Friday, February 08, 2013


If we can trust to the lessons of the history of the human mind, of the history of habits of life, development does not take place chiefly by imperceptible changes but by revolutions..... That habit  alone can produce development I do not believe. It is catastrophe, accident, reaction which brings habit into an active condition and creates a habit of changing habits.



    Why Peirce and Marx? But why not? As we approach the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution  and the death anniversary of the United States’s most insightful philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), it might be a wise ecumenical gesture to review the fraught, even contentious, relation between Marxism and pragmaticism.  A precautionary word: I use Peirce’s “ugly” rubric “pragmaticism” to distinguish it from the vulgarized coopted use of the term to classify the world-views of William James, John Dewey, Richard Rorty, and latter-day saints of neoconservative instrumentalism.  Indeed postmodern neopragmatism—despite Cornel West’s (1993) conciliatory defense—serves today as the ideology of globalized predatory capitalism par excellence. Peirce who subtly denounced US imperialist annexation of the Philippines in 1899 would be appalled by Rorty’s unconscionable jingoist ethnocentrism.

    Early on Peirce felt scandalized that he had become an overnight celebrity due to James’s popularization of selected formulas and idioms ostensibly derived from Peirce. In 1878, Peirce qualified the Cartesian requirement for ideas to be clear and distinct with a third criterion for propositions to be meaningful, namely, practical consequences. The phrase “practical consequences” (in the sense of a guide to future practice, not current usefulness for private ends) has become the source of persistent misconstruals. Peirce stated: “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” (1998, 146). In one of his last caveats on how to interpret the maxim, he stipulated that the elements of every concept in logical thought enter "at the gate of perception and make their exit at the gate of purposive action" (998, 241) or "controlled conduct" with an ethical rationality.  In this context, John Dewey's term "instrumentalism" is not only rebarbative but inappropriate for Peirce's world-view.

    In the widely-quoted Pragmatism, William James offered a cheap psychological fix: “Ideas become true just so far as they help us get into satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience” (1955, 12). This is a feel-good recipe for mass consumption. James’s valorization of self-centered expediency or pivate utility compelled Peirce to disclaim any complicity with it. The lesson seems clear. We need to rectify not only our terms but also their references or designata, better yet, their interpretants if we hope to rescue pragmaticism from transmogrification, and re-establish a fruitful dialogic transaction between these two streams of radical or non-conformist thought.

            Amateur of Suspicion

    Suspicion if not outright hostility has characterized the participants of this vexatious dialogue. Obviously the task of comparison cannot be done outside already sedimented parameters, doctrinally charged contexts, and polemical presuppositions. One can try only at the risk of exacerbating, or even confounding, the motives and goals of such a dialogue. Perhaps the most provocative scholarly review of this fraught relation to date was Brian Lloyd’s Left Out: Pragmatism, Exceptionalism, and the Poverty of American Marxism 1890-1922 (1997), which aroused predominantly adversarial reactions. Obviously Lloyd restricted himself only to a limited historical period and well-known protagonists, not even seriously engaging with Peirce’s theses and arguments. As Michael Denning aptly remarked, Lloyd begged the question of pragmatism’s originality by subjecting the “theoretical acumen” of one of its applications, the Debsian socialist program, to the “litmus tests of the European war and the Bolshevik Revolution.” Lacking the historical specificities grounding the emergence of such phenomena as revolutionary industrial unionism, Veblen, radical Darwinism, etc., Lloyd failed to explain the exact measure in which such theories acquired their rationale from the interplay of social forces, intellectuals, and historical legacies. That is why Lloyd excludes such players as W.E.B. Du Bois and C.L.R. James in his narrative of anti-capitalist ideas and movements, not to mention late-nineteenth century anticolonialists such as the Filipino Isabelo de los Reyes and the Cuban Jose Marti.

    Right off, I should warn the reader that I am not concerned here with elaborating on the virtues or inadequacies of Lloyd’s work (which deserves a separate essay).  The point simply is to underscore the importance of this heuristic attempt to find analogues, if not echoes, of materialist dialectics in Peirce’s speculations. A cognate enterprise focused on a single figure which may profitably be compared with Lloyd is Christopher Phelps’ Young Sidney Hook: Pragmatist and Marxist (1997). Again, I will refer to Hook only insofar as his inflection of pragmatist motifs might be useful in demarcating it from Peirce’s innovative proposals.

    This schematic mapping also involves the more troubling question of Marxism and its historical interpretation and concrete realization. This pertains to the multiple marxisms, not just “Western Marxism” (Lukacs, Gramsci, Adorno).  Aside from disavowing any longing for some authentic or true marxism, I believe something can be gained by socialist militants becoming familiar with Peirce’s semiotics and the value of his normative realism in the critique of fashionable Nietzschean/Heideggerian avantgardism, for example, or its parodies. We cannot escape Karl Korsch’s advice that Marxism be grasped as centered on historical specification (1971). This coincides with Lukacs’ own insight that Marxism is really the unity of theory and practice hinging on the dialectical/historical method of analyzing systemic change (1971). Neither Lenin’s axioms nor the Bolshevik paradigm can serve as the universal measure of the potential value of Peirce’s original discoveries. Nor can the failures of its alleged proponents be considered decisive in spelling the end of a complex research program first envisioned by Peirce as the clarification of meaning or of the purport of propositions claiming to be substantive knowledge (on the Peircean linkage of theory and praxis, see Apel 1995).

We are engaged here with the history of ideas/theories in their historical grounding and sociopolitical resonance. Just as Marx sought to fuse theory and practice, dismantling the conventional disjunction of traditional materialism and pietistic idealism, Peirce conceived his task as a singular if necessary one: it is that of defining the proper vocation of the philosopher/public intellectual as the discoverer of testable knowledge by a community of inquirers. To put it another way, it is essentially the resolution of philosophy’s salient and enduring problems by reconstructing the foundations of logic, of the scientific method, within an evolutionary communal perspective. By the same token, pragmatism also has to be judged in terms of historical specificity and local efficacity.  Its practictioners, from Peirce and James to Dewey, Mead, and others, need to be framed in the historical context of the cultural, political and economic conflicts of their times, that is, the concrete contradictions in the U.S. social formation within the global historical process. Accordingly, our itinerary will be tentative and provisional, treated basically as steps in the interminable road of inquiry, heeding Peirce's slogan not to block that road.

