Peirce and pragmati(ci)sm

Charles Peirce

As many folks are well aware, I spent the bulk of the past decade working for big media in New York, specifically for a media source whose ideology I don’t personally subscribe to. As you might imagine, that led to a lot of mistaken assumptions and uncomfortable conversations with folks over the years, and so my general policy nowadays is to try and not broadcast (pardon the pun) my politics unless a specific situation calls for discussion of the issues.

But two things coming together in the next several days made me decide to temporarily rescind that policy in order to write this post.  First, as most Americans are aware, Election Day is on Tuesday, and I, for one, will be glad to see it come and go (I find election coverage to be trying and tedious). But second, I just finished reading a chapter from Philosophical Approaches to Communication by Claude Mangion on Charles Sanders Peirce (actually pronounced like “purse”), who is generally considered to be one of the founding fathers of semiotics, or the study of signs.

While I was familiar with semiotics and Peirce’s writings on that subject from my time at The New School, I was not familiar with his ideas on pragmatism (which he renamed “pragmaticism” because of some disagreements he had with how the original word was being used by scholars of the day).  These ideas were presented in his works The Fixation of Belief, written in 1877, and How to Make Our Ideas Clear, which was published in 1878.  As Mangion puts it, “Pragmaticism forged a link between the understanding of a concept and the consequences of that concept. To understand a concept, or to know what it means, entails that it has some observable effect” (2011, 50). The idea is that pragmaticism is intended to help us sort out the truth (effects support the truth; falsehoods run counter to the observable effects).

Because he was a big nerd, Peirce really wanted to nail down the method by which this knowledge should be acquired.  Mangion summarizes these quite well on pages 52 through 54 of his book, so I will direct you there if you wish to read a great deal more about these methods, but let me give a thumbnail sketch of each (again, credit goes largely to Mangion, who I am paraphrasing):

  1. The method of tenacity. This is, quite simply, being a stubborn blockhead and refusing to acknowledge any evidence to the contrary. (Starting to see why this reading made me think of politics yet?)  This method is, in a word, flawed, because “it is not very useful in solving disputes since one ignores the views of others or the facts” (52).
  2. The method of authority.  Similar to the method of tenacity, this is basically believing something because some recognized authority figure (e.g., a church, the government, etc.) says it’s true.  It’s also a flawed method because it makes the assumption that these authority figures are, first and foremost, fit to hold power, not to mention that they are always right.
  3. The ‘a priori’ method. This is essentially the idea that we support beliefs that fit into our own pre-existing network of beliefs. If we like something, we cling to it. This is just dumb on its face, but it happens all the time.
  4. The dialogical method. Peirce, as you may not be aware, was a natural scientist before he took up philosophy and logic, so this method makes a lot of sense to a man like him–and to me, too. Essentially, the dialogical method says that “knowledge is achieved by members of the scientific community in dialogue with each other” (53). Dialogue here refers to a constant discussion about facts, including challenging one another when necessary; ultimately, “the final opinion ‘imposes’ itself” on the group (54).

It feels to me that far too often we make up our minds on all matters political by using one of the first three methods listed–we simply insist that we are right without considering any of the other information on the table, or we blindly follow authority figures that might be doing the same.  The only way to make the correct decision is to openly confer with other people and to carefully consider all evidence.

With that, I encourage you to vote on Tuesday (if you’re registered to do so)–and think carefully about your choice. Talk to people whose opinions differ from your own, and honestly attempt to assess the contest, and perhaps you’ll surprise yourself in the end.