Commentary Magazine


Pierce Reconsidered

To the Editor:

In his article on Peirce [“American Pragmatism Reconsidered,” Aug. ’62] Professor Aiken interprets Peirce’s “scholastic realism” to connote a belief in the existence of “real generals” apart from things. Professor Aiken wonders why Peirce with his scientific background would have anything to do with “such a hoary doctrine of traditional metaphysics.”

Peirce does frequently refer to his acceptance of scholastic realism but on close examination it is not the scholastic realism that Professor Aiken thinks it to be. . . . Professor Aiken ascribes to Peirce’s scholastic realism a view that entails the existence of universals apart from any manifestation in things. . . . But does Peirce mean his scholastic realism to be so interpreted? . . .

Peirce’s scholastic realism [rejects] any notion of universalia ante rem. Relations for Peirce may be objective or external to the mind, but they are not disembodied “reals” endowed with a wraithlike existence. They do not exist apart from the things that they relate. But insofar as they do relate things outside of the mind, they do have a real existence which is discovered by the mind.

The importance for the predictability of scientific propositions and of experiment of such real relations is for Peirce self-evident. The positivistic scientist who asserts the existence of only particulars contradicts himself with each experiment he makes. Perhaps the clarification of Peirce’s realism as a realism entailing universalia (or relations) inter res rather than universalia ante rem may make his position more comprehensible and therefore acceptable.

Robert W. Hall
Department of Philosophy and Religion
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vermont

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Mr. Aiken writes:

I think that Professor Hall has misunderstood the point of my discussion of Peirce’s metaphysical realism, though this may be due to the manner of my expression in the opening paragraph of my treatment of the topic. I was in fact more interested in the problem of the logical status of Peirce’s commitment to “general runs” and in the significance, from a pragmatic point of view, of metaphysical theses generally than in the technical details which distinguish Peirce’s own version of realism from other forms of the doctrine. I did, however, say that Peirce accepts only a ‘Variant” of the Platonic doctrine of universals; within the context of my essay, which had other axes to grind, it seemed less essential to spell out all of the “technical” details of the Scotist variant which Peirce accepts.

I am not the first reader of Peirce who has wondered, initially, about Peirce’s stake, as a pragmatist and as a scientific philosopher, in the metaphysical controversy over universals. Nor am I the first whose wonder has been intensified by Peirce’s own highly disparaging comments upon the emptiness of (most) “ontological metaphysics.” But, as my essay makes clear, I, at least, stayed for an answer, and I came eventually to the conclusion that Peirce was right in parting company with the positivists who regard the whole controversy over universals as merely a tissue of logical and semantical confusion and of (scientifically) unverifiable speculation. I argued that it is no accident that Peirce (usually) regards his metaphysical realism as an integral part of his Pragmaticism, and that he himself misrepresents it—just as he often misrepresents other metaphysical theses to which he is addicted—when he treats it, as he sometimes does, as a confirmable scientific hypothesis. On the contrary, as a part of his pragmatism, it belongs rather to the framework of thought and expression which a commitment to science, as the pre-emptive vehicle of human knowledge, involves. From this standpoint, the basic error of Platonists in all ages consists precisely in the tendency to treat the belief in general runs as tantamount to a belief that general runs are things or objects, albeit of a rather queer sort, whose apprehension involves a peculiar form of (intellectual) intuition. This, in my judgment, is precisely what happens in any sphere of discourse when the principles governing it are taken as parts of the body of knowledge which they superintend. Peirce himself sees the point, in principle, when he contrasts the pragmatic maxim as the statement of a method of analysis and interpretation with the statements for which it purports to provide a principle of interpretation. Such an error, so I believe, is largely responsible for the unnecessary discrediting of metaphysics as a whole in the eyes of those who, like the positivists, rightly reject the notion of a positive metaphysical super-science whose “truths” are nonetheless beyond the powers of scientific procedures to verify. I thus precisely did not maintain that Peirce’s general runs are “disembodied ‘reals’ endowed with a wraithlike existence.” I contended, on the contrary, that this commitment to them is, by his own admission, to be construed as an aspect of his dedication to the highly substantial and unwraith-like activity of science itself. As such it is a commitment exactly on a par with the commitment to the “reality” of numbers. In the ordinary course, such a commitment goes without saying. It becomes a significant commitment, however, in the face of, and in rebuke to, those who refuse to take with absolute seriousness those practices involving mathematical computation or who maintain that “existentially” mathematical discourses are not matters of basic human concern.

In his final paragraph, Professor Hall states that “The positivistic scientist who asserts the existence of only particulars contradicts himself with each experiment he makes.” This is a dead give-away, which implicitly supports my analysis. The error is this: “positivistic” scientists—and among scientists only some, on their own time, are positivists—do not assert “the existence of only particulars.” On the contrary, positivists regard both such an assertion and its denial as the purest metaphysical moonshine. From Auguste Comte on, positivists have rejected the whole nominalist-realist controversy as, at best, pre-scientific. But I am less interested in scoring points against Professor Hall than in taking the measure of his remarks. How, one wants to know, can the making of an experiment “contradict” an assertion? An assertion, as Professor Hall knows, can be formally contradicted only by another assertion, and the making of experiments is not as such an assertion. If there is a “contradiction” it is only in that wider, pragmatic sense of the term in which one can sometimes speak of contradictory or conflicting attitudes or actions. In this sense, as I pointed out, there is indeed a practical, if not a formal, inconsistency in the conduct of the nominalist who commits himself exclusively to the reality of particulars, yet continues to talk and act as though general runs really counted. Oddly, Professor Hall’s telling, if elliptical and inelegant, statement itself presupposes that, since assertions about the exclusive reality of particulars can be “contradicted” by experiments and hence by actions, the fundamental force of such assertions is, as I contended (for Peirce), fundamentally practical and pragmatic. Hall, it seems, is a pragmatic metaphysician in spite of himself.

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