Peirce and James: Beyond the Metaphysical

The Pragmatists in America were modernists coming of age at the height of science’s rise to intellectual supremacy in the west. As such they were biased toward the idea that reason was supreme and that human beings could – given sufficient time – understand and overcome anything. They were also biased against any ideas that sounded superstitious or that depended on any source of supernatural causation – that is to say, God. The Enlightenment in Europe had begun to erode faith in God, yet the pragmatists believed that the supernatural habit could still be found in European philosophical conceptions like Kant’s a priori knowledge and Hegel’s Absolute.

The German philosopher, Kant held that some forms of knowledge were “just known.” He presumed that human beings were born with certain basic knowing that became the foundation for our more complex cognition. For example, our sophisticated understanding of geometry depended on the a priori knowledge of space. Certain basic aspects of reality were simply known to us – hardwired into the construction of our minds at birth. That knowledge didn’t come to us from our experience or from thoughts – it was there a priori (before) thought and experience.

The American Pragmatists were Modernists and they balked at any beliefs in the supernatural. Some of Charles Sanders Peirce’s earliest writings were a critique of Kant. And while he recognized that there were many fundamental assumptions that must be accepted if we are to build more sophisticated thoughts, he was not willing to believe that those assumptions were necessarily true. Peirce did not believe that Kant’s a priori knowledge were things that we knew were true, rather he took them to be things that we had to believe were true in order to move on. At any time we might find that we were wrong. This was his conception of Fallibility and it was a central core of his thinking throughout his life.

Hegel, another German philosopher, held that there was an Absolute knowing that was slowly making itself known through history as human understanding grew. The Absolute, as he called it, existed outside of and beyond the world of experience that we know in the common sense. William James played the role of an anti-absolute, anti-Hegelian watch dog throughout his life. He did not believe that there was anything that existed outside of our experience of reality. To him the universe was a constant process of creation emerging from nothing in every moment.

Both Peirce and James are expressing their preference for an understanding of reality that could be considered post-metaphysical. A metaphysical view of reality essentially is one in which all of reality already exists in some unseen essential form, or in the mind of God, or in a dimension outside of experience. This unseen reality then becomes our experienced reality slowly through time.

A metaphysical world is like a darkened stage that we exist within. The stage already exists and all the props are on it too, but the lights are out so we can’t see anything yet. As we march through time we walk around the dark stage with a flashlight and as we pass our light across the stage we become aware of that which was there all along. So there was a metaphysical (beyond physical) reality that already existed and then it came into physical existence as we walked through it. In this view nothing is really “created,” things just change form from unseen to seen.

James didn’t believe there was any stage that existed already. To him, as we walk around the stage it is being created under our feet. Peirce was not as absolute about there not being an Absolute. He believed that there may be a stage already, but we can’t know what it is with certainty, although it might be best to believe in it anyway. (In James’ defense – he did leave open the possibility of metaphysical realities, but insisted that they would only come into existence when and if we discovered them – they never pre-exist in his view – this aspect of James’ thought it particularly mind-bending and worthy of a post all on its own.)