Pragmatism No. 1: What Difference Does Theory Make?

For the next several weeks, we will be looking at the political implications of the American pragmatist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To begin, we return briefly to perhaps the most brilliant philosophical mind that America ever produced, Charles Sanders Peirce, who began that movement—and in so doing began the movement from what I would call “the modern age” to the “constructive postmodern age.” Peirce is an important figure on the number of levels. He was a brilliant logician and made important contributions to the study of logic. He was the founder of modern semiotics, or the study of signs. He was a practicing scientist, familiar with the scientific method. He was skilled in mathematics. He understood the fundamentals of the physics, chemistry, biology, and other scientific disciplines of his day.

Born into an academic family, Peirce was not an easy person, managed to get himself blackballed from the academia of his day, and earned his living writing for fees. Friends like William James and Josiah Royce did the best they could to support him, Peirce died in poverty. Nevertheless, he was acknowledged by James, Royce, and others as the founder of the movement we call “Pragmatism” and one of the great minds of the 19th and early 20thcenturies. He split from James and others who he believed had taken Pragmatism in the wrong direction and created his own version, which he called “Pragmaticism.” This will later become important to understand.

Tradition vs. Doubt

The modern world began with Descarte and his program of systematic doubt. [1] Peirce was the first philosopher to recognize that the kind of philosophic doubt that Descarte represented was a “false” or “fake” doubt. Peirce points out that Descarte did not in fact doubt in his every day and professional life what he proclaimed to doubt philosophically. Therefore, his doubt was a “philosophic” or “fake” doubt designed to support a conclusion he had already reached. Peirce, a scientist who worked within the scientific community of his day, responds to Descarte, observing:

We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by maxim, for their things which it does not occur to us can be questioned. Hence this initial skepticism will be a mere self-deception and not a real doubt; …. [2]

It is at this very point that pragmatism begins to emerge. Real doubt is not philosophic doubt. Real doubt is a doubt that leads to action to undo some kind of real doubt as to some feature of reality, so that it may be understood and responded to appropriately.

For Peirce, doubt is in an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves so that we may pass into a state of understanding or belief. All intellectual progress begins with some kind of doubt or uncertainty. A scientist is motivated to inquiry by doubt that a current understanding is complete. Furthermore, doubt cannot be permanently removed from the human situation for it is the motive for continuing human inquiry.[3] Every understanding of any reality is temporary. “Real Doubt,” unlike “Philosophic Doubt” is a part of the human condition.

Peirce was familiar with the scientific method, which is normally not the activity of a sole individual but of a community of inquirers (for example the community of cancer researchers), whose joint efforts produce a better understanding of reality. Thus, he is also opposed to the radical individualism of Descartes’ method. This is an extremely important feature of Peirces philosophy on knowledge, a taken up by others.

We cannot reasonably hope to attain progress in philosophy or any other aspect of reality without participation in an historic community of inpuuiry and their understanding of reality. [4] Thus, pragmatism in its original form reinstates tradition as an important aspect of any kind of reasoning. We cannot reason effectively except within a tradition of inquiry, which is one reason this series of blogs had attempted to survey much of the history of political philosophy.

Pragmatism and Progress

As early as the late 19 century Peirce was developing a notion of how intellectual progress occurs, a pragmatic notion that relies upon a continuing course of inquiry by human beings. This notion of truth includes the idea that to believe a proposition to be true is not merely an intellectual commitment or removal of doubt, but instead a belief that includes a willingness to conduct ourselves on the basis of the truth we believe ourselves to have discovered to satisfy the desires that motivated our inquiry. [5]

Peirce compares the method of pragmatic inquiry with other methods of establishing truth often adapted by the human race:

  1. The Method of Tenacity. The method of tenacity removes the dread of doubt by holding a belief irrespective of the evidence. Interestingly, person is aware that this method is often used by highly successful individuals in practical day-to-day affairs. It is not however, result in a kind of progress in human understanding that inquiry six.
  2. The Method of Authority. A second method of inquiry establishes some kind of power, government, and administrative group, a bureaucracy whose sole purpose is to prevent any contrary doctrine from being established or spoken.
  3. A Priori Method. The final method with which person disagrees is the method of deduction from a priori first principles, characteristic of European rationalism. The A Priori method actually does not differ from the method of authority, except that individual human reason becomes that authority. Nothing new can be discovered because nothing new can ever be discovered without new information and the results of investigation. [6]

