Pragmatism 2: Logical Decision-Making, Fallibilism, and Freedom

Occasional readers of this blog will wonder why so much time is being given to the work of someone who was not a political philosopher nor well-known to the general public. As mentioned last week, C. S. Peirce was a seminal figure in philosophy and particularly in the fields of logic, semiotics (signs), and philosophy of science. Last week, we focused on Peirce’s development of pragmatism. This week, we explore his “logic of abduction,” which is central to the pragmatic way of thinking. Pragmatism begins with the “Pragmatic Maxim” first developed and published by Peirce:

Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of those effects is the whole of our conception of the object. [1]

For Pierce, this maxim was a “logical principle” connected with his ideas of what counts as reality (metaphysics), the proper methodology for philosophy to undertake to resolve its quandaries (epistemology), and even moral and other questions (ethics and aesthetics).

The maxim was designed to cure philosophy of the habit of channeling energy towards disputes with little or no practical value in the search for indubitable truth. In particular, Peirce opposed Descartes’ program of “doubt leading to certainty” via indisputable ideas. Pragmatism (or what he called “pragmaticism” to distinguish his personal program) has been many things to many people, but for Peirce pragmatism was the core principle of a way of doing philosophy and of solving philosophical problems in a more “scientific way.” [2]

Peirce’s pragmatic maxim is a rule designed to clarify our conceptions by directly relating them to actual or anticipated experience. In very broad terms, the pragmatic principle urges that thinkers anchor concepts and ideas in their potential practical application in actions to be taken, including “rules or modes of action” to be adopted as a result of inquiry. Transported into the language of politics and political philosophy, this maxim might be rephrased as follows:

In evaluating any aspect of a political philosophy, the inquirer should consider what practical impact the adoption of a given philosophical conception might have for the government of society, and the impact of such a conception would have on some action to be taken is key to understanding that concept.

Thus, a “Peircean approach to political philosophy” finds its ground in the potential application of its ideas to substantive problems and actions to be taken to solve them.

Three Methods of Logical Inquiry

Most people are familiar with two methods of logical inquiry: “induction” and “deduction.” Peirce introduced a third, intermediate logic, which he called “Abduction.” Briefly, the three methods can be defined as follows:

  1. Induction. Inductive reasoning begins with specific observations and proceeds to a generalized conclusion that is likely, but not certain, in light of accumulated evidence. For example, suppose I use bleach on my sink 1000 times, and then conclude from experience that bleach is a good cleaner for sinks. This is an example of inductive thinking.
  2. Deduction. Deductive reasoning starts with the assertion of a general rule and proceeds from there to a guaranteed specific conclusion in a limited case. In deductive reasoning, if the original assertion is true, the conclusion must also be true. In my example above, suppose I start with the general principle (A) that bleach is a good for cleaning porcelain objects. Then, I observe (B) that my sink is a porcelain object. The conclusion (C) is then logically certain that my sink can be cleaned by bleach.
  3. Abduction. Abductive reasoning begins with limited and necessarily incomplete observations and proceeds to the likeliest possible explanation for what experience has revealed. Let us suppose that I want to clean my sink with the best possible cleaner acceptable to my family as a whole. I might use plain soap, an all-natural soap my children recommend, a cleaner my wife recommends that contains hydrogen peroxide, a cleaner labeled “for porcelain” the woman who cleans our home prefers, or a cleaner which includes bleach which I prefer. Each of these options have a proponent in my family who strongly support its use. I initially prefer the cleaner containing bleach because my mother recommended it; however, I also try out all the other cleaners recommended before concluding that, given all the concerns of family members, the hydrogen peroxide-based cleaner is best choice. This is an example of abductive reasoning, which we consciously or unconsciously use in everyday life.  Abductive reasoning yields the kind of daily decision-making that does its best with the information at hand, which often is incomplete and draws a conclusion based on the best available evidence.

Abductive reasoning is at the center of any scientific approach to understanding. In all scientific inquiry, science begins with a problem that needs solving and one or more hypotheses or ideas about what might be the best solution to the problem at hand. This has important implications because it “dethrones” the positivist notion of sciences as based solely upon “facts alone”. Science is interested in developing and analyzing facts, but those facts are developed and analyzed within a theoretical framework, a hypothesis or theory about how the world is actually organized.

The ability of a thinker to engage in a pragmatic philosophical endeavor involves the ability to think in what Peirce called, a “scientific manner” about problems, which leads directly to an understanding of abduction as a logical method intimately connected to a pragmatic philosophy. In fact, the pragmatic approach is applicable in many situations where logical certainty is impossible, as is always the case with politics, where information is inconclusive and different approaches have support.

In the first stage of an abductive inquiry, a hypothesis is created. (For example, “I believe that shrinking the national debt without social instability is best achieved by selective tax increases on the wealthiest segment of society.”) In the second stage, deduction is used derive predictions. (“If selective tax increases were to work, small but significant increases in tax rates on the wealthy should bring down the national debt without increasing social inequality.”) In the third stage, induction is used to verify the assumptions by searching for facts. (“After enactment of a small increase in tax rates on the wealthiest one percent of Americans, it was noted that they deficit fell by “x” while lower and middle-class incomes and purchasing power remained stable.”). When and if the process does not yield sufficiently fitting facts to validate the hypothesis, the abductive cycle is to be repeated until it a verified theory or course of action is established.

Abduction and Political-Decision Making

More than one author has worked out implications of abductive thinking for government, bureaucracy, and political calculation. [3] This is important because abduction is sometimes referred to as “reasoning to the best solution in unclear decision-making situations.” In political decision-making, there is always an element of conflict, unclarity and uncertainty about policy decisions and their implications. Decisions such as, “Should we raise taxes?” or “Should there be a flatter tax system or a more graduated system?” provoke arguments on each side of the question, and decision-makers must make and initiate policy decisions under conditions of result uncertainty.

