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Sayyid Qutb's Understanding of Charles Peirce


Charles H. Seibert, Ph.D.
College of Applied Science
University of Cincinnati


        Sayyid Qutb cites Charles Peirce at important points in the argument of
Social Justice in Islam. Qutb credits Peirce as the founder of pragmatism, mentioning but not differentiating James and Dewey as heirs. Pragmatism, Qutb continues, both expresses and determines American spirit and actions. In the name of Islam, Qutb harshly rejects pragmatism and its spiritual consequences.
        Because of his influence on contemporary militant Islamists, Qutb's reflections are of interest to anyone concerned with American thought and culture. Because of his criticism of Peirce and pragmatism, Qutb's specific statements are of interest to scholars of American philosophy. The following essay seeks to initiate discussion of the controversies that inevitably unfold.

I. Introduction.

1.  S. Qutb's book and its relation to C. S. Peirce.   Sayyid Qutb is frequently cited as an inspiration of 21st century militant Islamists. Qutb cites Charles Peirce at important points in the argument of Social Justice in Islam, one of Qutb's most important books. [1] Qutb credits Peirce as the founder of American pragmatism. Qutb regards pragmatism as the crucial philosophical determinant of the American spirit. He acknowledges the material and technical accomplishments of American culture. However, Qutb vehemently rejects American pragmatism which, in his interpretation, misleads humankind into serious moral error.

        All this is vitally interesting to a citizen of the 21st century, especially an American citizen. Interest is heightened, if that citizen is interested in Charles Peirce. Qutb's treatment of Peirce is a reminder that the antipathy of some Islamic intellectuals toward American culture preceded recent armed conflicts; and it affords an insight into the nature of that antipathy unclouded by the anxieties and hostilities that exploded on September 11, 2001.

        Further, a task is set for a reader interested in American culture or Charles Peirce's "pragmaticism." Qutb's treatment of Peirce depends at crucial points on secondary sources. This raises the question whether Qutb understood Peirce correctly. An answer to this question is needed before we can approach Qutb's diagnosis of inevitable hostility between Islam and pragmatism.

2.  The men.  Qutb and Peirce were quite different people who lived in quite different cultures. It may be useful to say a biographical word about each before moving to their philosophical statements.

        Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) was born in the village of Musha, near Asyut in Upper Egypt. [2] His home environment encouraged learning, and by age ten he had memorized al Qur'an at the local primary school. He prepared for and attended Dar al-Ulum, a prestigious teacher training college in Cairo. Upon graduation in 1933 he was employed to teach at Dar al-Ulum, and a few years later he was employed in the Egyptian Ministry of Education. Qutb also had a prolific literary career; he wrote poetry, autobiographical sketches, and fiction. He largely repudiated this work after his embraced of Islam as a comprehensive theory and practice for living. Qutb was politically active in the Wafd party in opposition to the Egyptian monarchy. In 1948 he was sent by the Ministry of Education to America where he earned a master's degree in Education at the University of Northern Colorado in Greely. Hamid Algar reports that Qutb disliked American culture, in particular what he saw as its materialism, racism, and sexual permissiveness. He also disliked American politics with its anti-Muslim and pro-Zionist tendencies. Algar opines that Qutb's dislike of American culture and politics may have intensified his embrace of Islam. Qutb decided not to pursue a doctorate in education, and returned to Egypt in 1951. There he found that his book, Social Justice in Islam, had been published in 1949. It enjoyed great popularity.

        Having quit the Wafd party, Qutb became active in the Muslim Brethren, joining in 1951. Qutb was held in high esteem within the Brethren because he championed Islam as the best, indeed the only, true guide for Egypt's future as well as for the future of humankind. In 1952 the Egyptian monarchy was overthrown by a group within the military. The driving force of this group was Jamal 'Abd al-Nassir. At first Nassir tried to co-opt the Muslim Brethren into his movement. But the attempt failed, and Nassir turned his energies to eliminating both the ideology and the membership of the Brethren. In 1954 the Muslim Brethren was officially dissolved by the government. Qutb and others were subjected to repression, jail and torture. Qutb came to regard Egypt of the Nassir period as suffering the same spiritual ignorance and disregard for divine guidance as was suffered in pre-Islamic Arabia. Algar explains that Qutb applied to this period the same Quranic term, jahiliyyah, as was used for pre-Islamic Arabia. The significance of this judgment is to emphasize Qutb's rejection of all political or religious allegiances except Islam. Qutb remained unrelenting in his criticism of Nassir's Egypt; he was executed by hanging in Cairo on August 29, 1966.

