Peirce's pragmatic maxim seems to have an appeal, at least as a "tiebreaker":

Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.

Is the pragmatic maxim self-evident? If someone disagreed with the pragmatic maxim, and tried to refute it, wouldn't they have to use it in order to consider its practical effects, thereby accepting it?


4 Answers 4


Not exactly. Peirce himself considered it a distillation of "common sense", but he offered it as an alternative to the then dominant Cartesian foundationalism. Many disputed the pragmatic maxim, and its supporters concede that while it is "morally right" in the form given by Peirce it is difficult to interpret.

The reason for disputing the maxim is that according to many semantic theories meanings have "content" or "intension", which is irreducible to practical consequences. For instance, your idea of red, or love, or beauty might have overtones that are not and can not be expressed or communicated to others. Then your meaning of those terms is irreducible to Peirce's "practical bearings". There is long tradition of criticizing such "private" and/or "intrinsic" meanings by Frege, Wittgenstein, Quine, Sellars, etc., but they also have many supporters, e.g. Husserl, Searle, possibly Fodor, see e.g. Do Wittgenstein and Quine give the same criticisms of semantics? and What is the role of sensations in Wittgenstein's private language argument?

The reason the maxim is hard to interpret is that, as pointed out already by early critics, "effects that might conceivably have practical bearings" are not individually entailed by meaning of anything in particular, lots of things participate in producing those effects collectively. To decide what is or is not an effect of a particular "object of our conception" we need some a priori way to decide what does or does not count as its effects. If we have such a way then we already understand its "meaning", or "practical bearings", anyway, and the maxim is circular, if not, it can not be applied to begin with, hence apparently meaningless.

To vindicate Peirce's maxim "morally" Quine developed his holistic theory of translation, elaborated into semantics by his student Davidson. Here is from Quine's Epistemology Naturalized:

"Sometimes also an experience implied by a theory fails to come off; and then, ideally, we declare the theory false. But the failure falsifies only a block of theory as a whole, a conjunction of many statements... The component statements simply do not have empirical meanings, by Peirce's standard; but a sufficiently inclusive portion of theory does... We might better speak in such a case not of translation but simply of observational evidence for theories; and we may, following Peirce, still fairly call this the empirical meaning of the theories...

"The indeterminacy of translation of theoretical sentences is a natural conclusion. And most sentences, apart from observation sentences, are theoretical. This conclusion, conversely, once it is embraced, seals the fate of any general notion of propositional meaning or, for that matter, state of affairs".


Is what self-evident about this pragmatic maxim?

For example, is it self-evident that it has a flaw?

For instance, consider the difference between these two presentations:

  1. Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.

  2. Consider what effects that might conceivably have practical bearings you conceive the object of your conception to have: then the general mental habit that consists in the production of these effects is the whole meaning of your concept.

Note that in these three lines one finds, “conceivably,” “conceive,” “conception,” “conception,” “conception.” Now I find there are many people who detect the authorship of my unsigned screeds; and I doubt not that one of the marks of my style by which they do so is my inordinate reluctance to repeat a word. This employment five times over of derivates of concipere must then have had a purpose.


Now consider this from Plato’s Cratylus:

"Well, but do you not see, Cratylus, that he who follows names in the search after things, and analyses their meaning, is in great danger of being deceived?... Why clearly he who first gave names gave them according to his conception of the things which they signified — did he not?... And if his conception was erroneous, and he gave names according to his conception, in what position shall we who are his followers find ourselves? Shall we not be deceived by him?..."

So, are we to be deceived by Peirce, whether intentional or not? Consider this admission from http://www.iupui.edu/~arisbe/menu/library/bycsp/L75/ver1/l75v1-09.htm

“In January, 1878, I published a brief sketch of this subject wherein I enunciated a certain maxim of "pragmatism".... I still adhere to that doctrine; but it needs more accurate definition in order to meet certain objections and to avoid certain misapplication. Moreover, my paper of 1878 was imperfect in tacitly leaving it to appear that the maxim of pragmatism led to the last stage of clearness. I wish now to show that this is not the case and to find a series of categories of clearness. I propose in this memoir to develop these three grades with fullness and not in the sketchy manner of a magazine article. I shall give the whole theory of definition and discuss its principal forms. I shall show, I hope quite convincingly, the great harm done by that definition by abstraction of which the Germans are so fond."

Instead of the oft-repeated original maxim (CP 5.402), I would instead recommend investigating closely what he intended by CP 5.189. I hope you will agree that this one, unlike all others, is divine.


Peirce's maxim is very unclear if you read it carefully:

Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.

What counts as practical? Suppose that somebody claims that the material world you see around you is an illusion. It doesn't really exist. Theories about biology, physics etc are just instruments for prediction not attempts to describe reality.

The trouble with this idea is that unless you take theories seriously as a description of reality, it is difficult to find flaws in them or even to explain why you would want to find flaws in them. So such an idea makes progress in understanding the world difficult. So then the pragmatist would say you should take them seriously as a description of how the world works.

But then you have a problem. What about the cases in which those theories predict that there are some events you will never experience. For example, if some event takes place in the past so you can only see the results, e.g. - a dinosaur died and was not fossilized. So then somebody might say only the results matter not how it happened. But the event took place according to the relevant theories and should be taken seriously as a description of reality by that token.

So what position should the pragmatist take and why?

The way out of this problem is to ditch pragmatism. You should find out how the world works, and what values you should pursue. Then work you can work out what is practical. Any attempt to do the reverse puts the cart before the horse.



You said:

“The way out of this problem is to ditch pragmatism.”

An alternative would be to ditch the original maxim, CP 5.402; for the attempt to ditch pragmatism would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

So, why ditch CP 5.402?

Because while it speaks on conceivable practical bearings and our conceptions, it doesn’t truly separate from solipsism, which is defined as the meaning in “the belief that the believer is the only existing person. Were anybody to adopt such a belief, it might be difficult to argue him out of it. But when a person finds himself in the society of others, he is just as sure of their existence as of his own, though he may entertain a metaphysical theory that they are all hypostatically the same ego."

Moreover, CP 5.402 does not distinguish from nominalism, which says that “the nominalist is only interested in what a thinker makes of things. The subjective conception, in his opinion, exhausts the subject.”

And why adopt CP 5.189 instead?

Because “self-control is the character which distinguishes reasoning from the processes by which perceptual judgments are formed, and self-control of any kind is purely inhibitory.”

Therefore, CP 5.189 and not CP 5.402 as the best pragmatic maxim because BUT.


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