PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Wednesday January 28, 2015



[2.2.6.] Why Believe Realism?


It may be asked how I know that there are any realities. If this hypothesis is the sole support of my method of inquiry, my method of inquiry must not be used to support my hypothesis (122).


In other words: why does Peirce believe realism (i.e., why does he believe that there are realities that are independent of what we think about them)? Since realism is a presupposition of the method of science, he cannot use the method of science itself to support realism. So how does he support it?


Peirce’s response to this question was not a straightforward argument in support of realism.


Instead, he explained why he himself did not doubt realism or the method of science (122):


1.      Using the method of science does not cause doubt about realism or about itself.


2.      [skipping this momentarily—it’s worth an extended examination, below*]


3.      Everyone already uses the method of science with regard to lots of subjects. People only fail to use it when they don’t know how to apply it to a given subject. Presumably, he means to suggest that, since everyone uses the method, everyone already believes its “fundamental hypothesis”: realism.


4.      Scientific inquiry “has had the most wonderful triumphs in the way of settling opinion.”


Here is *the second point Peirce made to explain why he did not doubt realism:


2. The feeling which gives rise to any method of fixing belief is a dissatisfaction at two repugnant propositions. But here already is a vague concession that there is some one thing which a proposition should represent. Nobody, therefore, can really doubt that there are Reals, for, if he did, doubt would not be a source of dissatisfaction. The hypothesis, therefore, is one which every mind admits. So that the social impulse does not cause men to doubt it (122, emphases added).


This response begins with the concept of doubting….


·         Doubt involves a feeling of “dissatisfaction at two repugnant propositions”—propositions that are repugnant to each other, i.e., contrary propositions:


contrary (df.): contrary propositions are propositions that cannot all be true at the same time, e.g. “Atlanta is the capital of Georgia” and “Georgia does not have a capital” are contrary propositions [a.k.a. incompatible propositions].


When you have doubts about a claim, this involves a feeling of dissatisfaction resulting from your recognition that (at least) two contrary propositions cannot both be true. E.g., if you are unsure where your final exam is being held, you experience a feeling of discomfort, and this stems from your recognition that “All students must take the exam in Humanities 205” and “All students must take the exam in TLC 1300” cannot both be true.


·         But if you were not assuming that there is one and only one way things are, then this incompatibility of propositions would not bother you. So you cannot be bothered by doubt and deny that there is one real world.


·         Each of us experiences doubt and is bothered by it, so everyone does in fact believe that there is a single way the world is. So the method of science is based on an assumption (that there is one and only one way things are) that everyone believes already, anyway.


·         And since everyone really does believe realism, the “social impulse” does not cause anyone to doubt it.



[2.2.6.] A Genealogy of the Concept of Truth.


In around 1906, about thirty years after he wrote “Fixation of Belief,” Peirce wrote:


                My paper of November 1877, setting out from the proposition that the agitation of a question ceases when satisfaction is attained with the settlement of belief, and then only, goes on to consider how the conception of truth gradually develops from that principle under the action of experience; beginning with willful belief, or self-mendacity [“mendacity” means deceptiveness, falsity], the most degraded of all intellectual conditions; thence rising to the imposition of beliefs by the authority of organized society; then to the idea of a settlement of opinion as the result of a fermentation of ideas; and finally reaching the idea of truth as overwhelmingly forced upon the mind in experience as the effect of an independent reality.[1]


This passage confirms that in his description of the four methods of fixing belief, Peirce meant to provide a genealogy of the concept of truth. It has evolved into the idea of that which represents reality:



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.


“A man should consider well of them [the advantages of the first three methods]; and then he should consider that, after all, he wishes his opinions to coincide with the fact**, and that there is no reason why the results of these three methods should do so. To bring about this effect is the prerogative of the method of science” (125).





**So a true belief is one that corresponds with reality (you should recall this as part of the Traditional View) and is the result of experiential interaction with, and reasoning about, the real world.[2]



[2.3.] “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” (1878).


