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Why Should We Adopt the Scientific Method?
A Response to Misak's Interpretation of Peirce's Concept of Belief1

Stefan Kappner


Cheryl J. Misak's book Truth and the End of Inquiry is an admirably clear exposition and defence of Peirce's pragmatic account of truth which is characterized above all by the close relationship that is stated by Peirce between the conceptions of truth and inquiry. As a defence, it is not a strict textual interpretation in order to bring out what Peirce might have intended, but an attempt to reconstruct Peirce's account of truth in a systematically satisfying manner. This is the standpoint which I, too, adopt in this response, which concerns only a small piece of Misak's reconstruction.
     Misak shows that Peirce account of truth is pragmatic in the precise sense of the pragmatic maxim. Peirce does not want to provide a definition of truth in the first place. Rather than a definition, what is being offered is more like a specification of the chief symptoms or expectations of truth. (Misak 1991: 156; cf. ibid.: 42) That is, Peirce wants to specify what consequences we should expect from a true sentence or a true belief, and he specifies these expectations in terms of doubt and belief as the principal stages of inquiry.
In anticipation of certain kinds of naturalized epistemologies, Peirce's claim is that truth is not to be discussed in lofty transcendental terms, but rather, in the more humdrum terms of inquiry, belief, doubt and experience. (Ibid.: 41)
According to Misak, Peirce's specification of the consequences of truth amounts to the following:
An expectation is expressed by a subjunctive conditional: if H is true, then we would expect that if you were to do x, y would result. Peirce suggests that we would expect the following if H is true: if we were to inquire into H, we would find that H would encounter no recalcitrant experience. We can predict that if we were diligently to inquire about H, H would not, in the end, be overturned by experience. [...] A true belief is a permanently settled belief. (Ibid.: 42)
Because Peirce explicates the meaning of 'truth' in this way, we must rely on a conception of inquiry as belief fixation in order to understand what 'truth' means. Hence the question arises: which method of inquiry should we adopt? In his well-known paper The Fixation of Belief(1877; W3: 242-256), Peirce distinguishes four methods of belief-fixation. It is not clear at the outset which of these methods should count as the right one in order to bring about "permanently settled beliefs." This is the central problem of my paper: Why should we adopt the scientific method?
     Misak tries to solve this problem in chapter 2, sections 2 and 3 of her book. She argues that Peirce's arguments in The Fixation of Belief do not suffice to rule out the "specious methods" and brings forward an argument of her own. She argues that the solution of the problem of the right method can be found in a re-interpretation of Peirce's concept of belief:
The problem with Peirce's construal of the aim of inquiry (as the settlement of belief) is that it seems to suggest that an inquiry is anything that makes a hypothesis stick in an inquirer's head and a belief is anything that sticks. And since he holds that hypotheses that would be believed at the end of inquiry would be true, what is true seems to depend on what methods are efficient in making hypotheses stick. But if we take the notion of fixing belief seriously, then it becomes clear that the specious methods are not methods of fixing belief. They might fix some other mental state, but only the method of science and reasoning can fix genuine belief. (Misak 1991: 59)
Thus, Misak distinguishes between "genuine belief" and "some other mental state." And she argues that, if the conception of "truth" is explicated only in reference to "genuine beliefs," the problem of the right method can be eliminated. That is because "genuine belief [...] must be sensitive to evidence or experience, broadly construed," (ibid.: 59) and therefore it necessarily results only from the scientific method. I think that at this point Misak is seriously mistaken. Instead of altering the concept of "belief," we should reconsider its original pragmatic meaning in order to justify the scientific method. At least, this is what Peirce himself tried in The Fixation of Belief.
     In order to explain my standpoint, I shall briefly characterize the four methods of inquiry distinguished by Peirce and examine his reasons in favour of the scientific method (I). Then I show why Misak's solution is inadequate both as an interpretation of Peirce's position and as a reconstruction of the relationship between the concepts of belief, inquiry and truth within a Peircean framework (II). Finally, I try to formulate some thoughts towards a solution of the problem of the right method that I take to be true to the Peircean spirit (III).

