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Peirce on the Aim of Inquiry: Another Reading of "Fixation" Author(s): T. L. Short Source:

Peirce on the Aim of Inquiry: Another Reading of "Fixation" Author(s): T. L. Short

Source: Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Winter, 2000), pp. 1-23

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TL. Short

Peirce on the Aim of Inquiry:

Another Reading of "Fixation"

No essay of Peirce's has been more often read and commented upon than

these two: "The Fixation of Belief and its sequel, "How to Make Our Ideas

Clear." Yet the very meaning of the former paper has remained a subject of con

troversy. What it is that Peirce meant to show, how he attempted to show it,

whether he succeeded, and whether he retained or rejected the gist of "Fixation"

in his later work ? all these have received the most diverse accounts, and none of them are the same as that account which I shall offer here.

This essay is part of a larger project, that of showing Peirce was a thorough

going antifoundationalist. By 'thoroughgoing antifoundationalism', I mean three

things. First, I mean the rejection of foundationalism in even its weakest forms.

These are views, currentiy popular, to the effect that, while no belief is beyond

possible correction by other beliefs, some beliefs are justified (partially or defeasi bly) without being justified by other beliefs; they may be claimed to be corrigibly

self-evident or to be pardy warranted by nonpropositional experience or to be justified, to a degree, in yet some other way not involving logical relations to

other beliefs. Second, I mean the rejection of foundationalism not only with re

spect to the sources of knowledge but also with respect to the methods and aims

of inquiry. The idea is that not even the methods and aims of inquiry are beyond criticism and revision in light of the results of inquiry. Third, I mean the rejection of relativism and skepticism, ergo, the affirmation of the possibility, and indeed

the actuality, of objective inquiry and objective knowledge. One who, on the

ground that there are no foundations for knowledge, is a relativist, agrees with

foundationalists that foundations are necessary if we are to have knowledge. A

thoroughgoing antifoundationalist maintains that objectivity is possible without

foundations. I will not, in this essay, defend the view that Peirce was a thorough

going antifoundationalist. But I will attempt to show that "Fixation" presents an

antifoundationalist account of the aims and methods of inquiry.


The foundationalist generally has some specific foundations in mind: pure

reason or sense experience as the source of knowledge, deduction or induction or

Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society

Winter, 2000, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1

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2 T.L. Short

something else as the method of inquiry, truth or perhaps utility as th

the foundationalist proclaimed his favored foundations as the necessary

tion of all inquiry and all valid argument, then his ability to defend h would be limited to arguments that he himself would probably have to

circular. Such a foundationalism, rather than guaranteeing objectivity, wou tail objectivity. For it would put the very foundations of inquiry beyond a sible question, criticism, or justification. The foundationalist, like the relat

would end up a dogmatist. For, on his own account, he can have no rea

his views other than that they are his; the method he is committed to

the method Peirce named 'tenacity'.

But foundationalists generally make a distinction between science a

losophy, between the form of inquiry for which they are laying the foun and the form of argument by which they explain and defend those founda

That is the old view of philosophy as the Queen of the Sciences. It has t

of limiting the scope of foundationalism: not all of inquiry and argument

foundations, only science does. But if philosophy has no foundations, t

cannot other forms of inquiry be foundationless also? Contemporary in

"naturalized" epistemology tends in that direction: by making philos

pendent on science, rather than the reverse, it leaves science foundationles

is, philosophical.

Such, I shall argue, was Peirce's view. But not in the man

"epistemology naturalized." For the latter, at least in typical formulat nores the philosophical dimension of science, because it denies philosop

gether. As has often been remarked, if epistemology is, as Quine onc

should be, a department of psychology, then it cannot address normat tions about how inquiry ought to proceed; at least, it cannot without e

cularity or incoherence address basic normative questions.1 But philos

be dependent on advances in science in another way than by building on th clusions of scientific inquiry: it can analyze the methods that have been de

and, without assuming the validity of those methods or truth of the r

tained by their means, it can take into account the fact that those method

had those results. More will be said, or shown, about such arguments a

ceed. For the present, notice only that it is one thing to say that phil

cannot address normative questions of method in abstraction from the

which inquiry has actually developed; it is another to say, as in epist

naturalized, that philosophers should only build on science's latest theo

ing them as true.

Peirce wrote, in 1877, that "each chief step in science has been a le

logic" (3:243).2 Again, sixteen years later: "But the method of science i

scientific result" (6.428).3 If scientific method ? what counts as data,

counts as good reasoning, what counts as good questions and good answ itself a product of science, then science, as it proceeds, revises the gr which it works. These two statements by Peirce go a great way toward

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Peirce on the Aim of Inquiry: Another Reading of "Fixation" 3

that he was antifoundationalist with respect to method. The first is drawn from

the essay, "The Fixation of Belief," famously adumbrating four methods of fixing

belief. That essay, I submit, is important most of all for the form in which it is

written; for that form exhibits the manner in which revisions of method are

prompted by the experience of following a method.

I speak here of methods alone, as Peirce did in "Fixation"; but, as we shall

see, choice of method can also be a choice of aim, and it is aim more than

method that is at issue in that essay. Indeed, I suggest that the four major inter

pretative problems "Fixation" poses can be solved only on the assumption that

Peirce's fundamental intent was to establish inquiry's aim. (What does that

mean ? to establish an aim? Vide infra.)

The first two problems are the peculiarity ? the seeming arbitrariness ? of

the set of methods selected for review, and the weakness of the supposed argu

ments advanced in behalf of the method Peirce favored, which he named 'the

method of science'. Murray G. Murphey, in his magisterial book on The Develop

ment ofPeirceys Philosophv, said that, "In several respects the paper on 'The Fixa

tion of Belief is one of the most curious and least satisfactory that Peirce ever

wrote." Murphey's chief complaints are that the list of four methods is unhistor

ical, arbitrary, ill-sorted, and incomplete and that Peirce provided no arguments "worthy of the name."4 Six years later, A.J. Ayer was, if possible, still more severe regarding Peirce's arguments, calling them fallacious, trifling, and disingenuous.5

The second two problems are a pair of seeming contradictions. Whereas

Peirce began by saying that the aim of inquiry is to fix belief, he ended by espous ing a method that, on his own account of it, indefinitely postpones the fixation of belief. And whereas he began by saying that truth is no part of inquiry's aim, he

ended by claiming that the scientific method is to be preferred because it prom

ises to lead us to a truth that is independent of anyone's opinion. These seeming

contradictions, or tensions as they are sometimes more politely described, have

elicited a variety of reactions, from Israel Scheffler's outright condemnation of

Peirce's supposed argument, to Peter Skagestad's attempt to show that Peirce

unwittingly switched from "a causal, evolutionary story" to "a normative story,"

to Christopher Hookway's similar attempt to show that Peirce flubbed the dis tinction he elsewhere made between theoretical assent and practical belief, be

cause "in 1877 he lacked the resources to formulate [those] issues."6

These four problems are so closely related, it will not be possible to solve

first one, then another; they are solved together or not at all. It is convenient,

however, to begin with a comment on Peirce's supposed arguments. One might

say that in "Fixation," Peirce tried to show that tenacity, authority, and a priori

reasoning are inferior to the scientific method. And one would not be wrong in

saying this, and yet it is a misleading statement, in two ways. For it suggests that

there is a stable criterion or goal against which the adequacy of those methods

may be judged. And it suggests that Peirce made or pretended to make a

straightforward argument showing that the first three methods fail to satisfy that

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4 T.L. Short

criterion or to fulfill that goal as well as the scientific method does. Sup

however, that no such criterion or goal is given; suppose that the aim of inqui is part of what is at issue. Then what would count as an argument for or agai any of these methods?

