Lecture Notes: Peirce's "The Fixation of Belief"

UC Davis Philosophy 1

G. J. Mattey

Charles Sanders Peirce

C. S. Peirce is thought by many people to have been the greatest American philosopher. It is also something of a scandal that despite his brilliance, he was never able to attain permanent academic employment. Born in 1839, the son of a Harvard professor, Peirce studied natural science and made numerous contributions to the field. He worked primarily for the United States Geological Survey. Most of his vast philosophical output was unpublished, and much of what he did publish appeared in magazines such as Popular Science. His main contribution to philosophy, pragmatism, was re-shaped by such philosophers as William James and John Dewey, to the point where Peirce dropped the name "pragmatism" in favor of "pragmaticism" to distinguish his views from what he regarded as the degenerate views of his followers. He died a bitter man in 1914.

Peirce's Contributions

Peirce's contributions to contemporary philosophy were extensive. He was one of the pioneers in the development of modern symbolic logic, having made numerous discoveries. He was particularly inventive in the logic of relations and of quantities. But he got none of the glory that eventually went to Bertrand Russell, whose Principia Mathematica incorporated many principles of Peirce's own.

Another area in which Peirce made highly original contributions is in "semiotic," or the general theory of signs. There is a great deal of contemporary research in the field that is indebted to Peirce.

As mentioned above, Peirce is best known for his pragmatic philosophy. A trained scientist, Peirce believed that the meanings of concepts must be confined to their testable consequences. As a result, much of metaphysics is seen to be futile. This is not to say that Peirce did not develop his own metaphysical views. He proposed three basic categories ("firstness," "secondness," and "thirdness"), which he believed passed the pragmatic test. Of particular interest to many contemporary thinkers is his notion of truth, which is to be found in the practices of the scientific community. Peirce regarded truth as the outcome of research in an ideal limit that might never be attained.


Peirce regarded logic as an instrument for drawing conclusions from premises. Unlike contemporary logicians, Peirce included in his conception of logic what we would now call epistemological concerns. In particular, he examined the origins of the premises of logical arguments. On his view, progress has been made in securing better starting-points for our reasoning. Medieval philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas began with "revealed truths" or the pronouncements of long-dead philosophers such as Aristotle. With the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century, it was seen that experience is the proper starting point. The development of scientific method was, in Peirce's view, largely a development of our understanding of how to exploit the information we gain from experience. By his own time, scientists such as Darwin had learned to supplement direct experience with statistical techniques, which allows reasoning about information whose causes are not known directly. This placed evolutionary theory on a sound footing that would not have been possible otherwise.


Peirce distinguished between a valid chain of reasoning and the way people actually reason. A valid chain is one that must yield a true conconclusion if the premises are all true. Whether a chain of reasoning is valid or not is not in any way defined by the way people actually reason. In fact, people reason poorly, mostly because we are too optimistic. We take the logical strength of our premises to be much greater than what it actually is. Our reasoning then turns out badly, frustrating us. But do we learn from this not to reason so optimistically? Not very well. But if this is so, how can we have survived as a species so dependent on reasoning? One suggestion is that in practical matters we reason better than we do in impractical matters. Our bad reasoning in philosophy, with its excessive metaphysical conclusions, does us no harm.

Guiding Principles

We might think of our reasoning as quite deliberate, but really it is based on habits of inference. A good habit of inference is one which will produce valid arguments. We can formulate our habits into principles of reasoning. For example, Whenever I believe that p is true and that it is true that if p then q, I believe that q is true. Thus we can extract a "guiding principle": "if both p and if p then q, then q." This is a true principle, in the sense that is use produces valid arguments. The study of true guiding principles is the business of logic. A book of true guiding principles would be pretty useless to someone who operates according to customary procedures. But it is useful when we confront the unknown. We can revert to true guiding principles in cases where there are no established methods for investigating a particular subject-matter. Thus, we might make an inference about the behavior of a piece of copper in a situation we have never experienced. A guiding principle would be "a piece of copper in one environment behaves like any piece of copper in any other environment." But Peirce notes that such a principle would not be true if it were applied to brass, an alloy of copper, instead.

