PEIRCE’S ETHICS: A Reconstruction


Dialectics of Pragmaticism and History


By E. San Juan, Jr.

Philippines Studies Center, Washington DC,USA

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When the famous Moscow Trials (1936-38) against Trotskyists and other alleged enemies of the Soviet Union, pragmatism was still relatively an academic affair. Peirce died in 1914; his collected papers did not appear until 1931. William James’s popularization of Peirce’s ideas, Pragmatism: A New Name for some Old Ways of Thinking, was published in 1907. In 1931, John Dewey traced “The Development of American Pragmatism” in the wake of his major discourses on experimentalism in Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920), Human Nature and Conduct (1922), and Experience and Nature (1925). Not until after World War II will Peirce be acknowledged by Bertrand Russell and others as the United States’ most wide-ranging, innovative and original philosopher. While Peirce  could not have predicted and commented on the Moscow Trials, Dewey found the opportunity to intervene and put his mark on the controversy surrounding this memorable turning point in revolutionary politics..

The Moscow Trials, also known as Stalin’s “Great Purge,” exemplified one man’s autocratic rule in a totalitarian state. The defendants were charged with conspiring with  Western powers to assassinate Stalin, dismember the Soviet Union, and restore capitalism. They were suspected of exploiting the popular discontent brought about by Stalin’s forced collectivization of the farms and the political crisis of 1928-33  In May 1937, the Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made Against Leon Trotsky, was set up in the United States by Trotsky’s friends to establish the truth about the trials. Chaired by the now famous philosopher John Dewey, the Commission travelled to Mexico to interview Trotsky and hold hearings from April 10 to April 17, 1937.

After a thorough examination of evidence, the Dewey Commission found all those condemned innocent of the charges, dismissing the trials as “frame-ups.”  Confessions were extracted by torture, blackmail, and terror (for analysis of this period, see Ulam 1973, 410-33). Nonetheless, radical intellectuals like Langston Hughes, Stuart Davis, Lilian Hellman, Corliss Lamont and others approved if not endorsed the outcome of the horrible events. Millions involved in the trials were imprisoned or executed. Trotsky was assassinated in 1940 by Stalin’s agent. In 1956, Kruschev denounced Stalin’s monstrous crimes and began the rehabilitation of Stalin’s victims such as Bukharin, Zinoviev, etc., as “honest Communists” (Garraty and Gay 1972, 1002-1004). In January 1989, the official newspaper Pravda reported that 25,000 persons had been posthumously rehabilitated.

Leon Trotsky, the chief accused in the Moscow Trials, wrote a defense of his case in 1938 entitled “Their Morals and Ours.”  His primary argument deploys the efficacious power of the class struggle in history which serves as the rational basis of individual choices and decisions. He rejects the ascription to Bolshevism of what he calls the Jesuitical maxim of “the end justifying the means”; historically, Trotsky contends, the Jesuits represented the forces of reaction against the progressive Protestants. Eventually, the Jesuits adopted Martin Luther’s opportunism by adapting themselves to “the spirit of bourgeois society” (1969, 14). Ultimately, Trotsky appeals to a universal criterion that can validate the legitimacy of group actions: “From the Marxist point of view, which expresses the historical interest of the proletariat, the end is justified if it leads to increasing the power of man over nature and to the abolition of the power of man over man” (1969, 36). What Trotsky failed to specify is the historical mission of the proletariat, the privileged class, to advance the humanist project of developing the capacity of society to control the natural environment and adjust social institutions so as to fulfill the needs, spiritual and physical, of the majority of the toiling masses, outlined in Marx and Engels’ “Communist Manifesto” (1968, 31-63).

Dewey’s Intervention

Dewey’s comment on Trotsky’s polemic concerned the putative Marxian gloss on the relation of means and ends in social action. Dewey states: “I hold that the end in the sense of consequences provides the only basis for moral ideas and action, and therefore provides the only justification that can be found for means employed” (1968, 52). Dewey insists on the close interdependence of means and end. He requires actors to perform an “unscrupulous examination of the means that are used, to ascertain what their actual objective consequences will be as far as it is humanly possible to tell—to show that they do ‘really’ lead to the liberation of mankind.” The end in view also functions as the means to direct action. But this is not a matter of personal belief, Dewey emphasizes,” but of the objective grounds upon which it is held: namely, the consequences that will actually be produced by them” (1968, 53).

Dewey faults Trotsky’s reasoning because it invokes “an alleged law of history,” the historical movement of the class struggle. Instead of an inductive investigation of the reciprocity of means-consequences, Trotsky’s wrongly deduces results from a “fixed law of social development.” Dewey concludes that “No scientific law can determine a moral end save by deserting the principle of interdependence of means and end,” so “given the liberation of mankind as end, there is free and unprejudiced search for the means by which it can be attained” (1968, 55). While Dewey’s formulation envisages the intended results of individual actions, which resemble the classic utilitarian consequentialist argument, it also involves an experimental analysis of problematic situations, not single objects. It engages “the contextual whole of experience” which furthers the growth of creative intelligence as ”the only moral end” (Talisse and Aikin 2012, 120). On the surface, there is no basic antagonism between Trotsky’s objective of systemic change and Dewey’s reconstructive improvement of the system via educational reform. Nonetheless, Bernstein judges Dewey’s program as insufficiently radical because “he underestimates the powerful social, political, and economic forces that distort and corrupt” his ideal of expansive creative intelligence (1971, 228).