In an argument, the premisses, if true, are meant to justify the conclusio Enthymeme aside, it's all on the page. It's all in what is said. If, by contrast, I "Go look at that flower: it is blue," it is your experience of looking at the flo

and not what I say (or not that alone), that leads you to agree with me. T

not an argument, but it works just as well, or better, to convince you. Peirce's way of showing the inadequacy of the first three methods of fixin belief was like that. Or something like it; for there is a difference between ob

ing an effect on someone else and experiencing that effect oneself. If wat

another suffer pain from sunburn is not enough to convince you to take due cautions henceforth, suffering that pain yourself may suffice. Nor should yo

precautions if you are not subject to that condition yourself. So also with

the values and maxims experience ? or history, or literature ? can teach:

vation of others' tribulations is instructive only insofar as we can imagine tha experience would be like their's were we to act similarly. Observation is only o type of experience.

Peirce presented a simplified or idealized, even largely fictional, histor

using each of the first three methods, a history in which those methods fail

belief. But this is not an argument from history. If it were, then its extremely

plified or fictional form would invalidate it. And, blinking that objecti

would prove only that the methods had failed, and not that they will continue

do so or should do so. Rather, the reader is meant to see for himself that methods would fail in his case also, and as an effect of the same causes, w

to try them. Peirce did not give us reasons to agree with him. Instead, he ref

to the experience of using the methods in question. The only way to fo

Peirce's "argument," if we are to call it that, is to imagine having the experien

he described and confirming that they would lead us, too, to reject the me

in question.


Take the method of tenacity, of one's clinging to a belief simply beca

his. "This simple and direct method is really pursued by many me

wrote, later adding of such a man, "

and if he only succeeds [i.e., in

belief by this method]

I do not see what can be said against

so" (3:249, my emphasis). So, there is no argument against tenacit

can successfully be said against the method to one who actually fixes by it. As Peirce explicitiy ruled out the possibility of an argument,

surprise that he made no argument ? or that his remarks, if one persist them as arguments, should appear to be such miserable examples of that But argument is not the only thing that can make one change his mi

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Peirce on the Aim of Inquiry: Another Rending of "Fixation" 5

method. Peirce claimed that the method of tenacity

will be unable to hold its ground in practice. The social

impulse is against it. The man who adopts it will find

that other men think differendy from him

and this

will shake his confidence in his belief. This conception,

that another man's thought or sentiment may be equiva

lent to one's own, is a distincdy new step

It arises

from an impulse too strong in man to be suppressed


This is not an argument; it is a claim that experience defeats tenacity. And this

claim matters to us only if we recognize that that experience was or would be

ours, when we tried or were we to try the method of tenacity. To construe this

passage as presenting an argument is to make a hash of it.

In the first place, where did the social impulse come from? It pops up unan

nounced, like a rabbit out of a hat. Nothing is said to establish its existence or to

indicate that we are to assume it. But that's the point: it is not to be assumed

prior to rejecting the method of tenacity. We come upon this impulse in finding

that tenacity fails to fix our beliefs. We do not recognize the social impulse (qua

cognitive principle) in ourselves without experiencing the way others' contrary opinions make us doubt our own. The method of tenacity does not fail because

of an argument from an assumption of a social impulse; it fails first and then, by reflection on that failure, we discern a social impulse.

In the second place, an impulse cannot serve as a principle. It is a mere fact

and, without the addition of a principle, it can justify nothing. If it is only an im pulse, why not resist it? Maybe it should be resisted, like most of the rest of our impulses. Indeed, wouldn't someone with the strength of mind of say, Descartes,

spurn any opinion contrary to his own?7 More than the fact of an impulse is

needed to show that that impulse should be obeyed. How odd that anyone would think that a philosopher of Peirce's quality might not see this. But what if the impulse should prove to be too strong or too fundamental to be resisted consis

tendy? What if, in fact, it accounts for our accepting any principles at all? And

what if that were Peirce's point?

Thirdly, the social impulse, taken (wrongly) as a principle from which Peirce

argues, is so disappointing. It is so crude. But, again, crudity is part of the point:

the impulse, we shall find, is progressively refined and deepened through similar,

subsequent discoveries. It is not a principle that Peirce introduced as a premiss to

an argument; it is, rather, the first step in a process of discovery.

In consequence of that discovery, "the problem becomes how to fix belief, not in the individual merely, but in the community" (3:250). Notice, here, it is

the goal that has changed. Before, the aim of inquiry was to fix my belief, now it is to fix our belief. One might object that the goal is still to fix my own belief,

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6 T.L. Short

only I discover that I can't do it if others' beliefs are not fixed simila

enough, though we are not yet at the end of our story. But even if the co fixation is subordinate, as a goal, to the personal fixation, this is still a pro revolution in our cognitive lives.

Hence the method of authority, the communal version of tenacity.

always accompanied by cruelty, this method "has over and over again work

most majestic results." And yet it fails, due to a wider version of the

pulse, "a wider sort of social feeling," by which the contrary opinions

nations and centuries cause us to doubt our own (3: 251-2).

The willful adherence to a belief, and the arbitrary

forcing of it upon others, must, therefore, both be given

up, and a new method of settiing opinions must be

adopted, which shall not only produce an impulse to

believe, but shall also decide which proposition it is

which is to be believed. (3:252)

That a successful method of fixing belief, when actually employed, mu

mine the content of belief might also be said to be a "distinctiy new s

another revolution, as basic as the foregoing revolution. It is, however, but ther development of the social impulse: it is a discovery that the deeper di tion which that impulse represents is an aversion to all that is arbitrary. W believe must not only not depend on my will, it must depend on no one's

The first method to which we turn after the method of authority

priori method, or method of believing that which we are inclined to

(3:252) ? is said to fail precisely because it does not keep its promise of

[ing] our opinions of their accidental and capricious element" (3:253) not do so, since "it makes inquiry something similar to the developm

taste," and one's taste, as it turns out, is not universal. As it turns out

could not know this apriori but only through experience.

To be sure, these remarks do not do justice to the attempts of rati

and of Kant and others to mark out a realm of apriori knowledge. But

truths, if there are any, will not do the job, and other forms of the a pri

never gained much credibility. Furthermore, claims that this or that s

judgment is a priori have not been sustained. Many thought that circ

tion is the simplest, hence that celestial orbits must be circular; they were

Descartes thought he saw by the light of reason that inertia is rectilin

now think that his hypothesis was only a lucky guess or a subjective prefe

that turned out to be correct; its proof is in the fit of its implications with

ence, and not in its mental origin. Peirce's talk of taste reduces a lot of his

a single word, but it is a history that is well-known. So I think that in thi brevity may be excused.

