Aug 082008

There is a story behind the title of this blog.  In 1897, Charles Peirce was invited by his friend William James to give a series of philosophy lectures in Cambridge, MA. Peirce prepared a daunting set of lectures on formal logic and, in December of 1897, sent an outline of these lectures to James. But James, sensing a mis­match between Peirce’s outline and the prospective audience, wrote back to Peirce begging him to reconsider the topic. “There are only three men,” James wrote, “who could possibly follow your graphs and relatives.” James implored Peirce to “be a good boy” and to think out a more popular plan; and James went on to make the rather unfortunate suggestion that “separate topics of a vitally important character would do perfectly well.”

Peirce was annoyed by this response (although it would have taken more than this to diminish his affection for James). He imme­diately set about revising his lectures, bestowing upon them the new title: Detached Ideas On Topics of Vital Importance. There was consider­able irony in this title, since Peirce thought there was little to be gained from either “detached ideas” or reasoning about “topics of vital impor­tance”. The latter was held up to particular ridicule in the draft of a new opening lecture that Peirce called “On Detached Ideas in General and on Vitally Important Topics” [1.649-677]. This draft is not available electron­ically, as far as I know, but it has influenced twentieth century Peirce scholarship through its inclusion in The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. [Hartshorne and Weiss, 1931] What follows is my own gloss on this text — with extended quotations to help convey the flavor of Peirce’s writing.


“On Detached Ideas in General and on Vitally Important Topics” is highly polemical, and in order to under­stand it one must attend to both its context and Peirce’s use of irony. The polemical character is evident from the outset:

Among the advantages which our humble cousins whom it pleases us to refer to as “the lower animals” enjoy over some of our own family is that they never reason about vitally important topics, and never have to lecture nor to listen to lectures about them. Docilely allowing themselves to be guided by their instincts into almost every detail of life, they live exactly as their Maker intended them to live. The result is, that they very rarely fall into error of any kind, and never into a vital one. What a contrast to our lives! Truly, that reason upon which we so plume ourselves, though it may answer for little things, yet for great decisions is hardly surer than a toss-up. . . [1.649]

Peirce introduces a dichotomy — the indispensible tool of the polemicist — between reason and instinct. In passages that evoke Pascal he defends the claims of the heart over the head, leading to one of the most famous tag-lines in American philo­sophy.

In regard to the greatest affairs of life, the wise man follows his heart and does not trust his head. This should be the method of every man, no matter how powerful his intellect. More so still, perhaps, if mathematics is too difficult for him. . . .

If, walking in a garden on a dark night, you were suddenly to hear the voice of your sister crying to you to rescue her from a villain, would you stop to reason out the metaphysical question of whether it were possible for one mind to cause material waves of sound and for another mind to perceive them? If you did, the problem might probably occupy the remainder of your days.  In the same way, if a man undergoes any religious experience and hears the call of his Saviour, for him to halt till he has adjusted a philosophical difficulty would seem to be an analogous sort of thing, whether you call it stupid or whether you call it disgusting. If on the other hand, a man has had no religious experience, then any religion not an affectation is as yet impossible for him; and the only worthy course is to wait quietly till such experience comes. No amount of speculation can take the place of experience. [1.653, 1.656]

Peirce describes our natural trust in instinct and tradition as a kind of “sentimental conservatism” — an appellation that was probably as offensive in the Cambridge of 1898 as it would be in a similar location today:

Conservatism, true conservatism, which is sentimental conservatism, and by those who have no powers of observation to see what sort of men conservatives are, is often called stupid conservatism, an epithet far more applicable to the false conservatism that looks to see on which side bread is buttered — true conservatism, I say, means not trusting to reasonings about questions of vital importance but rather to hereditary instincts and traditional sentiments. . .

The opinion prevalent among radicals that conservatives, and sentimentalists generally, are fools is only a cropping-out of the tendency of men to conceited exaggeration of their reasoning powers. Uncompromising radical though I be upon some questions, inhabiting all my life an atmosphere of science, and not reckoned as particularly credulous, I must confess that the conservative sentimentalism I have defined recommends itself to my mind as eminently sane and wholesome. [1.661-662]

Again, the polemic derives from the opposition Peirce has constructed between reason and sentiment; that Peirce himself does not completely subscribe to this opposition is still submerged in the polemic.