How would the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, Dewey’s friend, treat this situation? Peirce’s evaluation of Trotsky’s ethical standard would concur with Dewey’s logic of experimental inquiry in line with the pragmatic maxim of appraising conceivable practical effects. But Peirce’s position would differ in three respects (discussed further below): 1) Knowledge of values (good or bad) depends on mediation via the intersubjectivity of interpreters, or community of inquirers; 2) Hypothetical reasoning is a process mediated through signs oriented to the future, the counterfactual discovery of the coincidence of truth and reality in the long run; and 3) Mediation of the theoretical by the practical is carried out from the horizon of the ‘ethical, as ‘socialist logic,’ by history and commonsense” (Dussel 2013, 162).  By way of Peirce’s evolutionary cosmology, the historical field of forces enters the investigation of ideal ends that inform the normative science of ethics. The ethical will of the scientist can unite with evolutionary love, the eros of the universe, in a temporal process of search and discovery (Peirce 1992, 352-71).

Logic and ethics are therefore rooted in a social principle, what Enrique Dussel calls “the processual reality of the corporeality of the life of the cultural, historical, and human subject” (2013, 162). Moreover, Peirce’s discourse on “evolutionary love” amplifies the argument for a knowable reality, the liberation of human powers in a future consensus that would witness the fulfillment of the hypothesis of the unity of truth and reality in historical time. Evolution defines the parameter of ethical judgment. The formation of habits or rational conduct (beliefs translated into action) which mediate mind and matter, chance and law, demonstrates the evolutionary tendency of the world toward concrete reasonableness. In this context, the inquiring sensibility manifests a moral character equal to that of the self-sacrificing heroes of revolutionary struggles in history, as Peirce reflects: “At the very lowest, a man must prefer the truth to his own interests and well-being and not merely to his bread and butter, and to his own vanity, too, if he is to do much in science”(CP1.157).

In what follows, I explore the interanimation of Peirce’s ideas of liberty and concrete reasonableness achieved through self-control. The summum bonum is the ethical destiny of “the reasoner’s aspirations,” a social good equivalent to the liberation of humanity and the fulfillment of universal physical and spiritual needs. Reasoning, for Peirce, is a form of controlled conduct—the locus of ethical wisdom—whereby a person can “make his life more reasonable.What other distinct idea than that, I should be glad to know, can be attached to the word liberty” (1998a, 248). We need to contextualize this theme in terms of how pragmatism has been publicly received and appraised before citing a particular instance of its application.

Clearing the Ground

By consensus, Peirce laid the groundwork for pragmatism as  scientific theory, later vulgarized by psychologist William James so that Peirce himself in 1905 rechristened his view “pragmaticism.” In 1878, Peirce proposed a way of ascertaining the meaning of words in propositions. He said: “Consider what effects, which 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” (1998a, 135).  James, however, misconstrued this as a theory of truth so that ideas prove their truth “just so far as they help us get into satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience,” manifesting their “practical cash value” (1982, 213), and thus converting it into an instrumentalist if not subjectivist, idealist notion. This is how the Soviet Union scholars treated James’s pragmatic truth as valid on the basis of practical utiity which “understands not confirmation of objective truth by the criterion of practice, but what meets the subjective interests of the individual” (1967, 358). Such a transmogrification of Peirce’s philosophy speaks volumes about totalitarian State dogmatism (San Juan 2017).

            For Peirce, truth can only be legitimately pursued by the cooperative work of inquirers committed to a socially constructive goal, not by isolated individuals. Peirce argues that the private self has no intuitive or introspective faculty allowing access to cognitive insights. “Self” is a hypothesis needed to account for errors, ignorance, inadequacies (Appel 1981). Opposed to philosophies of consciousness (inspired by psychoanalysis or Heideggerian ontology), Peirce posited mind as comprised of the complex articulation of feeling (Firstness), reaction or contradiction (Secondness), and rules of learning or representation connecting the first two (Thirdness). We elucidate further this dialogic hermeneutics of the mind and its ramifications later on.

That banal misconstrual of pragmaticism degrades even a sophisticated survey such as Contemporary European Philosophy by Polish Dominican scholar I.M. Bochenski, an expert on Soviet dialectical materialism. Bochenski opined that pragmatism denied the existence of a “purely theoretical knowledge” since it reduced “the true to the useful” (1969, 114). Following that repeated doxa, pragmatism is considered synonymous with utilitarianism, instrumentalism, even opportunism. In contrast, Peirce’s texts insist that both reason and experience are symbiotically operative in pragmaticism. Essentially, Peirce proposed a method for clarifying the differences among ideas through anticipating their conceivable future practical effects, even discordant or incongruous sensible effects that evince practical significance. In “The Fixation of Belief,” Peirce distinguished between belief as action-guiding disposition, and doubt that disrupts usual behavioral patterns but also “stimulates enquiry in the struggle to attain [revised] belief” (Flew 1979, 245). Not action for action’s sake, but deliberate action socially legitimized with rational purport, is what Peirce upheld as a fundamental principle in scientific research.

