PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Wednesday January 21, 2015



[2.2.2.] Belief, Doubt, and Inquiry.


In section III of “The Fixation of Belief”, Peirce begins to explain his concepts of belief and doubt.


By “doubt,” he does not mean negative belief


If you say “I doubt that the Seahawks will win the Super Bowl,” you may be expressing a negative belief: you believe that the Seahawks probably will not win the Super Bowl.


This sort of example not what Peirce means by “doubt”. Instead he means absence of settled belief one way or the other.


Imagine that you are going to class on the first day of the semester. You pull out your phone to see what room your first class meets in and discover that there are different locations shown in the Banweb Course Bulletin and on the online Syllabus for the class. Because of this conflicting evidence, you’re not sure where the class is going to meet. Now you are experiencing what Peirce means by doubt about the location of your class.[1]


He describes three differences between believing and doubting:


1.      They feel different. The sensation accompanying belief is unlike the sensation accompanying doubt: “there is a dissimilarity between the sensation of doubting and that of believing” (113).


2.      A belief involves a habit, a disposition/tendency to act in a specific way. A doubt involves the absence of such a habit. “The feeling of believing is a more or less sure indication of there being established in our nature some habit which will determine our actions. Doubt never has such an effect” (113).


Peirce’s example: the followers of “the Old Man of the Mountain” (Rashid ad-Din Sinan), a Muslim leader in Syria during the 11th century. His followers would undertake suicide missions at his command because they believed (and thus did not doubt) that they would be rewarded in the afterlife for doing so.


A more ordinary example: Suppose that you believe that the liquid in a given container is water. Your belief involves tendencies to do certain things, e.g., pick it up and drink it; pour it on your houseplants or in your dog’s water bowl; use it to brush your teeth or wash your hair or your car; etc. If you aren’t sure whether it is water, i.e., if you doubt that it is water, then you will not know what to do with it.


So having a belief involves having a habit. And to doubt is to lack such a habit. It is “a condition of erratic activity.”


Here Peirce adds something to the Traditional View’s representationalism about belief. Having a belief is not simply a matter of having a representation in one’s mind. It is also a matter of having a habit of behaving a certain way, and we have those habits even when we’re not consciously thinking about the object of the belief (e.g., we have tendencies to act certain ways with regard to water, even when we’re not thinking about water).[2]


3.      We are content (satisfied) with belief, but we tend to try to eliminate doubt. “Doubt is an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves and pass into the state of belief; while the latter is a calm and satisfactory state which we do not wish to avoid, or to change to a belief in anything else” (114).[3]


At this point, Peirce describes inquiry as the struggle to escape doubt and attain a settled state of belief:


The irritation of doubt causes a struggle to attain a state of belief. I shall term this struggle inquiry, though it must be admitted that this is sometimes not a very apt designation (114).


For Peirce, doubt is unpleasant and is satisfied only by a new belief.[4] Once thrown into doubt, we go through some process or other until belief is “fixed” (settled, made permanent). The goal of such a process is stable belief. The process itself is inquiry.[5]



[2.2.3.] The Four Methods of Fixing Belief.


Peirce now asks:


What is the best method of inquiry?


Given that is the attempt to eliminate doubt and establish a fixed belief, the question becomes:


What is the best method of permanently “fixing” (establishing, settling) a belief?


According to Peirce, there are four methods by which people have attempted to eliminate doubt and replace it with “fixed” belief:


1. the method of tenacity

2. the method of authority

3. the a priori method

4. the method of science


A different conception of truth accompanies each method.


As each method fails, that failure reveals something that was missing from the concept of truth. We are thus pushed along to the next method, with its own concept of truth.


At the end, when we reach the last method, we come to the most sophisticated of the four conceptions of truth.



[] The Method of Tenacity.


