Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Metaphysician, Heal Thyself!

A Dim View of Peirce's Realism


Wherein we pose the question: do C. S. Peirce's substantial contributions
to philosophical analysis refute his flirtation with medieval ontology?


Ernest Partridge.

Philosophy Seminar
Prof. W. P. Read
Autumn, 1967


It will soon enough be clear to the reader that I have sliced off a massive topic. In criticizing Peirce's realism, I am challenging a tenet that he defended throughout his long, varied and evolving career. Moreover, I'm confronting this tenet with several of Peirce's most carefully elaborated ideas. Accordingly, each of the sections of this paper call for chapter-length treatment -- at least. The paper thus seems more an abstract for a book than a research paper. The thesis of this paper should be seriously argued only after a thorough study of the works of Peirce and his commentators and critics -- a study which, manifestly, I have been unable to undertake with sufficient thoroughness in these few weeks.

I justify the boldness of this inadequate undertaking on two grounds: one practical and the other theoretical. The practical ground resides in the immediate purpose of the paper: namely to provoke discussion in the seminar. The theoretical justification is one which, I should like to believe, C. S. Peirce would approve: I wish to present a tentative working hypothesis, which I believe further scholarship should explore. Such an exploration would, of course, to attempt a fuller account of Peirce's realism. It would then attempt to explicate further the presuppositions of his theories of thought-signs and pragmatic meaning, and the bearings of these upon his realism. Throughout this research, I would like to believe, the questions posed below would remain relevant: (a) is Peirce's metaphysical realism consistent with these leading principles of his analytic philosophy?, and (b) if not, what should give way -- his speculative or his critical insights? My hunch, based upon the modest research that I have been able to pursue, would be that (a) there is a basic conflict herein, and (b) Peirce's analytic philosophy is much the worthier contribution.1

I.   The Realism of C. S. Peirce

Peirce's realism is one of the most persistent themes of his philosophy2 -- it is also, alas, one of the most obscure, for not only is the concept of realism inherently difficult to discuss, but (as Buchler complains) a clear or concise statement of his realism is not to be found in his writings.3 [Buchler, 123]

With these difficulties in mind, perhaps the most direct approach would be to ask: what does Peirce, as realists, alleged to be real?

Well, first of all, predicates of perceptual judgments (or better -- "that to which these predicates refer"). A "merely existent" individual thing cannot be an object of knowledge -- it can be so only as it embodies or "instances" generals -- as they are embodied in individuals.4 For instance,

Anybody may opine that 'the' is a real English word; but that will not constitute him a realists. But if he thinks that whether the word 'hard' itself be real or not, the property, the character, the predicate, "hardness" is not invented by men, as the word is, but it's truly in the hard things and is one in them all, as a description of habit, disposition, or behavior, then he is a realist. [1.27n1]

Goudge amplifies at this point:

The directly experienced hard surface of a particular stone is determinate, whereas the universal hardness, which the intellect grasps, is indeterminate or general. A consequence of this view is that the individual per se is not a proper object of knowledge. What we know are genera and species, themselves the product of mental action. Yet because complete being embraces both universality and particularity, because man perceives a singular with his senses while cognizing the universal with his intellect, it is possible for him to attain the singular by relating universals to something, which is this. [99]

Once we grant that perceptual knowledge requires a presupposition of "real generals," we find it easy to presume that observed regularities, or "laws," are "real" also. Consider the case of gravitation. We have found, in our experience, (direct and indirect) that unsupported stones do in fact fall to the ground. How do we account for this? Two hypotheses are open to us. Either.

1. The uniformity with which the stones of fall and has been due to mere chance and affords no ground whatever, not the slightest for any expectation that the next own that shall be let go will fall; or.

2. The uniformity which the stones have fallen has been due to some active general principle, In which case it would be a strange coincidence that agencies to act at the moment. My prediction was based on it...

Of course every sane man will adopt the latter hypothesis. If he could doubt it in the case of the stone -- which he can't -- and I may as well drop the stone once for all -- I told you so! -- if anybody doubts this still, a thousand other such inductive predictions are getting verified every day, and he will have to suppose everyone of them to be merely fortuitous in order reasonably to escape the conclusion that general principles are really operative in nature.5 That is the doctrine of scholastic realism. [5.99-100].

Finally, general principles are further indicated by the unquestionable fact that we form habits, and discover that they are generally dependable. But the dependability of a habit.

can be so judged only in so far as it molds our particular actions to conform to certain general features in the bewildering variety of the world. In other words, unless our habits were adjusted to certain truly general conditions -- conditions that hold irrespective of any compulsion to come about in this or that particular way... hence we know, as certainly as we know anything, that "generality" is an indispensable ingredient in reality.6

Further explication of "realism" might be obtained by contrasting it with its rival, nominalism. As Peirce views the dispute:

The question, therefore, is whether man, horse, and other names of natural classes, correspond with anything which all men were all horses have been common, independent of our thought, or whether these classes are constituted simply by a likeness in the way in which our minds are affected by individual objects which have been themselves no relationship whatever.7 [Peirce, "Review" 454]

He thus dismisses nominalism with a reductio ad absurdum: "The man who takes the [nominalist] position ought to admit no general law has really operative... He ought to abstain from all prediction, however qualified by confession of fallibility. But that position can practically not be maintained." [5.210] He thus concludes that "generality is... an indispensable ingredient of reality; for mere individual assistance or actuality without any regularity whatever is a nullity. Chaos is pure nothing." [5.431].

