Peirce and Self-Control:  How to Facilitate Autonomous Self-Learners


Aaron Massecar




Current discussions in the philosophy of education are dealing with a new model of learning that focuses on the development of the student’s critical thinking skills instead of the old model that held the student to be a passive recipient of the lecturer’s knowledge.  In this paper, I focus on the benefit of a Peircean understanding of self-control to current debates in the philosophy of education.  In particular, I focus on the development of critical thinking skills that are essential for autonomous self-learners.  Along the way, I begin to question Peirce’s binary between theory and practice.



In 2005, two journals, Educational Philosophy and Theory and Studies in Philosophy and Education were entirely devoted to Peirce’s philosophy.  The articles focused on how Peirce’s philosophy can contribute to current discussions in the philosophy of education.  Some of the main themes addressed were, as one would expect, semiotics, belief, doubt, reasoning practices, and habits.  It is to these last two topics, reasoning practices and habits, that I would like to focus on for the duration of this paper because they were underemphasized in the journal articles.  More specifically, I want to focus on the role of critical self-control in habit formation.  The importance of self-control becomes most evident when we see contemporary educational institutions as moving towards a learner-centred approach that emphasizes the role of the individual in shaping her own educational experience.  Peirce’s notion of self-control as a habituated practice provides the individual learner with the critical thinking skills necessary to achieve her own autonomy.  Though both of these journals provide a very comprehensive understanding of Peirce, and help tie Peirce into contemporary debates, I feel we would be remiss were we not to spend a little more time on the importance of self-control for discussions of education; self-control is integral to a student’s education.[1]  In the course of the discussion, I will try to bridge Peirce’s strict divide between theory and practice, that is, between rational and moral ends.

            It would help, to begin with, if we spend a little time (re)familiarizing ourselves with Peirce’s basic model of experience.  In the oft-quoted The Fixation of Belief, Peirce describes the process of belief formation as the result of overcoming doubts and irritations in our environment.  For the most part, our lives are characterized by the experience of belief: this is a calm and stable disposition that characterizes the uninterrupted flow of experience.  We transition from one feeling to the next without any major interruptions or inconveniences.  Suddenly something breaks in upon us and forces our attention elsewhere.  Depending on the type of disturbance, we can quickly slip back into our state of belief once, for example, the itch has been scratched.  But for other disturbances, ones that require much more than a long ruler to reach the nether-regions of our back, the irritation persists.  Sometimes the disturbances require a great deal of work before we can even figure out what the source of the disturbances are.  At this point we enter into the mode of inquiry.  Peirce describes four different types of inquiry: tenacity, authority, a priori, and the scientific.  Though any of these methods can remove the irritation, the scientific, Peirce says, produces the most reliable and stable responses/beliefs to our irritations because scientific beliefs are the ones most likely to be true in the long run.  This occurs as a result of the trial-and-error method that the scientific method advocates for, as opposed to the immediate adoption of pre-existent beliefs that we find in the other three methods.  This method also relies on how the individual encounters their environment, thus contributing to a greater autonomy than the other approaches.  Once we have engaged in the process of inquiry and formed our belief, we are now in a position to use that belief in the future to overcome similar irritations or doubts.  This readiness or preparedness to perform an action is what Peirce means by a habit.

            The importance of habits becomes clear once we understand the educational process as a process of developing the proper habits that allow individuals to successfully negotiate their surrounding environment.  Though the model outlined above applies, for the most part, to individual cases, we can forego every trial-and-error step in the process of inquiry if we have someone or something guiding our inquiry.  The role that the educator can play branches off into two separate directions here, one taking the student by the hand and controlling every step along the student’s path of inquiry, which makes the student dependent on the educator for any future inquiry, and the other focuses on developing the skills in the student to eliminate this dependency, freeing the student to guide themselves to successful outcomes autonomously. 

            In Three Educational Orientations: A Peircean Perspective on Education and the Growth of the Self, Michael Ventimiglia demonstrates that it is not only requisite that an educator facilitate the development of good habits but that the educator actually contributes to the failure of habits.  “The first task of the educator is to provoke difficulties for the student that require the development of new habits for their solution. The educator must be in the business of provoking habit-failure.”[2]  It seems immediately counterintuitive that educators should be provoking failure in their students, but it is failure of a very particular sort and geared towards a very particular end, such as the failure that results from a student being given assignments and work which exceed the capabilities of their set of habits.  This calls for a delicate balance between complete failure and utter boredom.        On a more general level, excessive certainty caused by a rigidification of habitual patterns[3] can lead to paralysis when the conditions that originally gave rise to those habits are changed.  As such, the student needs to develop patterns of behaviour that allow him to successfully navigate his environment today but also to adapt to changes in the future.  In order to do this, he needs a healthy amount of doubt either from external sources or from within.  Doubt, or a fallibilistic approach to a student’s own beliefs instigated by the educator, forces the student to call into question and critically examine the habits that are guiding his behaviour.

