13 May 2009

Pragmatism: More from Peirce

The other selections from Peirce in the book I've been reading are "How to Make Our Ideas Clear", "A Definition of Pragmatism" (probably online somewhere, but a quick search didn't find it), "Evolutionary Love" and some selections from longer works, presumably chosen because they shed light on pragmatism.

Of these three, the first is probably the most interesting. In essence, Peirce argues that the only way for an idea to be clear is to look at its effects. He doesn't use the words "testable" or "falsifiable" but it would be reasonable to think of Peirce's idea of "clarity" in those terms. He argues that if two seemingly different ideas would produce exactly the same observable effects, then those two ideas are merely different variations of the exact same idea. To a certain extent, this makes sense, but just because all predictions thusfar agree is no guarantee that all predictions will agree. Either we need to establish an isomorphism between the ideas to see why they should be the same, or we need to think some more to find a way to distinguish between the two.

In the second, I think I finally found at least part of what Heidegger was arguing about when he discussed "signs" and "signification." He repudiated it outright, and now that I've seen what he was trying to repudiate, I may have to go back and reread those pages. It's very frustrating to read a refutation of an idea when you've never actually encountered the idea itself. There are also strong hints of phenomenological thought in Peirce's writing, so I have a suspicion he may have been an influence on, say, Husserl, and probably other phenomenologists.

For the third, I'm not quite sure what to think. Essentially Peirce is attacking the "nature red in tooth and claw" interpretation that was often attached to Darwin's ideas. Not having read Darwin myself, I can't say whether that was a misunderstanding on Peirce's part or just an early idea that turned out to be an oversimplification for how evolution actually works. Peirce is arguing that there are also love, altruism and cooperation in animals, and so a model based solely on competition is inadequate to explain the diversity in nature. This is quite correct; I just don't know when, exactly, such ideas started to be widely incorporated into evolutionary theory, but they're certainly incorporated now. I'm not sure how this article fits with an intro to pragmatism, either, unless it was an example of applying pragmatic thought to the sciences.

At any rate, if you're going to read just one of the articles by Peirce, I'd recommend "The Fixation of Belief". If you want a second, I'd suggest "How to Make Our Ideas Clear". The others, so far, don't seem to add as much.

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