Peirce shows little sympathy here for the rival hypothesis of a nominalism. A more objective account of the contest might be that (a) Peirce's realism holds an individual thing is recognized or acted upon as a something -- it is a repository of real general properties. The nominalist would contend (b) that the categorizing and labeling that attends our dealings with these objects are fundamentally arbitrary – but that some slicing of the melon of experience is necessary if we are to make our way in the world -- that is, if we are to engage in conceptual and abstract thinking. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, the nominalist argues that we deal with "generals" because we require them -- not because we discover them. Like Rousseau's God: if there were none, they would have to be invented -- which, in fact, the nominalist argues, they are.

We now seem to have a point of meaningful departure. We are ready to ask Peirce: in what sense are these universals ("generals") real? Do they exist or subsist in some ghostly Platonic sense? Are they independent of our thought of them? But at just the point at which we seek substance to this doctrine, Peirce gets canny and presents us with exasperating list of qualifications.

We might pursue these qualifications by adopting one of Peirce's favorite devices (and mine too): dialogue

Q. Would it be correct, then to assume that the "real" general's simply exist?

A. No. We must make a firm distinction between reality and existence. "Reality" means a certain kind of non-dependency upon thought, and so is a cognitionary character.8 While "existence" means reaction with the environment, and so is a dynamic character; and accordingly the two meanings... are clearly not the same." [5.503] [In the following, in Goudge speaks for Peirce]: "The affirmation of realism doesn't necessarily imply that general's exist in the way individual facts do. Realists are sometimes thought to believe that, for example, the law of gravity is 'in nature' precisely as particular falling bodies are. Since no such thing is empirically possible, it is easy to conclude that a universalia in re must be a metaphysical fiction... A realist does not need to assert the existence of universals; he only needs to assert their reality." [Goudge 98].

Q. Are you then denying that the "real generals" exist or "subsist" in, say, a Platonic sense?

A. Exactly! "The version of realism presented here is of the 'moderate' variety, which is not incompatible with naturalism. For it involves no reification of universals,9 no attributing to them of an advocacy superior to that of individual existence, no suggestion that they have some status in the universe independent of human thought. On the contrary, laws and general types are genuine features of the world has investigated by the scientific community." [Goudge 101].

Q. Of what nature, then, is a general?

A. "The General is not capable of full actualization in the world of action and reaction, but is of the nature of what is thought." [1.27] "What is general is of the nature of a general sign." [1.24].

Q. Well then, doesn't this simply put "the real" back into the sign-using minds of those who define the "generals"? Haven't you surrendered your case to the nominalists?

A. Not really. "The realist has not hold that reality is dependent on the thinking of any individual. On the contrary, the real is precisely that which is independent of what you, or I, or anyone else happens to think about it. But it does not follow that the real is independent of thought in general, i.e. of 'the ultimate decision of the community.'10 Similarly, although the real natures which exist if things are, apart from all action of the intellect, and Cingular, they are nevertheless real universals in relation to human thought. Our judgments about types of four classes, then, do not refer to metaphysical fictions, but two divisions that have a basis in an actual world." [Goudge 99-100; cf. 5.407].

Q. We seem to be back to a point of departure. In what sense to these divisions "have a basis in the actual world?" What existents can we identify to point out these "real" divisions? What is there in the world, really, besides individuals?

A. "It must be admitted that individuals alone exists." [5.429] That is, "apart from thought only singular things exist. But there are in singular, certain 'natures,' themselves neither universal nor particular, which constitute the ground of intelligibility. In things, these natures are particular; when brought into relation to an act of the intellect., they are universal. (Goudge 99). "It is the very same nature which in the mine is universal and in re is singular." [Peirce, "Review" 459].

Q. I just can't see what remains now of your quarrel with the nominalists. You seem to have preempted anything unique or starling in your realism. There seems to be, to paraphrase your good friend Professor James, no "difference and make a difference."

A. Well, I suppose that it will be your task in the remainder of this paper to argue just this point.

Q. And on this matter, we quite agree -- and close!11


II.  Thought-Signs and Realism (1):  The Chicken and the Egg.

Peirce's realism might be attacked from several directions. Any student of philosophy familiar with along a tree of the realist-nominalists dispute would be quite aware of this. I shall however direct my attention to some promising avenues of criticism suggested by Peirce himself.

"Every thought is a sign," said Peirce in his late essay "Pragmatism in Retrospect." [5 .11] This maxim, summarizing the most on the inside of Peirce’s epistemology, is found, in theme and variation, throughout the long and productive course of his recorded thought. In two of his earliest works, (published in 1868) quaintly titled "Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man" and "Some Consequences of Four Incapacities," Peirce set down some of the most significant implications of this insight.12 I will examine two of these: first (a) all thinking presupposes prior thought; [5.259] and second (b) all thinking is of the nature of a hypothesis. [5.269] these two basic implications of Peirce’s theory of thought signs serve to refute two long-standing philosophical prejudices, which I call (a') "the chicken egg syndrome" and (b') "the doctrine of the last word." The former precious was presupposed by Descartes in his "method of philosophical doubt" and by Locke, Russell and others in their respective searches for basic "primary constituents" of knowledge (e.g.. "acquaintance" or "sensed data," etc.."). The latter prejudice (b') and is embraced by those who wish to believe that a judgment of factual import can be wholly and completely settled, or that a term in a natural language can be defined with complete precision. Both prejudices fall victim to Peirce’s and criticisms -- and through them, I hold, Peirce’s, realism is severely crippled.

