Charles Sanders Peirce and the Nature of Belief

Peirce (1839-1914) developed the basic idea of pragmatism as a method for improving the accuracy of science in its search for truth. His father was a mathematician on faculty at Harvard University. This enabled the younger Peirce  to get his own education at Harvard and to meet a number of important and interesting people. He did poorly in his university courses, graduated last in his class, but clearly the hierarchical grading system of Harvard at that time did not accurately correspond to intellectual ability. Peirce’s innovative philosophical method created a new school of philosophy. He was, first and foremost, a physical scientist, spending more than 30 years studying minute differences in the Earth’s gravitational field. The importance of exact measurements and rigorous interpretation of data motivated his philosophy.

Peirce approached in multiple ways the question of what truth is. His first approach is to renew the old idea that words are signs. The first to discuss words as signs was John Duns Scotus, who inspired William of Ockham’s nominalism. Peirce, informed by John, William, and Immanuel Kant, takes the idea of signs further and uses the term “semiotics” to refer to the study of the formal usage of signs. Signs were traditionally seen in a dyadic formula of signifier (the word) and signified (that to which the word refers) as seen by John, William, and even Augustine before them, and in Peirce’s time, by linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913).

Peirce added to this the “interpretant”—the social set of meanings that interpret signifiers. Signs succeed as symbols standing for things because interpretants relate them to those things. A sign itself is a brute fact. It is the social system of meanings that makes the symbol meaningful. A flag is just a piece of cloth, but the interpretants of the social habits and feelings that the flag are meant to elicit in people relate the piece of cloth to what it signifies. All signs generate further signs to interpret the use of signs. To make sense of the interpretant, consider the dictionary. It uses words to interpret the meaning of words.

Our universe is perfused with signs, Peirce says, and the elaborate system of signs makes up the world and makes up our individual and collective consciousness. A society is a web of signs, words symbols, meanings, significances, and interpretations that combine and interact in an ongoing process of interpretation of objects and ideas. Our language of signs is not inert but is in constant motion as we reinterpret what is true. This portrayal of how signs work informed Peirce’s pragmatist definition of truth.

Another way Peirce explored the concept of truth was to consider what practical effects our conception of an object has because our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object. What Peirce means by this is that we define what we think an object is by what we believe an object does or what we can do with it. In other words, our idea of an object is our idea of its sensible effects. On the one hand, this is a rejection of speculative philosophy, as Kant and others had done. On the other hand, it is an affirmation that our words and ideas must be testable. Peirce said that if a quality or idea of an object cannot be tested, then our idea and word for that quality is meaningless. This idea is much of what Peirce means by pragmatism—it is a philosophy of experience. As philosophers and scientists, we need to focus on the practical, testable effects of objects. Anything other than that is meaningless.

Peirce understood that what we call “truths” are really beliefs. A list of what we think is true and a list of our beliefs would be the same. He defined beliefs as something that we are aware of, that mollifies the irritation of doubt, and that produces habits in us. This is reminiscent of Hume, but Peirce emphasizes that our beliefs, being habits, are tied to physical actions or psychological expectations. Our habits predispose us to respond in certain ways to certain situations, and the essence of belief is the establishment of habits that assist us in our dealing with the external world.

Despite his scientific orientation, Peirce recognized that all we have are beliefs about the world. Peirce was focused on mathematics and hard science, so he did not explore the full social implications of how society produces and depends on habits and the signs that signify beliefs. He did, however, provide an excellent basic start on how we come to develop and maintain certain beliefs.


The Fixation of Belief

In his article, “The Fixation of Belief” (1877), Peirce identifies the ways that we develop habitual beliefs and how they become fixated in our minds. First, however, he explains how beliefs work. Our beliefs, he says, guide our desires and shape our actions; they create in us psychological states from which we act. Believing something or believing in someone instills in us habits that will condition us to behave in certain ways.

Like Hume, Peirce has no problem with our truths being formed by habits; Peirce sees our habits as good for us, as long as they lead to positive practical effects. We believe a leader, so we have the habit or inclination to obey that leader because we believe that obedience will yield us positive effects. Doubt, Peirce says, is very different from belief. Belief is a calm and satisfactory state that we enjoy and want to hold on to. “Doubt is an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves and pass into the state of belief” (“Fixation of Belief,” III.3). A way to think about what Peirce is saying is this. If we have a comfortable pair of shoes, then we enjoy walking in them; but if something breaks in our shoe and makes walking uncomfortable, we will stop and repair our shoe or get new shoes. The irritation that doubt causes is an important part of learning. Descartes used doubt as a way toward certain knowledge. Peirce didn’t have certain knowledge, but more useful knowledge, as the goal, so he viewed doubt in that context. Our beliefs are not exact representations of truth and we would be wrong to think they are. Our beliefs should be continually self-correcting in response to our experiences as we seek beliefs that have practical value. He states that “the most that can be maintained, is, that we seek for a belief that we shall think to be true.” We should be open to doubt. Doubt spurs us to reflect on our beliefs, reject beliefs that are not satisfactory, and struggle to attain new beliefs that ensure better habits and better results.

At least, that’s how we should behave, Peirce says. We don’t always, though. Peirce identifies four different methods by which we eliminate the irritation of doubt and fix our beliefs. He discusses the four methods from most undesirable to most desirable and begins with a common behavior caused by the nature of belief itself.

