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This essay traces the evolution of the pragmatist elements in Wiggins's distinctive view of truth and shows its connections to the founder of pragmatism, C.S. Peirce and one of Peirce's greatest successors, F.P. Ramsey. Wiggin's pragmatism, like that of Peirce and Ramsey, is a pragmatism that attempts to arrive at what Wiggins calls ‘a sensible subjectivism’ – an account of truth that respects both the human inventiveness and the objectivity that are each a part of our search for the truth
American pragmatism was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the late 1860s in a reading group called The Metaphysical Club.1 Charles S. Peirce, William James, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. were amongst its members. Each of these classical pragmatists has had an enduring effect not just on how the “Western” tradition of philosophy unfolded, but also on other distinct disciplines. Peirce, for instance, is considered the founder of the subject of semiotics, and his diagrammatic or iconic formal logic is now being studied as a tool for artificial intelligence and also as a freestanding competitor to the algebraic system Frege developed independently at the same time. James is still read in psychology for his fundamental ideas about the plasticity of the mind and for the richness of his insights about felt experience. His Varieties of Religious Experience continues to be an important text for those thinking about the value of religion. Holmes went on to be one of America’s most important legal theorists and Supreme Court justices, leaving indelible marks on the American legal books. The second wave of pragmatists, which included John Dewey, C. I. Lewis, and George Herbert Mead, also had wide-ranging and long-lasting impact – Dewey, for instance, in educational theory and Confucian philosophy; Lewis in logic; and Mead in sociology.
Necessity is a touchstone issue in the thought of Charles Peirce, not least because his pragmatist account of meaning relies upon modal terms. In contrast to the highly influential positivist currents in twentieth century philosophy in which “fact-stating” is paramount and put in the indicative mode, Peirce famously advised us to clarify the meaning of our terms using “would-bes,” not “will-bes” (CP 5.453; 5.457, 1905). Peirce's pragmatic maxim is that we must look to the practical effects of our concepts, and the practical effects he is concerned with are those that would occur under certain circumstances, not those that will actually occur. This effectively translates every meaningful term into a set of hypothetical conditionals. Thus, for instance, the fact that a table is hard means (among other things) that if I were to rest a dinner plate on it, the plate would not fall through to the floor (Misak 2013, 29ff; Hookway 1985).
Peirce thought deeply about necessity in all its aspects, and this is one of the areas of his work with as-yet-untapped insights. Discussions of necessity show up from his earliest philosophical writings based on Kant's logic and its table of 12 categories (one row of which is, of course, explicitly modal) to the end of his life, when he was working out a forest of distinctions in semiotics. His thoughts on modality also span a multitude of philosophical areas – informing his work on mathematics, logic, metaphysics, philosophy of science, and ethics.
His views on the topic have some intriguing features. His modal epistemology understands logical form as essentially structural, thus requiring representation by iconic or diagrammatic signs. Peirce made good on this commitment, developing the Existential Graphs, a diagrammatic logical notation, which is still understudied by mainstream logicians. His metaphysics differs from that of many nineteenth century peers in flatly denying “necessitarianism” (determinism) and arguing for real chance. He also distinguished between a kind of necessity that corresponds to the compulsion given by one billiard ball to another (which we might refer to in Peircean terms as a “Secondness Necessity”) and a kind of necessity that corresponds to a real universal (“Thirdness Necessity”), whereas in contemporary philosophy the two are routinely conflated.
Frank Ramsey is usually taken to be an emotivist or an expressivist about the good: he is usually taken to bifurcate inquiry into fact-stating and non-fact stating domains, ethics falling into the latter. In this paper I shall argue that whatever the very young Ramsey's view might have been, towards the end of his short life, he was coming to a through-going and objective pragmatism about all our beliefs, including those about the good, beauty, and even the meaning of life. Ethical beliefs are not mere expressions of emotion, but rather fall under our cognitive scope. They can be assessed as rational or irrational, true or false.
The pragmatist view of politics is at its very heart epistemic, for it treats morals and politics as a kind of deliberation or inquiry, not terribly unlike other kinds of inquiry. With the exception of Richard Rorty, the pragmatists argue that morals and politics, like science, aim at the truth or at getting things right and that the best method for achieving this aim is a method they sometimes call the scientific method or the method of intelligence – what would now be termed deliberative democracy. Hence, the pragmatists offer an argument for democracy which appeals to the quality of the decisions supplied by democratic procedure. Why should we value decisions that are the products of voting after open debate over private decision-making and then voting, over bargaining, or over elimination of those who disagree with us? We should value them because the deliberative democratic method is more likely to give us true or right or justified answers to our questions. Rorty, of course, thinks that no inquiry aims at the truth and that nothing about pragmatism speaks in democracy's favor. This paper will show how his brand of pragmatism betrays what is good and deeply interesting in the pragmatist tradition.