Peirce’s supposition that all cognition is "determined by a previous cognition" seems, on its face, to be clearly paradoxical. This Peirce readily acknowledges. "It would seem," he says, "that there is, or has been, [a cognition not determined by a previous cognition]. For since we are in possession of cognitions, which are all determined by previous ones, and is by cognitions earlier still, there must have been a first in the series or else out state of cognition at any time is completely determined, according to logical laws, by our state at any previous time. But there are many facts against the last supposition, and therefore in favor of intuitive cognitions" (or basic primary "acquaintances" or "sense data" or what have you). [5.259]

This counter-argument assumes, however, that one "cognition" is pretty much the same sort of thing as any other "cognition," and since one's life begins at a finite moment in time, something he just has to start the mind on its way. There just had to be either a chicken or an egg to get the poultry business started. But this assumption is not true either for chickens or cognitions, and for pretty much the same sort of reason. Before chickens were bantams and leghorns, or whatever, there were some sorts of wild fowls. And before that, say a few million years, there are reptiles. Before that, fish, and before that protozoa. Do we then ask: "and which amoeba came first!" We answer the chicken-egg puzzle by pointing out, quite simply, that chickens and eggs evolved concomitantly from more primitive origins.

So too with thoughts. We need not suggest that there is no specific point time in one's life before one begins to think. What Peirce does suggest (in Gallie’s more lucid prose) is that

it may be impossible in principle -- and not simply because of our lack of observational or experimental or imaginative skill -- to "pinpoint" the origins of thought, or of intellectual life, in any given individual. And should the reader feel a strong disinformation to accept the suggestion, let them put the following question to himself. Does he really believe that, given ideal conditions of observation, he would be able to "pinpoint" the exact moment at which a child can be said to have begun to talk, or to have a come able to follow a story, or to have begun to understand foreign language, or begun to enjoy music?... Has a mental life of every individual a definite beginning in time? Common sense has no difficulty about accepting the suggestion that in all these cases capacity to think, to speak, to understand or what not, depends, in any mentionable stage, on the exercise of a previously formed capacity. It is only the necessary conclusion from the suggestion – namely that, in the sense which does no violence to the known facts, our thinking life has no definitely assignable beginning in time -- that commonsense finds unpalatable. [Gallie 72-3]

Of course, as we carried our inquiry back to the earlier life of the individual, we would find ourselves dropping the term "thought" and replacing it with "habit" and then "instinct," and then (in the womb, perhaps ) biochemical reactions -- back, I suppose, gleam in father's eye.

The paradox with which we began, then, is no paradox at all, once we have drastically overhauled our habit of thought. That he so ably jolted us out of this pernicious rut is but another mark of the significance and profundity of Peirce’s thought.

What, then, of Peirce’s "Real generals."? The resolution seems to be clearly at hand. Just as Descartes argued that without "indubitable intuitions," (or "clear and distinct ideas"), there are no certain foundations of knowledge, so too did Peirce argue that without "real generals," there are no meaningful percepts and no grounds for the acquisition of habits. But now we have a clear reason to assume that our concepts of "generals" arise with the development of our perceptual discriminations. "Generals" are hypotheses which arise from primitive beginnings as we mature from pre-cognitive infancy. There is no longer any need to posit ontologically "prior" universals."

The realist-Peirce might retort: "hold on there! I have, in refuting Descartes' intuitions, simply demonstrated how a child acquires his own thought (meaning, of course, his thought of generals). But clearly, it is not the case that each child invents his own general concepts from nothing, or even from his brute percepts. As the infant matures, he acquires meanings, and in the manner described above, from his linguistic environment. He learns a pre-existing language, albeit his understanding of this language begins from primitive reflex and imitation and develops concomitantly with his emerging mind itself. What, then, remains unanswered is the question: "how is it that natural languages so successfully embody these general concepts that each person assimilates as he matures in his use of language -- how, I say, do languages manage this if there are no generals for the language to refer to?"

I replied that the retort is just -- but that it only briefly postpones Peirce’s embarrassment. The "chicken egg syndrome" serves quite well to dismiss an ontological priority of generals in the emergence of natural languages. This time, however, we apply to Peircian analysis of concomitant evolution, not to the genesis of the individual person, but to the genesis of languages and society. "Well, why then does language evolve with general terms in its vocabulary -- if there are, as you suggest, no real generals to which they apply?" Why, simply because the function of language is to communicate, and communication is impossible if meetings are not held in common -- in common within the community of the language users. Generality is required of a language if it is to be a language. This is not a condition imposed upon it by some ontological necessity. At this point, the anthropological linguist deals and a blow to Peirce’s realism. For if we study languages outside of the family of tongues to which our own language belongs (the so-called "Indo-European" languages), we find systems of codification (say, of color) and of grammar that are radically alien to our own.13 There seems to be little evidence that a well-furnished "reality" of generals open "pushes" an evolving language system either toward a standard vocabulary, or into a standard morphology (albeit there are certainly limits that reality sets up on languages if they are to function well). That the users of a given language agree in their verbal codification and forms is necessary for reasons that are quite obvious and quite irrelevant to the realist-nominalist dispute. No such agreement is necessary between two wholly isolated language communities.1

What then of Peirce’s "real generals" as "prerequisite" of abstract concepts? All that is prerequisite is that the child acquire and use the language of his community, and (if there is to be a community) that the members thereof agree (tacitly, of course) to use their language in common -- that is, that they have the same language. Generals need be posited, but not necessarily "real." There seems to be little need to presume as "prerequisite" an independent realm of "real generals" to which the language must conform. All we need is suppose is an objective field of limitless "similarities," some of which our language may codify. On this account, the nominalist may be quite comfortable in his claim that the similarities reside wholly in the individual objects, and then abstract concepts are derivative from these particulars.