Expelled from the Orthodox Sanctuary

We might inquire less on how pragmatism became the object of attack by Marxist critics as on what key ideas seem most objectionable. A history of misconstruals can eventually be drawn up after sketching the “bones of contention.” Elaborations of these crucial anathemas and oppositions may be sampled here. Apart from the somewhat inept condemnation of pragmatism as a “philosophy of imperialism” mounted by Harry K. Wells in 1954, one may cite the Trotskyite George Novack’s treatise, “Dialectical Materialism vs. Pragmatism: The Logic of John Dewey” (1974; later published as a book in 1975) and the orthodox British Marxist’s Maurice Conforth’s Science Versus Idealism: In Defense of Philosophy against Positivism and Pragmatism (1962; reprinted in 1975).  As late as 1976, John Hoffman lumps pragmatism as a species of  “subjective idealism” (145) similar to empiricism, phenomenalism, and positivism.  This is long after the 1967 publication of Karl-OttoApel's judicious summing-up of Peirce's philosophy and its refutation of neopositivism and crude empiricism ascribed to Peirce. A survey of the attacks against pragmatism as consolidated in John Dewey’s instrumentalism, but also implicating William James, will be attempted on another occasion.

 For a start, let us look at the definition given by the Soviet authorities. The 1967 edition of A Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by M. Rosenthal and P. Yudin, sets a standard for delimiting pragmatism as subjective idealism or obscurantism. Peirce is charged for being responsible for the principle of determining the value of truth by “its practical utility.” To William James is ascribed the practice of solving philosophical disputes “by means of comparing ‘practical consequences; truth, for pragmatists,  is ‘what works best in the way of leading us, what fits every part of life best and combines with the collectivity of experience’s demands” (1967, 357). The tendentious manner of quoting is revealing. The Soviet authors further ascribe a subjectivist understanding of practice and truth to pragmatists, making a concept an instrument of action (Dewey) and “cognition as the sum total of subjective truths,” as in the humanism of British philosopher F.C.S. Schiller. The Dictionary posits the belief that pragmatists uphold the “subjective interests of the individual,” which are equated with “practical utility.” The pragmatists are labelled “radical empiricists,” identifying objective reality with experience in which subject and object are permanently disjoined and polarized.

The Soviet text thus indicts pragmatism as subjectivist because it limits truth to practical utility viewed from an individualist optic, from crass expediency. James is dismissed as an open irrationalist, Dewey a covert one who regards the laws and forms of logic as useful fictions. The brunt of the charge is uncompromising: “Pragmatism subscribes to meliorism in ethics, while in sociology it varies from the cult of “outstanding individuals” (James) and apology for bourgeois democracy (Dewey) to an outright defence of racism and fascism (F.C.S. Schiller)” (1967, 358). Sidney Hook is then charged for anti-communism, for his “experimental naturalism.” Other manifestations are condemned: C.W. Morris’ semantic idealism,  P. W. Bridgman’s operationism (sic) , and the equally reprehensible logical formalism of C.I. Lewis, R. Carnap and W. Quine. Finally the Soviet experts conclude that pragmatism has given way to neo-positivism and religion as the dominant influence on the spiritual life of the United States.

A clue to the stubborn fixation on characterizing pragmatism as subjectivism may be found in the entry on Peirce in the Dictionary.  Peirce allegedly decreed the law that  “the value of an idea lies in its practical results” (1967, 335). And because results are identified with sensations, Peirce becomes a follower of Berkeley. This subjective-idealist theory of knowledge is then tied to the three methods of pragmatism: the methods of persistence, of authority, and the scientific method. The last statement was a blatant error, so it was omitted in the 1984 reprint. Finally, the authors acknowledge that Peirce also worked out an objective-idealist theory of development based on the principle of “chance” and “love” as guiding forces. Nonetheless Peirce is credited with having made significant contributions to semiotics, the theory of probability and the logic of relations.

Genealogy  of  Distortions

         How the Soviet experts can completely mis-read Peirce’s texts, may be clarified by examining the possible source of this muddle. In his polemic Pragmatism: Philosophy of Imperialism, Harry K. Wells identified the three methods of fixing belief that Peirce outlined as those of pragmatism. Clearly Peirce rejected the first two traditional methods, tenacity and authority, and proposed the third, the method of science. But Wells dismissed this as demagogy and solipsism, charging Peirce with positivism. This tack is often repeated in numerous “Marxist” judgments of pragmatism implicating Peirce’s early essays of 1877-78,  “The Fixation of Belief” and “How To Make Our Ideas Clear” (1998), without reference to the more substantial expositions of pragmaticism in the last decades of his life.

Peirce's pragmaticism needs to be historically specified to distinguish the early nominalist leanings and the later realist conviction. His early formulations (expressed originally in those two foundational essays but modified later in 1903 Harvard Lectures on pragmatism) seem to be so enigmatic that they generate the opposite of what they purport to convey. When Peirce argues that scientific beliefs depend on “some external permanency” not dependent on any single individual consciousness, Wells interprets this as a denial of the objective material world. When Peirce asserts that “Reality, like every other quality, consists in the peculiar sensible effects which things partaking of it produce…” and that in turn “cause belief” when reworked in consciousness, Wells accuses Peirce of reducing reality to a belief or a habit of action in which “we act as though a thing were real” (1954, 37).  While Peirce was striving to emphasize that reality does not depend on individual interest, Wells adamantly insists that Peirce was proposing a “doctrine of sheer expediency in means and ends, the doctrine that the end justifies the use of any means” (39). Such distortions are typical, replicated and inflected in various ways.

