Prophet warning

Peirce, pragmatism and the Logic of Scripture
January 22, 1999

Oscar Wilde rightly said that if we write intelligibly, we run the risk of being found out. Few contemporary philosophical writers are willing to take that risk. Peter Ochs has written a tediously speculative and convoluted treatise on the work of the American logician and philosopher C. S. Peirce. If anything is still worth saying, it can still be said in plain English. Instead here we are trapped in a nightmare of nomenclature, darkening every hour with no hope of dawn. Peirce often employed, in areas outside formal logic, a pseudo-mathematical approach. For example, a series of doubts of increasing depth are represented as d1, d2, .... dn-1, dn, as if one could quantify doubt and conviction. Ochs approves of this style that makes no concessions to simplicity.

Pragmatism, deriving from a Greek word for "action" and related to the Greek word praxis so dear to Marxists, is a distinctively American philosophical school of international significance. Founded by Peirce in the 19th century, it also appealed to less contemplative men such as William James and John Dewey, both renowned for their influence on American public policy and education. Put popularly, the view is that any theory or idea that is useful, that works, is therefore true, effectively true. Peirce carefully linked belief, meaning, practical action, philosophical inquiry - and truth. To inquire is to act; people do philosophy. "The irritation of doubt", in Peirce's words, motivates us to struggle to attain certainty. This struggle is called philosophical inquiry. Peirce saw his pragmatism as a corrective method for repairing and improving existing epistemological practices. It was self-consciously didactic.

Ochs wants to do philosophy, read correctively, read pragmatically Peirce's essays. He identifies specific "communities of readership". The book is variously addressed to "Dear Pragmatic Readers", "Dear Common-Sense Pragmatists", "Dear Pragmatic Logicians", "Dear Theosemioticians" and so on. There is no address to reviewers. The assumption is, standardly, that many tendencies coexist in a text and that different readers will hunt for different things. So, there are no universally valid truths, only useful points of view.

Suppose a disciple of Socrates reads Peirce's essays. Remember what Socrates said in the Phaedo : to do philosophy is "to rehearse for death", to practise being dead. How does one read that message pragmatically? Totally unnecessarily, Peirce renamed philosophy as "coenoscopy" - the scientific study of what is held in common and deducible from common sense and common reason. But philosophy is not a science. Dissatisfied with his pragmatic method, Peirce later announced the birth of "pragmaticism", a pragmatic reform of pragmatism. Why not simply call it "refined pragmatism"? But Ochs never complains.

Ochs quotes with approval the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber who has said that a prophet, unlike a thinker, has no ideas, only a message. A prophet is a man of action: in the beginning was the deed. Ochs notes that there is both a plain and a pragmatic reading of a philosophical passage, the latter often prompted by some perceived difficulty in the former. Analogously, he continues, Jews and Christians have always assigned scripture a plain and an interpreted sense. We must disambiguate a text in order to interpret it for a given group of readers. The prophetic message is "as contingent as grace", neither absolutely necessary nor necessarily universal. Even the simple imperative "Love thy neighbour" awaits interpretation. Ochs concurs with Peirce that pragmatism is the best method for scriptural hermeneutics. Peirce himself quotes the rabbi Jesus's warning about false prophets: "By their fruits ye shall know them."

That fashionable word hermeneutics occurs often in the book but Ochs never stops to wonder about Hermes, the herald of the Greek gods from whom the word derives. Hermes was no trustworthy messenger. He was a perjurer, a liar, a fable-maker. He took false oaths. Mischievously, he reversed signs to mislead the recipients of his messages. Many were understandably tempted to shoot this messenger. Hermes was a false prophet and we should be suspicious of all hermeneutics. Perhaps the chronic subtleties of scriptural hermeneutics, as of philosophical masterpieces, are really our own ingenious opinions smuggled back into the text and attributed to others whose names have greater authority.

Shabbir Akhtar is writing a biography of St Paul.

Peirce, pragmatism and the Logic of Scripture

Author - Peter Ochs
ISBN - 0 521 57041 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 362

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