It is at this point that a connection with political philosophy is easily seen. Governments, throughout human history, have tried to enforce their legitimacy, and the wisdom of their policies, by creating bureaucracies, administrative centers of power, educational institutions, and other social organs, the purpose of which is to establish and promulate certain views as obviously true and even a priori true and a segregate those which disagree from any possible influence upon public policy. [7] In an important passage Peirce sets out the terrifying nature of this approach:

Let an institution be created which shall have for its object to keep correct doctrines before the attention of the people, to reiterate them perpetually, and to teach them to the young; having at the same time the power to prevent country doctrines from being taught, advocated or expressed. Let all possible causes of a change of mind be removed from men’s apprehensions let them be kept ignorant less they should learn and some reason to think otherwise they do. Let their passions be enlisted, so that they may regard private and unusual opinions with hatred and horror. Then, let all men who reject the established belief be terrified into silence. [8]

We see this kind of behavior at work today in our schools and universities, in their intolerance of certain ideas, in the media, in the entertainment industry, in the “cancel culture movement,” in political movements left and right, and even in our governments.

The method of authority is the attempt to prevent any disagreement with current policies by stigmatizing those who hold contrary views. It is the attempt to prevent any disagreement with current policies by a process designed to prevent real though so that ordinary persons will simply concede. Throughout human history, this method has been used by governments, and particularly by those governments dominated by an aristocracy or an oligarchy, to prevent the expression of any views which might undermine the power of those in authority.[9]

The Pragmatic Alternative

Having critiqued the methods of tenacity, authority, and reliance on a priori ideas,  Pearce outlines his pragmatic alternative. He begins by noting that willful adherence to a belief in arbitrary forcing beliefs upon others must be given up in a free society so that people may find rational means of fixing their beliefs. This rational method is analogous to the method of science in that it involves appropriate investigation and experiment in order to establish a new belief.

In addition, the pragmatic method begins with the realization that there are real things that exist independent of our opinions about them. That is to say, notions such as truth, beauty, goodness, justice, and the like are not subjective as the modern postmodernist would have it, but real in the sense that they have the capacity to impact our behavior and adaptation to an environment, including a social environment, for good or ill. These things are not just material but also immaterial, before they have a reality born of their capacity to enlighten and inform human action. [10]

One implication of Peirce’s method is that it discourages impulsive, dramatic, or radical solution to problems unless the situation demands it. Most of the problems of a society require sober inquiry, careful experiment as to alternatives, and wise implementation by persons of capacity and practical wisdom.

Another implication involves maximizing freedom of speech and action. For a wise course of social action to be taken, the maximum number of views possible needs to be heard and studied by those responsible for a decision. Otherwise, the best practical solution may be missed.

Conclusion: Freedom of Speech and Pragmatic Inquiry

Before going on to other pragmatists, and especially before reviewing Oliver Wendell Holmes, who had a enormous impact on American jurisprudence, I wanted to spend some time with Peirce, who was the originator of the pragmatist movement of which Holmes and others of more direct political significance were a part. We will return to Peirce before this study is over, because he is such an important figure. For now, I want to end with the importance of this thought for Freedom of Speech, a right that we see being undermined in our society. In one of his passages that has a definite bearing upon political philosophy Peirce comments:

The method of authority will always govern the mass of mankind; and those who wield the various forms of organizational force in the state will never be convinced that dangerous reasoning ought not to be suppressed in some way. If liberty of speech is to be untrammeled from the grosser forms of constraint, then uniformity of opinion will be secured by a moral terrorism to which the respectability of society will give us through approval. [11]

Those who believe that they are surely correct in their political views, and those who value social peace and the maintenance of the current social, political or economic order, whatever it may be, will always be tempted to use the method of authority to secure their position in society, and the social piece which they enjoy. It is a method that has both a benefit and a danger to human progress. However, in the end, such a method can lead only to intellectual and social decay. Instead, there needs to be a pragmatic approach. Peirce believed that he had found this approach in the pragmatic method, which begins with the logical task of ordering ideas and recognizing inconsistency and incompleteness in those ideas, but which also involves further research and analysis before doubt is resolved and correct action can be taken.

