How would one describe in a detailed analysis what pragmatism is according to Charles Sanders Peirce?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

To be able to write a critical analysis of pragmatism, one must first fully understand Charles Sanders Peirce's philosophy. Then, one can think critically about the philosophy to see how strong the ideas are and if there are any holes. As we are limited in space, below are a few ideas to help get you started.

Along with the scientific advancements of the industrial age came the idea that metaphysics, such as religion and philosophy, could not be spoken of in the same way as science. Peirce developed pragmatism as a principle to try and bridge the gap between scientific and metaphysical thinking. Specifically, he devised a method of deriving meaning in an attempt at "clearing up metaphysics and aiding scientific inquiry" (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "Charles Sanders Peirce: Pragmatism"). In his view, any concept that could not be understood through the scientific method was meaningless. His main principle behind pragmatism is the idea that "for any statement to be meaningful," it must be practically applicable ("Charles Sanders Peirce: Pragmatism").

It was in his 1878 paper titled "How To Make Ideas Clear" that Pierce first introduced his pragmatism maxim, or principle, to be used to make ideas crystal clear. Pierce developed "three grades of clarity or understanding" ("Charles Sanders Peirce: Pragmatism"). The first grade is when we understand a concept in terms of everyday use but do not have a deeper understanding of it. For example, the fact that we choose to do things that keep us standing upright on a safe surface rather than fall can show that we understand the concept of gravity; we know that gravity pulls things down, and if we fall down, we get hurt.

We reach the second grade of clarity when we're able to actually define a concept. For example, while we may understand that gravity pulls us down, we don't reach the second level of understanding until we are able to define gravity as a "force which attracts objects to a point, like the center of the earth" ("Charles Sanders Peirce: Pragmatism").

We reach a third level of understanding when we are not just able to grasp and define a concept but also know all the effects that the truth of that concept will produce. Being able to express all possible effects of a concept require us to be able to construct "a list of conditional propositions" about the concept ("Charles Sanders Peirce: Pragmatism"). If we were to construct a conditional proposition for gravity, we might say, If I were to jump from the roof of a two-story building, gravity would pull me towards the ground, and I could seriously injure myself. Therefore, we reach the third level of understanding about gravity if we know we deal with gravity in our daily lives, if we can define it as a force, and if we can see all of the consequences the concept of gravity can pose.

The purpose of Peirce's maxim would be to derive meaning by taking an investigation of a concept "as far as it can go" ("Charles Sanders Peirce: Pragmatism"). If metaphysical concepts, like those found in moral philosophy, have no practical application, then, in his mind, they were meaningless. The maxim allowed him to sift through what was meaningless and what actually had meaning.

Now that you understand a bit more about Peirce's pragmatism, to complete your assignment, you next want to think critically about his maxim and how he applied it. To think critically about Peirce's philosophy, consider thinking about answers to the following types of questions:

  1. Is the maxim useful?
  2. Does it have any flaws?
  3. Does practicing the maxim pose any problems?
jerryrhee | Student

Peirce said, "If you carefully consider the question of pragmatism you will see that it is nothing else than the question of the logic of abduction."  

But what's the logic of abduction?

The form of abduction he left us with is:

         The surprising fact, C, is observed.

         But if A were true, C would be a matter of course;

         Hence, there is reason to suspect that A is true.   (CP 5.189)

So, how do we go from this simple syllogism (one you can tweet!) to everything that needs to be said about pragmatism?

I think the gift he left us with is a tool that challenges us to apply our wits in fitting and justifying a sensible model/description/duration for relating C and A, which can dispel the doubt or surprise that stimulates and initiates inquiry.  It is a tool that is designed to help a community of investigators with the appropriate scientific attitude get to the truth in a most economical manner.

C is the object (the observation/vision/explanandum; e.g., birds flying in V-formation; but why V-formation when birds see each other in A-formation?  And why V when they're in echelon...or some other...Still, we say we know what we mean, for this case).  

A is the sign (the mechanism, explanans; if designed for a community of investigators, the sign will be made external, outside of oneself so that it can be modified and improved until there's nothing left that is unexpected).

There are many things to consider but they tend to be very general concerns, which may apply ubiquitously for all hard problems of complexity (speculation on my part).  What would help would be a good example that covers the topics sufficiently and marks/discusses such concerns explicitly.  But what's the best example of Peircean abduction?  What criteria do we go by?



What do you see?  Explain and justify using an argumentation.

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