We may therefore acknowledge the existence of general concepts and language and thought (which is to say much the same thing), without pre-supposing Peirce’s "real generals" -- if by "real" he means "apart from and independent of the language and the language community." Thanks to the analyst-Peirce, we are enabled to avoid the thickets of the metaphysical-Peirce’s realism, simply by treating general terms and concepts as developing hypotheses within the evolving and functioning language. "Real generals" are no longer needed to account for general percepts.

"Dismiss make believes," says Peirce. [5.416]

And so we shall!

III.  Thought-Signs and Realism (2):  The Doctrine of the Last Word.

We have, with Peirce is able assistance, "looked back" and have abolished the notion that thought, signs and languages have clear-cut, determinable beginnings. We shall now look ahead, and abolish the need for a culmination.

An essential tenet of Peirce’s and theory of thought signs is that all thought is hypothesis, and thus future oriented. This tenet is clearly indicated by his semiotic. Thought, as sign, we will recall, is essentially triadic (a "Thirdness") -- it consists of signs, objects, and interpretants..


But what does the "interpretant" itself mean? To determine this, we treat interpretant1 as a sign and posit an interpretant2 of interpretant1. To take an example from Peirce:2

Any thought, as interpretant, is a sign -- a sign of anticipated expectation. As life goes on, these signs are confronted by the anticipated events and thus refuted, confirmed, and/or enriched. One sign anticipates the next, and then the next. As we walk, we throw ourselves off balance and forward, to be caught by the other foot, going forward again, et cetera. So too with thought-signs. Each reaches forward to anticipate that which follows.

In every case subsequent thought denotes what was thought in the previous thought... [5.285].

"When we think, to what thought does the thought sign, which is ourself addressed itself? It may, through the medium of outward expression, which it reaches perhaps only after considerable internal development, come to address itself to thought of another person. But whether this happens or not, it is always interpreted by a subsequent thought of our own. If, after any thought, the current of ideas flows on freely, it follows the law of mental association. In that case, each former thought suggest something to the thought which follows it, i.e., is a sign of something to this latter... There is no moment at which there is a thought belonging to the series, subsequently to which there is not a thought which interprets or repeats it. There is no exception, therefore, to the law that every thought-sign is translated or interpreted in a subsequent one, unless it be that all thought comes to an abrupt and final end in death. [5.284].

The rational meaning of every proposition lies in the future. How so? The meaning of a proposition is itself a proposition. [By .427]

The upshot is that there is no "last word," except in the case of the "accident" of death -- in which case, thought stops, though incomplete. Every sentence ends with a tacit "et cetera." Every thought-concept has an implicit "more or less" attached. Sentences, without exception are fallible. Terms, without exception, are inexact and vague (with the possible exception of "operators" in formal languages such as logic). We can continue to remedy these shortcomings somewhat -- but not entirely. There is no "last word."

But if this is so, what becomes of the royal road to "the opinion which is fated to be agreed upon by all who investigate." [5.407] Is it, in fact, no road it all, but a treadmill? Is not the quest for truth like the asymptote toward which the hyperbole approaches, but at which it never arrives? That this Peircian concept of truth -- this "article of fate." -- has no present denotation is clear enough. But can it ever have denotation? If not, then can we identify "the real" -- "the object represented in the [fated] opinion?" [5.407].

When we deal with available knowledge -- which, of course, is all that we have -- then this lofty conception telescopes into "the truth seems to be that which, at the moment, appears to be so -- but we'll do our best to further our inquiry. We'll keep you informed as to the truth, as things develop." How is the inquiry "fated" to end up? Well, we can answer this only on the basis of what we have to go on now, which puts us back just at that point where we were before Peirce performed his rhapsodies on "fated inquiry" and "reality."

Peirce, of course, is no skeptic -- he is a fallibilist. He does not deny knowledge -- he denies absolute knowledge. And so when we ask Peirce to "cash in" his realism -- and when we say "show us a real" -- if we get either a vague nod toward some utopia that Peirce himself cannot consistently believed to be attainable, or else we get a rather unstartling. "see your friendly scientist -- he may not have it, but he seems to be heading that way."

I won't pretend that Peirce’s as fallible as a bit flatly contrary to his realism.14 I do, however, suggest that he owes us some very subtle argumentation if he wishes to maintain both of these cherished doctrines. Lacking this argument, Peirce’s fallibilism seems to sweep away the grounds for his realism. As Gallie puts it:

The main difficulty that faces realism is, not to establish the irreducible generality of many of our conceptions (a sane conceptualism, such as Kant's, will grant this), but to establish that there are "general connections" or "general states of affairs" or "real generals" that correspond to these conceptions. Do we ever actually know, or are we even in a position reasonably to believe or hope, that our conceptions, classifications, laws, are true to these "real generals"? Are not all are general conceptions liable to revision, all our general laws subject to correction in the light of later experience? And if this be admitted (as Peirce "the fallibilist" must admit), can any meaning, on the pragmatic criterion, be allowed to the claim that there are "real generals"?15 [Gallie 71-2]


IV.  Pragmatism and Realism

The foregoing arguments challenge, but do not overthrow Peirce’s realism. No doubt, he would be able to present careful and well organized rebuttals. It is, I believe, this next encounter that most seriously challenges Peirce’s realism -- the encounter with his pragmatic criterion of meaning.

