PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Thursday January 24, 2013



[2.2.4.] The Four Methods of Fixing Belief.


Peirce now turns to the question: What is the best method of inquiry?


Given the account of inquiry he has just provided (according to which inquiry is the attempt to eliminate doubt and establish a fixed belief), this question becomes: How can we “fix” (establish, settle) a belief? I.e., what’s the best way to establish permanent belief?


According to Peirce, there are four methods of establishing belief about a given issue, methods by which doubt can be eliminated and replaced with “fixed” belief. And according to Peirce, one of them works much better than the others. The methods are:


1. the method of tenacity

2. the method of authority

3. the a priori method

4. the method of science



[] The Method of Tenacity.


Why should we not attain the desired end, 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)[1]


Using this method, an individual:

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

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


Example: someone who (a) chooses a specific 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.


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)[2]


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


A response 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 of Peirce’s criticism of this method will not take him to be saying that it always fails for every belief. A better interpretation of the criticism 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.


And when this method fails, a very important conception arises:

(I) “...another man’s thought or sentiment may be equivalent to one’s own” (117).[3] I.e., when it comes to belief, you are not privileged; others’ beliefs can be just as good as your own.


So Peirce says that what we need is a way of fixing belief in the entire “community” of believers, not just in the individual.



[] 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 demand the right to 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)


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 is more successful than the method of tenacity—and in fact, it may be the best method for the majority of people:


For the mass of mankind ... there is perhaps no better method than this. (119)[4]


But ultimately it will fail, because it won’t succeed in fixing everyone’s beliefs about everything:

·         even the most successful totalitarian system cannot control what people think about every single 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 (these people “cannot put two and two together”);

·         but there will always be some individuals who (usually through exposure to alternative ways of thinking at other times and places) realize that they have arrived at their authority-fixed beliefs by accident—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:


...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. (119)


And when this method fails, another important conception arises:

(II) beliefs that are arbitrary and accidental are not immune to doubt.


So Peirce says that what we need is a method of fixing beliefs that are not arbitrary...

·         a method that does not rest satisfied with a belief that you yourself happen to like;

·         a method that does not rest with a belief that some authority happens to like;

·         instead, a method that determines, in a non-accidental, non-arbitrary way, what is to be believed.



[] The A Priori Method.


In calling this method “a priori,” Peirce is assuming using a traditional piece of philosophical terminology:


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” is a priori—you can come to know it 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, “Peirce is a philosopher.” To know that Peirce is a philosopher, 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.


This third method is different than the method of tenacity. Using the a priori method, you don’t simply pick a belief that you like and stick with it, come what may. You reason about a given issue and then accept the beliefs that seem to you to be true after this process of reasoning. So this method bases belief on reason alone, not on experience.


In the “lowest and least developed form” of this method, the social impulse is not yet at work, and so the method does not fix beliefs 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, in isolation from all other inquirers, simply thinking and figuring out things for himself or herself.


In a more developed form of the a priori method, “the shock of opinions will soon lead men to rest on preferences of a far more universal nature.” (120)[5] A belief will be judged to be more reasonable if it is known to be accepted by others. 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)[6]


Why Peirce thinks the a priori method doesn’t work:


Ultimately, it fails for the same reason that the method of authority failed—it results in beliefs that are accidental and arbitrary:

·         the method of authority resulted in beliefs that happen to have been chosen by the authority, whatever beliefs the authority wanted to impose;

·         the a priori method also results in beliefs that are accidental, but the “capriciousness” 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)[7]


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.


Some people will come to realize this; and in this realization, there arises a third important conception:


(III) beliefs that are determined by something other than the facts are not to be trusted.


...there 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)[8]



[] The Method of Science.


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


1.      It will involve our beliefs being fixed by an “external permanency”—something that is external to our own minds and “upon which our thinking has no effect.” In other words, it attempts to make our beliefs depend on something independent of what anyone thinks.


2.      It will involve our beliefs being fixed by something “public,” i.e., available to everyone, capable of affecting anyone. It will not rely on beliefs being fixed by anything specific to me, or you, or any other individual, or any specific group of individuals. E.g., it will not be like 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.


3.      It will involve everyone’s beliefs being fixed, at least potentially, in the same way; i.e., the method will be capable of fixing the same belief for everyone. In this way, it will not be undermined by the social impulse. In other words, it is possible that it will eventually 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.


These requirements suggest a fourth method of fixing belief:


The Method of Science: the method of experience and reasoning: 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.



Stopping point for Thursday January 24. We have fallen one day behind the original reading schedule. So for next time, read (again) what you were assigned to read for today: pp.122-126. I will make an adjustment to the online reading schedule in the next few days.



[1] EP 1:115, CP 5.377.


[2] EP 1:116, CP 5.378.


[3] EP 1:116, CP 5.378.


[4] EP 1:118, CP 5.380.

[5] EP 1:119, CP 5.382.


[6] EP 1:119, CP 5.382.


[7] EP 1:119, CP 5.383.


[8] EP 1:119-120, CP 5.383. Around 1901, Peirce revised the last sentence to read: “ that it ceases in some degree at least to be a belief.”


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