Isaac Levi stands out as one of the most important philosophers who has worked in the pragmatist tradition. Like his predecessors, Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, Levi insists that we must take practice and context seriously when we think about knowledge and truth. Each of the classical pragmatists followed through on this central insight in a different way and each has motivated a different kind of contemporary pragmatist. Levi's kind focusses on according our existing corpus of belief its actual and proper status in epistemology. What we are concerned with in inquiry – in seeking knowledge – is the revision of that corpus of belief as opposed to the pedigree or origin of belief. What we are concerned with is whether we should retain a commitment or whether we should abandon it in favor of an alternative commitment.
Levi seems to sometimes take himself to be closest to Dewey, in whose old department – Columbia – Levi spent the bulk of his career. They both focus on the problem-solving nature of knowledge. But it is more apt, I suggest, to think of Levi as the inheritor of Peirce's position. Levi has himself acknowledged the similarities. But he also identifies what he takes to be significant gulfs between his position and Peirce's. My aim in this chapter is to show that these are not as wide as they might first appear.
Charles Sanders Peirce was the founder of pragmatism - the view that our theories must be linked to experience or practice. His work is staggering in its breadth and much of it lies in a huge bulk of manuscripts and scraps. His few published papers include those of the 1870s series in Popular Science Monthly called “Illustrations of the Logic of Science,” most notably “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” and “The Fixation of Belief.” His Lowell Lectures in 1898 and 1903 and his Harvard Pragmatism Lectures in 1903 also contain essential material. But much of what is important is only now being published in the definitive chronological edition: The Writings of Charles Sanders Peirce.
Peirce was a difficult man and this was no doubt partly responsible for his being frozen out of what he most desired: a permanent academic position. He worked instead for the U.S. Coast Survey – his scientific and mathematical endeavors there had a significant influence on his logic, on his work in statistical inference, and on his epistemology and metaphysics. He is perhaps best known today for his theory of truth and his semeiotics, as well as for his influence on William James and John Dewey. But because of the scattered nature of his work and because he was always out of the academic mainstream, many of his contributions are just now coming to light.
Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) is generally considered the most significant American philosopher. He was the founder of pragmatism, the view popularized by William James and John Dewey, that our philosophical theories must be linked to experience and practice. The essays in this volume reveal how Peirce worked through this idea to make important contributions to most branches of philosophy. The topics covered include Peirce's influence; the famous pragmatic maxim and the view of truth and reality arising from it; the question as to whether mathematical, moral and religious hypotheses might aspire to truth; his theories of inquiry and perception; and his contribution to semiotics, statistical inference and deductive logic. New readers will find this the most convenient and accessible guide to Peirce currently available. Advanced students and specialists will find a conspectus of recent developments in the interpretation of Peirce.
C. S. Peirce argued that a true belief is the belief we would come to, were we to inquire as far as we could on a matter. A true belief is a belief which could not be improved upon, a belief which would forever meet the challenges of reasons, argument, and evidence.
Peirce initially put this idea in the following unhelpful way: a true belief is one which would be agreed upon at the hypothetical or ‘fated’ end of inquiry (See W 3, 273, 1878). It is this formulation which is usually attacked by those who see little value in the pragmatist view of truth. But a much better formulation is this: a true belief is one which would withstand doubt, were we to inquire as far as we fruitfully could into the matter. A true belief is such that, no matter how much further we were to investigate and debate, it would not be overturned by recalcitrant experience and argument (CP 5.569, 1901, 6.485, 1908). I have argued elsewhere (Misak 2000:49f) that this formulation, unlike the first, is not vulnerable to the standard objections to the pragmatist account of truth.
I have also argued (Misak 2000) that this formulation is very friendly to cognitivism about morals – very friendly to the idea that moral judgements fall within the scope of truth, knowledge, and inquiry. Our ethical beliefs might well aspire to truth, as do our beliefs in science, mathematics, and discourse about ordinary middle-sized objects.
Isaac Levi uses C. S. Peirce's fallibilism as a foil for his own “epistemological infallibilism“. I argue that Levi's criticisms of Peirce do not hit their target, and that the two pragmatists agree on the fundamental issues concerning background knowledge, certainty, revision of belief, and the aims of inquiry.
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