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Charles Sanders Peirce and the Presuppositions of Science
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2008-02-04 09:22:15
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One of the great influences on American philosophy was Charles Sanders Peirce’s pragmaticism. His interest in philosophy began as a hobby but has had wide international repercussion. Pierce’s intellectual career is a lifelong search for a correct account of the nature and function of methods that permit the discovery of truth. The methodology employed for this search was for Peirce a science of sort and therefore he sought in the long history of science valuable lessons for his own project. Surely he must have been aware of the speculation on science by luminaries such as Kant, Hume, Nietzsche, Vico (who called his work The New Science), just to mention a few.

One of his early discoveries was that, despite Descartes’ cogito, scientific intelligences do not begin their activities in and intellectual vacuum. There are presuppositions of science and scientific method and they basically fall into two large classes: religion and common sense. Peirce speculated that scientific activity is based upon religion, whether or not the scientific intelligence is aware of it or not, because the ideals of that method presuppose a search for the truth about a reality not yet known. This idea of faith or basic beliefs being the base of science can be found in both Aquinas Summa and in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Moreover, Peirce sees knowledge as a means of stabilizing our habitual behavior in response to doubt.

Common sense on the other hand is that set of instinctive beliefs that all normal human beings do not doubt. Peirce speculated that those beliefs were the results of evolutionary change over millennia. Like religion, such original beliefs are not theory and there is a place in his system for theorizing about them, but one should never substituted the theory for the presence and current nature of such beliefs in all humans. That kind of speculation is reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s On Certainty.

According to Peirce, the guiding principle of his “pragmaticism” philosophy is this: if one can define accurately all the conceivable experimental phenomena which the affirmation or denial of a concept could imply, one will have a complete definition of the concept. So this view is principally concerned with establishing the meaning of concepts and beliefs, a philosophical emphasis that would come to dominate the linguistics of the 20th century.

One of the effects of Peirce’s pragmaticism is to distinguish metaphysical propositions that are nonsense from the authentically meaningful propositions of “scientific metaphysics.” The nonsensical propositions are those which have no sense because they do not represent any idea that has observable, sensible effects that can be accorded practical significance.

Scientific metaphysics, for Pierce, is an observational discipline concerning the first and most basic elements of experience; those elements that are so fundamental that they are difficult to discern. Thus scientific metaphysics and science are not part of one continuous discipline—as some of Pierce’s philosophical descendants would later claim—but maintain the traditional hierarchical order of foundational and succeeding disciplines respectively.

Pierce rejects Descartes “paper doubt,” a doubt considered merely as an intellectual exercise, and sidesteps the whole issue of epistemological skepticism. His foundational, scientific metaphysics accordingly begins with phenomenology, the way things are presented to us in experience. He is particularly concerned with the difference between belief and doubt. Real doubt ensues when recalcitrant experience, which is not reflection, causes us to waver in our beliefs. A belief, as Peirce understands it, is not some kind of intellectual disposition to assent to a proposition, but a behavioral habit manifest in action. Therefore, when real doubt ensues it disrupts our usual behavioral patterns. Cartesian doubt, on the other hand, can make no difference to the way we act.

Pierce suggests that knowledge, which he defines as the resolution of disrupted habits by the revision of belief, is a “homeostatic” process. Homeostatis is a concept borrowed from physiology, in which the body employs reaction systems to return to normal functioning in response to environmental upsets. Similarly, Pierce sees knowledge as a means of stabilizing our habitual behavior in response to doubt.

Today Pierce is widely considered the most original and profound of American intellects. He wrote many articles for academic journals but did not publish any work that set out his philosophy. Unfavorable personal circumstances prevented that during his life. But Pierce scholarship has been steadily growing in the last twenty years and his unpublished writing have been appearing in convenient editions for those interested in studying his philosophy. Three such are The Essential Peirce (two volumes, 1992, 1998) and The Cambridge Companion to Peirce.

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Sand2008-02-04 16:24:20
Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.
Albert Einstein

By2008-02-04 17:58:08

"The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking."

--Albert Einstein

Sand2008-02-04 19:07:48
Small is the number of people who see with their eyes and think with their minds.
Albert Einstein

Sand2008-02-04 19:24:40
A man of great common sense and good taste - meaning thereby a man without originality or moral courage.
George Bernard Shaw

Sand2008-02-04 19:27:10
It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.
Mark Twain

Sand2008-02-04 19:31:21
It is my supposition that the Universe in not only queerer than we imagine, is queerer than we can imagine.
John B. S. Haldane

Sand2008-02-04 19:41:01
Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it. Niels Bohr.

by2008-02-04 20:53:59
After last night's debate, the reputation of Messieurs Lincoln and Douglas is secure.
--Edward Morrow

P.S. And so is that of Einstein, Shaw, Twain, Haldane, Bohr, and that of the common parrot.

Sand2008-02-04 20:59:10
A grey parrot, now deceased, was held to comprehend and use language intelligently but I have yet to hear that he or any other parrot was versed in either the mysteries of the universe in general or quantum theory in particular.

bohdan2008-02-05 07:13:43
Just a footnote:

As I have sometimes used "by" as my signature, I just need to inform that "by" mentioned here is not me. And I will no longer use "by" as my signature.

And I found by's comments fun to read, and the others too.

From2008-02-05 12:49:43
C.S. Peirce who like the parrot and Eistein and Shaw and Twain and Haldane and Marrow has been dead for a while: my reputation remains secure too. I am the only one who has not been discussed in those eye-opening comments.

Sand2008-02-05 12:59:34
Paparella, your habitual misspelling of Einstein and Morrow instantly identifies you under a false name and I have no idea why you are fearful to clearly post under your real name. But I am not particularly interested in discussing you. I am interested in the ideas represented or misrepresented.

Emanuel Paparella2008-02-05 14:59:45
Really? If that were the case, the name, or no name at all, attached to an idea would indeed not matter at all, only the idea and its discussion would. But alas, that seems to be the only thing that matters within your rather squalid dialectical tactics aimed at casting aspersions on anybody who has ideas which differ from yours. Indeed, any fair minded reader would have to conclude from the evidence at hand that there are presuppositions and an axes to grind and a hidden agendas at busy at work.

Sand2008-02-05 15:55:49
Your quick and derogatory response fully confirms my perception. Since all you do is hurl repetitive insults that do not explain or elaborate on your proposals I wonder why you bother since you are well aware of my reaction.

Emanuel Paparella2008-02-05 17:06:58
You can rest well assured Sand that my contributions are not written with you in mind and to elicit any kind of reaction from a closed mind, even if you seem to be the only one with a vested interest in casting unfair aspersions on them for reasons best known to you or the voices in your head but that are not hard to figure out. I have no doubt that had this magazine placed you on its editorial board, it would have folded a long time ago and your self-appointed role of Grand Inquiaitor in charge of political correctness does is indeed not very helpfut to it.

Sand2008-02-05 17:22:08
That you confer upon me titles such as Grand Inquisitor is a positive indication that you regard any questioning of your point of view or the contributions you characterize as facts is not, in your eyes, permissible and such obvious pomposity positively demands puncturing points. I am only willing to fulfill what is obviously needed.

Emanuel Paparella2008-02-05 20:26:27
The inability to distinguish needs from wants does indeed lead to pomposity and self-deception and self-appointed position. The disaster occurs when that flaw is projecting unto others. Then it becomes fatal, or as Kierkegaard put it, then the sickness is unto death.

Sand2008-02-05 21:29:34
You said it, baby. Too bad you cannot detect that it's you that's projecting.

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