Do we ever Know Anything for Sure? – The Fallibalism of Charles Sanders Peirce

When we say something is true, what we usually mean is that the words that we are using or the idea that we are holding in our head corresponds to some actual event or thing in the world. This is generally known as the correspondence theory of truth. Implicit in this view is that there is some objective world that exists completely independently of our thoughts and ideas about it. If our ideas are true then they are accurate representations of the actual world that floats in our heads. If they are false then they are misrepresentations of the world. We have all seen cartoon figures that are pictured with thought bubbles that show us what is happening inside their minds and how it accurately reflects what is happening outside in the world.

 

This conception has seemed inadequate and even naive to many philosophers because it assumes objectivity and implies a passive relationship between the mind and the world. The mind is seen as playing the part of a mirror that inertly reflects reality, but if this is true then how do we account for errors in thinking and judgment? A mirror never makes a mistake. If you look in a mirror and see a sunflower you never look in front of the mirror and see a frog. The reflection in the mirror is always a perfect two dimensional representation of what is in front of the mirror. If the mind was a simple representation creating device this should also be true. How then do we account for the fact that we do make mistakes? We think something one day and then realize that we were wrong the next.

One way to think about how errors occur is to realize that what we see in our heads is not just a mechanical reflection of what exists outside of our heads. It is an interpretation of what is outside of our heads. Let’s throw out the metaphor of a mirror and use the metaphor of a painting to illustrate this more complex situation. A painter can look at a landscape and recreate it on a canvas using paint. The painting will not be a perfect reflection of the scene. The quality and diversity of paint colors available and the skill and ‘eye’ of the painter are just two of many factors that will influence the final product of the painting and create distinctions between it and the landscape as viewed first hand by the naked eye.

And so it is with the images we hold in our heads. They are not perfect reflections of the world; they are interpretations of the world. Our perceptions of the world are more like paintings that we create rather than reflections in the mirror of mind. We are not passive in relationship to our perception of reality; we are partially responsible for creating it. One of Charles Sanders Peirce’s criticisms of Cartesian Skepticism is that Descartes held that it was possible to assume nothing and to start inquiry from the bed rock of no assumptions whatsoever. Peirce believed that we could never assume that any of our perceptions or ideas were completely free of preconceptions and assumptions. Our reality is built of layer upon layer of interpretation and the errors of interpretation that existed in one layer are transferred to the next.

Let’s go back to our metaphor of a painter. Imagine that a painter paints a landscape. The landscape on the page may be beautiful, but it will not be a perfect reflection of the landscape in front of him. Now let us imagine that this painting is given to another painter who tries to paint the landscape himself based on what he sees in this picture. Then that painting is given to another painter who uses it as a model for a third painting and another and another. If we could take the one thousandth painting that was painted based on the nine hundred ninety ninth painting and bring that one back to the original landscape I wonder how different it would be. What if we did this a million times?

Peirce saw our own thoughts building in something like this way. We see something (or some part of something) and develop a thought about it. That thought becomes the object of another thought and that thought the object for another. This happens over and over and over again – I suppose millions upon millions of times. Any preconceptions or errors in judgment get built into all of our thinking, so we can never assume that what we think is true will be accurate to some objectively existing reality. And so no matter how hard you try to be objective in the way that Descartes wanted us to be, you would always have some error – and probably a great deal – built into your thinking. Peirce spoke of this principle as Fallibalism and it would later become the foundation of postmodernism.

A relativist will take this line of thinking and use it to claim that there is no objective reality – there is only interpretation and opinion and none of it ultimately relates to anything objectively real.  This wasn’t Peirce’s view. He believed that the universe started with some absolute reality – what he called absolute firstness. It was that which was totally first and before all other. He further believed that at the end of time there would be a final encounter with that firstness  in the form of a final secondness. Between the initiation of the universe as some pure original reality and the finality of the universe as the final perfect encounter with that reality there is an evolving process of thirdness. Thirdness is the building of a perfecting interpretation with realty through a process of ever refining interpretation that will lead inevitably to a final perfect encounter with the original firstness that started it all – absolute secondness. We are somewhere in the midst of the infinite evolutionary process of thirdness.