ONT Pragmatic Maxim -- Variations On A Theme
Pragmatic Maxim -- Variations On A Theme
Here is the short version of a previous posting
on different variants of the pragmatic maxim,
plus a few pieces of supplementary material.
The first excerpt appears in the form of a dictionary entry,
intended as a definition of "pragmatism".
| Pragmatism. The opinion that metaphysics is to be largely cleared up
| by the application of the following maxim for attaining clearness of
| apprehension: "Consider what effects, that 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."
|(Peirce, CP 5.2, 1878/1902).
The second excerpt presents another version of the "pragmatic maxim",
a recommendation about a way of clarifying meaning that can be taken
to stake out the general POV of pragmatism.
| Pragmaticism was originally enounced in the form of a maxim, as follows:
| Consider what effects that might conceivably have practical bearings you
| conceive the objects of your conception to have. Then, your conception
| of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object.
|(Peirce, CP 5.438, 1878/1905).
The third excerpt puts a gloss on the meaning of a "practical bearing"
and provides an alternative statement of the pragmatic maxim (PM_3).
| Such reasonings and all reasonings turn upon the idea that if one exerts
| certain kinds of volition, one will undergo in return certain compulsory
| perceptions. Now this sort of consideration, namely, that certain lines
| of conduct will entail certain kinds of inevitable experiences is what
| is called a "practical consideration". Hence is justified the maxim,
| belief in which constitutes pragmatism; namely,
| In order to ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception one should
| consider what practical consequences might conceivably result by necessity
| from the truth of that conception; and the sum of these consequences will
| constitute the entire meaning of the conception.
|(Peirce, CP 5.9, 1905).
The fourth excerpt illustrates one of Peirce's many attempts to get the sense
of the pragmatic POV across by rephrasing the pragmatic maxim in an alternative
way (PM_4). In introducing this version, he addresses an order of prospective
critics who do not deem a simple heuristic maxim, much less one that concerns
itself with a routine matter of logical procedure, as forming a sufficient
basis for a whole philosophy.
| On their side, one of the faults that I think they might find with me is that
| I make pragmatism to be a mere maxim of logic instead of a sublime principle
| of speculative philosophy. In order to be admitted to better philosophical
| standing I have endeavored to put pragmatism as I understand it into the
| same form of a philosophical theorem. I have not succeeded any better
| than this:
| Pragmatism is the principle that every theoretical judgment expressible
| in a sentence in the indicative mood is a confused form of thought whose
| only meaning, if it has any, lies in its tendency to enforce a corresponding
| practical maxim expressible as a conditional sentence having its apodosis in
| the imperative mood.
|(Peirce, CP 5.18, 1903).
The fifth excerpt, PM_5, is useful by way of additional clarification,
and was aimed to correct a variety of historical misunderstandings that
arose over time with regard to the intended meaning of the pragmatic POV.
| The doctrine appears to assume that the end of man is action --
| a stoical axiom which, to the present writer at the age of
| sixty, does not recommend itself so forcibly as it did at
| thirty. If it be admitted, on the contrary, that action
| wants an end, and that that end must be something of a
| general description, then the spirit of the maxim itself,
| which is that we must look to the upshot of our concepts
| in order rightly to apprehend them, would direct us towards
| something different from practical facts, namely, to general
| ideas, as the true interpreters of our thought.
|(Peirce, CP 5.3, 1902).
A sixth excerpt, PM_6, is useful in stating the bearing of
the pragmatic maxim on the topic of reflection, namely, that
it makes all of pragmatism boil down to nothing more or less
than a method of reflection.
| The study of philosophy consists, therefore, in reflexion, and pragmatism
| is that method of reflexion which is guided by constantly holding in view
| its purpose and the purpose of the ideas it analyzes, whether these ends
| be of the nature and uses of action or of thought. ...
| It will be seen that pragmatism is not a Weltanschauung but is a
| method of reflexion having for its purpose to render ideas clear.
|(Peirce, CP 5.13 note 1, 1902).
The seventh excerpt is a late reflection on the reception of pragmatism.
With a sense of exasperation that is almost palpable, this comment tries
to justify the maxim of pragmatism and to reconstruct its misreadings by
pinpointing a number of false impressions that the intervening years have
piled on it, and it attempts once more to correct the deleterious effects
of these mistakes. Recalling the very conception and birth of pragmatism,
it reviews its initial promise and its intended lot in the light of its
subsequent vicissitudes and its apparent fate. Adopting the style of
a "post mortem" analysis, it presents a veritable autopsy of the ways
that the main truth of pragmatism, for all its practicality, can be
murdered by a host of misdissecting disciplinarians, by its most
devoted followers. This doleful but dutiful undertaking is
| This employment five times over of derivates of 'concipere' must then have
| had a purpose. In point of fact it had two. One was to show that I was
| speaking of meaning in no other sense than that of intellectual purport.
| The other was to avoid all danger of being understood as attempting to
| explain a concept by percepts, images, schemata, or by anything but
| concepts. I did not, therefore, mean to say that acts, which are
| more strictly singular than anything, could constitute the purport,
| or adequate proper interpretation, of any symbol. I compared action
| to the finale of the symphony of thought, belief being a demicadence.
| Nobody conceives that the few bars at the end of a musical movement
| are the purpose of the movement. They may be called its upshot.
|(Peirce, CP 5.402 note 3, 1906).