            It is necessary to pause for a moment here and look at critical examination.  Peirce wants to make a distinction between morality and rationality, or Ethics and Logic.  Ethics “is the theory of self-controlled, or deliberate, conduct. Logic is the theory of self-controlled, or deliberate, thought; and as such, must appeal to ethics for its principles.”[4]  Peirce is talking about a different version of ethics here because, for Peirce, Ethics is not a theory of what it is morally correct or incorrect to do.  Rather, Ethics determines the correct conduct to achieve ends; esthetics determines the ends.  “Esthetics is the science of ideals, or of that which is objectively admirable without any ulterior reason.”[5]  To put it in other words, there is an immediate perception of the goodness of an ideal; we intuitively/instinctively see whether an ideal is good or not.  The goodness or badness of an ideal cannot be the subject of rational deliberation for Peirce.  It just is.  The individual arrives at the moment of assent or denial because of a historically contextualized tradition, what Peirce calls Sentimentalism.  “Sentiment, he supposed, reflects the wisdom of the centuries; it guides our desires and actions without being subject to critical self-control.”[6]  Values are historically determined by a process that we can’t have control over.  Because of this determination, reason has no control over the ethical ends one should adopt but only over the means through which one will achieve those ends.  Esthetics provides the foundation for ethics, which in turn provides the foundation for logic, but reason cannot dig beneath the firmament of ethics in order to rationally understand esthetics.  About the processes of rational deliberation, however, reason can have a say.  It is at this point that we begin to gain a better understanding of the domain of rational deliberation and critical self-control leading to autonomy.

Again, Peirce makes a distinction within reasoning:

There are ways of arguing and reasoning which everyone possesses, logician or not, and these ways, when unstudied and uncriticized, constitute a reasoner's logica utens (2.204).  His logica docens would be both the reformed habits of reasoning and the theory which would result from a critical analysis of the logica utens.[7]


There is a distinction, according to Peirce, between the ways in which we normally reason and the ways in which we should normally reason.  In order to understand this, it will be beneficial to look at how Peirce defines the reasoning process. 

In the Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology (1901), Peirce says that

Reasoning does not begin until a judgment has been formed; for the antecedent cognitive operations are not subject to logical approval or disapproval, being subconscious, or not sufficiently near the surface of consciousness, and therefore uncontrollable.  Reasoning, therefore, begins with premises which are adopted as representing percepts, or generalizations of such percepts.  All the reasoner’s conclusions ought to refer solely to the percepts, or rather to propositions expressing facts of perception.[8]   


One of the necessary components of any critical analysis of the reasoning process is the consciousness of that process.  The first step, then, is to bring the reasoning process forward in the form of propositions.  Propositions are linguistic representations of the facts of perception.  In other words, perceptual experience  can be contained in propositions.  Once the proposition has been formed then we can begin examining the “antecedent cognitive operations,”   which will, in turn, lead to further propositions about perceptions.  The extent to which one will follow these propositions depends on the level of doubt that can be expressed by these propositions.  The educator’s job is to show that doubt can be expressed about each and every one of these propositions.  It becomes the job of the students to recognize this and begin questioning their own cognitive operations.  The educator can facilitate this process by, what Ventimiglia calls the agapic orientation.[9]  By instigating habit-failure and asking the student to critically self-reflect on their reasoning processes, the student is in an open position to see alternative ends that one could aim at.  These ends are provided by the educator but not imposed on the student by the educator; the educator’s respect and genuine interest in the growth of the student motivates the student to see the worthiness of the educator’s ends. Thus, also necessary for this process is a certain amount of freedom that permits the student the possibility of failure.[10]  “When we do not allow students the freedom to fail, we rob them of the opportunity to succeed.”[11]

            Another excursus is necessary in order to understand the ideals of ethics and reason.  As we move along, it is becoming increasingly difficult to hold onto the strict division that Peirce maintains between rationality and morality, between theory and practice.  Remember that Peirce holds that logic should play no part in determining the ends of ethics, that ethic’s goals should be determined based on a feeling or rightness or wrongness, which is a reflection of the historical context within which one grows up.  And one can readily see the point of limiting the role of reason in determining ethical ends, especially if ethical ends were solely determined by reason and without the influence of a community’s morals.  This type of behaviour would approach an antisocial or psychopathic personality disorder.  There must be something outside of reason that grounds an individual’s sense of morality, even if that morality is entirely dependent on and relative to the environment that one grew up in.  But just because morality shouldn’t be a one-person play, doesn’t mean that reason shouldn’t at least play a supporting role.  Given the fact that the majority of life’s big decisions are based on situations that are difficult to navigate, it would only seem prudent that we enlist whatever resources are available to navigate these situations [and navigation necessarily implies a compass or at least an idea of where one wants to end up].  But there is a logical difficulty with asking for reason’s help: reason is only able to help in those areas that can be brought under the control of conscious deliberation.  Ethical considerations are largely within the domain of a pre-reflective, unconscious behaviour.  Habits are precisely this, that is, habits are routine behaviours that we spontaneously engage in without the necessity of conscious deliberation.  It would seem, then, that the possibility of engaging in rational, ethical deliberation is cut-off from the beginning, thus maintaining the division between rationality and morality.

