A Primer on Pragmatism: Method
Posts in this series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.
This series is based on the work of Elizabeth Anderson, a philosopher who describes herself as a pragmatist. The next three posts will address basic ideas of pragmatism.* The texts for this post are two papers by Charles Sanders Peirce: The Fixation of Belief, and How To Make Our Ideas Clear, both by Charles Peirce, published in Popular Science in 1877 and 1878. Peirce (pronounced “Purse”) is one of the founders of pragmatism, and one of America’s great original thinkers. Here’s his Wikipedia entry, which explains why.
In Part III of the first paper, Peirce begins talking about the main subject of the paper, belief and doubt. From my very limited knowledge, this separates pragmatism from prior philosophical thought, which turned on truth and falsity. There is no reason to define belief and doubt, except to note that they arise in all human beings individually, as opposed to truth and falsity which are somehow independent of human beings, even though they are human words.
Peirce tells us that we know the difference “between the sensation of doubting and that of believing”. Beliefs guide our actions, as a habit does. Doubts make it hard for us to act. Belief is a comfortable, untroubled state of mind. Doubts are uncomfortable. They give rise to a struggle to settle them into belief. Peirce calls this struggle “inquiry, though it must be admitted that this is sometimes not a very apt designation”.
He says that the irritation created by doubt is the only thing that will drive us to inquiry. I’d guess that’s because inquiry can be really hard work, which we humans avoid when possible. We hold strongly to our beliefs, and don’t want to change them. We go to great lengths to avoid doubt, because it would entail actual work.
We may think we want a true opinion, but Peirce disagrees.
But put this fancy to the test, and it proves groundless; for as soon as a firm belief is reached we are entirely satisfied, whether the belief be true or false. And it is clear that nothing out of the sphere of our knowledge can be our object, for nothing which does not affect the mind can be the motive for mental effort. The most that can be maintained is, that we seek for a belief that we shall think to be true. But we think each one of our beliefs to be true, and, indeed, it is mere tautology to say so.
We have ideas, habits of the mind. We think they are true because we use them to guide our actions.** If it turns out well, we don’t have to think about it anymore. But there is no reason to think we’ll get it right the next time either; often what passes for inquiry is trial and error, and we hold to the new belief until it becomes painful and we are forced to work again. This is a cleansing idea. We could possibly learn to hold less firmly to our opinions so as to remain open to new ideas. We won’t, though.
In Part V, Peirce describes four methods of settling doubt. First, tenacity. We cling to our first belief and refuse to acknowledge any doubt. This is really hard to do, because we are social creatures, and rub up against other humans in ways that cannot but create doubts about some of our certainties. Or so Peirce says. Observing my fellow citizens, I’m not so sure.
Second, some entity could settle all questions by legislating and enforcing approved propositions. That will work if the number of propositions subject to authority is limited, but eventually it will fail.
Third, the a priori method. People sit around and talk in good faith about what they think, and truth emerges. It might sound good, but garbage in garbage out. And with that, Peirce dismisses metaphysics.
Finally, there is the appeal to reality, a permanence outside our thought processes and unaffected by them. Peirce proposes the scientific method.
Such is the method of science. Its fundamental hypothesis, restated in more familiar language, is this: There are Real things, whose characters are entirely independent of our opinions about them; those Reals affect our senses according to regular laws, and, though our sensations are as different as are our relations to the objects, yet, by taking advantage of the laws of perception, we can ascertain by reasoning how things really and truly are; and any man, if he have sufficient experience and he reason enough about it, will be led to the one True conclusion.
That’s exactly the approach to human beings and their habits of thought that attracts me to pragmatism. I note that it works really well for the physical sciences, but it is much harder to apply it to human constructs like institutions and governments, and to social interactions.
The second paper is devoted to a discussion of reality. It’s main point is that
… 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. Part IV.
All of our senses produce effects in the mind when stimulated. When we find regularities, we formulate theories based on those regularities Theories that seem to work form our beliefs.
Beyond those things available to the senses, there is nothing of interest in the physical world. Humans invent tools to increase the range of sensations, such as microscopes, UV sensors, and radio detectors. Those things do not change the nature of reality. They simply reveal more of it to our senses.
