“How To Make Our Ideas Clear” [1877][1]


     Copyright © 2014 Bruce W. Hauptli


1. Introductory Comments:


It seems as if every new philosophic movement claims that all others have been insufficiently clear, and each new movement prescribes a “new” method for “clarifying our ideas and reaching understanding.”  Peirce’s pragmatism (or pragmaticism) is no exception.  He begins by discussing two earlier “grades” of clarity (familiarity, and distinctness), and then he offers his own view of the 3rd grade of clarity.  According to him, this sort of clarity is reached by the method of determining what the “sensible or tangible effects” of an idea are.  The essay was originally published in French in Revue Philosophique (in 1877), and would clearly be seen by the audience reading it as a direct attack upon Descartes’ a priori method (for clarifying our thoughts) and upon his appeal to self-evidence. 


     Peirce maintains (p. 78) that our conception of the effects is our conception of the object.  He uses several examples (diamonds and hardness, force, and reality) as he clarifies his point. 


     I will be concentrating upon his definition of, and clarification of the meaning of, ‘real’[2] since this takes us to the heart of his philosophy.  We must ask, even as we try to understand what he says the meaning of this term is, “Does he correctly characterize what ‘reality’ means” when he says (p. 85) that: “The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real”?  Consider the different ways his “definition” might be taken:  

-whatever is ultimately agreed to is real (where, effectively, subjectivity would determine objectivity),


-things are so rigged (“fated”) so that we will agree to what is real (some “force,” “will,” or “destiny” leads/propels/advances us toward the truth),


-it is just a (brute) fact that the scientific method leads us toward truth,


-it is “true by Peirce’s definition” that what the scientific method leads us to is real/true (in which case, he doesn’t seem to get beyond the worry expressed regarding his “The Fixation of Belief” that mere “belief fixation” can’t be all that recommends the scientific method, it must be a method which leads us toward objective truth).  


     In this article Peirce maintains that the sole function of thought is the production of belief.  Do others maintain that thinking has other functions?  He also maintains that the essence of belief is the establishment of a habit.  Is this the way most philosophers (or most of us) would characterize belief? 


The Text:


I will divide the text into four sections:


The First Two Grades of Clarity,

The Function of Thought,

The Pragmatic Maxim,

The Third and Fourth Grades of Clarity. 


2. The First Two Grades of Clarity:


70-71 The notion of what a clear idea is a notion which has exercised many philosophers.  The 1st Grade of Clarity seems to be familiarity, but this doesn’t seem sufficient for the sort of clarity which philosophers seek.  This leads to the 2nd Grade of Clarity which involves talk of distinctness.  Following Descartes, some philosophers maintain that distinct ideas are ones whose definitions involve no linguistic unclarities:


71-72 -what Descartes probably meant here “...was that they must sustain the test of dialectical examination; that they must not only seem clear at the outset, but that discussion must never be able to bring to light points of obscurity connected with them.” 


-Note: Descartes’ examples, we should note, include: “I think, therefore I am,” “squares have four sides,” “there must be as much objective and formal reality in the cause as there is in the effect,” and “deception is an imperfection.” 


72 Followers of the a priori method of fixing belief pursued this sort of clarity but “nothing new can ever be learned by analyzing definitions.  Nevertheless, our existing beliefs can be set in order by this process, and order is an essential element of intellectual economy....” 


3. The Function of Thought:


73-74 “The Principles set forth in the first of these papers [“The Fixation of Belief”] lead, at once, to a method of reaching a clearness of thought of a far higher grade than the “distinctness” of the logicians.  We have there found that the action of thought is excited by the irritation of doubt, and ceases when belief is attained; so that the production of belief is the sole function of thought. 


     -the example of getting on a horse-car [public transportation], finding that one has both five pennies and a nickel, and wondering which way to pay the five cent fare. 


74 Feigned doubt and hesitancy have an important role in scientific thought (the role of “what ifs”). 


     -Descartes relied upon “feigned” doubt—it was a key element in his methodology for generating clarity of thought. 


-Relate to Descartes’ methodology, his doubt, and cogito (cf., p. 62). 


75 Thought in action has for its only possible motive the attainment of thought at rest; and whatever does not refer to belief is no part of the thought itself. 


Belief is characterized as:


-something we are aware of,


-something which appeases the irritation of doubt, and


-involving the establishment in our nature of a rule of action (or habit). 


