Some Observations on C. S. Peirce
The topic today is a single paragraph from a paper by the American philosopher Charles Saunders Peirce (pronounced “purse”) titled “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed For Man.” Peirce is considered a highly original and influential thinker, and by considering in detail Peirce’s assertions in this excerpt we’ll be able to see why. Here it is:
Passing to the distinction of belief and conception, we meet the statement that the knowledge of belief is essential to its existence. Now, we can unquestionably distinguish a belief from a conception, in most cases, by means of a peculiar feeling of conviction; and it is a mere question of words whether we define belief as that judgment which is accompanied by this feeling, or as that judgment from which a man will act. We may conveniently call the former sensational, the latter active, belief. That neither of these necessarily involves the other, will surely be admitted without any recital of facts. Taking belief in the sensational sense, the intuitive power of reorganizing it will amount simply to the capacity for the sensation which accompanies the judgment. This sensation, like any other, is an object of consciousness; and therefore the capacity for it implies no intuitive recognition of subjective elements of consciousness. If belief is taken in the active sense, it may be discovered by the observation of external facts and by inference from the sensation of conviction which usually accompanies it.(1)
This passage appears in a paper in which Peirce debunks a number of ideas that much of philosophy has historically considered true but that Peirce considers false. The first sentence expresses one of them:
Passing to the distinction of belief and conception, we meet the statement that the knowledge of belief is essential to its existence.
In this sentence Peirce states what he will argue against. The rest of the paragraph is his refutation of the proposition that in order to have a belief we must know that we have it. By “conception” Peirce means an idea, a notion, a judgment or a thought, something we entertain mentally. What he means by “belief” is at the root of Peirce’s contribution to philosophy, and will be made clear shortly.
Now, we can unquestionably distinguish a belief from a conception, in most cases, by means of a peculiar feeling of conviction ….
We can think of something without actually believing it. For instance, I can think “The cat is on the mat” without believing that the cat really is on the mat. The words are just a conception, an idea; perhaps the idea includes along with the words a mental picture of the cat residing on the mat or perhaps not. If I look and see that the cat is there, then a feeling of conviction is added to the conception. When I not only think but also believe that the cat is on the mat, then, Peirce says, a feeling of belief, a feeling of being convinced, is present in the experience as well.
This assertion should give us pause. Peirce is making a claim about one’s subjective experience of belief; and the claim is about all people, not just himself. How can we tell if he is right or not? To see if there is such a difference we would each have to examine our own experience of believing something and contrast it (in memory or in imagination) to our own experience of just thinking of something without believing it. I invite you, dear reader, to do just that. Let me know what you find out.
Peirce then says
… it is a mere question of words whether we define belief as that judgment which is accompanied by this feeling, or as that judgment from which a man will act.
[Note: Writing before the harmful effects of male-only language were recognized, Peirce means by “man” any human being.]
Peirce offers two definitions of the term “belief.” He does not mean to say that the two definitions are equivalent, as the phrase “mere question of words” might suggest. Peirce means to say that we can define the term “belief” however we like so long as the meaning is clear and we all agree on it. The first definition is what we have just discussed. The second is Peirce’s original and influential contribution to philosophy and the foundation on which Pragmatism as a philosophical movement is based. Belief, he says, is that upon which a person will act. In other papers he offers similar definitions:
If a man is made to believe in the premisses, in the sense that he will act from them and will say that they are true, under favorable conditions he will also be ready to act from the conclusion and to say that it is true.(2)
Our beliefs guide our desires and shape our actions. … The feeling of believing is a more or less sure indication of there being established in our nature some habit which will determine our actions. … Belief does not make us act at once, but puts us into such a condition that we shall behave in some certain way, when the occasion arises.(3)
In contemporary terms, Peirce is a Dispositionalist, one who thinks that it is the pattern of actual and potential behavior that is fundamental in belief. Believing that something is the case is equivalent to being disposed to act as though it is the case.(4)
It is instructive to consider how Peirce comes to this view. He does so by observing how belief and its opposite, doubt, actually function in ourselves and in the world. In his influential paper “The Fixation of Belief” he says that doubt and belief differ in three ways:(5)
- They feel different. The sensation of doubting is a kind of irritation. The sensation of belief is calm and satisfactory.
- They have different ways of determining our actions in the world. Doubt is a state in which we do not act with surety; it gives us no guidance; we do not know what to do, so we act hesitantly if at all. Belief is a state in which we do act with surety. We have confidence in what we believe and act on our beliefs quite readily.
