Smith’s “Two Defenses of Freedom: Peirce and James”[1] [1987]


     Copyright © 2014 Bruce W. Hauptli


1. Introduction:


C.S. Peirce writes “The Doctrine of Necessity Examined,” and William James writes “The Dilemma of Determinism.”  Both are concerned to reject determinism because of its metaphysical and moral implications.  While we have are read these essays, Smith’s discussion should both clarify their arguments and make clear what the issue is. 


2. Peirce’s Critique of the Doctrine of Necessity:


53 Peirce is “...attacking mechanical determinism and attempting to establish an element of chance, spontaneity and real possibility in the order of things.” 


54 Smith cites Peirce’s first characterization of the “doctrine of necessity” as the view that: “...`every single fact in the universe is precisely determined by law’“ or that “...`the state of things existing at any time, together with certain immutable laws completely determine the state of things at every other time.’“  


55 The first of the three arguments for this doctrine which Peirce critiques is the claim that it is a necessary “postulate  of scientific reasoning: 


-Peirce points out that postulating something doesn’t make it true. 


-Peirce rejects the claim that the postulate is necessary for scientific reasoning.  He offers a view which emphasizes the inductive character of scientific reasoning and stresses its provisional character.  Thus, Smith says, Peirce emphasizes that “...all inductive or ampliative inference is based on “experientially” Peirce meant that the conclusion does not go beyond possible experience of the subject matter under consideration, and by “`provisionally” he meant that we do not claim to have actually reached any assigned degree of approximation, but only that if our experience is indefinitely extended we shall be able to correct any previously inferred ratios and, in the long run, determine within what limits experience fluctuates.  Peirce’s claim is that inductive inferences made in the course of actual inquiry are experiential and provisional and require no postulate concerning what must be the case.” 


-56 Peirce also notes that the necessitarians claim that “...`certain continuous quantities have certain exact values.’“  These exact values, presumably, point to the observable “necessary and exact” character of independent reality. 


--Peirce notes that continued increases in precision in [scientific] measurmentation lead to increases in the possibility of error and, thus, that “...any claim that a continuous quantity has an exact value must be based on something other than observation. 


--His point here is not that it is the observations are subject to error, while that the underlying “quantities” themselves are exact; but, rather, that “...the observations generally offered as evidence for mechanical causation do show there is regularity in nature, but they have no bearing on the question of whether the regularity is exact and universal.” 


--In short, Peirce claims that “...the doctrine of necessity cannot be established by observation.” 


57 The second argument for necessitarianism which Peirce critiques is the contention that it is a “natural belief:”


-Peirce claim that our “natural beliefs” are in need of correction and refinement. 


-Peirce notes that the necessary operation of mechanical law makes it difficult to account for the actual diversity found in nature. 


-58 “...Peirce holds that only by admitting pure spontaneity or life as a character of the universe, restrained by law but producing infinitesimal departures from law and, rarely, great departures, can we account for the variety and diversity manifest in it.” 


--Peirce’s point here may not seem important, but it is of central importance to him.  The determinists can not allow for any element of chance or variation from law, and they must account for all apparent diversity in terms of underlying order and lawfulness.  Peirce and Dewey (and, to a slightly lesser extent James) contend that nature has variation, diversity, and chance as part of its character—and both Peirce and Dewey contend that we can experience this characteristic as well as the characteristic of orderliness.  Of course, the determinist must deny this. 


The third argument for necessitarianism which Peirce critiques is the claim that irregularity is not something to be explained unless one is a determinist. 


-“Peirce...insists that the hypothesis of spontaneity explains irregularity in general and that, moreover, once necessity has been limited, there is a place for another sort of agency that is operative in mind in the formation of associations that provide a clue to understanding how the uniformity of nature could be developed.  In short, although he does not develop the idea of regularity as the result of the tendency to form habits at this point, Peirce is claiming that his view is capable of explaining the regularity as well as the irregularity in the universe and that, in taking the former as a brute fact, the necessitarian is blocking the road of inquiry.” 


-59 Peirce criticizes necessitarianism because it views the universe is a closed system.  It has no place for the mind or for consciousness (because all which occurs happens for “mechanical” reasons).  While Smith treats this as a separate reason (following Peirce), it is really strongly related to the third reason—the “necessitarian” doesn’t think that irregularity, spontaneity, etc., should be explained. 


-Peirce also responds to the necessitarian’s claim that chance is unintelligible by noting that “...all the unintelligibility is on the necessitarian side because that view remains content with two brute facts—inexplicable, immutable law on the one hand, and equally inexplicable specification and diversity on the other, with no account of their connections.” 


3. James’ Critique of Necessitarianism:


60 “James...regards the issue in question as one that cannot be resolved in purely theoretical or, as he was fond of saying, intellectual, terms....” 