For a long time, this tendency to foist all kinds of excesses on pragmatism ran wild. Peirce’s notion has been equated with diverse philosophical schools, among them: radical empiricism, irrationalism, meliorism, “apology for bourgeois democracy” (a charge against John Dewey made by orthodox Marxists), experimental naturalism, neopositivism, semantic idealism, operationalism,  and Hans Vaihinger’s “as-if” conjectures (Wheelwright 1960, 138).   Assorted thinkers, aside from James and Dewey, were held complicit: F.C.S. Schiller, Sidney Hook, C.W. Morris, P.W. Bridgman, C.I. Lewis, R. Carnap, W. Quine, etc.

While generally correct in summarizing Peirce’s early view, the famous dissident philosopher Leszek Kolakowski wrongly labels Peirce a positivist, nominalist and scientistic. And so he ascribes to Peirce a rather ascetic, puritanical stance nowhere to be found in Peirce’s rich, wide-ranging speculations: “The world contains no mystery, merely problems to be solved” (1969, 154). But this simplification obfuscates rather than illuminates Peirce’s rejection of nominalism, nihilist relativism, and pseudo-pragmatic antifoundationalism (exemplified by Richard Rorty), which all subscribe to absolutizing subjectivity exceeding even the metaphysical thesis of William of Ockham, the historical originator of nominalism.

Prologue to Intervention

Before delineating Peirce’s dialectical reflections, I want to counter the equally wrongheaded notion that he was politically conservative if not indifferent to social controversy. Of course, being part of the Cambridge elite, Peirce’s family shared the values of intellectuals such as William James, William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, and his friends in the Metaphysical Club (circa 1870-1872). While Peirce shared his father’s prejudiced view on slavery, the father changed his views at the beginning of the Civil War. Louis Menand’s thorough study of this milieu, The Metaphysical Club, argues that Peirce finally opposed economic individualism and determinism, affirming the indeterminacy and intelligibility of the comos. While affected by a conservative climate of opinion, Peirce and his associates all defied conventional expectations.

None of the two extant biographies (Brent 1998; Ketner 1998) mention Peirce’s attitude to the bloody conquest of the Philippines which this essay, for the first time, foregrounds vis-a-vis Peirce’s categorial paradigm. Only James and Twain of the major American intellectuals conscientiously deplored U.S. imperialism and aligned themselves with the plight of the Filipino people at that time. Even Perice’s conformity to the genteel New England morality of his day (or the Emersonian transcendentalism then in vogue) needs to be qualified by his unequivocal dismissal of morality as “essentially conservative” (Collected Papers (afterward CP) 1.50; Liszka 2012 ). Morality as petrified folkway is contradistinguished from ethics as a study of what we ought to do according to a universal principle, independent of what the status quo obliges or forces one to do.

Contrary to the biographic accounts, Peirce was not totally indifferent to the crises surrounding him, for he characterized his epoch as “the Economical Century; for political economy has more direct relations with all the branches of its activity than has any other science” (CP 6.290). Echoing the oppositional sentiments of writers like Henry James (whose friendship he enjoyed in Paris in 1876), Peirce was nauseated by the rapacious individualism pervading that rapidly industrializing era of Reconstruction. He denounced specifically “the Americanism, the worship of business, the life in which the fertilizing stream of genial sentiment dries up or shrinks to a rill of comic tit-bits, or else on the other hand to monasticism, sleepwalking in this world with no eye nor heart except for the other” (CP 1.673). The prophetic socialist scholar Cornel West concisely sums up Peirce’s anti-Establishment sensibility and world-outlook: “The historic emergence of American pragmatism principally results from Peirce’s profound evasion of ‘the spirit of Cartesianism’ owing to his obsession with the procedures of the scientific community, his loyalty to a Christian doctrine of love, and the lure of community in the midst of anomic Gesellschaften of urban, industrial capitalist America” (1989, 49).

Anti-Monopoly Capitalist Wrath

William James, Peirce’s closest friend, was one of the leading founders of the Anti-Imperialist League. In March 1899, James sent a letter to the newspaper Boston Evening Transcript bewailing the horrible, “unspeakable meanness” of President McKinley’s treatment of Aguinaldo’s government: “Could there be a more damning indictment of that whole blasted idol termed ‘modern civilization’…? Civilization is. then, the big, hollow, resounding, corrupting, sophisticating, confusing torrent of mere brutal momentum and irrationality…” (1972, 225). Later on, another progressive member of the League, the novelist Mark Twain followed with an ironic boast that he was now proud of the flag after the slaughter of 900 rebellious Moros (including women and children) in the Battle of Mount Dajo, Philippines, on March 9, 1906 (Zwick 1207, 131). Adding the figure of 500 Muslims killed by General John Pershing in June 1913 at Mount Bagsak in the same province of Sulu, Philippines, the total number of Filipinos killed in the Filipino-American War of 1899-1913 amounted to over one million (Francisco 1987, 19).

Peirce joined colleagues like James, Twain, William Dean Howells, Andrew Carnegie, John Dewey, Jane Addams, Samuel Gomper, etc., in denouncing U.S. aggression with a pungent satiric address to his pro-imperialist cousin Senator Henry Cabot Lodge: “All men are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. No Phillipino is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Hence, no Phillipino is a man” (quoted in Brent 1998, 266).

