PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Tuesday January 29, 2013


[2.2.5.] The Method of Science and Realism.


Peirce describes the following as the “fundamental hypothesis” of the method of science (122)[1]:


1.      There are real things, whose characters are entirely independent of our opinions about them”—this is an explicit statement of Peirce’s realism.

2.       “those realities affect our senses according to regular laws”;

3.      “though our sensations are as different as our relations to the objects, yet by taking advantage of the laws of perception, we can ascertain by reasoning how things really are”;

4.      any man, if he have sufficient experience and reason enough about it, will be led to the one true conclusion.”



[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, the view 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 explains why he himself does not doubt realism or the methods of science (122):


1.      The method of science itself does not give rise to doubts 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 the “fundamental hypothesis” of the method, viz. realism.)

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


Here is *the second point Peirce makes to explain why he himself does 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)[2]


This response begins with the concept of doubting….


·         Peirce assumes that doubt involves a feeling of “dissatisfaction at two repugnant propositions.” By “repugnant” propositions he seems to have meant 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 the claim that p, this involves a feeling of dissatisfaction resulting from your recognition that contrary propositions “p” and “q” 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 room 209” and “All students must take the exam in room 206” 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 consistently maintain that there is not a single reality.


·         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.


Peirce concludes:


These [four points] afford the explanation of my not doubting the method or the hypothesis which it supposes; and not having any doubt, nor believing that anybody else whom I could influence has, it would be the merest babble for me to say more about it. If there be anybody with a living doubt upon the subject, let him consider it. (123)



[2.2.7.] 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.[3]


This passage indicates that Peirce, in his description of the four methods of fixing belief, meant to provide a genealogy of the conception of truth: he is describing how the conception of truth has evolved over the last several hundred years.[4] It has evolved into the concept of that which represents reality:


Method of inquiry

Truth conceived as…

Method of Tenacity

whatever I believe.

Method of Authority

whatever the church or state tells me.

A Priori Method

whatever strikes me as reasonable.

Method of Science (the method of reasoning and experience)

that which is “overwhelmingly forced upon the mind in experience as the effect of an independent reality.”**


**Although Peirce does not say so in this article, he seems to be committed to the correspondence theory of truth (which you should recall as part of the Traditional View). But he is not completely satisfied with this theory. In our next reading, we will see how he seeks to clarify the concept truth even further.


His view seems to be that the concept truth has improved during the history of inquiry (especially philosophical inquiry), and that the concept truth that we now have and that underwrites the method of science is superior to those that accompanied the earlier methods.[5]


This interpretation of “Fixation of Belief” is supported by what Peirce says in “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” (the article that follows “The Fixation of Belief” in the series Illustrations of the Logic of Science; it is your next reading). In sec. IV of that article (144-50), Peirce recounts the four different methods of fixing belief, giving examples from the history of philosophy to illustrate the first three stages. And there he explicitly describes those stages as lacking an adequate understanding of truth.





Stopping point for Tuesday January 29. For next time, begin reading “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” (pp.127-38). This class will begin 30 minutes late (at 10am) on Thursday Jan. 31.



[1] EP1:120; CP 5.384.

[2] EP1:120 & CP 5.384.


[3] 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.


[4] Here I agree with 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.


[5] 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.” Haack, “The First Rule of Reason,” 246.

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