Bertrand Russell tells us that the pragmatic criterion of truth can be understood in the following terms: “a belief is to be judged true insofar as the practical consequences of its adoption are good.”
This might sound familiar. Indeed, Russell’s indictment of William James’ work—which led him to this conclusion—has come to define pragmatism in the philosophical canon. And Russell’s later savage review of James made the theory the laughing stock of many in the Cambridge analytical sphere at the time, serving as a nail in the coffin of the theory for decades.
In this light, a pragmatist’s belief that Sir Frances Bacon wrote Hamlet is no less true than the claim that Shakespeare did, insofar as the consequences are good for the person doing the believing. This obvious absurdity, highlighted by Russell, was not easily overcome by Jamesians.
Yet, this is hardly the theory of truth that pragmatism’s less famous thinkers would have recognized. In fact, pragmatists such as Chauncey Wright and Charles Peirce—and even Frank Ramsey—all rejected James’ notion of truth, in agreement with Russell. This essay will focus on pragmatism’s theory of truth and inquiry as Peirce understood it Peirce’s theory, as we shall see, answers the objections raised by Russell.
Charles Sanders Peirce
Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) first developed the theory of pragmatism during the 1870s, at a short-lived reading group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, known as the Metaphysical Club, and through a number of essays known as the Popular Science Monthly Series.
Peirce was, from the outset, as defiant as he was brilliant. He developed a logic of relations and quantifiers at the same time as Gottlob Frege; he discovered the Sheffer stroke two decades before Henry Maurice Sheffer; he anticipated Georg Cantor’s arguments about infinity; and he is wholly responsible for the invention of abduction. Among other accomplishments, Peirce also made landmark contributions to semiotics, metaphysics and the philosophy of mind.
Most of his accomplishments were not recognized during his lifetime. He was a difficult personality, never secured a permanent academic position and died penniless and hungry in a cold home with an extensive library. His published writing spans some 12,000 pages, of which most were only read and appreciated posthumously.
Peirce on Truth and Inquiry
For Peirce—and, indeed, the Metaphysical Club, one major aim was to declutter ideas regarding belief and truth. They believed that such theories ought not to be developed by armchair philosophers or involve spurious trancendalisms or psychology, but be linked to human experience and practice.
To understand this link, one must understand the so-called pragmatic maxim, which Peirce explains in the following terms: “Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these is the whole of our conception of the object.” This should be taken as a criterion of legitimacy such that knowledge of the meaning of an expression is exhausted by knowledge of its practical or empirical effects. Without those effects, the concept is meaningless.
Peirce illustrates this maxim in an essay entitled “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” in which he considers what it is to know—in the way outlined by the pragmatic maxim—the truth of the statement “this diamond is hard.” He correctly explains that, should you try to scratch the diamond in question, “you will find that it will not be scratched by many other substances.”
However, it is vitally important to the Peircian pragmatist that practical effects include not only those that actually occur, but also those habits or dispositions that would occur should one perform an action. So, in our example, it is just as much a real fact that the diamond did resist being scratched when someone tried to scratch it as it is a real fact that the diamond would resist being scratched, even if no one actually attempted to do so.
This implies both a realist account of generals and a rejection of nominalism. But before we can address this, we must provide a brief account of inquiry and truth.
Peirce gives a phenomenological account of inquiry as the process by which we rid ourselves of nagging doubts about our beliefs in order to gain or regain a state of belief.
Cheryl Misak explains that this doubt is sparked when “experience conflicts with an inquirer’s belief” such that the process by which one attains a state of belief follows the following path: belief→surprise→doubt→inquiry→belief.
Where a Jamesian would focus on the psychological motivations of this process, the Peircian rejects that claim, considering the path of inquiry as one of habits or “belief-habits.”
Belief-habits operate like this: belief in x provides a habit of expectation such that certain consequences that we might derive from x are expected to occur given a particular context. When those consequences don’t occur or, as Christopher Hookway describes it, a “recalcitrant experience” occurs, we are surprised and thrown into doubt.
Unlike that of William James, the entire account is linked to human experience in a way that doesn’t rely on any type of psychologism—which sidesteps the objection raised by Russell mentioned above.
Peirce outlines this account in an essay entitled “The Fixation of Belief,” which describes the inquirer’s ultimate aim as permanently settled or fixed belief. This account recognizes an anti-Cartesian epistemology, which tells us that a belief that is “caused by circumstances not extraneous to the facts” and never succumbs to doubt or disappointment may earn the conceptual title of “true.” That is, the final opinion arrived at through scientific inquiry would be permanently settled and thereby true.
So, only beliefs that are fixed in such a way that they “fit and respond to experience” are the aim of inquiry. This is anti-Cartesian in that it assumes a body of background beliefs that are settled and that cannot be genuinely doubted. For, if we genuinely held the disposition of a Cartesian—or Pyrrhonian, in the extreme case—we could never attempt to judge new evidence.
