Four Approaches to Philosophy
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 2 - The Value and Methods of Philosophy
Charles S. Peirce, from "The Fixation of Belief"
Kem Stone - 12 August 2007
While reading this text I could not help but wish that I had read it five years ago when I was just beginning to
study philosophy.  The depth and clarity of Peirce’s arguments here would have been enormously valuable in
understanding my own approach to the acquisition of beliefs and philosophical opinions.  In classifying four
different approaches to philosophy, Peirce has offered an invaluable framework for analysing one’s belief system
according to how he or she decides which beliefs to accept and which to reject.  I found these classifications so
useful and so applicable to my own experience that I expect my analysis will be far longer and more personal than
usual.

The first thing that struck me is the assertion Peirce makes at the very beginning of the text, regarding the conflict
between hope and experience: “We seem to be so constituted that, in the absence of any facts to go upon, we are
happy and self-satisfied; so that the effect of experience is continually to counteract our hopes and aspirations….
Where hope is unchecked by any experience, it is likely that our optimism is extravagant” (43).  What a brilliantly
formulated and horrendously valid proposition!  Human beings, for the most part, do tend to be rather optimistic
when it comes to matters where a lack of facts or certainty leaves room for hope.  The most obvious example is
death—because we know nothing of it, we are free to assume that a blissful afterlife awaits, free from any worry
that we will eventually be proved wrong, as should this turn out not to be the case, we will never know.

Though my metaphysical system certainly leaves room for such optimism when it comes to matters of the
unknowable, in the more mundane matters of life I find myself to be the exception to the rule.  Whereas when
most people see an uncertain outcome in affairs such as the grade one will receive on a test, the victory or defeat
one will achieve in a competition, or the response to a proposal made to a loved one, without any way of knowing
the result beforehand people will take the hopeful and optimistic disposition.  Because we can not
know whether
an upcoming journey will be a wonderful experience, we might as well assume that it will.  Only when this
uncertainty is replaced by experience are we forced to confront that reality did not live up to our expectations, and
our previously held beliefs—irrefutable as they were at the time—in fact turned out to be false.  For this very
reason I have usually always chosen the more pessimistic disposition in life, assuming defeat before a competition,
rejection before a proposal, and a bad experience before a journey.  This provides an emotional safeguard against
the phenomenon described above—as long as I do not expect much from reality, reality is unlikely to let me
down.  My hopes can never be dashed by actual experience if I am never hopeful—I can only be pleasantly
surprised when things go better than I expect.
      
This is all beside the main point of the article, but it was certainly a point I felt compelled to critique, as it is such an
important aspect of my own personal method of adopting beliefs.  The next main point Peirce makes is one I had
not considered, but when analysed seems perfectly valid as well.  His assertion is that we do not seek beliefs
merely for the sake of acquiring opinions where before we had none, but only as a response to the presence of
doubt over existing beliefs.  “The irritation of doubt is the only immediate motive for the struggle to attain belief”
(44).  This makes perfect sense, as it is impossible to think of a situation in which I or anyone I know has sought
an alternative to a belief he or she has already held to be perfectly true.  We only analyse a belief if we have
reason to believe that the belief may be invalid.  Several objections
may be offered to this claim, and Peirce deals
with each of them in their turn, but I do not find them worth considering.

And so we come to the first method of acquiring belief—or the first way people respond to doubt.  Peirce calls
this the
method of tenacity, which is essentially to ignore doubt altogether, and to militantly avoid exposure to any
external influences which may cause doubt.  This arises from the instinctive aversion to doubt, which is what
motivates us to adopt beliefs in the first place.  But those who adopt the method of tenacity do not carefully
consider their beliefs and try to determine reasons for the superiority of their own beliefs, but merely take this
superiority for granted and dismiss the possibility of any error in judgment out of hand.  Peirce offers the example
of having once been directed not to read an article criticizing the principle of free trade, as in believing in free trade
he already had the correct opinion and it would be of no benefit to him to consider an opinion which he already
knew to be false.