But the main point, here, is that the social impulse is now confirme

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Peirce on the Aim of Inquiry: Another Reading of "Fixation" 7

ing, at bottom, an aversion to arbitrariness; the desire for consensus is merely

one manifestation of that aversion, which is why consensus achieved by coercion or by fashion will not be satisfactory, either. What is retained of its initial charac terization is that this attitude is rooted in human nature: it appears as an irresisti

ble demand that we find ourselves making. No doubt that can be explained by

the practical utility of beliefs that are non-arbitrary and by the selective retention

in human evolution of dispositions that promote non-arbitrary beliefs. But, as

we shall see, those dispositions transcend their practical origins. We find our

selves eschewing arbitrary belief even when its application is of no practical im


The failure of the a priori method exhausts human determinants of belief:

neither one's own will, nor the will of those in authority, nor the prevailing

prejudices suffices to fix our beliefs, and there is no synthetic a priori that is uni versal and necessary, hence, distinct from prejudice.8

To satisfy our doubts, therefore, it is necessary that

a method should be found by which our beliefs may be

caused [Peirce later changed 'caused' to 'determined'9]

by nothing human, but by some external permanency ?

by something upon which our thinking has no effect

Thus we come to the last of the four methods. "Such," Peirce continued,

is the method of science. Its fundamental hypothesis

is this: There are real things, whose characters are en tirely independent of our opinions about them; these realities affect our senses according to regular laws,


can ascertain by reasoning how things really are, and any

by taking advantage of the laws of perception, we

man, if he have sufficient experience and reason enough

about it, will be led to the one true conclusion. The new

conception here involved is that of reality. (3:253-4)

Just as the failure of tenacity reveals a social impulse, so also this last lesson

in logic entails a new concept, that of reality. It should be noted, however, that

Peirce did not claim that the scientific method and associated concepts appear to us out of nowhere. Rather, "Everybody uses the scientific method about a great

many things

" (3: 254). Again, "The feeling which gives rise to any method

of fixing belief is a dissatisfaction at two repugnant propositions. But here al

ready is a vague concession that there is some one thing to which a proposition should conform" (3:254). However, it is only with the failure of other methods

that we think of this practice as an alternative method, consciously formulate it,

and deliberately adopt it.

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8 T.L. Short

Although the fact is not mentioned in "Fixation," the scientific met

long road and Peirce knew it. "Taking advantage of the laws of percept

quires framing conjectures and testing them against observation, but there

end either to conjectures or to tests. In an earlier series of essays, in 1

The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Peirce argued that induction cannot lied upon to give us the right answer in the short run and, hence, that in

reasoning has no validity for anyone who cannot conceive of himself a

ber of an indefinitely extended community of inquirers. But induction

logic rigidly requires, befo

else, that no determinate fact, nothing which can happen to a man's self, s

be of more consequence to him than everything else. He who would n

fice his own soul to save the whole world, is illogical in all his inferences,

tively" (2:270-1).

Thus, adoption of the scientific method has two revolutionary

quences. First, the fixation sought in inquiry is indefinitely postponed. An clusion we come to is to be regarded as tentative, as subject to correction i future; in some of his later writings, indeed, Peirce said that belief has no

sential part of scientific method; therefore, "

in science (e.g., at 1.635, 7.606). Second, and as a corollary of the first,

of communal fixation of belief turns out not to be subordinate to personal tion; instead, it itself is the goal of inquiry, to which our individual effor beliefs must be subordinated. Peirce was fond of describing the life of the tist in ethical terms and of finding Christian parallels in his metaphysics.

vein, we might add that the revolutionary reorientation required wh

adopts the scientific method is like that conversion experience in which on his soul in order to regain it. One's true self, it turns out, is to be found i

tion to a cause greater than oneself; at least, this is true so far as cog


There is more to be said about the hypothesis Peirce named fundamental

and about the defense of scientific method that he proceeded to make. But let us pause, now, to review the character of his discussion thus far.


Each of the first three methods could have been rejected on grounds of a

valid argument taking generally accepted principles as premisses. Granted that truth is impersonal and that truth is the object of inquiry, then the first two

methods are obviously mistaken and the third is seen as mistaken once we admit

that there is no synthetic a priori. But Peirce cut himself off from this possibility

when he announced, early on, that

the sole object of inquiry is the settlement of opinion. We may fancy that this is not enough for us, and that we seek, not merely an opinion, but a true opinion. But put

this fancy to the test, and it proves groundless; for as

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Peirce on the Aim of Inquiry: Another Reading of "Fixation" 9

soon as a firm belief is reached we are entirely satisfied


That is a statement which has annoyed many readers beyond endurance.

Why did Peirce make that remarkable claim? And why did he do so only to

conclude, a litde later, that, in effect, nothing but a method aimed at impersonal truth will suffice to fix belief} Given his endpoint, he could have made the argu

ments mentioned above. Hence, if Peirce's aim had been to discredit the first three methods, he went a cumbrous long way about the business. He adduced

bad arguments or no arguments for a conclusion none of his readers was likely

to deny and for which perfecdy good, if painfully obvious, arguments were read ily available. Clearly, his concern was less with the methods themselves than with

the principles implicit in their rejection. My suggestion is that he wanted to

bring out the basis on which we have made impersonal truth inquiry's aim, and

on which we ought to continue doing so. And that is why he could not begin by

assuming that aim. Peirce said as much himself, c. 1906:

My paper of November 1877, setting out from the

proposition that the agitation of a question ceases when

satisfaction is attained with the settlement of belief, and

then only, goes on to consider how the conception of

truth gradually develops from that principle under the

action of experience; beginning with willful belief, or self

mendacity, the most degraded of all intellectual condi

tions; thence rising to the imposition of beliefs by the

authority of organized society; then to the idea of settle ment of opinion as the result of a fermentation of ideas; and finally reaching the idea of truth as overwhelmingly

forced upon the mind in experience as the effect of an

independent reality. (5.564, my emphases)

But do we need to be told that this is what Peirce intended? There is no other

way to make sense of "Fixation."

Peirce's approach is naturalistic yet normative.10 He begins from the fact

that we are engaged in inquiry, that inquiry is part of the fabric of human life

and that institutionalized inquiry has become part of the fabric of society. He does not assume that we fully understand what we are doing. A child learns to walk without knowing what it is doing or why, and so also did we begin to in

quire, whether as individuals or as a race, without deliberation or conscious aim.

But the problem is not merely to articulate the principles and purposes implicit

in existing practice. Once we begin to inquire deliberately, we are free to vary

our methods and to adopt alternative purposes. Thus two points of great impor

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10 T.L. Short

tance: normative questions arise naturally, and they are not reducible to ques

tions of fact. They do not reduce to questions of fact, because their resolution

depends on human choice. But human choices, though they can be arbitrary,

cannot be sustained regardless of human nature or regardless of the nature of the

world in which we exist.11

The one constant, presupposed in these normative questions, is that inquiry

is a process that proceeds from doubt, or unreadiness to act, to belief, or readi

ness to act. The questions, then, may be summed up under two heads: how

should belief be fixed and for what purpose? Should we inquire at all or, instead,

shall we sink into a reverie or seek oblivion? If we choose to inquire, shall we

seek to fix beliefs only in so far as they are needed for action or should we seek

beliefs also for their own sake? In either case, what kind of beliefs ? beliefs

meeting what criteria? Should each belief be one that is testable in action and

retained only as long as it stands up to such tests? That is not a question that has

already been resolved; for there are those today who, in some cases for good

though not perhaps indefeasible reasons, insist that beliefs also, or instead, con

form to theological or political tests.

