“The Fixation of Belief” [1877\])[1]


     Copyright © 2014 Bruce W. Hauptli


1. Introductory Comments:


Peirce is speaking of how about how we can reach settled and fixed beliefs or opinions.  According to him, there are four dominant methodologies which are represented, albeit grossly by the following “mind-sets:”  


The method of tenacity: “Don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind is already made up.” 


-problem: others’ orientations cause us to question our orientation (their views shake our confidence in our “fixed” belief). 


The method of authority: “The Bible (my priest, my teacher, the Constitution, etc.) says....” 


-problem: no institution can “fix” all beliefs. 


The a priori method: “By the natural light of reason…,” “as any fool can plainly see…,” “it is intuitively obvious that....” 


-problem: it makes inquiry and belief “fixation” into a matter of taste (what is intuitively obvious varies from time to time). 


The method of science:


-Peirce, of course, finds no problem here.  But we should look carefully at some of his claims.  Consider, first, his claim (p. 61) that the settlement of opinion is the sole aim of inquiry.  Consider, secondly, how a practitioner of the a priori method might reply (they would claim that the particular thesis they recommend is intuitively obvious to us all [Anselm, Hobbes, Descartes]).  Consider, thirdly, whether he provides any reason for believing that the scientific method in fact (or eventually will) converge on some belief or truth. 


In this essay, Peirce discusses belief, doubt, and inquiry and indicates what he takes to be the strengths and weaknesses of these four methods of “fixing” belief.  His article introduces us to the pragmatic orientation.  Note that the critiques of the other fixation methods, and the praise of the scientific one are fundamentally tied to our “social nature” as well as to our need to find effective fixity—beliefs which work in a changing social and natural world.  In other words, his “scientific realism” is not an abstract view, but a social and pragmatic one.  As we continue to learn about Peirce’s views, this point will become increasingly important. 


The Text:


I will divide the reading selection into six sections:


On the human power of inference,

Doubt and belief,

The problem with the method of tenacity,

The problem with the method of authority,

The problem with the a priori method,

Why employ the method of science.  


2. On the Human Power of Inference:


54-56 Our power of drawing inferences is the last of our faculties to develop, and everyone conceives of him or herself as proficient in reasoning ability.  Peirce offers a brief historical survey of inference: Romans and Medievals (knowledge rests on authority); Roger Bacon (only experience teaches us anything worthwhile); Francis Bacon (experience must be verified and reexamined to yield knowledge); early scientists like Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo (employed hypotheses), and Darwin (statistical methodology).  Each step in science has been a step in logic. 


57 “The object of reasoning is to find out, from the consideration of what we already know, something else which we do not know.  Consequently, reasoning is good if it be such as to give a true conclusion from true premises, and not otherwise.” 


We are not perfectly logical animals.  “That which determines us, from given premises, to draw one inference rather than another is some habit of mind, whether it be constitutional or acquired.  The habit is good or otherwise, according as it produces true conclusions from true premises or not; and an inference is regarded as valid or not, without reference to truth or falsity of its conclusion specially, but according as the habit which determines it is such as to produce true conclusions in general or not.” 


-58 Our general habits of inference he calls guiding principles of inference.


-We need to study these principles since our common sense is “deeply imbued with” bad principles of inference—especially as it moves from the common-place to the more abstract speculative areas of our concerns. 


3. Doubt and Belief:


59 “Our beliefs guide our desires and shape our actions.  The ‘Assassins’, or followers of the Old Man of the Mountain, used to rush into death at his least command, because they believed that obedience would insure everlasting felicity....Had they doubted this they would not have acted.” 


“Doubt is an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves and pass into a state of belief; while the latter is a clam and satisfactory state which we do not wish to avoid, or to change to a belief in anything else.” 


60 “The irritation of doubt causes a struggle to attain a state of belief.  I shall term this struggle inquiry....” 


-“The irritation of doubt is the only immediate motive for the struggle to attain belief.  It is certainly best for us that our beliefs should be such as may truly guide our actions so as to satisfy our desires; and this reflection will make us reject any belief which does not seem to have been so formed as to insure this result.  But it will only do so by creating a doubt in the place of that belief.  With the doubt, therefore, the struggle begins, and with the cessation of doubt it ends.  Hence, the sole object of inquiry is the settlement of opinion.  We may fancy that this is not enough for us, and that we seek not merely an opinion, but a true opinion.  But put this fancy to the test, and it proves groundless; for as soon as a firm belief is reached we are entirely satisfied, whether the belief be false or true.” 


--Peirce maintains that “Cartesian doubts” (he doesn’t use the actual words) are not real doubts, and without real, living doubts, inquiry and discussion are idle.  Cf., pp. 73-74!  That passage needs to be read in conjunction with this one at this point. 


