Peirce on Realism and Idealism by Robert Lane
Traditionally considered opposing views, realism and idealism were both endorsed by Charles Peirce, founder of pragmatism. Robert Lane proposes to defend the underlying consistency of Peirce's views on these two issues by tracing their evolution and the coextensive effect on the rest of his innovative philosophy. This is no easy task, as anyone who has attempted to study Peirce's vast oeuvre can confirm. Among the many challenges to this undertaking is the fact that much of Peirce's thought, which covers the whole gamut of philosophical topics, is contained in unpublished manuscripts. Lane includes the latter, along with Peirce's better-known writings, in this clearly-argued, thoroughly-researched, and most valuable work.
Lane correctly identifies Peirce's early declaration for realism, namely, that there is a real world and "it is the way that it is regardless of whether you, or I, or anyone else believes that [End Page 184] it is" (2). He calls this Peirce's "basic realism," which states both that there are real things that are external (to the mind) and real things that are internal (states of, facts about, or items within someone's mind). Peirce distinguishes, then, between reality and existence, claiming that not all real things have physical existence, so non-existent things can be real. Thus, Peirce makes room for a kind of idealism.
Chapter 1 addresses Peirce's account of truth, which Lane discusses as having two aspects—a "representationalist" one (a true belief is one that represents the real world) as well as an "investigative" one (a true belief would be permanently settled by inquirers using the method of science), commonly known as the pragmatic theory of truth. Lane traces Peirce's thought in chapter 2 as the latter worked through objections to his pragmatic account, resulting in changes to the description of reality from the indicative mood—"what will be represented in the beliefs of those who investigate"—to ultimately settling for the subjunctive—"what would be represented in such beliefs in the hypothetical situation that investigation were to settle those beliefs permanently" (53).
This pragmatic clarification of the concept of reality is echoed in Peirce's "basic idealism," as Lane calls it, since it claims that anything real can be represented as not only actual ideas, thoughts, and cognitions, but also as possible objects of thought—"the beliefs of those who investigate" (53). In chapter 3, Lane also identifies a second sort of idealism, which Peirce developed later as a result of his evolutionary cosmology: "objective idealism," the doctrine that "matter is effete mind, inveterate habits becoming laws" (60). Peirce's unique positions on idealism are contrasted with Kant's and Hegel's versions.
Chapter 4 deals with various objections that Peirce's idealism does not square with his realism, and again, Lane deftly defends his thesis, sometimes even against Peirce himself, who at times seems to waver, change his mind, or misspeak. Lane demonstrates, however, through close textual analysis, that Peirce continuously affirmed his commitment to an "idealistic theory of reality" (93).
In the next two chapters, Lane delves further into Peirce's realism, beginning in chapter 5 with real "generals," inspired by Duns Scotus, the scholastic philosopher. An avowed realist about "universals" (concepts), Scotus famously argued against nominalism, the doctrine that universals were mere nomina (words) and therefore not real, by saying that there could not be any claim to knowledge unless universals were somehow real. Peirce adapted Scotus's notion of real universals but changed the term to "generals," which Lane explains are externally real, and include natural laws—"the kind of universals to which modern science pays the most attention" (106).
No discussion of Scotus's realism is complete without including the notion of haecceity, the unique (and ultimately unknowable) individualizing factor posited by Scotus. Peirce struggled with accepting the concept, as evidenced with his most cryptic comments, and the distinctions that he made between strict and concrete individuality. Lane provides an explanation of these distinctions and does his best to reconcile Peirce's position with Scotus's on this account, but I believe that it was the unknowable aspect of haecceity as such that made Peirce uncomfortable and unable (at least at that point) to adopt the notion.
In the latter part of his career, developments in his semiotic theory provoked a further revision in Peirce's views, including the claim that "vagues" (mere possibilities) are real as well. Lane provides in chapter 6 an exceptionally clear account of how the expanded notions of generality, continuity, and unactualized possibility ushered in this new, late scholastic realist stage (137).
The last, and most original, chapter addresses the implications of Peirce's frequently-overlooked claim that there may be "a lacuna in the completeness of reality" (165). Lane calls this notion "deficit indeterminancy" (165), which questions the Principle of Bivalence (every proposition is either true or false), and which he theorizes resulted from Peirce's development of a three-valued system of propositional logic. [End Page 185]