Dr Tom Kerns

Introduction to C S Peirce's
"Fixation of Belief"

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 is about.

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 Logic class, the one in which you are enrolled right now, is the first online Logic course of its kind 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.

1. 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 whatever beliefs they already hold, and reject whatever beliefs they already reject. So if you already believed that this course is not 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.

2. 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?)

3. 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 are they?).

4. 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 you or I happen to think about it. It really is out there. The second assumption is that the physical world out there has certain real characteristics, that it 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 by everyone.

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 from the reading 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 his ideas.

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. Here is one of the more reliable ones.

Peirce's article
Study Questions for Peirce's article