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A Note on Charles S. Peirce

A chapter from "The Collective Imbecile"

by Olavo de Carvalho


And Charles Sanders Peirce generated William James, who generated John Dewey, who generated Richard Rorty, who, upon his arrival in Brazil, generated great frisson and mental confusion among the natives. Let us go back to the origins.

Peirce says that the only meaning of an idea lies in the practical consequences that may be inferred from it. This thesis, the core of Peircean philosophy, is what originated its denomination as pragmatism: pragma, in Greek, are the matters of practical life. Ironically, this thesis is not applicable in practice, because there is a significant difference – and frequently an abysmal separation – between the practical consequences that may be inferred from an idea, through logical conjecture, and the practical consequences that an idea actually brings forth in time.

For example, the proletarian revolution and the classless state may be logically inferred from Marxism, as its intended consequences. But in practice, its actual consequences were a military coup and the establishment of a dictatorship of a new class. Which of these two orders of consequences represents the "true meaning" of Marxism? Peirce says that the meaning lies in the "sum" of the consequences. But in the present case the sum equals zero, because the two orders of consequences – the intended one and the actual one – logically exclude each other. This way, it would only be left for us to say that, from the pragmatical point of view, Marxism has no meaning. But this would contradict the fact that it had actual practical consequences indeed.

On the other hand, how are we to distinguish between the practical consequences that an idea brings forth by itself from those that stem from its accidental mixture with other distinct, heterogenous and contradictory ideas?. Or from the unpredictable troubles that follow its dissemination in human society? In order to be able to make this distinction, we would have to recognize that the idea has some meaning independently from and before any practical consequences it may bring forth. But this would be a confession that it does have a meaning as a mere representative scheme, as an image of the real, what would amount to a denial of all pragmatism. The alternative then would be to admit that accidental consequences constitute a part of the meaning of ideas, what in turn would lead us to conclude that any idea can mean anything , depending on what accidents come to do with it along the way of its dissemination. Reasoning along this line, we would reach the conclusion that African-Brazilian religions such as umbanda constitute part of the original meaning of the Christian idea, for accidents in Brazilian history have produced a fusion of that idea with African rites. Or we would come to believe that AIDS is an intrinsic part of the meaning of love, as love has led some people to contract AIDS. In the same way, nothing would prevent us from interpreting pragmatism as an idealism, since Royce, a disciple of Peirce, became by chance an absolute idealist.

In a blatant contradiction with himself, Peirce asserts, moreover, that the scientific method must seek only the truth, without regard for its practical consequences. What is so special about the idea of the sicentific method that it can be endowed with a meaning without any regard for its practical consequences if these, according to the same Peirce, are the only possible meaning of an idea?

Even more curious is the Perceian denial of all intuitive evidence. For Peirce, we do not have any intuitive faculty, and all our knowledge consists of thought made up with signs, on the basis of knowledge of external facts. But are these external facts known intuitively or are they also just signs? And how can something that has not been perceived intuitively be a sign of anything else? How can we reconcile the denial of intuitive evidence with the concept of "sign"? A sign, says Peirce, "is anything that, for someone, corresponds to something from a certain aspect". Then how could there be any sign without the intuive evidence of this "anything", or of the identity or difference between the "anything" and the "somehting"? If this blessed "something" is also only a sign – and not an effective presence that is intuitively perceived – then we are confronted with signs of signs of signs, and so on endlessly. This will simply liquidate any possibility of a practical use for signs, be it even as simple conventional lies.

Even worse, I do not see how to reconcile the denial of evidence with the trust that Peirce has in the power of logic. Logic is nothing without the priciple of identity, which is either an intuitive evidence or a simple convention accepted by the scintific community. If it is a simple convention, its validity depends on a numeric consensus, what would reduce it to a mere "tenacious reaffirmation of an authority" (sic), a method of validation that Peirce himself considers anti-scientific.

For Peirce, intuitive evidence has a mere subjective validity since it varies from one individual to the other. Here he mistakes evidence, in the logical-ideal sense, for the psychological act of intuition – naturally subjective and fallible – and then this latter one for the mere feeling of certitude that not only accompanies intuitions but also beliefs, wishes and hallucinations. In short, he confounds the logic and the psychologic, confusion that is the trademark of psychologism, of which pragmatism is but a version (and against which it is not necessary to argue. It suffices to refer to the "Introduction" of Husserl's Logical Investigations ).

