Peirce and Pragmatism 3: Politics and a Community of Seekers

As mentioned in prior blogs, in addition to founding pragmatism, Peirce struck what might be called the final intellectual blow to the kind of idealism represented by Descartes, and his essentially individualistic standard of truth. For Descartes, what was true was that which could not be doubted by any reasonable person. His argument, however, began with a fundamentally individualistic premise, “I think therefore I am.” Notice the “I.” For Descartes and much of the modern movement he began, the ideal was the solo individual, thinking on his own in the solitude of his or her study, reflecting on life and solving problems as a solitary individual.

Peirce’s philosophy, on the other hand, begins with a fundamentally communal, semiotic, communication-oriented standard of truth: truth is a matter of the correspondence of our ideas, which are inevitably expressed in signs, with some external reality we and others are trying to understand. Because human beings are inevitably controlled by their presuppositions, prejudices, limitations, and the like, no one human being can ever know the full and complete truth about any important matter. This drives Peirce to a theory of knowledge that is essentially communal. The truth is not known in solitude but as part of a community of inquiry, or what I have called a “Community of Seekers”.

If for Descartes and much of the modern world the ideal was the solitary individual deciding for his or her self, the ideal for Pearce is the individual scientist who, as part of a team of scientists is trying to solve some problem of science or medicine. Think of a research laboratory with many scientists in constant communication in the laboratory and in their private life, who read and comment on each other’s work, and who are in a common pursuit of a breakthrough in science or medicine. For Peirce, all knowledge is the result of this kind of a community of inquirers who work in both competition and in cooperation with each other.

We human beings are part of an infinite number of such communities. For example, I am a member of a family, and I have to understand my family and its relationships in order to solve problems. So does every other member of our family. I happen to be a lawyer and member of a bar association. As such, I am part of a community dedicated to the understanding the principles of American and Texas law. I’m also a pastor, a part of a community that is interested in the knowledge of God. I’m a citizen of San Antonio, Texas, interested in San Antonio and Texas and understanding its culture, laws, and government. I am a citizen of the United States, interested in the government and policies of our nation. My father, in addition to being a part of some of these things, grew roses. He was a member of the Rose Society interested in the methods and means of growing the best and most beautiful roses possible. Members of my family are farmers who beloing to various farming groups interested in the best methods of growing corn, soy beans, wheat, and other crops. You can see that all of us are members of many communities seeking understanding.

In a paper published in 1868, Peirce described philosophical inquiry as essentially social, claiming that, “We cannot reasonably hope to attain the ultimate philosophy which we pursue; we can only seek it, therefore, for the community of philosophers.” [1] At the end of the same essay, Peirce concludes:

Finally, as to it anything really is, is what it may finally come to be known to be in the ideal state of complete information, so that reality depends on the ultimate decision of the community; so thought is what it is only by virtue of addressing a future thought that is in its value as thought identical with it, the more to be developed. In this way, the existence of thought now, depends upon what is to be here after so that it has only a potential existence depended upon the future thought of the community. The individual man, since his separate existence is manifested only in ignorance and error, so far is he is anything apart from his fellows and from what he and they are to be is only a negation. This is man. [2]

Notice that for Pierce, the acquisition of knowledge is essentially communal. Twice in the passage quoted he speak of the “decision of the community” and “the future thought of the community.” He speaks of “the ignorance of human beings apart from their fellow human beings”. For Peirce, knowledge is the end result of a community’s process of reasoning not simply the result of an individual’s individual thoughts and reasoning.

Secondly, Peirce speaks of the dependence of the community not just upon its current thought, but upon the future thought of members of the community. In other words, there is no end within history of the expansion of meaning and progress of thought, for their will always be “future thought of the community.” As to political thought, there is no “end of history” in which a certain political theory or organization will be final and complete, for the communal process of understanding will continue so long as history continues. We human beings are essentially oriented both towards the past, the present, and the future. We emerge from our past. We live in the present. And, we seek a desirable future.

Community and Growing Political Wisdom

For the pragmatist, truth is never absolute in the sense that it cannot be revised based upon new information and insight; however, the goal of a pragmatic, scientific approach to learning is that it is possible that a perception of the truth will be accepted by the vast majority of the scientific community and will be proven by such adoption to have approached a kind of “operational (or pragmatic) certainty.” As demonstrated above, the most important analogy between science and politics is the fact that science does not take place among isolated individuals, but rather in communities of scientists who most often are engaged in programs of research requiring cooperation and interchange of information.

Despite the disputes remaining between participants in quantum research, there’s no doubt among scientist the Quantum physics is an improvement over Newtonian physics and has a deeper insight into reality. Although one cannot eliminate the possibility for a radical change in quantum physics, most scientists expect that any further progress will be made within the boundaries of the fundamental view of quantum physics. Disputes between the so-called “Copenhagen” approach and the “Hidden Variable” approach to the problem of indeterminacy are all conducted within a community that is working from the same general scientific data and involved in similar research programs designed to resolve the issues between them.