Logic and Common Sense

Logic studies movements in thought. Why do we draw inferences from premises? It makes sense only if we are trying to determine what to believe. Thus, logic presupposes that there is a transition from a state of unbelief to a state of belief. The relevant state of unbelief is one of doubt, that is, active consideration of the truth of a matter without commitment as to whether it is true or false. No other state of belief would motivate the use of inference. We would like to be able to identify the principles that are implied by the very idea of the passage from doubt to belief. These would be the most essential principles of logic, "rules which all minds are alike bound by." Some of our beliefs are the product of logical reflection, of inference. In many cases, we mix these beliefs up with those which are not the products of reflection. For example, we say that things have various qualities, when all we perceive of them are particular colors. We have used metaphysical reflection to determine that there must be qualities. This easy mix of common-sense and logic is called "metaphysical," and it is bad. "And nothing can clear it up but a severe course of logic."

Doubt and Belief

Doubts that we have, which give rise to inferences, are manifested through the asking of questions. On the other hand, when we make a pronouncement, we are expressing a belief. Doubt and belief give rise to very different feelings. Doubt is something we try to avoid, because it makes us uneasy and restless. Belief, on the other hand, gives rise to satisfaction. We therefore cling tenaciously to them. This is important because it is beliefs alone that guide our desires and shape our actions. Doubt renders us indecisive and inactive.


Doubt is an irritant, a condition that moves us to eliminate it in favor of the satisfaction of belief. It is not quite so simple to eliminate doubt as it might seem as first, for doubt itself presents us with at least two options regarding what exactly to believe. There is a back-and-forth struggle in our minds, with come considerations favoring one side and some the other. Peirce calls the struggle itself inquiry.

Even when we succeed at fixing beliefs, we often do not find rest. New struggles arise when we find our current beliefs to be inadequate for producing the results we wish. Experience works to upset what we have worked to fixate, and doubt appears once again. It is no less an irritant upon its re-appearance, and so the process of inquiry begins anew.

When we reach a state that terminates doubt, a state of belief, what we have is something we take to be true. We remain open to new evidence that will cast us back into a state of doubt. The fact that we take a belief to be true does not imply that it is true.

Consequences for Reasoning

The appearance of doubt is a natural product of our encounter with the world. We might try to stimulate it artificially, as Descartes did. That is, we might wish to suspend our belief given the possibility that it may be false. But doubt as a psychological state runs counter to the satisfaction found in belief, and it requires real grounds to undermine that satisfaction which we naturally prefer.

If we are to use argument to settle our doubt, we will uses as premises the beliefs we have. These beliefs are not indubitable: they are not general first principles known a priori, nor are they sensations. We begin only with those beliefs which are not actually doubted at the time.

Finally, "When doubt ceases, mental action comes to an end." There is no longer an irritant which needs to be removed, so there is no point in pursuing inquiry any further, unless one wants to engage of criticism of the belief one already has. So the wide-spread practice of arguing a point on which everyone is convinced is just a waste of time.

The Method of Tenacity

There are several methods whereby a person can avoid the irritation of doubt. Some methods begin with the beliefs a person already has. These beliefs can be protected from doubt by the removal of all occasions that might bring forth contrary evidence. You might believe you received an A on the final and refuse to look at your report card because it might state otherwise.

A second method for preserving belief is simply to hang on to it as tightly as possible. One simply refuses to be irritated by contrary evidence. As Peirce points out, this can have adverse practical consequences. But on the other hand, it can lead to great peace of mind, since doubt is by its very nature an irritant that we would like to avoid. You might want to call this method of tenacity irrational. But although this may be true, all that is really being said is that the person refuses to use a method you endorse. But that is not really a criticism, given that the fundamental purpose of belief is the avoidance of the irritation of doubt. Indeed, the tenacious believer might scorn reason because it is unsettling.

The Method of Authority

The method of tencacity has the practical shortcoming that it is opposed by the social impulse. It is a method adopted by individuals to protect their own belief, and this runs counter to the fact that belief fixation takes place primarily at the level of the community. One way in which this occurs is by the enforcement of conformity of belief. Political and theological doctrines in particular have been upheld in this way. Whoever deviates from the prevailing belief is subject to punishment, sometimes cruel punishment.

The Limits of Authority

It has already been mentioned that the method of tencacity can lead to quite impractical consequences for the tenacious believer. Socialized belief upheld by authority has a very successful track-record, as witnessed, for example, by the monumental architecture erected by political and religious entities. It may be the best method of belief-fixation for the great masses of people.

Still, the reach of the method of authority is limited. It cannot regulate all fbeliefs. For most people, this is of no consequence, but for others it is. These people recognize that specific authoritarian systems of belief vary widely across societies. Since not all can be right, such people question the authority of their own society and find that there is no reason to think it to be superior to that of the others.

