Moving Towards the Future Ideal: or, the Place of Truth, Purpose and Realism in Peirce’s Pragmaticism

Pragmatism in America has, by and large, been thought of as a theory of truth. This is in no small part due to William James’s formulation of pragmatism as, in fact, a theory of truth, where the truth of a theory consists in its ‘cash value’, and it’s fair to say that this brand of pragmatism can be construed as a primarily ‘psychological’ kind of pragmatism. It was just this kind of psychologism that Peirce was keen to avoid in his own thinking, and in so avoiding, Peirce articulated a philosophy in which truth, purpose and realism played roles that they never could have played in the psychologistic theories of pragmatism.

It is no exaggeration to say that for Peirce, truth is the most important element in his philosophy. There are echoes of idealism of the absolute kind, for example, when Peirce says that truth is ‘the universe of all truth’ or that all propositions refer to The Truth, which is the ‘universe of all universes’, ‘assumed on all hands to be real’ . Already we can see differences between Peirce and psychologistic pragmatism: for psychologistic pragmatism, the question of the reality of truth never arises, since truth is cashed out purely in terms of its practical effects, or to put it in cruder terms, what works. The question of whether a proposition is true or false for psychologism, then, turns on whether or not it can effect practical consequences. For Peirce, on the other hand, a proposition can be true or be false:

‘When we speak of truth and falsity, we refer to the possibility of the proposition being refuted.’ That is to say, if we could legitimately deduce from a proposition a conclusion which would conflict with an immediate perceptual judgement, the proposition would be false. In other words, a proposition would be false if experience would refute it. If experience would not refute a proposition, that proposition is true.

This may suggest that for Peirce truth and verification are the same thing. But reflection will show that he is perfectly justified in rejecting this identification. For he is saying, not that a proposition is true if empirically verified, but that it is true if it would not be empirically falsified, supposing such a test were possible. (Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy Vol. 8 Part 2 p.62)

Recall the mention of absolute idealism above: this is crucial for Peirce. No single person can know with absolute Cartesian certainty the truth of any given proposition, and no single experiment in isolation can reveal any kind of truth, for two reasons: (1) for Peirce it only makes sense to speak of general kinds of experimental phenomena. No single ‘experiment in itself has any kind of predictive power. Rather the explanatory power lies in general kinds of experimental phenomena. (2) Truth is primarily something communal, in that a community has to be inquiring after the truth in order to generate a consensus. Now, these may at first appear to contradict Peirce’s assertion that a proposition can be true, since the-truth-as-consensus doesn’t seem to jive well with something being objectively true, but Peirce locates the meanings and truths of propositions in the future. This is significant for two reasons: (1) it makes truth ‘what is destined’, and (2) following from that, makes truth a kind of regulative idea. By putting truth in the future, Peirce is able to argue that the truth is something ideal which is to be pursued:

Truth is what is destined: it enters the picture regulatively as an ideal that rational, i.e. scientific, inquiry, if pursued sufficiently far, will produce an ‘overwhelming consensus’ among those dedicated to its pursuit. Reality is what is represented by those opinions which have produced that consensus. (A Companion to Metaphysics, p. 408)

While it may at first glance appear to be a fairly mechanistic way of ascertaining truth, Peirce is by no means an infallibilist here. Propositions both scientific and metaphysical are all subject to revision in the light of experience, and any given piece of human knowledge Peirce regards as fundamentally uncertain (in the Cartesian sense). There is a hint of coherentism here in that knowledge only hangs together, as it were, all together: recall Peirce’s insistence that no single experiment reveals any truth. This is equivalent to saying that something is only truth-apt if they are situated within a contextual web, a contextual web that is fundamentally a web of doing – moving towards the future ideal of truth. Such a movement is also regulated and governed by truth – that is, it is a fundamentally normative movement. Perhaps it might not even be a stretch to think of the regulated pursuit of truth as moves in a knowledge game, a game played in the space of reasons. This lack of dogmatic certainty, however, still doesn’t contradict Peirce’s commitment to a proposition being objectively true:

It should not be necessary to add that Peirce’s principle of fallibilism does not entail a denial of objective truth…Nobody would ask a theoretical question unless he believed that there was such a thing as truth. And ‘truth consists in the conformity of something independent of his thinking it to be so, or any of man’s opinion on that subject.’ But if we combine the idea of the disinterested search for objective truth, known as such, with the principle of fallibilism, according to which dogmatism is the enemy of the pursuit of truth, we must conceive absolute and final truth as the ideal goal of inquiry. This ideal stands above our struggles to attain it, and we can only approximate to it. Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy Vol. 8 Part 2 pp.63-64)

Truth, then, is an ideal we pursue: there is real teleology here in that truth is the end to which inquiry is oriented. Truth is fundamentally teleological for Peirce, in both a real sense (since there are objective truths) and a pragmatic sense, since the future truths of propositions bear directly on human conduct:

But of the myriad of forms into which a proposition may be translated, what is that one which is to be called its very meaning? It is, according to the pragmaticist, that form in which the proposition becomes applicable to human conduct, not in these or those special circumstances, nor when one entertains this or that special design, but that form which is most directly applicable to self-control under every situation, and to every purpose. This is why he locates the meaning in future time; for future conduct is the only conduct that is subject to self-control. (Peirce, Values in a Universe of Chance, pp. 194-195)



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