This approach discards centuries of philosophical thought on matters like the distinction between appearance and reality. These and many other long-standing philosophical issues disappear in Peirce’s theory. They are useless because they do not raise doubts as to how we should act, or raise doubts about our beliefs.
Then Peirce explains how this method enables us to settle our opinions. We use different methods to come to agreement on specific issues, always subject to change or even rejection. He gives the example of the speed of light, offering a number of different methods of estimating it. As different people work out different methods, the answers begin to converge and we get better estimates. At the end there is always an error factor, so the measurement may never be perfect. But no one thinks the answer is a fiction. We assign an error factor and use the best estimate in further calculations and for future efforts to plumb reality.
We could use a similar process to form new beliefs. As William James puts it in his book Pragmatism available online here:
No particular results then, so far, but only an attitude of orientation, is what the pragmatic method means. THE ATTITUDE OF LOOKING AWAY FROM FIRST THINGS, PRINCIPLES, ‘CATEGORIES,’ SUPPOSED NECESSITIES; AND OF LOOKING TOWARDS LAST THINGS, FRUITS, CONSEQUENCES, FACTS. Lecture II
(Emphasis in original.)
Pragmatists work from observable facts. They ignore “first principles”, for example, the Natural Law or the principles of Galen or the categories of Aristotle. Sacred texts and religious dogmas are irrelevant. Classifications of reality must stand the test of usefulness for identifiable purposes.
In the next post I’ll discuss James’ views of truth in pragmatism. then I’ll take up some partial conclusions.
* H/T to PartiallyExaminedLife.com for links to Peirce and James. The podcast discusses these works in Episodes 20 and 22.
** This idea sounds a lot like Bourdieu’s term “habitus”.
“…Peirce tells us that we know the difference “between the sensation of doubting and that of believing”. Beliefs guide our actions, as a habit does. Doubts make it hard for us to act. Belief is a comfortable, untroubled state of mind. Doubts are uncomfortable. They give rise to a struggle to settle them into belief. Peirce calls this struggle “inquiry, thought it must be admitted that this is sometimes not a very apt designation”.”
it good to see american philosophers like john dewey and charles peirce discussed in these thoughtful essays. their approach to thinking about problems is more intellectually “flexible”, not to mention readable, than their equally important european colleages.
the quote about “doubting vs believing” suggests the discipline of psychology and the influence of will james. i don’t know if approach to philosophy can be said to be uniquely american, but it is american.
it also points out a difference between formal logic, an ancient tradition, which however informative, turns out to be based on sentence structure (changeable :) ) and thus a bit hollow; and informal fallacies (logic), much more numerous, much more wordy, and much more useful in human affairs, which nicely cover the areas of human reasoning between “doubt and believing”, or more accurately, cover the area of “reason to doubt or distrust”.
believing is a seperate creature that is nor necessary a creature of readon.
Thanks for making that point about logic. Peirce flatly rejected that kind of thinking as it was used by the Scholastics and most metaphysicians for the reasons you state.
It’s an important idea, that fuzzier logics work better in human affairs. I think it is a psychological matter with us. Formal logic is cold, and as you say, it can’t do much more than massage the meanings of words. Other ways of thinking, maybe based on stories or thinking along the lines of stories work much better. Einstein said he worked out the theory of special relativity thinking about what he would see if he traveled at the speed of light. That doesn’t make sense because only massless particles can travel at the speed of light. That seems like a pretty good example of the way we humans work outside logic.
Consider the design of our senses, brain, mind in context with other animals: the notion we _should_ understand this stuff in a non-fuzzy way is rather preposterous, as much as I prefer the pure scientific method. Not so long ago we didnt really understand much at all – our brains evolved to help us compete for scarce resources, be smart about danger and make more humans. How does a brain with relatively simple needs evolve to a pure understanding of reality? Why should we expect that purity of understanding – it is absurd on its face. We are unreliable narrators, not logic machines.
And so, doubt is perhaps the most important sensation the human mind can feel. It is the stimulus that creates all knowledge, and advancement. Interesting.
Coming from a long line of hardcore Republicans I never expected to find myself checking and living this site 4xday, but I do.
