Lean on Me (When You’re Not Wrong)

Relying on Others to Define Reality for Ourselves – Part I of III

It’s a dangerous business to try and impose one’s view of things on others.

Padma: if you’re a little uncertain of my reliability, well, a little uncertainty is no bad thing. Cocksure men do terrible deeds. Women, too. ––Salman Rushdie, Midnights Children (1981)[1]

As I’ve previously written, one of the key themes running through Professor Alan Jacobs’s book How to Think (2017) is how we must come to grips that our individuality is paradoxically based on how those around us end up defining each of us as individuals.

For C. S. Peirce (1839–1914), all reality, including our thoughts on reality, begins with our reliance on others:

As what anything really is, is what it may finally come to be known to be in the ideal state of complete information, so that reality depends on the ultimate decision of the community; so thought is what it is, only by virtue of its addressing a future thought which is in its value as thought identical with it, though more developed. In this way, the existence of thought now depends on what is to be hereafter; so that it has only a potential existence, dependent on the future thought of the community….

For Peirce, the individual is but a negation—and when two individuals negate each other’s individuality, they affirm community:

The individual man, since his separate existence is manifested only by ignorance and error, so far as he is anything apart from his fellows, and from what he and they are to be, is only a negation. This is man….”[2]

A century before the phrase “imagined communities” was popularized by Benedict Anderson (1936–2015) as a useful way to describe nationalism, Peirce recognized:

The care that men have for what is to happen after they are dead, cannot be selfish. And finally and chiefly, the constant use of the word “we”––as when we speak of our possessions on the Pacific––our destiny as a republic––in cases in which no personal interests at all are involved, show conclusively that men do not make their personal interests their only ones, and therefore may, at least, subordinate them to the interests of the community.

But just the revelation of the possibility of this complete self-sacrifice in man, and the belief in its saving power, will serve to redeem the logicality of all men. For he who recognizes the logical necessity of complete self-identification of one’s own interests with those of the community, and its potential existence in man, even if he has it not himself, will perceive that only the inferences of that man who has it are logical, and so views his own inferences as being valid only so far as they would be accepted by that man. But so far as he has this belief, he becomes identified with that man. And that ideal perfection of knowledge by which we have seen that reality is constituted must thus belong to a community in which this identification is complete…. [3]

This “ideal perfection of knowledge by which we have seen that reality is constituted” is also, for Peirce, the method of science:

Such is the method of science. Its fundamental hypothesis, restated in more familiar language, is this: There are Real things, whose characters are entirely independent of our opinions about them; those Reals affect our senses according to regular laws, and, though our sensations are as different as are our relations to the objects, yet, by taking advantage of the laws of perception, we can ascertain by reasoning how things really and truly are; and any man, if he have sufficient experience and he reason enough about it, will be led to the one True conclusion. The new conception here involved is that of Reality….[4]

Even if the community renders something other communities think to be immoral (such as separate public drinking fountains for separate ethnicities), it is nonetheless part of reality, at least until a majority in the community agree to something different. Community creates the facts of reality by agreeing with what they are:

The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real. That is the way I would explain reality….[5]

(Read Part II here, and Part III here)



[1] Salman Rushdie, Midnights Children, (New York, NY: Knopf, 1981. Random House Paperbacks, 2006) II, “Alpha and Omega” 243.

[2] Peirce, “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy 2 (1868): 140–57.

[3] Peirce, “Ground of Validity of the Laws of Logic: Further Consequences of Four Incapacities,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy 2 (1869): 193–208.

[4] Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief,” Popular Science Monthly 12 (November 1877): 1–15.

[5] Peirce, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” Popular Science Monthly 12 (January 1878): 286–302.

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