PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Thursday January 17, 2013



[2.1.6.] Against the Inexplicable.


C4. There are “absolutely inexplicable” facts—facts that can never be explained—“unless to say ‘God makes them so’ is to be regarded as an explanation.”


P4. The supposition that something is “absolutely inexplicable ... is never allowable.


Peirce asserts P4 in the following passage:


                Every unidealistic philosophy supposes some absolutely inexplicable, unanalyzable ultimate; in short, something resulting from mediation itself not susceptible to mediation. Now that anything is thus inexplicable can only be known by reasoning from signs. But the only justification of an inference from signs is that the conclusion explains the fact. To suppose the fact absolutely inexplicable, is not to explain it, and hence this supposition is never allowable. (72)


There is a lot going on here, and we will not be able to discuss all of it. I will limit my explanation to just a few points.


First, about the word “unidealistic”


Peirce tends to use the word “idealism” in a non-standard way…


idealism (standard df.): the view that everything that there is, is (in some sense) mind, or mental, or an idea.

·         On this definition of idealism, perhaps the most straightforward example of idealism is the view of George Berkeley (1865-1753) that to be is to be perceived (“esse est percipi”).


idealism (Peirce’s very broad df.): the view that everything that there is, is cognizable, i.e., everything that there is can be thought about, can be an object of cognition.

·         On this broad sense of “idealism,” Berkeley’s idealism is a form of idealism, but it is not the only form. One may accept Peirce’s broad form of idealism without maintaining that everything there is, is mind or mental.


By “unidealistic philosophy,” Peirce means a philosophy according to which there are aspects of reality that, for whatever reason, cannot be the object of an idea and that will therefore always be beyond the comprehension of human inquirers. On such a view, there are things about the universe that no human being could ever even think about, let alone fully understand.


Peirce believes that Descartes’ approach is “unidealistic” in this sense. The tricky part is seeing why he thinks this... It has to do with Descartes’ view about the mind and the body.


Descartes famously defended:


dualism (a.k.a.  mind-body dualism and Cartesian dualism): the mind and the body are two totally different things, capable of existing separately.


A huge problem for any form of dualism about mind and body is to explain how the two interact.


Descartes held that

·         the mind is essentially something that thinks;

·         the body is essentially something that is extended in space; but

·         despite being separate things, the mind and body can interact:


mental states/events


e.g., desire to move


can cause

bodily states/events


e.g., movement



e.g., pain


can cause



e.g., stubbing my toe


But if the body, including the brain, is a physical thing, and the mind is non-physical, then it is completely mysterious how one can interact with another. This is because it is completely mysterious how a physical event can cause a non-physical event to happen, and vice versa.


On Peirce’s view, if we adopt Cartesian dualism, then we have given up any possibility of explaining how the mind and body interact:

·         In 1890’s “Logic and Spiritualism,” he says that “[t]he obsolete Cartesian dualism, that soul and body are two substances, distinct, independent, [is] untenable as positing a double absolute, rendering connection of soul and body absolutely inexplicable either on mechanical or on psychological principles”.[1]

·         Dualism prohibits us from ever explaining how what happens in the mind can affect what happens in the body and vice versa. Ordinary facts, like the fact that scraping my knee causes me to feel pain, become inexplicable.




[2.2.] Peirce’s Theory of Inquiry: “The Fixation of Belief.”


The second article by Peirce that we will read is “The Fixation of Belief,” published in 1877 in Popular Science Monthly. It is one of his two most famous works (the other of which is “How to Make Our Beliefs Clear, which we will read next) and the first in a 6-article series entitled Illustrations of the Logic of Science.[2]


As this title suggests, this series of articles is concerned with reasoning, and in particular the sort of reasoning used within science.


In much of the first article from which we read (“Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” 1868), Peirce was concerned with criticizing Descartes’ views about inquiry, especially philosophical inquiry. In “The Fixation of Belief,” Peirce provides more details about his alternative to Descartes’ view.


But what he says in that regard is in support of the main point of the article: to provide a history of the development of the concept of truth, i.e., to show how the concept of truth has developed over the history of inquiry.



[2.2.1.] Historical Prelude.


Peirce begins the article with a joke: “Few persons care to study logic, because everybody conceives himself to be proficient enough in the art of reasoning already. But I observe that this satisfaction is limited to one's own ratiocination, and does not extend to that of other men.” (108) In other words, not many people want to study logic because everyone thinks they are already pretty good at it—and usually they think that they are the only ones who are good at it.


He then proceeds with a brief history of inquiry. He describes a number of different historical stages and the assumptions made by inquirers at each stage about how knowledge is to be attained:


According to...

knowledge is to be attained...

the scholastics / medieval schoolmen

either by reason or by authority; and anything “deduced by reason depends ultimately on a premise derived from authority.” (108)

Roger Bacon


only by experience; but Bacon had a very broad conception of experience, according to which it included “interior illumination” (so that by experience we might come to “know” that bread is transubstantiated into the body of Christ during communion ceremonies). (108)

Francis Bacon


experience, which “must be opened to verification and reëxamination.” But this Bacon’s view of scientific procedure was inadequate. (108)

Johannes Kepler


experience; a better view of scientific procedure than F. Bacon: astronomers should “not content themselves with inquiring whether one system of epicycles was better than another but [instead] sit down by the figures and find out what the curve, in truth, was.” But still he lacked “the weapons of modern logic” and stumbled from “one irrational hypothesis to another” until finally getting it right. (109)

Antoine Lavoisier


experience and reasoning; he “carr[ied] his mind into the laboratory  and ... [made] of his alembics and cucurbits instruments of thought, giving a new conception of reasoning as something which was to be done with one’s eyes open, by manipulating real things instead of words and fancies.” (109)


This can be read as an implicit criticism of the Cartesian method of inquiry, a form of reasoning that one can engage in with one’s eyes closed.


Rudolf Clausius (1822-1888) & James Maxwell (1831-1879); Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

experience and statistical reasoning


This historical progression is echoed in the Four Methods of Fixing Belief described by Peirce in section V of this article (part of your next reading). As you will see, those four methods are:

·         Tenacity

·         Authority

·         A priori

·         Science


The progression through those four methods of “fixing” belief will echo the history of science that Peirce gives in section I of this article.


If you read carefully between the lines, you will also be able to detect that there is a different conception of truth accompanying each of the four methods, and as one method gives way to another, so does each concept of truth, until at the end, when we reach the method of science, we come to the most sophisticated of the four conceptions of truth.



Stopping point for Thursday January 17. For next time, read pp.115 (starting with section V) to p.122 (stopping at the sixth line: “Such is the method of science.”).



[1] CP 7.580, W 6:391, 1890; not in your textbook. The work was incorrectly dated as being from around 1905 by the editors of the Collected Papers.


[2] 1877, CP 5.358-87, EP 1:109-123, W 3:242-57.


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