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ONE Peirce’s Early Presentation of the Maxim To understand what pragmatism is, we first have to understand what the pragmatic maxim says. Peirce’s earliest statement of the pragmatic maxim is in some sense the definitive statement of that maxim, but its ambiguous formulation has generated considerable misunderstanding over the years. With some care, though, we can make some sense out of it. When James initially publicized pragmatism (1885; 1897; 1898), he indeed cited and discussed Peirce’s original 1878a presentation of this maxim. Succinct statements of the maxim can be and have been given in just a few lines. Here is Peirce’s first published statement: It appears, then, that the rule for attaining the third grade of clearness of apprehension is as follows: Consider what effects, which 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. (Peirce 1878a, EP1:132) It is clearly not a simple matter to determine what these few lines actually say. They are the conclusion of an argument that is aimed (as the title of Peirce’s paper indicates) at establishing standards of “clearness” of thought (of apprehension, of ideas, of conceptions—Peirce employs all of these terms in this paper) over and above Cartesian rationalist standards of clarity and distinctness—the latter supposedly being exemplified by Euclid’s axiomatic development of geometry. Peirce characterizes the latter two notions, respectively, as familiarity and precise definability in abstract terms. These are then alleged to be inadequate standards by themselves, the point being that a large proportion of our ideas are not amenable to clarification using purely formal axiomatic methods (1878a, EP1:125–127). In spite of the limitations of purely rationalist standards of “clarity,” the question of how to make our ideas clear is nevertheless a logical matter, Peirce claims, where logic is broadly conceived as a study of the “guiding principles of reasoning ”—including a survey of inductive and abductive as well as deductive forms of inference (Peirce 1877; 1878b). According to Peirce, logical theory requires an examination of the various forms of inference as they function together in inquiry . Hence Peirce’s discussion leading up to the statement of the maxim focuses largely on the nature of inquiry, drawing initially on the results of the earlier 1877 paper in which it is concluded that (among other things) the method of scientific 9 10 / WHAT PRAGMATISM WAS inquiry is the best method of “fixing” or securing belief. This conclusion is alleged to “lead, at once, to a method of reaching a clearness of thought of a far higher grade than [mere] ‘distinctness’” (1878a, EP1:127). We need not get into too many details of Peirce’s arguments in the crucial 1878a paper except to note that they begin with some general considerations of the nature of thought (inquiry, reasoning) in service to securing workable beliefs in the face of particular doubts, questions, or moments of indecisiveness. Peirce had already argued (1877) that thought (inquiry) is only a response to a felt need to address some doubt or indecision or question—to remove the doubt, resolve the indecision, answer the question—such that “the production of belief is the sole function of thought. ... The soul and meaning of thought ... can never be made to direct itself toward anything but the production of belief” (Peirce 1878a, EP1:127–129). The “motive of thought” is just the appeasement of doubt. Belief is to doubt what an answer is to a question. In making such claims, Peirce is quick to point out that the notions of doubt and belief are to be conceived broadly, pertaining to any kind of issue whether profound or mundane. This would include anything from what to have for dinner to whether or not to use taxpayers’ money to bail out a failed banking system or automobile industry. Peirce claims further that belief has just three properties: first, we are aware of it; second, it assuages doubt; and third, “it involves the establishment in our nature of a rule of action, or, say for short, a habit” (Peirce 1878a, EP1:129). In fact, rules of action fully determine beliefs. That is, the “final upshot” of any completed inquiry is the securing of some manner of action, the exercise of some volition, how that plays out being set by the rules of action established by that inquiry. Thus two beliefs are different only if...


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