Peirce could not remain indifferent in his retirement years. In 1903, during the bloody pacification of the Philippines, after thousands of Filipinos have been killed, tortured, and starved by the “scorched earth” tactics of technologically superior U.S. troops, Peirce once more expressed his criticism obliquely in a talk explaining generality, Thirdness or mediation. He is referring to a general principle operative in the real world, in which words produce physical effects, such as those of the revolutionary hero Patrick Henry asserting how three million Americans, “armed in the holy cause of Liberty,…are invincible against any force that the enemy can bring against us.”

Peirce apprehends in Henry’s words a “general law of nature” transcending the initial circumstances of their making: “it might. for example, have happened that some American schoolboy, sailing as a passenger in the Pacific Ocean, should have idly written down those words on a slip of paper. The paper might have been tossed overboard and might have been picked up by some Tagala on a beach of the island of Luzon; and if he had them translated to him they might easily have passed from mouth to mouth there as they did in this country, and with similar effect” (1991, 245). In Peirce’s speculative guess-work which he calls “abduction”, any prediction of what would happen in any working out of a project or unplanned event is enabled by general laws of nature immanent in regularities occurring in life. Consequently, “a true-would-be is as real as an actuality” (1998a, 451).

This hypothetical scenario engages Peirce’s semiotic reflections as a critique of U.S. imperial violence. We note the accidental passage of the iconic sign turned into an index of conflict and symbol of shared ideals or principles. The signifiers in that floating piece of paper, once retrieved and performed, acquire an interpretant that then socially recodes the signs as instructions on what could be done, depending on local circumstances and conditions. Ideas beget agendas, suggestions, recommendations for vital, aspirational agents. Possibility turns into actualizations and processes of peforming experiments. Such actions are a product of self-controlled, deliberate judgment taking a critical position on issues of the day. A more accurate precis of the implied politics in Peirce’s views was offered by Donald McKay: “Instead of elaborating theories about passive “states” of knowledge in a knowing mind, or ‘contents’ of knowledge within its own fixed and immutable ‘forms,’ pragmatism offered a working hypothesis concerning the practice of knowledge in ‘the real business of living’ (1950, 398).

It is clear that Peirce’s theory of meaning, when communication takes place, carries an ethical and political charge, an agenda. After describing the interlinked steps in the process of apprehending experience, we will trace the conversion of thought into action in the constellation of logical inferences. Whether this demonstrates a materialist dialectics that approximates Marx’s critique of Hegel’s method, remains to be seen. Meanwhile, we need to parse the dynamics of Peirce’s phenomenology as the matrix of his triadic theory of signs. Can Peirce’s semiotics be a feasible foundation for a radical politics?

Architectonic of Mediation

Not problem-solving or Cartesian methodical doubting but acquiring knowledge of reality by fallible means, is Peirce’s paramount aim. To anticipate doubters, truth for Peirce designates knowledge of the real in everyday life. In “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” Peirce formulated a convergence theory of truth/reality: “The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is real” (1998a, 155). Meaning is a thought-experiment, a virtual fruit of the transformation and interpretation of signs in ongoing dialogue. For a Peircean truth-seeker, “every intellligible question” will be answered provided it is “sufficiently investigated by observation and reasoning” resulting in a belief implemented by habitual action, by a future-oriented construction of reasoned discourse and purposive conduct by the groups involved.

Our hypothesis about reality, articulated in language/discourse, can converge with the real in the long term, in principle and perhaps in practical terms. This fallibilist stance is shared by a community of inquirers, so that the pursuit of knowledge/truth implies a collective, social responsibility (see Appel 1995). Moreover, in contradistinction to James and Dewey who subsumed the scientific quest for truth to the demands of human interests, ideals and problematic situations, Peircean scholastic realism dictates that these knowledge-claims are ultimately controlled by the structure of reality. As Hilary Putnam reminds us, for Peirce, “it is precisely by prescinding from all practical interests that science succeeds” (1992, 74). Reality can prove or disprove hypotheses (inductive, deductive, retroductive) violating laws, observed patterns of regularities, etc.

Except as ancillary topic (validating truth-claims), my chief aim here is to investigate the presence of a dialectical logic in Peirce’s speculations that can ground a program of political transformation. By dialetic here I refer to the application of a method or process of reasoning to comprehend the material world, its laws and principles, as well as the movement of society/history. In Hegel’s dialectic, the process of cognition occupies center-stage as a “grasping of opposites in their unity or of the positive in the negative” (Findlay 1958, 62). In this context, categories or forms of consciousness emerge from each other to constitute more inclusive totalities, whereby contradictions are resolved through their incorporation (by sublation) in fuller and more concrete universal conceptual wholes. The truth results from the unfolding of the whole dialectical process, making explicit what is implicit, articulating antagonisms into tense unities. Roy Bhaskar notes that in contrast to reflective or analytical thought, Hegelian dialectics “grasps conceptual forms in their systematic interconnections, not just their determinate differences, and conceives each development as the product of a preious less developed phase, whose necessary truth or fulfillment it is; so that thereis always a tension, latent irony or incipient surprise between any form and what it is in the process of becoming” (1983,122).