Motivated by the doubt caused by the incompleteness or inconsistency of our understanding (and a corresponding unwillingness to take action based upon that incomplete or inadequate information), the pragmatist engages in further inquiry so to better understand that world and how to respond to it. This can be the physical world, as in science, the moral world, as in philosophy, the spiritual world, as in religion, or the social world, as in politics and government. The exact nature of the method will vary depending upon the community of inquiry and subject matter of the inquiry. So, for example, the method of politics is not the method of science or the method of religion. Each of these disciplines have their own adaptation of the pragmatic method.

The goal of the pragmatic method is the discovery of new information that will permit us to develop a new rule of action with confidence, that is a new mode of adapting ourselves to the environment. [12] In politics and government that new rule of action is intended to solve some social or political problem which the society of which we are a part faces and needs to solve.

The desired result of the use of the pragmatic method is to develop a course of action, what Peirce calls a “habit of action,” that will produce a beneficial result that is tangible and practical. [13] In one of his clearest statements of the pragmatic method, Peirce urges that, in the course of any intellectual inquiry, the best course of action is to consider what conceivable effects having practical bearing on the problem, might result from the conceptions developed as a result of our inquiry of some aspect of reality. [14] In the case of politics and social policy, the careful consideration of potential results is absent from much political discourse. For example, the impact of increasing government debt is rarely seriously considered as a restraint on policy desires by whichever party is in power.

One of the most attractive features of Peirce’s pragmatism as relates to practical matters of political thought, has to do with the “Critical Common-sensism” he endorses. [15] Unlike all systems based upon the premise of doubt, Peirce bases his system upon human “common sense,” upon the reality and reasonableness of our common sense understanding of the world and all of its attributes. However, this is not a naïve common sense. Or common sense is not always right. What Peirce recommends is a critical common-sensism, that is subject to revision based upon future discovery.

As mentioned earlier, the pragmatic method is always controlled by the result of criticism, doubt, and further inquiry, and there is no definite, established limit or end to the human search for understanding in any area in such a system of thought, including politics and government. In other words, our current ideas are always subject to revision based upon new evidence. Included within the scope of our ideas are our current political ideas, whatever they might be, which is why freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech, respect for a diversity of opinions, including religious and other opinions, is important to a wise and good government.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Descarte, if you will remember, claimed to doubt everything except for this ability to think. “I think, therefore, I am. His inquiry was not unmotivated however, a factor of which Pearce takes note. In fact, his method of doubt was designed to defend the Catholic religion and the consensus of his day.

[2] Charles S. Peirce, “The Rules of Philosophy” (originally published in 1868) in Milton R. Konvitz & Gail Kennedy, eds, The American Pragmatists(Cleveland OH & New York, NY: Meridian Books, 1970), 80-81, hereinafter referred to as “AP” with essay title included. The “maxim” to which Peirce referes is “Cognito Ergo Sum,” or” I think therefore I am.”

[3] “Fixation of Belief” in AP, at 87.

[4] “The Rules of Philosophy” in AP, at 81.

[5] Id, at 89.

[6] This important discussion is in AP, “Fixation of Belief” (1877), at 89-96.

[7] Id, at 91.

[8] Id, at 91.

[9] Id, at 92.

[10] Id, at 95 ff. I do not have time to deal with the reality of universals in this blog. For those with an interest, see my prior blog, “Faith in the Unseen Reality of Truth: The Work of Michael Polanyi” at, May 28, 2020.

[11] Id, at 97.

[12] “How to Make our Ideas Clear” (1878) in AP, at 105.

[13] Peirce uses the term, “habit” to refer to a rule of action or mode of action that can be repeatedly embraced to lead to successful behavior.

[14] Id at 108. See also, “Issues of Pragmatism” (1905) in AP, at 119.

[15] Id, at 119. I take Peirce’s “Critical Common Sensism” to be a form of Critical Realism, a principle of humility that holds common sense ideas of a time and place subject to revision upon further inquiry.