Irreconcilable differences

Last time I taught a seminar on pragmatism, I began to doubt that it made sense to see “pragmatism” as a movement and blogged about the fundamental differences between Peirce’s and James’ positions. I’m teaching pragmatism again, and the differences are even more salient this time.

What follows is a somewhat rambling discussion of differences between Peirce and James on method, on truth, and in their general outlook.

On method

Peirce and James both explicitly endorse the pragmatic maxim: “Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.”1 Yet their sharing this verbal formulation hides two fundamental differences. The schism is concisely illustrated in the the pragmatism entry in Baldwin’s 1902 Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology.

First, regarding what counts as a practical difference: James writes that “the whole ‘meaning’ of a conception expresses itself in the practical consequences, consequences either in the shape of conduct to be recommended, or in that of experiences to be expected, if the conception be true; which consequences would be different if it were untrue…” Peirce consistently counts only differences in experiences to be expected.

This leads them to treat cases differently.

Take, for example, the doctrine of transubstantiation. They agree that communion bread and mundane bread are empirically indistinguishable. So, for Peirce, there is no practical sense to insisting that the host is anything more than bread. Yet the belief that communion bread is the host leads believers to treat it differently than they treat ordinary bread. Because James counts differences in recommended conduct as practical differences, he counts disputes about transubstantiation as meaningful— whereas they are merely verbal for Peirce.

Second, on the scope of the principle: In 1878, Peirce claims that the pragmatic maxim provides the highest level of understanding. James similarly says that it reveals the entire meaning of a conception.

By the 1900s, however, Peirce had become concerned that this condemned important parts of mathematics to the dustbin of meaninglessness. For example, the hypotenuse of a unit right triangle has a length equal to no rational number. This is not something that can be confirmed directly in experience, however, because no actual measurement can discern the difference between an irrational length and an arbitrarily close rational length.

I sympathize with Peirce’s worry, but I’ve always found his proposal to remedy the problem somewhat obscure.

On truth

For Peirce, the truth is what would eventually be settled upon given sufficient enquiry. However much evidence we might have for a claim now, whether it is true or not depends on how it will fare not just for us but for the indefinite series of future enquirers.

For James, the truth is what works. This is not the crude view that working in even some small respect or for some limited purpose is sufficient to make something true, because a truth must fit together with our other beliefs and commitments over the course of extended experience. However, this is a matter of ideas satisfying numerous constraints and “individuals will emphasize their points of satisfaction differently.”2

For Peirce, the truth is the same for everybody. For James, we may find different truths.

On outlook

Peirce and James share what’s sometimes called the belief/doubt model of enquiry: Belief is comfortable, but doubt is not. Belief supports to confident action, but doubt means uncertainty and indecision. Enquiry begins with the disturbance of doubt. Functionally, it is aimed at settling the doubt and replacing it with belief.

Yet they make sharply different use of this model.

Peirce looks to find an appropriate method by which enquiry can be resolved. We are social creatures, so disagreement fosters doubt. As such, the method needs to be one that settles disagreements. It needs to work at the level of the community.

James thinks that enquiry plays out in ways that depend on personal factors— passions, temperament. So he thinks that enquiry will be resolved differently for different people. Rather than hoping for ultimate agreement, he thinks that difference may persist even given extended rational engagement. So he encourages tolerance of difference.

The difference in their outlooks resonates or fits with their difference on the nature of truth, but there isn’t a necessary connection or entailment. So, too, for these positions and their conceptions of method. The Peircean and Jamesian views are philosophical packages. One could accept part of one package without accepting all of it— and one could even accept part of one package and part of the the other.

The multifarious differences between their philosophical packages are elided by simply treating them both as pragmatists.

educate Washington
This doodle has very little to do with the post, but it was in the blog’s media library.
  1. Peirce wrote this originally in “How to make our ideas clear” (1878) but both Peirce and James quote it in numerous other works.
  2. Here quoting Pragmatism Lecture II.

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