Pragmatism as Mormon Epistemology Part 1

C. S. Peirce

Speaking of his famous pragmatic maxim the great American philosopher C. S. Peirce said that we should

reflect a little upon what it implies. It has been said to be a skeptical and materialistic principle. But it is only an application of the sole principle of logic which was recommended by Jesus; “Ye may know them by their fruits,” and it is very intimately allied with the ideas of the gospel. (CP 5.402)

His maxim was a principle for understanding belief and meaning. In order to determine or verify the meaning of something we must consider what practical consequences would result from treating it as true. The totality of these consequences exhausts its meaning. So to understand what it means for a diamond to be hard, for instance, we might ask the variety of ways we might measure it’s hardness or the physical implications of its being hard.

The maxim was soon distorted somewhat by some of Peirce’s followers. In particular William James in his form of pragmatism transformed the maxim from being a view of meaning in terms of possible measurements of a thing into a more utilitarian conception of truth. That is truth for James sometimes approached what was useful for a person to believe was true. If in the short term it results in us being happier to believe something is true we should treat it as true. Truth becomes expedience or the “value for a concrete life.” This strong subjectivist tendency that entered into pragmatism was frustrating to Peirce who was very concerned with keeping straight what was real from what we might individually believe as true. Peirce’s approach arose out his background in logic, physics and chemistry with all the associated concerns of a person practicing those sciences. James in contrast was a psychologist and more concerned with how people acted rather than the world ‘out there.’ Truth for James was much more wrapped up with the happiness and fulfillment of the individual rather than predictions of future experiences.[1]

One can quickly see the difference in their approaches when we look at how each treats religion. For James it is the effectiveness of religious experience that ‘proves’ their truth regardless of the source of the experience. Their legitimacy simply didn’t matter to James. He was as open to the effectiveness of a religious experience arising from drugs as he was any other cause.[2] Peirce in contrast had the attitude of the hard scientists to be concerned with what was real and stripping away what people believed for bad reasons. This did not mean he rejected religious belief.[3] Quite the contrary. Although his own religious beliefs were somewhat idiosyncratic.[4] For Peirce, in strong contrast to James, the pragmatic maxim was designed to strip away metaphysical nonsense but not metaphysics entirely. Indeed he defined pragmatism as

the opinion that metaphysics is to be largely cleared up by the application of the following maxim for attaining clearness of apprehension: Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object. (Peirce, 1902, “Pragmatic and Pragmatism” CP 5.2)

In contrast to the logical positivists, who arose only two decades later, this verification principle doesn’t eliminate metaphysics but constrains it to being established in experience. The positivists instead constrained their verification principle so narrowly that they couldn’t even establish the principle itself. A positivist saw something as meaningful only if there was a finite procedure for determining its truth. Thus many saw positivism as inherently self-refuting.[5] Likewise while the pragmatic maxim for Peirce was a criterion of meaning for both James and the positivists it was a criterion of truth.

To Peirce truth is bigger than any one individual. Truth is not what any individual or group believes. Rather truth is what experience would result in a community believing if inquiry was carried on indefinitely. His move is to distinguish truth from finite belief. Truth becomes an ideal limit that is the result of endless investigation and experience. If we believe something that matches what would be believed in this limit then our belief is true.

This has two benefits. First it acknowledges our finite fallible place in knowledge. Instead of tying knowledge to absolutely knowable and undoubtable experiences to our mind he ties belief to inquiry. Up to that time the study of knowledge (epistemology) was seen as analogous to mathematical proofs. The model was Euclid’s geometry from ancient Greece. So long as you could deductively build up a belief from basic foundational data you were justified in saying you knew it to be true. To justify a belief was basically the same as building up a geometric proof from axioms. In contrast Peirce did not see knowledge and belief as static. His approach could be seen as focusing more on what changes our beliefs. Instead of a static analysis the focus is on the dynamic process of inquiry. This leads to the second benefit where he is able to explain not just ideal knowers and their justifications but also how regular people believe and know.

