Peirce

[Investigation and the Settlement of Opinion]

MS 180 (Robin 364): Writings 3, 16-18
Winter-Spring 1872

        There is an important difference between the settlement of opinion which results from investigation and every other such settlement. It is that investigation will not fix one answer to a question us well as another, but on the contrary it tends to unsettle opinions at first, to change them and to confirm a certain opinion which depends only on the nature of investigation itself. The method of producing fixity of belief by adhering obstinately to one's belief, tends only to fix such opinions as each man already holds. The method of persecution tends only to spread the opinions which happen to be approved by rulers; and except so far as rulers are likely to adopt views of a certain cast does not determine at all what opinions shall become settled. The method of public opinion tends to develope a particular body of doctrine in every community. Some more widely spread and deeply rooted conviction will gradually drive out the opposing opinions, becoming itself in the strife somewhat modified by these. But different communities, removed from mutual influence, will develope very different bodies of doctrine, and in the same community there will be a constant tendency to sporting which may at any time carry the whole public. What we know of growth, in general, shows that this will take place; and history confirms us. The early history of sciences before they begin to be really investigated, especially of psychology, metaphysics, etc., illustrates as well as anything the pure effect of this method of fixing opinions. The numerous well-defined species of doctrines which have existed on such subjects and their progressive historical succession gives the science of the history of philosophy considerable resemblance to that of paleontology.

        Thus no one of these methods can as a matter of fact attain its end of settling opinions. Men's opinions will act upon one another & the method of obstinacy will infallibly be succeeded by the method of persecution & this will yield in time to the method of public opinion and this produces no stable result.

        Investigation differs entirely from these methods in that the nature of the final conclusion to which it leads is in every case destined from the beginning, without reference to the initial state of belief. Let any two minds investigate any question independently and if they carry the process far enough they will come to an agreement which no further investigation will disturb.

        But this will not be true for any process which any body may choose to call investigation, but only for investigation which is made in accordance with appropriate rules. Here, therefore, we find there is a distinction between good and bad investigation. This distinction is the subject of study in logic. Some persons will doubt whether any sort of investigation will settle all questions. I refrain, however, from arguing the matter, because I should thus be led to anticipate what comes later, and because after any demonstration I might give I should still rest on some assumption and it is as easy to see that investigation assumes its own success as that it assumes anything else.

        If it be objected that it does not necessarily suppose that it can solve all questions, I shall merely reply for the present, that it will at least never positively conclude any question to be absolutely insoluble so that it may as well assume them to be soluble after an indefinite time. Some philosophers it is true consider some questions to be demonstrably insoluble but we shall see hereafter that this is an error.

        I hasten by these side questions in order to come to my central point.