Peirce next considers the various branches of science (understood broadly, here, as academic knowledge) and concludes that they contribute nothing to topics of vital importance. Philosophy is no exception: those who would represent philosophy as being important, Peirce says, “are simply offering us a stone when we ask for bread.” And the science of ethics is completely useless:

Now what’s the use of prying into the philosophical basis of morality?  We all know what morality is: it is behaving as you were brought up to behave, that is, to think you ought to be punished for not behaving.  But to believe in thinking as you have been brought up to think defines conservatism.  It needs no reasoning to perceive that morality is conservatism. But conservatism again means, as you will surely agree, not trusting to one’s reasoning powers. To be a moral man is to obey the traditional maxims of your community without hesitation or discussion. Hence ethics, which is reasoning out an explanation of morality is — I will not say immoral, for that would be going too far — composed of the very substance of immorality. If you ever happen to be thrown in with an unprofessional thief, the only very bad kind of thief, so as to be able to study his psychological peculiar­ities, you will find that two things characterize him; first an even more immense conceit in his own reasoning powers than is common, and second, a disposition to reason about the basis of morals. . .Ethics, then, even if not a positively dangerous study, as it sometimes proves, is as useless a science as can be conceived. [1.666-667]

It would be pointless to enumerate the other sciences, Perice says, “since it would only be to reiterate the same declaration.”

At this juncture, having trashed the sciences and the pretensions of reason, Peirce says something surprising — or, at least, something that would be surprising if we had no other exposure to Peirce’s thought. The sciences, Peirce says, “are all such that it would be far too little to say that they are valuable to us.” Given the tone of the pre­ceding, the word little comes as a distinct shock; one can almost hear how it might be delivered in a lecture. Peirce continues in this new voice, “Rather let our hearts murmur ‘blessed are we’ if the immo­lation of our being can weld together the smallest part of the great cosmos of ideas to which the sciences belong.” Peirce is recasting the polemic. The opposition between reason and sentiment — invariably re­solved, until now, in favor of the latter — apparently admits another resolution.

This new perspective is reinforced in the next paragraph, in which Peirce describes propositions regarding vitally important topics as being mere utensils and says that reasoning about such topics is not only an impertinence toward the topic, but a treason against reason itself:

As soon as a proposition becomes vitally important — then in the first place, it is sunk to the condition of a mere utensil; and in the second place, it ceases altogether to be scientific, because concerning matters of vital importance reasoning is at once an impertinence toward its subject matter and a treason against itself. [1.671]

As the mask of irony drops, the conceptual pace of the lecture seems to quicken. On the one hand, Peirce asserts that reason testifies to its own ultimate subor­dination to sentiment.  In a passage which one might interpret as a direct response to James’s letter, he says:

Were I willing to make a single exception to the principle I thus enunciate, and to admit that there was one study which was at once scientific and yet vitally important, I should make that exception in favor of logic; for the reason that if we fall into the error of believing that vitally important questions are to be decided by reasoning, the only hope of salvation lies in formal logic, which demonstrates in the clearest manner that reasoning itself testifies to its own ultimate subordination to sentiment.  It is like a Pope who should declare ex cathedra and call upon all the faithful to implicitly believe on pain of damnation by the power of the keys that he was not the supreme authority. [1.672, see Note]

On the other hand, Peirce claims that instinct and sentiment inexorably point toward the generali­zations of themselves:

Among vitally important truths there is one which I verily believe — and which men of infinitely deeper insight than mine have believed — to be solely supremely important.  It is that vitally important facts are of all truths the veriest trifles.  For the only vitally important matter is my concern, business, and duty — or yours. Now you and I — what are we?  Mere cells of the social organism. Our deepest sentiment pronounces the verdict of our own insignificance. . .