        Readers who have followed the development of militant Islam into the 21st century will probably have heard Qutb's name mentioned as a leading inspiration for Osama bin Laden, Ayman Al-Zawahiri and other such leaders. Whether these militant Islamists interpret Qutb correctly is outside the scope of this essay. The present point is that Sayyid Qutb is an influential thinker in contemporary Islam. So when Qutb writes that Peirce's pragmatism is wrongheaded and responsible for leading humankind astray, this is a serious charge needing careful attention.

        Charles Peirce (1839-1914) is probably better known to European and American readers, especially philosophers, than is Sayyid Qutb. We need not, therefore, review his biography in great detail. Peirce was the founder of "pragmaticism," as he called his distinctive formulation. Peirce knew William James, though James was slightly younger. James dedicated The Will To Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1896) to Peirce, "to whose philosophic comradeship in old times and to whose writings in more recent years I owe more incitement and help than I can express or repay." Peirce was also a teacher of John Dewey when the latter was a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University. Significantly for our investigation, Dewey cited Peirce's theory of truth as "the best definition of truth from the logical standpoint which is known to me …" [3] The relations between Peirce and others traditionally called "pragmatists" is complex. Nevertheless it remains true that Peirce was the father of American pragmatism, even though he distinguished his own formulation ("pragmaticism") from those of James and Dewey.

        Hopefully, we are now in a position to review Qutb's statements about Peirce and pragmatism in the context of SJI, to test the accuracy of Qutb's rendition, and to think about the larger significance of the answers we obtain.

II. The Context of Qutb's Argument:
"Pure" Science, Philosophic Interpretation & Correct Islamic Belief
3.  Jahiliyyah and Modern Science. Qutb came to regard his mid-20th century surroundings, inside and outside Egypt, as a state of jahiliyyah or "ignorance," specifically ignorance that the proper role of humankind is in submission to Allah and His law. The overarching problem of SJI, therefore, is how to re-establish nominal Muslim societies on proper Islamic spiritual foundations. Inevitably, this task requires assessing whether modern science is a help or a hindrance in recovering the authentic Islamic basis for human life.

        Qutb would handle this problem carefully. All societies are undeniably affected by modern science, so the first step is to find how to accommodate modern science in a truly Islamic society. On the one hand, modern Islam should not turn its back on the "pure" sciences and their findings; but on the other hand, Qutb is especially careful to avoid non-Islamic (specifically materialist)[4] categories of western thought when interpreting the results of pure science. He writes:

It will do us no harm to make use of the pure sciences in all the details of life; but on the other hand, it will do us harm to adopt alien interpretations of life as a whole, for such interpretations are based on a philosophy that is not ours. It tends to establish a conception of the universe and of life that is at variance with the Islamic conception of these things; ultimately it would lead us along a path that is not that of Islam. It is this path that has produced the present ailments of mankind, and which is responsible for their present troubles." (SJI 287)
        At first, this distinction (pure science vs. non-Islamic philosophical interpretation) appears obvious. But Qutb's text leaves some unanswered questions.[5] He entertains a doubt (he writes, below, "It is sometimes objected …"), as to whether the experimental method which permeates modern science might silently import philosophical prejudice. In the same way, Qutb continues, perhaps science and philosophy mutually determine one another so that we can never have "pure" science untainted by philosophical interpretation.

        It is sometimes objected that even if this[6] be so, the pure sciences themselves cannot be regarded as completely harmless, because essentially they cannot be divorced from the method of Western thought. The experimental method rests on the basis of a definite philosophy that is neither rational nor spiritual; if this had never established itself in favor, science would never have followed the course that latterly it has taken. In the same way, science can never remain in isolation from philosophy, nor can it be content to be influenced by philosophy without in turn influencing it. For philosophy benefits from the experimental results of science and is influenced by it in aim and method. Therefore, the adoption of pure science involves the adoption of the philosophy that is influenced by that science, and which in turn exerts an influence on it. All this is over and above the fact that the applied results of science must influence all material life, methods of gaining a living, and the division of wealth. All this will in due time produce new forms of society based on a new philosophy, or at least based on a theory of life that must be influenced by these developments in the course of life. (SJI 287, 288)

4.  Modern science is suspect. Qutb expresses doubt (above) as to the real distinctness of pure science and philosophical interpretation. More importantly, he retains that doubt; offering no resolution, no reestablishment of the distinction on firmer, clearer ground.