I know nothing about Ed Walkerz and certainly so not want to disrespect him, but there are a lot of websites on this here internet
I come to this one for things other than lessons in pragmatism.
i don’t know if it occured to you, but there are more people in this world than you.
some of those others appreciate ed walker’s very thoughtful essays on philosophy. it provides a calm relief from the tedium and strain of constant changes in the topics of discussion that “current events” coverage mandates.
so read what you enjoy and stop bitching about what you don’t.
suggestion: finish a full cup of coffee before you decide to enter another trivial, self-centered complaint.
Doubtless beliefs are tenacious things.
And yet, when a political party fails to hold a rogue, criminal president accountable because its party leadership applied pragmatics in a fashion yielding no successful fruits, it’s rather important to discuss pragmatism *right now*. Ed writes about Left Theory; the left is clearly in need of a baseline reset on pragmatics if it is to stem the hemorrhaging failure that is our democratic republic.
The great thing about the internet is that you can browse other material if you don’t find content here of interest. Buh-bye.
Politics and philosophy are two sides of the same coin.
Thank you for this. Peirce has long been my favorite among philosophers. His thought is refreshingly clear, though sometimes his prose is not. You note that his approach to belief and doubt works very well in the physical sciences, but are much harder to apply to human constructs. I think this is true, but not because it is less applicable, but because the observed phenomena are more complex or less reducible to elemental parts without destroying them.
Basically Peirce reframes epistemology and its task and he does so by critically examining how we really work in the era of “the scientific method.” This reframing of epistemology has been very important in my own theology. (my career is as a priest & theological librarian) The rigid fundamentalism that is commonly equated with Christianity rejects, or doesn’t consider epistemology in this new frame, rather holding to a naive version of ideas of truth and knowledge emerging from the Enlightenment era. If we take Peirce’s reframing of truth and knowledge into belief and doubt (and thus inquiry) the task of theology becomes more humble (and in my view more secure intellectually): to inquire into the myriad historical experiences and values that are affirmed, and to critique the ways in which they reflect and don’t reflect integrity of the most important of human values. Frequently, the insights of the past are powerful in refuting the fallacies and self-serving pride of the present. (BTW Peirce published “A Neglected Argument for the existence of God” so I think it isn’t out of bounds to include theology and other inquiries into values in a discussion of his philosophy)
I mention my own work in our context primarily to argue that a Peircean epistemology does apply and can be very useful in coming to understand and critique human constructs. There are pieces of historical evidence-Marcy looks closely at texts all the time, inquiring into their consistencies & inconsistencies, the implications of elements that others have ignored. Historians revisit the same evidence over time with the benefit of new context, other evidence, or realization of the human foibles of previous interpreters and come up with very different interpretations of the same evidence.
It is particularly important in this view, about the “fixation of beliefs” that we be humble enough to examine and doubt in our beliefs about ourselves, our systems and our allies, that the evidence can lead to conclusions that are more satisfactory to the phenomena of our present moment, rather than clinging to theories that were attractive when we had a little less information. This is what distinguishes us from the conspiracy theorists.
Drew, this is a very important comment. I didn’t intend to go into the way pragmatism relates to religious beliefs, but now it won’t be necessary, I’ll just refer people to your comment.
There is a chapter in the book by Henry James on religion, which may be of interest to some readers.
There are about 25 million hard core evangelicals who would adamantly disagree with your last paragraph. Sometimes I feel as though I grew up with half of them. Doubt? No, no.
Thanks Ed. Tulsa, it is exactly these evangelicals and the fact that many on the left equate their naive & self-serving views with Christianity as a whole that I struggle with.
One thing to note, however: that last paragraph was aimed not only at religious folk, but also at all people, including this community of commenters.
When Peirce talks about “fixation of belief” he’s not calling that a problem, he’s analyzing the conditions under which we come to actually believe something–the building of scientific consensus, for instance, or object permanence (people entertain thought experiments in doubting the permanence or reality in the outside world, but in practice their belief in the reality of those objects is fixed—it is just the adequacy of the description or analysis of that that is really open to question). So we believe things until something in the world causes us to question because things don’t quite fit perfectly–in human constructs this is perpetually the case, both because of inadequacy of reasoning/description and of self-serving or motivated reasoning in our processes.