--61 While many believe that demonstration must rest upon certainties, all that is really requisite are points which are not doubted. 


--Some try to carry inquiry beyond the point where real doubts exist, but here the inquires are without purpose. 


---As we will see this seemingly simple point will constitute one of the important deviations of the pragmatists' orientation from prior philosophers.  Although it is consonant with the views of the British Empiricists when they discuss “lesser” types of knowledge, they adhere a commitment to certainty for the highest sort of knowledge.  The pragmatists are committed to a wholesale rejection of a commitment to “certainty!” 


4. Why Not Fix Belief by the Method of Tenacity? 


62 “If the settlement of opinion is the sole object of inquiry, and if belief is of the nature of a habit, why should we not attain the desired end, by taking any answer to a question which we may fancy, and constantly reiterating it to ourselves, dwelling on all which may conduce to that belief, and learning to turn with contempt and hatred from anything which might disturb it?  This simple and direct method is really pursued by many men.” 


-We shouldn’t belittle people who employ this method of fixing belief.  To say that it is irrational is only to say that it is not ours. 


--63. “...this method of fixing belief...will be unable to hold its ground in practice.  The man who adopts it will find that other men think differently from him, and it will be apt to occur to him in some saner moment that their opinions are quite as good as his own, and this will shake his confidence in his belief.” 


--“Unless we make ourselves hermits, we shall necessarily influence each other’s opinions, so that the problem becomes how to fix belief, not in the individual, but in the community.”  This brings out another central difference between the pragmatists and earlier philosophers: they take it as a given, as the Ancient philosophers did) but the Modern philosophers don’t), that we find ourselves naturally in communities.  It is important to note also, that a difference between the pragmatists and Medieval philosophers is the for the former the communities we find ourselves in are “natural” ones rather than “transcendental” ones. 


--Note that his evaluation of the Method of Tenacity is a pragmatic evaluation! 


5. Why Not use the Method of Authority? 


63-64 This method removes the possibility of alternatives presenting themselves to one’s belief (the state [or dominant institution] ensures that there is only one belief which all hold).  This method of fixing belief has a venerable history.  It has been much more successful than the method of tenacity. 


-64 The weakness of this method is displayed by the fact that “...no institution can undertake to regulate opinions upon every subject.”  Some individuals will begin to think for themselves and some will do so on all subjects. 


6. Why Not Employ the A Priori Method of Fixing Belief? 


65 Individuals discourse together unimpeded and seek those views which are “agreeable to reason.” 


-65-66 “...its failure has been the most manifest.  It makes of inquiry something similar to the development of taste; but tasted, unfortunately, is always more or less a matter of fashion, and accordingly, metaphysicians have never come to any fixed agreement, but the pendulum has swung backward and forward between a more material and a more spiritual philosophy....” 


-Peirce does not say enough here to make his objection clear.  The case must be supplemented if it is to make sense to us.  He does indicate that the problem is that the beliefs are not caused by something external but, rather, by “something human,” but he does not provide an adequate example.  Briefly discuss Descartes’ cogito argument as a case study. 


7. Why We Should Employ the Method of Science:


The following passage not only shows his “faith” in the scientific method, but it contains four (very) simplistic arguments for his realism:


66-67 “There are real things, whose characters are entirely independent of our opinions about them; those realities affect our senses according to regular laws, and, though our sensations are as different as our relations to the objects, yet, by taking advantage of the laws of perception, we can ascertain by reasoning how things really are, and any man, if he have sufficient experience and reason enough about it, will be led to the one true conclusion.  The new conception here involved is that of reality.  It may be asked how I know that there are any realities.  If this hypothesis is the sole support of my method of inquiry, my method of inquiry must not be used to support my hypothesis.  The reply is this: (1) if investigation cannot be regarded as proving that there are real things, it at least does not lead to a contrary conclusion....(2) The feeling which gives rise to any method of fixing belief is a dissatisfaction at two repugnant propositions.  But here already is a vague concession that there is some one thing to which a proposition should conform....(3) Everybody uses the scientific method about a great many things....(4) experience of the method has not led me to  doubt it, but, on the contrary, scientific investigation has had the most wonderful triumphs in the way of settling opinion.” 


