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Charles S. Peirce on Reason, Belief, and Logic

Why Don't People Study More Logic?


It's a well known phenomenon that people tend to think of themselves as above average in all manner of skills — driving a car is a commonly cited example. Aside from not possibly being true, when a person lack proficiency in a skill, they can also lack the ability to realize that lack proficiency. Therefore, they lack any reason to try to learn how to do better.

    Few persons care to study logic, because everybody conceives himself to be proficient enough in the art of reasoning already. But I observe that this satisfaction is limited to one’s own ratiocination, and does not extend to that of other men.
    - Charles Peirce, The Fixation of Belief

Peirce, an American philosopher who is largely responsible for the development of the philosophical school known as Pragmatism, is making two very interesting points here — both of which relate to a person’s ego how people rate themselves in comparison to others.

First, Peirce notes that most people seem to consider themselves quite good when it comes to reasoning through problems and using logic, even if they haven’t had any formal training in the subject. My own experiences suggest that this continues to be true, and perhaps that is understandable. After all, most people seem able to use their reasoning well enough to get through their day, earn a living, and raise a family. Their own personal experiences would seem to suggest that they proficient when it comes the art of reasoning.

Granted, most people also make all sorts of errors in reasoning — but they either don’t notice these errors or are able to brush them aside, perhaps laying the blame on someone else. The same is not true, however, when it comes to evaluating how well others do in their own reasoning. People tend to be a bit harsher in their evaluations of others’ reasoning, giving us Peirce’s second point: most people consider themselves not only to be skilled in reasoning, but in fact more skilled than just about everyone else.

It’s always easier to see the flaws in someone else than in ourselves, especially when we don’t possess the skills needed to adequately evaluate how we are actually doing. Most people are simply so ignorant about basic principles of reasoning and logic that they are simply unable to understand that they are doing badly. It’s like knowing so little grammar that one is unable to understand that they are using language badly. Only when they learn enough to evaluate their own work do they understand enough to do well — but if they think they are already doing just fine, they won’t have any incentive to learn more.

That’s not only true about logic and reasoning but a whole host of other matters as well — driving, language use, you name it. This is an unfortunate but all-too-common aspect of human psychology which hasn’t been explored in great detail but which I think that Charles Peirce identified in the above quotation. It’s something well worth keeping in mind when arguing with someone else. There’s a very good chance that even if they are using very poor reasoning, they may simply not know enough to do any better or even to realize how poor their arguments are.

Even worse, it may be true of you.

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