This article is the second of the “Illustrations of the Logic of Science” series published in Popular Science Monthly from 1877 to 1878 (“The Fixation of Belief” was the first).


It contains the first appearance in print of the Pragmatic Maxim (PM), and so it is plausible to think of it as the publication in which pragmatism was first introduced to the public, even though nowhere in the article does Peirce use the expression “pragmatic maxim” or “pragmatism.”



[2.3.1.] The First Two Degrees of Clearness.


Peirce describes three different levels or “degrees” of clearness that an idea or concept can have.


The first two levels were recognized by the philosophers René Descartes and Gottfried Leibniz (both of whom we’ve already encountered; Peirce mentions both in section I of this essay).


The third level of clearness is something that Peirce himself is introducing. The PM is the tool that he uses to clarify concepts to that third degree.


To illustrate these three degrees of clearness, I’ll use the concept silver.


The first two degrees of clearness are:


1.      Being “familiar” with the idea, so that you are able to “recognize” it wherever it occurs. This is just “a subjective feeling of mastery which may be entirely mistaken”.

·         You have attained this level of clarity with regard to the concept gold when you feel very confident in using the word “silver”, e.g., to say that this object is silver but that that object is not.

·         This corresponds with the “clearness” of ideas emphasized by Descartes and Leibniz.


2.      Being able to give a verbal definition (i.e., a definition in words) of the idea, such as you can find in a dictionary.

·         You have attained this level of clarity when you can define the word “silver” (such as: “a soft grayish-white metal that is very valuable and is used to make jewelry, coins, knives, forks, etc.”[3]).

·         This corresponds with the “distinctness” of ideas emphasized by Descartes and Leibniz.


But Peirce thought that this degree of clarity could be improved upon, that we can attain a level of even greater clearness.



[2.3.2.] The Pragmatic Maxim.


Peirce intended the Pragmatic Maxim (PM) to be a rule for clarifying the meaning of ideas to a third grade of clearness by showing how the meaning of an idea is connected to action (purposeful behavior) and the experiences that we have after performing an action.[4]


Here is how states the Pragmatic Maxim in 1878’s “How to Make…”:


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. (138)[5]


Here is a formulation that captures this idea:


The  pragmatic meaning of an idea is given by a description of (i) actions involving things to which the idea applies and (ii) experiences that result from performing those actions; in particular, it is given by a list of conditionals (if-then statements) of the following form:


“If [specification of some action], then [specification of some experiential consequence].”


The first part of the conditional specifies some behavior or test or “experiment” that a person can perform; the second part specifies the experiences that will follow as an effect of performing that test.



[2.3.3.] Illustrations of the Pragmatic Maxim.


EXAMPLE 1: silver


Consider the claim “This object is silver.” What does this claim mean? Its pragmatic meaning is given by a list of conditionals, e.g.,

·         If you raise its temperature to 100° F, it will not melt.

·         If you raise its temperature to 1763.2° F, it will melt.

·         If you raise its temperature to 3924° F, it will boil.

·         If you hammer it, it will flatten out.

·         If you make a ring from it and wear it ring around your finger, it will not turn your skin green.



This shows how the PM gives the pragmatic meaning of an idea in terms of actions and their experiential consequences (i.e., sensible effects).


EXAMPLE 2: hard


As an example of the application of the PM, Peirce gives the concept hard (138). [Peirce is considering the word “hard” in its strict, mineralogical sense.]


The pragmatic meaning of the claim that an object, e.g., a diamond, is hard is given by a list of conditionals, such as:

·         If you try to scratch it with a knife, the diamond won’t be scratched.

·         If you try to scratch a piece of glass with it, the glass will be scratched.



On Peirce’s view, this list of conditionals is all that is (pragmatically) meant by the word “hard”. There is no hidden quality of hardness inside the diamond. To say that it is hard is to say simply that if you do specific things with it, then specific sensible results will occur.



