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  • Royce's The Problem of Christianity and Peirce's Epistemology
  • Richard Kenneth Atkins (bio)

The two concluding chapters of Josiah Royce's The Problem of Christianity (henceforth PC) pose significant interpretive challenges. The final chapter, "Summary and Conclusion," sets forward Charles S. Peirce's theory of scientific inquiry. Although Royce had earlier explained Peirce's theory of signs and interpretation, he had not examined Peirce's theory of scientific inquiry in detail, making its appearance in the summary and conclusion of the book peculiar. Moreover, it is not wholly evident how a theory of scientific inquiry is supposed to address the problem with which the second part of the book sets out, viz., how Christianity can possess a "more than human meaning and foundation" given that such anthropocentrism is untenable, that humans are likely to "be as extinct as is now the sabre-toothed tiger" (PC, 231). How do the methods of scientific inquiry bear on the more than human significance of the church?

Similarly, the penultimate chapter of the book, "The Historical and the Essential," develops a thought experiment according to which we are to imagine a first-century Christian, having slept for the previous nineteen hundred years, awaking. Royce wonders what, if anything, that man could retain of his earlier Christian beliefs after he learns of the scientific progress made in the previous centuries. Ultimately, Royce maintains that the man can hold fast to the "Pauline doctrine of the presence of the redeeming divine spirit in the living church" (PC, 377). Yet if the church is comprised of humans, it is unclear how this thought experiment addresses the problem of how Christianity may have a more than human significance.

The aim of this essay is to advance and deepen our understanding of these last two chapters of Royce's PC by casting them in the light of Peirce's epistemology more generally. Of particular concern is Peirce's theory of the logical sentiments—hope in the indefinite continuation of inquiry, faith in our fellow inquirers, and love for the truth—and how these three logical sentiments ground the validity of induction. In the Berkeley Conferences of 1914, Josiah Royce states that when he began to reread Peirce's early writings, he saw "how many aspects of philosophical idealism, when this Peircean theory of knowledge was brought to bear upon them, got new concreteness, a new significance, and a new relation to the methods and to the presuppositions of inductive science" ("BC," 4). He then states that he tried to set these considerations forth in [End Page 39] the second volume of PC. A book on Christianity might seem like a strange place to set forward such views on knowledge.1 Yet I shall argue that Peirce's epistemology supplies the key to answering the problem Royce sets forth at the start of the second volume of PC.2 The problem is that Christians have believed their religion to be the source of salvation not only for humankind but also for the cosmos. However, considering that the anthropocentrism on which such a belief is based is likely false, is Christianity still tenable? As Royce states, "What shall it profit us if we seem to be saving our own souls for a time, but actually remain, after all, what we were before,—utterly insignificant incidents in a world-process that neither needs men nor heeds them" (PC, 232)? The result of applying Peirce's epistemology to such a question is a robustly nonanthropocentric conception of Christianity—in fact, of religion as a whole.

I. The Problem of Christianity

The problem of Christianity is "in what sense, if in any, can the modern man consistently be, in creed, a Christian" (PC, 62)? Royce's aim is to provide an interpretation of Christianity that is consistent both with the creeds of Christianity and with our contemporary advancements in science. The first part of the book is devoted to developing an interpretation that is consistent with the creeds. The second part of the book shows that the interpretation is consistent with our scientific knowledge.

The question that frames Royce's discussion in the second part is whether Christianity is tenable, considering that its...


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pp. 39-55
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