Why should we not attain the desired end [i.e., eliminating doubt and replacing it with belief], by taking as answer to a question any 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? (115-16)


The tenacious believer…

(a)         chooses a belief that he or she likes and then sticks to it, no matter what; and

(b)         intentionally avoids any evidence that might threaten that belief.


Example: someone who (a) chooses (or is born into) a religious faith that she finds appealing and sticks to it dogmatically and (b) avoids reading or hearing any evidence or arguments that she thinks might threaten her religious faith. She feels comfortable in that faith and does not want anything to undermine it.[6]


The conception of truth associated with this method: truth is whatever I believe.


Why Peirce thinks it does not work as a method of “fixing” belief:


The social impulse is against it. 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 (117).


The fact that others do not share your belief will undermine your confidence in that belief, thus letting doubt creep back in.


An objection to Peirce: some people seem to use this method quite successfully and are not at all bothered by the fact that others do not share their beliefs!


But a charitable interpretation will not take Peirce to be saying that tenacity always fails for every belief. A better interpretation is this: the method of tenacity cannot work for every belief that an individual has. Some people might have their religious or moral beliefs “fixed” in this way, but no sane person can have their beliefs about every topic whatsoever fixed in this way, by just settling on some belief that they like and holding on to it come what may.


What we need is a way of fixing the same belief in the entire “community” of believers, not just in the individual: “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 merely, but in the community” (117).


And this changes the conception of truth: it cannot be just whatever I happen to believe—it must be public, something that everyone might believe.



[] The Method of Authority.


Some authority, such as a government or church, decides what people ought to believe. It then enforces those beliefs through whatever means necessary, even going so far as to excommunicate or kill those who think differently:


Let the will of the state act, then, instead of that of the individual. Let an institution be created which shall have for its object to keep correct doctrines before the attention of the people, to reiterate them perpetually, and to teach them to the young; having at the same time power to prevent contrary doctrines from being taught, advocated, or expressed. Let all possible causes of a change of mind be removed from men’s apprehensions. Let them be kept ignorant, lest they should learn of some reason to think otherwise than they do. Let their passions be enlisted, so that they may regard private and unusual opinions with hatred and horror. Then, let all men who reject the established belief be terrified into silence. Let the people turn out and tar-and-feather such men, or let inquisitions be made into the manner of thinking of suspected persons, and when they are found guilty of forbidden beliefs, let them be subjected to some signal punishment. When complete agreement could not otherwise be reached, a general massacre of all who have not thought in a certain way has proved a very effective means of settling opinion in a country (117-18).


The conception of truth associated with this method: truth is whatever the authority (church or government, etc.) says.


Example: Peirce hints that the doctrine of papal infallibility (the idea that the Pope is incapable of being wrong on matters of faith and morals) is one example of the method of authority. Peirce refers to Pope Pius IX (“Pius Nonus”), who was Pope at the time Peirce wrote “The Fixation of Belief” and was instrumental in the adoption of the doctrine of papal infallibility.


This method may be the best method for the majority of people:


For the mass of mankind . . . there is perhaps no better method than this (119).


But it will fail to fix all of the same beliefs for everyone:

·         Even the most successful totalitarian system cannot control what people think about every topic. So on many topics, people will be left to themselves to form beliefs.

·         For most people, this freedom of thought will not undermine the beliefs fixed by the state.

·         But there will always be some people—those who can “put two and two together”—who realize that it is a “mere accident” that they have the authority-fixed beliefs that they have. Had they been born in a different place and time, they would have different beliefs—and this will cause them to doubt those authority-fixed beliefs.


These men possess a wider sort of social feeling; they see that men in other countries and in other ages have held to very different doctrines from those which they themselves have been brought up to believe; and they cannot help seeing that it is the mere accident of their having been taught as they have, and of their having been surrounded with the manners and associations they have, that has caused them to believe as they do and not far differently. And their candor [i.e., openness and honesty; being frank] cannot resist the reflection that there is no reason to rate their own views at a higher value than those of other nations and other centuries; and this gives rise to doubts in their minds.

