Rule #3. Charles Peirce’s Pragmaticism


The 3rd rule for GSOT and philosophy is – Unless it makes a difference in somebody’s disposition to act, then it makes no difference.

Every sentence, idea, or conception is in some respect a message. Rule #1 was concerned with the origin of the message. Rule #3 is concerned with its impact.

Charles Peirce ovalThis rule derives from pragmatism as originally outlined in 1878 by Charles Peirce (pronounced “purse”). Today many consider Peirce to be the greatest American philosopher. He was a path-breaking logician who, in addition to founding pragmatism, made wide-ranging contributions from statistical sampling theory to evolutionary love, which he called “agapeism.” Though highly productive in logic and philosophy, he seldom held a university post due to lapses in his personal finances and departures from social mores. He earned his living not as a professor, but as a practicing scientist with the U.S. Coastal and Geodesic Survey. In his final years, he begged and received handouts from friends including the Harvard professor, William James.

John Dewey and William James, both closely influenced by Peirce, brought pragmatism into academic and even popular culture in the United States, but they also veered from the initial logical conception. By 1905 Peirce felt that his own version of pragmatism had been corrupted, and he curtly proposed renaming it “pragmaticism,” hence the title of this blog. Philosophers today mostly agree that Peirce hit the mark. They accept his original conception of pragmatism as arguably the greatest contribution of any American to philosophical thought. We’ll simply call it pragmatism henceforth.

Put aside, then, whatever offhand descriptions of pragmatism you may have heard, and let’s see how Charles Peirce defined it. Here is the most commonly quoted statement from his 1878 paper:

The rule for attaining…clearness of apprehension is as follows: consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.[1]

“Effects… [with] practical bearings” or more concisely practical effects are the words we tend to remember. Practical, instead of pointing toward Peirce’s initial concept of practice or habits of response, came to signify in the writings of James and Dewey “real-world” or “this-world” applicability. James almost equated pragmatism with empiricism. “Practical” evolved to mean almost the same thing as “objective” or even “testable,” and pragmatism morphed heedlessly into an on-the-street version of positivism. It became a kind of self-centered utilitarianism, focused on tangible goods and prone to crass compromise of principle.

But what exactly did Peirce mean by his use of the word “practical”? We can look back to another passage in his same 1878 article on “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”:

From all these sophisms we shall be perfectly safe so long as we reflect that the whole function of thought is to produce habits of action; and that whatever there is connected with a thought, but irrelevant to its purpose, is an accretion to it, but no part of it. If there be a unity among our sensations which has no reference to how we shall act on a given occasion, as when we listen to a piece of music, why, we do not call that thinking. To develop its meaning, we have, therefore, simply to determine what habits it produces, for what a thing means is simply what habits it involves. Now, the identity of a habit depends on how it might lead us to act, not merely under such circumstances as are likely to arise, but under such as might possibly occur, no matter how improbable they may be. What the habit is depends on when and how it causes us to act. As for the when, every stimulus to action is derived from perception; as for the how, every purpose of action is to produce some sensible result. Thus, we come down to what is tangible and practical as the root of every real distinction of thought, no matter how subtile it may be; and there is no distinction of meaning so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of practice.[2]

“Practical” in Peirce’s language is not to be conflated with “objective” or “testable.” Instead it derives its meaning from practice or the Greek praxis, signifying “how we shall act.” Pragmatism, therefore, means that a thought is known only through the impetus it provides to a person to form a habit of responsive action. Notice that the effects described in the passage are decidedly effects on a person, not effects on some set of natural objects.[3]

As an example, Peirce turned to the doctrine of transubstantiation, which is affirmed by Roman Catholics, but denied by Protestants. Catholics, he said, believe that the elements of the Eucharist taste like bread and wine, but their effects on the recipient are completely as if they are the body and blood of Christ, and furthermore, they are at that moment the body and blood of Christ. Protestants believe that the elements taste like bread and wine, but their effects on the recipient are completely as if they are the body and blood of Christ, and even so, actually they are just bread and wine.

By the pragmatic criterion, all that follows “and furthermore…” and “and even so, actually…” bears no distinction of meaning, because all of the effects on the participant have already been described.

Pragmatic pears 2
If it looks like a pear and tastes like a pear and nourishes like a pear, why then let’s call it a pear and eat!

It was hardly a momentous example, but it served to introduce the principle. The Catholic and Protestant views on transubstantiation are an example of what we might call a pragmatic pair. Let’s define a pragmatic pair as two answers to a question (“Are the elements really the body and blood of Christ?”) that seem to be distinct, but lead to no difference in practice – that is, no change in the way someone acts.

The Peircean notion of pragmatic pairs is a stunning contribution to philosophy, an extraordinarily powerful tool for putting useless arguments to rest. When you start to look around, pragmatic pairs begin to pop up everywhere. Here is a question, for which I think the answers compose a pragmatic pair:

Does God exist?

I’m referring here not to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael, nor to the God of Christians, Muslims, or Bahá’is. Instead I’m referring to the God of Mortimer Adler. In the next blog we’ll look at Adler’s God, and you can decide for yourself whether the existence of such a God is meaningful.


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[1] How to Make Our Ideas Clear, first published in Popular Science Monthly (Jan. 1878), pp. 286-302, reproduced in Charles S. Peirce: Selected Writings ed. Wiener, P.P., Dover, New York, p. 124.

[2] Ibid. p 123.

[3] Notice also the Peirce uses first person language. This principle is not cast in the language of “publicly available,” third person, objective language.


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