Charles Sanders Pierce
To the Editor:
I write to congratulate Josiah Lee Auspitz on a job well done [“The Greatest Living American Philosopher,” December 1983]. I have been persuaded—I will rush out and find the Indiana University volumes that stimulated his discussion of Charles Sanders Peirce’s enduring contributions to logic, mathematics, and the philosophy of science.
Unfortunately, the orthodox view of induction and deduction as complementary revelations, each providing a line of retreat when the other is doubted, has remained the entrenched wisdom in our secondary schools, and in more simple-minded college courses. Thus, the population at large is stalled in a mid-19th-century view of science—an awareness lag of some importance when one considers the full implications of the issues at stake.
Peirce made a great advance when he decided to study the fixation of belief (or, what is in his terms the same, the relief of doubt) and its conditions. This new focus resulted in the thesis of abduction—or, as Mr. Auspitz paraphrases, “successful hypothesis” as the central scientific method. Should it be necessary for each new generation to rediscover Peirce and Peircean insights on its own? Or should our pedagogy join in our continuing declaration of independence?
Christopher C. Faille
To the Editor:
Being, like most American philosophers, an admirer of Charles Sanders Peirce, I was pleased to see that there was a long article about him in the December COMMENTARY. Unhappily, this article disappoints the hopes it generates. While its biographical material on Peirce is informative, its philosophical material is weak, confused, and at crucial points ludicrous.
The article exhibits almost every mark of bad philosophical writing: a great many abstract nouns tied to very few illustrative examples; segues from topic to topic unmediated by logical development; names dropped in a manner to mystify informed readers. What, for instance, is one to make of the suggestion that P.F. Strawson vacillates between “fact and intuition”? And one can only shake one’s head at Mr. Auspitz’s caricature of “Steps Toward a Constructive Nominalism”—a highly technical inscriptionalist reconstruction of syntax—as a “manifesto.” (The opening paragraph of “Steps” is indeed contentious; I suspect that Mr. Auspitz didn’t or couldn’t follow much beyond it.)
The discussion of “universals,” the topic on which Mr. Auspitz builds his essay, is especially unfortunate. Classically, the realist has opposed the nominalist on the existence of general things. Both agree that Lassie is a dog, but the realist finds it necessary to posit universal doghood for this to be true, while the nominalist holds that this truth presupposes only Lassie (who is of course canine). It is preposterous to read any political content into this issue, as Mr. Auspitz does when he bases the Declaration of Independence and the Allied cause in World War II on realism. All men may be created equal whether or not there is such an entity as equality above and beyond all the world’s men. Indeed, history’s chief realist, Plato, was a totalitarian of the most extreme sort. Finally, to take the “community” of the U.S. as a universal is, first, to mistake a universal for a set, and, then, to mistake a set for what nominalists call a mereological sum or compound object. Had Mr. Auspitz the training to master the works of Quine and Goodman he scorns, he might not have fallen into these muddles.
Mr. Auspitz is evidently not competent to discuss Charles Sanders Peirce or any of the epistemological or metaphysical issues he mentions.
Department of Philosophy
City College, CUNY
New York City
To the Editor:
The article by Josiah Lee Auspitz on Charles Sanders Peirce should be required reading for every college student contemplating a career in philosophy in the United States.
Let me just add that the neglect which has surrounded Peirce has also touched another major American figure whom few have suspected either of intellectual kinship with Peirce or of gross misinterpretation—Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. As Holmes’s formative essays written during the 1870′s and soon to be reissued by Greenwood Press demonstrate, Holmes shared Peirce’s rejection of both views of philosophy emanating from Europe—empiricism and idealism. Holmes laid the groundwork for a wholly original legal philosophy in which legal rules, like the laws of science, began as hypotheses and gradually became settled by consensus.