What I wish to do over the following posts is to show how this more Peircean approach to knowledge explains how religious communities can come to know religious claims. In particular I want to demonstrate how Peircean approaches to knowledge offer insight into traditional Mormon ideas about knowledge. A traditional problem for religious epistemology is the seeming great divide between how careful, informed and skeptical inquirers come to understand religion from how regular people understand it. From a religious perspective religious knowledge simply can’t be the same as say scientific knowledge. We’re quite fine with scientists having specialized knowledge and skills. We don’t expect the typical member of society to be able to justify their knowledge of an electron’s mass (or even why one should believe there are electrons). In contrast for religion to function it seems that many key aspects must be comprehensible both for the typical believer as well as the more cautious and informed investigator.

Here I am explicitly rejecting James’ view of religion as mattering only in a utilitarian fashion. Many false things can make us happy but for religion to be religion it must be tied with real truth in some fashion. That is religion concerns itself not only with our short term happiness but our long term future. As such we must treat it with the same concern we do matters of science. The difficulty again is in developing an understanding of knowledge that can function in a quasi-scientific fashion as well as the looser less careful approach most people apply in their day to day lives. I will turn to that in the next post.


[1] To be fair to James in many of his writings his view of the maxim was used in a fashion much closer to what Peirce meant. However truth as this ideal not tied to any particular group tended not to be as important to him. He characterized this difference as being whether he had a belief in the absolute. Perhaps a fairer way of dealing with the difference between Peirce and James is that Peirce was concerned with possibilities as it relates to truth whereas James was concerned with what exists in the believer and their experiences.

[2] James wrote in The Varieties of Religious Experience that “Nitrous oxide and ether…stimulate the mystical consciousness in an extraordinary degree. Depth beyond depth of truth seems revealed to the inhaler. …the sense of a profound meaning having been there persists; and I know more than one person who is persuaded that in the nitrous oxide trance we have a genuine metaphysical revelation.” (257) That is a revelation arising from drugs was as valid as any other source of experience so long as the effect was positive on the person.

[3] I actually had a post during the summer on Peirce’s argument for God as it related to Alma 30.

[4] Peirce’s religious beliefs have been described in practice as a mixture of Christianity and Buddhism. He was skeptical of belief based on distant accounts in scripture thinking some degree of empirical evidence was necessary. However he did think that his inquiry could lead to such evidence.

[5] To say that positivism is self-refuting is a gross simplification of what the positivists actually wrote. They were well aware of the problems of their verification principle. They had many approaches to dealing with it ranging from Carnap’s distinguishing between confirmation and verification (such that universal laws could be confirmed but not verified) to Ayer’s distinction between weak probabilistic verification versus strong verification that was conclusive. None of these were fully satisfying which in part was why positivism largely died out. Interestingly the most devastating attacks on positivism came from Quine in the 1950’s who adopted very pragmatic arguments. Surprisingly Quine was largely ignorant of C. S. Peirce’s writings despite many similarities.

8 comments for “Pragmatism as Mormon Epistemology Part 1

  1. Davidferg
    November 2, 2016 at 8:27 pm

    I’m excited to follow this. I enjoyed your earlier post on Peirce. I always mean to brush up on his works more, but I’ll gladly settle for your excellent summaries/applications.

  2. November 2, 2016 at 9:38 pm

    Really interesting intro. Looking forward to part 2. This in particular was nicely summarized.

    Rather truth is what experience would result in a community believing if inquiry was carried on indefinitely

    This also looks intriguing,

    In contrast for religion to function it seems that many key aspects must be comprehensible both for the typical believer as well as the more cautious and informed investigator.

    Religion has to function practically and factually. Quite the challenge (in a good way)!

    The upcoming challenge seems to be the length of time required for religion and science to reconcile. So the key would be to show why they should tend toward each other rather than away from each other, especially given requirement for simultaneous practical (lay belief) and factual (cautious informed) dynamics. What coheres intra-religious divergence and scientific-relgious divergence?

  3. Clark Goble
    November 2, 2016 at 10:17 pm

    I’ll probably be doing these posts a little more frequently than my usual once a week post. I definitely don’t want to make T&S into “Clark central.” There are lots of other people who’ve been posting much longer than I with different and unique ideas. However I want to get these ideas all in order for a SMPT proposal. Since those are due at the end of the month I want to get these all worked out well before then.

