PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Tuesday February 5, 2013


[2.3.6.] The “First and Second Grades” of Clarity Regarding the Real.


Having used the pragmatic maxim (PM) to clarify a number of scientific concepts, Peirce now turns toward a more philosophical concept: reality.


He begins by considering the concept real in its “first grade” of clearness (the clearness of Descartes and Leibniz):


Taking clearness in the sense of familiarity, no idea could be clearer than this. Every child uses it with perfect confidence, never dreaming that he does not understand it. (144)


He then considers the concept real in its “second grade” of clearness (the distinctness of Descartes and Leibniz). This is the dictionary definition of “reality.” Here he reiterates the definition we’ve seen him use before:


Thus we may define the real as that whose characters are independent of what anybody may think them to be. (144) [1]


At this point he also defines the external (that which does not depend on what anyone thinks) and the fictional (that which depends on what someone thinks about it—this is the opposite of the real). Everything that is external is real, but not everything that is real is external. Some reals are internal, e.g., the fact that someone had a dream, of the fact that someone imagined a giraffe in the hallway outside of class. (The contents of that dream and of that imagining are fictional, but the fact that the person had the dream or imagined the giraffe are real facts about that person.)


But Peirce wanted to go beyond this “second grade” of clarity to a higher grade, one that ties the concept of reality directly to action and its sensible effects.


In other words, he wanted the application of the PM to the concept real to provide an answer to the question: What conceivable sensible effect does reality have?


Here, then, let us apply our rules. According to them, reality, like every other quality, consists in the peculiar sensible effects which things partaking of it produce. The only effect which real things have is to cause belief, for all the sensations which they excite emerge into consciousness in the form of beliefs. The question therefore is, how is true belief (or belief in the real) distinguished from false belief (or belief in fiction). (145)[2]


So the pragmatic account of reality will need to be put in terms of true belief. The object of a true belief is real, and the only difference that the real makes in our experience is that it causes our true beliefs. So in order to have a pragmatic understanding of reality, we must first understand what it is to have a true belief….



[2.3.7.] Science’s Conception of Truth.


At this point in “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” he refers back to the account of the four methods of inquiry he gave in “The Fixation of Belief.” [And it is at this point that it becomes explicit what he was doing in describing those four methods: he was describing the history of the development of the concept truth.]


It was in the advent of the fourth and final method, the method of science, that the concept truth (and its opposite, falsehood), were fully developed:


Now, as we have seen in the former paper, the ideas of truth and falsehood, in their full development, appertain exclusively to the experiential method of settling opinion [i.e., the method of science]. (145)


He reprises the first three methods of fixing belief, and describes the concept of truth that accompanied each:



“A person who arbitrarily chooses the propositions which he will adopt can use the word truth only to emphasize the expression of his determination to hold on to his choice. ... For him, the truth is simply his particular stronghold.” (145)


“When the method of authority prevailed, the truth meant little more than the Catholic faith. ... the idea of loyalty replaced that of truth-seeking.” (146)

a priori

“...philosophers have been less intent on finding out what the facts are than on inquiring what belief is most in harmony with their system. It is hard to convince a follower of the a priori method by adducing facts; but show him that an opinion that he is defending is inconsistent with what he has laid down elsewhere and he will be very apt to retract it.” (146)


Unlike the followers of the other methods,


all the followers of science are fully persuaded that the processes of investigation, if only pushed far enough, will give one certain solution to every question to which they can be applied. ... Different minds may set out with the most antagonistic views, but the progress of investigation carries them by a force outside of themselves to one and the same conclusion. This activity of thought by which we are carried, not where we wish, but to a foreordained goal, is like the operation of destiny. No modification of the point of view taken, no selection of other facts for study, no natural bent of mind even, can enable a man to escape the predestinate opinion. This great law is embodied in the conception of truth and reality. The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth…


This is the fully developed concept of truth—it is also the concept of truth clarified to the third grade of clearness—the result of applying the Pragmatic Maxim to the concept of truth…


… and the object represented in this opinion is the real. That is the way I would explain reality. (146-47, emphasis added)[3]


…and this is the fully developed concept of reality—as it is clarified to the third grade of clearness, the result of applying the Pragmatic Maxim to the concept of reality.



[2.3.8.] Unpacking the Pragmatic Accounts of Truth and Reality.


According to Peirce, if we apply the PM to the claim “it is true that p,” we get something like this:

·         “If you push inquiry into the claim that p as far as it can go, then it will still be believed that p.”


So on Peirce’s view, to say that the belief that p is true is to say that that belief will be a part of the collective opinion of a community of inquirers at the hypothetical conclusion of inquiry.