61 “James’ position is very close to Kant’s [regarding the latter’s “antinomies”] in at least two respects; neither believes that the freedom question can be settled on purely theoretical grounds, and both relocate the issue in another court of appeal that is ruled by interest—James’ “passional nature.”  Kant changes the venue to the domain of practical reason and James 

locates the discussion in the individual consciousness....” 


-“What strikes me most in this parallel is the streak of skepticism exhibited by both thinkers.  Where metaphysical issues are involved, they agree that knowing the truth of the matter is beyond our power, and hence that we must be content, in the case of James, with a volitional judgment that makes appeal to our interests and needs, or, in the case of Kant, with a postulate necessary for the practical use of reason.” 


62 James contends that “...a conception of the world that fails to do justice to both the fact of singular and discrete things, on the one hand, and of uniformities, unities and continuities, on the other, will not provoke the sentiment of rationality.”  Both Hume’s “sand heap” and Royce’s “block” universes are inadequate.  “On the practical side, he claims that, since the most important feature of a thing is its relations to future consequences, a philosophy must define the expectancy with respect to the future and not leave us with the uneasiness that comes from the sense that anything you please may happen next “ 


63 Smith notes that James distinguishes hard and soft determinism and that he “ attacking all attempts to interpret freedom as self-determination....” 


As James sees it, the issue is over whether or not there are real possibilities in the order of things: it is a contest between determinism (the view that the parts of the universe are already laid down absolutely) and indeterminism (the view that there are real possibilities). 


65 James’ central argument revolves around the question of the meaningfulness of our judgments of regret.  According to Smith, “the dilemma [confronted by determinism]...has generally been regarded as more of a rhetorical than a logical device, but it suits James’ purposes admirably since it enables him to make the determinist feel the implications of his position in the form of the two undesirable or unpleasant consequences....” 


-65-66 “From the determinist standpoint...nothing else could have taken its place from which James concludes that determinism means pessimism and the defining of the universe as a system in which what ought to be is impossible.  In the end...we should regret not only the murder [James’ example], but the entire order that determines it to happen.” 


-66 To avoid this conclusion, the determinist must totally abandon judgments of regret and adopt a Candide-like optimism.  But this leads to incoherence—the evil is a vehicle for the good, but since both are determined, our regrets seem senseless.


-67 Smith notes that all of James’ talk of “subjectivism and objectivism” is unimportant here since “ is certainly a serious objection against determinisms that an actual fact—in this case judgments of regret of the sort we make all the time—implies something that makes no sense whatever on the determinist view, namely, a reference to what might have been otherwise, together with the claim that something else would have been better than what actually happened.  This logico-metaphysical point holds quite independently of pessimism, optimism....” 


--68 “James, however, was never satisfied with these “intellectual” arguments; he had to invade and overcome the inner citadel of the opponent’s mind, feeling, predilection and temperament by something more than logical considerations.  In so doing, he often underestimated the cogency of logical factors....” 


4. Smith on Existence and Possibility:


68 “The key, in my view to the freedom/determinism problem is found in the matter of possibility as a real, and not merely logical, mode.  Ever since Kant’s peculiar treatment of the modal categories, there has been a tendency, especially among so-called empiricists, to attempt to get along with but one real mode, namely, existence, while relegating others, possibility, necessity, to a merely logical status.  The point is nicely illustrated by Carnap who correlates existence alone with factual truth and describes the other modes as L-true, that is, as a function of language.  This elevation of existence plays naturally into the hand of the determinist for whom every process can have but one outcome, since there are no real possibilities beyond the necessitated one.  The exposure of this dogma, as Peirce and James both saw, is essential for any doctrine of freedom.  And, I should add, the recovery of possibility as a real node frees us from the need to talk about the “existence” of possibilities since existing is not the only mode of the real.  Possibilities are just that, possibilities, and to assert their reality is do deny that in any process it is the case that only one thing can happen and also that anything you please can happen.  Real possibility excludes both necessitarianism and chaos.” 



5. Comparison and Contrast:


Peirce tackles the issue head-on critiquing the reasons for determinism.


68-69 Peirce does not concern himself with the mind-set of the reader or the reader’s particular interests and concerns. 


69 James rejects the notion of a coercive proof. 


Smith believes “...that James underestimate the force of reason and was too psychologistic in his many declarations that reason comes on the scene only after the decisions based on our “passional nature” have been made.” 


Peirce’s orientation is ontological and cosmological whereas James is more anthropological. 




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

[1] John E. Smith, “Two Defenses of Freedom: Peirce and James,” Tulane Studies in Philosophy v. 35 (1987), pp. 51-64.  This supplement is to the reprint in Smith’s American’s Philosophical Vision (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1993), pp. 53-70.  Emphasis has been added to several of the passages.  


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