And how are such issues resolved? How do purposes become fixed? Indi

viduals and societies adopt many purposes, most of them fleeting. We lose inter est or we attain our desires and find them disappointing or find that they, or the

getting of them, conflict with something we want more. Neither tenacity nor

authority nor taste can fix a purpose for long. It may be some issues remain per

manendy open, that some possible purposes are perennial alternatives. By

'establishing a purpose' I do not mean adopting one, nor even adopting one

permanendy; rather, I mean showing that it is one that we cannot consistendy

ignore. Adopting a purpose is a practical act, even if the purpose is one of pure

theory, such as knowledge of the truth for its own sake. Establishing a purpose is, instead, theoretical, even if the purpose is practical. Though theoretical, it has practical import. To establish that impersonal truth is the object, or part of the object, of inquiry, is to show that no one can succeed in seeking to fix beliefs by such methods as tenacity and authority; sooner or later the inquirer will find that

he wants more. Hence Peirce's method in "Fixation": the question is, what will be sustained in practice? With what method will we be content, once we have

experienced its results? The appeal is to experience, actual or vividly imagined. Still, there is a hankering for apriori arguments; one might almost say that

philosophers have a professional bias toward them. Let me dispose of one possi ble attempt to replace Peirce's appeal to experience by an argument. After hav

ing said that the fancy that we seek not merely an opinion but a true opinion is

groundless, Peirce went on to claim, "The most that can be maintained is, that

we seek for a belief that we shall think to be true. But we think each one of our

beliefs to be true, and, indeed, it is a mere tautology to say so." On that basis,

one might argue that truth is an aim implicit in the desire to fix belief and,

hence, that the first three methods must be rejected for the reasons given at the

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Peirce on the Aim of Inquiry: Another Reading of "Fixation" 11

beginning of this section.

But that would be to fail to recognize the depth of Peirce's discussion. Re

call its naturalism: inquiry develops before we have concepts of inquiry, belief,

reality, or truth. At what point do we form a concept of truth, and what could

that concept be? At some stage of selfconsciousness in inquiry, it becomes a tau

tology that we believe each of our beliefs to be true. But what, then, do we

mean by 'truth'? Ifit is a tautology that we believe each of our beliefs to be true, then the method by which we think beliefs are to be fixed provides the only gen

eral characterization of truth that we can defend (the deflationary accounts of

truth are not characterizations in this sense). If we are still using the method of tenacity, truth, for us, is simply what we want it to be; if the method of author ity, it is what "they" want it to be; if the a priori method, truth is what is agree

able to reason, as some philosophers have maintained. Truth becomes imper

sonal by conception, only as we begin to adopt the method of science. If the ad

jective 'impersonal' seems redundant when applied to the noun 'truth', that is

only because we have already rejected such methods of fixing belief as tenacity

and authority. To argue against those methods from the premiss that truth is

impersonal is to beg the question.12

In this context, I should like to answer Murphey's charge that the four

methods are ill-sorted and unhistorical. My answer is simple: Peirce did not in

tend a history of methods. It is implausible that one so well versed in the history

of science would have blundered so badly as to have attempted to pass off that

list of four methods as an historical survey, no matter how condensed or popu

lar. Besides, in the opening section of his essay, Peirce gave a quite different,

genuinely historical though very sketchy, survey of methods, from the Romans to Darwin; so why do it again, differendy and badly? It might almost seem that

that opening survey was for the purpose of distinguishing his later account as

ahistorical. In that account, Peirce isolated, and then hypostatized and idealized,

an aspect of the evolution of methods which would show why the desire to fix

belief inevitably becomes the pursuit of impersonal truth; or, in other words,

why arbitrary methods give way to methods that base conclusions on something

independent of believers. That process is as much personal as historical: in rough

analogy to the principle that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, a child has to

learn for himself that which his ancestors have embodied in religion, story, and moral precept, viz., that willfulness is in the long run not as satisfying as are the

fruits of a discipline that subordinates self to something greater than self.


Of those with which I am familiar, the past interpretation of Peirce's

"Fixation" that is closest to the one given here is Richard Smyth's, in the long

Chapter 5 of his recent, fascinating volume, Reading Peirce Reading.13 As do I,

Smyth seeks to rebut claims that Peirce argued badly, and to do so by suggesting

that his inquiry was so fundamental that he could not have argued in standard

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12 T.L. Short

ways at all. But, while Smyth's discussion is erudite and ingenious and contains a

great deal of valuable insight, I am unpersuaded by his major thesis, that Peirc

provided a "rhetorical" justification of the method of science, on the model of Kant's critique of practical reason (pp. 183-4).

Of "Fixation," Smyth says, "

the article is neither artless nor naive. It

contains a sophisticated and interesting answer to the question: 'Why should you

or I be logical?'" (p. 183). Smyth evidendy does not intend 'logical' in the sense

of deductive logic alone. Yet there is a misleading suggestion in his language

that we already know what it is to be logical, even in that broader sense whic encompasses all the methods of inquiry. All that remains, it seems, is to justif

being logical. Thus, he later speaks of "providing some justification of the valid

ity of the rules of inference" (p.190, my emphasis). But whether we can even

speak of rules for induction and abduction is doubtful, much less that the finally

correct and complete rules are already known, much less, as all of the present

essay is meant to show, that Peirce thought so. It is not until the penultimate paragraph of this chapter that Smyth admits

that "There is another theme in 'Fixation'

discussion of the history of methods of reasoning in science" (p.236). And the

he has to argue, in very few sentences, that, while this historical theme "

first glance is inconsistent with the idea that there is a strand of Kantian moral


The essay opens with an extensiv

a Kantian moralism can easily be reconciled with an his

torical consciousness" (p.236). That reconciliation, following Kant and Schiller, makes historical conditions no more than obstacles to be overcome on the way

ism [in 'Fixation']," "

to fulfilling an a priori law. Thus Smyth's reading omits or rejects that appeal to

experience which seems to me central to Peirce's entire discussion. In effect if

not in intention, he makes Peirce's logic to be Kantian in the wrong sense,

namely, as purporting to be a body of apriori laws.

logic should be placed

within the tradition of the ethicists of freedom

points out (throughout his chapter; I lack room here to repeat them), together

with the fact that Peirce's philosophical reading began with Schiller and Kant,

are too strong; we have to admit that Smyth's intriguing thesis embodies a pene trating historical insight. But we do not have to agree that Peirce turned Kant's

second Critique strategies to his own purposes ? in Smyth's words, tha

Not that I would deny Smyth's claim that "


" (p.235). The parallels Smyt

Peirce's answer to the question why one should be logical, "

is rhetorical,

rather than scientific; that is, he aims to persuade his reader to adopt a certain set of sentiments that setde the unresolved questions in a manner that is practically

(rather than theoretically) reasonable" (pp.183-4). I suggest, alternatively, that

the moral overtones of Peirce's writings on scientific method are selfconsciously patterned on Kant's philosophy but do not derive their force therefrom; rather,

they are intended as a way of establishing Kantian moralism on a new basis, b

showing that even in the seemingly amoral realm of pure inquiry, moral laws are manifest, indeed, that the scientific life is an eminentiy moral life. And similar

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Peirce on the Aim of Inquiry: Another Reading of "Fixation" 13

remarks apply to Peirce's persistently Christian rhetoric. But I do not have room

here to develop this alternative; I mention it only to show that we can disagree with Smyth's major thesis while retaining much that is most interesting in his


Smyth's focus (see his p.190) is on a part of Peirce's "Fixation" we have yet

to consider, viz., the claim, quoted above, that the method of science rests on a

