How many a priori methods? Still Another look at Fixation of Belief

Draft of a lecture given at the Peirce Lowell Conference, 2014, under revision for publication (c)


In spite of all the inspiring readings of Peirce’s Illustrations, and we have plenty of them, from Douglas Anderson to Tom Short, Vincent Colapietro and others, two problems about the a priori method, believing what pleases reason, seem to be still pending: (1) the method differs dramatically, from one version to another, and these variations suggest that it would be careless to think that Peirce’s “list” of methods in the Illustrations is confined to the “four”, or to only four, methods for the settlement of belief. The function of this method is clearly delimited in a negative way: it consists entirely in the desire that beliefs are fixed neither by individual whims nor by that of the State, but that still leaves a full register of methods, which overlap without being identical. I’ll study three of them here. (2) One can wonder whether it is a method for the fixation of beliefs or a mere method for elucidating beliefs that owe nothing to this method to be deeply rooted in us. Is the method useful for telling which beliefs can be retained because they please reason or for revealing what pleases reason?

We take for granted that there are “four” methods for the settlement of belief in Peirce’s Illustrations, and they are everywhere to be found, in every anthology or introduction to Peirce. Still, the number “four”, insofar it might suggest that we have definitive list or enumeration, deserves closer attention. Do we need to go so far as “four”? It is an open question, into which I shall not embark here though, whether the first method, consisting in clinging tenaciously to our beliefs, is really a method or another way to describe what belief essentially is[1], but just remember that tenacity is already contained in the way Peirce characterizes belief in Fixation:

“We cling tenaciously, not merely to believing, but to believing just what we do believe”(W3, 247).

And if we admit that there are more than three methods, why after all would we stop just at four? If the method of authority and the scientific method can be neatly contrasted and certainly count as two different methods, the « third » method, the a priori method, can be a matter of perplexity, as in point of fact it seems to involve sundry different methods, even though one often quotes the following lines

The most perfect example of it is to be found in the history of metaphysical philosophy. Systems of this sort have not usually rested upon any observed facts, at least not in any great degree. They have been chiefly adopted because their fundamental propositions seemed « agreeable to reason. » This is an apt expression; it does not meanthat which agrees with experience, but that which we find ourselves inclined to believe. EP1, 118.

What we are inclined to believe… How we are inclined to do so differs dramatically, from one version to another, and these variations suggest that it would be careless to think that the “list” of methods is as definitive as the table of judgments in Kant.

1. The A priori Method: Moral Education?

One could think, when reading the preparatory 1872 Manuscripts[2], that this method is a sheer development of the method of authority, where the State (or the Church, or any collective that is powerful enough to control expressions of doubt) is not content to enforce certain creeds, but tries and have them spread, in a softer way, through education and indoctrination. That would be the “soft power” version of the despotic method:

A modification of this is method number three, to cultivate a public opinion by oratory and preaching and by fostering certain sentiments and passions in the minds of the young. W3, 15.

In that case, we would have to understand Peirce’s claim as implying that wherever a doubt will come in our way, it will be possible to foster dispositions that counter it: it would be part of a long-term political or cultural agenda. Something that both Rousseau, with the culture of civic virtues, and Stuart Mill, and even W. Lippmann, who coined in his Public opinion the very notion of “manufacture of consent”, within very different frameworks, also understood.

2. A Dialectic of Opinions?

Still, in the next manuscript, it is become the “method of public opinion”[3], where a conviction settles through the interaction and the struggle of individual opinions[4], even if there is no manufacture of consent by a government or a church.

The relevant image would now be, one may say, the “free marketplace of opinions”. As Peirce will make clear in a later MS, which is a variant of Fixation, it will be a form of “dialectic”, in a curious mix of Darwin and Hegel:

As the power which maintains the belief has become public and methodical, so men demand that the propositions to be believed shall be determined in a public and methodical manner –let the action of natural preferences be unimpeded then, and under their influence, let men conversing together and discussing their opinions, gradually develop such as are fitted to survive. This is the method of Dialectic, called in the sphere of philosophy the a priori method. It springs from the humus of decayed religions. Greek philosophy came when the myths began to shock people ; and modern philosophy followed upon the heels of the Reformation. MS278b.

