Introduction to Charles Sanders Peirce [1839-1914]


     Copyright © 2014 Bruce W. Hauptli


Peirce coins the word ‘pragmatism’ and is unhappy with the use James makes of it which was too subjectivistic for Peirce.[1]  For Peirce, pragmatism is not so much a position or set of particular doctrines as it is a method.  He viewed previous philosophers as too involved in the employment of a priori methodologies which paid too little consideration to consequences.  He believed most metaphysical thought was “moonshine” or “gibberish,” and of no significance for science or common-sense.  Thus, for Peirce the purpose of pragmatism was that it should


51 ...bring to an end those prolonged disputes of philosophers which no observations of facts could settle, and yet in which each side claims to prove that the other side is in the wrong.  Pragmatism maintains that in those cases the disputants must be at cross-purposes.[2] 


To understand Peirce’s pragmatism, we must direct our attention to several different aspects of his thought: his epistemology, his metaphysics, and his pragmatic maxim. 


1. Peirce’s Epistemology:


Peirce held that the basic structure of our thinking proceeded from doubt, through inquiry, to belief.  He has what might be called an almost infinite faith in the idea that the indefinite and disinterested community of scientific inquirers will uncover truth in the long run.  A true belief, for Peirce, is one which would “be agreed to by all who investigate.” 


He was not maintaining, as some critics suppose, that we can only know whether a belief is true after it has been investigated by everyone and the last man alive on earth.  Rather, he maintained that what we mean by ‘truth’ is that if continuous inquiry by the community of “scientific” investigators is pursued, assent to the belief in question would increase and dissent would diminish.[3]  In short, scientific inquiry will engender truth! 


According to him, the scientists employ “the method of hypothesis.”  Ian Hacking says that for Peirce, “the method of hypothesis proposes a conjecture that explains a puzzling or interesting phenomenon.  For a while he renamed this method ‘abduction‘.  (He also used ‘retroduction’ in a related sense.)  He said he wanted this ‘peculiar name’ to make clear that the conjecturing of a preferred hypothesis was not induction at all.  A few philosophers have adopted Peirce’s peculiar word, and others follow Gilbert Harman’s attractive phrase ‘inference to the best explanation‘.[4] 


Instead of trying to find self-evident beginning points, and trying to build upon these by a methodology which emphasizes certainty (the procedure of Descartes); Peirce emphasizes the notion of actual doubts, tentative hypotheses, and he recognizes the fallible nature of our thought. 


2. Peirce’s Metaphysics:


Peirce was a common-sense theorist (or, more truthfully, a scientific) realist)[5] who held that there is an independent reality which can be known via science and he held that this reality is plastic (or, better from his view point, full of chance).  As Ian Hacking says, “Nietzsche did not infer that we live in an ancient, chancy universe.  He experienced it.  It was for him a given, just as for Peirce...’chance pours in at every avenue of sense’.”[6] 


However his overall metaphysical system is as mysterious and as dense as the most convoluted systems which he rejected (he speaks of tychism, agapism and synechism—chance, love and logic).  As a first approximation we can say that he is a realist in two senses of the term ‘realism’: he is a realist rather than an idealist, and he is realist rather than a nominalist.  Indeed, the problem of universals was important for him because of the role universals play in science.  Peirce was a moderate realist—he held that universals exist and that they stand for real general qualities not existing apart from but only within the many individual entities of our experience—the referent of a concept[7] was to be found in the experience of specific objects.  He held that there were three categories of things:


-firstness: simple immediacy (sensations, possibilities, ideas, unactualized essences),


-secondness: action or reaction of one thing or quality with another,


-thirdness: general concepts and laws (relation of firstness and secondness in a general concept, meaning or law). 


In his late period Peirce seems to have held that the cosmos is evolving (developing) gradually toward an ideal state, directed by a cosmic purpose.  However, the achievement of the goal is not inevitable—Peirce opposed a purely deterministic theory of evolution and believed that variety could have occurred only if chance or spontaneity were present in the universe.  Matter and mind represent two extremes in a continuity of intermediates and matter is simply mind that has become totally habit-bound or frozen.  Only that which contains mind can evolve and he believed that selfish competition and destruction never bring about growth.  Growth is achieved only by an action that includes, supports, and perfects others (through the movement of agapistic love). 