Despite this, Holmes, ever since a major attack by Lon L. Fuller of Harvard in 1940, has been viewed as either a “legal positivist”—the British-originated view that a rigid separation exists between law and morals—or as hopelessly inconsistent for having cautioned against confusing law and morals while conceding that legal rules are “the witness and deposit of our moral life.” In fact, Holmes’s caution against confusion may be explained by his strict adherence, found in the early essays, to Peirce’s pragmatic maxim whereby concepts must be limited to their practical consequences. Holmes found in criticizing empiricist and idealist strains of legal thought that both were led astray by loose “moral” concepts such as right and duty, distracting legal analysis from an attention to the historical origins and actual reach of particular legal rules. While law was a separate discipline, that did not inoculate it against all influence by morals.
Max Fisch suggested forty years ago that Holmes was not only influenced by his participation in Peirce’s Metaphysical Club during his formative period, but may have originated a key element of Peirce’s philosophy. Unfortunately, American legal philosophers are still too infatuated with the European legacy of empiricism vs. idealism to pay much attention.
Frederic R. Kellogg
Josiah Lee Auspitz writes:
I appreciate Christopher C. Faille’s kind and well-chosen words. I hope, with him, that teachers, from the graduate schools down, will integrate Peirce’s achievements into our educated common sense. That the prospects for this are not bright may be surmised from a prestigious introductory college text in American history. Written and reviewed by a raft of professors from the leading coastal universities, it names James and Dewey as the “fathers of pragmatism” and does not even list Peirce’s name in an index which has room for such cultural luminaries as Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, and Herbert Marcuse.
For Michael Levin’s saving words about my article—that he found some of the biographical information useful—I can take little credit. This background, which is slightly condensed from a longer version available from the Sabre Foundation, comes mainly from the archives and files generously made available to me at the Peirce Edition Project by Max H. Fisch from biographical materials he has assembled over the past four decades. On the other hand, the incompetencies of style, reasoning, erudition, training, and philosophical judgment in the article are entirely my own. Any student of Peirce learns to be modest about his own intellectual powers.
Would that Mr. Levin had learned this lesson. Not only does he mistake the nature of my essay (it is not a philosophical argument or even a philosophical review but an orientation for the general reader to the period covered by the first two volumes of the Indiana edition of the Peirce papers); but also—and I find this much more disturbing—he misses entirely the thrust of Peirce’s own central argument on universals and nominalism.
Admirer of Peirce though he may be, Mr. Levin is, as it happens, just plain wrong about the variety of philosophical realism being discussed, and this perhaps explains why he laughed in the wrong places in my narrative, kept gasping for examples, and could not follow the necessarily telegraphic allusions to more recherche issues. Since his misconstrual of the “realism” posed by the early Peirce is not limited to him, it may be worth correcting at some greater length than it takes him to state it.
Plato is irrelevant to the discussion. We are dealing with Peirce’s version of Scotistic not Platonic realism—with Duns Scotus’s formalitates not Plato’s forms. In this idiom of realism, a real universal has nothing at all to do with things. The question is not whether there exists such a thing as “doghood” but whether some particular dog is, by virtue of being called a dog, what Peirce was the first to term a “token” of a “type.” If the particular dog is taken as a token, as Mr. Levin concedes (“Lassie . . . who is of course canine”), then the question arises how we describe its type. Do we view the type as compounded from particulars (a strict nominalist position), as rooted in some natural fact or kind (a modified nominalist position), as enforced by social convention (another modified nominalist position), or do we (after Peirce’s moderate realism) posit some general modality of signification of which that type or any other is itself a token?
This general modality—which Peirce later calls “thirdness” precisely in order to free it of any association with the world of things—is the “real” aspect of every idea but does not have any independent existence. It is a categorically distinct mode of signs as such. It cannot be intelligently reduced to what Plato meant by an Idea. In metaphysical terms it rests on a simple distinction between reality (“thirdness”) and existence (“secondness”) as two irreducible modes of being. It takes the modern issue of nominalism versus realism out of the dead end where Mr. Levin (and the early Goodman-Quine for that matter) still thinks it rests.
