A Universal Perspective on Belief in Epistemology

Categories: Epistemology

The approaches given by Pierce and Nagel to the epistemological questions of doubt and belief, though diverse in that they are strictly pragmatist and Cartesian, contain a similar underlying principle. They both serve to show that belief cannot come from any source that appeals to one’s feelings or purposes, experiences or impressions. Beliefs must arise from a non-personal means. Although this is a commonality between the two approaches in epistemology, they are greatly different arguments in their focuses. Pierce’s pragmatist approach surfaces along the lines of techniques people use to found their beliefs of reality, here assuming reality from the start, and using that as a foundation to delve into questions of the unknown.

Nagel’s look at the Cartesian approach primarily doubts reality, and uses that as the grounds for the rest of his argument, asking how we can know anything beyond ourselves. These approaches lead to very different views on epistemology.

Pragmatism: Pierce’s Approach to Epistemology

Pierce’s approach to his “epistemological questions” of doubt and belief is solely pragmatic in nature, in that he states beliefs are established in habits, which reoccur in our determining of our actions; doubt, on the other hand, is an uneasy state we want to release ourselves from, to come to a belief (46).

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We then gather from this, that doubt and belief have “positive effects” on us, both causing us to act. Pierce begins his approach with a discussion of the “irritation of doubt”(46). This he describes as an “immediate motive for the struggle to attain belief” (46).

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Once this belief is attained, we are entirely satisfied because our opinion is satisfied, which is, as Pierce states, the “sole end of inquiry” (47). Pierce then goes on to pragmatically examine the question of belief and doubt through four “methods”. The first is his “method of tenacity”, which denotes believing any answers we like, and considering everything that is in accordance with that belief, while rejecting all that disrupts our belief (47). It is a process of coming to beliefs that is “deliberately” adopted, to give one the feeling of satisfaction and stability, which “yields great peace of mind” (48). Pierce refutes this method, showing that it is unable to “hold its ground” in a society where people hold contrary beliefs, because this will inevitably shake ones confidence in their own beliefs: “we shall necessarily influence each other’s opinions” (48). Pierce then leads us to the “method of authority”, which states that the “will of the state” acts as the will of the individual (49). In this method, the institution of the state keeps its people informed of “correct doctrines”, and teaches them to the young (the institution here having the power to choose what beliefs are held, and which are suppressed). It forces the individual into ignorance and suppression of their own doubts and beliefs, segregating them from the influence of the rest of the world” (49). This method has been held throughout history through society and religion, showing results of greater success then the method of tenacity. Pierce refutes this method of “intellectual” slavery by stating that, while the institution can regulate opinions on important matters, the “rest of men’s minds must be left to the action of natural causes” (50). This leads him into the “a priori method”, in which we believe what we find ourselves inclined to believe”; an impulse to believe in propositions as well as a decision on what “proposition” is to be believed (50). This method is mainly adopted because one’s propositions appear “agreeable to reason”: “Men’s opinions will soon lead them to rest on preferences of a far more universal nature.” (51). This theory is refuted much as the method of authority. Once one sees that a belief of theirs is determined by a social custom or “circumstance extraneous to the facts”, one must experience a real doubt, ceasing their belief (51). The “method of science” is presented last, being the method in which our beliefs are caused by something outside ourselves, and our thinking: some thing permanent. It is not individual, but must affect everyone in order to be permanent. This method assumes reality outside of our perception; everything is real, and governed by certain laws regardless of our opinions about them” (52). No doubts arise from the practice of this method, the social impulse does not give cause to doubt it. We only cease to use science when we don not know how to apply it, and it has had the “most wonderful triumphs in the way of settling opinion” (52). For these four reasons, Pierce chooses to contrast the method of science with the others. He goes on to establish this method by saying it is the only one giving a distinction between right and wrong way; it is possible for bad and good reasoning to happen, which Pierce claims is the “foundation of the practical side of logic” (53).

Skepticism: Nagel’s Approach to Cartesian Epistemology

Nagel’s approach is Cartesian in nature; it assumes skepticism in that he states that one’s own consciousness is the only thing one can be sure of. Everything one believes is based on their “experiences and thoughts, feelings and sense impressions” (8). Everything outside of one’s own, personal thoughts can only access them by means of these “inner experiences and thoughts” (8). Nagel points out that we are aware of reality directly, but we can only comment on the “external world” in view of our relation to it. By appealing to your “impressions” in trying to prove their validity, you are, what Nagel calls, “arguing in a circle” (9), or making a claim about something using that something as your source. He claims that one then, cannot rely on things inside the mind to prove what is outside the mind (10). The “most radical conclusion” he alleges we can draw from this, is solipsism: the only thing that one can know exists is one’s mind (or conception of it) (11). This is, of course, Descartes’ main theory, methodological skepticism, encapsulated in his infamous statement “I think therefore I exist”. Basically, the skepticism lies in the actuality that most of the comparisons it makes between cannabis and alcohol, the illegal drug comes out better–or at least on a par–with the legal one.