I. Four Methods

     The methods of fixing belief, as presented by Peirce in his 1877 paper, are the "method of tenacity," (W3: 250; CP 5.378) the "method of authority," (W3: 251; CP 5.380) the "a priori method," (W3: 253; CP 5.380) and, finally, the "method of science." (W3: 254; CP 5.384) The method of tenacity simply consists in holding on to a belief, regardless of its origin or its justification, and to avoid all occasions that might cause one to doubt about it. (Cf. W3: 249; CP 5.377) The method of authority differs from the first method in that it concerns a community within which beliefs are fixed according to a particular social institution, and (more or less voluntarily) accepted without justification. The a priori method adopts as the standard of truth2 its being "agreeable to reason":
This is an apt expression; it does not mean that which agrees with experience, but that which we find ourselves inclined to believe. (W3: 252; CP 5.382)
This inclination is regulated and harmonized by discussion. The a priori method thus "shall not only produce an impulse to believe, but shall also decide what proposition it is which is to be believed." (W3, 252; CP 5.382) The method of science, as Peirce conceives it, is characterized in the first instance by its close relationship to experience (in a wide sense of "experience"; cf. Misak 1991: 21). According to Peirce, this relationship between science and experience on the methodical level goes along with the regulative "conception of reality" on the methodological level (that is, with the hypothesis of scientific realism; cf. W3, 254; CP 5.384).
     The first point which I want to emphasize to explicate the concept of truth by showing what consequences we would expect a true sentence or a true belief to have. Thereby, he adopts a broad conception of inquiry, which can be characterized solely with help of the notions "belief" and "doubt."
The irritation of doubt causes a struggle to attain a state of belief. I shall term this struggle inquiry, though it must be admitted that this is sometimes not a very apt designation. (W3, 247; CP 5.374)
Peirce's concept of inquiry thus includes all four methods of fixing belief. And I think that Peirce hesitates to use the word "inquiry" precisely because it suggests some kind of rationality and thus seems to exclude simple doubt-suppressing behaviours. This strategy, namely to rely on folk-psychological terms in order to explain theoretical conceptions, can also be found a few paragraphs earlier in The Fixation of Belief, where Peirce explains his conception of "reasoning," which is closely related to the scientific method. There he writes:
A moment's thought will show that a variety of facts are already assumed when the logical question is first asked. It is implied, for instance, that there are such states of mind as doubt and belief - that a passage from one to another is possible, the object of thought remaining the same, and that this transition is subject to some rules which all minds are alike bound by. As these are facts which we must already know before we can have any clear conception of reasoning at all, it cannot be supposed to be any longer of much interest to inquire into their truth or falsity. (W3: 246; CP 5.369)
In this passage, Peirce argues that the pragmatic explication of what is meant by "reasoning," that is the explication of what can be reasonably expected from reasoning, must rely on some folk-psychological concepts and common-sense theories in order to lead to a clear conception. In other words: you must have a "picture" of what it means to believe and to change one's beliefs in order to make sense of the concepts of reasoning and of inquiry generally.
     Secondly, 'belief' is a psychological concept and therefore it is related to individuals. At first hand, it is the individual who searches for reliable beliefs and who applies the methods of inquiry. The last three methods presuppose a community, institutions, etc. And it is possible to speak of "new" as against "predetermined" beliefs with reference to that and its body of accepted beliefs. But even though it is right that only some of the methods are methods that produce "new" beliefs, as Misak states (cf. Misak 1991: 64),3 this distinction between "innovative" and "conservative" methods cannot be applied from the perspective of the individual. Only the method of tenacity simply suppresses individual doubt. But one can perfectly well imagine some person, driven by doubt, who turns to an authority, say a catholic priest, to find out whether he will be condemned for a particular deed or not. In doing so, she applies the method of authority in order to fix a "new" belief on the subject.
     Now I come to the central problem: which kind of inquiry should count as the right one?
Peirce needs, in order to preserve both the naturalism and the plausibility of his account of truth, a way of ruling out specious methods without begging the question. He needs to tell us why the products of specious methods would not be true and what is wrong with using them. (Misak 1991: 58)