One would think that after a decade or more, Peirce’s ideas would finally receive a more intelligent reading. The highly acclaimed Marxist thinker Leszek Kolakowski follows the trend of labeling Peirce a positivist and, more flagrantly, a nominalist. He focuses on Peirce’s pragmatic test of meaning. The meaning of any statement lies in “what practical consequences it involves. Peirce explicitly goes so far as to say that the meaning of a judgment is entirely exhausted in its practical consequences” (1968, 151). But practical testability did not constitute truth, Kolakowski explains, since for Peirce, truth was “a relation of correspondence between judgments and actual states of affairs” which empirical criteria help humans to discover. While correctly estimating Peirce as chiefly concerned with “perfecting knowledge, not with its possible immediate benefits,” Kolakowski insists that Peirce’s denial of essences or any authentic reality behind phenomena distinguish him as a positivist, a “champion of scientism,” who holds that all questions that cannot be settled by the natural and deductive sciences be ignored or relegated to the realm of nonsense. This is directly contradicted by Peirce's belief that "our logically controlled thoughts compose a small part of the mind (1998, 241). The fact is that Peirce posited in Firstness the source of inexhaustible qualities, not a Kantian incognizable essence but a real generality retroducted or abducted by intersubjective communication (Habermas 1971, 135-37). This is the cognizable reality behind primitive sense-data which by inference become perceptual judgments, the outcome of intellectual operations. Moreover, Peirce emphasized that the act of conceiving effects translatable into habits of action allows "any flight of imagination, provided this imagination ultimately alights upon a possible practical effect" (1998, 235), with the imagination operative in the "general purposiveness" of action immanent in the category of Thirdness.

Why was Peirce engaged in examining the formation of beliefs (rules of action), habits of action, the interface between rationality and conduct?  Kolakowski cannot reconcile the larger ethical and political implications of Peirce’s inquiry, a task fully explored by the German philosophers Apel (1967; 1995) and Jurgen Habermas (1971). Nonetheless, Kolakowski concludes that in his theory of meaningfulness, Peirce belongs to the school of the Vienna logical positivists, associating him with Bertrand Russell, Alfred Ayer, and the early Ludwig Wittgenstein. Ayer, however, astutely separates James's notion of the "cash value" of words evoking sense-experiences from Peirce's scientific standards of fixing the meaning of words based on publicly repeatable procedures and evolving changes in our apprehension of the laws of nature (1982). However, this is not merely abstract formal verification as performed by the Vienna School and their followers; it involves prediction of outcomes of possible action, with social values and purposes invested in the logical clarification of meanings. As Kaplan puts it, pragmatist knowledge is not just a record of the past but "a reconstruction of the present directed toward fulfillments in the emerging future" (1961, 27).

Specifying Peirce’s Methodology

Before proceeding further in registering misreadings and one-sided glosses, let us review the fundamental theorems behind Pierce’s pragmaticist intervention.
The distinctive feature of Peirce’s theoretical stance is his affirmation of the reality of generals, of concepts that enable thought and the production of knowledge. This conviction regarding real general forces and objects constitutes Peirce’s realism (of the moderate kind aligned with the scholastic realism of Duns Scotus).  He describes his position thus: “No collection of facts can constitute a law, for the law goes beyond any accomplished facts and determines how facts that may be, but all of which never can have happened, shall be characterized.  There is no objection to saying that a law is a general fact, provided that it be understood that the general has an admixture of potentiality, so that no congeries of actions here and now can ever make a general fact” (1.420). For Peirce, "What anything really is, is what it may finally come to be known to be in the ideal state of complete information, so that reality depends on the ultimate decision of the community" of inquirers (5.316).  In the key notion of “potentiality,” which functions in Peirce’s analysis of the shifting roles of chance and determination, one may discern the motive-force of change, novelty, and sociohistorical transformations in people’s lives. Not only is the new always in the process of emerging; movements in reality are prefigured and anticipated in the deployment and articulation of signs.

This realism is diametrically opposed to nominalism which characterizes the foundational platform of positivists, idealists, neopragmatists. The nominalists are concerned only with particulars, dismissing generals or universal concepts as mere names, arbitrary fictions useful for language-games. Thus for nominalists there is no such thing as beauty or virtue, only particulars with properties that can be designated beautiful or virtuous. Facts, events, objects are entirely disconnected, for the nominalists; only the mind unites them.  This also explains the voguish rejection by deconstructionists and transnationlizing scholars of all generalities stigmatized as essentialism or universalism, or any claim to discovering knowledge applicable to societies across a range of cultures, times and places. An agnostic relativism ensues, with its attendant politics of nihilism or opportunism, at best of charitable pluralism and its latter incarnation, humanitarian imperialism (the refurbished version of the old "civilizing mission" of European empires).

But how do we define a concept? Peirce holds that if we act in a certain manner, then we will have certain experiences providing ideas—the practical result; these ideas constitute the meaning of the concept or general being defined. According to Peirce: “In order to ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception one should consider what practical consequences might conceivably result by necessity from the truth of that conception, and the sum of these consequences will constitute the entire meaning of the conception” (5.9). Note that “consequences” here simply means the process of connecting antecedents and consequents; the sum-total of those connections, sense-experiences eventually arranged into beliefs and habits of action, will enable the discovery of the relation between general ideas and reality (outside of any one’s mind), which Peirce’s realism privileges as the goal of experimental inquiry.

Peirce’s realism underlies his theory of the scientific method. In this way belief is fixed by the pressure of reality, not our consciousness, by means of publicly observable modes of investigation leading to some agreement, a social consensus. This socialized cooperative endeavor ultimately leads to the achievement of “concrete reasonableness.” It advances knowledge and the human control of the social and natural environments. To be sure, the charge of subjectivism immediately dissolves when we bear in mind Peirce’s stricture: “The real is that which is not whatever we happen to think, but is unaffected by what we may think of it” (8.12). This coincides with the Marxist principle of epistemic realism, with theory as "empirically controlled retroduction of an adequate account of the structures producing the manifest phenomena of socioeconomic life" (Bhaskar 1983, 434).  Knowing what is true is then not a result of  copying of appearances (the reflectionist or correspondence view of truth) but a product of a process of systematic inquiry.  Theory, the field of generals for Peirce, involves the making of hypothesis, more precisely abduction (the pragmatic maxim, in short) as the positing of universal propositions about structures (generals) inferred from perceptual judgments in experience (more on abduction later).

