Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Pragmatists and Peirce

Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club provides a valuable introduction to a uniquely American school of philosophy. The book is an intellectual history of postbellum New England thinkers like William James, John Dewey, C.S. Peirce, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. The ,amy breakthroughs of the nineteenth century, such as statistical analysis or Darwinism, when combined with the disillusionment caused by a bloody Civil War seemingly driven by abolitionist fanaticism, led to a thoroughgoing suspicion of grand ideas among some Yankee elites. Intellectual focus shifted from objects and ideas to the processes and relations that created and sustained them.

In the nineteenth century the study of society was assimilated into the mechanist paradigm. Statistical analysis of government records made human behavior seem an inevitable consequence of social conditions. Marriages increased in times when wages were high. Crimes began to seem like the mere fulfillment of an annual quota. Society as a whole began to appear responsible for the discrete activities of criminals.

Society took on the conceptual characteristics of a machine. Predictability and efficient response to social pressures became more important standards than notions of rights or public morals.

Society was an idea-producing machine. For thinkers like Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., liberty of speech was not good in itself, but merely a means to provide new ideas that in aggregate would lead to better living, a more responsive government, and political stability.

Menand points out that "tolerance," among its many interpretations, also has mechanical connotations.

Though the influence of Dewey, James, and Holmes is immeasurable, the less well-known thought of Charles Sanders Peirce has always attracted me. While reading The Metaphysical Club I was particularly interested in Peirce's approach to the nominalist-realist debate. Menand summarizes:
The idea [of pragmatism] contained a doctrine, though, which Peirce was concerned to refute. This was nominalism--the belief that since concepts are generalizations about things that, taken individually, are singular and unreproducible, they do not refer to anything real Nominalism is the doctrine that reality is just one unique thing after another, and that general truths about those things are simply conventions of language, simply names. Peirce balked at this conclusion. He believed what his father had taught him to believe: that the world is made to be known by the mind--that, (in Benjamin Peirce's words) "the two are wonderfully matched." We think in generalizations; that is what inferences are--general truths drawn from the observation of particular events. Therefore, there must be things in the universe to which our generalizations correspond.

The nominalist's mistake, Peirce argued, is the definition of belief as individual belief. Of course the beliefs of individuals are flawed; no individual mind is capable of an accurate and objective knowledge of reality. But the aggregate beliefs of many individual minds is another matter; and here Peirce invoked the astronomer's law of errors. "No two observers can make the same observation," he wrote in one of the drafts of his book on logic. "The observations which I made yesterday are not the same which I make today. Nor are simultaneous observations at different observatories the same, however close together the observatories are placed. Every man's senses are his observatory." But just as a star exists independently of the observations made by individual astronomers, "reality is independent of the individual element of thought." The real star is the object around which repeated observations ineluctably converge. The purpose of all scientific investigations is therefore to push our collective opinions about the world closer and closer to agreement with each other, adn thus closer and closer to the limit represented by reality itself.

"The personal prejudices or other peculiarities of generations of men may postpone indefinitely an agreement in this opinion," Peirce wrote, "but no human will or limitation can make the final result of an investigation to be anything else than that which it is destined to be. The reality, then, must be identified with what is thought in the ultimate true opinion." "The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real."

Peirce's social conception of knowledge, seeing inquiry as extended across generations, is quite amenable to a traditionalist approach. In respects it is significantly different from the realism of the scholastics, or perhaps it is only different in emphasis. Escaping the epistemological morass of Hume and supporting the methodological concerns of science were both aims of his realism.

According to Menand, Peirce also opposed nominalism because it was a philosophy in the aid of selfishness. Nominalism denies not just the social character of knowledge, but its focus on individuals denies the social altogether. Menand quotes a Peirce essay from the North American Review in 1871.
The question whether the genus homo has any existence except as individuals is the question whether there is anything of more dignity, worth, and importance than individual happiness, individual aspirations, individual life. Whether men really have anything in common, so that the community is to be considered as an end in itself...is the most fundamental practical question in regard to every public institution the constitution of which we have the power of influence.

When countering highly atomistic habits of individualism, such a communitarian approach is commendable. But Peirce went on seemingly to endorse a most radical form of altruism, saying reasoning "inexorably requires that our interests shall not be limited. They must not stop at our own fate, but must embrace the whole community... He who would not sacrifice his soul to save the whole world, is, as it seems to me, illogical in all his inferences, collectively. Logic is rooted in the social principle."

Edward T. Oakes cites another Peircean slam on individualism, "individualism and falsity are one." Oakes connects this disdain for individualism to Peirce's extreme and painful isolation from his peers, induced by the man's own ethical falsities but also by the hostility of the academic establishment. Oakes wrote on Peirce in his essay Discovering the American Aristotle. The essay is a concise summation of Peircean aesthetics, ethics, and logic, with special attention to his religious philosophy.

Menand's book will inspire a few more blog posts here in the near future. Watch this space.

1 comment:

Steve Nicoloso said...

This bit:

He who would not sacrifice his soul to save the whole world, is, as it seems to me, illogical in all his inferences, collectively.

brought to mind St. Paul's wish that he might somehow be accursed from Christ for the sake of his (Jewish) brethren. But that really is the difference isn't it. I.e., losing one's soul for one's brethren versus losing it for the whole world. The latter is communitarianism gone rather amuck I guess.