Peirce asks: if intuition is a direct perception, how can we know that we have intuitions? Can we, by intuition, know that we have intuitions? He considers this a fulminating argument against intuition. But the the answer to this last question is simply "yes". If I cannot have an intuition that I have an intuition, I cannot have any intuition at all. Intuition is necessarily accompanied by self-consciousness. If not, it would confound itself with a pure and simple corporal sensation. If I see, but I do not have the intuition that I see, I cannot speak of a visible intuition but only of an optical sensation, unaccompanied by a cognitive conscience, as it is obvious. A man who, as Peirce, does not recognize that he has an intuition, is either lying or is in a state of schizofrenic dissociation, by denying his very self-conscience. But Peirce is a bit more pretentious than the common schizofrenic in that he demands that we too deny our self-conscience.

If the intuitive evidence has no value, the individual alone cannot know anything and therefore Peirce says "it is necessary a whole community of researchers to objectively test the truthfullness of any idea". But if each of these researchers is not capable of individually recognizing an intuitive evidence or a personal certitude that is universaly valid, who will add up their points of view to synthesize them in an "objective truth"? Peirce seems to believe that the academic community exists by itself, as an Aristotelian substantia prima, displaying a unitarian self-conscience capable of certitude, even though such self-conscience is absent in the individuals that make up the community. The academic community is thus a being endowed with a conscience, formed by the sum of various unconscious individuals. Peirce is a sociological transcendentalist.

Furthermore, from this viewpoint, if the only meaning of an idea lies in its practical consequences, what practical consequences may be inferred from the denial of individual intuition? It is inferred that each human individual, not being able to trust his own self-conscience, will deny all the intuitive evidences that might come to him. For not ever being able to rely on himself, he will have to surrender to the authority of the all-powerful academic community. The practical result of this idea is to reduce humanity to a herd of docile animals, incapable of personal understanding and always in need of the endorsement of the "scientific" authority.

In a still deeper level, Peirce affirms that no truth constitutes an evidence in itself. It must be corroborated by some independent proof. But he forgets to say that this independent proof is also worth nothing in itself and that it needs other independent proofs, and so on endlesslly. This culminates by neutralizing any possible meaning of the statement that no truth is evident in itself.

The truths that are evident by themselves, he adds, mean nothing in science and must be corroborated by a scientific, "objective and public" criterion. Now, the validity of any proof rests ultimately on logical principles, which are either evident by themselves or arbitrary conventions. Peirce does not accept that there are self-evident truths, neither that arbitrary conventions have any value. Thus, there are simply no logical principles that may support any proof whatsoever. The only alternative left to Peirce is to resort to the authority of the scientific "public", that is, to the authority of the larger number, to which, on the other hand, he denies any scientific validity. It all comes to a dead end, and perhaps for that very reason this "philosophy" exerts such a fascination in an age that displays such a fancy pleasure in letting itself be the prey of all kinds of psychologic labirints.

According to Peirce, the doctrine of intuition, when it affirms that thoughts may directly incarnate its objects, is based on the confusion between sign and what is signified. This is nonsense. Intuition is not a thought or a representation, but rather a direct presence, like this page before the eyes of the reader, a presence that imposes itself to his conscience, without signs and without "thought". If something is perceived through signs, there is no intuition in this act of perception.. It seems that Peirce mistakes the act of intuition for the mere remembrance of something that has just been the objetc of that intuition, which is certainly a sign. Anyone knows the difference between having the intuition of a presence and remembering an absence. Only Peirce does not know it, or pretends not to know it .

Thus, Peirce's apology of practice notwithstanding, pragmatism is refractory to any practical application because it is intrinsicaly contradictory.

It is also disastrous the result to which we arrrive by applying to pragmatism the pragmatic method of defining an idea by its practical consequences. The fundamental practical consequence of pragmatism is to absorb the voided individual consciences in an onipotent "scientific community" endowed with extra-human powers and incapable, in turn, of obtaining the proof of its beliefs by any means other than a majority vote in academic sessions. This is its logical consequence, deductible from its concept alone, as it was also its actual, historically verified, consequence. It is what we see from the fact that Richard Rorty – the latest offspring of the Peircean family – already explicitly recognizes the law of the larger number as the only valid criterion of knowledge, thereby showing to the world the true face of pragmatism, a face that not even its founder had the courage to look in the eye.

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