Always  Historicize

Realism (inflected as naturalism and materialism) embraces both epistemology and a research program, Peirce's "logic of inquiry." Antithetical to Alex Callinicos'  (1985) claim that Marx's realism holds that reality is independent of all interpretive activity, the second thesis on Feuerbach proclaims that "the question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but a practical question" (Marx-Engels 1978, 144). Marx concurs with Peirce provided "practice" is broadened to include the whole repertoire of logical-semiotic experimentation, with its ethical and aesthetic resonance.  Both Marx and Peirce recognized an objective reality independent of consciousness, but they also subscribed to the historicity of knowledge.

Analogous to Marx and Engel's reliance on organic intellectuals of the proletariat, Peirce also emphasized the community of knowledge-seekers, not solitary geniuses, committed to the pursuit of knowledge. It is a collective project sustained by publicly shared results and the fallible process of verification: “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” (5.407).  Truth then is the outcome of social agreement, subject to the test of falsifiability, and open to correction; a truth-claim refers to the real, to objective reality. Peirce’s theory of reality emerges from communal agreement adjusted to the needs of society.

Accordingly, reality is defined in terms of correlated human experiences, common deliberations, and comparative testing of results governed by rationally agreed rules of action. The process of knowing thus is a practical activity, though this does not reduce science to merely an epiphenomenal expression of the historical Zeitgeist and consequent ethical relativism. Nature and social forms are transitory and emergent, but their appearances cannot be fully cognized or comprehended without positing structures/theoretical ensembles via abduction, hypothetical inferences, and evaluating them via deduction, induction, and even intuitive guesses. Marx and Peirce are agreed on this methodical principle.  When Marx's historic rationalism (its progressive impetus informs Peirce's "concrete reasonableness") is combined with Peirce's epistemic realism, we obtain the most creative transaction between Peirce's pragmaticism and Marx-Engel's practical materialism and its singular mode of dialectical reasoning based on what John Bellamy Foster calls "the logic of emergence" (2000, 233; for an early review of the conflicted relation between scientism and Marxism, see Aronowitz 1988).

For Peirce the critical realist, the actual regularity of the universe can be explained by the action of forces acting in accordance with laws, but also accounting for deviations. In Marx's view, the phenomenal appearances in the universe can be understood only from hypothetical structures (for example, value) which are irreducible to phenomena or sense-data. The concrete real can be grasped in thought by a critical transformation of pre-existing theories and conceptions constitutive of the phenomena being analyzed. Marx, however, required the testing of hypothesis through praxis. Likewise, Peirce subjected hypotheses to tests and practical results converging in common agreement. Perhaps this impelled Peirce to posit mind (later, a non-psychic Interpretant) as basic when it is linked to habits that assume natural lawlike behavior; however, such habits are never precise nor rigid, hence the intervention of absolute chance in the universe. This is the dimension of historicism that "Western Marxists" (such as Adorno, Marcuse, etc.) adopted in reaction to a deterministic, positivist science that dominated the triumphalist technocrats of the Stalinist epoch.

One needs to stress here that Peirce's science is definitely not mechanistic, without feedback checks, teleological, nor hermeneutically opaque to humanistic traditions and social exigencies. Nor is it premised on Enlightenment meliorism tied to Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer.  One can speculate that Peirce's doctrine of tychism (enabled by the categories of Firstness and Secondness) emerged in diametric opposition to various forms of scientistic determinism. Because habits congregate and form larger networks, totalities, wholes (his theory of synechism), Peirce holds that the universe is moving from domination by chance at the start toward complete order through habit-formation and its purpose-directed mutations. This process of evolution impelled by an inner principle of creative love, leading to a stage in which everything is infused with “Reasonableness,” the universe becoming “a vast representamen, a great symbol of God’s purpose, working out its conclusions in living realities” (5.119). So much for Pierce’s metaphysical speculations that resemble those of Alfred North Whitehead and other scientific thinkers engaged in cosmological extrapolations.

The Three Modalities of Being

         Generality and potentiality are linked together in Peirce’s theorizing of knowledge and the horizon of inquiry. This parallels Marx’s interface of mode of production and social relations in the analysis of historical development. The moot point is how change or motion proceeds and is grasped on various levels of abstraction. How to describe and interpret the import of matter in motion, history, this logic of emergence of social life in nature, not only the past and present but also the future, both potentiality and actuality--all these can be illuminated and charted by Peirce's semiotics along the path that Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao and others have traced, provided we take into account the historic origin and limits of Peirce's metaphysics within the epoch of the United States' transition from industrial capitalism to imperialism, from the end of the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, the annexation of Cuba and the Philippines, and World War I.

    Before we pursue this theme further, it is necessary to expound Peirce’s epistemology, closely tied to his semiotics or triadic theory of signs. Next to the nominalist-realist demarcation which clears up the muddle caused by tagging Peirce as a positivist, Peirce’s categorial scheme might be the best key to unfolding what may be his immanent dialectics, one much more infinitely complicated than Engels in its articulation of the interweaving of complex varieties of signs or signifying processes that comprise patterns of experience, including variations or changes in cultural styles, tastes, norms--in short, the stratified and differentiated reality that Marx treated in Capital.  In both the Grundrisse and Marx's Notes on Adolph Wagner (Carver 1975),  we encounter Marx's methodological principle that while transhistorical structures or concepts are necessary, the experience and institutions of specific societies at different periods, as well as the complex of historical determinations that comprise its concrete reality, need to be carefully investigated and meticulously analyzed. That lesson was drawn from criticizing the reductionist fallacies vitiating the political economy of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, etc.
      While analytically distinct, Peirce’s ontological categories of Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness are articulations of modes of being, not transcendental dogmatic absolutes. They operate differently in logic, metaphysics, epistemology, language analysis, etc.  These three modes of being may resemble the casuistry of scholastic metaphysics, but their application in semiotics and social critique differs from Christian apologetics. They provide the rationale for the pragmatic method of ascertaining the real meaning of any concept, doctrine, proposition, word or other signs. Their connections and transitions spell out the actual configuration of change in observable phenomena, calibrating the play of contingency and determination in the passage and vicissitudes of events, peoples, and their interaction with the biosphere.