It would beg the question if Peirce were to introduce some normative concept of inquiry or the right way to fix one's belief. Such normativity would transcend the everyday need of stable beliefs (about the world and others) and would immediately affect Peirce's conception of truth. Misak puts it as follows:
But Peirce does not want to appeal to such normative notions; he must keep his account of truth naturalized. Methods of inquiry should be judged in terms of how well they promote the aim of inquiry; the only normativity Peirce is willing to countenance in evaluating methods of inquiry is that the means ought to promote the end. He says 'Any kind of goodness is the adaptation of its subject to its end ... I do not know that we shall find a more succinct statement of the principle of pragmatism than this.' (MS 313, p.11, 1903) (Misak 1991: 56)
This is the situation: One of the four methods of fixing belief should be distinguished, but on the basis of its functioning as a means to an end - namely belief-fixation - and without appealing to additional normative standards.
     The arguments which Peirce brings forward in The Fixation of Belief do not suffice to fulfil this task of ruling out the first three methods. In that I agree with Misak. But they point in the right direction. Let us briefly consider them. Generally speaking, Peirce argues that these methods simply fail to fix belief permanently. (a) The method of tenacity does not work according to Peirce, because "the social impulse is against it." (W3: 250; CP 5.378) This impulse is described by Peirce partly as a quasi-biological necessity,4 and partly as a cognitive achievement.5 It means that the recognition of beliefs that are different from one's own beliefs causes doubt.6 (b) The method of authority fails because of a similar reason, namely because of the inevitable confrontation of different cultures. Some individuals "see that men in other countries and in other ages have held to very different doctrines from those which they themselves have been brought up to believe; and they cannot help seeing that it is the mere accident of their having been taught as they have, [...]. And their candour cannot resist the reflection that there is no reason to rate their own views at a higher value than those of other nations and other centuries; and this gives rise to doubts in their minds." (W3: 252; CP 5.381) (c) Finally, the a priori method only refers to "reason" or to "natural inclination," which means that in the end, it relies on "sentiment." (Cf. W3: 253; CP 5.383) And "sentiments in their development will be very greatly determined by accidental causes." (Ibid.) Hence, according to Peirce, the a priori method fails, firstly, because sentiments and inclinations are likely to change and (therefore) will change some time in the future, and secondly because the origin of beliefs from sentiments (rather than from "facts") lowers their value in the eyes of some critical individuals. Speaking of facts, Peirce in this context refers to the conception of "experience." (Cf. W3: 252; CP 5.382) I will return to this point below.
     From these considerations it follows that, according to Peirce, "[n]one of these methods will produce permanently settled belief because they have a self-destructive design; the beliefs settled by them eventually would be assailed by doubt." (Misak 1991: 57) The reasons for that are partly of a causal and partly of a cognitive nature. More precisely: On the one hand, Peirce describes mental processes (in social contexts). But on the other hand, insofar as he is describing thinking individuals and their reasons for adopting and rejecting beliefs, he shows that the adoption of different methods of fixing belief goes along with a cognitive progress, namely with a better understanding of one's ends and means. This is the reason why Peirce sometimes "puts the point in terms of the sanity of the believer," (Misak 1991: 61) which Misak thinks to be out of place. (Cf. ibid.: 62)7
     How does Misak assess Peirce's arguments? She refers only to their psychological side and judges:
Not only is the psychological hypothesis false, but even if it were true, it would not be effective. For judgments of the competence of others are always made relative to a body of background beliefs. Communities which have their beliefs settled by a religious authority, or by a charismatic guru, or by astrology, my adopt the principle 'doubt what competent others doubt', but those who do not believe what the pope, the guru, or the astrological charts dictate will be judged incompetent.[...] Some methods seem well equipped to insulate themselves from the effects of contrary opinions. (Misak 1991: 58)
I take this objection to be motivated by the following consideration: if there are some - psychological and hence empirical - reasons to believe that one of the methods functions better than the others as a means to the end of fixing belief, there always could be other psychologico-empirical reasons against this assumption. Therefore, none of the four methods can be definitively ruled out on the basis of psychological reflections concerning their probable success.