The instinctive dislike of an undecided state of mind, exaggerated into a vague dread of doubt, makes men [sic] cling spasmodically to the views they already take. The man feels that, if he only holds to his belief without wavering, it will be entirely satisfactory.…[He] hides the danger, and then calmly says there is no danger; and, if [he] feels perfectly sure there is none, why should [he] raise its head to see? A man may go through life, systematically keeping out of view all that might cause a change in his opinions. (“Fixation of Belief,” V.1)

This behavior, Piece labels “the method of tenacity.” He says it is unstable because those who use this method to fix their beliefs continually run up against evidence to the contrary and people who think differently. Nevertheless, we frequently see people employing this method. Such people attempt to eliminate doubt by ignoring all evidence and reasoning that could call their beliefs into question.

The method of tenacity is at the level of the individual person. Peirce identifies a second similar doubt suppression method that works at the level of a community or social institution. This is “the method of authority” that Peirce says has been used by all great civilizations in which each established a set of correct doctrines and taught them to its people. Peirce acknowledges the method of authority brings about greater consistency of belief in a community by producing a comfortable, communal belief system with associated habits. The problem with this method is that it effectively raises the method of tenacity to the level of a community or whole society. It also is unsustainable because an institution cannot control every opinion of every person. Peirce says, similar to ibn Rushd (see Chapter 3), that the method of authority will always govern the mass of people who have no higher impulse than to be intellectual slaves. But there are also people who possess a wider social feeling and become aware of other beliefs, which causes doubts to emerge.

A third method of eliminating doubt and fixing belief is simply to hold opinions that are agreeable to reason. Peirce calls this “the a priori method,” after the common philosophical belief in knowledge separate from experience. These are just opinions, though, Peirce says, opinions that are not based on evidence but on that which we find ourselves inclined to believe. Peirce correctly charges many philosophers with using this method. This method is more intellectual than the methods of tenacity and authority, but it turns inquiry into something similar to a matter of taste. What is agreeable to reason is a subjective issue that reflects one’s personal sentiments and experiences. Peirce rejects speculative rationality because, in his opinion, the field is a warring collection of opinions, with philosophers expressing their personal preferences. The a priori method ends up being simply intellectual prejudices.

The shortcomings of the above three common methods show that the proper method of finding belief is important. We will have beliefs—we can’t operate without them—and they are all that we have. The question is how to find ones that produce good tangible results. What we need is a method of fixing belief in which our beliefs may be caused by nothing personal but rather by some external permanency—by something beyond our personal thinking. Peirce is not calling for our minds to be passive but to be responsive to the world and to the evidence it shows us. What he calls “the method of science” is when we use our active minds to follow a disciplined method of observing the real things in the world that are independent of our minds. We start with known and observable facts and proceed to the unknown. We let the evidence, not our feelings, show us what to believe. We are using the method correctly when new information throws our beliefs into doubt.

If you are not open to being puzzled or questioning your beliefs, you are not capable of the kind of inquiry that will lead to knowledge. The force of habit and the desire for comfortable conclusions will always tempt us, but reflection on the facts will overcome these temptations. The method of science is an open-ended method that lets the evidence guide our thinking. With this method, our beliefs are a response to the world, not to our personal prejudices. We learn what experience has to teach us.


Science as Public Meaning

Contrary to many philosophers and scientists, Peirce rejected the notion that the universe is stable and perfectly predictable. He held instead that the universe is constantly evolving and though it mostly shows indications of order, there is an element of randomness. We will see a similar idea from Henri Bergson (see Chapter 13). In “Fixation of Belief,” Peirce dealt with the difficulties of human subjectivity. In his article, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” (1878) he addresses the other end of the problem of knowledge: how to deal with a chance-laden universe.

Peirce said that the meanings of our beliefs are defined in terms of our interactions with the world. Those interactions are publicly observable, and it is the actions that people perform that give us the meanings of signs and beliefs. Meaning is performative and public. The public aspect of Peirce’s definition is important. All we have are our beliefs, but we can’t say that whatever we believe is real and true because, as we saw earlier, people can fix their beliefs on reasons contrary to evidence. Our beliefs are meaningful when they can be shown to connect with what is real—what is the case independent of our beliefs.

But how do we determine what is real? What brings meaning, truth, and reality together for Peirce is science. The beliefs of any particular person do not determine what is real, but people collectively can determine what is real. Science, broadly construed, is about collecting information through observations. Peirce is not overly concerned with a particular correct method of conducting science; as a scientist himself, he knew that experimenting with different methods was a good approach. He is confident that different scientists using different methods of observation will initially yield different results, but that,

as each perfects his method and his processes, the results will move steadily together toward a destined center. So with all scientific research. 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. (“How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” 300)

Peirce places his faith in an objective reality that is discernable by a community of dedicated humans. One person, or even a number of people, can be mistaken in their beliefs, but through concerted effort, humanity as a whole will come to understand reality. People collectively determine truth.

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. (“How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” 300)

Peirce’s conception is similar to Hegel’s in the basic idea that knowledge progresses from incomplete to more complete understandings. Also like Hegel, Peirce is optimistic that humanity will in time solve all questions. Peirce was far more oriented toward science and observation than Hegel was and didn’t have Hegel’s notion of Geist. Peirce had little direct influence on the methods of science, as he had hoped, but he did have a strong influence on his friend, William James.

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