Thanks, Drew. I agree but the question – to me, anyway – is not about how to get the choir to agree with us but how to get others to learn and practice critical thinking.
It’s less about agreeing and more about examining our own prejudices and presumptions on an ongoing basis. When I preach, I stake out the territory of the Bible against the fundamentalists, sometimes in a pretty intense way (since my reading of Jesus is that that is precisely what he was doing).
The biggest mistake is ceding whole areas of inquiry & life to the idiots.
Anyway, now I have to post my sermon for tomorrow to my own blog.
This triggered me, “it is exactly these evangelicals and the fact that many on the left equate their naive & self-serving views with Christianity as a whole that I struggle with”.
There are dogmatic Methodists, Catholics, etc as well – in fact most people who bother call themselves Christian agree on a few fundamental beliefs, now and throughout history (open to being wrong about this, if you have some sources). The fact that the Left recognizes this truth doesn’t seem like something to struggle against, if you wish to be pragmatic. It seems you think all those people’s interpretation of Christ is wrong, and most well meaning, moral Christians I’ve met agree with you – but they are in the vast minority.
At what point, when everyone who is Christian disagrees with you’re chosen interpretation of Christianity, do you simply give up and call yourself something else?
And why do you single out “The Left”? don’t the media, the Right, hell, Americans, nay the world has this notion of Christianity?
I simply don’t agree with your enumeration of how many and who. I have been on the faculty of a Methodist seminary, and an Episcopal seminary and worked at an interdenominational seminary. I’ve worked in various communities with lots of other clergy, and it was very unusual to find students or clergy and certainly not faculty with rigid fundamentalist views. Of course, not everyone is equally sophisticated, nor do they all share the same philosophical theories, but my own views are pretty much in the center of what is called “mainline protestantism” and are not that much different from most Roman Catholics. Over the past half century there has been a lot of demoralization and decline among the “mainline” churches, however their membership in total is not smaller than the evangelicals. (BTW there are conscientious evangelicals who also are not rigidly conservative in their thinking). What happens among lay people is a mixed bag, and the failure of teaching in these churches is a problem, much discussed among ourselves.
Historical Christian theology over the past 2000 years of course contains many views and different types of outcomes, some of which are objectionable and even silly, but by and large, especially among those teachers who are recognized, are sophisticated views which primarily are focused on compassionate behavior and rational thinking. Read a little Basil of Caesarea or John Chrysostom for instance.
However, what is the case is that there is a rigid and very conservative set of views that amount to magical thinking and rationalization of conservative and racist views. I call this fundamentalism (and that term arises from the 1920s, not earlier and refers to a specific set of doctrines that couldn’t have arisen much earlier because it was based on issues of controversy that arose in the late 19th and early 20th century).
These people made a point of insisting that any other kind of Christian was not Christian and they also made a point of insisting that their way of interpreting the Bible was the only real way of interpreting the Bible. Since they claim that their interpretation is “literal” they gained a certain amount of credibility among those who had no exposure to biblical interpretation, and who didn’t care to look closely at whether these folk were indeed interpreting anything honestly or accurately (spoiler alert-they weren’t).
So my reference to “the left” in this is to those who are inclined to be opposed to Christianity and are happy to agree with this easily dismissed anti-intellectual form of Christianity about what Christianity is. It is certainly possible to disagree with Christianity on its merits and to criticize the outcomes of Christianity, especially when it comes into power (I certainly do). However, that is much different than regarding fundamentalism as the norm. For instance, Dispensationalism and “the Rapture” have never been the doctrines of any major Christian body, except those groups arising since the 1830s. It kind of wormed its way into some conservative evangelical bodies, but arguing against the Rapture isn’t arguing against Christian teaching.
This is further complicated by the political situation today. A large number of currently self-described “evangelicals” wouldn’t even know what to do in a church service, but they do like the idea of a set of ideological beliefs that underwrite their prejudices and which they can assert on an authority which can’t be questioned (i.e. what they presume to be the Bible, which they don’t actually know or read).