Truth, understood in the third grade of clearness, is that which will be agreed upon by all inquirers after inquiry has been pushed as far as it can go (an “ultimate community of inquirers”).[4]


That which is real is the object represented by the opinion that will collectively be agreed upon if inquiry is pushed as far as it can go; in other words, the real is what is represented by a true belief.  Consider the claim: “x is real.” According to Peirce, applying the PM to this claim yields something like this:

·         “If you push inquiry as far as it can go, then some beliefs held at the end of inquiry will be about x.”


In other words, if x is real, then x is the object of a true belief—in other words, it will be the object of a belief that belongs to the collective beliefs of that hypothetical group of inquirers.



[2.3.9.] The Correspondence Theory of Truth.


Frequently, the pragmatic account of truth (whether it’s the version given by Peirce or that of William James) is presented as an alternative to the notion of truth as correspondence (part of the Traditional View that we learned about earlier this semester):


correspondence theory of truth (df.): truth is a matter of correspondence between (on the one hand) sentences, statements, beliefs, etc. and (on the other) the world.  This way of thinking about truth was held by (among others) Aristotle, Bertrand Russell and (the early) Ludwig Wittgenstein—it has been the object of harsh criticism in the 20th century.[5]


But Peirce did not want to replace the correspondence theory with his pragmatic theory. He accepted the correspondence theory himself. Consider this comment from “The Fixation of Belief”...


Such are the advantages which the other methods of settling opinion have over scientific investigation. A man should consider well of them; 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 those three first methods should do so. (125)[6]


Rather, he wanted to supplement the correspondence theory. His position on the correspondence theory may have been that it is correct but not very philosophically illuminating, and that in particular it does not show how the concept of truth is tied to purposeful behavior and experience.


My own view is that Peirce took the correspondence theory to clarify the notion of truth to the second level of clearness (giving a verbal definition of the word “truth”) and the pragmatic account to clarify it to the third level of clearness.



[2.3.10.] Does Reality Depend on What We Think About It?


Peirce went on to consider an objection to his pragmatic account of reality...


But it may be said that this view is directly opposed to the abstract definition which we have given of reality, inasmuch as it makes the characters of the real depend on what is ultimately thought about them. (147)[7]


...and to respond to that objection as follows:


But the answer to this is that, on the one hand, reality is independent, not necessarily of thought in general, but only of what you or I or any finite number of men may think about it; and that, on the other hand, though the object of the final opinion depends on what that opinion is, yet what that opinion is does not depend on what you or I or any man thinks. (147)[8]


Peirce’s position here seems to have been as follows:


Reality does not depend on what people think about it. On Peirce’s view, our thinking does not determine how the world is; we are not creating the world with our beliefs.


·         This is captured in Peirce’s initial (2nd level of clearness) definition of the real as that which is independent of what anyone thinks about it.[9]


·         So the way the world is does not depend on what we believe about it. We cannot make it so that the earth is shaped like a cube, just by believing it. Even if everyone on earth today believed it, it would still not be the case.



But in a sense, reality does depends on thought, in general. There are two aspects to this:


1.      Peirce wants to clarify the concept reality by explaining it in terms of what people in general will believe if inquiry is pushed as far as it can possibly go. In order fully to understand what the concept of reality means pragmatically, we have to think about it in terms of something we can actually experience: the thoughts/beliefs that people will have in a specific situation. So the concept reality, pragmatically clarified, depends on the concept belief.


2.      What does it mean to say that a proposition is true or that it represents reality? So far as our experience of the world is concerned, it can mean only that future experience will support belief in it, not undermine belief in it. It is to say that belief in that proposition will not be altered by the “recalcitrance” (stubborn resistance) of experience. To say that there is something more than this to the concepts of reality and truth (e.g., to say that truth is correspondence between beliefs and things-in-themselves[10]) is to postulate something that can make no possible difference in our experience of the world. So it is pragmatically meaningless to talk about something that is inaccessible to our experience, a truth or reality that could never have an impact on what we believe.[11]


So Peirce was a realist, in that he believed in a world that is independent of what you, or I, or any specific person or group of people believes about it.


But this realism was tempered by his


idealism (Peirce’s very broad df.): the view that everything that there is, is cognizable, i.e., everything that there is can be thought about, can be an object of cognition.[12]


This is the sense in which truth and reality are dependent on thought in general: the notion of a truth which could never be confirmed no matter how long inquiry proceeds, and the notion of a reality which is in principle inaccessible to us, are pragmatically meaningless.


Peirce’s pragmatic explanations of truth and reality are not meant to imply that there is an absolute truth “out there,” whether or not we can access it. They require less than this: what is in principle inaccessible to us simply is not pragmatically meaningful, and therefore is not real. However, this is only a toe-step away from there being such an inaccessible truth.



Stopping point for Tuesday February 5. For next time, read all of James, “The Present Dilemma in Philosophy.” Remember that the next class will start at 10am instead of the normal 9:30am.


[1] EP 1:137; CP 5.405.


[2] EP 1:137, CP 5.406.

