§3. Pragmatism — the Logic of Abduction


195. It appears to me, then, that my three cotary propositions are satisfactorily grounded. Nevertheless, since others may not regard them as so certain as I myself do, I propose in the first instance to disregard them, and to show that, even if they are put aside as doubtful, a maxim practically little differing in most of its applications from that of pragmatism ought to be acknowledged and followed; and after this has been done, I will show how the recognition of the cotary propositions will affect the matter. . . .

196. If you carefully consider the question of pragmatism you will see that it is nothing else than the question of the logic of abduction. That is, pragmatism proposes a certain maxim which, if sound, must render needless any further rule as to the admissibility of hypotheses to rank as hypotheses, that is to say, as explanations of phenomena held as hopeful suggestions; and, furthermore, this is all that the maxim of pragmatism really pretends to do, at least so far as it is confined to logic, and is not understood as a proposition in psychology. For the maxim of pragmatism is that a conception can have no logical effect or import differing from that of a second conception except so far as, taken in connection with other conceptions and intentions, it might conceivably modify our practical conduct differently from that second conception. Now it is indisputable that no rule of abduction would be admitted by any philosopher which should prohibit on any formalistic grounds any inquiry as to how we ought in consistency to shape our practical conduct. Therefore, a maxim which looks only to possibly practical considerations will not need any supplement in order to exclude any hypotheses as inadmissible. What hypotheses it admits all philosophers would agree ought to be admitted. On the other hand, if it be true that nothing but such considerations has any logical effect or import whatever, it is plain that the maxim of pragmatism cannot cut off any kind of hypothesis which ought to be admitted. Thus, the maxim of pragmatism, if true, fully covers the entire logic of abduction. It remains to inquire whether this maxim may not have some further logical effect. If so, it must in some way affect inductive or deductive inference. But that pragmatism cannot interfere with induction is evident; because induction simply teaches us what we have to expect as a result of experimentation, and it is plain that any such expectation may conceivably concern practical conduct. In a certain sense it must affect deduction. Anything which gives a rule to abduction and so puts a limit upon admissible hypotheses will cut down the premisses of deduction, and thereby will render a reductio ad absurdum and other equivalent forms of deduction possible which would not otherwise have been possible. But here three remarks may be made. First, to affect the premisses of deduction is not to affect the logic of deduction. For in the process of deduction itself, no conception is introduced to which pragmatism could be supposed to object, except the acts of abstraction. Concerning that I have only time to say that pragmatism ought not to object to it. Secondly, no effect of pragmatism which is consequent upon its effect on abduction can go to show that pragmatism is anything more than a doctrine concerning the logic of abduction. Thirdly, if pragmatism is the doctrine that every conception is a conception of conceivable practical effects, it makes conception reach far beyond the practical. It allows any flight of imagination, provided this imagination ultimately alights upon a possible practical effect; and thus many hypotheses may seem at first glance to be excluded by the pragmatical maxim that are not really so excluded.

197. Admitting, then, that the question of Pragmatism is the question of Abduction, let us consider it under that form. What is good abduction? What should an explanatory hypothesis be to be worthy to rank as a hypothesis? Of course, it must explain the facts. But what other conditions ought it to fulfill to be good? The question of the goodness of anything is whether that thing fulfills its end. What, then, is the end of an explanatory hypothesis? Its end is, through subjection to the test of experiment, to lead to the avoidance of all surprise and to the establishment of a habit of positive expectation that shall not be disappointed. Any hypothesis, therefore, may be admissible, in the absence of any special reasons to the contrary, provided it be capable of experimental verification, and only insofar as it is capable of such verification. This is approximately the doctrine of pragmatism. But just here a broad question opens out before us. What are we to understand by experimental verification? The answer to that involves the whole logic of induction.

198. Let me point out to you the different opinions which we actually find men holding today — perhaps not consistently, but thinking that they hold them — upon this subject. In the first place, we find men who maintain that no hypothesis ought to be admitted, even as a hypothesis, any further than its truth or its falsity is capable of being directly perceived. This, as well as I can make out, is what was in the mind of Auguste Comte,1) who is generally assumed to have first formulated this maxim. Of course, this maxim of abduction supposes that, as people say, we »are to believe only what we actually see"; and there are well-known writers, and writers of no little intellectual force, who maintain that it is unscientific to make predictions — unscientific, therefore, to expect anything. One ought to restrict one's opinions to what one actually perceives. I need hardly say that that position cannot be consistently maintained. It refutes itself, for it is itself an opinion relating to more than is actually in the field of momentary perception.

199. In the second place, there are those who hold that a theory which has sustained a number of experimental tests may be expected to sustain a number of other similar tests, and to have a general approximate truth, the justification of this being that this kind of inference must prove correct in the long run, as I explained in a previous lecture.2) But these logicians refuse to admit that we can ever have a right to conclude definitely that a hypothesis is exactly true, that is that it should be able to sustain experimental tests in endless series; for, they urge, no hypothesis can be subjected to an endless series of tests. They are willing we should say that a theory is true, because, all our ideas being more or less vague and approximate, what we mean by saying that a theory is true can only be that it is very near true. But they will not allow us to say that anything put forth as an anticipation of experience should assert exactitude, because exactitude in experience would imply experiences in endless series, which is impossible.

200. In the third place, the great body of scientific men hold that it is too much to say that induction must be restricted to that for which there can be positive experimental evidence. They urge that the rationale of induction as it is understood by logicians of the second group, themselves, entitles us to hold a theory, provided it be such that if it involve any falsity, experiment must some day detect that falsity. We, therefore, have a right, they will say, to infer that something never will happen, provided it be of such a nature that it could not occur without being detected.


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