The three categories are not hierarchical but interpenetrative or interactive. In summary, Firstness refers to the potentiality of an actual idea, a possibility. It is not the domain of Plato’s hypostatized Forms nor scholastic essences, but a transitional moment between nothing and an existent thought or object; not a nothing but less than an actual thought, only its possibility. Firstness may be a color sensation, not yet red or blue, but only its possibility. The sense experiences are possibilities that may become actualized in the next step of understanding. In terms of the triadic sign-system, Firstness refers to a mere quality, a presence, a sin-sign or icon in relation to its object, the site of novelty and emergences. Firstness is the prelogical, intuitive feature of immediate appearances that defy description.

Secondness designates an actually existing object or event analyzable into qualities and properties of matter. It involves reaction or brute actuality, “the blind force [that] is an element of experience distinct from rationality or logical force” (1.220).  This is the realm of conflict, antagonism, resistance.  In terms of signs, Secondness is a token or sin-sign, an object or event, with indices as signs with dynamic or causal relations to their objects.  Qualities of bodies belong to Firstness, but they are actualized when only they are experienced, thereby generating a percept in the mind.  In turn this sense-percept or sense-data, the result of a psychological process, appears in consciousness as a feeling or image, already an intellectual judgment. While Peirce asserted that “the percept is the reality” (5.568), to make full sense, immediate perception undergoes modification when the mind confronts linkages and crossings of percepts and begins to abstract concepts expressed in symbols, the realm of Thirdness, of conventions, transhistorical paradigms and structures.

We then move to Thirdness, a meaning or general concept, derived from percepts through the power of abstraction (exemplified in the mind’s capacity to infer by induction, deduction, and abduction). This is the sphere of generals that constitute meaning; they are real because they have verifiable, external counterparts in the percepts. In the percept one encounters Firstness in the perceived object become actualized. To be meaningful, every abstract concept or idea must refer to a percept (Secondness). All men are mortal, but mortality is not the same for all men; the mortality that belongs to each man is similar to the mortality that belongs to each of his fellow men. It is the same with Marx's concept of value, the two-fold character of labor concretized historically into use-value and exchange value (Marx-Engels 1978, 308-328).

We confuse similarity with identity when we handle concepts as pure abstractions, or pure Firstness, without reference to their actualization. Peirce made the same point when he noted that for nominalists, “man” is applicable to something real, “but he believes that there is beneath this a thing in itself, an incognizable reality. His is the metaphysical figment….The great argument for nominalism is that there is no man unless there is some particular man” (5.312). Early on Peirce rejected Kant's unknowable thing-in-itself (in the 1868 essays on "Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man" [1998b, 64-118]).  Peirce remarks that the species “man” is real because it may be found in any man by abstracting it from his accidental or particularizing characteristics.  We make a distinction between the species in any man and his other accidental characteristics, by the process of abstraction (logical inferences). The nominalists are the positivists who dare not proceed further than the realm of sense-data, fictional names, atomistic facts. We can see clearly here a parallel with Marx’s discrimination of value into use-value and exchange-value, value itself being a real general comprehensible apart from its varied historical incarnations and without which the variable phenomena--for example, the fetishistic commodity-form--cannot be made intelligible for any purposive research program.

What are some consequences of this mode of cognizing reality when compared with Marxist historicizing epistemology? Is Peirce’s formulation idealistic or materialist, grounded in Hegelian ideas or empirical observations and rational hypothesis? Is Peirce’s pragmaticist theory of meaning inconsistent with the dialectical schema of investigation as delineated by Bertell Ollman, for example?  I have already suggested parallels or analogues between Peircean pragmaticism and Marx's structuralist-historical dialectics earlier, but a few more affinities may be mentioned here for future elaboration.

Envisioning  Comparative Dialectics

By consensus, Marx’s method in analyzing capitalism as a historical system is materialist dialectics with a lineage dating back to Heraclitus and Epicurus up to Diderot  and Hegel.  Marx criticized the idealist basis of Hegel’s dialectics in various works: Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the State, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, The Holy Family, The German Ideology, and The Poverty of Philosophy. In demystifying Hegel’s method and rescuing its rational kernel, Marx emphasized the autonomy of nature and the historicity of social forms. In Roy Bhaskar’s formulation, Marx counterposed to Hegel’s idealist inversion “a conception of universals as properties of particular things, knowledge as irreducibly empirical, and civil society (later modes of production) as the foundation of the state.”  Marx replaced Hegel’s “immanent spiritual teleology of infinite, petrified and finite mind” with “a methodological commitment to the empirically-controlled investigation of the causal relations within and between historically emergent, developing humanity and irreducibly real, but modifiable nature” (1983, 123). In effect, Firstness (potentialities) and Secondness (actualities) were privileged in grasping the concrete determinations of Thirdness, the lawful regularities inferrable by hypothesis or abduction from perceptual judgments. 

Overturning the topsy-turvy world of Hegel's Geist, Marx rejected Hegel’s absolute Spirit and its tacit link with atomistic empiricism, conceiving matter and motion as irreducible to thought. Marx valued differentiation and complexity (as in the notion of uneven and combined development), causal and not conceptual necessity,  and empirically verified totalities. This was demonstrated particularly in his discovery of the two-fold character of labor and the existence of surplus labor (a generality) apart from its particular sociohistoric embodiments.  He initiated a science of history thickened with nuanced ontological stratification, analysis of rational purposes in social praxis, and a flexible apparatus for charting the vicissitudes of sociohistorical becoming or change (Farr 1991). This way of "doing science differently," as Daniel Bensaid observed, shown in Marx's critique of classical political economy "aspires to a different rationality.... Constrained by its object (the social relations and economic rhythms of capital), by the non-linear logic of its temporalities, by disconcerting 'laws' that contradict themselves," Marx's science deploys "a strategic thought" attentive to what is hidden, obscure, irrational--in short, to chance, as Peirce located it in an open-ended, evolving universe: "The premisses of Nature's own process are all the independent uncaused elements of fact that go to make up the variety of nature, which the necessitarian supposes to have been all in existence from the foundation of the world, but which the Tychist [partisan of chance] supposes are continually receiving new accretions" (1998a, 194).

