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

Jeff Carreira Philosophy 23 Comments

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.

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
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Rit
Rit
10 years ago

Between the absolute firstness and the final secondness it seems plausible that there can occur a process of thirdness, but not an infinite one. If the final secondness ends time then infinity is not… infinite.

Luckily, there are other explorations of this terrain that are not dependent on the functioning of western modes of thought that cut through these mind puzzles more elegantly. Descartes, unfortunately for Western Man, was locked into a head-neck-shoulders approach to finding Reality.

I am enjoying saying Fallibalism repeatedly, a mantra really. Maybe it will be helpful in realizing a ‘both-and’ rather than an ‘either-or’ sensibility…

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

The only ‘absolute’ I found (I did not finish yet W.B. Gallie, Peirce and Pragmatism,1952) is the absolute rejection of Descartes ‘intuition’, according to Peirce no such thing exists. We can only think in signs; these signs are created in reality: it started somewhere. Peirce says that all our knowledge of minds and their working –our own and other people’s- is derived from our knowledge of certain outward physical facts; namely those parts or results of our own and other people’s behavior which we call signs. The meaning of words and other signs grows. What I like about his line… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

Look forward to it. By the way, in my book Peirce says about James: ‘Who, for example would be of a nature so different from his as I. He so concrete, so living, I a mere table of contents, so abstract, a very snarl of twine’. There is a word of admiration on the first page of the book from Whitehead.

Michelle D'Avella
10 years ago

Hi Jeff

The painting example was a great illustration of interpretation. I found myself really wanting to see what a million would look like. Hmmm..maybe a cool project. I’ll have to look into it. Also brought to mind the telephone game, which plays along the same lines.

Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness are new ideas to me and very interesting- though a bit of a mind boggle for me:)

Michelle

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

Jeff, “The two things I want to write about next are1. the similarity in the thought of William James and Rudolf Steiner and 2. Peirce’s semiotics.” I am getting worried there, but at the same time I lok forward to it ! In any case I am so much in devotion with Steiner that maybe, just maybe I am loosing some objectivity here. Liesbeth, actually it is already a few of your blogs that I want to answer to. This one is, as Jeff said, full and wonderful. But the one of two days ago made me think very deeply.… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

Well, thank you Catherine, great you write! In the lines that Whitehead writes on the first page he honors Peirce for his brilliancy and profound originality, that is what makes you think. I read that his father was a professor of mathematics in Harvard and that they took often long walks together, not solving young Peirce’ problems but his fathers. When he was young, he was an idealist and he was very well educated in ancient (Aristotle) and medieval philosophy. ‘Peirce’s work as a formal logician parallels and supplements, in its effects on his general philosophy, his experience as an… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

Dear Liesbeth and Jeff some strange ideas are popping out, which are related to our ongoing discussion. It is about our belief system. Recently I went to a fascinating conference in neurosciences. I learned that this field is making tremendous progresses recently, due to new observing techniques like giant IRMs. In short, the state of the art seems to be that scientists are able to locate the part of the brain which reacts to the representation system, as well as to our belief system. On the other hand they have no clue [yet] which part of the brain is activated… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

Reading your post I thought it is like you have been reading Peirce. I was removing the marks I made in the (library)book and I left one part still with marks and that was exactly the piece he wrote about ‘beliefs’. When I was reading it I thought ‘he does not have a very high opinion of people..’ I am sure he would embrace you reading your post. (do not feel obliged to read it all)…He wrote: while belief lasts, it is a strong habit and as such, forces a man to believe until surprise breaks up the habit. The… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

Catherine, it must look silly that I copy so much of a book, but it all seems so important. I had difficulty stopping because there was more interesting stuff to come, ways of inference. Probable you know most of it, it lead to the Reasonability. The whole line of thought so much precedes Integral. I do not know how you are doing with Gebser. I was just thinking about all problems in the world and how it would be possible that only one solution is the best. Of course so many groups have different solutions. But it all fits in… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

Dear Liesbeth, I read it all with great interest ! When you write : “The most that we can be maintained is, that we seek for a belief that we shall THINK to be true… But we think each on of our beliefs to be true, and, indeed, it is a mere tautology to say so. THOUGHT IN ACTION HAS FOR ITS ONLY POSSIBLE MOTIVE THE ATTAINMENT OF THOUGHT AT REST.” this is so true ! [ with sentences like this one I am starting to fall in love with Pierce !] and it seems to be a good definition… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

Jeff, I just notice that I didn’t express how much I find the post awesome. IT almost convinces me about the firstness, secondness and thirdness, although I am still sticking a bit to the firstness only [ ever present origin of Gebser] because when we talk about origin, we talk about our human power, abut power. Juts on the sides about Descartes [ you didn’t expect me not to react to this one …?] “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… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

I looked in my book to see what exactly where the points of Peirce criticism on Descartes, I give an impression, I think it is what Catherine says. Peirce, thanks to his superior logical equipment goes to the very root of the matter: to the first premises and guiding principles of Cartesian philosophy. His criticisms of Descartes provide, both logically and historically the best possible introduction to his own development of theory of knowledge. The criticism are about three aspects of Descartes’ theory of knowledge: a) conception of Intuition as the fundamental activity of the mind: According to Descartes, we… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

It’s kind of you Jeff, but I am just copying. Once one get concentrated it gets more and more interesting, that is why I would like to continue a bit, do not feel irritated, nobody has to read it. Underneath is confirmed what Jeff talkes about in his last post, I had to think of Catherine because she ‘swore the oath of the scientist’ and that goes according to Peirce against Descartes. After describing the fallibilism (paintings of Jeff) the writer goes back to the main methodological consequences of Descartes doctrine of Intuition. 1) Since all genuine knowledge consists in,… Read more »

Anonymous
Anonymous
10 years ago

It is from my I phone. Guys just. Be careful with Descartes. My point was simply that Pierce didn t understand him because he misses the enlightenment part. It will be fir me the difference with Steiner as well. Both Descartes and Steiner have this in common that spirituality is mixed with their thoughts. Considered only as philosophers means amputing them of the highest dimension. So far I didn t see at all this dimension in Pierce. More soon.

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

Only later I saw that it is not so good what I wrote. Peirce is a spiritual man, but it is not in this book. I ordered another book of Peirce himself, I think that is much better to read that. The writer does say that his three categories are so much more than they seem at first instance. So just do not take it to serious. I thought it was interesting but did not think about the fact that you are in the middle of proving results. I am sorry for not taking it more serious. So stupid.

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

“Thinking … is no more and no less an organ of perception than the eye or ear. Just as the eye perceives colours and the ear sounds, so thinking perceives ideas.”
A quote from Rudolf Steiner. It looks to me much more like Bateson and his being suddenly immersed in an ocean of ideas, rather than Pierce, but I am curious about what Jeff will tell us there.

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

Liesbeth and Jeff, I cannot resist t put this wonderful description of Steiner by the Evolutionist genius and also Anthroposophist Owen Barfield. I recognize in him the same awe at the core of my devotion for Steiner. Would sign up immediately ! From Barfield: “So much for externals. As to the substance of his teachings and his life, I cannot see him otherwise than as a key figure — perhaps on the human level, the key figure — in the painful transition of humanity from what I have ventured to call original participation to final participation. The crucial phase in… Read more »

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