-75-76 “...since belief is a rule for action, the application of which involves further doubt and further thought, at the same time that it is a stopping place, it is also a new starting place for thought.  That is why I have permitted myself to call it thought at rest, although thought is essentially an action.  The final upshot of thinking is the exercise of volition, and of this thought no longer forms a part; but belief is only a stadium of mental action, an effect upon our nature due to thought, which will influence future thinking.” 


4. Peirce’s Pragmatic Maxim:


76 “The essence of belief is the establishment of a habit, and different beliefs are distinguished by the different modes of action to which they give rise.  If beliefs do not differ in this respect, if they appease the same doubt by producing the same rule of action, then no mere differences in the manner of consciousness of them can make them different beliefs....”


-In a lengthy footnote to the pragmatic maxim added in 1883, Peirce says: “before we undertake to apply this rule, let us reflect a little upon what it implies.  It has been said to be a sceptical and materialistic principle.  But it is only an application of the sole principle of logic which was recommended by Jesus: “Ye may know them by their fruits,” and it is very intimately allied with the ideas of the gospel.  We must certainly guard ourselves against understanding this rule in too individualistic a sense.  To say that man accomplishes nothing but that to which his endeavors are directed would be a cruel condemnation of the great bulk of mankind, who never have leisure to labor for anything but the necessities of life for themselves and their families.  But, without directly striving for it, far less comprehending it, they perform all that civilization requires, and bring forth another generation to advance history another step.  Their fruit is, therefore, collective; it is the achievement of the whole people.  What is it, then, that the whole people is about, what is the civilization that is the outcome of history, but is never completed?  We cannot expect to attain a complete conception of it; but we can see that it is a gradual process, that it involves a realization of ideas in man’s consciousness and in his works, and that it takes place by virtue of man’s capacity for learning, and by experience continually pouring upon him ideas he has not yet acquired.  We may say that it is the process whereby man, with all his miserable littleness, becomes gradually more and more imbued with the spirit of God, in which nature and history are rife...We are all putting our shoulders to the wheel for an end that none of us can catch more than a glimpse at—that which the generations are working out.  But we can see that the development of embodied ideas is what it will consist in.”[3] 


--Commenting upon Peirce’s Christianity in the context of such passages, Cornell West maintains that: “Peirce’s double consciousness of experimental inquiry and common human sentiments and his dual allegiance to scientific method and Christian faith serve as the soil upon which the seeds of American pragmatism sprout.  Peirce found himself split between the two cultures of science and religion throughout his life....The historic emergence of American pragmatism principally results from Peirce’s profound evasion of “the spirit of Cartesianism” owing to his obsession with the procedures of the scientific community, his loyalty to a Christian doctrine of love, and the lure of community in the midst of anomic [alienated or disoriented] Gesellschaften [society—see footnote] of urban, industrial capitalist America.  This Peircean evasion consists, in part, of a creative revision of Emersonian themes of contingency and revisability and an Emersonian theodicy that promotes human progress, betterment, and moral development.[4] 


Returning to Peirce’s article:


-77 “...the whole function of thought is to produce habits of action; and...whatever there is connected with a thought, but irrelevant to its purpose, is an accretion to it, but no part of it.” 


-“...we come down to what is tangible and practical as the root of every real distinction of thought, no matter how subtle it may be; and there is no distinction of meaning so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of practice.”  


--77-78 example of transubstantiation debates between Catholics and Protestants [the former believe that the bread and wine are, literally, body and blood although they have the empirical properties of bread and wine; while the latter maintain that while they have the empirical properties of bread and wine, and are not actually body and wine, nonetheless, they are symbolically such].  The point he would offer is not a theological one, and he knows the theologians will have lots to say on each side here.  Instead his point is that:


---78 “Our idea of anything is our idea of its sensible effects; and if we fancy that we have any other we deceive ourselves, and mistake a mere sensation accompanying the thought for a part of the thought itself. 


5. The Third and Fourth Grades of Clarity:


78 Thus, he says, to attain the 3rd Grade of Clarity, we must:


“...consider what effects which might conceivably have practical bearings we conceive the object of our conception to have.  Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.” 


In his later writings Peirce “qualifies” his claim that this grade of clarity constitutes the highest one.  Reacting to James’ subjectivistic pragmatism (especially as represented by his “Will to Believe”), Peirce claims that he did not have in mind what James had in mind by “sensible effects” and “practical bearings.” 