"fundamental hypothesis," that "there are real things" that are independent of

what is thought about them but which nevertheless affect our senses in some

regular, lawful fashion. Smyth's interpretation, if I understand it, is that Peirce defended this hypothesis in a manner like that in which Kant defended the moral law's three presuppositions, of God, freedom, and immortality. That is, while (a)

these presuppositions cannot be proven true, (b) they can be shown not to be

disprovable, and (c) they must be accepted if we are to obey a law whose author

ity we cannot help but acknowledge. In Smyth's Kantian language already

quoted, the hypothesis of reality is "practically reasonable," given that we are to inquire at all. This, as Smyth says, is a second critique way of securing first Cri

tique "foundations" (p.184).14

I suggest, to the contrary, that Peirce was not interested in securing founda tions; rather, his view was that the assumptions made in a method of inquiry can,

and can only, be tested by employing that method, and that those tests will

never be exhausted. Foundations are never to be laid. Chief steps in inquiry will

continue to be lessons in logic. As well as being antifoundationalist, this is prag

matic. Peirce was fond of expressing his pragmatism in the words attributed to

Jesus: "By their fruits ye shall know them." That applies to methods at least as

much as to theories; nor can theory and method be so rigorously distinguished

as our use of those terms implies. Pragmatism, righdy understood, is antifounda

tionalist. It remains, however, to show how the fundamental hypothesis of sci

ence is tested in being employed.

After stating the fundamental hypothesis, Peirce remarked,

scientific investigation has led to the most wonderful triumphs in the way of setding opinion. These afford the

explanation of my not doubting the method or the hy

pothesis which it supposes


Unfortunately, Peirce did not elaborate; he did not spell out the logic of being

assured by triumphs. But perhaps we may venture to fill in the gap. In the first place, the logic is evidendy that by which any hypothesis gains credibility. If the

description of a phenomenon is deducible from an hypothesis and is not deduci

ble from known truths (or already well-confirmed hypotheses), then that is some reason to believe the hypothesis in question. The hypothesis will be defeated if a

falsehood is shown to be deducible from it; it will be rendered doubtful if we

can think of a more satisfactory way of explaining the phenomena it explains.

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14 T.L. Short

From this point of view, however, the fundamental hypothesis has some pe culiar features. It entails no specific phenomenon by the nonoccurrence of which

it could be refuted. Furthermore, unless some better method of inquiry b

found, we are not free not to assume it. As Peirce indicated (vide supra), despite

the sometime prevalence of tenacity, authority, or taste, the scientific metho has always been implicit in the way people ordinarily pursue practical investig

tions; its hypothesis, we might conjecture, is instinctive.

Nevertheless, as that hypothesis does entail that we can achieve an agree

ment among our observations, our faith in it can be shaken when such agree

ment seems to elude us, and it is made strong by the fact that we do achieve

large measure of agreement. The truth of the hypothesis is evident in the fa

that we succeed in communicating, that we live together in a social world. Bu

the fundamental hypothesis further entails that a more exact understanding

phenomena is possible than that contained in our ordinary observations. Henc

the pursuit of theory, an attempt to say what, exactiy, it is that we observe. An a theory, since it connects observations of diverse types of phenomena, effects a deeper agreement among the observations which support it; by the same token, it is open in principle to more numerous and more decisive refutations than are

ordinary observations or the commonsense beliefs that they presuppose. A su

cessful theory, therefore, is a still more impressive confirmation of the fund

mental hypothesis. Hence Peirce's remark about the triumphs of science. The reasoning of the preceding paragraph remains murky; much that is con troversial has been written in the same vein, without reference to Peirce; but tha

is no reason to suppose that good sense cannot be made of an idea that so man

have found so plausible. There is no room here to do justice to the topic, but

two observations may help to put Peirce's apparent thought into contemporar


First, this type of reasoning has sometimes been formalized using the fa

mous theorem of Thomas Bayes. It is not, however, the exclusive property of so called Bayesians: it can be interpreted objectively, in conformity to Peirce's view of probability.15 A corollary of Bayes' theorem is this: the probability of an hy pothesis, H, given some fact, E, that it correctiy predicted and (if true) explains,

is great in proportion to the improbability E had before it had been observed

and without assuming H. As E can be a conjunction of facts, and since the prob

ability of such a conjunction is the product of the probabilities of the conjuncts

(hence, less than the probability of any one conjunct), it follows, further, that

the more things an hypothesis predicts and the more improbable they are, the more highly confirmed it will be, if those predictions come true. Now, the suc

cess of science is the evidence, E, that would be extremely improbable if the fun damental hypothesis of science, H, were not true; as E is the case, H is therefore

highly probable. Those probabilities cannot be given an exact numerical value, but reasons can be given why they tend toward extremes ? very improbable,

very probable. And that is all that we need to know.

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Peirce on the Aim of Inquiry: Another Reading of "Fixation33 15

Second, arguments of this type ? for physical realism as the best explana

tion of science's success ? are now well-known, though controversial. Hilary

Putnam, for example, has reduced it to a memorable slogan, "The positive argu

ment for realism is that it is the only philosophy that doesn't make the success of science a miracle."16 However, there is an important difference between the form

of the argument due to Putnam, Richard Boyd, et al.17 and that which I am at

tributing to Peirce. These others are arguing for a realistic interpretation of the theories of "mature science," the theories that, if not final, have been developed

in great detail and have been borne out in many and diverse applications. Their

success, it is argued, would be inexplicable if their theoretical terms did not refer to real things and if their characterizations of those theoretical entities were not

somewhere near the truth about them. As against such arguments, it has been

objected that ideas of approximate truth or verisimilitude have not yet received a

generally accepted explication that would bear the weight of the argument

placed on them, and that, perhaps for other reasons as well, there has been no

convincing attempt to correlate the relative empirical success of two theories and

the relative closeness of their theoretical ideas to physical reality. In addition,

Larry Laudan has pointed out that many theories have enjoyed a long run of

success despite containing key theoretical terms that refer, we now think, to

nothing or that get what they do refer to entirely wrong.18

Peirce's variant of the argument escapes these objections since it is not an

argument for a realist interpretation of successful theories but, rather, for there

being a physical reality of some sort ('physical' being vaguely but not vacuously

defined). Once granted that there is such a world, then we can conclude that a

successful theory must bear some relation to it that accounts for its success; but what that relation is, is another question. Ideally, the theory is a true description of the real world. But a theory whose success is limited cannot be entirely true, and whether it is approximately true or is "like" the truth or models phenomenal laws but misrepresents reality if taken literally, can only be judged, and then not with finality, in light of a better theory, if we have one. Given the current state

of our knowledge of physical reality, it would seem to me to be premature to

essay a general account of the relation of successful theories to reality. The pre

vailing interpretation of quantum phenomena alone should give us pause. Cer

tainly it suggests that the closeness of an idea to reality cannot be construed as

pictorial accuracy; but then accuracy of what kind? This caution is consistent

with Peirce's antifoundationalism: on some matters, we must wait upon the fur

ther lessons in logic that future steps in science may provide.

One word more on the fundamental hypothesis. Advances in theoretical un

derstanding not only reassure us of its truth but also make that hypothesis more precise. What is reality? How does it affect our senses? In what manner (think of

the questions quantum physics has raised) is it independent of observer? Every

advance in physics, chemistry, biology makes the hypothesis more specific, some

times more specific in a way later turns out to be mistaken. Scientific method,

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16 TX. Short

truth, reality ? all of these are vaguely limned in Peirce's essay. For according to

the clear implication of that essay, none of them will be defined precisely a

finally until inquiry itself is finished. The very roughness of "Fixation" is part o

its significant form.