But what immediately comes to my mind when I think of the method of tenacity are the fanatically religious—
people who refuse to even so much as study other belief systems lest it may cast some shade of doubt as to the
validity of their own.  I view such a method of adopting beliefs rather negatively, and even in my younger and
more religious days I felt this way, as it seems to me that one’s faith must be incredibly weak if they are afraid to
give any consideration to metaphysical alternatives that may weaken their own religious convictions.  Peirce offers
the most appropriate analogy one can think of when it comes to such people: “When an ostrich buries its head in
the sand as danger approaches, it very likely takes the happiest course.  It hides from the danger, and then calmly
says there is no danger; and, if it feels perfectly sure there is none, why should it raise its head to see?” (45).

Even as a very young man I refused to bury my head in the sand in this way.  If I was going to accept the
doctrines of Christianity, I wanted to compare it to the other available doctrines and determine its superiority
myself.  Therefore, even at the age of 8 years old, I checked out a book on world religions from the library and
read through each chapter before I ultimately came to the conclusion that Christianity was the true faith.  I later
came to realise that my own pre-existing prejudices only made this
seem to be the truth, but I had still been
unwilling to accept this on blind faith alone.

This is of course the reason why the method of tenacity is ultimately doomed to failure for all but the most
fanatical: “The social impulse is against it.  The man who adopts it will find that other men think differently from
him, and it will be apt to occur to him in some saner moment that their opinions are quite as good as his own, and
this will shake his confidence in his belief” (46).  I had the advantage of attending a very culturally diverse school
from 1st through 5th grade in which only about half of the students were Christian, while the other half of the
student body were divided among Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, etc.  I could not ignore that my belief system was
merely one of many, and therefore could never sympathise with those who saw the veracity of their religious
beliefs as a foregone conclusion of which no doubt could ever be admitted.

The second method of belief acquisition Peirce designates is far more powerful and prevalent than the first, and
that is the
method of authority.  If an individual can not help but waver in his beliefs amidst a society of people
who hold different beliefs, the natural remedy is to allow beliefs to be determined by that society.  “Let the will of
the state act then, instead of that of the individual.  Let an institution be created which shall have for its object to
keep correct doctrines before the attention of the people, to reiterate them perpetually, and to teach them to the
young, having at the same time power to prevent contrary doctrines from being taught, advocated, or expressed”
(46).

There are countless examples of this type of approach to philosophy being taken throughout history, but I find it is
most dramatically exemplified in fiction, in George Orwell’s
1984.  When taken to the extreme, the method of
authority requires its adherents to practice
doublethink, to hold two mutually exclusive propositions in mind at the
same time and believe both to be true.  One of the most dramatic examples from the novel is how Winston Smith
recognizes that the alliances between the three world territories are shifting but the state insists that things have
always been as they currently are.  Oceania is at war with Eastasia.  Oceania has always been at war with
Eastasia.  Yet Winston remembers that just last week, Oceania was at war with Eurasia and allied to Eastasia.  At
the climax of the novel, during his interrogation by O’Brien at the Ministry of Love, he is told that he is mistaken in
his notion of truth as corresponding to an outside reality—that reality exists only in the mind and it is the state
which determines what goes into the mind.  If a person Winston believes he remembers has been vaporised by the
state and removed from all public records, it is Winston’s memories that are mistaken and not the records.  If the
state says that 2 + 2 = 5, then it is Winston’s arithmetic that is mistaken when he believes the answer to be 4.  The
validity of any claim is not based on any outside reality which does not exist in the first place, but purely on the will
of the state.  2 + 2 is not the sum of 2 and 2 but whatever the state
wants it to be.

Orwell’s bleak vision is merely a dramatic illustration of the applied method of authority brought to its greatest
extremes and combined with the doctrine of metaphysical idealism.  But throughout history there have been
countless examples of state-indoctrinated beliefs, claims that people have been forced to accept in order to ensure
the elimination of doubt and therefore the stifling of all independent philosophical inquiry which may challenge
certain necessary notions such as “this government is the greatest form of government that can possibly exist” or
“my life is worth nothing compared to the glory of my country.”  And in fact this method works well and has been
so successful in history due to the simplicity with which it allows for the acquisition of beliefs.  People need not be
plagued by doubt—to determine truth in any matter one need only appeal to the authority which determines truth
itself.  “For the mass of mankind, then, there is perhaps no better method than this.  If it is their highest impulse to
be intellectual slaves, then slaves they ought to remain” (47).