Is it problematic? Yes. Am I denying that these people are Christian? No-that would be the height of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. However, it is not fair or informed to take their assertions as a description of what Christianity really is or has been. (I actually think their views don’t even line up very well with problematic Christian behavior of the past, that you and I would both disapprove, especially in terms of what was believed)
Hello from St. Mary’s in Stuart, Fl, brother!
That the establishment, Harvard and Johns Hopkins, in their Victorian self-assurance, tried to bury Pierce and his work is alone a good social indicator of its merits.
Since then, later academics have found it to be of great merit, often preceding by decades the work of others who were once acknowledged as originators of his ideas.
Yes indeed. Well put.
Not that I’m a philosopher by any stretch of the imagination (well, maybe an amateur one), but I find these arguments to be especially compelling, in a way seductive, as they so closely match the actual way the architecture and circuitry of the brain function in arbitrating “truth” from non-“truth”, right from wrong, fact from myth.
Our brains are constantly bombarded by all sorts of stimuli that are temporally and spatially linked, and it’s up to various higher-processing centers to recursively process these inputs to determine if there are causal or correlative linkages among them. It’s why humans are just so gosh darn good at finding patterns, even where there are none to be found, and why computers are lousy at it.
Such design jives very well with Peirce’s methods of establishing belief, you form correlative associations among different inputs, and then subsequent information allows you to prune out the inputs that are clearly not related, until you have created a circuit that reliably fires every time it’s presented with the same inputs, in the same fashion, with the same temporal and spatial relationships. And once you’ve consolidated that process, you’ve learned a new fact, established a new belief, or made a new memory that will persist for the rest of your life, until you encounter new evidence that causes that circuit to fire in a slightly different way. And depending on the strength of that firing, the old circuit may weaken, may modify itself, or may cease to exist altogether based on the new stimuli.
I would also point out that the sense of tension in a state of “doubting” is tied to the emotional brain, which predates evolutionarily the “logical” brain as I have described here. However, there is this interesting synthesis and interconnectedness between the logical brain and older emotional brain in humans, in that emotional states tend to be the motivating factors for engaging (or not engaging) the more logical portions; this is pure speculation, but it might be because emotional states are a reflection on the current health, welfare and safety of the organism, and thus one way the organism could decide to allocate resources to using the neocortex (which consumes tremendous amounts of energy), if the situation is right.
Thus, and this is the final point, why conservatives may be more adverse to questioning their beliefs. Functional MRI experiments have shown that those with conservative political underpinnings, have a particular aversion to noxious stimuli, especially those that trigger feelings of “disgust” with regards to moral or ethical norms. Thus, they may have an outsized emotional reaction to stimuli that question their beliefs, even if such stimuli have nothing to do with disgust per se (my speculation).
Here is the citation for the disgust finding: Current Biology, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.09.050
Posts like these are why this blog is such a national treasure.
A fantastic topic, Ed. Does Peirce opine on the nature of “objective truth” itself? That is, are there facts or pieces of information that are universally true, despite the beliefs and makeup (personality, experience, characteristics) of the observer? And if so, how would we ever know?
Because if,as Peirce says, “…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.”, truly reflects the state of Reality, one could argue that any well formed simulation basically emulating these same effects almost flawlessly would have to be considered “Real.” But is a simulation really as authentic as the original? Does its emulation imbue it with the imprimatur of “Truth”? Something to be very careful with, especially as we head into this new era of deepfake video and audio.
I think that the point of Peirce’s philosophy is that we only approximate the truth rather than capture its nature whole. That is a fantasy that people fall into. However, he never doubts the existence of the outside world or that there are facts that can’t be subjectively changed.
When he talks about “fixation of belief” what he actually means is that the belief is fixed and no bullshitting around is going to change that – and that’s a positive in that you don’t put your hand on the glowing element of the electric stove after you have come to believe how hot such things are. However, doubt can arise, particularly in how we formulate our understanding of such things, and then we inquire until there is a more workable solution.
It’s the question of ultimacy of a theory that he rejects. It’s also an aspect of the nature of scientific inquiry that many advocates of a “scientific worldview” by which they mean something more like a dogmatism of the modern and the technological, miss.
Another aspect of his thinking was his rejection of the ideal. Things are expressions of what brought them into being and the effects of their being:
San Francisco is breathtaking, with fog rolling over its sandy hills. But it owes its shape to the latifundia from which it extracts (and how it does so) the resources used to create and maintain it.
