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  • The Dogma of Necessity:Royce on Nature and Scientific Law
  • Michael Futch

The philosophical ramifications of modern science—physical, biological, and formal and mathematical—figure centrally in Royce's philosophy. Even the most cursory of glances at his corpus reveals a systematic and deep engagement with many of the leading developments in nineteenth-century science, from the nebular hypothesis, or evolution in both its Darwinian and Spencerian forms, to the work of Cantor and Dedekind. It would perhaps not be going too far to suggest that, from his first to last writings, the development of Royce's philosophy is in no small measure driven by an attempt to come to terms with these developments. And yet, while this has received some attention from the scholarly community, it remains an underemphasized facet of his thought.1 In this paper, I want to begin to redress this deficiency by focusing on but one small part of Royce's philosophy of nature, namely, his views on scientific laws. In particular, I will look at what Royce dubs the "Dogma of Necessity," the ways in which this dogma differs from his own approach to the natural world, and some possible objections to which his position is open.

Royce's indebtedness to Peirce in logic and semiotics is well documented in the ever-growing body of Royce scholarship. Consequently, it will come as no surprise that he borrows heavily from Peirce, both in his understanding of the Dogma of Necessity, as well as in his proposed alternative. Because of this, I will be making references to Peirce throughout the paper, but primarily for purposes of casting light on Royce's philosophy, not as an exercise in Peirce scholarship. Even so, one the recurring leitmotifs of this article will be Royce's ongoing engagement with Peirce. [End Page 54]

1. The Dogma of Necessity

Royce's analysis of the laws of nature draws freely on Peirce, so, by way of establishing a provisional interpretative framework, it is with a cursory overview of the latter that I will start. In a series of articles published around 1890, Peirce adumbrates a conception of natural law that is squarely opposed to the mechanical philosophy. On the mechanical view, nature is governed by a system of immutable laws, and by immutable laws that are deterministic in that the way the world is at one moment, in conjunction with these laws, uniquely determines to every last detail the way the world will be (or has been) at any other given moment. This is, in essence, a La Place-ean world-view, one that assumes what Peirce labels the "doctrine of necessity."2 What is important to emphasize here is that the laws themselves are not subject to change over time, and that they generate a one-to-one mapping relation between any two world states such that, given the way the world is at one moment, there is only one way that it can be at any other given moment.

In contradistinction to the mechanical philosophy, Peirce defends what he calls "tychism," a position that is committed to the introduction of objective chance and spontaneity into the natural world. By "objective chance," I mean events whose chance-like character and unpredictability are not merely functions of our ignorance of some putative underlying, deterministic causes. This "spontaneity" of the "life of the universe," Peirce tells us, continually produces "infinitesimal departures from law" and "great ones with infinitesimal infrequency" in a way that "mechanical law cannot account for in the least" (335). What is of primary relevance vis-à-vis Royce is Peirce's contention that these non-deterministic laws are themselves subject to change and alteration. In "The Law of Mind," published in The Monist in 1892, Peirce says that these regularities are "products of growth." Because of this, Peirce often refers to these semi-regularites as habits, a term that at once suggests that they are not rigid uniformities that admit of no exceptions and that they are not permanent fixtures of the universe. As Peirce puts it, "all laws are the results of evolution. . . . [I]f law is a result of evolution . . . it follows that no law is absolute" (359).



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