The pragmatic challenge to realism can be tersely put (in words borrowed from James): what difference does it make? If we can show that realism predicts nothing, explains nothing -- makes no practical difference -- then we can dismiss it as a "make-believe." Very likely we will succeed also in dismissing much of the metaphysical import of its rival, nominalism. (To throw away one side of the coin, one must throw away the entire coin).

Before we attempt a fuller account of the realist and nominalist positions, let us first examined this criterion of "practical" or "theoretical" or "explanatory" difference.

We say that hypothesis "makes a difference" if, combined with certain assumptions of fact, we are able to deduce (predict) events that will bear out ("confirm") are expectations -- events that are not to be anticipated if the hypothesis, or any of the other premises of the prediction, are incorrect. Of course, our difficulty here is that an event contrary to our prediction will place all the premises under suspicion -- not just our hypothesis. However, a series of refuting experiments, based on varying premises and our hypothesis serves to equip those premises and to turn the suspicion upon our hypothesis. A series of confirmed predictions strengthen the hypothesis; but not completely,16 for the confirmation could have occurred for an undisclosed reason -- it could, in principle, be coincidental (but in a well structured experiment this would be highly unlikely). This ability to predict, in the context of a assumed facts and laws, certain events that we can clearly encounter and evaluate to be (or not to be) as anticipated -- this is what experimental science, and pragmatism, are all about.

Accordingly, the hard-nosed pragmatists would ask a metaphysician: what kind of the world would we, and would we not, expect, if your doctrine (say, "realism") were "true?" What other sort of world if it were "false?" Would the doctrine of their rival (say "nominalism") affirm or deny a different sort of a world? Present the premises and predictions and supply the evidence. Show us events that clearly should take place, to the exclusion of other events, if your doctrine is true. If such expectations can not be posited, then we must dismiss the doctrine -- "commit it to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion." [Hume, Enquiry...].

Another test of meaning (really a corollary of the above) is the "explanation gambit." The classical example of a failure to meet the test is the following:

Q. "Why does opium one to sleep?"

A. "Because it contains a dormative principle." (Translation: "Because it contains something that puts one to sleep.").17

We dismiss the "explanation," not because it is false, but because it simply repeats an account of the phenomenon that it alleges to explain. The event remains right where it was. The exclamation "explains" nothing, because nothing else is being brought into the matter. There is no bridge to any body of theory, or to any general laws. Contrast this with a monograph in pharmacology. There, account is given to changes in blood chemistry, of the result of these biochemical changes upon the hypothalamus (thus tying in with the science of physiological psychology), etc.. This explanation had "hooks" in it. And thus, if it is wrong, any number of predictions might go wrong. As Popper points out in The Logic of Scientific Discovery, the strength a scientific hypothesis resides in its very vulnerability -- in the number of ways it might be refuted, and yet, despite all, is not refuted. Scientific cogency as like the virtue of courage; the greater the hazards overcome, the greater the merit.

What hazards faced Peirce’s realism? We encountered repeating general conditions. Antifreeze keeps the engine block from cracking -- usually. Stones fall to the ground (this is a "real stone", isn't it?). But all this realist and nominalist freely acknowledge. But is this all that Peirce means by "general principles are really active in the universe?" Well, we shrug and say, "so what else is new?"

Of course, he means to say more. But if he does, then he must be prepared to demonstrate that "because general principles are active and real, then W will come to pass, which implies that X, Y, & Z will not occur." Well, just, what else does follow from realism? What consequences can be predicted? That habits are possible? But isn’t this simply a re-iteration of the point of departure: events "like A" are usually followed by events "like B." What nominalist would, or would need to, blush at this. Only those caricatures of nominalism that Peirce presents, or some poor cousins properly disowned by the Society of Right-Thinking Nominalists. Of course, I suspect that we could copy much of this paragraph with an exchange of the terms "nominalism" and "realism" and come to much the same conclusion: "no difference." The same plague may be about both houses. But to check this out, we had better take a closer look at realism and its rival, nominalism.

I believe that we now owe the nominalists a fairer statement of their position than that suggested by Peirce. I know no nominalists that would suggest that all events are totally random: that a stone is just as likely to fall up the next time as it is a drop-down,18 or that an acorn might just decide to grow up to be a pine tree. What a nominalist do0es generally hold is that:.

(a) Individuals alone are real. (As corollary, it is often further argued that individual macro-entities derive their being wholly from the "primary qualities" of the component particles, and the external relations between them).

(b) The most that can be said of two individual things is that there are similar in some made-note-of respect. The two things are entirely similar (that is, "identical") in some respect, independent of our nature, is alleged, by the nominalists, either to be false or unknowable.

(c) The respects in which things may be said to be "similar" are innumerable, and we take notice of (or linguistically codify) only a finite number of these respects. We just might as well have tried a different system than we have -- and, in fact, many language communities have done just that. For example:

(c-1) The verbal cutting of continua (e.g. the color spectrum, methods of measurement, etc.). So it is that some language systems have wholly unique methods of codifying colors (e.g., the Navajo) or natural phenomena (e.g., the Eskimo classification of open quote snow").

(c-2) The adoption of one form or system of codification, as against an indefinite number of possible alternatives (e.g. the widely varying forms of grammar extent in the world, especially outside the western family of languages). Or consider the profound difference in kinship systems -- particularly among preliterate societies).