-In his “A Definition of Pragmatic and Pragmatism” (1902), Peirce maintains that “if it be admitted, on the contrary, that action wants an end, and that that end must be something of a general description, then the spirit of the maxim itself, which is that we must look to the upshot of our concepts in order rightly to apprehend them, would direct us towards something different from practical facts, namely, to general ideas, as the true interpreters of our thought....a still higher grade of clearness of thought can be attained by remembering that the only ultimate good which the practical facts to which it directs attention can subserve is to further the development of concrete reasonableness; so that the meaning of a concept does not lie in any individual reactions at all, but in the manner in which those reactions contribute to that development.”  This represents a “qualification” of his doctrine and indicates that he believes that in addition to conception of consequences, higher clarity is achieved when statements of “general law” are achieved.[5] 


-He elaborates upon this saying that “almost everybody will now agree that the ultimate good lies in the evolutionary process in some way.  If so, it is not in individual reactions in their segregation, but in something general or continuous.  Synechism [logic] is founded on the notion that the coalescence, the becoming continuous, the becoming governed by laws, the becoming instinct with general ideas, are but phases of one and the same process of the growth of reasonableness.”[6] 


--I believe that one way of gaining a foothold to his metaphysical view here is to point out that while we have been emphasizing his view that inquiry is directed toward the resolution of belief and the development of habits, it is not, or better not simply, responsive to such initial conditions.  His view is also one which emphasizes an “evolutionary teleology”—one which sees the changes which arise developmentally—the “beliefs,” “ideas,” or habits which arise may “move us up a metaphysical level” (from “immediacy” to “reaction,” and from “reaction” to “general concept” or “laws”). 


To return to “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” however, Peirce offers several examples which show what he means by the third grade of clarity.  I will quickly look at several before concentrating on his discussion of “reality” (pp. 83-87)::


-79 Pragmatic maxim applied to ‘hardness’—what it means (the hardness of a diamond which is never scratched (because, for example, it lies in cotton at the bottom of the ocean) [where ‘hardness’ is meant in terms of the scratch test].  Thayer points out how Peirce later moved away from a simple verification theory of meaning.[7]  In his “Issues of Pragmaticism” [1905] Peirce asks: “...how can the hardness of all other diamonds fail to bespeak some real relation among the diamonds without which a piece of carbon would not be a diamond?”  He continues saying: “as for the pragmaticist, it is precisely his position that nothing else than this can be so much as meant by saying that an object possesses a character.  He is therefore obliged to subscribe to the doctrine of a real Modality, in concluding real Necessity and real Possibility.” [8] 


--As we will see, for Peirce the discussion of the maxim here means that we need to recognize that ‘real’ applies even in cases where there are no “sensible effects”—that is in “modal cases.”  According to Roberta Ballarin: “modal logic can be viewed broadly as the logic of different sorts of modalities, or modes of truth: alethic (“necessarily”), epistemic (“it is known that”), deontic (“it ought to be the case that”), or temporal (“it has been the case that”) among others.  Common logical features of these operators justify the common label.  In the strict sense however, the term “modal logic” is reserved for the logic of the alethic modalities….In that short span of time of less than fifty years, modal logic flourished both philosophically and mathematically.  Mathematically, different modal systems were developed and advances in algebra helped to foster the model theory for such systems….Philosophically, the availability of different systems and the adoption of the possible worlds model theoretic semantics were naturally accompanied by reflections on the nature of possibility and necessity, on distinct sorts of necessities, on the role of formal semantics, and on the nature of the possible worlds, to mention just a few.”[9] 


--Note: here we should pause to consider the differences and similarities of Peirce and James.  This discussion needs to cover both senses of ‘realism’ (realism vs. idealism; and realism vs. nominalism).  Of course, this will have to wait until we have discussed James. 


-79 The pragmatic maxim applied to “will and fate” (the discussion is underdeveloped). 


-80 The pragmatic maxim applied to “weight”—what it means. 


-80-82 The pragmatic maxim applied to “force”—what it means. 


--82 “...if we know what the effects of force are, we are acquainted with every fact which is implied in saying that a force exists, and there is nothing more to know.” 


83 The pragmatic maxim applied to “reality”—what it means:


-in terms of the 1st grade of clarity, this term is so familiar that none could be clearer. 


-in terms of the 2nd grade of clarity, we may have no good definition.  Perhaps the best we can come up with here is: “...that whose characters are independent of what anybody may think them to be.” 


-in terms of the 3rd grade of clarity, “...reality, like every other quality, consists in the peculiar, sensible effects which things partaking of it produce.  The only effect which real things have is to cause belief, for all the sensations which they excite emerge into consciousness in the form of beliefs.  The question, therefore, is, how is true belief (or belief in the real) distinguished from false belief (or belief in fiction).”  Here discussions of the method of science become prominent (since the method of science is the one method of belief fixation which is concerned with truth). 