Masks  of  Dialectics

The core of Marxian dialectics has been the subject of numerous disparate expositions. For this occasion, we can attach it to the way Marx defined the contradictions of capitalism as deriving from the structural contradictions between the use-value and the value of the commodity, between concrete, useful and abstract social aspects of labor, and their expressions in class antagonisms. Reciprocal interaction, subsumptions, and playful alternations characterize opposites. The fundamental structural contradictions of any social formation (between forces and relations of production, between production and valorization process, etc.) are inclusive oppositions, interpenetrating with each other, all sprung from the historical legacy of the separation of the immediate producers from the means and materials of production and from the nexus of social relations with nature.

Contending that dialectics is universally applicable, Fredrick Engels proposed that it is “the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought” (1931, 39). In his Dialectics of Nature, Engels summed up the three main laws of materialist dialectics, often converted into scriptural dogmas by party fanatics: 1) the transformation of quantity into quality and vice-versa; 2) the interpenetration of opposites, and 3) the negation of the negation (1940, 26). In my undergraduate days (to add a personal note), these three laws were condensed in Mao’s aphorism, easily carried out by subaltern vulgarizers: To know what a pear is, just eat it, QED! Pears in the Philippines were imported from the neocolonial power, the masters of US corporate agribusiness.  Needless to say, such "laws" or tendencies also need to be made concrete in thought by spelling out manifold determinations involving the three modalities that Peirce outlined in order for their meaning to be socially proved via hypothetical inferences, validated by logical rules of deduction, induction, etc.

Since I am mainly doing an exploratory survey in finding out how Peirce’s thinking can help strengthen and sharpen the way Marxists have analyzed social change, I will limit myself to the theme of contradiction.  Bertell Ollman has aptly stressed the critical and revolutionary nature of the Marxist dialectic, critical because it helps us learn and understand our situation as victims and actors with power (if mobilized and organized) to change things, and revolutionary because it grasps the present as a moment of transformation. Science becomes a causal agent when translated by a community with an activist program: scientific understanding of the laws of motion of bourgeois society forces us to comprehend where present capitalist society came from and where it is heading, and our role in this transformation. Marx’s dialectical critique of reality (alienated in capitalism) concentrates on four kinds of relations (identity/difference; interpenetration of opposites; quantity/quality, and contradiction). Elucidation of these relations enabled Marx “to attain his double aim of discovering how something works or happened while simultaneously developing his understanding of the system in which such things could work or happen in just this way” (Ollman 1993, 13).

Notwithstanding its ambiguous nuances, I submit that Peirce’s Thirdness is the sphere where contradiction, which is most vivid in Secondness, finds appropriate mediation.  Thirdness is mediation or intelligibility, for Peirce, instanced in the legi-sign, and the symbol which functions as a sign of an object by virtue of a rule or habit of interpretation.  While Firstness (presence) is unthinkable, and Secondness (brute actuality) is unintelligible—an element of experience distinct from rationality or logical force,  the experience of Thirdness is the experience of the intelligible, of “concrete reasonableness.” Once Marx has explained the ineluctable contradictions in the motion of socialized capital, its necessary dissolution in crisis and the emergence of class consciousness in its victims, we reach the moment of Thirdness.  The discovery of general laws of motion—by Lenin in the rise of capitalism in Russia, by Mao in the possibilities of peasant uprising contributing to proletarian mobilization—ushers us to a feasible point of grasping the import of phenomena synthesized by general laws. Thirdness, to the Marxist sensibility, designates the hazardous unpredictable course of revolution, with its contingencies, necessities, and ineluctable vicissitudes.

Totality and Process

Using a Peircean method of abduction--hypothetical inferences tested by historical testimony and evidence, Marx discovered the general laws of motion in capitalist society. In accord with ongoing political struggles and theoretical praxis, he drew out their implications and entailments in the political-ideological crisis of bourgeois hegemony.  The interpretation of these laws were in turn refined, enriched and developed by Lenin in the imperialist stage, and by Gramsci, Mao, W.E. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, Che Guevara, Frantz Fanon, and Amilcar Cabral in the dependent, peripheral outposts of  Empire. The interpretants (linking the present and future, the actual and potential) included the organic intellectuals and the popular struggles in each social formation.

One of the first scholars to link Peirce's method of abduction to Marx's critical-dialectical method is Derek Sayer. In abstracting the essential relations from the phenomenal forms of the commodity, as well as the historical instantiations of surplus value, Marx applied not deductive apriorist thinking nor a posteriori inductive reasoning. Instead, as Sayer demonstrates, he mobilized a realist mode of explaining the empirical correlations, "the mechanisms through which they are brought about, and behind them their conditions" (Sayer 1983, 114). This is the logic of hypothesis formation (N.R. Hanson's retroductive scheme, for Sayer), positing mechanisms and conditions that would explain how and why the phenomena observed come to assume the forms they do.

Following this abductive or retroductive analytic, Marx attempts a dialectic mode of presentation which Sayer calls Kantian but which is more properly described as comic, cathartic, demystifying narrative. It historicizes the allegedly transcendental forms fetishized by bourgeois, classical political economy. In his commentary on the 1857 introduction to the Grundrisse and 1879-80 Notes on Adolph Wegner, Terrell Carver (1975) also highlighted Marx's dialectical synthesis of phenomena and structures to generate the concrete universal concerning value, social relations of production, surplus value, and, in particular, the historic singularity of capitalist society. Rejecting eternal verities and the Robinson-Crusoe archetype of bourgeois economists, Marx began with the hypothetical premise that "the socially determined production carried on by individuals," when thoroughly analyzed, can elucidate the changes and development in various aspects (both universal and specific) of social life. His task involved both a critique of previous theories and an empirical investigation of sensory and intellectual experience of whole societies in the process of transition.