Politics operates in the same way. Politics is a communal effort and requires a community, bound together by common principles and a common set of values seeking to build a society for the benefit of all. In American society, those fundamental principles are set forth in our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the various decisions of policy makers and courts interpreting these fundamental principles. This is the past from which we live in the resent. The application of these principles to contemporary problems is the process of inquiry in which we are engaged as a society as we seek the common good for all participants in our society.

The problem we face in America and in much of the West is that, under the impact of Enlightenment distrust of history and tradition, we have been unable to maintain a consensus as to fundamental aspects of human life and human thriving that we all agree are necessary. We have lost that sense of a communal participation in a living tradition that is essential for maintenance of any society. At the same time, so-called “negative politics” and the search for a final victory over political opponents has undermined our ability to function as a cohesive society. This is a failure of our educational, media, and other institutions. There is no way forward unless and until we can recover a sense of communal solidarity in the search for “liberty and justice for all” or, as the Declaration of Independence puts it: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” [3] or as the Consitution puts it:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. [4]

These are the foundational ideals of the American community of which we are all a part.

Political Life as a Tradition-bound Process.

The modern world was inclined to also believe in a kind of “tradition-free” thinking that a scientific approach to political philosophy undermines. Peirce and other philosophers of science point out that all thinking takes place within a tradition of inquiry conducted by a community of persons. At any time in history, that community has an established “world-view” and establish principles within which reasoning takes place. While there can be and are revolutionary changes of scientific insight, such as the change from a materialistic to a quantum way of viewing reality, these changes are not part of the ordinary operation of science.

The same is true of government. While revolutionary ideas cannot be rejected as a matter of course, it can be realized that they are not part of the ordinary function of government. Because revolutionary changes in approach cannot be ruled out, freedom of thought and speech is important so that the public square can hear and be informed of all possible approaches to public issues.

Consensus, Conflict,  and Hope in Community

For Peirce the process of inquiry of the community always seeks a consensus such that all members commonly recognize a position or theory as true. This is the hope of any community of inquiry: that doubt will be eliminated for all participants. However, this consensus is normally a future hope, not an experienced present reality. This would be especially true in the political arena. In a private letter to a critic, Peirce acknowledged this essentially incomplete and future-oriented hope of any community:

We cannot be quite sure that the community will ever settle down to an unalterable conclusion upon any given question. Even if they do so for the most part, we have no reason to think the unanimity will be quite complete, nor can we rationally presume any overwhelming consensus of opinion will be reached upon every question. All that we are entitled to assume is in the form of a hope that such conclusion may be substantially reached concerning the particular questions with which our inquirers are busied. [5]

No community of inquiry devoted to a subject like government is ever complete within human history as regards things that are complex and not subject to unanimous decision. As I have mentioned in the past, such an endeavor is a fool’s errand that dooms the society that undertakes to end debate to decay and despotism.


In a very fine ending to a dissertation entitled, “The Haunted Animal: Peirce’s Community of Inquiry and the Formation of the Self” Jacob Librizzi makes the following point:

No one is radically independent and self-supporting in this life. Rather, we are all sentimentally entwined with others in our thoughts and deeds. As such, to treat the memories of others poorly as means alone, and not equally as ends in themselves, is to falsely acknowledge one’s own existence as merely a means toward an end indifferent to its makings. Such a paradoxical, life negating thought—seeking radical independence and autonomy—achieves only to explain the self by explaining it away in isolation. [6]

Much of modern politics, left and right, is guilty of exactly this mistake, the mistake that St. Augustine pointed out so long ago: Treating those we should love as ends in themselves as means, and thus cutting ourselves off from the essential communal aspects of human life. [7] Isolated individuals, unconnected to a greater community, but only responsive to the needs of those who think and feel as he or she thinks and feels, are always unwilling and unable to act in the best interests of all members of society, for they lack the vital social connection necessary for such a task.

The greatest challenge political philosophy and theology face is the recovery of a kind of communal love that can sustain a democratic and free society while protecting minorities of all kinds. We need to find a way out of our cultural fixation on radical independence and autonomy, which increasingly makes us unable to solve serious social challenges, and into a community of seekers bound together by a kind of love in a common project to achieve the common good for all.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Charles Sanders Peirce, “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy,1868 as reprinted in Charles S. Peirce, Essential Writings Edward Moore, ed. (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1972), 87.

[2] Id, at 118.

[3] Declaration of Independence (US 1776).

[4] United States Constitution (US 1789).

[5] Peirce, Charles S., Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce Vols. 1 and 2. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss eds. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965), at 6.610. (Private letter to Paul Carus) I am indebted for this quote to Librizzi, Jacob, “The Haunted Animal: Peirce’s Community of Inquiry and the Formation of the Self”(2017). All Theses & dissertations. 317.

[6] See, Jacob Librizzi, footnote 3 above, at 51.

[7] See, St. Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine” in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. 28 First Series, Volume 2. 1886–1889. (Peabody MA: Hendrickson Publishers), 528-534.