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04 August 2011

Peirce on Structure and Agency

I'm reading Menand's Pragmantism: A Reader.  The following is an excerpt from C.S. Peirce's "The Fixation of Belief" that fits well with my own sense of structure and agency, though he doesn't use those terms.  Prior to this part, he argues that the object of inquiry is "the settlement of opinion."  This section is meant to answer the question, if that is the object of inquiry, then what's to keep people from forming whatever opinions they like and holding onto them while ignoring or degrading those they don't like.  First he argues that an individual cannot do so because individuals live in societies, and the individual will quickly discover that others hold different opinions - this alone is sufficient to raise doubt in his mind of the validity of his own opinions.  The problem, then, "becomes how to fix belief, not in the individual merely, but in the community." This leads to the following:
"Let the will of the state act, then, instead of that of the individual.  Let an institution be created which shall have for its object to keep correct doctrines before the attention of the people, to reiterate them perpetually, and to teach them to the young; having at the same time power to prevent contrary doctrines from being taught, advocated, or expressed.  Let all possible causes of change of mind be removed from men's apprehensions.  Let them be kept ignorant, lest they should learn of some reason to think otherwise than they do.  Let their passions be enlisted, so that they may regard private and unusual opinions with hatred and horror.  Then, let all men who reject the established belief be terrified into silence.  Let the people who turn out and tar-and-feather such men, or let inquisitions be made in the manner of thinking of suspected persons, and, when they are found guilty of forbidden beliefs, let them be subjected to some signal punishment.  When complete agreement could not otherwise be reached, a general massacre of all who have not thought in a certain way has proved a very effective means of settling opinion in a country.  If the power to do this be wanting, let a list of opinions be drawn up, to which no man of the least independence of thought can assent, and let the faithful be required to accept all these propositions, in order to segregate them as radically as possible from the influence of the rest of the world.
"This method has, from the earliest times, been one of the chief means of upholding correct theological and political doctrines, and of preserving their universal or catholic character.  In Rome, especially, it has been practiced from the days of Numa Pompilius to those of Pius Nonus.  This is the most perfect example in history; but wherever there is a priesthood - and no religion has been without one - this method has been more or less made use of.  Wherever there is an aristocracy, or a guild, or any association of a class of men whose interests depend or are supposed to depend on certain propositions, there will be inevitably found some traces of this natural product of social feeling.  Cruelties always accompany this system; and when it is consistently carried out, they become atrocities of the most horrible kind in the eyes of any rational man.  Nor should this occasion surprise, for the officer of a society does not feel justified in surrendering the interests of that society for the sake of mercy, as he might his own private interests.  It is natural, therefore, that sympathy and fellowship should thus produce a most ruthless power.
"In judging this method of fixing belief, which may be called the method of authority, we must, in the first place, allow its immeasurable mental and moral superiority to the method of tenacity.  Its success is proportionately greater; and, in fact, it has over and over again worked the most majestic results.  The mere structures of stone which it has caused to be put together - in Siam, for example, in Egypt, and in Europe - have many of them a sublimity hardly more than rivaled by the greatest works of Nature.  And, except the geological epochs, there are no periods of time so fast as those which are measured by some of these organized faiths.  If we scrutinize the matter closely, we shall find that there has not been one of their creeds which has remained always the same; yet the change is so slow as to be imperceptible during one person's life, so that individual belief remains sensibly fixed.  For the mass of mankind, then, there is perhaps no better method than this.  If it is their highest impulse to be intellectual slaves, then slaves they ought to remain.
"But no institution can undertake to regulate opinions upon every subject.  Only the most important ones can be attended to, and on the rest men's minds must be left to the action of natural causes.  This imperfection will be no source of weakness so long as men are in such a state of culture that one opinion does not influence another - that is, so long as they cannot put two and two together.  But in the most priestridden states some individuals will be found who are raised above that condition.  These men possess a wider sort of social feeling; the see that men in other countries and in other ages have held to very different doctrines from those which they themselves have been brought up to believe; and they cannot help seeing that it is the mere accident of their having been taught as they have, and of their having been surrounded with the manners and associations they have, that has caused them to believe as they do and not far differently.  Ant their candor cannot resist the reflection that there is no reason to rate their own views at a higher value than those of other nations and other centuries; and this gives rise to doubts in their minds."

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