Historical materialism seems to confirm Peirce’s thesis that these laws were not just mere conjunctions of actual individual instances, as empiricists would posit. The totality of relations—both social and international—that Lukacs privileged and that Engels crystallized in the interpenetration of opposites (unity, not identity, of opposites) functions within the category of Thirdness. Peirce’s view was part of his synechism or doctrine that the universe contains genuinely continuous phenomena. Continuity does not imply linear causal determinism, or a closed universe of necessity; it allows the role of chance (Peirce’s tychism), spontaneity, and an evolutionary cosmology premised on  regularities of nature and mind as products of growth. Chance evinced in the Darwinian play of heredity and adaptation is accepted by both Peirce and Marx (for Christopher Caudwell's contribution, see Foster 2000). 

Synechism, Peirce's doctrine of continuity, holds that “ideas tend to spread continuously and to affect certain others which stand to them in a peculiar relation of affectability. In this spreading they lose intensity, and especially the power of affecting others, but gain generality and become welded with other ideas” (6.104). Peirce explains further that synechism is “founded on the notion that coalescence, the becoming continuous, the becoming governed by laws…are but phases of one and the same process of the growth of reasonableness” (5.4). The interanimation of ideas epitomized by synechism led Sidney Hook (1962) to associate it with Hegel's dialectical synthesis of thesis and antithesis, the temporal unity of opposites via sublation (Aufhebung). Peirce, however, grounds his dialectical ontology of internal relations in sociohistorical praxis (Sayer 1987), not in the transcendental domain of Absolute Spirit. The ideological refusal to appreciate these laws (tendencies, if you like) of motion and their outcome leads to the irrationalism and self-destructive impulses in bourgeois rule and its toxic ideology disseminated by sophisticated media and State apparatuses, e.g. spreading freedom and democracy in Afghanistan by drones, torture, subjugation of the populace the US is claiming to save and enlighten. Illusions bred by reality reinforce the ideological persistence of deceptive facts taken to be common sense, normal, business-as-usual routine.

There is an exciting reservoir of dialectical insights hidden in Peirce’s tychism that allows novelty, irregularity, complexity and change in the universe (Brent 1998, 208). Because chance operates in the universe, the basic laws of nature and history are not apodictic but inexact, probabilistic, fallible. Peirce's "habit" or "conduct" can be more fruitfully translated as creative action responding to the contingency of social change, as elaborated by Hans Joas and Erki Kilpinen (2006, 323-335). Peirce’s world-view allows the kind of revolutionary ruptures that utopian Marxists like Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin would prophesy in moments of apparent harmony in bourgeois systems. It encourages prediction of what is unexpected, unlikely, implausible; it entertains the unpredictable momentum of hidden forces behind the fetishized appearances of quotidian, commodity-oriented life. 

The Real as Actual

Realism becomes the germinal anchor of hope. Believing that reality cannot be identified with actuality, Peirce asserts that there are real, objective possibilities ‘based on his realization that many conditional statements, for instance, the ‘practical’ conditionals expressing the empirical import of a proposition…cannot be construed as material or truth-functional conditionals, but must be regarded as modal (subjunctive) conditionals” (Hilpinen 1995, 568). In this framework, hope is deemed as real as any weapon in the class struggle. Such objective possibilities pervade Marx and Engels’ speculations on a future communist society (first prophesied in The Communist Manifesto), Rosa Luxemburg’s foresights on women’s liberation, and C.L.R. James’s anticipatory politics of an evolving socialist era.

Aside from the semiotic triad of sign-production and the logic of abduction, I think Peirce’s notion of potentiality is the closest to the idea of dialectical sublation or Aufhebung in Hegelian idealism. While possibility belongs to Firstness, potentiality belongs to Thirdness, the realm in which "an actualized sign's potentiality for becoming what it is within its nature to come into interrelation and interaction with all other signs. Potentiality is future-oriented, while possibility is present oriented" (Merrell 2000, 130).  This notion of potentiality can prove to be the most creative, versatile tool for a Marxist activist intellectual desiring to appropriate what is useful in Peirce’s pragmaticism for transformative praxis.  We have seen that the pragmaticist maxim valorizes the totality of modes of rational conduct triggered by a practicable concept, taking into account also “the possible different circumstances and desires” of the participants involved in interpretation.  Meaning is not indefinitely deferred; rather, as Leroy Searle observes,  it “accepts meaning (as it does thought and reality itself) as a continuous process, which we determine, with arbitrary precision (depending on ‘different circumstances and desires’) in communities of inquiry” (1994, 562). We can envisage a united front, a counter-hegemonic bloc  of classes, genders, sexualities, peoples, etc., their diverse interests and motivations articulated under the aegis of interminable Peircean inquiry.

One may venture that the final logical interpretant (the mediating catalyst between object and signifier or representamen) in Peirce’s semiotics may be figured as the leading or decisive force in the community of researchers. It may be the revolutionary agent, bearer of intelligibility, aware of qualities (Firstness), immersed in existential agony (Secondness), but specifically removed in comprehending the totality of the situation (Thirdness) (Liszka 1996) and in synthesizing the measures needed to change the situation. This allegorical translation speaks volumes if translated into the function of intellectuals/leaders in popular mass organizations seeking thoroughgoing, radical change.

In Marxist dialectics, the resolution of a contradiction proceeds through spirals and swerves that defy precise calculation and final judgments. The potential order of evolving society is immanent in the conjuncture of events and their sequences. Given Peirce’s realism, the idea of general potentiality is as real as individual particularity. Continua or the continuum of events bear unactualized possibilities (Murphey1993, 394).  Richard Robin paraphrases Peirce by saying that potentiality is part of reality and cannot be defined simply as future actuality, in the sense that revolutionary rupture is a potential quality in U.S. society but it can be actualized only in the future by way of fortuitous actions and organized interventions.

If pursued correctly, Peirce's critical realism becomes a pedagogical heuristic for a kind of prophetic politics. If Marxists as revolutionaries seek to prefigure, anticipate and invent the future, just as scientists aspire to predict what’s to come, then their task is to assert meaningful propositions about events not yet actualized.  In doing so they seek to prepare for the coming of these events. We therefore take the position that the realia are not just particular undecidable individuals, as nominalists and positivists hold, but also real indeterminate potentialities (on its application to communicative problems (see Apel 1995). Communism is already an extant if not nascent potential, so to speak, not just the seeds whose death spells the birth of new life and order. In short, it is already an emergent actuality in people's everyday lives.