    I really do appreciate any feedback – especially on points that might not be clear to people without a background in philosophy. The idea is to make it approachable to people who aren’t specialists but have a general college background. That means touching on ideas and getting their general thrust without necessarily getting into the weeds.

    Chris, I tend to see there being less inherent conflict between science and religion. To my eyes instead of the two separate spheres or inherently conflicting spheres we simply have less rigorous common sense approaches to ideas versus careful rigorous ideas. If there is a conflict it’s usually because one side or the other has misunderstood the topic in question or simply is acting dogmatically and attempting to stop inquiry. (There’s no shortage of ill informed dogmatism cutting off inquiry on both sides) This is a very different approach than we typically see but is very much within the Peircean approach.

    It’s interesting as after I wrote the above this morning I was listening to the Maxwell Institute podcast on universities and the rise of modern Mormonism. (It’s a great interview and definitely makes me want to buy the book – there’s a review over at Juvenile Instructor as well) There we saw a tension between traditional 19th century Mormonism and the newly university educated Mormons. The conflicts popped up primarily in evolution but also higher criticism and even pragmatism. (Presumably the pragmatism of Dewey and James since Peirce just wasn’t well know at the time) I found some of the things discussed there relevant for thinking about these issues in Peirce. (I won’t give away yet how — although a quick perusal of his most famous paper “The Fixation of Belief” will give some hints)

  4. November 3, 2016 at 10:23 am

    Hi Clark. I love what you’re doing. Thank you. I was more uncomfortable with your characterization of James until I saw your acknowledgement in footnote #1, and now I’m a less uncomfortable. I don’t think James would have disagreed with your description of truth as that which a community would believe if inquiry were carried on indefinitely. But I also think his approach to such truth was more honest about and compassionate toward epistemic limitations. Perhaps given indefinite inquiry, some significant communal disagreements would persist? Either way, in the mean time, it seems truth must include its actual paths of inquiry in all their dynamic messiness. It seems to me that the journey is as true as the destination, and there may be no final destination.

  5. Clark Goble
    November 3, 2016 at 12:05 pm

    I think James was pretty inconsistent on these points. Admittedly I just don’t read James as extensively as I do Peirce primarily because of these differences. I also find that James’ approach to logic is a bit problematic as well. Interestingly Dewey tended to follow James’ logic rather than Peirce’s.

    Relative to religious belief though I think many simply will find James’ more utilitarian approach problematic though even if in the ideal limit utilitarian approaches would converge with Peirce’s. That said, as my next post will go through, there’s a certain similarity between James and Peirce when we turn to a person’s fixed beliefs.

    The problem with an absent truth such as it functions in Peirce is a very valid criticism. In the late 20th century that was why Putnam with his style of neo-pragmatism came up with Warranted Assertability. That’s different from James in being concerned less with utilitarian issues and more with immediate rational justification. There’s a sense where epistemology as critiquing our beliefs there and then in terms of the information we have is important. With a Peircean model you end up much more doing ones duty in terms of inquiry whereas the other type of question seems important as part of doing that duty. That’ll come up in how I pursue these questions in future posts in this series.

  6. November 3, 2016 at 12:53 pm

    “Relative to religious belief though I think many simply will find James’ more utilitarian approach problematic though even if in the ideal limit utilitarian approaches would converge with Peirce’s.”

    This sounds like an argument that James would make to support Peirce. :)

    I’m looking forward to your next post. Thanks again.

  7. November 7, 2016 at 1:35 am

    Thinking about this a bit more Clark, if you’re shooting for a general audience, I wonder if a conceptual aid for the difference between Pierce’s iteration ad infinitum for truth vs. James iteration to group consensus would be helpful. Perhaps a 1/x horn that extend to infinity for Pierce and cuts off for James?

    (But then again, not being a philosopher, I could be interpreting the difference incorrectly…)

  8. Clark Goble
    November 7, 2016 at 10:44 am

    The problem is that James isn’t consistent on that point. More or less my examples in this post were to try and situate Peirce between the more subjective consensus idea of truth (still popular amongst many in the humanities) and a more radical absolutist conception (with the positivists being a good example). The next post which I have half written is more about some of his other ideas such as belief being non-volitional. I’ll probably touch on those elements although I’m not sure I’ll delve into James as much.

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