The report concludes, for example, that in developed societies cannabis appears to play little role in injuries caused by violence, as does alcohol. It also says that while the evidence for fetal alcohol syndrome is good, the evidence that cannabis can harm fetal development is far from conclusive.

Cannabis also fared better in five out of seven comparisons of long-term damage to health. For example, the report says that while heavy consumption of either drug can lead to dependence, only alcohol produces a well defined withdrawal syndrome. And while heavy drinking leads to cirrhosis, severe brain injury and a much increased risk of accidents and suicide, the report concludes that there is only suggestive evidence that chronic cannabis use may produce subtle defects in cognitive functioning.

Two comparisons were more equivocal. The report says that both heavy drinki8221;, we cannot exceed it, therefore, we end up “arguing in circles” (17). Although with Nagel, we are still left with many, more specific questions, we are left with the statement that “a belief in the world outside our minds comes so naturally to us, perhaps we don’t need grounds for it.” (18). This is the rational conclusion we are left with: perhaps it is better to continue believing reality is reliable, for it is “practically impossible” not to (17).

Commonalities and Contrasts of Pierce and Nagel

The contrast between these two works is obvious, although they do contain some similarities in the things conclude. Pierce’s theory assumes reality while Nagel’s, or rather Descartes’ theory, doubts it. This is the main contrast of the two theories, since the veracity of reality is the underlying idea in both works. While the pragmatist approach assumes science as the only method presenting “any distinction of a right and wrong way” (Pierce 52), the Cartesian approach assumes nothing beyond the mind, science just being another set of observations on a reality that we can never “observe directly” (Nagel 14). Every method of coming to a belief that Pierce presents, assumes a reality, yet explores virtually nothing of the nature of reality. In Pierce’s final discussion of the method of science, he assumes the reliability of facts, the same facts Nagel refutes through the beginning of his argument. The pragmatists’ approach starts with “known and observed facts to proceed to the unknown” (Pierce 53), whereas the Cartesian approach begins assuming the unknown, and proceeds to try and verify the reality of these “know and observed facts”. In this sense, it seems Nagel’s Cartesian approach is far more metaphysical in nature; it serves to deal with knowledge in terms of our experience of our reality. Pieces’ pragmatist approach is far more epistemological in that it delves into the nature of our knowledge: the origins of our beliefs. To compare the two approaches under the same category of epistemology though, one could classify Pierce’s pragmatism under the school of rationalism, in that he deals with structures of reason in his rationalizing, while Nagel’s Cartesian approach could be classified into the school of empiricism, as his rationalizing deal mainly with the reality of sense perception. The two approaches do both arrive at one of the same conclusions, which is they both acknowledge a need for a distinction of a “right and wrong way” (Pierce 52). There must be right and wrong ways to know a belief, or to know a reality, that do not appeal to (one’s] feelings and purposes” (Pierce 53). Pierce ends at the conclusion of the scientific method, in that the first three are refutable because of their appeal to a “personal” aspect of belief. Nagel refutes claims about beliefs about the external world because they all rely on an appeal to personal “experiences and thoughts, feelings and sense impressions” (Nagel 8). In this sense, the two theories want to assume that there is more to belief than the reasoning of the individual, that belief is something transcendent, even universal. There must be some universal veracity to knowledge and belief. Though the views presented are diverse in their epistemological natures, this fundamental view remains held by both philosophers.

Pierce’s paper gives us a look into the pragmatic nature of epistemology, a very practical approach on how we come to a belief. Nagel reviews the Cartesian approach to epistemology, showing us the unreliability in assuming a reality apart from ourselves. How we can come to any sort of belief on anything is questioned in both works, yet in taking completely different approaches, they delve into the complete realm of knowledge. The cohesion between the two approaches is purely that they refute a personal or exclusive method in determining one’s beliefs. Beliefs must be universal, transcendent of the individual.


  1. Thomas Nagel, What Does It All Mean?: A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  2. Charles Sanders Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief”; Popular Science Monthly 12 (November 1877), 4653.
  3. John Cottingham, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Descartes. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

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A Universal Perspective on Belief in Epistemology. (2021, Sep 10). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-universal-perspective-on-belief-in-epistemology-essay

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