Peirce’s idea of potentiality may already be present in the Marxist concept of praxis enunciated in “Theses on Feuerbach.” It may also be embedded in Gramsci’s organic intellectual as the fusion of interpretation and action, or Lenin’s idea of a revolutionary party, educator and mobilizer of masses of people. Knowledge entails actionable or practicable assumptions. Richard Robin suggests that if “the function of knowledge is to enable us to control the future, then we must take potentialities seriously, for the future as known in the present consists entirely of potentialities, some of which will be actualized and some of which will not…An epistemology that takes into account the facts of human behavior and the working practices of science must recognize that potentialities, while they cannot be identified with any class of individuals, are nevertheless real. And  the reason they are real is because, as Peirce first showed us, the world is general” (1998, 42).

The Crucible of Experience: Assaying Politics,  Ethics, Morality

As partisans of radical inquiry, Marx and Engels worked all their lives to educate and inspire a community of inquirers (analogous to that envisaged by Peirce) that would join theory and practice, knowledge and action, to produce significant changes in society for the better: to liberate human potential, to enhance the domain of free activities, to promote beauty and self-fulfillment for all (see "Critique of the Gotha Program"). These changes precede and follow the pragmaticist call for habits or dispositions founded on rational activities. For Peirce, as James Hoopes notes, “thinking is behavior,” an action just as real and historical as operating a machine or fighting a war (1991, 9). Peirce's final reflection on the interface of ethics, politics and his brand of pragmaticist epistemology conveys a trenchant emancipatory message:

Just as conduct controlled by ethical reason tends toward fixing certain habits of conduct, the nature of which...does not depend upon any accidental circumstances, and in that sense may be said to be destined, so, thought, controlled by a rational experimental logic, tends to the fixation of certain opinions, equally destined, the nature of which will be the same in the end, however the perversity of thought of whole generations may cause the postponement of the ultimate fixation (CP 5.430, 1905)

For "perversity of thought," one can substitute irrational social practices and institutions, and for the "ultimate fixation," "concrete reasonableness" arrived at in the fated convergence of inquiry fulfilling the paramount ends of truth, rightness and beauty via logic, ethics and aesthetics. The last three normative sciences Peirce regarded as the foundation of pragmaticism (1998 a, 371-397). In 1898, James gave a lecture entitled "Philosophy and the Conduct of Life" (1998a). This was also the period in which he sympathized with the goals of the Anti-Imperialist League of William James, Mark Twain, and others denouncing U.S. imperialist aggression in Cuba and particularly the Philippines. On various occasions Peirce alluded to the barbaric effects of US colonial invasion of the Philippines (see Brent 1993). In his lecture, he contended that for advancing scientific knowledge, reason is key but for the vital concerns of morality and ethics, sentiment and instinct suffice. This has led many to consider Peirce an ambivalent if not inconsistent thinker.

But all the evidence points to the contrary. Eugene Rochberg-Halton connected Peirce's notion of  "instinctive mind" of the inquirer with purpose as a transaction in a complex environment susceptible to growth and correction: "Instincts are accordingly, in their proper environment, true ideas" (1986, 10).  As Cheryl Misak (2004) has cogently shown, Peirce adhered to a cognitivist, fallibilist standard which subjects any belief to the test of experience and rational argument. Consequently, moral and ethical deliberations are responsive to the broad range of experience, including "the spontaneous conjectures of instinctive reason" underlying abduction. Mizak reminds us that Peirce conceived of logic as normative, ethical, thought under self-control: "Thinking is a kind of action, and reasoning is a kind of deliberate action, and to call an argument illogical, or a proposition false, is a special kind of moral judgment" (Peirce quoted in Mizak 2004, 170). Writing at the beginning of the Cold War, Donald S. Mackay summed up the original intent of pragmatism: "Instead of elaborating theories about 'passive' states of knowledge in a knowing mind, or 'contents' of knowledge within its own fixed and immutable forms, pragmatism offered a working hypothesis concerning the practice of knowledge in 'the real business of living' (1950, 398).

Finally, one can venture the "musement" (Peirce's term for imagination) that Peirce's socialism inheres in his trust in the moral universalism of the scientific community. Cornel West noted Peirce's "agapastic theory of evolution" as a critique of Darwinian mechanical necessitarianism and its implied individualism (1989, 52-53; see also Smith 1963, 32-37).  If thinking is already practice, then all humans—as Gramsci reminded us, are already intellectuals in one degree or another, functioning according to their capacities and social situations. In effect, all citizens are protagonists in the shaping of their everyday lives; and as collectives, in the reconstruction of their societies. Peirce would concur with this notion of a communal enterprise striving toward "concrete reasonableness" in the reconstruction of the old decadent, oppressive, iniquitous society.  This hypothesis captures the essential relevance of Peirce’s pragmaticist realism for Marxist intellectuals whose program of research and its implementation coincides with the problematic of their effective and feasible intervention in the revolutionary process of their time.


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E. SAN JUAN, Jr. is 2013 fellow of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin; and emeritus professor of English, Comparative Literature and Ethnic Studies at several US universities. He was previously a fellow of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University; and visiting professor of American Studies at Leuven University, Belgium. His recent books are IN THE WAKE OF TERROR (Lexington Press), Critique and Social Transformation (Edwin Mellen Books), and CRITICAL INTERVENTIONS (Lambert Academic Publishing, Saarbrucken, Germany).


The fraught and conflicted relations between pragmatism and Marxism involves a long history of misunderstanding due to Cold War politics dating back to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1918. However, the re-appraisal of Charles Sanders Peirce's original theses on pragmaticism, his own term for the philosophy he originated, promises to establish a dialogic if not synergestic communication between those faithful to Peirce's realist logic and the fundamental principles of historical materialism. This paper endeavors to sketch out the outline of a possible conversation between Peirce and Marx.

KEYWORDS:  pragmatism, realism, nominalism, dialectics, habit, practice, action, history, political economy, revolution