Perhaps the most serious criticism of "Fixation," best stated by Christopher Hookway, is that, in it, Peirce violated his own strictures, expressed both earlier and later, against psychologism in logic.19 This is on the assumption that Peirce was arguing from the premiss that we seek in inquiry to fix belief and on the fur ther assumption that that premiss is psychological. It is tempting to dismiss the

objection on the ground that, as Peirce was not making any argument at all, at

least not one in a sense that involves an inference from premisses, he could not

have been arguing from a psychological premiss nor, hence, psychologistically.

But that would be too easy, since psychologism might nevertheless have infected

Peirce's discussion, couched in psychological terms from beginning to end, in

some other way. Furthermore, Hookway bolsters his critique by associating the

later Peirce with it: he claims that Peirce's later theory of normative science, in

which logic is based on ethics, not on psychology, was intended to overcome the

psychologism of his 1877-8 doctrines. And Peirce himself would seem to have

said so: in 1902 he wrote to William James,

My own view in 1877 was crude. Even when I gave my Cambridge lectures [1898] 1 had not really got to the

bottom of it or seen the unity of the whole thing. It was

not until after that that I obtained the proof that logic

must be founded on ethics, of which it is a higher devel opment. Even then, I was for some time so stupid as not to see that ethics rests in the same manner on a founda

tion of esthetics


And again, in 1903 and 1908, Peirce disparaged his 1877-8 doctrine as psy

chologist^ and poorly argued (5.28, 6.485). That seems definitive. A.J. Ayer

was not the first, or even the second, to complain of Peirce's arguments.

However, the last two passages cited refer rather to the argument in "How to Make Our Ideas Clear," and to its use of the conclusions of "Fixation," than to "Fixation" itself. They reflect Peirce's late-blooming interest in finding a

"proof of pragmatism, whereas the doctrine of pragmatism is not stated in

"Fixation" but only in its sequel. And the longer passage quoted above, in which

the 1877 paper ? i.e., "Fixation" ? is alone cited, does not charge that essay

with psychologism but only with crudity. The very word 'crude' and especially

the subsequent talk of getting "to the bottom of it" and finding "the unity of

the whole thing" imply the precise opposite of a rejection of what was said in

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Peirce on the Aim of Inquiry: Another Reading of "Fixation" 17

"Fixation." They imply, rather, that the views presented there are to be retained.

For views cannot be refined and deepened unless they are retained. To refine a

doctrine is to retain it, in refined form.20

We may be permitted, then, to read "Fixation" in light of Peirce's later doc

trine of the normative sciences. That doctrine is a part of Peirce's architectonic,

developed in writings of 1902-6 (1.180-283,573-615 and 5.34-40,120-150),

according to which the sciences, including those denominated 'philosophy', can

be arranged, to their advantage, in a hierarchy, wherein the one below provides

principles to be used by the one next above (1.180). Mathematics is first, then

philosophy, then the special, or idioscopic, sciences, which include all of the

natural and social sciences (Peirce divided the idioscopic sciences a litde differ entiy, into "the physical" and "the psychical"). The philosophical sciences begin with phenomenology, then the normative sciences, then metaphysics. The nor

mative sciences are, in order, aesthetics, ethics, and logic. But, so far, we have

mentioned only the sciences of discovery. The sciences of discovery are followed

by sciences of review, the two together constituting the theoretical sciences,

which are followed by the practical sciences. (Notice that ethics is a theoretical science of discovery, not a practical science; this undercuts Smyth's attempt to

construe Peirce's defense of logic as practical (in Kant's sense) rather than as

theoretical.) Each science is distinguished by the type of observations it makes;

this applies even to mathematics, which rests on observations of the results of experiments upon diagrams.

Peirce's architectonic might seem to indicate that in his later years he re

verted to foundationalism. To see that he did not, it is sufficient to notice that

architectonic itself belongs to the sciences of review, which are occupied "with

arranging the results of discovery" (1.182). Those results must therefore have

been obtained first, without the benefit of an architectonic ordering. Architec

tonic aims, Peirce said, "to base itself on the principle affinities of the objects [i.

e., the sciences] classified" and "is concerned not with all possible sciences but with sciences in their present condition" (1.180). The architectonic is a post hoc

ordering of inquiry, based on the results of inquiry so far, and is intended to fa cilitate its further progress; but, being post hoc, that ordering is provisional. Fur ther progress in the sciences might yield new sciences and reveal different affini ties, requiring a revised classification. Therefore, the architectonic itself is subject to correction. And if it is, then so is the r?le it ascribes to one science as (in any

sense) basic to another. By the same token, no science can be foundational to

another; for if it were, that is something that would have to be known, i.e., in an architectonic that is not subject to correction.

Now let us compare the method described in Peirce's account of the norma tive sciences to that employed in "Fixation." The leading idea of the normative

sciences is that the rules of logic must be justified as means to an end, which is a

matter of ethics (1.573, 575-6, 606-610 5.130), and that ultimate ends can be

established only by the aesthetic exercise of discovering what is admirable with

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18 T.L. Short

out qualification (5.130, 1.577-592, 611-615). The method of determinin

what is admirable requires us to consult our feelings, in response to carefully ar ticulated alternatives: it is "to inquire what it is that we can be content to wish fo independendy of any ulterior result" (1.579, my emphases). Again,

What I propose now to do is to pass in review every one

of the general classes of objects which anybody could

suppose to be an ultimate good, and to question con

sciousness, first, as to whether or not each of these in

turn could content us as the sole ultimate good inde

pendendy of any ulterior result

(1.581, my emphases)

But that is exacdy the method of "Fixation." The topic, by 1902, is broader: it is

not what would content us in inquiry alone; it is what would content us alto

gether. But the method is the same, with this addition: in 1902 and later, Peirce

can rely on his phenomenological categories to articulate the broadest classes

alternatives. Peirce's discussions c.1903 are in fact not less crude than that of

"Fixation," but there is a promise of greater refinement as well as of greater gen erality, both contributing to improved conclusiveness. Improved conclusiveness is not yet final, unassailable proof. The late theory

of normative science is no more foundationalist than was Peirce's view of 187

8. In these same pages of 1903, Peirce noted that reviewing ideals "is not a jo

that a man sits down to and has done with. The experience of life is continually

contributing instances more or less illuminative" (1.599). There is no hint her

that aims, much less methods for attaining them, can be established a priori.

Either Peirce's 1877 references to psychological facts (which manner of fix

ing belief actually succeeds, the social impulse, our dissatisfaction at two repu

nant propositions) do not make his 1877 logic psychologistic, or his later refe

ences to psychological facts (what we shall find admirable without qualification,

what would content us), do make his 1902-6 normative science psychologistic. Which is it? Well psychologism, let us agree, is some sort of a fallacy. If wha

Peirce was doing involved no fallacy, then it cannot have been guilty of ps

chologism. Psychologism, I suggest, is a particular form of the fallacy of attempt

ing to deduce a value from a fact. A psychologistic theory of ethics or of log

would seek to deduce the rules we ought to obey from facts about human psy chology. But what Peirce was doing was quite different. That we are content

with X and discontent with not-X are not facts from which he deduced that X is

our aim or should be our aim; instead, his claim was that they are facts that lead

us to make X our aim. We can refuse to adopt that purpose, and there is no a

gument by which the person who does so refuse can be shown that he should not; but we suspect that he will not be able to hold out in practice. And as w

come to see this more clearly, we ourselves are less inclined to hold out. As th

line of thought commits no fallacy, it cannot be guilty of psychologism.