An ability to entertain the sundering of reality from thinghood is thus a threshold condition for entering into Peirce’s thought. Once one gets beyond this threshold, one can see how Peirce joins issue with Ockham directly, and thus anticipates a number of topics that Ockham’s followers have rediscovered. He often uses contemporary terms for them: he sees the main spirit of nominalism as “analytic”; he shows that it leads to a preoccupation with “natural kinds” and “logical atoms.” Other developments (such as Straw-son’s “sortal predicates”) he anticipates in effect but not in name. Still other sophistications (Wiggins’s post-Strawsonian notion of sortal continuity) represent the movement of nominalism to cover ground for which Peirce had an alternate theory of continuous predication.
The point here is not that analytic philosophy is incapable of covering Peirce’s ground, it is that he challenges the way it does so at a fundamental level without abandoning its commitment to close argumentation and precise terminology. And since analytic philosophy itself has been moving as if by some invisible hand to Peircean themes, one must begin to ask whether his generation of these themes from a more ingenious and compact composition of ideas is not superior in power, subtlety, and elegance to the materials which Mr. Levin worked so hard to master in graduate school.
Mr. Levin’s letter misses such issues and in so doing betrays other errors of a very different order from those (erroneously) attributed to me. He has trouble even distinguishing my voice from Peirce’s, as for example when he attributes to me the “preposterous” view, upon which I quote Peirce, that the issue of nominalism versus realism has consequences “for every public institution the constitution of which we have it in our power to influence.” Does Mr. Levin think I fabricated this quotation?
Or is the deeper problem that he has his own political ax to grind? He is not, as his letter would have us believe, a philosophical purist, but an increasingly polemical writer on public-policy issues relating to women. He expounds his views in policy-oriented articles and broadcast interviews. It is perhaps not coincidental that his underlying position depends on a brittle but original amalgam of atomistic libertarianism with biological determinism that cannot absorb Peirce’s post-nominalist view of “community” as inseparable from communication. The view of community with which Mr. Levin’s letter concludes is of a piece with the 1867 definition of it that Peirce soon found unsatisfactory: “a mere concurrence . . . in one character.”
The letter does, however, touch upon the interpretive question of the circumstances under which a technical contribution may also be a manifesto. This is not merely the quite defensible historical reading I take of the Quine-Goodman piece (published as C.I. Lewis retired and as Harvard, flushed with postwar universalism, legislated curricular requirements based upon General Education in a Free Society), it underlies my theme about the polemical edge to some of Peirce’s own writings during 1867—71. It is, of course, a historical not a philosophical point, and is, as I took care to note, a way of making the early Peirce accessible to an audience not yet prepared to enter directly into the radical character of his philosophical work. But it does raise the further question broached by Frederic R. Kellogg’s very interesting letter of the relation between logic and metaphysics, on the one hand, and law and politics, on the other.
This is not the place to settle such an issue, but I should point out, in support of Mr. Kellogg’s fresh insistence on the “pragmatic” structure of Holmes’s thought, that Peirce himself conceded that the pragmatic maxim originated in legal thought. After he was credited by William James as the “father of pragmatism,” he insisted that Nicholas St. John Green, an older lawyer, who joined him, James, Holmes, Chauncey Wright, and others in the Metaphysical Club, was its “grandfather.” I also found informative and fascinating Mr. Kellogg’s observation that the Americanism of Peirce’s philosophical reviews in the early 1870′s has echoes in Holmes’s legal theory of the same period.
At the same time, though certain leading principles of legal reasoning may have their place in Peirce’s logic of science, they undergo an alteration. There is for Peirce no direct bearing of logic upon law, or science upon morals, or vice versa. Quite to the contrary: “To distinguish between speculative and practical opinions is the mark of the most cultivated intellects. Go down below this level and you come across reformers and rationalists at every turn—people who propose to remodel the ten commandments on modern science.” And the reverse—the imposition of moral standards upon science—is also to be avoided: “Morality leads to a conservatism which any new view, or even any free inquiry, no matter how purely speculative, shocks. The whole moral weight of such a community will be cast against science.”
What would Peirce say of our current mix? Research universities looked to as arbiters of public morality, and innovators in the mores parading as scientific pioneers.