PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Tuesday January 22, 2013


[2.2.2.] Believing vs. Doubting.


In section III, Peirce begins to explain his conceptions of belief and of doubt. But note at the outset that by “doubt,” he does not mean negative belief


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


This is not what Peirce has in mind. By “doubt,” 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 schedule to see what room your first class meets in and discover that the class locations are not listed there. You have no beliefs about whether your class meets in Pafford, or the TLC, or any other specific building. Now you are experiencing what Peirce means by doubt about the location of your class.[1]


He begins by describing 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 to act, to do something. 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 (113): the followers of “the Old Man of the Mountain” (Sheik al-Jebal), a radical Muslim of the eleventh century. His followers would undertake suicide missions at his command because they believed (and 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 a group of dispositions 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 in Peirce’s sense of “doubt,” then you will not know what to do with it. You will not have any dispositions to behave in a certain way towards it.


So on Peirce’s view, having a belief is not simply a matter of having a thought or cognition or other sort of representation in your mind or of feeling a specific way. Beliefs involve habits of action, and we have those habits even when we’re not consciously thinking about the object of the belief (we have dispositions to act certain ways with regard to water, even when we’re not thinking about water).[2]


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


It is here that 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.


3.      We are content with belief, but we tend to try to escape from doubt, to eliminate doubt and replace it with belief. “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]



[2.2.3.] Inquiry as the Struggle to Escape Doubt and Fix Belief.


Many philosophers would define inquiry something like this: “an attempt to discover truths about the world.”


But at this point in “The Fixation of Belief,” Peirce describes inquiry differently, 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]


Peirce considers an objection to this definition of inquiry:


Isn’t inquiry the attempt to arrive at, not a fixed or permanent belief, but a TRUE belief? As Peirce himself put the objection:


We may fancy that this [namely, the permanent settlement of belief] is not enough for us, and that we seek not merely an opinion, but a true opinion. (114)[6]


The idea behind this objection is this: when we are engaged in the activity of eliminating doubt and settling belief, we don’t simply want to make just any beliefs permanent. If that were our goal, we would be perfectly satisfied swallowing a belief-fixing pill—a pill that could “fix” (make permanent) some belief in our minds regardless of the content of that belief. What we want to do, rather, is replace our doubts with accurate, true beliefs.


Peirce’s response to this objection:


The most that can be maintained is, that we seek for a belief that we shall think to be true. But we think each one of our beliefs to be true, and, indeed, it is mere tautology to say so. ... [T]he settlement of opinion is the sole end of inquiry...  (115)[7]


tautology (df.): a logically true statement, e.g., “all bachelors are unmarried,” “either I am taller than 5 feet or I am not,” any statement of the form “either it is the case that p or it is not the case that p.”


If you believe that p, then you also believe that it is true that p. (This is why Peirce says “We think each one of our beliefs to be true” is a tautology: to believe that p is to think that it is true that p.) As long as you have no actual reason to doubt your belief that p, you will think that your belief that p is true. Only when you pass from the satisfactory state of belief to the unsatisfactory state of doubt do you question whether it is true that p.


So Peirce does not think we should define inquiry as an attempt to arrive at true beliefs, for the following reason… As soon as someone believes that p, she believes that it is true that p, and so she is “entirely satisfied” with that belief. So far as the “fixity” of her belief is concerned, it doesn’t matter whether it is actually true or false. The actual truth of a belief is irrelevant to whether the believer is satisfied with it—all that matters is that she believes that it is true. If one’s belief that p is genuine, it is pointless to say “I now believe that p. But I wonder whether p?”


Peirce’s point seems to be methodological, i.e., it seems to be about the method that people use to establish beliefs. The method that says “seek to believe only that which is true” is a pointless method—it says nothing but “seek to have beliefs.”


He concludes: “the settlement of opinion is the sole end of inquiry” (115).



Stopping point for Tuesday January 22. For next time, read the conclusion of "The Fixation of Belief" (pp.122-26).

[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)


[3] CP 5.372. 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 (British psychologist and philosopher, 1818-1903).


[5] Peirce expressed this idea at least as early as 1873; see CP 7.322: “... real inquiry begins when genuine doubt begins and ends when this doubt ends.”


[6] EP 1:115, CP 5.375.


[7] EP 1:115, CP 5.375.

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