The A Priori Method

As authoritarian systems of belief are found to be arbitrary, people search for a superior method to fix their belief. They would like them not to be tainted by relativity, so they look for a way that is absolute. If one could discover facts that are indisputable, they would hold across all societies and would settle all doubts. Mathematics provides us with a clear model for the generation of indisputable facts. Philosophers have sought to extend this model to other areas that are "agreeable to reason." But what is agreeable to reason? For the most part, what people find agreeable to their reason is just what they are inclined to believe. Historically, there is great dispute about what is "agreeable to reason," which is contrary to the original motivation for appealing to it. Nonetheless, we are moved toward nearly universal agreement on certain matters without basing the beliefs on facts, that is to say, believing them a priori. For example, nearly everyone believes that people act selfishly, without ever undertaking an empirical investigation of the matter.

True Induction

Although the a priori method is more intellectually respectible than the other methods and would indeed be the best method if it were the only alternative to them, it is deeply flawed. The history of philosophy has shown that it is as much subject to the whims of changing fashions as the method of authority. There has never been lasting agreement on what exactly the deliverances of reason are. What is really at work here are the same instincts that give rise to belief in the first place, not any special insight into truth. But what fixes our belief should not be instinct, or anything on which our thinking has no effect--an "external permanency." Rather, it should be something that can serve for all people at all times as a tocuhstone of truth. In modern times, this is what Francis Bacon called "true induction" and what we now call the method of science. This is the method that will be embraced by those people who will begin to doubt what they believe as soon as they recognize that their belief has a subjective origin. What is needed is "something which affects, or might affect, every man."

The Method of Science

Scientific method rests on some fundamental hypotheses about the world and about human cognition.

The hypothesis of the existence of real things and our ability to discover how they truly are overcomes the subjectivity inherent in the other three methods of fixing belief.


As stated, the method of science rests on a hypothesis. How do we know that the hypothesis is correct? We cannot invoke the method of science to determine this, as that would involve circular reasoning. So what evidence can we have that the hypothesis itself is true? Ultimately, the answer lies in practice, and this reveals the kernel of Peirce's pragmatism. In the first place, using this method will never undermine the method itself. So it does not prove itself false, even if it cannot prove itself true. On the other hand, the three rival methods can undermine themselves. For example, many philosophers have practiced the a priori method. This very practice shows that there is immense variation in what has been held to be "agreeable to reason." As a result, we come to see that the conception of being "agreeable to reason" is a subjective one, contrary to the objectivity that we originally conceived the method to guarantee.

The part of the hypothesis that says that there are real things is something to which everyone admits. This is because doubt a source of dissatisfaction, and the dissatisfaction lies in the fact that when we are in doubt, we do not know how real things really are. Moreover, we all use the scientific method whenever we can. Only when we do not know how to employ it do we fail to use it. Finally, the method has one over-riding practical consequence--its success. Only the scientific method has been successful in fixing belief in a way that is objectively satisfying.


The conclusion is that the scientific method is the most advantageous in settling belief, because it alone distinguishes between a right way and a wrong way of following themethod. The other methods do not allow for a right and wrong way to follow them. The method of authority, for example, is such that any pronouncement by authority is in itself something that must be believed. But the use of scientific reasoning may go astray: there is right scientific reasoning and wrong scientific reasoning. This is the subject-matter of "the practical side of logic."

That said, there are advantages to the other methods. The a prioi method, which reflects our innermost feelings, makes us comfortable in our belief. The method of authority, by suppressing disagreement, has the practical effect of bringing about a peaceful state of affairs. The method of tenacity is very simple and direct to use. It is a very strong method for the avoidance of the irritation of doubt. Yet despite these advantages, they all fail to give us a reason to think that the beliefs that they induce correspond to facts about the world.

The Morality of Belief

Although the scientific method invites disagreement and thereby induces public insecurity, we should adopt it nonetheless. What is important is not which particular beliefs the scientific method forces upon us, but the integrity of the process of forming beliefs, that matters. It might be that we must embrace, as the result of its use, beliefs that make us uncomfortable in one way or another. But this should not make us shrink away from the truth, particularly if we admit that there is such a thing as truth. To do so is "a sorry state of mind." Once a person makes the decision to adopt the scientific method in the interests of truth, he will hold it to be the most worthy choice, despite any discomfort it may cause him.

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