These days you hear the name of Charles Sanders Peirce increasingly often in discussions among sociologists, and it is often in connection with the word “abduction” (e.g. Bertilsson 2009, Swedberg 2014, Tavory and Timmerman 2014). By this term Peirce roughly meant “coming up with new ideas”, something that is absolutely vital for the scientist. More formally Peirce defined abduction as “the kind of reasoning which issues in explanatory hypotheses” (MS 857:4-5).
But there is much more to the work of Peirce than what he has to say about abduction, something that his reputation as a polymath as well as the foremost philosopher in the United States is a reminder of. In this brief article I will discuss one of Peirce’s best-known achievements in philosophy, which is mentioned in every standard work on pragmatism.
While James, Dewey and others viewed pragmatism as a full philosophy, applicable to all of the traditional areas of philosophy plus some other areas as well, to Peirce it was considerably more limited in nature. In his view, the main function of pragmatism was to help the philosopher and scientist to make her ideas clear and to reason well.
The maxim was originally published in 1878 in an article called “How to Make Our Ideas Clear.” The first step in making an idea clear, Peirce said, is to locate individual instances of it. After this, you may proceed to the next step, which is to create a definition. Peirce’s description of how to reach “the third degree of clearness” is what has become known as the pragmatic maxim:
Consider what effects, that 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. (CP 5.402; emphasis added)
Most readers of Peirce’s article are puzzled and perplexed by this formulation, and Peirce’s attempt to explain it in the rest of his article just adds to the confusion. In this brief article I will argue that it is nonetheless well worth for sociologists to try to understand what Peirce meant with his maxim, and that there exist several clues for how to unpack it – but in his other writings. Peirce’s maxim, I will also try to show, is very rich in implications; and these also extend to modern sociology.
The reason for the fame of Peirce’s maxim is as follows. In a speech that William James delivered at Berkeley in 1898, he announced the existence of a new type of philosophy which he called “pragmatism.” This term, he explained, had first been used by his friend Charles Sanders Peirce in the early 1870s.
James described what he called “the principle of Peirce, the principle of pragmatism” in the following way: “To develop perfect clearness in our thoughts of an object, then, we need only consider what effects of a conceivable practical kind the object may involve – what sensations we are to expect from it and what reactions we must prepare” (James 1920:411-12).
This statement represents an attempt from James’ side to make Peirce’s maxim more accessible; and the same goes for his statement that “the ultimate test for us of what a truth means is indeed the conduct it dictates or inspires” (James 1920:412). But James, as we know, soon went much further in his argument about pragmatism and transformed it into a full-blown philosophy, closely linked to his theories about religion and morality. Many of the other pragmatists did the same.
The Reception of the Maxim
At first Peirce seems to have appreciated that his maxim was being cited and used, but he soon disagreed with the way it was interpreted. To mark this disagreement, he declared in 1905 that he was from now on going to refer to “pragmaticism” instead of to “pragmatism,” hoping in this way to have created a term "ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers" (CP 5.414).
How then did Peirce himself interpret the pragmatic maxim? One way to approach an answer this question, I suggest, is to look at what Peirce said about the maxim over the years after 1878 (e.g. Misak 2010). These comments provide us with different clues for how to draw out the thoughts that Peirce had welded together so tightly in the original formulation of his maxim.
In my interpretation Peirce made three major points in his comments. These three points, I suggest, are also of interest to sociology today:
(1) The maxim helps the scientist and philosopher to better understand the nature of concepts, and how these are to be handled when you do research. To just discuss different definitions of concepts, as metaphysicians do, is perfectly futile.
(2) The maxim helps the scientist and philosopher to avoid the errors of empiricism; and it does this by relying on a theory of signs.
(3) The maxim is part of the theory of logic; a science whose main task is to show scientists how to reason well. This can be done in several ways, especially by becoming better at abduction or coming up with new ideas.
By reading the following two quotes that come from texts by Peirce, the reader will hopefully get more of a sense for the way in which Peirce tried to explain to the reader what he meant by the pragmatic maxim in his writings after 1878:
The method prescribed in the maxim is to trace out in the imagination the conceivable practical consequences, – that is, the consequences for deliberate, self-controlled conduct, – of the affirmation or denial of the concept; and the assertion of the maxim is that herein lies the whole of the purport of the word, the entire concept. The sedulous exclusion from this statement of all reference to sensation is specially to be remarked. Such a distinction as that between red and blue is held to form no part of the concept. This maxim is put forth neither as a handy tool to serve so far as it may be found serviceable, nor as a self-evident truth, but as a far-reaching theorem solidly grounded upon an elaborate study of the nature of signs. (1904; CP 8.191)
If you carefully consider the question of pragmatism you will see that it is nothing else than the question of the logic of abduction…if pragmatism is the doctrine that every conception is a conception of conceivable practical effects, it makes conception reach far beyond the practical. It allows any flight of imagination, provided this imagination ultimately alights upon a possible practical effect; and thus many hypotheses may seem at first glance to be excluded by the pragmatical maxim that are not really so excluded. (1903; Peirce 1997:249-50)
Making Sense of Peirce’s Comments
What precisely did Peirce mean when he said that the pragmatic maxim was a way to counter metaphysics, and to do so by linking it to practical action? One way to get an answer to this question is to look at a passage in the work of Kant that discusses so-called pragmatic beliefs. The reason for consulting Kant in this context is that according to Peirce, “the writer was led to the [pragmatic] maxim by reflection upon Kant’s Critic of the Pure Reason” (CP 5.3).