All this[7] is very true. But what must be must be. There is no possibility of living in isolation from science and its products, though the harm that it does may be greater than the good. There is no such thing in this life as an unmixed blessing or an unalloyed evil. Islam does not oppose science or the utilization of science; there is nothing contrary to the spirit of Islam in culling the fruits of science from all the sources of the world. (SJI 288)
        Thus, Qutb settles on the view that the sciences and philosophical interpretation inevitably influence each other. Furthermore, this interdependence signals a constant threat of error. Such is life, he says. And Muslims must constantly guard against being misled from the Islamic path. The antidote is simply thoroughgoing diligence and precaution coupled with a thorough Islamization of the educational system. The passage quoted immediately above continues:

But if in acknowledging the universal influences of philosophy and culture, history and law, together with all their consequences in the way of educational methods and modes of thought and logic, we set all of this in its proper place on a spiritual Islamic foundation, we will be safeguarded from any effect the results and material consequences of science might have on our universal philosophy of life and conduct. (SJI 288)[8]

III. Peirce's Pragmatism Exemplifies How Philosophical Interpretation Infects Practice and Belief
5.  Recapitulation.   If we have read Qutb correctly, the foregoing establishes that:

5.1 It is acceptable for Islamic culture to make use of the results of science; but
5.2 There is ("in this life") no clear distinction between the "pure" sciences and the philosophical interpretation of life that accompanies them; because
5.3 The sciences and the dominant philosophy in any culture influence each other;
5.4 Thus, alien philosophical interpretations remain a constant threat to Islam.

The grand lesson is that a genuine Islamic education must be entrenched as the bulwark against backsliding into a state of jahiliyyah; and such Islamic education is required, if any culture is legitimately to call itself "Islamic."

6.  Charles Peirce cited.   As we might expect, Qutb now considers an instance of science misled by non-Islamic philosophical interpretation. He focuses on laboratory psychology and its pedagogical applications. (SJI 288, 289) American curriculum and methods of instruction are "… more akin to vocational training than to any system of thorough and systematic study; they have as their objective the promotion of technical skill instead of theoretical principles. The reason for this tendency is to be sought in the philosophy of Pragmatism, founded by Charles Peirce in 1878, which was advanced by William James and applied by John Dewey, the contemporary educational philosopher." (SJI 289)[9]

7.  Qutb's understanding of Peirce's pragmatism.  Further explaining how pragmatism influences pedagogical psychology, Qutb continues, "This school of thought [pragmatism] represents a reversal of the accepted terms of thought and study; abstract ideas and theoretical principles are abandoned, as is the study of things according to their essence and nature. According to Pragmatism all study should be confined to the practical effects and results of objects." (SJI 289)

        We might now expect Qutb to advance his case by quoting directly from Peirce. But instead, he quotes with apparent approval from Jacob Fahm, Pragmatism or the Philosophy of Means. [10]

        "According to Charles Peirce and according to Pragmatism the idea is no more than a secondary product of some act or activity; it is not in itself a reality. For example, I may have the 'idea' of the horn of an automobile passing in the street; this 'idea' gains no meaning by my study of its nature, its origin, and the method of its production. There is no point in asking whether it is a reality or a figment of the imagination; produced by the ear and the nervous system, or produced by the horn. It means only that the automobile is turning to right or to left, and that a path must be cleared for the vehicle and its driver. It means only: 'I am about to change the direction of my vehicle and to proceed in a different direction.' Hence Pragmatism argues that the idea is secondary to the act, or the product of certain conditioning circumstances. This is the first step along the path of Pragmatism in which all the remaining steps must follow." (Quoted by Qutb, SJI 289-290)[11]
Immediately following the quotation from Fahm, Qutb concludes:

It has been the rise of this theory or this method of thought which has produced the educational techniques of America. It has been responsible for a teaching curriculum and a system that will encourage the mind to take this view of things and to rationalize life along this line. More, it is this that has given American life its most characteristic mark, which has directed it towards technical production and which has to a large extent diverted it from academic and theoretical education.
        Accordingly, we must reckon with this general philosophy of life; if we borrow educational techniques, teaching systems, and curricula, this philosophy underlies all of them. This philosophy shapes and forms them, assisted by the results of pure psychology. Such an influence is inevitable, though this same science of psychology in its methods and in its results is itself influenced by that very philosophy. (SJI 290)
        If we may speak of a "Qutb / Fahm version of pragmatism," it comprises the following.

7.1 Our ideas are by-products of our actions upon objects, for example the auto horn;
7.2 We should focus on the consequences of objects, not on their essences or natures;
7.3 This view encourages and facilitates the characteristic mark of American life, namely the emphasis on "technical production";
7.4 This view of life also colors the fabric of supposedly "pure" science.

8.  Dangers of pragmatism: degradation of truth, atheism, human degradation. As we might expect, Qutb now explains the particular dangers to be feared from his (and Fahm's) understanding of pragmatism.

We have already given one example of pragmatism in its view of things. But in this example there was no indication of the dangers inherent in that philosophy or in its method; so we must now follow out this philosophy in its further results, in order to note the dangerous influences of its intellectual system on any nation that follows such a mode of thought. (SJI 292)
To illustrate the dangers, Qutb again quotes with apparent approval Jacob Fahm's version of a pragmatic treatment of the idea of God.

