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Peirce's Defense of the Scientific Method PAULA ROTHENBERG STRUHL PEIRCE'S CLASSICESSAY"The Fixation of Belief" has received considerable critical attention. In spite of the numerous discussions of this essay, scholars continue to fall prey to certain unfortunate and important misinterpretations of Peirce's position here. A proper understanding of the argument contained in this essay concerning the adoption of the scientific method is extremely important for all further Peirce scholarship, and the errors made in interpreting Peirce's argument are indicative of the kinds of misinterpretations that are offered of his later work in Pragmaticism. These misinterpretations often have their roots in the failure to understand Peirce's rejection of Descartes' epistemology in general and of his methodological doubt in particular. Most recently, A. J. Ayer in his book The Origins of PragmatismI has offered us such a misinterpretation . We would do well then, to consider once again the nature of the argument that Peirce offers in support of the Scientific Method as the only acceptable method for fixing belief. Where helpful we shall make reference to other thinkers in order to ellucidate Peirce's position and to demonstrate the problems in Ayer's critique. The opening lines of Peirce's essay immediately bring to mind the opening of Descartes ' Discourse on Method. The lines in question are reproduced below so that the reader may remark on their similarity for himself. Good sense is mankind's most equitably divided endowment, for everyone thinks that he is so abundently provided with it that even those with the most insatiable appetite and most difficult to please in other ways, do not usually want more than they have of this. (Discourse) Few persons care to study logic, because everybody conceives himself to be proficient enough in the art of reasoning already. But I observe that this satisfaction is limited to one's own ratiocination and does not extend to that of the other man. ("Fixation") That Peirce was deliberately patterning the very beginning of his essay after Descartes' famous lines is not difficult to hypothesize since Peirce was avowedly concerned with remedying the deficiencies of the Cartesian System. Where Descartes was concerned with providing a "Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reasoning and Seeking Truth in the Sciences," Peirce set himself a similar task. He proposed to undertake that task under the general heading "Search for a Method," the title of one of his projected works, and under the specific title "Fixation of Belief." Like Descartes, Peirce recognizes the need for a method of arriving at beliefs and like Descartes he saw doubt as the crucial starting place for that method. His conception of the nature of that 1 San Francisco: Freeman, Cooper, 1968. [481] 482 HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY doubt differs strikingly however, and is responsible for the particular nature of the method Peirce proposes. Peirce begins his essay on the fixation of belief with an attack on Descartes' method.2 While recognizing the importance of doubt as the initiating factor in inquiry, it is Peirce's contention that the doubt proposed by Descartes is not and cannot be genuine. It is, according to Peirce, a psychological impossibility. The wholesale doubt, in so far as it cannot actually be accomplished, is particularly dangerous because it permits us to think that we have wiped the slate clean and are beginning our inquiry free of prejudice. The possibility of such a beginning is precisely what Peirce wishes to deny. Some philosophers have imagined that to start an inquiry it was only necessary to utter a question, whether orally or by setting it down on paper, and have even recommended to begin our studies with questioning everything! But the mere putting of a proposition into the interrogative form does not stimulate the mind to any struggle to attain belief. (5.376) Inquiry, or the struggle after belief, does arise from doubt when that doubt is genuine and specific.3 We inquire because the beliefs we have been acting upon prove unsatisfactory . As a result of beliefs we hold, we have certain expectations about our experience . When those expectations are not fulfilled we find ourselves in a state of surprise, hesitancy, confusion and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 481-490
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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