                They will further perceive that such doubts as these must exist in their minds with reference to every belief which seems to be determined by the caprice [i.e., the whim] either of themselves or of those who originated the popular opinions. The willful adherence to a belief, and the arbitrary forcing of it upon others, must, therefore, both be given up, and a new method of settling opinions must be adopted, which shall not only produce an impulse to believe, but shall also decide what proposition it is which is to be believed (119-120).


When this method fails, the conception of truth gets revised again: it must not only be public… it must also be impersonal: it will not decided by any person or group of people but what instead be the result of the method itself.


What we need is a method that will (i) establish the same belief in everyone and (ii) not base that belief on what any one or more people decide to believe.



[] The A Priori Method.


In calling this method “a priori,” Peirce is using a pair of traditional philosophical terms:


a priori (df.): an a priori belief, statement, proposition, etc. is one that can be known to be true or false independently of—i.e., prior to—sense experience. For example, “All bachelors are unmarried” and “All triangles have three sides” are a priori—you can come to know them just by thinking about the meanings of the words.


The opposite concept is:


a posteriori (df.): an a posteriori belief, statement, proposition, etc. is one that can be known to be true or false only by way of—and therefore only posterior to (after)—sense experience. For example, “The Pentagon is in Washington, D. C.” and “Peirce is a philosopher.” To know that either of these statements is true, you would need to have some experience of the world; you cannot come to know whether it is true or false simply by thinking about the meanings of the words it contains.[7]


Using the a priori method, you reason about a given issue and then accept the beliefs that seem to you to be true after this process of reasoning. This method bases belief on reason alone, not on experience.


In the “lowest and least developed formof this method, the social impulse is not yet at work, and so the method does not fix beliefs publicly, across a community of inquirers (e.g., there are disagreements among philosophers about metaphysical claims).

·         This is the method of inquiry employed by Descartes. It assumes that inquiry is best conducted by a single inquirer simply thinking and figuring things out for himself or herself.


In a more developed form of the a priori method, people will “convers[e] together and regard[] matters in different lights, [and] gradually develop beliefs in harmony with natural causes”. (120)  In this more communal form of the method, “the shock of opinions will soon lead men to rest on preferences of a far more universal nature” (120), and a belief will be judged to be more reasonable if it is known to be accepted by others.[8]


The conception of truth associated with this method: truth is whatever is most agreeable to reason.



Why Peirce thinks the a priori method doesn’t work: like the method of authority, the a priori method results in beliefs that are accidental, but the accidental nature of these beliefs has another source: taste (which is “always more or less a matter of fashion”) and sentiments (which are “greatly determined by accidental causes”) (121).


In other words, whether a belief strikes you as being “agreeable to reason” has a lot to do with your own personal tastes and feelings but not very much to do with anything permanent. So beliefs fixed by this method are just as accidental as those determined by the method of authority.


When this method fails, the conception of truth gets yet revised again: it must not only be public and impersonal: it must also be based on the facts.


[T]here are some people . . . who, when they see that any belief of theirs is determined by any circumstance extraneous to the facts, will from that moment . . . experience a real doubt of it, so that it ceases to be a belief (121).[9]



[] The Method of Science.


The failure of the first three methods indicates that a successful method of “fixing” belief will have the following traits (121-122):


1.      Beliefs will be “caused by nothing human”—i.e., they will be impersonal.


2.      Beliefs will be caused by the facts, i.e., by an “external permanencyby something upon which our thinking has no effect”. In other words, it attempts to make our beliefs depend on something external to the mind and thus independent of what anyone thinks.


3.      The external permanency “must be something which affects, or might affect, every [human] . . . such that the ultimate conclusion of every [human] shall be the same”—i.e., public. E.g., it will not be a private “inspiration from on high” like that claimed by some mystics, or like the “internal illumination” accepted by Roger Bacon as a form of experience (108). It must be possible that using the method will result in everyone believing the same thing, so that you won’t be caused to doubt your own beliefs by the fact that other people believe differently.