Peirce himself illustrated the PM by applying it to the following concepts of physical science:


·         hard (138)

·         weight / heavy (140)

·         force (140-42; requires an understanding of the Parallelogram of Forces)

·         lithium:


If you look into a textbook of chemistry for a definition of lithium, you may be told that it is that element whose atomic weight is 7 very nearly. But if the author has a more logical mind he will tell you that if you search among minerals that are vitreous, translucent, grey or white, very hard, brittle, and insoluble, for one which imparts a crimson tinge to an unluminous flame, this mineral being triturated with lime or witherite rats-bane, and then fused, can be partly dissolved in muriatic acid; and if this solution be evaporated, and the residue be extracted with sulphuric acid, and duly purified, it can be converted by ordinary methods into a chloride, which being obtained in the solid state, fused, and electrolyzed with half a dozen powerful cells, will yield a globule of a pinkish silvery metal that will float on gasolene; and the material of that is a specimen of lithium. The peculiarity of this definition—or rather this precept that is more serviceable than a definition—is that it tells you what the word lithium denotes by prescribing what you are to do in order to gain a perceptual acquaintance with the object of the word.[6]


Below we will see how he applied it to a few other concepts that are more relevant to philosophy: real and true.



Stopping point for Wednesday January 28. For next time, finish reading “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” pp.144-150. YOUR SECOND RESPONSE PAPER (ON THIS READING) IS DUE AT THE BEGINNING OF CLASS.



[1] From a manuscript entitled “Reflexions upon Pluralistic Pragmatism and upon Cenopythagorean Pragmaticism.” 5.564, c.1906. See the handout distributed in today’s class for a longer excerpt from this manuscript.


[2] The idea of truth as that which a mind-independent reality (i.e., a reality independent of any particular mind, which nonetheless is accessible to the mind) forces on us in experience is, as Haack puts it, “the most sophisticated stage of the intellectual development of mankind, which runs from the most primitive, represented by the method of tenacity, through the method of authority, to the a priori method, and finally to the scientific method.” Susan Haack, “The First Rule of Reason,” in The Rule of Reason, eds. J. Brunning and P. Forster, University of Toronto Press, 1997, 241-261, p.246.

In sec.IV (144-50) of “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” (the next article we will read), Peirce recounts the four different methods of fixing belief, giving examples from the history of philosophy to illustrate the first three stages. There he explicitly describes those stages as lacking an adequate understanding of truth.


[3] Merriam-Webster Dictionary,


[4] As Cheryl Misak notes (Verificationism, ch.3), this is one way that the PM differs from the Verification Principle of the Logical Positivists: “S is empirically meaningful if and only if S is verifiable by experience, i.e., can shown to be true or false by means of the senses.” The Positivists took their principle to specify the conditions of a sentence having any empirical meaning whatsoever. Peirce, on the other hand, took the PM to be a method of uncovering only part of the meaning of a belief or idea. Peirce’s view seems to have been that an idea can be pragmatically meaningless without being altogether meaningless; while the Verification Principle implies that a sentence that cannot be verified by way of experience is altogether empirically meaningless. For more on Verification Principle, see my lecture notes from Analytic Philosophy:


[5] Much later, in 1905, he stated it as follows:


... a conception, that is, the rational purport [meaning, import] of a word or other expression, lies exclusively in its conceivable bearing upon the conduct of life; so that . . . if one can define accurately all the conceivable experimental phenomena which the affirmation or denial of a concept could imply, one will have therein a complete definition of the concept, and there is absolutely nothing more in it (“What Pragmatism Is,” EP 2:332; CP 5.412).


And the following passage, from 1868’s “Some Consequences”, seems to anticipate the aspect of the Pragmatic Maxim in which it locates the meaning of a thought in other thoughts:


…no present actual thought (which is a mere feeling) has any meaning, any intellectual value; for this lies not in what is actually thought, but in what this thought may be connected with in representation by subsequent thoughts (87).


[6] “Syllabus”, c.1902, CP 2.330, emphasis added.


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