Southern plantation houses, villas on the Riviera, and the real versions of Downton Abbey are expressions of the same thing.
The pleasing architecture and sublime landscaping are inseparable from servants’ lives, and the slave and opium trading and arranged marriages – where daughters of the wealthy were traded like sacks of milled grain – that paid for them.
I’ll put up a post shortly addressing this excellent question.
Thanks, Ed. Really loving this series.
i have a long-time interest in the intersection of politics and religion. for one and primarily, organized religious fanatics can turn any political system to destruction of its members and can temporarily disorient cultures.
for another, and aside from that extreme case, politics and religion both depend on intense loyalty and faith – loyalty to the party or the religion, the kind of intense loyalty and unquestioning trust that is characteristic of family loyalty. this is a matter of belief.
one of the most fascinating bits of scientific research that i have read on the relationship between religion and politics appeared in the journal “nature” earlier this year. that work is summarized here:
and a bit more fully here:
(from nature) “…By contrast, rituals that facilitate the standardization of religious traditions across large populations 25,26 generally precede the appearance of moralizing gods. This suggests that ritual practices were more important than the particular content of religious belief to the initial rise of social complexity…”
human ritual behavior vs human reasoning behavior, i.e., the intellectual content of a particular “scripture”.
the “moralizing” gods discussed in this analysis included those of three of the major religious faiths – judaism and its offspring christianity and mohammedism.
The broad outlines of the findings of these articles don’t surprise me a bit. Nor would they surprise anyone who has done serious study in Religious Studies, or as it used to be known, Comparative Religion.
There is always a temptation to distort findings about religion to fit a simple story that fits with our preferences, i.e. Religion Good, or Religion Bad. However, I think it’s more helpful to inquire more from a position of Religion IS & then see what is going on. To speak very approximately & simplistically, religion functions to place cultures & peoples in a larger context that incorporate the essentials of the way the cultures function with that which is beyond, cosmic, transcendent or whatever. They also ritually unite both past and future, which is why there is always a conservative element to religions, since they don’t want to abandon the value and meaning of the past too quickly.
So much of what we describe as religion arises and changes in response to changes in cultures and the material conditions that generate them. One thing that was enlightening to me was reading Mary Beard’s account of the early development of Christianity in her wonderful history of Rome,SPQR. (If you don’t know her or this book, she’s a secular historian/classicist who is not that much interested in religion and is quite critical of Christianity, particularly in its revising of the historical record to preserve pretty much only the Christian perspective, and only the perspective that was defined as orthodox or catholic Christianity, at that). Beard notes that the early Christians values were deeply at odds with those of Rome–valorizing poverty and suffering for one thing. And that conflict had long term consequences in historical development.
This helps me clarify what I’ve seen in other historical contexts, that major religious changes (e.g. the Protestant Reformation) come about when significant portions of people come to feel that the existing order and its religious settlement, practices & rituals are not satisfactory to the lived experience and needs of those people. This leads to a necessity of reframing religion in a way that makes sense going forward. This pretty much inevitably leads to conflict, not only because the established way continues to work for some, but more importantly because amongst those who feel and express dissatisfaction with the current order, there are great variations in which values and traditions are important to continue or preserve and how to incorporate them in the new order.
That is an observation from my religious studies background mostly. I believe we are in a cultural religious upheaval as big as the Protestant Reformation (and the digital world has a very analogous role to the role that the printing press played in that era). But I’m also a theologian, working within a religious tradition and communities–my role there is to sort through our history and traditions, recognizing a through line that makes sense of these things and a positive way forward. I do not believe that I have the solution or magic bullet that will define what will emerge on the other side of this crisis. [And the political crisis, cultural crisis and religious crisis are all of a piece, btw, eliminating one of them WON’T solve the systemic problems, though 100 to 200 years from now things will likely be settled into some relatively stable new order, we’ll see what emerges, or rather we won’t]. I am quite confident that the denominational Christianity of the 20th century that I grew up in, will have pretty much completely disappeared by 2050-2060. That’s a bit after my sell by date. That however, is not a glum question for me, the theologian works to help communities live forward into the real future.