Suppose you embrace. . .a conservative sentimentalism, modestly rate your own reasoning powers at the very mediocre price they would fetch if put up at auction, and then what do you come to? Why, then, the very first command that is laid upon you, your quite highest business and duty, becomes, as everybody knows, to recognize a higher business than your business, not merely an avocation after the daily task of your vocation is performed, but a generalized conception of duty which completes your personality by melting it into the neighboring parts of the universal cosmos. If this sounds unintelligible, just take for comparison the first good mother of a family that meets your eye, and ask whether she is not a sentimentalist, whether you would wish her to be otherwise, and lastly whether you can find a better formula in which to outline the universal features of her portrait than that I have just given. [1.673]

We are left with something of a paradox: reason subordinates itself to sentiment, while sentiment insists upon reason. But this paradox, Peirce says, is not sym­me­trical:

Thus it is, that while reasoning and the science of reasoning strenuously proclaim the subordination of reasoning to sentiment, the very supreme commandment of sentiment is that man should generalize, or what the logic of relatives shows to be the same thing, should become welded into the universal continuum, which is what true reasoning consists in.  But this does not reinstate reasoning, for this generalization should come about, not merely in man’s cognitions, which are but the superficial film of his being, but objectively in the deepest emotional springs of his life. [1.673]

The pyrotechnics are not quite over, since Peirce goes on to describe the complete generalization of sentiment as being essentially religious:

The generalization of sentiment can take place on different sides. Poetry is one sort of generalization of sentiment, and in so far is the regenerative metamorphosis of senti­ment. But poetry remains on one side ungener­alized, and to that is due its emptiness. The complete general­ization, the complete regeneration of sentiment is religion, which is poetry, but poetry completed. [1.676]

And the conclusion is yet another famous Peirce passage:

That is about what I had to say to you about topics of vital importance. To sum it up, all sensible talk about vitally important topics must be common­place, all reasoning about them unsound, and all study of them narrow and sordid. [1.677]


Peirce did not deliver this lecture.  William James prevailed upon him yet again, and the opening lecture that was delivered in Cambridge on February 10, 1898 was a more temperate effort called “Philosophy and The Conduct of Life.” This lecture is available electronically here, and it is instructive to compare it with the above. Nor was the entire series presented as “Detached Ideas On Topics of Vital Importance,” but rather under the more ameliorative rubric: Reasoning and the Logic of Things. Josiah Royce was bowled over by this lecture series, writing to James afterwards:

As for thoughts, of late I seem to myself to be on the track of a great number of interesting topics in logic. Those lectures of poor C. S. Peirce that you devised will always remain quite epoch-making for me. They started me on such new tracks.


Note: Peirce had been sensitive for many years to the sort of paradox that he asso­ciated with James’s notion of “vital importance.” Already in 1878, he had described logic as being intrinsically rooted in the social princi­ple. In one of my favorite pas­sages, from the Doctrine of Chances, he says:

If a man were immortal he could be perfectly sure of seeing the day when everything in which he had trusted should betray his trust, and, in short, of coming eventually to hopeless misery. He would break down, at last, as every great fortune, as every dynasty, as every civilization does.  In place of this we have death.

But what, without death, would happen to every man, with death must happen to some man. At the same time, death makes the number of our risks, of our inferences, finite, and so makes their mean result uncertain. The very idea of probability and of reasoning rests on the assumption that this number is indefinitely great.  We are thus landed in the same difficulty as before, and I can see but one solution of it. It seems to me that we are driven to this, that logicality inexorably requires that our interests shall not be limited. They must not stop at our own fate, but must embrace the whole community. This community, again, must not be limited, but must extend to all races of beings with whom we can come into immediate or mediate relation.  It must reach, however vaguely, beyond this geological epoch, beyond all bounds. He who would not sacrifice his own soul to save the whole world, is, as it seems to me, illogical in all his inferences, collectively.


Citations are by volume and paragraph number from The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, ed. Hartshorne and Weiss, Belknap, Harvard University Press, 1931.

Correspondence cited is from The Thought and Character of William James, Ralph Barton Perry, Harvard University Press, 1935, Chapter XXXI.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.