We could expand this list, but this much will suffice, I believe. Once more, the crux of the nominalist position: there are individuals and nothing else. They may, or may not, be "similar" and one may, or may not, come to a notice of ("conceptualize") these similarities. To push nominalism much beyond this is, I hold, to set up a straw man, or to cite a species of the doctrine that is worthier bearers need not acknowledge.19

Will the rival thus deflated, we may ask, what contrary to this does Peirce entail when he argues that (a) "generals" are in some sense "real;" (b) that to be "real" is not equivalent to "existing," (c) in his more extreme moments, that these "general principles" are "active and really operative" in nature. Or do we find that when we cut down to the nitty-gritty of our practical, anticipatory ("pragmatic") experiences, that the "differences" simply fall way?

Consider now, Abraham Lincoln's little homily: (a) "God must love the common man, because he made so many of them."

To this a wit replied: (b) "God must hate the common man, because he made him so common." Now both of these "hypotheses" "accord with the facts." That is, and common men are both many and common. (I take "common" to mean "nondescript" and "ordinary"). What difference do these two pronouncements make? Well, to find out whether God loves or hates common men, we must look elsewhere -- say in Bible study. The facts of the multitudinous or of the commoness of men, offers no help. (The illustration is faulty of course, but it is only meant to illustrate).

Consider now, the following two arguments: (a) Realism: there must be "operative general principles" in nature, or else we would not experience regularities -- however approximate they may be. (b) Nominalism: there are no real generals -- only similarities and approximations among particulars. This accounts of the fact that our experience merely approximates the laws that we set forth to regulate our perceptions.

It appears that the same experiences are thus accounted for by both doctrines.

Lest to be suspected that I have dragged a Trojan horse into Peirce’s camp, let's examine this "approximate regularities" jazz {of item (a) above). It is quite explicitly set down in his account of "laws" as habit-taking in the universe.

Uniformities is in the modes of action of things and come about by their taking habits. At present the course of events is the approximately determined by law. In the past that approximation was less perfect; in the future it will be more perfect. The tendency to obey laws as always been and always will be growing.

We look back toward a point in the infinitely distant past when there was no law by mere indeterminacy; we look forward to a point in the infinitely distant future when there will be no indeterminacy or chance, but a complete reign of law. But at any assignable date in the future there will be some slight aberrancy from law. [Peirce’s tychism]. Moreover, all things have a tendency to take habits. For toms and their parts, molecules and groups of molecules, and in short every conceivable real object, there is a greater probability of acting as on former a like occasion that otherwise. [1-409]

Or again:

All laws are the result of evolution; that underlying all other laws is the only tendency that it which can grow by its own virtue, the tendency of all things to take habits... If law is a result of evolution, which is a process lasting for all time, it follows in no law is absolute. That is, we must suppose that the phenomena themselves involve departures from law analogous to errors of observation. [6.101]

This, I think, has devastating implications for Peirce’s realism. What now is there that is "fixed" from which we may discover (not "invent") general principles? Peirce, no less than the nominalists, confesses a fundamental inexactness of information as well as a fallibilism of belief. If any contest remains, it would seem to be between the views that:

(a) we have inexact, fallible knowledge of "real" general principles in the universe.

Or, on the other hand,

(b) We have knowledge (exact and perfect, or inexact and fallible -- it makes no difference, but likely the latter) of an inexact and unpredictable collection of particulars and external relations. These, and only these, add up to our universe.

In short, (a) supposes the "leaks" in our knowledge to be in the subjects of knowledge (our minds) and not the objects.20 (b) Supposes the "leaks" to be in the objects of knowledge -- and probably the subjects to. Both wholly accord with the obvious fact that knowledge is "leaky" (i.e. inexact and fallible).21

Now what difference could possibly be drawn between these views? What discriminably different consequences could be predicted there from? If we find no reply to these challenges, then they must suspect we have two metaphysical "accounts" of the following agreed-upon fact: we approach certitude and and exactitude in our scientific accounts of the universe, but we must necessarily fall short of culmination. There is no final word -- the curve never touches the asymptote. But when it comes to explaining this fact, realism and nominalism start and end at the same point. They explain nothing but the fact in question, and so don't really explain that.

For a final go at it, we’ll once again state the basic realistic position and see if we can, in practical terms, "cover" its basic tenets while sounding as if we were propounding its rival. (a) Realism: "active general principles are really operative in the world." We managed to make our way in the world by adapting ourselves to those real qualities and regularities. (Laws) that are found therein. (b) The nominalist accounts for all this as follows: the so-called "generals" "operate" only insofar as they are instanced in particulars -- which is to say the same thing as only particulars "operate." Those "generals" that we recognize as "operating" are derived from the particulars -- derived, that is to say, from similar things and similar events (there being only things and events) and our codifications of some of these. Ideas have consequences, as any good pragmatist will agree, but mistaken ideas have consequences too -- for all their "unreality." "Operativeness" does not entail reality. We operate quite well as if some "generals" were somehow "more real" than particulars. But this is just a useful fiction, adopted to make our language-oriented mode of adaptation more manageable. Of course, we nominalists grant that once we accept these devices, the world does lead us to warranted conclusions, and excludes us from others. We don’t pretend that we live in a dream world where simple wishing makes things so!

Now all this reads like a perfectly respectable sort of critical nominalism. Surely, in its insistence upon exclusive reality of particulars and external relations, it is verbally far removed from a traditional sort of realism.