There is one method that meets these criteria:


The Method of Science: the method of experience and reasoning.[10] We pay attention to our experience of the world and then apply our reasoning in an attempt to figure out how things really are.


According to Peirce, the method of science is the best at permanently fixing belief.


In summary…



Concept of truth

Failure of the method indicates that truth must be…


Whatever I believe

Public (something that everyone can believe)


Whatever the authority says

Impersonal (not decided upon by any person or persons)

A Priori

Whatever is most agreeable to reason

Based on the facts (on an “external permanency”)


Whatever we believe as a result of experience of the external world and reasoning about that experience.






Stopping point for Wednesday January 21. For next time, finish reading “The Fixation of Belief” (pp.123-126).


[1] Peirce wrote the following definitions of “doubt” for the Century Dictionary: as verb, “To be uncertain as to a truth or fact; be undetermined or undecided; waver or fluctuate in opinion; hesitate”; as noun, “Uncertainty with regard to the truth of a given proposition or assertion; suspense of judgment arising from defect of evidence or of inclination; an unsettled state of opinion; indecision of belief”. (For the complete Century Dictionary online, see ; for a list of the words for which Peirce wrote Century Dictionary definitions, see .)


[2] “Belief is not a momentary mode of consciousness; it is a habit of mind essentially enduring for some time, and mostly (at least) unconscious; and like other habits, it is (until it meets with some surprise that begins its dissolution) perfectly self-satisfied. Doubt is of an altogether contrary genus. It is not a habit, but the privation of a habit. Now a privation of a habit, in order to be anything at all, must be a condition of erratic activity that in some way must get superseded by a habit” (“What Pragmatism Is,” EP 2:336, CP 5.417, 1905; not in ).


[3] Peirce repeats this list in your next reading, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” at 134-35. Interestingly, with regard to the first item on the list, he does not emphasize the difference in the sensations accompanying belief and doubt, but instead says simply that belief “is something that we are aware of.” Also in “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” Peirce concedes that he is using the words “belief” and “doubt” in ways “very disproportionate to the occasion,” and in so doing he is describing the mental phenomena with which he is concerned “as they appear under a mental microscope.” (132)


[4] Peirce takes this idea from Alexander Bain (Scottish psychologist and philosopher, 1818-1903). For more information, see the section on Bain in Gordon Graham, “Scottish Philosophy in the 19th Century”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>, accessed January 20, 2015.


[5] Peirce expressed this idea at least as early as 1873: “real inquiry begins when genuine doubt begins and ends when this doubt ends” (CP 7.322; not in your textbook).


[6] In “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”, Peirce draws illustrations of the method of tenacity from the philosophy of “the dark ages,” including Scotus Erigena and Peter Abelard. See pp.145-146.


[7] For other examples of a priori and a posteriori statements, see , accessed January 20, 2015.


[8] Peirce cites as an example psychological egoism (df.: people always do whatever they believe to be in their own best interest), which he says “rests on no fact in the world, but ... has had a wide acceptance as being the only reasonable theory” (120).


[9] Around 1901, Peirce revised the last sentence to read: “ that it ceases in some degree at least to be a belief.”


[10] I take this phrase from Susan Haack, Defending Science—Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism, Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York, 2003, p.125.

Peirce’s “Method of Science”—“the method of reasoning and experience”—blends aspects of rationalism and empiricism….


rationalism (df.): the tradition of philosophy according to which reason is the only, or at least the most important, source of knowledge about the world. Members of this tradition include Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza.


empiricism (df.): the tradition of philosophy according to which sense experience is the only, or at least the most important, source of knowledge about the world. Members of this tradition include Locke, Berkeley and Hume.


This theme—that pragmatism somehow bridges the gap between rationalism and empiricism—is one that recurs in the thought of both William James and John Dewey.




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