C. S. Peirce and the Implications of Pragmatism

Written by on August 25th, 2014. Subject: Philosophy. Filed in Epistemology, about Peirce Pragmatism Postmodernism

|||Peirce, Charles Sanders, and Nathan Houser. The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings. Vol. 2 : 1893-1913. Bloomington, Ind: Indiana University Press, 1998.|||

C. S. Peirce The maxim of pragmatism is that a conception can have no logical effect or import differing from that of a second conception except so far as, taken in connection with other conceptions and intentions, it might conceivably modify our practical conduct differently from the second conception. p. 234.

In our ongoing investigation of the philosophical influences that have brought about postmodern philosophy as it now stands we looked at the profound influence of the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein with its de-centering of meaning into a sea of relativism, with the tides changing according to the whim of either individual or collective wills as exemplified by language games. Though not nearly as stern and exhaustive a methodologist as that twentieth century philosopher, the nineteenth century logician C. S. Peirce is nearly as influential and thus as important for our study as that of Wittgenstein. Peirce was the founder of a school of thought known as pragmatism. Not to be confused with the more common use of the term which implies a talent for practical affairs, this school of thought states that all propositions are to be judged good on the basis not of truth but of whether or not they fulfill the ends specified by the inquirer. A proposition is judged to be true or false on the basis of whether or not it fulfills its end. Before we arrive at this conclusion, it might be worthwhile to briefly examine the method by which he arrives at it.

At the beginning of his lecture “Pragmatism as the Logic of Abduction” he introduces what he calls three cotary propositions (from the Latin cos, cotis meaning “whetstone”). The first of these is that there is nothing in the intellect that is not first in the senses (“Nihil est quin prius fueris in sensu”). Students of Aristotle might initially sense a kindred spirit here, however such a conclusion would be overly hasty since he notes that:

I take this in a sense somewhat different from what Aristotle intended. By intellectus, I understand the meaning of any representation in any kind of cognition, virtual, symbolic, or whatever it may be. Berkeley and nominalists of his stripe deny that we have any idea at all of a triangle in general, which is neither equilateral, isoceles, nor scalene. But they cannot deny that there are propositions about triangles in general, which propositions are either true or false…We have an intellectus, a meaning, of which the triangle in general is an element. As for the other term, in sensu, that I take in the sense of in a perceptual judgment, the starting-point or first premiss of all critical and controlled thinking.”1

In this way the traditional Aristotelian understanding of this formula (“There is nothing in the mind which is not first in the senses,”) is translated in the new vocabulary of pragmatic logic to essentially read “There is nothing in the meaning of an idea which is not first in the perceptual judgment.”

The second cotary proposition is fairly self-evident and so will only be briefly noted. This is the further observation that perceptual judgments have general elements from which universal propositions may be deduced. A pertinent example might be the perceptual judgment that things fall downward when they are not suspended by someone or something contains general elements from which one might deduce the force of gravity pulling them downward.

The third cotary proposition states that abductive inference (the intentional orientation of a subject toward a given object) shades into perceptual judgments without any sharp line distinguishing them: “it is the idea of putting together what we had never before dreamed of putting together which flashes the new suggestion before our contemplation.”2 In other words, there is nothing in our minds which distinguishes a loose assembly of stones from a stone wall save the abductive inference that creates a kind of compound insight out of a number of perceptual judgments. It is worth noting at this point that this compound insight is the result of the subject’s abductive inference rather than a process of observation, induction and deduction. The subject infers the stone wall from perceptual judgments about the loose collection of stones. It is in this sense that the inference is abductive, that is, because it forges a unity out of the disparate elements of perception that was not present before and thus makes this unity subject to the inferring subject.

As one may gather from thorough reflection upon these three first principles, pragmatism advocates a new kind of epistemology, one that makes man the measure of all things in the act of abductive inference. The primary consequence of this new theory is that the only real relations between ideas is a practical one that centers around the subject:

The maxim of pragmatism is that a conception can have no logical effect or import differing from that of a second conception except so far as, taken in connection with other conceptions and intentions, it might conceivably modify our practical conduct differently from the second conception.3

The final resting point of all of this speculation and theorization is that there is no difference among perceptual judgments except when the subject abductively infers it to be so, and that that inference only occurs when and if it modifies the practical conduct of the subject. It is now seen in what way this school of thought is justly named pragmatism, because it makes the pragmatic or practical the driving engine for all theoretical speculation. A little further on in his lecture, Peirce summarizes the issue well:

What, then, is the end of an explanatory hypothesis? Its end is, through subjection to the test of an experiment, to lead to the avoidance of all surprise and the positive expectation that shall not be disappointed. Any hypothesis, therefore, may be admissible, in the absence of any special reasons to the contrary, provided it be capable of experimentation, and only in so far as it is capable of such verification.4

The purpose of insight, therefore, is not simply the apprehension of theoretical truth (since that has no place in Pierce’s system) but the elimination, by degrees, of doubt and uncertainty such that we can predict present and future outcomes on the basis of the hypothesis. In sum, any and all hypotheses are considered good if, and only if, they fulfill the ends of the abductively inferring subject and eliminate his doubts to a greater degree than before.

As we shall see in the next article in this series, this will prove to be very foundational to the political philosophy of Richard Rorty in his formulation of “liberal irony”. Rorty will combine Peirce’s pragmatism and Wittgenstein’s relativistic treatment of language games to form a relativistic political theory that is still much a part of philosophical and political discussions in our present age.

About Thomas Chaney

Thomas Chaney graduated from the College of St. Thomas More in 2007, and is currently pursuing a MA in Philosophy at the University of Dallas. He currently works as a Scholar’s Associate in Philosophy with the Walsingham Society School of Liberal Studies.

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  1. ibid, pp. 226-227 

  2. ibid, pp. 226-227 

  3. ibid 

  4. ibid, pp. 235