- They have different ways of determining our actions toward themselves. “Doubt is an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves and pass into the state of belief; while the latter is a calm and satisfactory state which we do not wish to avoid, or to change to a belief in anything else.”(6)
Peirce was trained as a scientist and a logician and made his living taking scientific measurements for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. His method in all things intellectual is scientific. Instead of reasoning from putatively self-evident first premises, he observes reality and learns from it. In the case of belief he observes the effects that it and its opposite, doubt, have on the believer, both internally, how doubt and belief feel, and externally, in what way they affect further efforts of inquiry.
Returning now to the passage at hand, Peirce says
We may conveniently call the former sensational, the latter active, belief. That neither of these necessarily involves the other, will surely be admitted without any recital of facts.
Sensational belief is that which is accompanied by a feeling of conviction. Active belief is that which determines how we are disposed to act. Peirce claims that either one can occur without the other, but unfortunately adduces no facts in support of his claim. Let’s see if he is right. By constructing a truth table we see that there are four possible cases concerning a conception (or, as we would say today, a proposition) that might or might not be a belief. Let S stand for Sensational and A for Active belief; here is the table:
|1||S true||A true|
|2||S true||A false|
|3||S false||A true|
|4||S false||A false|
Case 1: Sensational is true and Active is true; the proposition is accompanied by a feeling of conviction and also disposes the person believing it to act. An example of case 1 is this: I am about to go out and want to know if it is raining. I am in a state of doubt. I look out the window and see that rain is falling. Now I am no longer in a state of doubt, but one of belief. I am quite confident that it is raining, and I take my umbrella with me to keep me dry. My belief is accompanied by a feeling of conviction and directs my action as well.
Case 2: Sensational is true and Active is false; the proposition is accompanied by a feeling of conviction but does not dispose the person believing it to act. An example of case 2 is this: I have a sudden feeling that there is a ghost in the next room, but I know that ghosts don’t exist, so I don’t do anything about it. The feeling is there, but not the impulse to action.
Case 3: Sensational is false and Active is true; the proposition is not accompanied by a feeling of conviction but does dispose the person believing it to act. There are a great many examples of case 3. By far the majority of our beliefs are not things we think of or pay attention to, but do influence our behavior, beliefs such as that the floor is stable and will not suddenly give way; that one’s cup is where one last put it; that plants need sunlight and so forth.
Case 4: Sensational is false and Active is false; the proposition is not accompanied by a feeling of conviction and neither does it dispose the person believing it to act. Case 4 includes two sub-cases, one in which we have no belief at all and the other in which we believe that a proposition is false. An example of the former (4a) would be the proposition that the flight from Austin to Chicago is delayed. I do not know whether that is so, and I don’t care, so I have neither a feeling of certainty nor a disposition to act. An example of the latter (4b) would be the proposition that the moon is made of green cheese. I believe the proposition false, so again I have neither a feeling of conviction in its truth nor a disposition to act. (I do, however, have a feeling of conviction in its contradiction, that the moon is not made of green cheese, so this case might properly be thought of as an example of case 1.)
An examination of cases shows that Peirce is correct in saying that sensational and active beliefs do not necessarily involve each other.
The next sentence is surprising: “Taking belief in the sensational sense, the intuitive power of reorganizing it will amount simply to the capacity for the sensation which accompanies the judgment.” It is unclear to me what reorganizing a belief would amount to, and to my knowledge Peirce nowhere else speaks of such reorganization. I suspect that this is a typographical error in the original, and the word should be “recognizing.” If so, the sentence would make more sense:
Taking belief in the sensational sense, the intuitive power of recognizing it will amount simply to the capacity for the sensation which accompanies the judgment.
On this reading the sentence would mean that the power of recognizing a conception as a belief consists in the capacity one has for the sensation, the “peculiar feeling of conviction,” to arise. The sentence is scarcely more than a tautology, but at least it makes sense.
What follows, however, is even more problematic.
This sensation, like any other, is an object of consciousness; and therefore the capacity for it implies no intuitive recognition of subjective elements of consciousness.
The sensation is certainly an object of consciousness in the sense that the person believing the proposition and paying attention to the sensation feels it. But it is also subjective in that only that person and nobody else feels it, so it would appear that Peirce is just wrong. The key to understanding this sentence is his use of the word “intuitive.” Peirce uses the term “intuition” in a special way. He means by it “a cognition not determined by a previous cognition of the same object, … [a] premiss not itself a conclusion.”(7) He thinks there are no such things, and the whole paper “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man” attacks in various ways the assertion that there are. An example of such an alleged intuition is Descartes’ famous Cogito, ergo sum, “I think, therefore I exist.” From this alleged certain or self-evident proposition Descartes erects an account of reality that he claims to be indubitable because it rests on an indubitable foundation. Peirce scorns such a method. For Peirce, the way to find out about reality is to employ the scientific method: form a hypothesis; deduce from it some conclusions that can be verified experimentally; and then observe reality carefully in order to corroborate or disprove the hypothesis.