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Peirce on the Aim of Inquiry: Another Reading of "Fixation" 19

The idea that we are of such a nature as to be susceptible to forming certain

purposes rather than certain others, and that this is presupposed in any theory of

logic or ethics, is no more psychologistic than is Kant's talk of respect for the

moral law. The only difference, in this regard, between Peirce's view and Kant's

is that the latter thought that moral respect is engendered by the idea of the law alone, and that this distinguishes moral respect from inclination or self-interest,

whereas Peirce never said anything of the sort. But, whereas Peirce held that ex

perience plays a crucial role in purpose-formation, he nevertheless achieved, in

another way, a like distinction between commitment to truth and self-interest.

For he repeatedly emphasized his conviction, noted above, that scientific inquiry

cannot result in a final fixation of belief within one's own lifetime and, hence,

that so far as one inquires scientifically, that is, desires the truth, he is freed from self-interest.


Still, one might object that Peirce has made our ultimate aims, and hence

the rules of life and thought that subserve them, to depend on mere facts of hu

man psychology and, thus, on what is variable from one individual or one cul ture to another. Perhaps it was to evade such an objection that Peirce tried to

argue that nothing can be admirable without qualification but the unending de

velopment of concrete reasonableness (1.615, cf. 5.433). However, that very

Hegelian sentiment sounds like the conclusion of an argument a priori, and not

a very persuasive one at that. Fortunately, Peirce elsewhere, but in the same pe

riod, said something quite different to the same effect ? something perhaps

even less to contemporary philosophical taste, but not for that reason mistaken. What he said invoked the teleology that surfaced occasionally in his writings,

and especially c. 1902-3. It was, namely, that "


is the idea which will create its

defenders, and render them powerful" (1.217). The clear implication of this

statement is that, in the long run, it is not human psychology that determines

human ideals but, rather, it is the ideal that shapes human psychology (cf.

1.216). The ideal is such because of its own intrinsic nature: "

every general

idea has more or less power of working itself out into fact; some more so, some

less so" (2.149). On that assumption, Peirce's method in "Fixation" ? his re

course to experiences of satisfaction and dissatisfaction in order to establish the

purpose of inquiry ? reveals an objective purpose, one that over time we will

find ourselves adopting, willy-nilly.

I do not have room here to explicate and defend Peirce's teleology.21 How

ever, it should be noted that it is not intended to be an a priori doctrine. It is an

empirical hypothesis. Like physical realism, it can never be more than an hy

pothesis, though continued experience may render it increasingly plausible.

Unlike physical realism, it is not presupposed by the method of science. It is,

however, presupposed by the idea that the methods of science, and the aims that

correspond to them, are progressively discovered, rather than being merely in

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20 T.L. Short

vented or subjectively elected, as inquiry continues.22

That inquiry is objective is itself an hypothesis, one that embraces the hy

potheses both of physical realism and of teleology. It could not be otherwise for a thoroughgoing antifoundationalist.23


1. It was in "Epistemology Naturalized" that Quine proposed to make

epistemologa "a chapter of psychology" (W.V.Quine, Ontological Relativity and Oth

Essays, Columbia University Press, 1969, p.83). Some years later, and not as a change

mind, he asserted that there is still a place for "normative epistemology," namely, as

chapter of engineering: the technology of anticipating sensory stimulation" (W.V. Quine Pursuit of Truth, Harvard University Press, 1990, p. 19.) The idea is that we can establis on the basis of past experience, various norms about how best to go about developing su

cessfully predictive theories. Those norms are important. But they presuppose a deep

norm or fundamental aim, which cannot be established but can only be taken for grant

by epistemological engineers. Quine admits as much: "But when I cite predictions as t

checkpoints of science, I do not see that as normative. I see it as defining a particular la

guage game,

fiction and poetry" (Ibid., p.20). The trouble with this is that predictivity, as an ideal

science, really is a norm and cannot be swept under a rug of definition. Quine must kno

that predictivity played very litde part in Aristotelian science, which was essentially a qu

tative taxonomy of things and did not seek quantitative laws of change. And he mu

know that the scientific revolution that began in the 17th Century, by which Aristoteli

science was supplanted by a Galilean, predictivist inquiry, was a hard-fought batde ov

real issues and not a mere choice on the part of some to do science rather than to wr

poetry. The proof of this is that we see no problem with there being both poets and sci

: the game of science, in contrast to other good language games such

tists, but we do see that the Aristotelians and the Galileans cannot both have been right.

2. References of the form, n.m, are to paragraph m of volume of Th

Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Vols. I-VI, Hartshorne and Weiss, eds., an Vols. VII-VIII, Burks, ed., Harvard University Press, 1931-58. Those of the form, n:m are to page m of volume of The Writings of Charles S. Peirce: Chronological Edition

Vols. 1-6, various editors, Indiana University Press, 1982-99.

3. It follows that science cannot be defined by its method (contrary to

what many people think and even to what some people think Peirce thought; a superficia

reading of "Fixation" makes that essay seem to support the view of the latter). Thu

Peirce elsewhere identified science with an historical and ongoing community of inquire and, still more fundamentally, in this same passage of 1893 (6.428), with the spirit whic

animates their inquiry. This spirit seeks the method appropriate to its quest, and that spir

is presupposed and appealed to in "Fixation," though not by name.

4. Harvard University Press, 1962, pp. 164-5.

5. A.J. Ayer, The Origins of Pragmatism, Macmillan, 1968, pp.32-33.

6. Israel Scheffler, Pour Pragmatists: A Critical Introduction to Peirce,

James, Mead, and Dewey, Humanities Press, 1974, pp.70- 71; Peter Skagestad, The Ro

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Peirce on the Aim of Inquiry: Another Reading of "Fixation" 21

of Inquiry: Charles Peirce's Pragmatic Realism, Columbia University Press, 1981, pp. 35

41; Christopher Hookway, "Belief, Confidence and the Method of Science," these Trans

actions, Winter 1993, pp. 1-32. Douglas Anderson covers much the same ground in an

extensive commentary on "Fixation," in his Strands of System: The Philosophy of Charles

Peirce, Purdue University Press, 1995, pp. 82-117.

7. When others questioned his philosophy, Descartes appears to have had

no second thoughts; nor is he the only self-confident reasoner we know of. Thus someone might object that the social impulse not only can be resisted but has been resisted by some of the greatest thinkers. But those are not counter-examples to Peirce's claim that a social

impulse is cognitively basic. Surely the genius has confidence in his own, unaided reason

only because his powers had been verified by others, by his success is getting the answers his teachers deemed right and by getting them more quickly and surely than others did. That is one point, that an individual's rationality is partly a social product. Another point

is that the social impulse is also manifest in a second way, closely related to changing one's

mind when confronted by doubters: namely, eagerness to change the doubters' minds.

Descartes et al. exhibit the social impulse in this second form. One way or the other, we

are not content while disagreement remains.