II. Why Misak's Proposal must be rejected

     In this situation, Misak wants to cut the knot by redefining the very concept of belief, speaking of "genuine" beliefs vs. mere 'make-belief' beliefs. I take this to be a serious mistake because Peirce does not want to justify the scientific method on the a priori grounds of conceptual analysis, but he wants to justify it on empirical grounds, the only grounds acceptable for a "naturalized" account of inquiry and truth. It is right that Peirce too aspires for normativity, but, I would like to argue, he re-introduces normative principles in a way that seems to be superior to Misak's normative redefinition of "belief."
     At first, let me describe that redefinition. Misak argues that "genuine" beliefs (beliefsg) do not simply consist in an hypothesis sticking "in an inquirer's head." (Cf. Misak 1991: 59)
Some methods, such as torture, clearly aim not at making people believe a certain hypothesis, but rather at making them decide to assent to it or say that they believe it. Other methods, such as brainwashing and authority, do, at first glance, seem to aim at getting people to believe, as opposed to merely saying that they believe. But the emphasis is on achieving a certain predetermined state in people. It is not an attempt to decide where the weight of evidence lies. And genuine belief, I suggest, must be sensitive to evidence or experience broadly construed. (Ibid.)
Therefore, according to Misak, sensitivity to experience should be taken as a feature of the concept of beliefg. And, given that beliefsg are sensitive to experience only if fixed by a method which, too, is sensitive to experience, it follows that the scientific method is the only "genuine" method of fixing beliefg and should be adopted by inquirers. Q.E.D.
     Here is some of the evidence for my thesis that Misak's proposal cannot be seen as a correct interpretation of Peirce's concept of belief: (a) According to Peirce, beliefs are habits of conduct (reasoning included), broadly construed. This means that the possibility of having beliefs, according to Peirce, neither presupposes the awareness of one's own beliefs nor the ability of modifying them in applying any method whatsoever:
[...] it is conceivable I should believe something and yet not have reflected that it is a belief and not have thought of myself in reference to it, at all. The tendency to act in a certain way implies no thought of self, because even inanimate objects have tendencies to act. Neither does the absence of the irritation of doubt. (Of Reality (1872); W3: 50)
(b) In order to explain his notion of belief, Peirce mentions an example, in which experience plays no role at all:
The Assassins, or followers of the Old Man of the Mountain, used to rush into death at his least command, because they believed that obedience to him would insure everlasting felicity. Had they doubted this, they would not have acted as they did. So it is with every belief, according to its degree. (W3: 247; CP 5.371)
(c) Peirce speaks of every method mentioned in The Fixation of Belief as a "method of fixing belief," without further qualifying this use of the word "belief." (d) Peirce's "Ethics of Terminology" (Ethics of Terminology (1903); MS 478) prescribes to "regard it as needful to introduce new systems of expression when new connections of importance between conceptions come to be made out [...]." (Ibid.; CP 2.226) But there is no terminological distinction to be found in Peirce amongst different "modes" of beliefs. Therefore, it seems that Peirce does not regard this kind of distinction as helpful. (Cf. Pragmatism (1907); MS 318; CP 5.486)
     On the whole, I conclude that according to Peirce's concept of belief, it is not true that "only the method of science and reasoning can fix genuine belief," as Misak states. (Cf. Misak 1991: 59)
     Concerning the adequacy of Misak's proposal as an attempt to reconstruct Peirce's concept of belief in a manner which is systematically more satisfying, it must be said that the distinction between "genuine belief" and "some other mental state" separates scientific inquiry from everyday practice (explainable in terms of "desire" and "belief") in a way which is contrary to Peirce's pragmatic intentions. According to Peirce, beliefs (habits of conduct) are ascribed to persons if they act in a certain regular way.
When a person is said to act upon a certain belief the meaning is that his actions have a certain consistency; that is to say, that they possess a certain intellectual unity. (Chap. 5th (1873); W3: 76-77)
Such ascriptions play a crucial role in what is usually called "folk-psychology." I cannot go into the details of the debate about folk-psychology and its justification. In our context, I only note that Peirce clearly does not doubt folk-psychological categories at the outset (this is a consequence of his Critical Common-sensism).
     It is plain to see that people act according to their beliefs even if these have not been gathered in the "right" way, namely scientifically. To deny their beliefs would either mean to make their actions inexplicable in folk-psychological categories8 or to create a new concept of "belief" (e.g. beliefg) that does not belong to folk-psychology. Therefore, its capacity to explain human action becomes doubtful. To which realm would this new concept belong? Perhaps to the conceptual realm of scientific inquiry. But if this were right, the meaning of "inquiry" could not be explained by referring to the concepts of belief and doubt. Hence, Peirce's "naturalistic" intentions are inverted.
     Although Misak concedes that her "redefinition[...] build[s, S.K.] (good) scientific methods into the notions of belief and inquiry," (Misak 1991: 65) she does not think that this procedure is pernicious for his argument. She writes:
The normative principles are not being covertly disguised here; they are being explicitly recognized as being a part of what we take belief and inquiry to be. (Ibid.)
But we simply do not have such a concept of belief. It is right that our common-sense or everyday notion of "inquiry" includes scientific methods. That is why Peirce hesitated to use the word "inquiry" for every method of fixing belief, as I argued in the previous section. But this is not true of the everyday use of "belief." On the contrary, we frequently explain some behavior by referring to beliefs which are not at all scientifically gathered or gathered in an experience-sensitive way. Think of Peirce's example of the Assassins. And we criticize beliefs if we think that they have not been gathered in the right way.
      Shortly after the last passage quoted, Misak adds:
The naturalism which I attribute to Peirce is not a naturalism which eschews the normative. It is merely a naturalism which insists that truth is the product of inquiry, not something which outruns inquiry. But inquiry is laden with norms. (Ibid.)
Even if this is right - and I am inclined to think that it actually is right -, it cannot justify Misak's proposal. But as it is right, it merits further consideration. This, among other things, will be done in the third and last section.

