PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Thursday January 31, 2013


[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 first was “The Fixation of Belief”).


It contains the first appearance in print of the idea that has come to be called 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 a concept can have.


The first two levels were recognized by the rationalist philosophers Descartes and Leibniz (whom Peirce discusses in section I of this essay).


The third level of clearness is something that Peirce himself is introducing. The pragmatic maxim 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 gold.


The first two degrees of clearness are as follows:


1.      Being “familiar” with the concept, so that you are able to “recognize” the concept wherever it occurs. What Peirce may mean by this is the ability to tell the difference between things to which the concept applies and things to which it does not apply.

·         You have attained this level of clarity with regard to the concept gold when you can sort things according to whether or not they are gold.

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


2.      Being able to give a verbal definition of the concept, such as you can find in a dictionary.

·         You have attained this level of clarity when you can define the word “gold” (such as: “a soft, yellow, corrosive-resistant element, the most malleable and ductile metal, occurring in veins and alluvial deposits and recovered by mining or by panning or sluicing”[1]).

·         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 concepts beyond the second degree of clearness by showing how the meaning of a belief is connected to action (purposeful behavior) and the experiences that we have after performing an action.[2]


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)[3]


Here is a formulation that captures this idea:


The meaning of a concept is given by a description of the experiences you will have as a result of performing actions that involve objects to which the concept applies; in particular, it is given by a list of conditionals (if-then statements) of the following form:


“If you do [specification of some action], then you will experience [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 ring is pure silver.” What does this claim mean? Its pragmatic meaning is given by a list of conditionals (if-then statements), e.g.,

·         If you raise the temperature of the ring to 100° F, it will not melt.

·         If you raise the temperature of the ring to 1763.2° F, it will melt.

·         If you raise the temperature of the ring to 3924° F, it will boil.

·         If you hammer it, it will flatten out.

·         If you wear the ring around your finger, it will not turn your skin green.



This is how the PM ties the meaning of concepts to both actions and sensible effects: the PM gives the meaning of a concept in terms of the experiential consequences of engaging in certain actions.


EXAMPLE 2: hard


As an example of the application of the PM, Peirce gives the concept hard (138).[4] [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 attempt to scratch it with a knife, then the diamond will not be scratched.

·         If you attempt to use it to scratch a piece of glass, then 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.[5]


Later we will see how he applied it to a few other concepts that are more relevant to philosophy: reality, and truth.



Stopping point for Thursday January 31. For next time, finish reading “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” pp.144-150.


[1] American Heritage Dictionary, second college ed.


[2] 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 empirically meaningless altogether. For more on Verification Principle, see my lecture notes from Analytic Philosophy:


[3] EP1:132; CP 5.402. Much later, in 1905, he stated it as follows:


... a conception, that is, the rational purport 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,” EP2:332; 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; … (p.87)

[4] EP1:132, CP 5.403.


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


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