Father Knows Best: Charles Sanders Peirce on Using Authority to Fix Belief

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. 

Peirce’s thesis is that there are four methods that people use to arrive at the truth of matters, three of which are essentially bogus. Using the names he gives them, here’s his list:

  • The method of tenacity
  • The method of authority
  • The method of “a priori” reasoning
  • The method of science

For further clarification on what Peirce is getting at, I would label them as follows:

  • Reasoning from tenacity
  • Reasoning from authority
  • Reasoning a priori
  • Reasoning from science 

I summarized the introductory content of Peirce’s essay here and the method of tenacity here. In this post I summarize Peirce’s take on the method of authority.

METHOD OF INQUIRY #2: THE METHOD OF AUTHORITY

The tenacity method’s exhausting self-censorship and hermit-like isolation from the broader world might make you wish for an authority outside yourself that might force or seduce others to believe as you do, and so Peirce writes the following:

Unless we make ourselves hermits, we shall necessarily influence each other’s opinions; so that the problem becomes how to fix belief, not in the individual merely, but in the community.

Thus, strategy #2 for fixing beliefs in people—that is, for securing their cooperation and assent to particular beliefs—is outright manipulation through punishments and rewards. Belief maintainance no longer becomes the intellectual responsibility of each individual, but is outsourced to an authority tasked with the job. The work of the individual is to find out what the authority says and stop the effort of inquiry there. Does the Quran (or Fidel Castro) approve of my independent critical thinking, and allow it? If so, then that’s my opinion too! My method of inquiry is externalized and solved; it’s a simple matter of locating an applicable verse or pronouncement from this or that authority and submitting to it.

Peirce’s view of this intellectual move is expressed in a manner that’s ironic, eloquent, and scathing:

Let the will of the state act, then, instead of that of the individual. Let an institution be created which shall have for its object to keep correct doctrines before the attention of the people, to reiterate them perpetually, and to teach them to the young; having at the same time power to prevent contrary doctrines from being taught, advocated, or expressed. Let all possible causes of a change of mind be removed from men’s apprehensions. Let them be kept ignorant, lest they should learn of some reason to think otherwise than they do. Let their passions be enlisted, so that they may regard private and unusual opinions with hatred and horror. Then, let all men who reject the established belief be terrified into silence. Let the people turn out and tar-and-feather such men, or let inquisitions be made into the manner of thinking of suspected persons, and, when they are found guilty of forbidden beliefs, let them be subjected to some signal punishment. When complete agreement could not otherwise be reached, a general massacre of all who have not thought in a certain way has proved a very effective means of settling opinion in a country. If the power to do this be wanting, let a list of opinions be drawn up, to which no man of the least independence of thought can assent, and let the faithful be required to accept all these propositions, in order to segregate them as radically as possible from the influence of the rest of the world.

Jarringly, Peirce observes that it is in this way that community “sympathy and fellowship” serve to “produce a most ruthless power”—a power that enforces conformity and halts inquiry into the full truth of matters.

Still, Peirce concedes the merits, in terms of civilizational organization and glory, of the authority method (if only tongue-in-cheek):

In judging this method of fixing belief, which may be called the method of authority, we must, in the first place, allow its immeasurable mental and moral superiority to the method of tenacity. Its success is proportionately greater; and, in fact, it has over and over again worked the most majestic results. The mere structures of stone which it has caused to be put together—in Siam, for example, in Egypt, and in Europe—have many of them a sublimity hardly more than rivalled by the greatest works of Nature.

All true. The pyramids along the Egyptian Nile and those belonging to the Inca are impressive testaments to something—the harnessing of slavery comes to mind—but not to truth. If you want to get at the truth, Peirce argues that the authority method will only get you so far.

Next up: Peirce’s critique of over-reliance upon a priori reasoning.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Father Knows Best: Charles Sanders Peirce on Using Authority to Fix Belief

  1. umanbn says:

    Really interesting stuff….I have just dipped in but will definitely be coming back for more…:)

  2. umanbn says:

    really interesting stuff….I have just dipped in but will definitely be back for more and add you to my favourites list

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