III. How to Get Things Right

     In the first section, I described how Peirce refers to psychological processes in order to account for the transition from one method of inquiry to the other. Although I agree with Misak in that the arguments which are brought forward by Peirce do not suffice, I would like to criticize them on different grounds. I think that in these arguments Peirce does not sufficiently develop the pragmatic meaning of "belief." To develop the meaning of "belief" according to the pragmatic maxim is tantamount to specifying which consequences we should expect if it is true that somebody has a certain belief p.9
     As mentioned above, Peirce construes beliefs as 'habits of conduct.'
Our beliefs guide our desires and shape our actions. (W3, 247; CP 5.371)
Thereby, he has already given an answer to the question which sort of consequences we should expect from hypothesis like "A believes p," namely consequences for A's actions. But to be more precise in respect to these consequences, we must rely on some (folk-) psychological framework. I would like to propose the following (which I think to be coherent with Peirce's general position).
     If A has a certain belief p, he is "prepared to act"10 upon that belief in particular situations, in which it makes a difference for A's actions if p is true or not.11 That means, he concludes that, given his aims (or desires) and given that p, he should decide to act in a particular way.12 Since situations and circumstances change permanently at almost every level of generality (except, perhaps, on the level of natural laws), the truth-value of p and/or the circumstances are likely to change in time. Therefore, A's beliefs need to be adapted. Doubts are indices for "new" situations (surprises) that cannot be integrated in A's system of beliefs. Their function is to initiate a process of adaptation (inquiry), in the course of which they get dissolved. In everyday situations, the dissolution of doubts is urgent, because beliefs are necessary in order to act in a reliable way.
Thus, both doubt and belief have positive effects upon us, though very different ones. Belief does not make us act at once, but puts us into such a condition that we shall behave in a certain way, when the occasion arises. Doubt has not the least effect of this sort, but stimulates us to action until it is destroyed. (W3, 247; CP 5.373)
Now, the "social impulse" which Peirce mentions in order to explain why the methods of tenacity and of authority fails to fix stable beliefs is not an isolated psychological fact, but inherent in the structure of belief and desire that serves to regulate human conduct. This structure is upheld by means of sign-systems and therefore by cooperation. In order to learn what to do or to develop their characteristically flexible system of conduct, humans must converse. And it is hard to unlearn this "social impulse" and to shut oneself off as against any validity-claim.
     Misak objects to the "social impulse"-argument that there might be some community whose beliefs immunize its members against foreign beliefs.
Communities which have their beliefs settled by a religious authority, or by a charismatic guru, or by astrology, may adopt the principle 'doubt whatever competent others doubt', but those who do not believe what the pope, the guru, or the astrological charts dictate will be judged incompetent. If the community is homogeneous enough, the psychological principle will never be put into action so as to to topple the method of authority. (Misak 1991: 58)
There certainly are such methods of immunization, but they need to be upheld by sophisticated institutions, etc. Whether these could be stronger than the structures of cooperation which underlie their very functioning, is an open question. But I think that there is much empirical evidence which indicates that in the long run, all closed societies undergo historical changes, due to the need for adaptation. (The promises of success have to be redeemed.)