Has Peirce said anything that can stand and meaningfully challenge this doctrine on the field of practical empirical consequences? Does either view assert anything denied by the other? I think not. However, if either of these positions has any hope for meaningful consequences, I would be more inclined to look toward the nominalists. It is not impossible that among the maxims of my statement of nominalism, there might be some item with meaningful theoretical import.

As for Peirce’s realism, I must, with Professor Bronstein, assume that Peirce has

become a victim of his own propensity to coin phrases, convert them into "reals," and then foist them on the universe. But whenever Peirce forgets about the nominalist and really gets down to analyzing such statements as, e.g., that "the uniformity with which stones have fallen has then been due to some active general principle," or that "hardness really is in the hard things," etc., he finds that they mean nothing but (and he uses the words "nothing but" too!) a statement to the effect that if certain conditions now absent were present, then a result now unrealized would occur. Is there a nominalist who would take exception to this?

Suppose that A, a realist, believes that there is an active general principle, that stones fall when dropped, which principle is a real constituent of the universe; and that B, a nominalist, believes simply that stones fall when dropped. Applying the usual pragmatic criterion, let us ask what difference it would make to the behavior of A and B, for them to hold these "different" beliefs. Would A be able to make any successful predictions about the universe that B could not match? Would the expectations of B in any concrete situation be disappointed where the expectations of A in the same situation would not? In what respect, then, would A be wiser or, or better off than B? As a good pragmatist, Peirce would say that if the only difference between A and B is in the expressions they use, then, since this does not constitute a difference as far as concerns their beliefs [5.33], it will follow that their beliefs do not differ in any respect. [Bronstein 49].



I would conclude, then, that Peirce’s realism better serves his metaphysics that it serves his logic, theory of signs, and pragmatic method. Perhaps his metaphysical aspirations have led him to foist his ontological doctrine upon these other (more significant, I think) realms of his philosophy, even though there seems to be little logical necessity to do so. I would suggest, even more, that to the degree that Peirce’s realism seems to make a difference -- that is, has pragmatic import -- it threatens to undermine his most significant contributions in critical philosophy. To the degree that his realism accommodates itself to these insights, it loses meaning and becomes empty.

I am led, then, to a nearly complete agreement with Goudge when he observes that:

The naturalistic "moment" of [Peirce’s] thought was far stronger and more influential than his transcendentalism. It was the former that led him to pursue his researches in formal logic, semiotics, scientific method, phenomenology, and critical metaphysics, and to make such impressive contributions to these fields. His transcendentalism is most apparent in his views on cosmology, ethics, and theology, though traces of it are visible elsewhere. His speculative conclusions, while often highly original and suggestive, are on the whole the least cogent aspect of his work. As a pass from the logical studies through phenomenology to his metaphysics, the coexistence of the two tendencies becomes increasingly apparent. The upshot is diversity rather than unity of thought. [Goudge 7].

Substitute "analytic" for "naturalistic" and "speculative" for "transcendentalistic," and I will buy all of Goudge's remarks with no further qualifications.

Peirce too makes a valid charge when he notes:

Almost every proposition of ontological metaphysics is either meaningless gibberish -- one word being defined by other words: and they by still others, without any real conception ever been reached -- or else downright absurd. [5.423].

Metaphysician, heal thyself!



An afterthought on a lead not followed, for want of adequate primary source material.

Peirce seems to be committed to the "forever unknown," or better, the "forever-yet-to-be-known." Every percept and judgment, we recall, carries an implicit "et cetera" with it. Yet, as Thompson interprets him, Peirce characterizes a nominalist as.

One who assumes that beneath what is given in the representation there is a "thing in itself, an incognizable reality." In Peirce’s review of Fraser's Berkeley (1871), these statements are elaborated. The "realistic view of reality" is described as one which regards "the reality as the normal product of mental action, and not as the incognizable cause of it." "To make a distinction between the true conception of the thing and the thing itself is, he [the realists] will say, only to regard one and the same thing from two different points of view; for the immediate object of thought in a true judgment is the reality. [Thompson 133]

Is it at all clear how, with his fallibilism, Peirce can keep clear of his characterization of the very doctrine he seeks to refute: nominalism. Now the idea of "thing in itself, an incognizable reality" is not wholly equivalent to the idea of a "yet-to-be-known, but never wholly so." But they are similar enough to place Peirce in a precarious logical spot.

Peirce is not, however, within range of refutation. We must not convict him on this sketchy evidence. A fuller investigation of Peirce’s writings is required, after which we either (a) nail him on his inconsistency, or (b) failing that, drop the charge, perhaps with some well-earned embarrassment and, perchance, some admiration for Peirce’s gift of philosophical accommodation.



Such a conflict, if genuine, would substantiate Goudge's claim that there are, in fact, two Peirce’s – respectively, one "naturalistic" and the other "transcendentalist." [Goudge, Ch. 1].

2.    "In 1903, commenting on an article he written more than thirty years before, Charles Peirce said that he had changed his mind on many issues at least a half-dozen times but had 'never been able to think differently on the question of nominalism and realism.'" [Buchler vii]

3.    Gallie [71], and Goudge [98] second, the complaint -- by citing Buchler.

4.    Peirce suggests that absolute individuals cannot be "realized in sense or thought... [or] exist, properly speaking... All, therefore, that we perceive or think, or that exists, is general. So far there is truth in the doctrine of scholastic realism." [3.93n1]

5.    These are Peirce's italics. Note especially the words "active" and "really operative." We will discuss this aspect of Peirce's realism later (section IV),

6.   Gallie offers here (74) a clear "adaptation: of Peirce (1.211) See also Peirce 5-431

7.    The idea that we need to search for things that "all horses [or whatever] have in common," if we are to make sense of "natural classes" is, I think, nicely refuted by Wittgenstein’s notion of "family resemblance." It is quite possible, by this account, for all horses to share no common trait. [Wittgenstein 67].