That is what looks most like a “conversational” reason, in which Peirce does not lay unlimited hopes; that’s also the closest thing to the natural selection of beliefs mentioned by Chauncey Wright.

Peirce does not think that the free interplay of opinions necessarily leads to true propositions and to an enlightened consensus. He seems in general to think exactly the contrary; in the Contributions, he quotes with approval Glanvill, who says ….; in his early discussions of Whewell, he is reluctant at the idea that controversies really help clarifying scientific notions. In some of the early manuscripts of the Illustrations, he is also very clear on the difference between conversational consensus and the convergence of inquirers:

He who reasons will regard the opinions of the majority of mankind with contemptuous indifference; they will not in the least disturb his opinions. He will also neglect the beliefs of those who are not informed, and among the small residue he may fairly expect some unanimity on many questions. W3, 15.

So much for conversational reason. It may also well be the case that a very persistent consensus occurs that would just be an after-effect of, say, the physiological complexion of human species, or that would just be the extension of an outdated instinct (that certainly is the lesson of his initial warning in Fixation concerning our tendencies to believe immoderately[5]).

3. An Elucidation of Constitutive Beliefs?

We might miss the third aspect of this method: when Peirce writes that it consists in adopting what “is agreeable to reason”[6], as in the quote I’ve just given earlier, he seems to presuppose that it is not a mere play of contradictory opinions, but that these opinions are deemed conform to “reason”, or “conscience”, or any other form of court that is no mere whim nor brute coercion.

But we are not brought back to the method of tenacity[7]: beliefs, here, are “agreeable to reason” even after careful examination. Peirce offers the example of the distance between celestial spheres that the most careful disciples of Plato and Kepler think along very different lines, and he certainly suggests that the only difference between them is the pleasure caused by the representation but it is important to see that the taste, here, is not merely individual, even if all the effects of fashion and history can play a role.

It is Peirce’s conviction that this agreeable character can reach even the most fundamental and shared representations. “I cannot think otherwise” would in many cases not be the result of a logical impossibility but of this kind of hidden attraction. We can find, under this third rubric, the cogito as well as the reference to a so-called evidence [8], we can find what Peirce will single out later as the “German Style” — i.e. a subjectivist approach to the validity of inferences founded on the “logical feeling”[9]— as well as the examination of “instinctive beliefs” evidenced by the transcendental method. And in variants, in addition to Descartes’s example, he also adds Kant to the list of the adepts of the a priori method:

I may as well notice here a style of reasoning much used for the support of instinctive beliefs. I mean the transcendental method. . . . The method was the invention of Kant, and in his hands it consists in showing, by some ingenious argument–different in every case–that the logical analysis of the process which the mind must go through shows that the proposition which is to be defended is involved in the a priori conditions of the possibility of practical everyday experience. CP2.31

Taking seriously the idea that the presuppositions of knowledge aren’t more than “hopes” and don’t carry any guarantee as to their object, Peirce seems to show that they just represent what is agreeable to reason and constitute the preconditions of knowledge for reasons that might well, on second thoughts, turn out to be accidental, and this is just an example of the third method.

So, we have three different things under the same rubric: creeds cultivated by States or Churches or collectives, the result of the interplay of opinions, where maybe the “fittest” will be selected, and, to put it crudely, a revised version of the transcendental.

Accordingly, and this would be my first claim, we have different logics: in the first case, (a) the method helps securing beliefs, it is, as advertised, a method for the fixation of beliefs, but in manner that is close to the second method; in the second case, (b) it helps explaining how consensus is reached, and it also helps explaining that the belief itself is not determined at the beginning of the inquiry and can change dramatically with time, so that the a priori method would share something important with the scientific method, where the initial belief is subjected to important revisions (without the idea the well-informed inquirers may hope to converge in the long run). In the third case, though, (c), the method does not seem so much to fix beliefs when they are threatened by doubt as to tell us which beliefs we have that we did not know we had at the outset, that’s the very idea of a transcendental deduction; it would be a method of elucidation more than a method of fixation and would be deeply connected with Peirce’s doctrine of Critical Common-Sensism.

4. A priori Method and Practical Beliefs

But remember that we don’t have only theoretical beliefs but also practical ones (or that there is not clear-cut distinction between them), and Peirce would hold a strange pragmatism indeed if the first three methods were here to secure practical beliefs and the last one theoretical beliefs only: they all concern our theoretical beliefs and our practical beliefs.