     Maybe Misak believes that her objection to the "social impulse"-argument is already decisive, since she does not try to argue against Peirce's considerations concerning the transition from the a priori method to the scientific method, which I consider to be more questionable than the last point. The question here is: How does "experience" come into play? I cannot here go into the details of how Peirce models the gain of knowledge by experience. Therefore, I refer to Misak's explanation that Peirce uses a wide concept of experience wherein "sensory experience," sometimes domesticated by means of experiments, as well as experiences with mathematical diagrams and the like are included. (Cf. Misak 1991: 21-25) The unitary phenomenon behind this broad concept of experience is the phenomenon of "force" or "compulsion".13 Experience, according to Peirce, is anything that cannot be avoided or controlled, but is forced upon us. This is true especially for every new element of thought. (Cf. Chap. 4 (-draft) (1872); W3: 35; Chap. 4. Of Reality (1872); W3: 40; Chaper IV. The Conception of Time essential in Logic (1873); W3: 102) Semiotically speaking, experience is the indexical element that enters into thought and that must be integrated symbolically in order to be understood.
     Now, if we want to explain why experience cannot be controlled, according to Peirce we are likely to answer that it is caused by something independent from us, namely, by reality. This is why the commitment of science to experience (on the methodical side) is "normally" accompanied by "scientific realism" (as a methodological or regulative principle).
     In The Fixation of Belief, Peirce brings forward the following consideration as to why we should turn to experience in order to fix our beliefs:
A man [...] should consider that, after all, he wishes his opinions to coincide with the fact, and that there is no reason why the results of these three methods should do so. To bring about this effect is the prerogative of the method of science. (W3, 256; CP 5.387)
What is the force of this argument? And is it a valid argument at all? This shall be discussed subsequently.
     Compare the search for the right method with the search for norms of correct reasoning. Once the end of reasoning has been understood, namely, to "give a true conclusion from true premisses," (W3, 244; CP 5.365) the validity of a particular system of rules must be scrutinized in the light of this end. But its validity cannot simply be deduced (according to which rules?) from the very concept of reasoning. Instead, the process of scrutiny may have a form that has been described by Goodman (with respect to deduction) in the following way:
The point is that rules and particular inferences alike are justified by being brought into agreement with each other. A rule is amended if it yields an inference we are unwilling to accept; an inference is rejected if it violates a rule we are unwilling to amend. (Goodman 1954: 64)
As mentioned in connection with a quotation from Misak, Peirce does not accept anything as a source of normativity except the means-end-relationship. That does not mean that normativity is excluded but rather that it must be justified in a special way, e.g. in the quasi-circular way Goodman describes in the quoted passage. And this, besides, is how Peirce understands his own logical efforts:
In studying logic, you hope to correct your present ideas of what reasoning is good, what bad. This, of course, must be done by reasoning; and you cannot imagine that it is to be done by your accepting reasonings of mine which do not seems to you to be rational. If must, therefore, be done by means of the bad system of logic which you at present use. [...] The question is whether, using that somewhat unsatisfactory logica utens, you can make out wherein it must be modified, and can attain to a better system. (Minute Logic. II.2. Why Study Logic? (1902); MS 428; CP 2.191)
Therefore, Misak is right in saying that Peirce's naturalism "is not a naturalism which eschews the normative." (Misak 1991: 65) However, "inquiry is laden with norms" not because of how we think about inquiry and belief (our concepts) but because only in following certain rules it can fulfill its end, namely to furnish reliable beliefs.
[...] the question of validity is purely one of fact and not of thinking. (W3: 244; CP 5.365)
     The deep misunderstanding (or perhaps dissent) between Peirce and Misak seems to be that Misak is looking for more than merely empirical reasons for the failure of the first three methods and the success of science. But Peirce openly affirms that there really are no such reasons:
A man may go through life, systematically keeping out of view all that might cause a change in his opinions, and if he only succeeds [...] I do not see what can be said against his doing so. (W3: 249; CP 5.377; my emphasis, S.K.)
