Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 19. The Origins of Pragmatism

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XVII. Later Philosophy

§ 19. The Origins of Pragmatism

In his earlier statements of the pragmatic maxim Peirce emphasized the consequences for conduct that follow from the acceptance or rejection of an idea; but the stoical maxim that the end of man is action did not appeal to him as much at sixty as it did at thirty. Indeed, if we want to clarify the meaning of the idea of pragmatism, let us apply the pragmatic maxim to it. What will be the effect of accepting it? Obviously it will be to develop certain general ideas or habits of looking at things. As Peirce accepts the view that the good must be in the evolutionary process, he concludes that it cannot be in individual reactions in their segregation, but rather in something general or continuous, namely, in the growth of concrete reasonableness, “becoming governed by law, becoming instinct with general ideas.” In this emphasis on general ideas Peirce’s pragmatism differs sharply from that of his follower, James, who, like most modern psychologists, was a thorough nominalist and always emphasized particular sensible experience. Peirce’s belief in the reality and potency of general ideas was connected in his mind with a vast philosophic system of which he left only some fragmentary outlines. He called it synechistic tychistic agapism (from the Greek words for continuity, chance, and love). It assumed the primacy of mind and chance and regarded matter and law as the result of habit. The principal law of mind is that ideas literally spread themselves and become more general or inclusive, so that people who form communities or churches develop distinct general ideas. The nourishing love which parents have for their children or thinkers for their own ideas is the creative cause of evolution. Stated thus baldly these views sound fantastic. But Peirce re-enforces them with such a wealth of illustration from modern mathematics and physics as to make them extraordinarily suggestive to all whose minds are not closed against new ideas.

Peirce was one of the very few modern scientific thinkers to lay hands on that sacred cow of philosophy, the belief that everything happens absolutely in accordance with certain simple eternal laws. He was too well acquainted with laboratory methods and the theory of probability to share the common belief that the existence of such universal laws is demonstrated by science. “Try to verify any law of nature and you will find that the more precise your observations, the more certain they will be to show irregular departures from law.” The Platonic faith that nature is created on simple geometric lines has undoubtedly been a powerful weapon against those who would have supernatural interferences interrupt the work of science. But there is no empirical evidence to prevent us from saying that all the so-called constants of nature are merely instances of variation between limits so near each other that their difference can be neglected for practical purposes. Impressed by the modern theory of gases and the statistical view of nature as developed by Willard Gibbs and Maxwell, and perhaps also influenced y Wright’s doctrine as to “cosmic weather,” Peirce came to believe in the primacy of chance. What we call law is habit, and what we call matter is inert mind. The universe develops from a chaos of feeling, and the tendency to law is itself the result of an accidental variation which has grown habitual with things. The limiting ratios which we call laws of nature are thus themselves slowly changing in time. This conception of the universe growing in its very constitution may sound mythologic. But it has at least the merit of an empirically supported rational alternative to the mechanical mythology. In many respects it anticipated the philosophy of Bergson. In the hands of James this tychism becomes a gospel of wonderful power in releasing men from the oppression of a fixed or “block” universe, but in the hands of Peirce it was a philosophic support for the application of the fruitful theorems of scientific probability to all walks of life.