The assignment here is to read C S Peirce's short,
though somewhat affected and verbose, essay on "The Fixation of Belief." Following
is a simplified, probably oversimplified, skeletal overview of what the essay
In this essay Peirce (pronounced like "purse")
examines some of the different methods that he thinks people use to determine
what beliefs they are going to buy and which ones they are going to reject.
You, for example, may believe that human beings do in fact have free will,
or that there is a life after death, or that sharks are mammals, or that Republicans
are the best political party. How did you settle on those beliefs you have?
What processes do people go through to decide (often unconsciously) what beliefs
they are going to accept and which they are going to reject? Peirce says that
there are basically four different methods that people use to settle on which
beliefs they are going to hold, i.e., which beliefs they are going to "fix
on" as their own. (Hence his title, "The Fixation of Belief.")
So let's start with an example. I will now propose
something for your belief, and you will go through some process or other to
decide whether to accept this belief or not. So here is the thing I am proposing
for you to believe:
This online coordinated studies
class, the one in which you are enrolled right now, is the first online
coordinated studies course to ever be offered anywhere in the nation or
in the world. It is unique. There is none other like it anywhere. The
course you are taking is the first of its kind, ever.
Now some of you may decide to believe this is
true and others may decide to believe it is not true. The question Peirce
wants us to look at -- after some long introductory comments that he makes
us wade through -- is what method people use to fix, or settle on, their beliefs.
He says there are four basic methods people use.
The first method used for settling on a belief is the method of tenacity.
All this means is that when a person uses this method they simply tenaciously
hold onto beliefs they already hold, and reject beliefs they already reject.
So if you already believed that this course is the first ever of its kind,
you will continue to believe that, and vice versa, if you use this method.
For people who use this method, the gold standard of truth is what they
already believe. So when someone proposes a belief to them, as I have just
done for you, they simply hold that proposed belief up against their gold
standard -- viz., the beliefs they already have. If it's a belief they already
have, they think "Yes, that's true." If it's something they do not already
believe they think "No, that's not true." This is a very simple method for
deciding what to believe and doesn't require much thinking, Peirce says,
so it's pretty handy. Unfortunately it can cause some problems. (What are
some of the problems Peirce sees with using this method?) So some people
use another method, the method of authority.
People who use the method of authority also have a fairly easy time of it.
They determine which beliefs they are going to accept by just turning to
a person or institution they hold as their authority. This may be their
mother, or their priest or rabbi or minister or mullah, or it may be their
party leader or their favorite talk show host. They put the question to
that authority and whatever that authority says determines whether they
will accept the belief as their own or not. This method too is a simple
one, but it has some enormous advantages over the method of tenacity. (What
are some advantages Peirce thinks this method has over the method of tenacity?)
A third method that some people use is what Peirce calls the a priori
method, or what might better be called the method of taste. If one uses
this method they choose what to believe based on what "sounds good" to them,
or what suits them. So if you hear this proposed belief -- the one about
this class being absolutely unique, for example -- and if you're using the
a priori method, you might think "Hey, that sounds cool. I like that.
So, ummmm, Yeah, I guess it's true." Or maybe you think "Ooooh, I don't
like that; that doesn't sound good at all. I wouldn't like being in a brand
new class. So, ummmmm, No, I don't think that's true." So using this method
you get to believe what "sounds about right" to you, i.e., what suits you
and your feelings and your belief system. So we can also call this method,
the method of intellectual taste -- you get to believe what sounds or tastes
good to you, and you can reject what doesn't sound good to you. Peirce,
though, calls it the a priori method. (That's two words, pronounced
"ah" and "pree-OH-ree.") This method has some big advantages, of course
(what are some that Peirce describes?), but also some disadvantages (what
A fourth method for fixing belief Peirce refers to as the method of science.
I'll let you figure out from the essay what he means by this method, but
I will tell you that Peirce says this method is based on some very basic
assumptions. He emphasizes that these are assumptions, that is, they
are not provable, but they do (he thinks) sound pretty reasonable. The first
is the assumption that there is a real world out there, existing on its
own, independently of what your or I happen to think about it. It really
is out there. The second assumption is that that physical world out there
has certain real characteristics, works according to certain real and regular
laws, and that it affects our senses in certain real and regular ways. The
third assumption is that if we understood the regular ways that the world
affects our senses, then we could figure out what that world out there is
truly like. We could discern the truth about the real world out there.
This method too has some advantages and disadvantages (what are they?),
so it may not be the method chosen by everyone. But then no method is chosen
So these are the four methods that Peirce thinks
people use for settling on what beliefs they are going to accept and reject.
Each method has a gold standard too, i.e., a kind of official ruler or standard,
against which it measures each new belief to decide if that belief should
be kept or thrown out. You'll have to figure out what the gold standard, or
official ruler, is for each of the methods Peirce outlines.
So there it is, in a too simple summary. Your
study questions are intended to help you work through Peirce's essay and pick
out his main ideas and themes.
His writing can be a little murky at times (though
his very last paragraph is pretty entertaining - do you think he's being serious
there?), so you may have to wade through some thick stuff to get to the jewels,
but they are there. Peirce seems to enjoy using big words and fancy sentences
-- something still seen today in people who want to appear brilliant -- but
hopefully you'll be able to ignore that and get right down to understanding
Three of the ideas that it will be essential to
understand in this essay are his definitions of three fundamental concepts
that underlie the whole essay, viz., the definitions of "doubt,"
"belief," and "inquiry."
His definitions of these three ideas were, and still are, considered highly
controversial (after looking at them could you guess why?) and revolutionary.
Peirce actually was a genius, it turns out, though
an unrecognized one in his own day. He lived 1839-1914, taught at -- and was
fired from -- several American Universities, and earned the friendship, affection,
and respect of America's most famous classical Philosopher, William James.
If you would like to learn more about Peirce, a web search will turn up some
interesting sites. One of the more reliable ones can be viewed at http://www.iupui.edu/~peirce/web/index.htm