We stress the fact that this interpretation rejects the banal, mechanistic notion of a three-step procedure of thesis-antithesis-synthesis which Walter Kaufmann (1972) already refuted a long time ago. Of course, as everyone knows, Marx stood Hegel’s idealism on its head (the epistemic fallacy of reducing being to knowing), purging the mystical shell of the self-motivating kernel, and unsettling the hypostatized, reified or eternalized realm of thought. Marx refuses the Hegelian Absolute, Idea or Spirit in favor of becoming, of an ontological stratification evinced in a complex, concretely articulated material history. Marx also emphasized historically causal, not conceptual, necessity; he also limited teleology to human praxis and its rational explanation. This is not the occasion to elaborate fully on  Engel’s version of dialectics as the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society, and thought, elaborated in Anti-Duhring and Dialectics of Nature (on Marx and Engel’s dialectic, see Bhaskar 1993, 87-99).

As a scientist-philosopher, Peirce was concerned not just with an adequate theory of meaning, the signification of ideas, for the terminology of conceptual thinking. He was grappling with the validity of scientific laws for which the nature of potentiality, possibility, is central in proving hypotheses. This demanded a whole metaphysics of being, of reality, and the status of universals, which would ground his pragmaticism. Thus he would be engaged in the formulation of categories necessary for substantiating science and knowledge.  His ultimate position on the controversy between nominalism and realism is a moderate realist one in which general concepts found in our grasp of meaning are real, with a counterpart in the percept, the equivalent in consciousness of a Firstness present in the perceived object. Peirce was neither a realist nor idealist in the orthodox sense, for he neither focused on hypothesis as solely deduction (rationalism), nor hypothesis as solely induction (empiricism).  His pragmaticism was a fallibilist inquiry via abduction or inferential reasoning, in a world evolving lawfully in a sea of contingencies (Russell 1959, 277).  But this is to proceed ahead of our exposition, so let us review Peirce’s categories.

Syncopations and Dissonance

In December 1897, Peirce wrote to James about the Cambridge lectures he would deliver in which he mentions that his Categories—Quality, Reaction, Representation or Mediation—will show “wherein my objective logic differs from that of Hegel” (1992, 24). Peirce agreed with Hegel that the science of phenomenology is basic to the foundation of the normative sciences (logic, ethics, aesthetics). But Hegel’s “fatally narrow spirit” gave it the nominalistic and “pragmatoidal” character, dismissing the irrational qualities and recalcitrant contingencies in experience. This is what Theodor Adorno (2017) criticizes as Hegel’s obsession with systematizing totality, Spirit’s absolute identity and reconciliation of subject/object in Absolute Knowledge. Peirce adds that Hegel overlooked or forgot that “there is a real world with real actions and reactions” (CP 1.368). To my knowledge, Peirce has not read Marx’s critique of Hegel, but his theory of mediation (the triadic process of logic as semiotics) concurs with Marx’s thesis that “the question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. In practice, man must prove the truth, that is, the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking” (1968, 28).

We intend to mark the dialectical passage of thought via Peirce’s triadic schema of classifying domains of experience. Thought or understanding, by its nature, begets contradiction and is therefore dialectical, Hegel asserts. Not only thought but everything surrounding us: “We are aware that everything finite, instead of being stable and ultimate, is rather changeable and transient; and this is exactly what we mean by that Dialectic of the finite, by which the finite, as. Implicitly other than what it is, is forced beyond its own immediate or natural being to turn suddenly into its opposite” (Hegel 1904, 150). Analogously, Peirce’s dialectics is the movement of thought (inferential reasoning) from the first immediate content of observation that is posited only to be differentiated into a subject and predicate of judgment, this mediation in turn sublated or integrated in a concluding belief (Mure 1940). All three stages of reflection, while analytically discriminated as discrete moments, are present simultaneously at the end of the pragmatic process of abduction which is an articulated, self-moving totality.

Peirce declared that his phenomenology will not just analyze experience but “extend it to describing all the features that are common to whatever is experienced or might conceivably be experienced or become an object of study in any way direct or indirect” (1998a, 143). Potentiality and the virtual future occupy center-stage. Peirce claims that he arrived at his universal categories independently, although in his contempt for Hegelianism, the German philosopher might have exercised an “occult influence” on him. Indeed, Peirce admits that Hegel’s three stages of thought as “roughly speaking, the correct list of Universal Categories” (1998a, 148). Peirce also claimed that his categories differ from those of Aristotle, Kant and Hegel in that they never paid serious examination to what can be observed in phenomena (phanerons), universally applying to anything we can think of (the possible, the utopian, the variegated cosmos of phantasy).

Parsing Peirce’s Dialectics

We summarize here Peirce’s revised theory of categories of experience, and phases of thinking linked to them, in his late period (1903-1914): Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness as “phaneroscopic categories” (Peirce 1998a, 145-169). The internal relations among these three, the process of their unfolding, parallel the Hegelian “self-supersession of the finite determinations of the Understanding” (Findlay 1958, 60). However, the central movements of contradiction and sublation in the dialectic are governed by logical criteria and empirical constraints; hence, the labors of negation and mediation are not representations of Hegel’s Absolute Spirit, of Substance as Subject (Hegel 1977, 14), but the activities of cooperative participants reasoning about the validity of inferences and hypotheses, the community of calculating experimenters. In short, there is a world out there heedless of what you, I, or any other person thinks about it which is our field of inquiry.

