Charles S. Peirce
[Reality, Idealism, and the Ultimate Opinion]
MS 200 (Robin 367): Writings 3, 40-47
[Editorial Note (Ransdell): As presented here, the document is modified by editorial paragraphing intended to make the implicit logical structure as clear as possible, along with some modifications of punctuation to enhance perspicuity. Anything appearing within brackets is editorial in origin. Peirce's emphasis is shown by combining underlining and italics to compensate for the tendency of HTML fonts to be too feeble in showing the kind of contrast on-screen that is wanted when emphasis is intended. I have also introduced my own emphasis here and there in the document for purposes of perspicuity.
The punctuation modifications are mostly trivial in the case of this particular document, but not always (especially in the latter part of it), and even minor editorial changes can introduce biased interpretation. Hence the version of it exactly as presented by the editors of volume 3 of The Writings of Charles S. Peirce is also being made available here, presented in a text box below, following the modified version, as a convenience for purposes of scholarly comparison.]
Document as presented in Writings of Charles S. Peirce, vol. 3, 40-47
Because the only purpose of inquiry is the settlement of opinion, we have seen that every one who investigates, that is, pursues an inquiry by the fourth method, assumes that that process will, if carried far enough, lead him to a certain conclusion, he knows not what beforehand, but which no further investigation will change. No matter what his opinion at the outset may be, it is assumed that he will end in one predestinated belief. Hence it appears that in the process of investigation wholly new ideas and elements of belief must spring up in the mind which were not there before. Some thoughts are produced by previous thoughts according to regular laws of association, so that if the previous thoughts be known, and the rule of association be given, the thought which is so produced may be predicted. This is the elaborative operation of thought, or thinking par excellence. But when an idea comes up in the mind which has no such relation to former ideas, but is something new to us, we say that it is caused by something out of the mind, and we call the process by which such thoughts spring up, sensation. And those parts of investigation which consist chiefly in supplying such materials for thought to work over, combine and analyze, are termed observations. The first thing to be noted then is that since investigation leads us from whatever state of opinion we may happen to have to an opinion which is predetermined, it must be that investigation involves observation as one part of it, and, in fact, the conclusion to which we finally come ultimately depends entirely upon the observations. We may pause here to make a practical application of this principle. No argument can possibly be a correct one which pretends to disclose to us a fact wholly new without being based on evidence which is new. The metaphysicians are given to this kind of reasoning; even those of them who are the most energetic in maintaining that all our knowledge comes from sense. Writers upon the nature of the human mind, especially, have built up a great body of doctrine without the aid of any observations or facts, except such as are familiar to all the world. Such things justly excite our suspicion. When Hobbes, for example, would persuade us that no man can act otherwise than for the sake of pleasure, it is clear that this belief would deeply modify our conceptions of men, and our plans of life; but when on asking what supports this momentous conclusion we learn that it is but the simple factif it can be dignified by that namethat every man desires to do what he does do, we are led at once to suspect that there is some sophistry in the process by which so novel a conclusion can be drawn from so familiar a premise. So, when modern necessitarians maintain that every act of the will proceeds from the strongest motive, they lay down a principle which should be expected to give rise to a psychological science as exact as mechanics, and capable of reducing human actions to precise calculation. But when we find that the advocates of this principle have made no experiments to test their law, we are strongly inclined to think that there has been some juggle of reasoning which has enabled them thus to create something out of nothing. An observation, as we have defined it, is merely an idea arising in the mind, and not produced by previous ideas. This is not the complete description of observation as understood by scientific men, and we must be careful that the word does not lead us to conclusions which we are not yet warranted in drawing. For example a dream, a presentiment or some fancied inspiration from on high, might, as far as we have yet seen, involve entirely new elements of thought, and, therefore, be an observation in the sense of our definition, so that we are not yet warranted in saying that such things cannot be the ground of legitimate reasoning. This is a question which we shall have again to examine when we come to consider those maxims of inference which depend upon the peculiar constitution of man. But observation alone cannot constitute investigation; for if it did the only active part which we should have to play in this method of inquiry would be simply the willing to observe, and there would be no distinction of a wrong method and a right method of investigation. But we have seen that such a distinction is essential to the idea of investigation, and that it is, in fact the only thing which separates this from the third method of inquiry. Accordingly, besides observation it must be that there is also an elaborative process of thought by which the ideas given by observation produce others in the mind. Besides, the observations are most varied and are never exactly repeated or reproduced so that they can not constitute that settled opinion to which investigation leads. Two men, for example, agree in an opinion, and if you ask upon what their opinions rest they will perhaps allege the same fact. But trace the matter back further; ask them upon what grounds they believe that fact again and you will eventually come to premises that are different. Two minds, for example, may have formed the same judgment of a certain person's character and yet may have, based their opinions on observing his behavior on different occasions. The rotation of the earth was at first inferred from the movement of the heavenly bodies; but afterwards the manner in which a long pendulum when allowed to swing would gradually turn around and change its direction of oscillation, afforded an entirely new proof; and there are certain very small movements of the stars, which, if they were capable of sufficiently exact observation, would show another ground for the same conclusion. Indeed, the fact which one man observes, is in no case precisely the same as the fact which another man observes. One astronomer observes that the moon passes over a star so as to hide it at a certain instant at his observatory, another astronomer observes that the same star is occulted at a certain instant at his observatory. These two facts are not the same, because they relate to different stations of observation. What is so plain in regard to astronomical observation, because we are accustomed to precision of thought about this, is equally true in regard to the most familiar facts. You and I both see an ink-stand on the table; but what you observe, is that there is a certain appearance from where you sit, and what I observe, is that there is a certain appearance from where I sit. The fact in which we agree that there is an ink-stand there, is what we conclude from the different appearances which we each severally observe. We may change places and still we shall fail to get each other's observations; for the difference of time then comes in. I may observe that there is such an appearance now as you describe as having existed a few moments before; but I can not observe that there was such an appearance before I took your place. It is needless to multiply these examples, because the slightest reflection will supply them in any number; but what have been adduced are sufficient to show that observations are for every man wholly private and peculiar. And not only can no man make another man's observations, or reproduce them; but he cannot even make at one time those observations which he himself made at another time. They belong to the particular situation of the observer, and the particular instant of time. Indeed, if we carefully distinguish that which is first given by sensation, from the conclusion which we immediately draw from it, it is not difficult to see that different observations are not in themselves even so much as alike; for what does the resemblance between the two observations consist in? What does it mean to say that two thoughts are alike? It can only mean that any mind that should compare them together, would pronounce them to be alike. But that comparison would be an act of thought not included in the two observations severally; for the two observations existing at different times, perhaps in different minds, can not be brought together to be compared directly in themselves, but only by the aid of the memory or some other process which makes a thought, out of previous thoughts, and which is, therefore, not observation. Since, therefore the likeness of these thoughts consists entirely in the result of comparison, and comparison is not observation, it follows that observations are not alike except so far as there is a possibility of some mental process besides observation. Without however insisting upon this point which may be found too subtile, the fact remains that the observations are not the same in the sense in which the conclusions to which they give rise are the same. All astronomers, for example, will agree that the earth is ninety-two or ninety-three millions of miles from the sun. And yet, one would base his conclusion on observations of the passage of Venus across the sun's disk; another upon observations of the planet Mars; another upon experiments upon light combined with observations of the satellites of Jupiter. And the same thing is equally true in regard to most of the ordinary affairs of life. Now how is it that the springing up into the mind of thoughts so dissimilar should lead us inevitably though sometimes not until after a long time to one fixed conclusion? Disputes undoubtedly occur among those who pursue a proper method of investigation. But thesis disputes come to an end. At least that is the assumption upon which we go in entering into the discussion at all for unless investigation is to lead to settled opinion it is of no service to us whatever. We do believe then in regard to every question which we try to investigate that the observations though they may be as varied and as unlike in themselves as possible, yet have some power of bringing about in our minds a predetermined state of belief. This reminds us of the species of necessity which is known as fate. The fairy stories are full of such examples as this: A king shuts his daughter up in a tower because he has been warned that she is destined to suffer some misfortune from falling in love before a certain age and it turns out that the very means which he has employed to prevent it is just what brings the prophecy to fulfillment. Had he pursued a different course, the idea seems to be that that would equally have brought about the destined result. Fate then is that necessity by which a certain result will surely be brought to pass according to the natural course of events however we may vary the particular circumstances which precede the event. In the same manner we seem fated to come to the final conclusion. For whatever be the circumstances under which the observations are made & by which they are modified they will inevitably carry us at last to this belief. The strangeness of this fact disappears entirely when we adopt the conception of external realities. We say that the observations are the result of the action upon the mind of outward things, and that their diversity is due to the diversity of our relations to these things; while the identity of the conclusion to which the mind is led by them is owing to the identity of the things observed, the reasoning process serving to separate among the many different observations that we make of the same thing the constant element which depends upon the thing itself from the differing and variable elements which depend on our varying relations to the thing. This hypothesis I say removes the strangeness of the fact that observations however different yield one identical result. It removes the strangeness of this fact by putting it in a form and under an aspect in which it resembles other facts with which we are familiar. We are accustomed very rightly to think that causes always precede their effects and to disbelieve in fate, which is a fancied necessity by which some future event as it were forces the conditions which precede to be such as would bring it about. That there is no such intrinsic and unconditional necessity to bring about events Western nations are fully and rightly convinced. This is why it seems strange to assert that the final conclusion of the investigation is predestined and why it is satisfactory to the mind to find a hypothesis which shall assign a cause preceding the final belief which would account for the production of it, and of the truth of this conception of external realities there can be no doubt. Even the idealists, if their doctrines are rightly understood have not usually denied