The next three elaborations of this POV are bound to sound mysterious
at this point, but they are necessary to the integrity of the whole work.
In any case, it is a good thing to assemble all these pieces in one place,
for future reference if nothing else.
| When we come to study the great principle of continuity
| and see how all is fluid and every point directly partakes
| the being of every other, it will appear that individualism
| and falsity are one and the same. Meantime, we know that man
| is not whole as long as he is single, that he is essentially a
| possible member of society. Especially, one man's experience is
| nothing, if it stands alone. If he sees what others cannot, we
| call it hallucination. It is not "my" experience, but "our"
| experience that has to be thought of; and this "us" has
| indefinite possibilities.
|(Peirce, CP 5.402 note 2, 1893).
| Nevertheless, the maxim has approved itself to the writer, after
| many years of trial, as of great utility in leading to a relatively
| high grade of clearness of thought. He would venture to suggest that
| it should always be put into practice with conscientious thoroughness,
| but that, when that has been done, and not before, a still higher grade
| of clearness of thought can be attained by remembering that the only
| ultimate good which the practical facts to which it directs attention
| can subserve is to further the development of concrete reasonableness;
| so that the meaning of the concept does not lie in any individual
| reactions at all, but in the manner in which those reactions
| contribute to that development. ...
| Almost everybody will now agree that the ultimate good
| lies in the evolutionary process in some way. If so, it
| is not in individual reactions in their segregation, but
| in something general or continuous. Synechism is founded
| on the notion that the coalescence, the becoming continuous,
| the becoming governed by laws, the becoming instinct with
| general ideas, are but phases of one and the same process
| of the growth of reasonableness.
|(Peirce, CP 5.3, 1902).
| No doubt, Pragmaticism makes thought ultimately apply to action exclusively --
| to conceived action. But between admitting that and either saying that it
| makes thought, in the sense of the purport of symbols, to consist in acts, or
| saying that the true ultimate purpose of thinking is action, there is much the
| same difference as there is between saying that the artist-painter's living art
| is applied to dabbing paint upon canvas, and saying that that art-life consists
| in dabbing paint, or that its ultimate aim is dabbing paint. Pragmaticism makes
| thinking to consist in the living inferential metaboly of symbols whose purport
| lies in conditional general resolutions to act.
|(Peirce, CP 5.402 note 3, 1906).
The final excerpt touches on a what can appear as a quibbling triviality
or a significant problem, depending on one's POV. It mostly arises when
sophisticated mentalities make a point of trying to apply the pragmatic
maxim in the most absurd possible ways they can think of. I apologize
for quoting such a long passage, but the full impact of Peirce's point
only develops over an extended argument.
| There can, of course, be no question that a man will act
| in accordance with his belief so far as his belief has any
| practical consequences. The only doubt is whether this is
| all that belief is, whether belief is a mere nullity so far
| as it does not influence conduct. What possible effect upon
| conduct can it have, for example, to believe that the diagonal
| of a square is incommensurable with the side? ...
| The proposition that the diagonal is incommensurable has stood in the textbooks
| from time immemorial without ever being assailed and I am sure that the most
| modern type of mathematician holds to it most decidedly. Yet it seems
| quite absurd to say that there is any objective practical difference
| between commensurable and incommensurable.
| Of course you can say if you like that the act of expressing a quantity as a
| rational fraction is a piece of conduct and that it is in itself a practical
| difference that one kind of quantity can be so expressed and the other not.
| But a thinker must be shallow indeed if he does not see that to admit a
| species of practicality that consists in one's conduct about words and
| modes of expression is at once to break down all the bars against the
| nonsense that pragmatism is designed to exclude.
| What the pragmatist has his pragmatism for is to be able to say: here is
| a definition and it does not differ at all from your confusedly apprehended
| conception because there is no practical difference. But what is to prevent
| his opponent from replying that there is a practical difference which consists
| in his recognizing one as his conception and not the other? That is, one is
| expressible in a way in which the other is not expressible.
| Pragmatism is completely volatilized if you admit that sort of practicality.
|(Peirce, CP 5.32-33, 1903).
It is may be helpful to append at this point a few additional comments
that Peirce made with respect to the concept of reality in general.
| And what do we mean by the real? It is a conception
| which we must first have had when we discovered that
| there was an unreal, an illusion; that is, when we
| first corrected ourselves. Now the distinction for
| which alone this fact logically called, was between
| an 'ens' relative to private inward determinations,
| to the negations belonging to idiosyncrasy, and
| an 'ens' such as would stand in the long run.
| The real, then, is that which, sooner or later,
| information and reasoning would finally result
| in, and which is therefore independent of the
| vagaries of me and you. Thus, the very origin
| of the conception of reality shows that this
| conception essentially involves the notion
| of a COMMUNITY, without definite limits, and
| capable of a definite increase of knowledge.
| (Peirce, CP 5.311, 1868).
| The real is that which is not whatever we
| happen to think it, but is unaffected by
| what we may think of it.
|(Peirce, CE 2:467, 1871).
| Thus we may define the real as that whose characters
| are independent of what anybody may think them to be.
|(Peirce, CP 5.405, 1878).