In the following passage, where Kant introduces the term “pragmatic belief,” it is argued that a doctor who is trying to diagnose an illness must start out by looking at the symptoms of the disease. Once the doctor has settled on a certain diagnosis – and this is the point that interested Peirce – he will recommend that certain actions be taken:
The doctor must do something for a sick person who is in danger, but he does not know the illness. He looks to the symptoms, and judges, because he does not know of anything better, that it is consumption. His belief is merely contingent even in his own judgement, someone else might perhaps do better. I call such contingent beliefs, which however ground the actual use of the means to certain actions, pragmatic beliefs. (A824/B852)
But even if Peirce felt that to improve our understanding of ideas and concepts, we must look to the actions they imply, he did not subscribe to empiricism. This type of epistemology was in his view faulty and should be replaced by an approach based on a theory of signs. According to Max Frisch, one of the most astute commentators on Peirce, “the sign-object-triad is the key to the [pragmatic] maxim for attaining the third degree of clarity” (Fisch 1986:327).
Peirce had developed his pioneering theory of signs a few years before the pragmatic maxim and always regarded it as his most important contribution. To appreciate Fisch’s point about the close link between the pragmatic maxim and Peirce’s semeiotic, it is helpful to recall how Peirce defines a sign. A sign stands for an object and determines an interpretant. Translated into the language of the maxim, this becomes: the conception of something (an object) affects us (via a sign); and we (the interpretant) can conceptualize the practical effects of the original conception (a new object) – which in turn determines (via a new sign) our full meaning of the phenomenon (the new interpretant).
Finally, Peirce also argued that the maxim was part of his theory of logic, especially the part that deals with abduction. Peirce had a very broad concept of logic, which he equated with reasoning well in scientific and philosophical questions. It was very important in his view to establish sound habits of reasoning; the scientist must not only learn to handle deduction and induction well but also the most creative aspect of inquiry: abduction.
The Relevance of Peirce’s Maxim for Sociology
Peirce’s three main points about the implications of the pragmatic maxim are in my view of interest to modern sociology, and can be used to address some of the problems it faces. One of these has to do with concepts, and how to handle these when you do research and theorize. According to Peirce, a concept cannot be clarified and improved exclusively through discussion of its definition; you also need to know how it is used in empirical research and what kind of research strategies vis-à-vis its object it implies.
Peirce’s second point has to do with the need to use of a theory of signs in research; and also this can help to illuminate some problems that are central to modern sociology. Signs, in Peirce’s view, do not only stand “for” something but are also directly linked to actors and their understanding. More precisely, signs affect the actors, who react by re-conceptualizing the signs when they think with their help. This represents a different and suggestive approach to the problem of agency and structure.
Peirce’s third point may well be the most important for sociology today. Scientists and philosophers, Peirce says, need to develop solid habits of thinking and reasoning well, in order to do good research. This goes for all of the three main types of thinking that in Peirce’s mind (and in his terminology) make up the scientific research process: coming up with new ideas (abduction), formulating hypotheses based on these ideas (deduction), and testing them against facts (induction). While modern sociologists have paid much attention to the last two of these, under the term of “method,” they may also want to become better at what constitutes the very heart of theorizing well in sociology, namely abduction or the process of how to come up with new ideas.
The idea of abduction constitutes the jewel in Peirce’s thinking. It is true that Peirce changed his definition and approach to abduction over the years, but it is also true that its essence more or less remained the same. This is that what is truly new in scientific thought can only come about through some complex, primarily subconscious process of thought in the mind of the researcher. Sometimes Peirce referred to this process as “instinct” and at other times as “guessing”. In his pragmatic maxim Peirce also suggests that abduction is closely linked to practice.
Bertilson, Margareta. 2009. Peirce’s Theory of Inquiry and Beyond. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.
CP = Collected Papers by Charles Sanders Peirce, 1932-1968. 8 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Fisch, Max. 1986. Peirce, Semeiotic, and Pragmatism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
James, William. 1920. Collected Essays and Reviews. New York: Longmans, Green and Co.
Misak, Cheryl. 2010. “The Pragmatic Maxim: How to get Leverage on a Concept”, The Harvard Review of Philosophy 27:76-87.
Peirce, Charles S. 1997. Pragmatism as a Principle and Method of Right Thinking. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Swedberg, Richard. 2014. The Art of Social Theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Tavory, Iddo and Stefan Timmermans. 2014. Abductive Analysis: Theorizing Qualitative Analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.