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Born: 1839, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Died: 1914, Milford, Pennsylvania

Major Works: "The Fixation of Belief" (1877), "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" (1878), The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (8 vols., 1931-35, 1958)

Major Ideas

What we expect from our forms of inference is that they give us true conclusions from true premises--if not all the time, then at least most of the time.

Beliefs are established habits of action.

Consider all the possible effects that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have: Our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.

The opinion that is fated to be agreed to by the community of those who follow the scientific method indefinitely is what we mean by truth.

The phaneron is all of that which is before the mind and its aspects. Firsts, feelings or qualitative possibilities; Seconds, actualities; Thirds, laws, habits, or customs.

A sign is something in the phaneron that stands for something else in the phaneron and gives rise to an interpretant in the phaneron by virtue of some habit, law, or custom.

All mental activity is of the nature of sign activity and every thought is a sign, which by virtue of some habit gives rise to another sign of the same object.

Charles Sanders Peirce is accredited by William James as being the founder of pragmatism. Many today would consider Peirce to be the greatest of the American pragmatists, if not the greatest philosopher the United States has produced. He was the son of a Harvard professor, Benjamin Peirce, who was probably the greatest American mathematician of his day. Under the influence of his father, Charles Peirce developed a strong and early interest in mathematics and the natural sciences. He graduated from Harvard in 1859 and later enrolled in the Lawrence Scientific School mid received his degree in chemistry in 1863. Except for a five-year period (1879-84) teaching at the new Johns Hopkins University, he held no teaching position. For most of his career, Peirce was a physicist for the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, from which he retired in 1891. He retired to Milford, Pennsylvania, where he lived in relative isolation with his second wife until he died.

A person seriously interested in Peirce's ideas faces a severe difficulty. First, Peirce published very little in a finished form. Secondly, Peirce appears to have changed his mind over the years of his philosophically productive career (1866-1914), and a large part of this material is in the form of working scraps, some of which are undated. Murray G. Murphey has been able to detect the development of what he calls the four philosophical systems. This is probably the most elaborate hypothesis of the chronological development of Peirce's philosophic ideas, but the unfinished nature of his papers and their dubious chronology makes any such hypothesis highly speculative.

Two published essays are generally thought to be the beginnings of Peirce's pragmatism, which he later referred to as pragmatism to distinguish his position from James's. The first essay is "The Fixation of Belief." Here we find Peirce developing his theory of the function of logic, of the scientific method, and of the nature of belief. The object of reasoning is to acquire new beliefs (conclusions) on the basis of beliefs that we already accept (premises). That which determines us to draw one conclusion rather than another from given premises is some habit of the mind, which Peirce calls a guiding (or leading) principle of inference. For example, if from the premise that Socrates is human we draw the conclusion that Socrates is mortal, then the habit of the mind, or the guiding principle of the inference, is: If any given thing is human, then it is mortal. A guiding principle, or habit of the mind, is logically good provided it would never (or in the case of probable inference, seldom) lead us to draw a fal se conclusion from true premises. Good reasoning, then, has survival value.

Peirce saw three consequences of the above analysis of inference. First, it gave him a way of distinguishing logical guiding principles from probable ones. Those guiding principles that will always give true conclusions from true premises are logical guiding principles. Peirce proposed that the logical guiding principles could be determined diagrammatically, either by the use of truth tables (which led him independently to invent the procedure) or by Venn diagrams (involving overlapping circles) or other diagrams that he invented.

Peirce went on to distinguish three forms of inference: first, the deductive forms of inference, which he took to be logical guiding principles; second, the inductive form of inference, which renders probable conclusions (from which he developed a rather elaborate and contemporary theory of probability); and, third, a form of inference he called abduction, which yields as a conclusion a hypothesis--something that if true would explain the truth of the facts in the premises. Peirce insisted that the formulation of a hypothesis is a form of inference rather than a wild guess, because the hypothesis has the function of explaining the given premises.