The only reason is that no such method (nor the methods of authority or a priori) will succeed, because they are not well adapted to their end, namely, to fix stable beliefs, beliefs that can fulfill their mental and social role despite of the varying historical circumstances. (Cf. [Investigation and the Settlement of Opinion] (1872); W3: 17) That is, beliefs which will exclude (unpleasant) surprise. Since we know from experience that our actual beliefs are not stable in this sense, we need a method that can correct them in an appropriate way. And since even beliefs about the right method are fallible, this method must be self-corrective. Therefore, we should adopt the scientific method, because, as Rescher puts it:
The method of science is self-corrective in this crucial sense: that the subordinate methods can be revised on the basis of their performance. (Rescher 1995: 105)
     One may object to this argument because it already assumes the standpoint of those who know and use the scientific method: what about the closed societies, the a priori thinkers, etc.? But if we are not looking for a priori reasons, it can be answered that their failure has motivated the historical development of the scientific method. And since the only reason for adapting or rejecting a method can be its success, now we should go for the scientific method.14 In this regard, Peirce's psychological and sociological arguments can be seen as a rational reconstruction of the history of belief-fixing methods.15 I speak of a rational reconstruction, because, as mentioned above, Peirce in his arguments characteristically mingles empirical and normative considerations. It seems that the adoption of different methods of fixing belief goes along with a cognitive progress, with a better understanding of one's ends and means.
     From a Peircean viewpoint, one of the most important discoveries in the history of science seems to be the realization that our efforts in science do not need to differ fundamentally from everyday practice.
Everybody uses the scientific method about a great many things, and only ceases to use it when he does not know how to apply it. (W3: 254; CP 5.384)
I take this passage to express that experience plays a crucial role in our everyday practice, where doubt arises when beliefs become inapplicable. Now, once the sequence of belief-shaped action —> provocation of doubt —> doubt —> inquiry —> new belief —> new action is understood, it can be separated from the individual's psychological processes and from process of proximal social interaction and institutionalized; in the spirit of modern division of labour. That, then, is science. The central advantage of the institutionalization lies in the relative independence of belief-testing from the individual's fate.
     Therefore, if we want to gain beliefs that are relevant to action (in contradistinction to beliefs about "higher subjects"), we should use the scientific method throughout. And if we know something of the function of beliefs, the best hypothesis seems to be that the success of our actions is determined in a way that is independent "of how you or I think." (Cf. How to Make Our Ideas Clear (1878); W3: 271; CP 5.405) I take this to be the force of Peirce's common-sense appeal to the said man, mentioned earlier, who "should consider that, after all, he wishes his opinions to coincide with the fact, and that there is no reason why the results of these three methods should do so." (W3, 256; CP 5.387)
     Now I come to the last point. Peirce emphasizes that ...
[the scientific method, S.K.] is the only one of the four methods which presents any distinction of a right and a wrong way. [...] The test of whether I am truly following the method is not an immediate appeal to my feelings and purposes, but, on the contrary, itself involves the application of the method. (W3: 254-255; CP 5.385)
This is what has been mentioned above under the title of the 'self-correctivity' of the method of science. What Peirce probably wants to suggest with his remark is that his own (and our) endeavor to distinguish one method of fixing belief on the basis of its functioning as a means to an end, and not on some other grounds, already presupposes a critical, self-corrective method. The choice of any other method would have prevented the very beginning of the search. He who decides in our time to adopt the methods of tenacity, authority or a priori is suspected by Peirce of being "insane," because - voluntarily or involuntarily - he does not take into account all the information that is available to him.