        "Most people believe in God. This is an idea that logically may be either false or true. Intellectual theory says: If God really exists, then His existence must be logically demonstrable. Pragmatism on the other hand attacks the problem from a different angle and approaches it differently. In its view the truth of the idea of God does not depend on logical necessity; it depends solely on the profit of this idea to our present life, in our daily activity, and in our experiences. If the idea tends to produce a profit in life, then it is sound and therefore true. Hence God does exist. Apart from this test, pragmatism claims, in the first place we cannot judge this idea; and in the second place we cannot trust our own judgment." (Quoted by Qutb, SJI 292; Algar's footnote says "Cited from Fahm, op. cit.")
Based upon Fahm's account, Qutb now considers the consequences of embracing pragmatism.

        The Islamic line of thought differs to a greater or lesser extent from that of pure intellectual theory, insofar as it does not entrust the whole question to human logic alone, but relies also upon revelation. But it is in complete opposition to pragmatism; for when we follow out its logic to a conclusion we find that the idea of God must disappear if the outward benefits of material life are not forthcoming. When this happens the idea of God loses its existence because it cannot control its instruments and set the machinery in motion.
        The next step is to conclude that material profit becomes the sole criterion, not only of the acceptance or the rejection of things, but also of their existence or non-existence.[12] This implies a state of affairs in which man loses all nobility, where he is neither more nor less than an instrument. [13]
        Policies in this world cannot be divorced from such philosophies. Thus perhaps we are not far from the truth when we say that the policy of the United States on the Palestine question and its stand in the United Nations on the question of Egypt were merely the results of its intellectual background of pragmatism – in conjunction, of course, with other factors. The idea of right and justice has little effective place in materialistic American life; and hence it has little chance of permanent acknowledgment in international policies. This idea is perhaps the most satisfactory comment on these puzzling policies.
        What we do not want is to establish such an intellectual background as this in our Islamic society. We must therefore be cautious about the study of Western philosophy until we have first established in the developing minds of youth a firm, strong, and clear pattern of thought that is founded on the universal Islamic theory. Similarly we must be cautious about borrowing educational techniques, curricula, and systems of teaching; for all of these are ruled by the general field of philosophy in their native lands; they subserve the aims that philosophy assigns to them, whether directly or indirectly. (SJI 292-293)
        Qutb here concludes the complete opposition of pragmatism to Islam. On the Qutb / Fahm view a pragmatist's "submission" to God (Allah) is merely a calculation of the risk / benefit ratio for the believer; what is true is what works to the pragmatist's advantage; and human beings have their only value or importance for the pragmatist as variables in a selfish utilitarian calculus. This is a far cry from the religion of Islam that Qutb would offer to all humankind! In Qutb's version of Islam revelation (not scientific method) tells us that God (Allah) is the supreme creator of the universe, to Whom all humans owe complete submission, Whose final word is revealed in al Qur'an, and before Whom all humans are equals (with none to be treated as mere means in utilitarian calculation).[14]

        Finally, be it remembered, a very heavy burden for the misleading of modern humanity is placed on the shoulders of Charles Peirce, the founder of pragmatism.[15] But before we can defend Peirce, or join Qutb in rejecting him, we must determine whether Qutb has correctly understood Peirce.

IV. Did Qutb Understand Peirce?

9.  The development of Peirce's thought. Our immediate task is to see whether, or to what extent, Qutb understood Peirce. One difficulty, of course, is that Peirce changed some of his opinions over time.[16] Thus, it is possible that Qutb's understanding may be accurate with respect to one stage of Peirce's development but erroneous with respect to another. We need a way of relating Qutb's statements to some period in Peirce's authorship.

        Qutb ties his understanding of Peirce to 1878 (SJI 289). The date is significant because in 1877-78 Peirce published "Illustrations of the Logic of Science" in Popular Science Monthly.[17] I am unable to determine whether these essays were available in Arabic translation before 1949, or whether Qutb read them in Arabic or English. But they were copyrighted and presumably published in 1923.[18]

        Given Qutb's statements, we are not wrong to focus on these essays. And we can restrict our focus to the first two of these essays: "Fixation of Belief" and "How to Make our Ideas Clear." Justification for this restriction will unfold as we review Qutb's statements in relation to Peirce's writing. But briefly: most of the themes referenced by Qutb receive treatment in "Fixation of Belief" or "How to Make our Ideas Clear." Moreover, the subjects considered in the other four essays in "Illustrations of the Logic of Science" (doctrine of chance, probability of induction, order in nature and deduction / induction / hypothesis) are not represented in Qutb's treatment of Peirce. Finally, it is noteworthy that Peirce's treatment of the God-hypothesis in "The Order of Nature" (W 3:306, 307, 312, 321) is not mentioned by Qutb. Had he known of it, Qutb would have been intellectually obliged to mention it in his critique of pragmatism's alleged atheism.

10.  Meaning, act and consequence. Qutb endorses Fahm's claim that "According to Charles Peirce and according to Pragmatism the idea is no more than a secondary product of some act or activity; …" (Section 7 above; SJI 289-290). This passage echoes the opening of Peirce's essay "Fixation of Belief." There we read that the old chemist's (or alchemist's) maxim was "Lege, lege, lege, labora, ora, et relege." But, says Peirce, Lavoisier's enlightened method "was to carry his mind into his laboratory, and to make of his alembics and cucurbits instruments of thought, giving a new conception of reasoning, as something which was to be done with one's eyes open, by manipulating real things instead of words and fancies." (W 3:243, 244)

        Qutb correctly reflects Peirce's belief that intellectual meaning is intimately bound up with our use of objects. But in addition to being vague, this proposition does not exhaust Peirce's analysis of intellectual meaning.

        Peirce's analysis of meaning (as of 1877-78) is developed in "How to Make our Ideas Clear," specifically in reflection on the nature and purpose of thought. All thought, he says, is initiated only by the irritation of doubt; and all thought comes to rest only in the satisfying condition of belief. Doubt sparks thought because doubt leaves us in a condition of indecision about how to act in the current situation. Belief, once achieved, amounts to settling upon a habit of action for future situations of the same kind as the current one. "But the soul and meaning of thought, abstracted from the other elements which accompany it, though it may be voluntarily thwarted, can never be made to direct itself toward anything but the production of belief." (W 3:263)

        Belief, for Peirce, amounts to a habit of action that can (we hope) direct our decisions and actions in future situations similar to the one in which the habit was first formed. Thus, two beliefs can be differentiated only by differences in the action to which they give rise.

Now the identity of a habit depends on how it might lead us to act, not merely under such circumstances as are likely to arise, but under such as might possibly occur, no matter how improbable they may be. What the habit is depends on when and how it causes us to act. As for the when, every stimulus to action is derived from perception; as for the how, every purpose of action is to produce some sensible result. Thus, we come down to what is tangible and practical, as the root of every real distinction of thought, no matter how subtile [sic] it may be; and there is no distinction of meaning so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of practice. (W 3:265)
        From this reflection on the nature and purpose of thought, Peirce arrives at his formulation of the pragmatic theory of meaning: "Consider what effects, which 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." (W 3:266) For example, the clear meaning of "weight" in everyday life as well as in physics is: "To say that a body is heavy means simply that, in the absence of opposing force, it will fall. This (neglecting certain specifications of how it will fall, etc., which exist in the mind of the physicist who uses the word) is evidently the whole conception of weight." (W 3:267)

        What inference may we draw at this point? We are concerned in this essay with questions at the elementary level: Does Qutb's rendition of Peirce's pragmatism (as of 1877-78) adequately reflect Peirce's thinking?

        Regarding the meaning of "meaning" Qutb's summary (SJI 289-290) is not so much wrong as it is incomplete. Qutb correctly reflects the fact that thinking in Peirce's analysis is bound up with our transactions with objects in the world and with the consequences of our transactions. But there is much more in Peirce's analysis than finds its way onto the page in Qutb's presentation. Peirce bases his analysis of meaning in a larger theory about the nature and purpose of human thought. Qutb never mentions this basis; his reliance on the inadequate statements of Fahm suggests that Qutb was not acquainted with the original text. Whether or not Qutb would have been persuaded by Peirce, or whether or not we are persuaded by Peirce, are questions entirely beyond our present purposes. We merely observe that the fullness of Peirce's thinking is lacking in SJI.

11.  Truth.  In the Qutb / Fahm version of Peirce's pragmatism, "… the truth of the idea of God does not depend on logical necessity; it depends solely on the profit of this idea to our present life, in our daily activity, and in our experiences." (SJI 292) Presumably, the truth of any idea (in Qutb's understanding of Peirce) would likewise depend on its profitability for our purposes. Qutb now claims a stark opposition between Islam and pragmatism because "… when we follow out its [pragmatism's] logic to a conclusion we find that the idea of God must disappear if the outward benefits of material life are not forthcoming. When this happens the idea of God loses its existence because it cannot control its instruments and set the machinery in motion." (SJI 292-293) In short, the Qutb / Fahm view holds that true ideas are, so to speak, ideas that work for me.[19] But is this an accurate rendition of Peirce?

        The meaning and status of "truth" with Peirce is puzzling at first glance. In "Fixation of Belief" Peirce seems to dismiss the notion that thought aims at truth. Noting that thought begins with real doubt, he observes that all thought comes to an end with the attainment of belief – regardless of the truth of that particular belief. "Hence, the sole object of inquiry is the settlement of opinion. We may fancy that this is not enough for us, and that we seek, not merely an opinion, but a true opinion. But put this fancy to the test, and it proves groundless; for as soon as a firm belief is reached we are entirely satisfied, whether the belief be true or false. … The most that can be maintained is, that we seek for a belief that we shall think to be true." (W 3: 248)

        But the dismissal of "truth" is only apparent. The above statement addresses only the conditions at which human inquiries in fact start and stop, not the conditions of good inquiry or reasoning. Those conditions are hinted in "Fixation of Belief."

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. … A being the premises and B the conclusion, the question is, whether these facts are really so related that if A is B is. If so, the inference is valid; if not, not. (W 3: 244)
Since our survival depends on the reliability of some of our reasoning, we have every motivation to test our reasoning at every turn. And repeated trials of our reasoning produce certain habits of mind.

The habit is good or otherwise, according as it produces true conclusions from true premises or not; and an inference is regarded as valid or not, without reference to the truth or falsity of its conclusions specially, but according as the habit which determines it is such as to produce true conclusions in general or not. (W3:245)
Stated formally, these habits comprise a sort of logic-in-use.

        Against this background, a distinctive conception of truth emerges, and is stated by Peirce in "How to Make Our Ideas Clear." "The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real." (W 3:273)

        It may seem easy to dismiss this rendition of truth as "merely subjective," as what like-minded people happen to agree to on a given day. This misunderstanding is avoided when we place adequate emphasis on what Peirce means by "the real."

But the answer to this is that, on the one hand, reality is independent, not necessarily of thought in general, but only of what you or I or any finite number of men may think about it; and that, on the other hand, though the object of the final opinion depends on what that opinion is, yet what that opinion is does not depend on what you or I or any man thinks. Our perversity and that of others may indefinitely postpone the settlement of opinion; it might even conceivably cause an arbitrary proposition to be universally accepted as long as the human race should last. Yet even that would not change the nature of the belief, which alone could be the result of investigation carried sufficiently far; and if, after the extinction of our race, another should arise with faculties and disposition for investigation, that true opinion must be the one which they would ultimately come to. 'Truth crushed to earth shall rise again,' and the opinion which would finally result from investigation does not depend on how anybody may actually think. But the reality of that which is real does depend on the real fact that investigation is destined to lead, at last, if continued long enough, to a belief in it. (W 3:274)
        Clearly, as with the topic of "meaning," much more is said in Peirce's 1877-78 essays than is reflected in the Qutb / Fahm version of pragmatism. Once again, we leave aside the question whether Qutb would agree or not to this expanded statement of Peirce; and we leave aside any question of the adequacy or correctness of Peirce's statements on truth and reality. We are concerned only with the initial task of finding out whether the picture of pragmatism that unfolds in SJI is an adequate representation of Peirce. To date, it seems that there is much lacking.

12.  Revelation.   In one important passage in his discussion of pragmatism Qutb mentions the central importance of revelation in Islam. "The Islamic line of thought differs to a greater or lesser extent from that of pure intellectual theory, insofar as it does not entrust the whole question to human logic alone, but relies also upon revelation. But it is in complete opposition to pragmatism; for when ..." (SJI 292, emphasis added; see section 8 above for the full quotation.) What is the status of revelation in Peirce's pragmatism in the texts under consideration?

        Peirce does not use the word "revelation" in the essays "Fixation of Belief" or "How to Make Our Ideas Clear."[20] It is true that in "Fixation of Belief" Peirce examines four methods, historically employed by humans, to relieve the irritation of doubt and establish belief. They are the method of tenacity, of authority, the a priori (or method of fashion) and the scientific method. None of these comes remotely near what Qutb means by revelation since, in Islamic context, revelation denotes God's communication, through the angel Gabriel, directly to a human (especially to Muhammad). Revelation, in this sense, is simply not a method of inquiry employed by humans.[21] It is a method employed by God. On this matter, we must say that the Peirce texts under examination are simply not responsive to an important concern of Qutb.[22]

13.  God. We have seen above that on the Qutb / Fahm representation, Peirce's pragmatism affirms the existence of God in only the most tenuous fashion – one affirms God only so long as the affirmation works to the person's benefit. It is not difficult to see why such a view would be shocking and offensive to a devout Muslim like Qutb. The heart of Islam is submission to the will of Allah. And to pledge belief only so long as it is beneficial is the height, or very near it, of Kufr or willful, arrogant disbelief such as one finds in a time of jahiliyyah or "ignorance."

        How do things stand with Peirce? In the essays under consideration Peirce does not directly address the meaning of "God." He neither affirms nor denies God's existence, nor does he indicate how a pragmatist is likely to approach these specific questions. To be sure, Peirce addresses a Christian theological dispute in "How to Make Our Ideas Clear." Specifically, he finds the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation to be "senseless jargon." (W3:266) But his application of the pragmatic theory of meaning to this dispute is not subsequently applied to the concept of "God." It is left to the reader to apply the criterion of meaning stated above:

Consider what effects, which 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. (W 3:266)
        As with the concept of revelation, the existence and attributes of God do not receive significant attention in "Fixation of Belief" or "How to Make Our Ideas Clear." Beyond these essays there are numerous references to "God" in Peirce's writings. There is also autobiographical evidence that through most of Peirce's life he "… could not reconcile my notions of common sense and of evidence with propositions of the [Episcopal] creed …"[23] And finally there is the interesting story of Peirce's "mystical" experience in 1892. (Brent, 210) But none of this is within the scope of our present investigation, namely the essays of 1877-78.

        If we draw ourselves back to the essays under consideration we must conclude, I think, that there is no evidence supporting the beliefs or arguments that Qutb or Fahm attribute to Peirce or to pragmatism. We are left wondering what premises would be invoked by Qutb or Fahm to support their conclusions about Peirce's pragmatism.

14.  Degradation of humans.  The final topic raised by Qutb's treatment of Peirce and pragmatism is his claim that "This [the conclusion that "material profit becomes the sole criterion"] implies a state of affairs in which man loses all nobility, where he is neither more nor less than an instrument." We have already commented that Qutb's inference needs explanation. What are the evidences that pragmatism (Peirce's, James' or Dewey's) culminates, in logic or in fact, with the degradation of the human beings? Nothing in the essays under consideration even faintly suggests this. And if Qutb or Fahm have in mind some later writing of Peirce, it is nowhere indicated.

15.  Conclusions.   Sayyid Qutb's vigorous attack upon Charles Peirce and his pragmatism in the pages of Social Justice in Islam first caught our attention. Qutb's treatment is impassioned, showing the importance he gave to the issues involved; and the counts of Qutb's indictment (under the headings of meaning, truth, revelation, God and the degradation of humankind) are specific enough to require some detailed consideration of the relevant texts of Peirce.

        Yet we have found that Qutb's understanding of Peirce and his pragmatism leaves much to be desired. There are points of accuracy. But especially concerning Peirce's theory of meaning and his theory of truth, Qutb simply does not possess a sufficient grasp of Peirce's writings. One reason for this lack of understanding may be Qutb's reliance on secondary sources such as Jacob Fahm's Pragmatism or the Philosophy of Means.

        An advocate of Qutb's position might well reply that Peirce, on his part, does not give us much evidence, at least in "Fixation of Belief" and "How to Make Our Ideas Clear," to draw conclusions on such important questions as religious revelation, the existence of God or the question whether pragmatism leads inevitably to the degradation of humankind. To be sure, Peirce does not explicitly address these topics in these essays. But unless and until basic issues in the theory of meaning and the theory of truth get clearly and accurately stated, there seems little point in hunting through the rest of Peirce's writings to see what he might reply to Qutb on these topics.

        It seems that Qutb did not understand Peirce adequately. This conclusion might lend an air of futility to the foregoing essay, were it not for the present cultural strife that now clouds the horizon. Current complaints from militant Islamists about western, specifically pragmatic American culture echo Qutb's complaints. Despite the adequacy or inadequacy of Qutb's understanding, those complaints need to be addressed. If this essay serves to initiate discussion, it will have served an important purpose.


[1] al-'Adalat al-Ijtima 'iyyah fi 'l-Islam was published in Egypt in 1949 by Maktabat Misr, Cairo. It was translated into English by John B. Hardie and published in 1953 by the American Council of Learned Societies. The book under consideration in this article is a revised translation by Hamid Algar, with Introduction also by Algar, published in 2000 by Islamic Publications International, Oneonta, New York (ISBN1-889999-11-3). Future references will be to SJI plus a page number. [RETURN]

[2] The facts I now relate are from Hamid Algar's helpful "Introduction" to SJI. [RETURN]

[3] John Dewey, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry in John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925-1953, Volume 12: 1938; edited by Jo Ann Boydston (Edwardsville & Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986), page 343 n. [RETURN]

[4] Regarding "materialistic" culture, its Roman origins and its differences from Christianity, see SJI 20-25. Regarding modern materialism and its incompatibility with Islam see SJI 279-284, and below, section IV. [RETURN]

[5] Qutb gives no extended explanation of what he means by the "pure sciences." Presumably, he might regard Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1686) as an example of pure science. It would qualify because Newton's definitions and laws (for example the "law of gravity") apply both to Muhammad and to us regardless of whether he or we know it, regardless of what language we use and regardless of whether we are believers or not. The same might be said, perhaps, of the laws studied by mathematicians. But even if Newton's physics or mathematics exemplifies "pure science," Qutb's analysis soon raises doubt about whether the distinction is real or merely verbal. [RETURN]

[6] The word "this" refers to the immediately foregoing paragraph, which I have quoted, ending with the sentence: "It is this path that has produced the present ailments of mankind, and which is responsible for their present troubles." [RETURN]

[7] Again, "this" refers to the immediately foregoing paragraph, which I have quoted, ending in the sentence: "All this will in due time produce new forms of society based on a new philosophy, or at least based on a theory of life that must be influenced by these developments in the course of life." [RETURN]

[8] Three pages later (SJI 291) Qutb explicitly recommends that no study of western thought be allowed to students unless it is preceded by a thorough treatment of Islamic thought. [RETURN]

[9] For reasons elaborated below in section IV, 9, we can reasonably guess by the date that Qutb is referring to the set of essays that appeared in Popular Science Monthly during 1877-'78, under the title "Illustrations of the Logic of Science," especially "Fixation of Belief" and "How to Make Our Ideas Clear." [RETURN]

[10] No date or place of publication for Fahm's book is given by the editor, Hamid Algar, in footnote #56 at SJI 324. I have searched in vain the holdings of several research university libraries and the Library of Congress for a copy, or the complete citation, for this book. Moreover, Professor Algar informs me by email that he has been likewise unable to find a complete citation. [RETURN]

[11] Fahm doesn't handle his example well. A pragmatist would not dismiss questions concerning the origin or production of the idea "automobile horn." This is because different consequences follow, if the idea is a product of imagination as distinct from actuality. In this case, Fahm seems not to have been a helpful guide to Qutb in understanding Peirce. [RETURN]

[12] This sentence is unclear to me. First, the "… acceptance or the rejection of things …" might mean the affirmation or denial of certain propositions concerning those things. But this reading would import a possibly alien theory of propositional truth into Qutb's text. Second, it is unclear how "… material profit becomes the sole criterion ... of [the] existence or non-existence [of things]." Many things, for example sunny weather or hurricanes, exist despite their profitability or lack of profitability. Both issues are treated with greater clarity by Peirce's definition of truth and reality. See below, section IV, 11. [RETURN]

[13] Qutb's inference here needs explanation. What are the evidences that pragmatism (Peirce's, James' or Dewey's) culminates, in logic or in fact, with the degradation of the human beings? [RETURN]

[14] The views here attributed to Qutb are elaborated at length in the early chapters of SJI. [RETURN]

[15] Though James and Dewey are mentioned, there is no indication that Qutb distinguishes their theories. Failure to distinguish Peirce, James and Dewey may have been a result of Qutb's reliance on secondary sources such as Jacob Fahm. [RETURN]

[16] I believe that Peirce aimed to be a systematic thinker, but that his thinking developed through stages. I am influenced in this view by sources such as the following. Murray G. Murphey, The Development of Peirce's Philosophy (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993); Peirce, Semeiotic and Pragmatism: Essays by Max Fisch, edited by Kenneth L. Ketner and Christian J. W. Kloesel (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), especially Fisch's essay "Peirce's Progress from Nominalism toward Realism (1967)"; Nathan Houser's "Introduction" to The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, Volume I, edited by Nathan Houser and Christian Kloesel (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992). [RETURN]

[17] See Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition, Volume 3, 1872-1878, Christian J. W. Kloesel, editor (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 242-374. The Writings will hereafter be abbreviated W, followed by a volume number in Arabic numeral and a page number, for example, "W 3: 242-374." [RETURN]

[18] See Chance, Love, and Logic: Philosophical Essays by the Late Charles S. Peirce, the Founder of Pragmatism (© 1923 by Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc.), edited with an Introduction by Morris R. Cohen and Supplementary Essay on the Pragmatism of Peirce by John Dewey (New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1956). [RETURN]

[19] One is here reminded of William James' formulation of truth. "True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot. … Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is an event, a process." See Pragmatism: a New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998) p. 97. [RETURN]

[20] This claim has been verified electronically using the Past Masters Humanities Databases, Full Text Scholarly Editions, © 1992 by InteLex Corporation. [RETURN]

[21] To be sure, individuals or human communities may persist in believing in revelation through the use of Peirce's method of tenacity or authority or the a priori method. It is an interesting question whether humans can successfully maintain a belief in divine revelation using the method of science. But this question leads us away from our immediate concerns. [RETURN]

[22] There are other texts of Peirce that do use the word "revelation." But the reader is reminded that our present task is limited to examination of two essays of 1877-78. [RETURN]

[23] See Joseph Brent, Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life (Bloomington & Indianapolis: University of Indiana Press, 1998), p. 209. [RETURN]

END OF:  Charles Seibert, "Sayyid Qutb's Understanding of Charles Peirce"


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