Firstness is “quality of feeling,” which is “the true psychical representative of the first category of the immediate as it is in its immediacy, of the present in its direct positive presentness” (1988a, 149-50; CP 8.328). The idea here is not actual but potential, a possibility. It cannot be compared to Plato’s hypostatized Forms, but it is not a thought in some mind; it is between a mere nothing and an existent, therefore a possibility to become actual when it enters the mind by virtue of experience. For example, a possible sense experience such as a color sensation, “blueness,” or sensation such as a toothache—possibilities that may become actual. The process of actualization transpires in the attention given to the sequence of the embodiment of qualities apprehended by the experient. Hegel dismissed the irrationality of Firstness, the indefinite possibilities in the future implied by chance happenings in experience, as an aspect of Firstness.

Firstness as Presentness includes the irreducible variety and plurality of things, both actual and virtual. In Peirce’s comment on the U.S. colonial incursion across the Pacific Ocean, the scenario of Patrick Henry’s words appearing on a piece of paper and then thrown into the sea functions as part of Firstness, which is what it is. Its floating on the sea, its fortuitous salvaging by a Tagala, its transfer to translators, and its hermeneutic application, can be treated separately as elements of Firstness.  Each transient feeling shades off into another. However, as Peirce notes, “that one logically involves  two as part of its conception” (quoted by de Waal 2013, 41). One divides into two. In Hegelian dialectics, this one-sided determination of the finite is immanently transcended in its negation: the debris is negated as something opposed to it, something not wasted, now appropriated. Possibilities (feelings, qualities) populate Firstness.

Secondness is briefly reaction, brute force, struggle or conflict as dyadic relation. It is “the Idea of that which is such as it is as being Second to some First, regardless of anything else and in particular regardless of any law, although it may conform to a law,…Reaction as an element of the Phenomenon” (CP 8.328).  An example of Secondness is the existing object, the embodiment of qualities (Firstness)—not yet actualized until experienced by some mind, whereby the qualities become percepts, an image or feeling. This process of actualization is complex and the topic of ongoing psychological inquiry. Hegel discounted this level of the immediate “hic et nunc of sense perception” by subsuming it to general concepts in the transition from the doctrine of Being to the doctrine of the Notion. By doing so, Peirce contends that Hegel valorized for philosophy “only the world of completed facts, the past, and not the real possibilities of things, esse in futuro” (Peirce 1998a, 358-59). For Peirce, the future as event or sequence of realization of what is intended, based on past discoveries and current habits, is what matters most in carrying out scientific research.

Secondness is the realm of contingency, the accidentally actual and unconditional necessity, the reign of brute force (Gallie 1952, 197). In the case of Peirce’s piece of paper floating in the ocean (thrown out or blown by accident from a ship), Secondness involves reaction—whirled into the ocean as debris, then its discovery by a Tagala in a Philippine beach, seemingly occasioned by “a blind force.” Existence of this object goes through struggle and competition for recognition.

Meanwhile, unexpected otherness enters the scene. Opposites interpenetrate, leading to some kind of temporary reconciliation (Ollman 2003). Everything finite is what it is by its negation, by its sublation: debris becomes the vehicle of a message in its eventual Thirdness. An adventuring Tagala encounters that floating debris. That paper with Henry’s words then becomes translated/interpreted, an instance of mediation or Thirdness. The iconic object becomes, for the interpretant, an index of an historic event parallel to the Filipino resistance to barbaric colonialism. Something from the U.S. historical archive or memory is grasped as contrary to what the Empire’s troops are doing in the Philippines, the antithesis of Henry’s idea of the American people’s will to self-determination against the British empire.

Surely, this hypothetical narrative drawn from Peirce’s lecture does not imply that the American patriot is the only source of the idea of liberty, of the struggle for national sovereignty. What is conveyed is the irony of the ideals of the American revolution presumably giving support to the Filipino resistance against U.S. aggression.  Possibilities are diverse: either the signs fail to induce purposive conduct, or stay dormant until future use, or incite urgent mobilization. What the Filipinos will do if they examine thoughtfully Henry’s words concerning the popular struggle for liberation is what really matters.  If interpretation of signs leads to conceivable purposive praxis, then one progressive step in the evolution of concrete reasonableness in the world is accomplished. Entire communities stand to benefit from this continuum of dialogue and exchange of serviceable, utilizable ideas.

Hermeneutics of Praxis

We now approach the moment of sublation, Hegel’s Aufhebung or self-transcendence, a movement in thought which negates one part, preserves another part, and synthesizes them in a new standpoint. Thirdness is the “Idea of that which is such as being a Third, or Medium, between a Second and its First….Representation as an element of the Phenomenon,”  containing the concept of “True Continuity.”  (Peirce 1998b,150,160). Thirdness designates a general concept, the universal idea abstracted from the percept found in the first and second moments, which Peirce also calls “generals.” According to Richard Robin, “Peirce’s metaphysical realism, then, consists in his view that the general concepts that go to make up meanings are real…They have a real external counterpart in the percept—which is the equivalent in consciousness of a firstness present in the perceive object” (1998b, 11). Every concept (Thirdness) refers to a sense-percept (Secondness) to bear some meaning (the real).