Yet the inevitable failing of the method of authority when it comes to determining the truth of beliefs is that while
the mass of mankind may be perfectly willing to subjugate their own judgment to the infallible wisdom of the state,
there will inevitably be those people whose minds are of the sort to challenge assumptions, and question why the
doctrines of their own state are superior to doctrines adhered to elsewhere.  “These men possess a wider sort of
social feeling; they see that men in other countries and in other ages have held to very different doctrines from
those which they themselves have been brought up to believe; and they cannot help seeing that it is the mere
accident of their having been taught as they have, and of their having been surrounded with the manners and
associations they have, that has caused them to believe as they do and not far differently” (47).  Thus the state can
never have complete dominion over truth, unless it is taken to such extremes as is the case in Orwell’s
1984,
where freethinkers such as Winston Smith are inevitably singled out, interrogated, and forced to conclude that
when their beliefs conflict with that of authority, they are necessarily in the wrong and authority always in the right.

So if we can not appeal to blind faith or to authority to determine what is true, the next place we look to is
reason.  The
method of intuition has been a prevalent approach to philosophy since the time of Plato, and at a
glance it certainly appears to be the most promising method of arriving at beliefs which are actually true.  Most
metaphysical systems are derived through the method of intuition, resting on what those who formulate them see
as
a priori truths.  “Systems of this sort have not usually rested upon any observed facts, at least not in any great
degree.  They have been chiefly adopted because their fundamental propositions seemed ‘agreeable to reason’”
(47).

For the longest period of time, and perhaps to a certain degree
still, my own metaphysical beliefs were derived
exclusively through this method.  Although I would not say that I based
none of my beliefs on facts derived
through experience, most of the conclusions I reached concerning the fundamental nature of reality were derived in
a very Platonic manner.  I would lie awake at night with a question burning in my mind such as “is the universe
finite or infinite?” and try to arrive at the truth purely by reasoning it out in my mind by considering what was
necessarily true about existence and deriving an answer by making inferences.  What made me think that my own
little mind had the power to understand the universe on its most fundamental level is similar to what St. Augustine
used to justify the conclusions he came to when developing his Neo-Platonist Christian theology.  Because my
mind is a part of God, it has access to all of God’s limitless knowledge and merely needs to know how to look to
discover truths that were never
unknown, but had always existed as latent ideas in the mind, needing only to be
brought forth through the divine power of reason.  The truth of a conclusion was to be determined not by how it
measured up to existing facts (as most of these issues dealt with phenomena incapable of measurement anyway)
but a certain
feeling I would get when I reached a conclusion that seemed to be in perfect harmony with the
nature of things.  This feeling, like complete euphoria washing through me in an almost spiritual orgasm of
understanding, is what St. Augustine referred to as grace, and was ever the proper litmus test of whether a belief
he arrived at truly came from God and was therefore true.

I have long since abandoned the more childish notions that I can be certain of a belief’s veracity based on a bodily
sensation, but I am still not ready to dismiss the method of intuition out of hand.  I see no reason to reject the claim
that mind is a force that goes deeper than material reality and that it is possible that all reality stems from mind at
the core.  I no longer believe this is
necessarily true as I once did, but I would not go so far as the materialist to
reject this notion as necessarily
false.  It may be the case that divine reason does shape the universe according to
divine purpose, and therefore it is not entirely impossible that truth can be determined solely through the power of
reason.

However, the major flaw in the method of intuition can not be ignored, and that is its inescapable subjectivity.  “It
makes of inquiry something similar to the development of taste; but taste, unfortunately, is always more or less a
matter of fashion, and accordingly the metaphysicians have never come to any fixed agreement, but the pendulum
has swung backward and forward between a more material and a more spiritual philosophy, from the earliest
times to the latest” (48).  If the faculty of human reason were enough to determine truth in all cases, then reason
applied correctly would bring all philosophers to accept the same truths.  But not all philosophers have arrived at
the same truths even though their inferences may all be valid.  Therefore, as much as it grieves me to admit, reason
is an insufficient determiner of philosophical truth.

And so Peirce at last comes to the method which he himself embraces over the rest, and that is the
method of
science
.  “To satisfy our doubts, therefore, it is necessary that a method should be found by which our beliefs may
be caused by nothing human, but by some external permanency—by something upon which our thinking has no
effect” (48).  In epistemology this is the theory of correspondence: that a statement is true if it corresponds to
reality, and indeed this is the strongest and most successful system of determining beliefs that has ever come about
in the world.  The scientific method, because it is so stringent and leaves almost no room for its practitioners’ pre-
existing prejudices to influence the conclusions to which their experiments bring them, has led to a great many
discoveries about the behaviour of the physical world which are virtually irrefutable; this standing in great
opposition to truths determined through reason or by appealing to authority, which can always be refuted by
appealing to different methods of reasoning or to different authorities.