--84-85 According to Peirce, while different scientists may pursue a variety of hypotheses or methods, their results converge on a point which is outside the control of the inquirers.  This convergence, or future agreement, is taken by him to be what grounds the distinction between true beliefs and fictions:


---85 “This activity of thought by which we are carried, not where we wish, but to a foreordained goal, is like the operation of destiny.  No modification of the point of view taken, no selection of other facts for study, no natural bent of mind even, can enable a man to escape the predestinate opinion.  This great law is embodied in the conception of truth and reality.  The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real.”  Note Peirce’s footnote here regarding the intended meaning of ‘fate’ here. 


--Elaborating upon this he says “...reality is independent, not necessarily of thought in general, but only of what you or I or any finite number of men may think about it; and that, on the other hand, though the object of the final opinion depends on what that opinion is, yet what that opinion is does not depend on what you or I or any man thinks....the opinion which would finally result from investigation does not depend on how anybody may actually think.  But the reality of that which is real does depend on the real fact that investigation is destined to lead as last, if continued long enough, to a belief in it.” 


---86 What of truths about the past?  Response: given the fullness of time, who knows that such truths are beyond scientific understanding? 


---What about other, unobserved “facts?”  Similar response: “but that there are gems at the bottom of the sea, flowers in the untraveled desert, etc., are propositions which, like that about a diamond being hard when it is not pressed, concern much more the arrangement of our language than they do the meaning of our ideas.” 




6. Questions:


1. What does he mean when he says that: “The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real” (p. 85)? 


2. Is his anti-metaphysical orientation in conflict with his construal of the pragmatic maxim (this question makes sense only insofar as his realism (in both the realism vs. idealism and the realism vs. nominalism) is clarified (and that may, in part, require clarification of the subsequent essay. 


 Notes: [click on note number to return to the text for the note]

[1] Charles Sanders Peirce, “How To Make Our Ideas Clear,” Popular Science Monthly, January 1878, pp. 286-302.  This supplement refers to pages in the reprint in Classic American Philosophers [1951] (second edition), ed. Max Fisch (N.Y.: Fordham U.P., 1996), pp. 70-87, and emphasis has been added to passages at many points! 

[2] Philosophers enclose a word in single quotations when they are talking about the word rather than using it.  Thus they say: ‘Short’ has five letters and is not a long word whereas ‘long’ is even shorter. 

[3] Charles S. Peirce, Collected Papers v. 5, 402 n. 2 (pp. 258-259).  Emphasis added to the passage several times (both bold and italics). 

[4] Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism, (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin, 1989), p. 47. Emphasis [bold] added to the passage.  According to Wikipedia, “…gesellschaften emphasize secondary relationships rather than familial or community ties, and there is generally less individual loyalty to society.  Social cohesion in gesellschaften typically derives from a more elaborate division of labor.  Such societies are considered more susceptible to class conflict as well as racial and ethnic conflicts.”  From “Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft,” Wikipedia

 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gemeinschaft_and_Gesellschaft  accessed on September 4, 2012. 

[5] Charles S. Peirce, “Pragmatic and Pragmatism”,” in Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology v. II, ed. J.M. Baldwin (N.Y., 1902), pp. 321-322.  It is reprinted (in part) as “A Definition of Pragmatic and Pragmatism,” in Pragmatism: The Classic Writings, H.S. Thayer (ed.), op. cit., pp. 49-50.  Emphasis added to the passage at several points. 

[6] Ibid., p. 50.  Emphasis [bold] added to the passage. 

[7] The most unbending verification theory of meaning would require that terms be meaningless if there is no verification available, and there are many terms and claims which can not, at least not on ordinary construals of ‘verification’, be verified (claims about the past, about subatomic and galactic events, about unactualized dispositions, etc.).  Cf., Thayer’s footnote to Peirce’s discussion in on p. 89 of his Pragmatism: The Classic Writings, op. cit. 

[8] Charles S. Peirce, “Issues of Pragmatism,” The Monist v. 15 (1905), pp. 481-499.  Reprinted in Pragmatism The Classic Writings, ed. H.S. Thayer, op. cit., pp. 101-120. 

[9] Roberta Ballarin, “Modern Origins of Modal Logic,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2010/entries/logic-modal-origins/ , accessed on September 6, 2012. 

Return to PHH 3700 Home page

File revised on 09/09/2014