“The Fixation of Belief” by Charles Sanders Peirce

Citation: Peirce, Charles Sanders. 2015. “The fixation of Belief”. Media Galaxy.

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This is one of Peirce’s foundational pieces on pragmatism. I’ll briefly summarize before making some comments. Peirce’s central proposition is that belief formation is driven by the desire to “settle opinion” or resolve doubt (or as he says, the “irritation” of doubt). Before stating this proposition, he stresses the importance of recognizing that logic is a “difficult art” that requires rigorous study, noting that each scientific discovery (e.g. Kepler, Lavoisier, Darwin) instructs us about logic. The purpose of logic is to help us go from what we know to what we don’t know. A really critical distinction that he makes is between “fact” and “human thinking”. There are strong realist undertones here, with Peirce viewing facts as independent of human thinking. This distinction is critical because while humans are mostly logical in his view, they use “habits of the mind” as guiding principles for making inferences.

So with that said, let’s build up to his central proposition which is, again, that beliefs are formed to escape the irritation of doubt. He is using two concepts: (1) belief and (2) doubt. He describes in various ways how they’re different, but the key point, and he uses a “nervous system analogy” for this, is that beliefs impel us to action (in given contexts) whereas doubts create a sort of nervous irritation that by reflex humans want to rid themselves of.

Now the “settlement of opinion” language becomes a little clearer. It’s about settling or fixing beliefs. He says that the irritation caused by doubt is actually the only reason that we inquire about beliefs. So how we acquire beliefs is not about seeking truth but about resolving doubt. Firm beliefs trump true opinions.

So what are the methods that are used to settle beliefs? He describes four. I won’t go into these in detail but they are: (1) Method of Tenacity (select into interactions that confirm one’s beliefs and avoid those that don’t); (2) Method of Authority (state institutions establish beliefs and punish dissenters); (3) A Priori Method (rely on natural preferences and instincts); (4) Method of Science, which is the most moral and most advantageous method.

There is noticeable level of pluralistic thinking in Peirce’s discussion of these methods. He remarks positively about them: (1) a priori method leads to “comfortable” conclusions and happiness from self-flattery; (2) method of authority creates a “path of peace” and governs well large groups; (3) method of tenacity is simple and honest. He notes that the Method of Authority is morally and mentally superior to the Method of Tenacity given the social order and civilization it creates, but institutions cannot regulate all people’s opinions, i.e. individuals come into contact with one another and then reflect on their beliefs. It may even be a bit too pluralist; Peirce’s discussion of “authority” and “tenacity” could be contrasted sharply with Dewey’s.

Regarding the A Priori Method, while he notes it’s intellectually superior—letting men’s natural preferences develop unimpeded through social interaction—he likens it to metaphysics, arguing that it is not based on experience or “true induction” but rather on what men are “inclined to believe”. However, it not clear to what extent Peirce’s view is that the A Priori Method necessarily fails at arriving at truths or if it creates the sort of intellectual commitments and structure that just tend to make “inquiry something similar to the development of taste.” Either way, his warning that bottom-up, data-driven approaches is susceptible to fad-like social science is interesting and important, and, in my view, foreshadows social science debates over the past few decades (and continuing) about data-mining. He argues that ultimately, even if A Priori Methods have greater intellectual integrity to Methods of Authority, they will typically lead to the same results.

Ultimately, Peirce argues that only the Method of Science leads men to facts. Even with previous discussion of some of the merits of the other Methods, here he pronounces them immoral an disadvantageous compared to the Method of Science, where beliefs are established by “external permanency, by something upon which our thinking has no effect.” This scientific view asserts a “reality” independent of our opinions about it, a reality we can grasp through the “laws of perception”. It’s the only method that presents a distinction of a right and wrong way. Method of tenacity evaluates within the confines of the method; method of authority’s only test is what the state thinks; and a priori method results in following one’s inclinations. Method of Science’s ultimate test is the application of the method.

–Submitted by: Mazen Elfakhani | Harvard University | Sociology Department | Graduate Student Personal Website


What Others Had To Say:


John L.

December 23, 2015 at 7:12 am

This piece was terrific, but I disagree with the point regarding the supposed difference between Peirce and Dewey.

Howard M.

January 9, 2016 at 10:05 pm

I found this piece absolutely terrific.