No concept is meaningful unless it refers to sense-experience, which is subjected to attention and abstracting elements from the percept to generate concepts expressed in a judgement, such as “This orchid is crimson.” “Crimson” is not a fiction of the imagination but a quality possessed by things in the world. “Crimson” can be predicated of many other things, hence it is a real general, that is, the crimson of an orchid is not identical with the crimson of blood, but they are similar. As long as there is something in the physical world that exemplifies particular qualities (not all of the particularizing determinations of generic and specific qualities ascribed to objects), the concept containing them is a real concept. This refutes all allegations that Peirce reduced everything to mind or rationality.  These three modes of reality, categories of being or three universes of experience, provide the coordinates for Peirce’s epistemology as well as his singular theory of pragmaticism.

Applied to that salvaged piece of paper with Patrick Henry’s statement, we have an instance of mediation when the words are translated and made intelligible. The power of that piece of paper to represent a historic event (the American revolution and its justification) is expressed as a transaction between object (signifier or representamen) and the message (signified) by the interpretant—the discoverer/translator, which stands for a transindividual/collective agency. The experience of Thirdness is the encounter with the intelligible, “concrete reasonableness,” which for Peirce, becomes the ground for humans taking action to change what is irrational, illogical, and inhumane. This is an example of Peirce’s political intervention into that crucial juncture of U.S-Philippines relations.

Toward Alternative Transformation

What is the relevance and applicability of Peirce’s categories to the understanding of political or social change? How is pragmatism connected to the normative sciences of logic, ethics, and aesthetics?  Cheryl Misak and Richard Bernstein have speculated on Peirce’s implicit ethical and political outlook based on his pragmaticist principles. They both quote Peirce’s propositions: “Thinking is a kind of action, and reasoning is a kind of deliberate action; and to call an argument illogical, or a proposition false, is a special kind of moral judgment,” and “He who would not sacrifice his own soul to save the whole world, is illogical in all his inferences, collectively” (cited in Misak 2004, 170, 173).  Everyone commends Peirce’s final affirmation of “concrete reasonableness” as the highest good that all our intentions, projects, and acts should strive for. In short, ethics and politics are in reciprocal interchange with  Peirce’s epistemology realized in an evolving semiotics.

Peirce’s cognitivism, in the larger context of his metaphysics, is based on his evolutionary cosmology in which chance and necessity coalesce. No doubt, thought controlled by rational experimental logic is what Peirce valued in the conduct of marshalling evidence and argument for fallible but workable beliefs. No doubt also, Peirce rejected Cartesian intuitionism and James’s and Dewey’s  psychologizing of his pragmatic maxim in favor of self-control and self-criticism (Bernstein 2010). Anarchic individualism is also ruled out because public deliberation and consensus are needed for effective social changes in habits and modes of thinking of citizens.

Lest readers again impute individualistic bias to Peirce, we emphasize that reflexivity can only take place within a definite community of persons engaged in critical inquiry, a “community without definite limits,” which functions as a regulative ideal in pragmaticism. Bernstein asserts that the social character of the individual is defined by the forms of participation in community life, citing Peirce’s insight: “A person is not absolutely an individual. His thoughts are what he is ‘saying to himself,’ that is, is saying to that other self that is just coming to life in the flow of time. When one reasons, it is that critical self that one is trying to persuade; and all thought whatsoever is a sign, and is mostly of the nature of language” (Bernstein 1971, 190). We are confronted here not just with deliberative pluralist exchange, discursive debate or communication, but also with collective programs for institutional changes toward genuine participatory democracy.

What is indisputable is the gravity of Peirce’s civic-minded or communalist sympathies. In the final analysis, the mobilized community of inquirers—activists in performing critical self-control and realistic orientation of behavior—is the chief protagonist in Peirce’s political world-view. This protagonist is the transindividual organic intellectual in Antonio Gramsci’s (1971) politics and the proletarian party in George Lukacs’ (1971) dialectics. Reason as Aristotelian energy engenders the action imitated by discourse. We cannot elaborate here on Peirce’s theory of evolutionary change, on synechism and tychism in which the role of chance or accident functions as the matrix of innovation, radical transformation, and the pursuit of concrete universality requiring the “absence of self-conceit” (West 1989, 51; Smith 1966).  For Peirce, the development of Reason is the fundamental motivation behind social progress, the aesthetic ideal governing ethics and logic: “The one thing whose admirableness is not due to an ulterior reason is Reason itself comprehended in all its fulness as far as we can comprehend it….The ideal of conduct will be to execute our little function in the operation of the creation by giving a hand toward rendering the world more reasonable whenever, as the slang is, it is “up to us” to do so” (1998a, 255).