The second important consequence of the above analysis of inference has to do with the nature of belief. Take, for example, the above nonlogical leading principle: "If any given thing is human, then it is mortal." What is the difference here between the belief that all human beings are mortal and this habit of the mind that is a guiding principle in the above inference concerning Socrates? None. Beliefs, too, are habits of the mind. When we believe a given proposition, we have an established, or to used Peirce's term, a fixed habit of acting in a certain way under certain conditions. (How beliefs such as "So-and-so is mortal" are habits is treated in more detail in the discussion of the second above-mentioned essay, "How to Make Our Ideas Clear.")

The third consequence from the above analysis of the reasoning process is that doubt, the opposite of belief, consists in not having such a fixed habit of acting under certain possible conditions. Doubt is an uneasy state of the mind from which we try to free ourselves. One is in a most uneasy state if one does not know whether a certain person being considered is friend or foe. It is this type of uneasy state of the mind, or possible uneasy state of the mind, that gives rise to inquiry, whose sole object is to fix belief.

Methods for Fixing Beliefs

There are a number of ways to fix belief-habits. Peirce mentions four: the method of tenacity, the method of authority, the a priori method, and the scientific method. One is following the method of tenacity if one refuses to change one's beliefs; that is, one always acts the same way, given the same conditions, that one has in the past. One is following the method of authority if a person acts a certain way under certain conditions because some given authority tells him or her to act that way under those conditions. One is following the a priori method when a person acts a certain way under certain conditions because he or she is inclined so to act under those conditions, or feels it is reasonable so to act. One is following the scientific method when a person takes all beliefs as hypotheses to be spelled out pragmatically in terms of future expectations and to be tested by future experiences of the community of scientific inquirers.

We all use all four of these methods for fixing our beliefs, Peirce tells us, and all four have positive value and should not be ruled out indiscriminately. If one wants consistency and decisiveness of action, then one should use the method of tenacity. If one wants a social group to have internal stability, then, as every totalitarian leader knows, the method of authority should be used. If one wishes to feel good about one's beliefs or to be in style, then the a priori method should be used. If one wishes the truth, then that person should be a member of a community that uses the scientific method.

The point Peirce wished to make here is that a person's goals determine the choice of method. How it is that the scientific method is the only one that guarantees truth will be explained after a discussion of the pragmatic criterion of meaning.

The Pragmatic Criterion

In the essay "How to Make Our Ideas Clear," Peirce proposes what is sometimes called the "pragmatic" criterion of meaning. In fact, according to James, Peirce read this paper to the Metaphysical Club in Cambridge and it was in his paper that the term "pragmatism' was first used. It must be noted, too, as Peirce later said a number of times, that the pragmatic criterion is the criterion for the meaning of general, scientific terms. If we take seriously the former discussin, then if we wish to clarify the meaning of a general term in the expression of a belief-habit, we need to determine what actions believing a proposition applying that term to a particular object produces with reference to that object.

Peirce's first formulation of the pragmatic criterion is. "Consider what effects, that 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."

The expression, "effects that might conceivably have practical bearings" has, a lot packed into it. First, "effects of the object" later becomes "possible effects of the object," so that we are then concerned with the disposition of the object to affect us in certain ways. "Conceivable practical bearings" means all the possible ways we would act, under specified condition,s toward the object because it has these effects. The meaning of a general term involves the conceivable ways in which we expect the object of the term to act if we were to behave in such-and-such a, Way under certain conditions.

What is involved in belief and meaning, according to Peirce, are, the possible interactions between believer and the object of belief. To believe that something is of1 a certain kind, then, is habitually to expect certain effects when we act toward x in certain ways under certain conditions; if our belief is true, then x in turn affects us, or habitually reacts to us, in the anticipated ways.

Theory of Truth

If we had a community of investigators using the scientific method to fix their beliefs, that is, taking beliefs as hypotheses, spelling out their meanings by reference to the pragmatic criterion of meaning, and performing the specified actions under the specified conditions (testing the hypothesis), revising the hypotheses when they do not get the anticipated effects, and repeating the testing procedure again, then what that community would come to believe in the long run, Peirce maintained, would be the truth. He pragmatically characterized truth in this way: "The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate [use the scientific method to fix their beliefs] is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real."

Another question that preoccupied Peirce was, What is there to be investigated? or, What is before the mind? In answer to this, he developed what he called phaneroscopy, or phenomenology, that is, a theory of the phaneron, "the collective total of all that is in any way or in any sense present to the mind." His answer is that what is before the mind exemplifies elements of three categories: Firstness, Secondness, or Thirdness. Firstness is qualitative possibility. It is monadic in that it has no essential relationship to anything else. The quality of being white would be a First. As Hume suggests, white in itself tells no tales about anything else: It is just what it is. Secondness is actual fact and it is diadic; to be that particular actuality, it has to have certain relations to some other thing--spatial and temporal relations, for example, or causal relations. Thirdness is law, habit, or custom and, according to Peirce, it is triadic. (However, it is most difficult, if not impossible, to see how all laws , habits, conventions and customs essentially involve three things just as actuality involves two and is diadic, and quality involves only itself and is monadic. This neat thesis is probably due to Peirce's eagerness to argue that the three categories are both needed and sufficient and to do so by the use of his newly developed logic of relations.)

One thing that makes Peirce's phaneroscopy exciting is the way in which he characterizes mental activity. All mental activity is sign activity and all thoughts are signs. Now, a sign is something that stands for some object for some interpreter; that is, the sign by virtue of some habit, law, or custom gives rise to some interpretant. Thus all sign activity is triadic, involving a sign, an object of the sign, and an interpretant of the sign; that is, the way in which the interpreter interprets the sign as standing from that object. The interpretant is itself another sign of that same object. This is the way in which we took the general term "is human" to be applicable to (a sign of) Socrates earlier, and it gave rise to the term "is mortal" as a sign of Socrates by virtue of a habit of mind.

Since what is before the mind can be a First, Second, or Third, then instances of each can function as signs, but also they can be taken as signs of a First, Second, or Third, and call up a First, Second, or Third as an interpretant. If, for example, taking a certain thing as the sign of an object gives rise to a First, some quality of feeling, as an interpretant, then it is an emotional interpretant. An example would be one's taking certain sensible qualities as a sign of a lion and its giving rise to a feeling of fear. If the sign gives rise to a Second as an interpretant, an action or an exertion of effort, it is an energetic interpretant. An example would be one's taking certain sensible qualities as a sign of an oncoming car and then jumping out of the way. If taking a sign as the sign of an object establishes a habit of the mind, then it is a logical or conceptual interpretant, and it fixes a belief about the object of the sign. Also, a sign may stand for some object by virtue of some qualitative simil arity (an icon; for example, a picture), or by virtue of some fact of dynamic relatedness (an index; for example, a weather vane) or by virtue of some law, habit, or custom (a symbol; for example, the English predicate "is human"). These facts led Peirce to spend hours working on classifications and reclassifications for all of the kinds of possible signs.

Further Reading

Esposito, Joseph L. Evolutionary Metaphysics. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1980. This is a recent work that deals with Peirce as a metaphysician and concentrates on his work prior to and around 1865, particularly the early development of the categories.

Murphey, Murray G. The Development of Peirce's Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961. A major work by Murphey on the development of Peirce's "four systems" mentioned above. It is the elaborate detailed hypothesis of the historical development of Peirce's ideas and is still a hypothesis well worth considering.

Thompson, Manley. The Pragmatic Philosophy of C. S. Peirce. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953. This is a rather careful and systematic study of Peirce's ideas that have to do with what has become known as pragmatism.
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Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
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Date:Jan 1, 1999

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