Sunday, March 31, 2013

Starting with Peirce

I’ve been interested in Charles Sander Peirce for many years. Scholars regularly call him America’s greatest philosopher. So how can a guy on his second ten-year reading plan trying to give himself a liberal education not be interested? Peirce is really hard to begin studying, though. He never wrote a book (he never even got a teaching position at a university!), so he never expressed any kind of comprehensive system an organized way.

But I’ve found the way to start. I’ve tried reading Peirce before, bits and pieces here and there, papers that I have found referenced in more modern scholarship. But nothing was clear until now. I highly recommend the Philosophical Writings of Peirce, edited by Justus Buchler. I had begun a month or so ago to read a book by James Feibleman “introducing” Peirce’s philosophy – a book longer than Buchler’s Peirce reader, by the way –, but Buchler’s preface says everything I had read in Feibleman, only much more succinctly and, for the beginner, more clearly. Buchler then arranges the papers, chapters, and excerpts of his volume in an order that starts the reader at square 1. I’ve read about ninety pages so far, and nothing I’ve come across seems disconnected or out of context, even if I haven’t understood everything.

The book begins with the striking notion that intellectual satisfaction comes not with truth but with belief. Only doubt incites inquiry; belief ends doubt. As a result, people develop various ways to fix their beliefs in order to find relief from the irritation of doubt: we block out all arguments against our belief, or we let the state decide, or we tolerate others’ preferred beliefs (this in 1877!). But only a fourth strategy, the scientific method, works its way toward truth. According to Peirce, the scientific method begins not with systematic doubt, pace Descartes, but with a hypothesis suggested by imagination. Such hypotheses are to be held lightly, since the whole idea is to rule out hypotheses after testing in order to hone in gradually on the truth. As a result the wise person constantly holds tentative belief in the most easily refuted propositions and must recognize the fallibility of all human argument. I found this view disturbing at first but then comforting: it holds fiercely to both the notion that “the truth is out there” for us to seek, and the notion that human reason can’t completely comprehend that truth. He applies this brand of doubt to the Bible in one example, but the details show that he’s doubting not the Bible itself but human understanding of it.

Peirce goes after Descartes again in claiming that the earlier philosopher’s explanation of “clear and distinct” ideas is itself neither clear nor distinct. The first level of clarity, says Peirce, is indeed confident recognition (Descartes’s “clearness”), and the second is the ability to define a thing abstractly (Descartes’s “distinctness”). But the third comes only with knowing all of a thing’s practical effects. It makes no difference what force “is,” he says, as long as one knows all its effects on motion.

In light of this last example, I got lost a little later when Peirce, in going through the roadblocks to honest inquiry, scolded a physician living before Pasteur for saying that a disease was nothing but a collection of symptoms. How is Peirce’s view of force any different? Or am I confusing his question with another: the question, for instance, of whether there is any undiscovered material medium involved in some particular force (I’m thinking of the imaginary graviton). Or is he just analyzing the muddle of language which uses nouns to refer to both substances and other structures (motions, qualities, relations, etc.).

On the other hand, maybe his view changed. Or maybe he was just fallible. Peirce’s view of the pursuit of truth depended on both possibilities. And when he goes after my beloved Aquinas at one point and I find myself entertaining the possibility that Aquinas may need some correction, I discover that acknowledgement of fallibility and openness to change support my pursuit as well.

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