There are only two weaknesses when it comes to the method of science in my mind, and the first is dealt with by
Peirce but the other is not.  The most apparent objection that can be raised against the method of science is that it
presupposes the existence of a reality to which its claims must correspond.  If a scientific claim corresponds to the
facts of reality, it is valid, but if there is no reality outside of human thought—which is a proposition that as
annoying as it may be to scientists can never be conclusively refuted—the validity of all facts derived through this
method comes into question and the entire correspondence theory is rendered moot.  Peirce offers four responses
to this objection which do serve to show that the strength of the scientific method is not impeded by the mere
possibility of idealism being the correct metaphysical doctrine.  Most forceful is his pointing out that in proposing
idealism as the truth, one is already presupposing a reality to which this truth corresponds, namely one in which the
reality is the absence of an external reality.  I will not deal with Peirce’s responses to this objection in detail
because I accept his arguments on this matter and personally believe that even if there is no material world (which
I am perfectly willing to accept and have for a time in the past), holding such a belief is nevertheless intellectually
useless and we might as well act and speak as though there is a reality to which propositions may correspond.

Peirce concludes in a modest fashion by offering a few of the benefits which the other three methods have over the
method of science, allowing that his audience need not be reproached as backward or ignorant should they
choose to adopt one of them.  “A man should consider well of them; and then he should consider that, after all, he
wishes his opinions to coincide with the fact and that there is no reason why the result of those three methods
should do so.  To bring about this effect is the prerogative of the method of science” (50).  And here is where I
will offer my objection to the method of science which I am surprised to find Peirce did not anticipate in this
article, which is that the method of science, though it may allow for the determination of truths that are far more
solid and verifiable than those of the other three methods, is hopelessly limited as to the scope of the knowledge it
is capable of achieving.

To elaborate, the scientific method is based on the process of experimentation.  We form a hypothesis, design an
experiment which will either verify this hypothesis or render it invalid, and record the results.  What we get is
merely the knowledge of what will happen as a result of doing whatever it is we did in the experiment.  For
instance, to test the hypothesis that the force of gravity on a falling object is proportional to the object’s mass, I
may roll balls of various masses down an inclined plane and record the length of time it takes for each to reach the
bottom.  In doing so I will learn what happens when I roll balls down an inclined plane, but I will not come any
closer to an understanding of the nature of gravity.  And in fact no experiment
can be designed which could
determine such a thing, as this question falls outside the scope of science and remains irrevocably confined to the
world of metaphysics.

And in fact, the questions that most people think of when they think of philosophy also fall outside the capacity of
science to explain.  Why does the universe exist?  Are good and evil fundamental parts of reality?  Is there a
God?  Is consciousness universal or merely a peculiar function of the brain?  These are some of the most essential
questions when it comes to philosophy, and it just so happens that the method of science can not even begin to
approach an answer to any one of them.

Therefore I would conclude that although Peirce’s claim that the method of science is the
strongest approach to
philosophy, philosophical inquiry necessarily requires the use of another approach to deal with the questions which
science is incapable of answering.  This ought not to be the method of tenacity or the method of authority, which
are purely based on the
will of an individual or of the state, because these are only methods which some use to
adopt their beliefs and offer nothing by way of leading us to truth.  The only one of the four methods Peirce lists
that has any hope of arriving at valid answers to these questions is the method of intuition, which as we have seen
is plagued by its own insoluble problems.  And so it would seem at last that we either need to derive an entirely
new approach to philosophical inquiry and the acquisition of our beliefs (if we wish our beliefs to be true) or we
must accept the claim that some things can never be known for certain.

Yet I for one have no qualms in accepting this proposition, and I believe humanity would do well to reject the
methods of tenacity and authority and try to rise above that instinctual aversion to doubt which for want of its
eradication had led so many of us to accept as certainties beliefs which are either false or un-provable.  Since it is
doubt that leads us to philosophical inquiry in the first place, by keeping doubt alive we thereby keep philosophy
alive as well.