Cornell West maintains that Peirce was 


...Peirce was impelled to criticize Darwin and defend moral evolutionary teleology.  Peirce’s need to defend the theoretical coherence and logical consistency of his pragmatism and its compatibility with Christianity led him to put forward his own speculative evolutionary perspective, that is, agapism.  This viewpoint holds, in stark contrast to Darwin, that what motors evolution is not mechanical necessity, i.e., variation and natural selection, but rather an amalgam of this necessity, chance, and most important, love.  The very laws of nature themselves are regulated by a supreme law of the universe; chance is a crucial factor in the universe but even it begets order and harmony promoted by evolutionary love.[8] 


West goes on to cite Peirce’s later statement that: “it may seem strange that I should put forward three sentiments, namely interest in an indefinite community, recognition of the possibility of this interest being made supreme, and the hope in the unlimited continuance of intellectual activity, as indispensable requirements of logic.  Yet, when we consider that logic depends on a mere struggle to escape doubt which, as it terminates in action, must begin in emotion, and that, furthermore, the only cause of our planting ourselves on reason is that other methods of escaping doubt fail on account of the social impulse, why should we wonder to find social sentiment presupposed in reasoning?  As for the other two sentiments which I find necessary, they are so only as supports and accessories of that.  It interests me to notice that these three sentiments seem to be pretty much the same as that famous trio of Charity, faith, and Hope, which, in the estimation of St. Paul, are the finest and greatest of spiritual gifts.  Neither Old nor New Testament is a textbook of the logic of science, but the latter is certainly the highest existing authority in regard to the dispositions of the heart which a man ought to have.”[9] 


Whatever one thinks of his “metaphysical system, however, as Philip Wiener notes, Peirce hoped that his view would convey a:


...profound sense of the fallibility and yet supreme value of honest, persevering inquiry by individual minds sharing a common desire to learn and a common faith that an indefinite community of such investigators must sooner or later discover the truth and the reality corresponding to it.  He joins a high idealism of the inner world of values to his “Common-Sense Realism,” or belief in an independent world of external things with qualities existing pretty nearly as we ordinarily experience them or instinctively react to them.  If water quenches our thirst and washes our bodies clean, then water really has these properties....[10] 


Though close to Hegel’s Absolute Idea unfolding itself in history, Peirce’s idealism differs from Hegel’s in important ways: it disclaims ultimate knowledge of the final purpose of civilization; it denies absolute certainty to any metaphysics of history; it prefers the tentative self- corrective method of science to the absolute pretensions of dialectics; it does not identify the absolute goal of history with the aims of any ruler; it values the individual above the state.[11] 


3. Peirce’s Pragmatic Maxim:


As Philip Weiner notes, this maxim maintains that:


the meaning of any conception, like the hardness of diamonds, is to be found in the total conceivable consequences which the object of our conception has on our conduct, e.g., we can use the general property of a diamond’s hardness in drilling through most rocks.  But the truth which we learn by observing whether our present and future experience conforms to the predicted behavior of the diamond reveals a reality which is independent of anybody’s opinion or idea of hardness.  Thus Peirce distinguishes more clearly and sharply than James between the subjective meaning of our beliefs and the objective properties of what our beliefs imply concerning objects and events which we are compelled to recognize logically as independent of our thoughts and labels.[12] 


If we are to come to understand Peirce, however, we must begin to examine his work. 


Notes: (click on note number to return to text for the note--emphasis has been added to several of the citations)

[1] He later coins a new word, ‘pragmaticism’, to characterize his orientation and distinguish it from James’ orientation. 

[2] Charles Sanders Peirce, “The Architectonic Construction of Pragmatism,” (1905).  Reprinted in Pragmatism: The Classic Writings, H.S. Thayer (ed.) (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1982), pp. 50-53, p. 51. 

[3] H.S. Thayer, “Introduction” to Peirce chapter in Pragmatism: The Classical Writings, H.S. Thayer (ed.), op. cit.,  p. 46. 

[4] Ian Hacking, The Taming of Chance (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1990), p. 207. 

[5] A realist, in one of the senses at issue here, is someone who believes there is a mind-independent reality.  Such realists are contrasted with idealists (who maintain that reality is mental (there is no mind-independent reality).  There is a second sense of ‘realism’ which is also important here.  In this sense the question has to do with the status of “universals”—greeness, justice, the laws of motion.  In this case, realists maintain that the universals exist independently of the particular things (green hats, political actions, and falling bodies).  These thinkers are to be contrasted with nominalists--who maintain that only the particular things are real. 

[6] Ian Hacking, The Taming of Chance, op. cit., p. 148. 

[7] A referent, of course, is the thing referred to by the term.  Thus, the referent of ‘the Washington monument’ is the building which is the Washington monument. 

[8] Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (Madison: U of Wisconsin, 1989), p 52. 

[9] Ibid., p. 53, emphasis has been added tot he passage (bold).  West cites Peirce’s Collected Papers v. 2: 655 (pp. 399-400). 

[10] Philip Wiener, “Introduction,” to Charles S. Peirce: Selected Writings, Philip P. Wiener (ed.) (New York: Dover, 1958), p. viii. 

[11] Ibid., p. xx. 

[12] Ibid., p. xii. 

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