In 1877 the great scientist and logician, Charles Sanders Peirce, wrote a mercifully short, but not simplistic, essay for Popular Science Monthly titled, “The Fixation of Belief.” It’s a stunner. I stumbled across it in a 1964 anthology of philosophy essays, and I’m definitely going to assign it to an upcoming college freshman English class that starts up next week.
So, I’ll try to summarize the introductory content of Peirce’s essay below as best I can, but it’s worth locating and reading in its entirety. It’s funny, smart, clear—and deadly relevant to our 21st century cultural Zeitgeist.
In a later post, I’ll go into the meat of the essay.
WHAT IS CRITICAL THINKING AND WHAT’S IT FOR?
In the opening paragraph of the essay, Peirce jokes that most people believe that critical thinking is something for others to study, not them:
Few persons care to study logic, because everybody conceives himself to be proficient enough in the art of reasoning already. But I observe that this satisfaction is limited to one’s own ratiocinations, and does not extend to that of other men.
This humorous observation goes rather nicely with something Peirce wrote in 1899, in an essay titled, “First Rule of Logic”:
[I]n order to learn you must desire to learn, and in so desiring not be satisfied with what you already incline to think, . . .
In other words, sound reasoning does not come from nothing, effortlessly and automatically; instead, a person must want to reason soundly, with the idea that something might actually be gained from the process.
Broadly speaking, Peirce defines critical thinking (logical method) as “our power of drawing inferences, the last of all our faculties.” It’s a “difficult art”, not a “natural gift,” and it’s an art to which barriers are fatal:
[T]here follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed upon every wall of the city of philosophy: Do not block the way of inquiry.
Do not block the way of inquiry! Contra Moses, that’s Peirce’s first commandment (or, at least, suggestion). And, by Peirce’s lights, no angel with a flaming sword should ever be placed as sentry against access to the Tree of Knowledge. Critical thinking is about bringing intellectual barriers down.
But bringing them down to what purpose?
The truth. Peirce believed, in good X Files fashion, that the truth is out there; it’s something objective that doesn’t change its character because we wish it were otherwise. Returning to “The Fixation of Belief”, here’s Peirce again:
The object of reasoning is to find out, from the consideration of what we already know, something else which we do not know. Consequently, reasoning is good if it be such as to give a true conclusion from true premises, and not otherwise.
And, what is needed to arrive at the truth? Peirce’s answer: a reliable method of inquiry. But, before he identifies that reliable method, he describes three unreliable methods, and he does so in terms that are, in turns, amused, pained, and caustic. He clearly wishes that fewer of his fellow mortals would indulge in what he regards as unreliable epistemic methods.
The first unreliable method that he critiques he calls “the method of tenacity,” and I’ll summarize what he says about that method in my next post.