The mere fact that it is possible that the sun won’t rise tomorrow is no reason for me to doubt that it will, to echo David Hume. But, problems of induction aside, we need to return to what Peirce means by functional meanings of truth.
Peirce’s account of truth is notably different from correspondence theory and other metaphysical theories of truth in that Peirce recognizes no “thing-in-itself.” It’s the habit formation we can identify in belief that tells us something about truth, not abstract epistemological objects.
What, exactly, is that something? That truth is entirely or almost entirely definable in terms of truth and doubt.
This is a key point of Peircian pragmatism, because, according to Peirce, should you choose not to define truth and falsity in terms of doubt and belief, “then you are talking of entities of whose existence you can know nothing, and which Ockham’s razor would shave clean off.”
As Cheryl Misak explains, “Peirce’s thought here is that if one offered an account of ‘P is true’ in terms of its consequences for doubt, belief, and perceptual disappointment, one would be offering a pragmatic elucidation of truth”—one that, if it had a correctly specified set of consequences, would give us information about what truth is. However, anything beyond these local means would provide only an empty idea.
This is merely an application of the pragmatic maxim that we defined above.
If you define truth in terms of items that are not linked to human experience, you ensure that the concept defined is meaningless and does not reflect the habitual commitments that assertions and beliefs about truth claims impose upon us. Had this been the pragmatist theory of truth Russell encountered, it’s doubtful that he would have objected to pragmatism in the way he did.
We should now have a clear distinction between what Russell, via James, saw as the pragmatic theory of truth and how Peirce understood it.
Peirce described himself as a scholastic realist, in the tradition of Medieval thinker Duns Scotus. He was especially interested in “whether laws and general types are figments of the mind or are real.” That is, for Peirce, the debate about realism can be solved by answering the question of whether there are any real, objective laws or generals.
Peirce took nominalism to be the anti-realist view that reality only consists of static particulars and that generals or universals exist in name only, as mental phenomena. This view, often attributed to William of Ockham, assumes that natural laws, types, categories and relations are merely conceptual items that refer to mental significations.
As Paul Forster’s book shows, Peirce not only saw nominalism as philosophically flawed, but as a threat to scientific and civilizational advancement. He was passionate—perhaps to a fault—in his preference for Scotism over Ockhamism—and indeed all modern philosophy.
He declared nominalism “a protest against the only kind of thinking that has ever advanced human culture,” “a deadly poison to any living thought” and “of all philosophies, the most inadequate, and perhaps the most superficial, one is tempted to say the silliest possible.”
What elicited such hyperbolic responses was Peirce’s fear that not only would nominalism impede the realist nature of science, but that it would deny that humans “have any existence except as individuals” or any community and dignity beyond personal satisfaction and happiness.
If Peirce’s interpretation is correct, this is as much a philosophy of today as of the nineteenth century, at least in an American political context—especially considering the notions of individualism running rampant through conservative and libertarian circles.
It’s unclear whether a theory founded on logical technicality can truly have as large an impact as Peirce seems to suggest it does. But, regardless of whether Peirce accurately identified the consequences of nominalism, his arguments against it are quite good.
Although Peirce argues against nominalism in a number of ways, his strongest argument concerns cognitive content and continuity.
Peirce argues that theories of cognitive content that attempt to account for the meaning of universal concepts with reference only to particulars can’t account for continuity, where continuity is a set of possible items that is more complex than any group of particulars. And, because (a) general concepts define continua, (b) nominalism rejects the reality of generals while (c) only referencing particulars, nominalism cannot account for generals at all
This short proof via reductio is the cornerstone of Peirce’s objection to continuity.
Yet, it’s entirely possible for a nominalist to respond by accepting this conclusion while still denying the reality of generals as concepts that represent features of the world, since its inability to account for generals doesn’t discredit nominalism wholesale.
As Forster points out, nominalists can still maintain the non-reality of generals, since human experience involves interaction with individuals, which suggests that continuity has no application in the actual world—making any claim that continuity can be represented by real generals a violation of Ockham’s razor.
But, as Peirce would have pointed out, this contention rests on the assumption that “the testable content of theories is limited to claims about individuals.” Such a claim would require the nominalist to posit a metaphysical claim not linked to human experience, such as the claim that only particulars exist or that, by some psychological law, we can only experience interactions among particulars.
But Peirce would have found this response empty, as it would violate both the pragmatic maxim and his method of inquiry, which applies the pragmatic maxim. That is, the nominalist’s ontological purity creates an unbridgeable gap between the real features of extended objects and how we think about them—since nominalism is not linked to the habits associated with experience.
So the nominalist can’t find a back door here, and will need to do more work to counter Peirce.
His extreme anti-nominalist position led Peirce to become highly critical of his pragmatic friend William James and this is also why scholars like Frank Ramsey find Peirce appealing. If Peirce had attained James’ global intellectual presence, American philosophy and notions of “American individualism” might not have taken hold in the way they did, changing the very concept American.