WHO´S AFRAID OF
CHARLES SANDERS PEIRCE?
Knocking Some Critical Common Sense into Moral Philosophy
Cornelis de Waal
Clear as it seems to me that certain dicta of my conscience are unreason-
able, and though I know it may very well be wrong, yet I trust to its author-
ity emphatically rather than to any rationalistic morality. This is the only
—Charles Sanders Peirce, The Collected Papers
of Charles Sanders Peirce
In this essay I explore the potential contribution of Peirce’s theory of scientific inquiry to moral philosophy. After a brief introduction, I outline Peirce’s theory of inquiry. Next, I address why Peirce believed that this theory of inquiry is inapplicable to what he called “matters of vital importance,” the latter including genuine moral problems. This leaves us in the end with two options: We can try to develop an alternative way of addressing moral problems or we can seek to reconcile moral problems with scientific inquiry as described by Peirce. Though Peirce seems to argue for the former, I argue for the latter.
Peirce introduced his theory of scientific inquiry in his Popular Science Monthly series of the late 1870s as one of four ways of fixing our belief. In the first paper of this series, titled “The Fixation of Belief,” Peirce developed a doubt-belief theory that differs quite decidedly from the Cartesian doctrine of universal doubt. By doubting everything he could possibly be