Right Reasoning: S. I. Hayakawa, Charles Sanders Peirce and the Scientific Method

By Taylor, Shawn | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview
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Right Reasoning: S. I. Hayakawa, Charles Sanders Peirce and the Scientific Method

Taylor, Shawn, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Shawn Taylor *

IN "The Aims and Tasks of General Semantics: Implications of the Time-Binding Theory," S. I. Hayakawa (1906-1992) distinguishes between three orientations --prescientific, antiscientific, and scientific -- and what implication each orientation holds for the prospect of human agreement (1951 & 2001). Similar themes that Hayakawa's article addresses can be found in an essay written more than six decades earlier by the nineteenth-century American logician and mathematician, Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). Peirce (pronounced "purse") is widely considered to be one of the most original thinkers in the history of philosophy and the greatest philosopher the United States has ever produced (Brent 1993, p.xiv; Popper 1972, p.212). Among his many and varied accomplishments, he is best known for writing the founding documents of American pragmatism, "a method," Peirce tells us, "of ascertaining the meaning of hard words and abstract conceptions" (CP, vol.5, par.464) (1).

Peirce sought to understand the meaning of words and concepts according to their practical significance. Hayakawa sought to explore the relationship between words, human thought, and practical action. Peirce's original work in semiotics is by far the most thoroughgoing and sustained early attempt to give an account of signs and their interrelations. When assessing the truth or falsehood of an idea, Peirce held that what matters most is the consequences that follow from the idea, as distinguished from the idea itself. Peirce, like Hayakawa, believed that of all the methods available for analyzing various kinds of claims, assertions, beliefs, and ideas, only one method has a distinct advantage over all others in addressing humankind's common problems, and that is the method of science.

Peirce's Four Methods of Fixing Belief

In his now famous 1887 article, "The Fixation of Belief," Peirce examines four ways that people form beliefs. For Peirce, "fixation" means quite literally the prevalent tendency of people to "fix on" to certain opinions or beliefs. Similarly, Peirce employs the word "belief" as "that which a man is prepared to act" (Wiener 1958, p.91).

1. Tenacity. The first method of fixing belief is what Peirce calls the method of tenacity. This method operates most simply and directly when a person forms an opinion and stubbornly clings to it, despite all external influences. Facts and experiences that do not accord with one's beliefs are discarded in favor of those with which one feels most comfortable. This is akin to what Hayakawa called "wishful thinking" or what Mark Twain satirically referred to as "corn-pone" opinions (Anderson 1972, p.5). It can be seen operating where fervent beliefs, once formed, permit little to no outer verification or falsification. Like that of the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand, this method is a welcome refuge from the rigors of individual thought and decision.

2. Authority. The second method, the method of authority, differs from the first in that it commands assent through institutional means. This method, Peirce explains, "has ... been one of the chief means of upholding correct theological and political doctrines." These kinds of beliefs are enforced through the "will of the state," a ruling aristocracy, an organized guild, or a professional priesthood (CP, vol.5, par.379). The purpose of such institutions, in large measure, is to instill "correct" beliefs. This is accomplished through systematic indoctrination to keep the population in ignorance of everything that may create doubt. The method of authority is similar to Hayakawa's orientation of dependency, in which statements are accepted based on some form of authority, be it a parent, sacred text, political or religious leader (p.179). As history has shown, dissenters who question such systems of belief are often dealt with harshly.

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Right Reasoning: S. I. Hayakawa, Charles Sanders Peirce and the Scientific Method


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