8. Though variously named, prejudice, as philosophers from Burke to

Peirce to Gadamer have noted, is, in some of its varieties, something we cannot get along

without. In the case of natural science, Peirce sometimes argued that our statistically

unlikely success in guessing, that is, in hypothesis formation, must be due to an instinct for

the truth, hence, to a biologically-based prejudice, something that the theory of evolution can explain and also show the limitations of. But prejudice of any sort remains highly falli ble and subject to correction by experience. It is no foundation for knowledge.

9. See 5.384 and note. The change was made in annotations on a copy of

the article (MS334, as numbered in Richard S. Robin, Annotated Catalogue of the Papers

of Charles S. Peirce, University of Massachusetts Press, 1967): Houser and Kloesel, eds.,

The Essential Peirce, Vol. 1, Indiana University Press, 1992, p.377, n.24.

10. I think, then, that Skagestad (op. cit., note 6) is right that Peirce's ac

count does combine the evolutionary and the normative but that he is wrong to suppose

that Peirce switched from one to the other (the implication is that he did so illegitimately:

" Peirce is less than clear as to what sort of argument he wishes to propose"), leaving the

former account incomplete (p.39). But the issue goes beyond a reading of "Fixation." If

one finds absurd the idea that the Darwinian theory of evolution makes it possible once

again to understand features of an organism functionally, and has thus reintroduced teleol ogy into modern science, so that there is no discontinuity between the naturalistic and the

normative, then of course one will not find my reading of "Fixation" intelligible. But

Peirce was, at least by 1902, quite clearly of the opinion that teleology has had a rebirth in

modern science (for details, see my "Peirce's Concept of Final Causation," these Transac tions, Fall 1981). And I have tried to defend that view in "Teleology in Nature," Ameri

can Philosophical Quarterly, October 1983, and, more recently, in the first six sections of

"Teleology and Linguistic Change," in Shapiro and Haley, eds., The Peirce Seminar Pa

pers, Vol. IV, Berghan Books, 1999.

11. Skagestad asserts that Peirce did not solve the "problem of 'how to get

there from here,' of how adaptations which have only long-term benefits can arise from an

evolutionary mechanism which selects adaptations only for their short-term bene



(op.cit., p.41). But this assumes that natural selection must prevail throughout a

process that is initiated by faculties which themselves are products of natural selection; and

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22 T.L. Short

that is clearly wrong. The existence of eyes, we suppose, resulted from a long series

natural selections, but they do not operate by natural selection, and therefore the cons quences of their operation cannot be explained by natural selection. Peirce's point appea

to be that the disposition to inquire, though it evolved because of its short-term benefi

initiates a new process governed by other principles. This should not be hard to und stand. Think for example of sex. The act is pleasurable; for, if it were not, the spec would long ago have died out. But coitus is increasingly divorced from the reproduct

function. So also, we have learned to pursue truth for its own sake or for other reasons

g., theological, not immediately related to survival. One would like to think that the pu

suit of truth is nobler than is recreational sex, and I believe it is; but it is not for that

son less rooted in human nature.

12. In "How To Make Our Ideas Clear," Peirce wrote, "

as we have see

in the former paper [i.e., "Fixation"], the ideas of truth and falsehood, in their full de opment, appertain exclusively to the scientific method of settling opinion. A person w

arbitrarily chooses the propositions which he will adopt can use the word truth only

emphasize the expression of his determination to hold on to his choice" (3:272, my e



13. Richard A. Smyth, Reading Peirce Reading, Rowman and Littlefield,

14. I would find this claim to be far more plausible were it made with re

spect to Peirce's thought of 1868-9 rather than to his papers of 1877-8. For example, in

the essay of 1869 from which we quoted earlier, Peirce wrote that the assumption that the

community of inquirers will continue to make progress "involves itself a transcendent and

supreme interest, and therefore from its very nature is unsusceptible of any support from

reasons. The infinite hope that we all have

all reasoning in reference to it is a trifling impertinence." There's the Kantian thesis (a):

is something so august and momentous, that

the proposition in question is not provable. Peirce next says that "

the question is single

and supreme, and ALL is at stake upon it

So this sentiment is rigidly demanded by

logic." There's the Kantian thesis (c): by a law we already acknowledge, we are required to

believe the unprovable proposition. Last, the (b) thesis that this same proposition cannot

be disproven: "

it is always a hypothesis uncontradicted by facts" (2:271-2). Now, all

three of these theses still apply in "Fixation," but (a) and (b) only in a weakened form. For

there, as we shall see, Peirce admits that experience can either strengthen or weaken (and

has in fact strengthened) our conviction that the fundamental hypothesis is correct. He

does not dismiss such reasoning as a mere impertinence, even though there is still a recog

nition that we must assume the hypothesis regardless. But more importandy, in "Fixation"

Peirce adds the thought that the laws of logic reveal themselves gradually as we continue to inquire. Experience thus plays two roles: one is to lend support, albeit never conclusive,

to belief that the hypothesis is true; the other is to show that we must assume that hy

pothesis anyway. In the 1868-9 papers, there is no similarly un-Kantian suggestion that

logic's requirements are established ? not as true but as what we must accept ? in the

course of our experience, that is, in the course of inquiry.

15. See some of Wesley Salmon's pellucid writings, e.g., the relatively re

cent and concise, "Rationality and Objectivity in Science, or Tom Kuhn Meets Tom

Bayes," in C. Wade Savage, ed., Scientific Theories, University of Minnesota Press, 1990,

pp.175- 204.

16. Hilary Putnam, Mathematics, Matter and Method, Cambridge Univer

sity Press, 1975, p.73. It does not matter to my argument that Putnam later abandoned so

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Peirce on the Aim of Inquiry: Another Rending of "Fixation" 23

unnuanced a realism.

17. See, e.g., Hilary Putnam, Meaning and the Moral Sciences, Routledge

and Kegan Paul, 1978, pp. 19-22, Richard Boyd, "Realism, Underdetermination and a Causal Theory of Evidence," Nous, 1973, pp. 1-12, and "Lex Orandi est Lex Credendi,"

in Churchland and Hooker, eds., Images of Science, University of Chicago Press, 1985,


18. Larry Laudan, "A Confutation of Convergent Realism," in Leplin, ed.,

Scientific Realism, University of California Press, 1984, pp.218-249.

19. Christopher Hookway, Peirce, Routledge, 1985, pp-48,52-8.

20. This supports Smyth's contention, which in this passage he presents as

a "suggestion": "Everyone who is familiar with Peirce's mature system is aware that he

came to regard logic as a branch of ethics. What some will find unacceptable is the sugges

tion that he took this line as early as 1877 in an essay that breathes the spirit of psycho

logical naturalism


(p.192). If Peirce himself saw his later doctrine of normative science

as a refinement, not a rejection, of his 1877 essay, then in that essay the idea that logic is

based on ethics must have been at least implicit. At the same time, however, this shows

that Smyth's interpretation of "Fixation" is over-refined. His extensive account of Peirce's

sophisticated adoption of rhetorical and other strategies gleaned from divers earlier phi

losophers would make the 1877 paper far less crude, not more crude, than was his later

theory of normative science. Furthermore, Peirce's theory of normative science is thor oughly empiricist, theoretical, and antifoundationalist, in stark contrast to the Kantian,

practical-reason gloss of "Fixation" that Smyth offers.

21. See however, the three articles cited in n.10, in which I explicate and

defend Peirce's teleology.

22. See also my "The Discovery of Scientific Aims and Methods," Ameri

can Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Spring 1998.

23. I should like to thank Robert Meyers and Richard Robin for their cri

tiques of an earlier stab at this theme.

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