[3] EP 1:138-9; CP 5.407. As mentioned in a previous note, Peirce revised “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” in 1894. In this revision, the quoted passage read as follows:


all the followers of [the method of] science are fully persuaded animated by a cheerful hope that the processes of investigation, if only pushed far enough, will give one certain solution to every each question to which they can be applied apply it. ... Different minds may set out with the most antagonistic views, but the progress of investigation carries them by a force outside of themselves to one and the same conclusion. This activity of thought by which we are carried, not where we wish, but to a foreordained goal, is like the operation of destiny. No modification of the point of view taken, no selection of other facts for study, no natural bent of mind even, can enable a man to escape the predestinate opinion. This great law hope is embodied in the conception of truth and reality. The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real. That is the way I would explain reality. (EP 1:138-9, CP 5.407)


[4] This analysis of truth is one of Peirce’s most famous doctrines. Different versions of this pragmatic account of truth appear in the works of other philosophers, including William James and John Dewey. But the “pragmatic theory of truth” has changed so much since Peirce first articulated it, e.g. in the work of contemporary pragmatist Richard Rorty, that it is no longer recognizable as the same theory that Peirce articulated.

[5] For more on the correspondence theory, see Marian David, “The Correspondence Theory of Truth,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.


[6] EP 1:122, CP 5.387, emphasis added. Also: “If a proposition is true, that which it represents is a fact.” (RLT 198, 1898) And consider this, from the Harvard lectures of 1903, Lecture IV:


the fact that I know that this stone will fall to the floor when I let it go, as you all must confess, if you are not blinded by theory, that I do know--and you none of you care to take up my bet, I notice--is the proof that the formula, or uniformity, as furnishing a safe basis for prediction, is, or if you like it better, corresponds to, a reality. (EP 2:182, CP 5.96, emphasis in original)




[However,] that truth is the correspondence of a representation to its object is, as Kant says, merely the nominal definition of it. Truth belongs exclusively to propositions. A proposition has a subject (or set of sub­jects) and a predicate. The subject is a sign; the predicate is a sign; and the proposition is a sign that the predicate is a sign of that of which the subject is a sign. If it be so, it is true. But what does this correspondence ... of the sign to its object consist in? The pragmaticist answers this question as follows.... If we can find out the right method of thinking and can follow it out ... then truth can be nothing more nor less than the last result to which the following out of this method would ultimately carry us....

Truth is the conformity of a representamen to its object, its object, ITS object, mind you (CP 5.553-4, 1906; from “Basis of Pragmaticism”).


But also note that (as Cheryl Misak argues in Truth and the End of Inquiry), Peirce would absolutely reject any version of the correspondence theory according to which truth is correspondence with things-in-themselves, apart from how we experience them. Peirce rejects the Kantian idea of things-in-themselves.


[7] EP 1:139; CP 5.408.


[8] EP 1:139; CP 5.408. Later in this paragraph, still responding to this objection about his account of reality, Peirce has shifted out of the indicative mood (“…what will be believed…”) and into the subjunctive mood (“…what would be believed…”) in stating the pragmatic account of truth: “…if, after the extinction of our race, another should arise with faculties and disposition for investigation, that true opinion must be the one which they would ultimately come to. … the opinion which would finally result from investigation does not depend on how anybody may actually think.” (EP 1:139, CP 5.408, emphases added) He continues using the subjunctive in the next paragraph, in which he discusses the problem of buried secrets. This is an interesting shift: he began the article using the indicative mood (in discussing the hardness of a diamond, truth and reality), but in discussing possible objections to his view, he changes to the subjunctive mood without acknowledging the change. About 25 years later, Peirce came to explicitly maintain that the conditionals generated by the Pragmatic Maxim must be in the subjunctive mood—to adopt as a philosophical doctrine the assumption he made, perhaps only half-consciously, while defending his position in 1878’s “How to Make Our Ideas Clear.” E.g., see EP 2:356-7 (CP 5.457) (1905), where he explicitly rejected his 1878 indicative-mood account of the hardness of diamonds.


[9] And note the following:


... things that are real are whatever they really are, independently of any assertion about them. If Man is the measure of things, as Protagoras said, then there is no complete reality... (CP 6.349, “Minute Logic”, 1902-3; not in EP)


[10] Or to say that the real consists of things that are in principle inaccessible to our experience, like Immanuel Kant’s Dinge an sich or things-in-themselves.


[11] “.. there is a general drift in the history of human thought which will lead it to one general agreement, one catholic consent. And any truth more perfect than this destined conclusion, any reality more absolute than what is thought in it, is a fiction of metaphysics.” (review of Fraser's Works of George Berkeley, 1871; CP 8.13, EP 1:90). Peirce reiterates this view in “What Pragmatism Is,” 1905 (EP 2:336, CP 5.416).


[12] Late in his life, Peirce dubbed this broad form of idealism “cognitionism.”

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