8.    Peirce’s meaning here (of "cognitionary character") totally evades me. The remark seems out of place -- even contradictory.

9.    My italics -- and please note this strange admission (by Goudge, alas, not Peirce).

10.    This phrase of Peirce from 5.316.

11.    The reader will no doubt be confounded by the obscurity of the foregoing exposition and dialogue. I confess that this writer is confounded by it all too. Part of this difficulty, no doubt, is (a) due to the rather brief, frantic and a superficial examination of this rather difficult topic. But a great deal of the problem lies, I believe, (b) with Peirce himself. Those who have conducted more thorough research than my own seem to bear out this observation (e.g. Boler, Buchler, Goudge, McKeon and Thompson -- see Bibliography). A fairer assessment on my part (and perchance a consequent shifting of the blame from myself to Peirce) would require the sort of exhaustive labor and circumspect scrutiny that is appropriately practiced by writers of doctoral dissertations. For me, however, that shall be another time and, I presume, another topic.

12.    "From the proposition that every thought is a sign, it follows that every thought must address itself to some other, must determine some other, since that is the essence of a sign." 5.253.

13.    Examples of such exotic language systems are to be found in my masters thesis, A Preface to Linguistic Relativity. See especially, chapter 2, sections 13--19. See also: Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, Thought and Reality.

14.    Contrary, that is, in the usual logical sense. I.e.: -(P&Q) which is equivalent to -P v-Q (by deMorgan's law)

15.    Gallie examines three "offenses" of Peirce is realism, against this charge. I believe that I have responded to the substance of these in this paper.

16.    A confirmed experiment is of the logical form: (Hypothesis & premise1 & premise2 to... & premise-n) --> predictive event. A confirmed prediction is thus an affirmed consequent -- deductively invalid, if inductively significant.

17.    The answer is not entirely empty, for it suggests that the "active ingredient" is contained in the opium rather than, say, that the opium acts psycho-somatically, or that a catalyst activates a "principal" in the body. But even this is unclear

18.    Hume, for example didn't argue that heavy objects might fall up -- just that, in principle, we have no necessary knowledge as to why, in fact, they always manage to fall down. Nonetheless, we jolly well better continue to believe it -- especially if we like to climb mountains.

19.    In Runes’s Dictionary of Philosophy, James Fiebleman gives this account of "nominalism:" "In scholastic philosophy, the theory that abstract or general terms, or universals, represent no objective real existents, but are mere words or names, mere vocal utterances, '"flatus vocis." [Too extreme for my taste. EP]. Reality is admitted only to actual physical particulars. Universals exist only post res. Opposite of realism which maintains that universals exist ante res ... In the first frankly novelistic system, Ockham distinguished between the real and the grammatical meanings of terms or universals. He assigned a real status to universals in the mind, and thus was the first to see that nominalism can have a subjective as well as an objective aspect. He maintained that to our intellects, however, everything real must be some particular individual thing." [Runes 211].

20.    In this particular case am referring to a more ordinary kind of realism than Peirce’s. His tychism would involve him in a belief in "leaky" objects.

21.    I call this logical trap "The problem of the Pope." "The Pope is said to be infallible when he speaks ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals. The trouble is that there is no infallible tests (for the Pope or his flock) to determine whether or not any given pronouncement is ex cathedra. This is equivalent to saying that the Pope is not infallible. (This may not be inaccurate account of Roman Catholic doctrine. However, true or false, it serves to illustrate my point)." [Cf. Ernest Partridge, "Criteria and Privacy," Autumn 1967. Unpublished]..



Blau, Joseph, Men and Movements in American Philosophy, Prentice-Hall, 1958.

Boler, J. F., Charles Peirce and Scholastic Realism, Seattle: University of Washington Press. 1963.

Bronstein, Daniel, "Inquiry and Meaning," in Studies in the Philosophy of Charles S. Peirce, . Weiner and F. H. Young (eds), Harvard University Press, 1952, p.33.

Buchler, Justus, Charles Peirce’s Empiricism, Harcourt Brace, 1939.

Feibleman, James, "Nominalism," Dictionary of Philosophy, (ed). D. B. Runes, Philosophical Library.

Gallie, W. B., Peirce and Pragmatism. Penguin books, 1952.

Gallie, W. B., "Peirce’ Pragmatism." (Weiner and Young), p. 61

Goudge, T. A.,The Thought of C. S., Peirce, University of Toronto Press, 1950.

McKeon, Charles, Peirce’s Scotistic Realism. (Weiner and Young).

Murphey, M., "Charles Sanders Peirce," Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Free Press, 1967, Vol. 6, page 70.

Partridge, Ernest, Preface to Linguistic Relativity, Masters Thesis, University of Utah, 1961.

Peirce, C. S., Collected Papers, (edited by Hartshorne and Weiss), Harvard University Press, 1934.

Peirce, C. S, "Review of Fraser’s Berkeley," reprinted in Collected Papers, volume 8.

Thompson, Manley, "The Paradox of Peirce’s Realism,) (Weiner and Young)

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Philosophical Investigations, MacMillan, 1953.

Whorf, B. L., Language, Thought and Reality, MIT: Technology Press, 1941.


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .