Charles S. Peirce

Chapter IV. Of Reality

MS 204 (Robin 372, 371, 333): Writings 3, 54-59
Fall 1872

        There is, then, a reality or something independent of what you or I or any number of men, may think about it. What is the mode of existence of this reality?

        It is a truism to say that what I think depends entirely on what I think it to be. The reality therefore is not per se an immediate object of my thought, though my thought may happen to coincide with it. Yet reality must have some intimate connection with what is in the mind or it would be vain for us to hope by following certain rules of reasoning to arrive at the truth.

        Investigation, as a method of settling opinion, goes upon the assumption, that every such process, if conducted rightly and carried far enough, will reach one destined conclusion. The process of investigation itself consists necessarily of two parts, one by which a belief is generated from others, which is called reasoning; and another by which new elements of belief are brought into the mind, which is called observation. Reasoning has been likened to a chain, because while it develops and modifies beliefs, all that it results in depends ultimately on something else, namely, on observation. While the final conclusion is one and the same in the minds of all who carry their researches far enough, the observations on which it hangs are for every man private and peculiar. Sometimes the difference of premises is very obvious as when Copernicus infers the rotation of the earth from the general movement of the heavenly bodies, Bradley from the aberration of light, and Fizeau from the manner in which a pendulum swings: But a close scrutiny will show that a difference always exists. No two observers can make the same observation. The observations which I made yesterday are not the same which I make today. Nor are simultaneous observations at different observatories the same, however close together the observatories are placed. Every man's senses are his observatory. Two men cannot therefore make the same observation any more than one man can repeat an observation. We may go further yet and say that two observations are not only not the same, but they are not in themselves in any degree alike. The judgment that they are alike is not contained in either observation (since they do not relate to one another) but is a belief generated by the two beliefs in which the two observations immediately result, and is therefore an inference of reasoning, as that has just been defined. Thus our reasonings begin from the most various premises (otherwise no process of investigation to settle belief would be necessary) and lead ultimately to one conclusion.

        The reality must be connected with this chain of reasoning at one or other extremity. According as we place it at one end or the other, we have realism or nominalism.

        The reality must be so connected with our thought that it will determine the conclusion of true investigation. But the conclusion depends on the observations. Reality must then be connected with sensation as its cause (or to use another phrase, as its possibility) and this is the nominalistic theory of reality.

        But reality is independent of the individual accidental element of thought. Now on the observation end of the chain of reasoning all is accidental and individual. But at the conclusion end is one result to which alone investigation will ultimately lead. The personal prejudices or other peculiarities of generations of men may postpone indefinitely an agreement in this opinion; but no human will or limitation can make the final result of investigation to be anything else than that which it is destined to be. The reality, then, must be identified with what is thought in the ultimate true opinion. This is the realistic view of reality.

        To reconcile these two theories, it may be supposed that entirely independent of all thought there exist such things as we shall think in the final opinion; that these things affect our senses and that the nature of the mind is such that these sensations will at last lead us to the true opinion.

        This I take to be the metaphysics most commonly adopted. But the idealists have shown that this is mere words without meaning. What we think when we have an opinion are thoughts. What is meant by the distinction between thoughts which exist independent of all thought and thoughts which do not so exist but only exist as thoughts? This distinction, if it exist, lies in a region wholly out of thought, to which neither our thoughts nor those of any being whatever can penetrate. It follows that there is no idea of any sort in our mind or in any possible mind corresponding to this distinction; it is therefore a distinction in words without any distinction in sense. We may put the argument another way. A conception is said to be true if there exists such a thing independent of all thought. But a thing out of all thought can have no likeness to another, for likeness is the common element that two notions have. Seeing this, some metaphysicians say that a true conception is one which corresponds to a thing existing independent of all thought. But nothing is gained by substituting one relation of reason for another; a thing corresponds to another only so far as the mind regards them as correlates. It would be quite beside the purpose to say that a true conception is one which is produced by something existing out of thought; for that would be equivalent to saying that a logically inferred notion is true and an illogical one false, thus placing the distinction in what takes place in thought. Every way considered therefore there is a complete vacuity of meaning in saying that independent of all thought there exist such things as we shall think in the final opinion.

        All that we can know or conceive of the existence of real is involved in two premises; first, that investigation will ultimately lead to a settled opinion, and, second, that this opinion is entirely determined by the observations. The only thing that we can infer is that the observations have such a character that they are fated to lead ultimately to one conclusion. And therefore the only distinctly conceivable sense in which we can say that the objects of the final opinion exist before that opinion is formed is that that existence consists in the fact that the observations will be such as will bring about and maintain that opinion.

        Suppose that we were all of us omniscient and knew the full and precise truth about everything. Then the beliefs of all of us would be identical. So much so that the barriers of individuality would be partly broken down. We should have separate minds indeed because while one of us was attending particularly to one thing another might be attending to another, and our desires might to a certain extent centre about ourselves and our surroundings as they do now. Imagine these limitations removed and there would be no respect left in which one man's thought would differ from another's. Mind would cease to be a private belonging. But I won't suppose this but only that we all should know everything. The agreement then in the objects of belief would amount to identity. And these objects would not be fictions but realities. To draw any distinction whatever in that case between the object of belief and the reality would be idle. It would be a distinction without a difference, for any discrepancy between the object believed to exist and the reality is error. This is a simple demonstration that the conception of the reality as it is for itself in contradistinction to the reality as it may be known is a self-contradictory conception. For in the case we have supposed the very reality would be an object of belief—a thought. The race, the community is perpetually tending toward such a state. It is true we shall never know the true answer to every question, but in regard to any question concerning which there is doubt, a struggle to rid ourselves from doubt, and an attempt at investigation, we go on the assumption that sufficient research—involving perhaps more experience and reasoning than our race will ever attain to—would produce this state of true belief. If the agreement between belief and reality were perfect the object of belief and the very reality would be completely identical. If then the agreement is partly attained a partial identity is established. That which is believed in, in true knowledge, is real. It appears then that the reality is something with which thought may be identified and frequently is partially identified, not using the word thought to mean what takes place in the brain but as the object which is brought before us when the act of cerebration takes place.

        A host of specious objections to this view will quickly suggest themselves. I cannot refute them or support it, without presuming a clear apprehension of the principles of reasoning which it is the business of logic to elucidate. I will only say that though it seems to me that the principle of the identity of the object of true knowledge with the reality is necessary for the scientific setting forth of the doctrines of logic, yet I do not imagine that those who cannot accept it will have any difficulty in admitting so much of the consequences of it as will be needed for proving the rules of right reasoning. When these have been carefully studied, we may return to this question and I hope then not only to remove the objections to this doctrine but also to fortify it by showing how it serves to bind together and explain these maxims of reasoning themselves.

        Let it be granted, then, that the conception of an object which should not only be beyond a given man's thought but beyond all possible thought is an absurdity. In admitting this we do not annul the distinction between a reality and a fiction. If an object is of whatever character I or any man or men will have it to be or imagine it, it is a fiction; but if its characters are independent of what you or I or any number of men think about it, it is a reality. The object of that final settled opinion to which it is supposed that an investigation will lead, if carried far enough, satisfies this definition of reality; for though the perversity of generations of men may postpone the agreement indefinitely, yet it cannot alter the character of the belief which alone can be permanently established.

        But when, to avoid the strangeness of saying that the new elements of belief that spring up in the mind, no matter how we vary them by changing the circumstances of their emergence, will inevitably be such as shall lead us at last to a destined conclusion, we preferred to say that these origins of belief are produced in us by the action of realities upon sense and must therefore be relative to these fixed realities, we have not, according to what has just been urged, stated any additional fact to explain what we found strange but have only stated the strange fact in a more familiar way. For in the one case we have said that the observations are determined by what is to be finally believed in, and in the other case we have said that they are determined by the realities. But it now appears that the object finally believed in (if investigation is pushed so far) is absolutely identical with the realities.

        It is true that the belief is future and may even not ever be attained, while the reality actually exists. But the act of believing is one thing, the object of belief another. Nor need anyone who is familiar with the conceptions of physical science shrink from admitting that the existence of a present reality is in one sense made by a contingent event. Nobody hesitates to say that a leaden weight resting upon a table is really heavy. Yet to say that it is heavy only means that if it be so placed that it is free to move it will approach the earth. The existence of any physical force is nothing but the truth of the fact that if certain conditions shall be complied with certain accelerations will take place. There is a school of natural philosophers well-worthy of that name who considering that matter is nothing apart from its properties and that its properties are nothing but forces, say that matter itself is nothing but the locus of force; so that its existence, also, depends on the fact if something happens something else happens. Thus we find the physicists, the exactest of thinkers, holding in regard to those things which they have studied most exactly, that their existence depends on their manifestations or rather on their manifestability. We have only to extend this conception to all real existence and to hold these two facts to be identical, namely that they exist and that sufficient investigation would lead to a settled belief in them, to have our Idealistic theory of metaphysics. This doctrine is that observation and reasoning are perpetually leading us towards certain opinions and that the fact of such a perpetual tendency is otherwise expressed by saying that the objects of those final opinions have a real existence.