1 I would like to thank Cheryl Misak and Anke Scholz for their comments and corrections.

2 Misak rightly sees that, according to Peirce, "other methods of inquiry go hand in hand with other conceptions of the aim of inquiry and truth." (Misak 1991: 63; cf. How to Make Our Ideas Clear (1878); W3: 272-273) Therefore, the point is not what truth is, but which conception of truth we should accept in the light of our aims and our experiences. In the present paper, however, I am following another line of thought.

3 More precisely, Misak writes: "But notice that only some of the methods Peirce mentions are methods of investigation or methods of finding things out. The others are methods of getting others to believe a certain hypothesis or methods which involve deciding to adhere to a certain hypothesis. They are methods of instilling a predetermined belief." (Misak 1991: 64)

4 "It arises from an impulse too strong in man to be suppressed, without danger of destroying the human species." (W3: 250; CP 5.378)

5 "This conception, that another man's thought or sentiment may be equivalent to one's own, is a distinctly new step, and a highly important one. [...] so that the problem becomes how to fix belief, not in the individual merely, but in the community." (W3: 250; CP 5.378)

6 "Peirce goes some way to making the psychological hypothesis plausible by suggesting that, because inquirers are members of a community, they utilize the results of other members. [...] We are so accustomed to utilizing these second-hand experiences that we think that 'one man's experience is nothing, if it stands alone. If he sees what others cannot, we call it hallucination.' (CP 5.402 n.2, 1893; see also [W] 3, 25, 1872.)" (Misak 1991: 58)

7 By the way, Peirce not only speaks of sanity in 1911 as suggested by Misak. In The Fixation of Belief (1877) he writes (my emphasis): "The man who adopts it [the method of tenacity, S.K.] will find that other men think differently from him, and it will be apt to occur to him, in some saner moment, that their opinions are quite as good as his own, and this will shake his confidence in his belief." (W3: 250; CP 5.378)

8 And probably even in the categories of scientific psychology.

9 Here I rely on Misak's lucid interpretation of the pragmatic maxim as a method for making clear the meaning of concepts. (Cf. Misak 1991: 25-35)

10 This was Alexander Bain's original definition, which was adopted by Peirce. (Cf. Pragmatism (1907); MS 318; CP 5.12)

11 Of course, these formulations are very rough.

12 Cf. Pragmatism (1907); MS 318; CP 5.480. Hence, the belief p (or some collection of beliefs) functions as a prediction of the results of action and must be capable of being expressed in this way. This short consideration again makes clear why Peirce's concept of belief is central to his pragmatism and cannot be reinterpreted in Misak's way without taking it out of the Peircean context.

13 For the sake of brevity, I omit every reference to Peirce's phenomenology.

14 Misak, again, objects: "Notice also that the fact that there is controversy in science would seem to make the method of science succumb to Peirce's psychological hypothesis as well. The 'results' of science are not unanimously believed among scientists." (Misak 1991: 58 n.24). But first, there really are important differences between "philosophic" (a priori) and "scientific" discussions. Second, stable beliefs are hoped to appear at the end of the scientific process, in the long run, not at the beginning. And third, science is supposed to be self-corrective.

15 The first part of The Fixation of Belief actually consists of some historical remarks on the development of logic and scientific methodology. And when explaining the final transition to the scientific method, Peirce writes: "And so from this, which has been called the a priori method, we are driven, in Lord Bacon's phrase, to a true induction." (W3: 253; CP 5.383; my emphasis)


Goodman, Nelson 1954. Fact, Fiction, and Forecast. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Misak, Cheryl .J. 1991, Truth and the End of Inquiry: A Peircean Account of Truth. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. References to The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, eds., C. Hartshorne, P. Weiss and A. Burks (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1931-1958), are indicated by "CP"; references to The Writings of Charles S. Peirce, eds. Moore, Kloesel, et al. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982- ), are indicated by "W"; manuscript references are to Richard S. Robin, Annotated Catalogue of the Manuscripts of Charles S. Peirce (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1967), indicated by "MS".

Rescher, Nicholas, 1995. "Peirce on the Validation of Science", in: Peirce and Contemporary Thought. ed. Kenneth L. Ketner. New York 1995, 103-112.

END OF:  STEFAN KAPPNER: "Why Should We Adopt the Scientific Method?"

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