So, do the methods also apply to practical beliefs? It is clear that the two first methods can do so. The very point of the second method is to get a grip on our practical beliefs, hence on our conduct, otherwise it is pointless (if beliefs had no practical dimensions, nobody would try and control the beliefs of others). But how does the a priori method behave regarding practical beliefs? We could expect that in that realm also, the method will consist in stabilizing (practical) beliefs that are agreeable to reason, that is to say that are consistent with our deeply ingrained moral dispositions, and it is certainly the case that Peirce, in his examples, refers to the frivolous opinions of the metaphysicians as well as the deepest and the most serious moralpractical, beliefs.

Peirce has two claims here: our apathy in front of objections, in matters of morality, would be in large part evidence of the grip of the third method; doubt would in large part the side-effect of the reflection on ethnological differences and of a larger kind of “social impulse”, which would undermine our parochial beliefs. Moral reactions are paradigmatic of the behavior of the third method:

Bring morality into question and you will see a determination not to question or discuss it which show the force of this method [the third method]. Traditional belief remains undisturbed until one community comes in contact with another. Then it is seen that the result is quite accidental and dependent on surrounding circumstances and initial conditions and belief gets all unsettled.[10]

It is worth pondering this. It that was the case, if it was enough to stress what is accidental in our practical beliefs, including our moral convictions, to cast doubt on them and to counter the decrees of the third method, it is clear that Peirce’s parades to skepticism would be less powerful than hoped[11]. There are two different claims here: (1) the idea that our practical beliefs are open to revision, (2) the idea that they would ultimately have to be grounded on reason (on something “non-accidental”) and that if we can see that they are not, we would have to doubt them. (1) would be an empirical and even anthropological claim: we can be shaken in our beliefs when we face other forms of life. (2) would be a theoretical claim: as long as we can discover accidental causes for our practical beliefs, even though we think we derive them from conscience, evidence, or “reason”, we’ll be exposed to the skeptical effects of reflection and we would have to be so as responsible inquirers. (1) is perfectly reasonable but does not show much, (2) is not promising to say the least, as we’ll see.

In Fixation, after stressing that the a priori method can be a resource against the method of authority, or after its failure, but can also magnify accidental and casual circumstances, Peirce offers an example that belongs clearly to moral beliefs, that of our stance towards polygamy:

We have examined into this a priori method as something which promised to deliver our opinions from their accidental and capricious element. But development, while it is a process which eliminates the effect of some casual circumstances, only magnifies that of others. This method, therefore, does not differ in a very essential way from that of authority. The government may not have lifted its finger to influence my convictions; I may have been left outwardly quite free to choose, we will say, between monogamy and polygamy, and, appealing to my conscience only, I may have concluded that the latter practice is in itself licentious.

Peirce suggests that a little reflection on cultural differences in that domain should lead to two conclusions: (1) our sentiments, pivotal in the workings of the a priori method, have causes, they even have accidental causes; (2) the revelation of those “extraneous circumstances” should also be not only a cause but also a reason for dismissing such beliefs:

But when I come to see that the chief obstacle to the spread of Christianity among a people of as high culture as the Hindoos has been a conviction of the immorality of our way of treating women, I cannot help seeing that, though governments do not interfere, sentiments in their development will be very greatly determined by accidental causes. Now, there are some people, among whom I must suppose that my reader is to be found, who, when they see that any belief of theirs is determined by any circumstance extraneous to the facts, will from that moment not merely admit in words that that belief is doubtful, but will experience a real doubt of it, so that it ceases [in some degree at least, 1910] to be a belief. W3, 253

Peirce’s conclusion is strange: would we have to become perfect agnostics in matters of practice, as long as beliefs are fashioned after accidental circumstances? Should we then be led to accept the view that ethics should be grounded? This is certainly a perfectly endorsable position, but not the one Peirce seems to favor in the majority of his texts, before and after the Illustrations.