the existence of real external things. But though the conception involves no error and is convenient for certain purposes, it does not follow that it affords the point of view from which it is proper to look at the matter in order to understand its true philosophy. It removes the strangeness of a certain fact by assimilating it to other familiar facts; but is not that fact that investigation leads to a definite conclusion really of so different a character from the ordinary events in the world to which we apply the conception of causation that such an assimilation and classification of it really puts it in a light which, though not absolutely false, fails nevertheless to bring into due prominence the real peculiarity of its nature. That, observation and reasoning produce a settled belief which we call the truth seems a principle to be placed at the head of all special truths which are only the particular beliefs to which observation and reasoning in such cases leads. And it is hardly desirable to merge it among the rest by an analogy which serves no other purpose. That the conception of external realities is a very embarrassing one for the philosophical questions to which it gives rise is very well known to metaphysicians. While it seems to bring the process of unity of mental action into an analogy with that of other facts, it at once creates the necessity of supposing an extraordinary exception to the ordinary laws of mechanics. We find that we have by this means created two worldsa mental world of representations and images, which the laws of reflection must show can not be of the same nature with these external objects even if we adopt the belief that the mind is merely a function of the brain. And we find this world of ideas influenced by the external objects in a manner which the laws of mechanics can not possibly explain, and in its turn influencing external objects in a manner which seems absolutely contradictory to the general principles of mechanics. But if we fully acknowledge the justice of the principles which have been set forth in preceding chapters, we shall, I think, be led to the solution of these difficulties which without impugning the truth of the belief in an external world will nevertheless elucidate and translate it into terms of other conceptions it did not give rise to, of the metaphysical difficulties of this hypothesis. We have maintained and proved that the sole purpose of inquiry is to produce a settled opinion. The object at which alone we aim then in the struggle for belief, is to make our belief conform to that final belief. The only thing then which our thought strives to picture or represent is the object of final belief. Now what is the difference between a reality and a fiction? A fiction is something whose character depends upon what we think about it; a reality is what it is whatever we may think about it. When Swift wrote Gulliver's Travels he was at liberty to endow the Island of Brobdignag with any qualities that seemed to suit his purpose. And these, therefore, became the characters of his fancied island. But were he to imagine any such things about the Island of Formosa, he would not make the real island of that sort at all; even if what he imagined about Formosa should happen to be true, there would be a great distinction between what he thought, and the fact; for the reason that his conception would be what it was simply because so he thought; while the real island would be unaffected by his thought. We must not forget here the distinction between a thought as an operation which takes place in the mind, or in the soul, or in the brain and the thought in the sense of an image, or some kind of representation which the thinking process brings present to us. The one is influenced in a literal sense; the other only in so far as it is made present to us by the fact of our thinking, or going through that process of the soul [Editorial note (Ransdell): An unexplained blank space occurs at this point in the transcription published in Writings 3. possibly corresponding to a missing manuscript page or pages but perhaps only to a few words or sentences.] Now for example if I imagine a gray dragon the process of thinking which goes on in my mind is not gray. The dragon which I imagine is gray. It would be very preposterous to try to see any resemblance whatever between an island or any other outward object, and the process of thinking. But the thought which is the product of thinking and which is thereby made present to us differs from the real island only in these respects: First; that it may be a false or incomplete representation of the real island and second; that of what sort it is depends upon how we think it to be; while the real island has no such dependency on our aid. But now let us consider the final thought, which is that thought which is the final upshot of the investigationthat to which we always strive to make our thoughts conform. The thought thus is no longer of any particular man, or of any number of men. The thoughts of a man or of many men may conform to it; but however closely they conform, it differs from them in this respect: that their thoughts are changed if they think otherwise; but it is not changed if they think otherwise. For the prejudice, incompetency or ignorance of any number of men, or of generations of men may postpone the agreement in the final opinion but can not make that final opinion to be other than it is to be. So it is quite independent of how any number of men think, and thereby is distinguished from other thoughts as completely as the external reality is. And indeed, in this fact that it is not even affected by any allusion to the thoughts of you or me or any number of men, it conforms entirely to the description which we have given of reality, that it should be what it is whatever we may think about it. I do not say that any thinking process is the reality; but I say that that thought to which we struggle to have our thoughts coincide, is the reality. Therefore when we say that there are external things, and that observations are only the appearances which these things produce upon sense by their relations to us, we have only in an inverted form, asserted the very same fact and no other which we assert when we say that observations inevitably carry us to a predetermined conclusion. Still it may be asked whether there may not be some other reality which is external to us in some other sense besides this. This I think a rather idle question. Because the doctrine of the hypothesis of external realities, is adopted to simplify and make clear certain facts which are as perfectly brought to a unity by this mode of conceiving the reality, as by any other. However, in order not to leave any portion of the question untouched, I will undertake to show that it can mean nothing at all to say that any other reality than this exists.