Contemporary late-modern society is often characterized by a preference for “revolutionary change.” The model of this kind of a revolutionary ideology of change is the French revolution, where the entire structure of French society was destroyed and then rebuild on Republican principles. As previously observed, the destruction of the existing order resulted in huge human suffering and ultimately the dictatorship of Napoleon and further suffering.

One implication of this kind of approach to political decision-making is the observation that policy makers are best served by making small adjustments to the current political reality as they test the results of their policy choices. Small adjustments, if successful, will inevitably result in further adjustments. If they are unsuccessful, the abductive cycle of experimentation on alternative hypotheses can continue until a sound policy preference can established.

I have used a contemporary example of the importance of incremental approaches to policy formulation and implementation in the results flowing from the enactment of what was known as “Obamacare.” The time the proposal was made, most people familiar with a medical insurance business understood that charging lower than average rates for the highest risk category defied the logic of the insurance business as a whole. Congress, determined to make a radical change in the way Americans receive medical care, enacted the proposal as developed solely by the party in power without considering the views of the minority or experts who disagreed with their approach. There was little or no attempted compromise and policy adjustment. Once enacted, the problems that were foreseen by experts occurred and the program failed in many respects. The party which enacted the program suffered multiple electoral losses. A more graduated approach toward change, might have avoided successive election losses by the party that produce this legislation.

Having used an example of relative to a decision made by one political party, let us take another in which the other party was a leadership. After the bombing of the Twin Towers there was a political consensus that America had to go into Afghanistan and eliminate the terror base of Osama Ben Ladin. There was massive political unity that this was a proper policy to follow. However, following the successful initial invasion two decisions were made that did not have widespread acceptance nor did the majority of the members of government believe the wisest course of action. The first decision was to stay in Afghanistan for a long period of time engaging in “nation building” in a society with little commitment to democratic principles. The second decision was to invade Iraq with the same objectives. These policies were not enacted after extensive dialogue and with a sense of national unity and were ultimately unsuccessful. The party of the institutors of this policy suffered electoral defeat.

Both of these policy failures illustrate the importance of a dialogue, compromise, and rational adjustment among members of the political community in responding to national problems, including considered attempts to meet objections and adapt policies to factual circumstances, rather than take ideological grounded actions on the basis of preconceived notions.

Fallibilism and Freedom

The fact that abductive reasoning takes place under circumstances where there is a diversity of opinion, are many facts to be explained, and no absolutely certain decision available, leads to another principle central to Peirce’s way of doing philosophy: Fallibilism. In his view, the kind of truths that pragmatism is able to generate is never absolute, and always subject to revision based on additional information or a better explanation of the information at hand. In other words, where rules of action are involved, all opinion is subject to change and any theory or explanation of the facts could be wrong. In political terms, this principle of fallibilism means that any decision made by those in leadership in principle could be wrong and require adjustment, however certain we may be at the time a policy is adopted. [4] Fallibilism is a principle of humility—a characteristic notably lacking in much contemporary political conversation.

Fallibilism is also important to another value of our society: Freedom of Thought and Speech. If I think I possess the unquestionable truth about matters of policy, then I may ignore, suppress, or distort others positions, since my opponents are obviously wrong. If, however, I understand that I am fallible in my opinions and policy preferences, then it is important and essential to my own participation in political life and to the operation of our political system that other views be able to access the public square, so that policy-makers, and in a free society, citizens, can make wise judgments about matters of importance.

Freedom finds its most secure grounding in a sense that no one person or group has access to the truth about matters of public policy nor is everything a matter of “Will to Power” as the Nietzscheans would have it. Instead, our understanding of political reality is of necessity limited and subject to incompleteness and the necessity for change and adaptation.


Our political system is subject to rampant irrationality, increasing intolerance, emotional and social manipulation and a host of evils that can be and should be ameliorated by a pragmatic approach to decision-making. In politics, there is rarely certainty or complete consensus. There is always conflict to some degree. It is the function of leadership to mitigate the weaknesses of a democratic system by wisely considering and discussing policy matters with a willingness to make slow, incremental, and rational changes for the public good. The great challenges we face as a society cannot be healed by irrational conflict, public anger, demonstrations and other similar programs. The greatest single change we could make in American politics is to embrace a pragmatic and logical approach to policy making at all levels of government.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Charles S. Peirce, “How to Make our Ideas Clear” (1878) in Milton R. Konvitz & Gail Kennedy, eds, The American Pragmatists (Cleveland OH & New York, NY: Meridian Books, 1970), 105, hereinafter, “AP.”

[2] Peirce was in disagreement with the ways in which Dewey and James developed pragmatism, especially as to the reality of universals, and so he coined the term “pragmaticism” to distinguish his approach.

[3] See for example, Matt Loasch, “Conceptualizing Governance Decision Making: A Theoretical Model of Mental processes Derived through Abduction” Old Dominion University Digital Commons (Summer 2019), Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), dissertation, School of Public Service, Old Dominion University, DOI:10.25777/xvpq-e948 (down loaded, March 28, 2022) and Eleonora Venneri, “Social Planning and Evaluation: The Abductive Logic” International Journal of Applied Sociology, 4(5):115-119 DOI: 10.5923/j.ijas.20140405.01 (2014).

[4] Fallibilism sits under any “critical realistic” philosophical position. This blog often defends critical realism as a philosophical position. It is the view that all of our opinions are subject to critique and change, but that the theories we develop are, nevertheless, insights into reality.