That said, I think his use of the word “intuitive” is unfortunate because it implies that we have no way of knowing the subjective elements of conscious experience other than by inference from publicly-observable facts. But, as Husserl has shown, conscious experience certainly does contain subjective elements; and one way we can know them is through introspective phenomenological observation, that is to say, from privately observable facts.
The final sentence in the passage at hand reiterates Peirce’s commitment to the scientific method:
If belief is taken in the active sense, it may be discovered by the observation of external facts and by inference from the sensation of conviction which usually accompanies it.
We quite often discover belief by observing external facts. The old adage “actions speak louder than words” comes to mind: If someone says they think the ice is safe enough to walk on but refuses actually to walk on it, we infer that they don’t really think so. A less overt example is what cognitive psychologists call Theory of Mind and philosopher Daniel Dennett calls the Intentional Stance, which consists of treating the object whose behavior you want to predict as a rational agent with beliefs and desires.(8) If something seems to move on its own rather than being pushed by another object, and it moves toward something as if trying to reach a goal, and it changes direction flexibly in response to what is happening in its environment, then we quite automatically take it to be an agent, a being with beliefs about its surroundings as well as things it wants to acquire or accomplish.(9)
Peirce also says that we can infer from the sensation of conviction that we will be willing to act on what we are convinced of. I suppose that is true, but in practice we hardly ever if at all go through an explicit chain of such reasoning. We just act on what we believe without any thought of whether we believe it. If thought is needed, it is to decide what to believe, not to figure out what we believe by considering our sensations of conviction.
In summary, this short passage illustrates several key ideas of C.S. Peirce’s pragmatic thought:
- Reliance on scientific method, of careful observation of reality, to determine what it is reasonable to believe.
- Reliance on observations not only of third-person objective facts but also of first-person subjective facts.
- Understanding what a concept means by what practical consequences it has, and in particular understanding belief as that upon which a person is disposed to act.
- The importance of action in the world, not just contemplative thought from an armchair, to determine the meaning of concepts.
Peirce is the founder of Pragmatism. If you would like to study his ideas in more depth, I recommend two articles, which, taken together, are the foundational statements of that philosophical movement: “The Fixation of Belief” and “How To Make Our Ideas Clear.”
(1) Peirce, ed. Weiner, “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man,” pp. 31-32.
(2) Peirce, ed. Weiner, “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” p. 42.
(3) Peirce, ed. Weiner, “The Fixation of Belief,” pp. 98-99.
(4) Schwitzgebel, “Belief.”
(5) Peirce, ed. Weiner, “The Fixation of Belief,” pp. 98-99.
(6) Ibid., p. 99.
(7) Peirce, ed. Weiner, “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man,” p. 18.
(8) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 15.
(9) Hauser, Moral Minds, pp. 313–322.
Dennett, Daniel. The Intentional Stance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.
Hauser, Marc D. Moral Minds: The Nature of Right and Wrong. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.
Peirce, Charles Saunders. “How To Make Our Ideas Clear.” Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 12, pp. 286-302 (January 1878). In Charles S. Peirce: Collected Writings (Values in a Universe of Chance), pp. 113-136. Ed. Philip P. Wiener. New York: Dover Publications, 1958. Online publication http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/OP/Peirce_HowToMakeOurIdeasClear.html as of 14 June 2014.
Peirce, Charles Saunders. “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Vol. 2, pp. 103-114 (1868). In Charles S. Peirce: Collected Writings (Values in a Universe of Chance), pp. 13-38. Ed. Philip P. Wiener. New York: Dover Publications, 1958. Online publication http://www.peirce.org/writings/p26.html as of 14 June 2014.
Peirce, Charles Saunders. “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Vol. 2, pp. 140-157 (1868). In Charles S. Peirce: Collected Writings (Values in a Universe of Chance), pp. 39-72. Ed. Philip P. Wiener. New York: Dover Publications, 1958. Online publication http://www.peirce.org/writings/p27.html as of 14 June 2014.
Peirce, Charles Saunders. “The Fixation of Belief.” Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 12, pp. 1-15 (November 1877). In Charles S. Peirce: Collected Writings (Values in a Universe of Chance), pp. 91-112. Ed. Philip P. Wiener. New York: Dover Publications, 1958. Online publication http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/OP/Peirce_FixationOfBelief.htm as of 14 June 2014.
Schwitzgebel, Eric. “Belief.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Spring 2014 Edition. Ed. Edward N. Zalta. Online publication http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/belief/ as of 16 June 2014.
How To Be An Excellent Human
Mysticism, Evolutionary Psychology and the Good Life by Bill Beacham, Ph.D.