-Is this an argument against idealism?  Is it successful?  Cornell West contends that the assumption of realism which science relies upon requires Peirce to adopt a doctrine of absolute chance (tychism) so that he can avoid determinism and allow for growth, variety, diversity, and spontaneity in the universe.[2]  In his “An American Prodigy,” Louis Menand maintains that:


what keeps the system evolving, what stops it from becoming pure mechanism, is the presence of chance—the infinitesimal possibility that the next time the apple leaves the tree, it will not fall to the ground.  (This theory of the existence of absolute chance Peirce called “tychism,” from the Greek, word for fortune.)  But the tendency to form habits is itself habit-forming; and Peirce believed that the secret of the universe is that it is evolving form a condition of chaos, in which things are governed entirely by chance, toward a condition of absolute law, or complete determinism, in which chance will disappear and all habits will be perfectly fixed.  In the long run, he thought, the evolutionary process weeds out bad habits and encourages the reproduction of good ones: “Chance in its action tends to destroy the weak and increase the average strength of the objects remaining.  Systems or compounds which have bad habits are quickly destroyed, those which have no habits follow the same course; only those which have good habits tend to survive.”[3] 


-67-69 Each of the other methods has its particular advantage.  The a priori method nets comfortable conclusions; the method of authority will always govern the majority of men and it yields social peace and harmony; and the method of tenacity is strong, simple, and direct.


-69 “Such are the advantages which the other methods of settling opinions have over scientific investigation.  A man should consider well of them; and then he should consider that, after all, he wishes his opinions to coincide with the fact, and that there is no reason why the results of these first three methods should do so.  To bring about this effect is the prerogative of the method of science.  Upon such considerations he has to make his—a choice which is far more than the adoption of any intellectual opinion, which is one of the ruling decisions of his life, to which when once made, he is bound to adhere.”




8. Four Critical Observations:


A. Is the sole object of inquiry the settlement of opinion?  In her Considered Judgment, Catherine Elgin maintains that:


the aim of inquiry on the imperfect procedural model is a broad and deep understanding of its subject matter.  And a measure of the adequacy of a new finding is its fit with what we think we already understand.  If the finding is at all surprising, the background of accepted beliefs is apt to require revision to fit into place.  So advancement of understanding is not an incremental growth of knowledge.  A process of delicate adjustments takes place, its goal being a system in wide reflective equilibrium.  Coherence alone will not suffice.  A system is coherent if its components mesh.  Reflective equilibrium requires more.  The components of a system in reflective equilibrium must be reasonable in light of our antecedent commitments about the subject at hand. 

  Considerations of cognitive value come into play in deciding what modifications to attempt.4 


Simplicity, sensitivity, explanatory power, and the rest are epistemically creditable not because they are conducive to truth or because they circumscribe a particular class of truths but because they belong with truth to a constellation of cognitive values whose realization promotes the sort of understanding science seeks. 

  I have focused on the values of science because science is widely regarded as our preeminent cognitive enterprise.  If science tolerates falsity to achieve its ends, truth’s claim to epistemic preeminence is overthrown. 

  Other disciplines have different values and priorities, generate understanding of different kinds.  Generality and scope, so central to science, are less important for biography and investigative journalism, where particular actions and events loom larger.  But every field of inquiry has its constellation of cognitive values.  And like any other element of such a constellation, truth may be waived in the interest of overall tenability.5


System building is informed by priorities—second-order commitments about the value of retaining various first-order commitments.  Often these determine how conflicts are to be resolved.6 



B. There seems to be a tension between his claim:


that “the sole object of inquiry is the settlement of opinion” (p. 60), and his claim that the advantage of the method of science is that it is oriented toward the truth (p. 69).  He notes that “such are the advantages which the other methods of settling opinions have over scientific investigation.  A man should consider well of them; and then he should consider that, after all, he wishes his opinions to coincide with the fact, and that there is no reason why the results of these first three methods should do so.  To bring about this effect is the prerogative of the method of science.  Upon such considerations he has to make his choice—a choice which is far more than the adoption of any intellectual opinion, which is one of the ruling decisions of his life, to which when once made he is bound to adhere” (p. 69). 


C. Why should we believe that Peirce’s preferred methodology (the “method of science”) has the result (engendering true belief) which he claims for it?  Alternatively: does the method of science simply “fix” belief, or does it generate true belief?  How would we test this? 


D. Is his argument for realism—as opposed to idealism—successful (cf., pp. 66-67)? 


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

[1] Charles Sanders Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief,” Popular Science Monthly, November 1877, pp. 1-15.  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. 54-70, and emphasis has been added to passages at many points! 

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

[3] Louis Menand “An American Prodigy” (a review of Joseph Brent’s Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life), in The New York Review of Books v. 40 (December 2, 1993), pp. 30-35, p. 34.  Emphasis added to the passage (bold).    

[4] Catherine Elgin, Considered Judgment (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1996), p. 13.  Emphasis added to the passage (bold).  

[5] Ibid., p. 126. 

[6] Ibid., p. 134. 

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