The Responsibility of Intellectuals

      In the context of intellectual exchanges, there is a plausible danger of fetishizing Reason and idealistic rationalism. Or jettisoning it in favor of nominalistic anti-foundationalism such as that of Richard Rorty. But Peirce’s belief in a world outside of our minds, his scholastic realism, prevents this extremism. Concepts without experienced material are vacuous; sense-data without concepts are blind. Rational activity connected to social interests entails action which, John Dewey reflects, serves as an intermediary, modifying existence, “in that process of evolution whereby the existent comes more and more to embody generals’; in other words, “the process whereby the existent becomes, with the aid of action, a body of rational tendencies or of habits generalized as much as possible” (Dewey 1982, 25).

Moreover, Peirce’s revolutionary slogan, “Do not block the road of inquiry,” warrants also sanctioning “the one ordinance of Play, the law of liberty” (1998a, 436). It is this perspective that John Dewey (1969) applied to his critique of Leon Trotsky by stressing the indeterminacy of means in relation to ends previously agreed upon. Concrete historical situations overdetermine the means-ends nexus (Hook 2002, 152-53). Peirce’s stress on consequences, rational purport coordinated with universal principles, and the purposive bearings of any inquiry, testifies to his conviction in the feasibility of a transformed, ameliorated future.

As already discussed, Peirce did not engage in any sustained reflection on ethics or politics except for a few remarks on the normative sciences. Only Roberta Kevelson has speculated on the reciprocal interaction between Peirce’s Existential Graphs and utopic propositions dealing with political economy, in particular the modal graphs of possibility. Kevelson observes that “a cut of a graph may be an instance of a possible universe, or, in other words, a graph-replica in a kind of utopic representation, a posible of a figment of a possible” (1999, 113). Space-time continuum, for Peirce, signifies lawful evolution of knowledge analogous to evolution in nature which is characterized by the intrusion of chance breaks and accidental ruptures (as theorized by Peirce’s synechism and tychism (on synechism and science, see Haack 2008). Virtualities in the realm of potentiality supervene over actualities.

It bears repeating that the radicalism of Peirce’s realist dialectic is fully evinced in his repudiation of nominalism (exemplified in positivism, radical empiricism, deconstruction, etc.) which reduce the abstract to the sensory, the general to the individual. Peirce’s foundational vision is contained in his critique of Berkeley. It addresses the rugged individualism prevalent in the 1870s when the utilitarian economics of Bentham and Marshall based on Ockham’s denial of universals and the positivist’s denial of religion and metaphysics (Murphey 1993, 100): “The question whether the genus homo has any existence except as individuals, is the question whether there is anything of any more dignity, worth and importance than individual happiness, individual aspirations, and individual life. Whether men really have anything in common, so that the community is to be considered as an end in itself, and if so, what the relative value of the two factors is, is the most fundamental practical question in regard to every public institutions the constitution of which we have it in our power to influence” (1992, 105). The individual mind, for Peirce, signifies fallibility: “The individual man, since his separate existence is manifested only by ignorance and error, so far as he is anything apart from his fellows,and from what he and they are to be, only a negation” (quoted in Murphey 1993, 175; see also Ketner 1998, 325; Colapietro 1989). This negation, however, can be a powerful matrix for affirmation, as witness the mutable occasions featuring Patrick Henry’s words which, if decoded properly by a scientifically-minded collective agency, are capable of stoking the fires of revolutionary struggle across the oceans.

In the context of the search for concrete universals in ordinary experience, Peirce’s humanistic communalism proves to be an open-ended, imaginatively creative approach to analyzing sociopolitical problems. His methodology of “critical commonsensism,” combined with meaning-critical realism, rooted in a community of interpreters serves an emancipatory socialist-oriented goal (Apel 1981). Peirce subscribes to the Enlightenment principle of autonomy and self-controlled conduct. It affirms an earlier anti-Cartesian insight that there are no intuitive cognitions, and all hypothetical propositions are tentative and fallible. In this context, freedom is possible only in an objective inquiry into an impersonal truth about nature and society whose institutions and processes are always be under construction.

Modern science has no self-authenticating, apriori foundations, only the quest for methods of discovery and proof. Likewise, nothing is self-authenticating for Peirce as he muses on the constellation of self, nature, and law; and thus, “the dialectic of moral life is set up, between inclinations rooted in flesh and moral duty grounded in reason.  Freedom depends both on there being that dialectic and on our choosing morality over inclination. But this depends on the moral law not being arbitrary” (Short 2007, 346).  Peirce also held that “By the ‘practical,’ I mean everything that is possible through freedom” (Murphey 1993, 177). Scientists may be at sea, but not for long. Land, the harbor, looms ahead. Just as that piece of paper with Patrick Henry’s words on liberty was not self-authenticating until it passed into the zones of Secondness and Thirdness, Peirce’s philosophy remains to be investigated in the same spirit of risky adventure that he expressed in his 1905 letter to William James, who intially introduced Peirce’s pragmaticism into the world with all its unpredictable consequences (note the sea metaphor recalling our specimen of Peirce’s intervention): “There is nothing, however, more wholesome for us than to find problems that quite transcend our powers and I must say, too, that it imparts a delicious sense of being cradled in the waters of the deep—a feeling I always have at sea” (quoted in Short 2007, 347).


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About philcsc

E.SAN JUAN, Jr. directs the Philippines Cultural Studies Center, Washington DC, USA and lectures at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Manila, Philippines.
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