- Peirce on Realism and Idealism by Robert Lane
Peirce on Realism and Idealism
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. x + 214 pp., incl. index
Peirce persistently proclaimed both idealism and realism, terms that in philosophy's history have had varied meanings, in some of which they designate opposed doctrines; his use of them also varied in meaning. The aim of Robert Lane's important new book is to trace the evolution of Peirce's idealism and realism and to show that, in the end, whatever misadventures occur en route, these doctrines, in Peirce's version of them, are not opposed. Lane explores connections to other Peircean topics: truth, pragmatism, modality, generality, vagueness, continuity. However, he retains his focus, which enables him to examine Peirce's idealism and realism with extraordinary care and thoroughness.
Lane's method is, in the first place, to identify, in Peirce's surviving writings, that writing, published or unpublished, in which a doctrine is first stated, and then to identify each writing in which it is later in some significant way developed or amended or abandoned. That comprehensive and accurate review of the record is enough, alone, to make this book an invaluable guide to the study of Peirce's philosophy. Lane's method, secondly, is to establish, on the basis of a scrupulous examination of the text, what Peirce must have meant in each of these writings, where what he must have meant is understood to be what he at the time of writing really thought (references are frequent to what Peirce 'believed', to what he 'had in mind', and so on). Absent retrospective telepathy, this means that Lane's readings apply the famous 'principle of charity': if something Peirce said, read literally, contradicts something else he said in the same writing or in closely related writings, or if it entails some obvious absurdity, then Lane concludes that that literal reading is not what Peirce meant, because it clearly could not have been what he thought. As changes in Peirce's thought over time are thereby exposed, Lane's method, thirdly, is to attempt to account for those [End Page 80] changes—as much as possible on the basis of what Peirce himself said about them, but in any case on grounds of sound arguments employing ideas found in his writings.
In consequence of the care and thoroughness with which Lane goes about his work, this book not only is a useful guide to the study of Peirce but will serve as a touchstone of defensible interpretation. By that I mean this. No doubt there are many points on which one may reasonably disagree with Lane, as I am sure he himself would admit; but his readings are so well-grounded that no one can hope to establish a contrary view without coming to grips with the evidence and argument Lane has provided. His book cannot be ignored.
In this connection, I should like to urge that there is an alternative way of reading Peirce, one in which it is not assumed that what he meant by his words is invariably, or almost always, what he at the time really believed. For, he might sometimes or often, perhaps typically, have meant only to be framing a hypothesis worth exploring or to be developing an idea in its own terms despite its obvious need of qualification—qualifications that can be made later, so that, for the present, certain flaws, even absurdities, may be tolerated. It is not unknown in the natural sciences for an idea, admitted to be inadequate or false in some respect, to be subjected to technical elaboration yielding consequences empirically confirmed; its deficiencies then provide topics for further research. If that is how Peirce thought, then it would explain his penchant for technical digression and also for the fragmentary character of his production and for the fragments sometimes being in tension. The principle of charity might be applied to the flow of Peirce's thought rather than, in every case, to individual writings. Lane does not reject that possibility; but if there are passages that could be read either way, in which way should they...