In other texts, Peirce holds that some deep moral beliefs (which he sometimes calls “instincts”) do not react to doubt in the same way as common-sense beliefs on logic react to the clash of beliefs, so much so that the third method would be stronger in its effects in morals than the “social impulse”. So not only it would have at least three different aspects, but it would also behave differently in logic and in ethics. One of the symptoms of this difference would be the “anger” caused by theoretical doubts[12], as when we’ve been dislodged of our belief by the reasoning of a competent inquirer, contrasting with the relative apathy felt when someone, in other contexts, goes against our deepest moral dispositions, as Peirce shows through a telling analogy:

If our own belief were not disturbed, there is no reason why we should care what others believe; and if we are quite sure that we are better acquainted with the subject than are the doubters, their doubts will in fact provoke nothing more than a good-natured smile. Contrast this with our sentiments if, in a parlor in somePacific Island, one of the ladies should call for a dry gown and take off the only garment she had on before the company, preparatory to putting on the other, without the others appearing to see anything out of the common course in it. All sorts of shivers would run through us; but there would not be a trace of anger, for the reason that our own instincts–or rather, comparatively modern traditions–would remain absolutely undisturbed.[13]

The apathy here, is not that of the agnostic, feeling that both stances to “corporal pudor” are equally contingent, but that of the New Englander, confident in his ways and practical beliefs, even in face of other forms of life. It is not a theoretical attitude regarding the way moral beliefs are framed but a non-cognitivist stance to ethics. If dispositions, as in Peirce’s example, are relatively immune against other cultural dispositions, it would mean that practical beliefs do not even have to be fixed by our conversations or reference to the voice of reason, they just are. There is no such thing as an a priori method for the fixation of these beliefs.

If that was not the case, if Peirce’s claim about polygamy in 1877 were to represent the core of his position, Fixation would lead to a skeptical and intellectualist stance, and would thus be at odds, on this point, with Peirce’s general anti-skepticism, as developed in the 1868 series:

— An intellectualist one. If that was the end of the story here, the traditional reading of Peirce’s development, where the 1898 Cambridge Lectures would be a correction to the “too pragmatic” 1878 Illustrations as well as a rebuttal of James’s stress on “vitally important questions” would have to be revised: Fixation would be guilty of the charge of deciding upon practical beliefs on philosophical grounds, it would be guilty of “mingling” theory and practice, but not in the way it is generally understood, because it was too activist, Peirce would be in some ways in 1898 mainly criticizing the very — intellectualist, ultra-rationalist— letter of his 1878 text, and not James or Royce, in the first lecture.

— A skeptical stance: we could then build a general argument to the effect that all the decrees of reason and conscience carry something accidental with them (especially in practical matters), so much so that we might and should doubt everything that is fixed along the principles of the third method (that would be a skeptical position relying on metaphilosophical considerations). If we have in mind later texts as the Carnegie Application, Reason’s rules and other post 1900 manuscripts, the elucidatory work of the third method would not be a way to fix our beliefs. It would be something as the “halfway house to the road of doubt”. But that would involve an account of belief, and of “deliberate belief” that strongly contrasts with the standard view which provides the core of the Illustrations series.


[1] See Peirce’s characterization of belief in general: “On the contrary, we cling tenaciously, not merely to believing, but to believing just what we do believe”(W3, 247). I cannot mention here, in this talk version, all the inspiring new readings of Fixation, from Short’s now classical paper, Short, T. L. (2000). Peirce on the Aim of Inquiry: Another Reading of » Fixation ». Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society36(1), 1-23, to Jeff Kasser. « How Settled are Settled Beliefs in “The Fixation of Belief”? » Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 47.2 (2011): 226-247. The most inspiring exchanges, recently, have been between Talisse and Rydenfeldt (see Metaphilosophy, Symposium on A Pragmatist Philosophy of Democracy, 42, 5, 2011).

[2] W3, 15.

[3] W3, 17.

[4] W3, 17.

[5] W3, 248.

[6] W3, 252.

[7] See Talisse, R. B. (2004). Towards a Peircean politics of inquiry. Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 40(1), 21-38, p. 24, for this point and for a definition of the a priori method as a kind of epistemic aristocracy.

[8] 5.391 (1878).

[9] See Minute Logic, 2.166.

[10] W3, 19.

[11] See Misak, Truth and the End of Inquiry, Oxford, Clarendon, 1991, 58, for another version of this argument.

[12] On this kind of “anger”, see 1.344, 1.277.

[13] Why Study Logic ?, 2.160, from Minute Logic, 1902.


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