            A further complication in bridging the divide between rationality and morality surrounds the status of their respective objects.  In order to engage in the critical processes that are necessary for self-control, the student has to be fully conscious of her activities.  Reasoning processes, as necessarily involving high levels of brain functioning, are easier to bring forward to consciousness.  However, activities that we normally understand as being ethical often rely on a networked set of presuppositions, the majority of which one is not conscious.  The problem becomes moving the unconscious habitual behaviours to a conscious level in order to subject them to the same critical reflection that one finds with the reasoning process.  I realize that this won’t directly get us into the domain of a critical engagement of the ends of ethics, but I want to show that those things that do not normally inhabit the same semiotic plane as propositions can still be reasoned about if made into logical propositions.  If one of the major limiting factors is that ethical ends are feelings rather than propositions then is it not the case that we can change them into propositions in order to deliberate on them much in the same way that we change habits from the unconscious to the conscious level?  It might be the case that there is more going on here than just the conscious/unconscious limit, but that remains to be seen.  There is evidence for this approach:

...since we are conscious of what we do deliberately, we are conscious habitualiter of whatever hides in the depths of our nature; and it is presumable ... that a sufficiently energetic effort of attention would bring it out.[12]


It is possible, albeit with a significant effort of attention, to move something from an unconscious level to a conscious level.  If I am correct in my interpretation, and I cannot find any evidence to the contrary, then this means that, contrary to Peirce’s better wishes, rational deliberation about ethical ideals is not inconsistent with the rest of his philosophy.[13]  This approach then draws into question the strict divide between morality and rationality that Peirce would like to uphold.  I will save discussing the practical/theoretical divide for another paper.  For the purposes of this paper, this approach frees up the possibility of the student engaging in rational deliberation about ethical ideals.  This does not mean that rationality should take the driver’s seat in ethical deliberation, but that at the very least should be invited along for the ride.  Maybe sentimentalism and logic should take turns driving.

            This approach is not to make the educator redundant in terms of the ethical ideals that they can pass on, but merely to show that even those ethical ideals are open to criticism and discussion, thus providing even more freedom and responsibility for the student.  One might argue that too much freedom and responsibility for the student could prove debilitating rather than enabling, that students need structure, discipline, and hard.  Though structure undoubtedly provides beneficial constraints for some students, taken as a whole, the students become dependent on the educators and do not become the autonomous self-learners that they are capable of becoming.  For this reason, a learner-centred approach that focuses on the development of critical reasoning skills, whether those be about morality or rationality itself, will prove more beneficial for the student’s autonomy in the long run.

            We have looked at the way that Peirce’s philosophy of critical self-analysis can help the student to define the ends proper to good reasoning, but what about the good conduct itself?  For this Peirce is a little more explicit.  Joseph Brent has a good summary, taken from the Lowell Lectures of 1903, of the critical evaluation of moral conduct.  There are three steps in this process.

The first is a comparison of the conduct with the original resolution, which was a mental formula.  We have a memory of the action as an image.  How does the image conform to the formula?  The second self-criticism asks how the conduct accords with the general intention.  The third self-criticism asks how the image of a person’s conduct accords with the person’s ideals of conduct.  Each of these self-criticisms is accompanied by a judgment, which if favourable is felt to be pleasurable.[14]


An external examiner can facilitate each of these activities, but the ideal situation is one wherein the student is autonomously able to compare their conduct with the intention and execution of their ideal. 

There are many more elements that can and should be added to make the picture complete.  A couple additions would include the role of pleasure in education and a semiotic understanding of how particular objects facilitate particular ends.  But for our purposes, we were interested in understanding how critical self-control contributes to a student becoming an autonomous self-learner.  We found that critical self-reflection not only about the means but also the ends of a student’s conduct, combined with a good measure of fallibilism, leads to a more autonomous self-learner that is able to define and travel her own paths of self-development; an ideal for any educator.



Word Count: 2876 (without footnotes)



Works Cited



Brent, Joseph. Charles Sanders Peirce : A Life. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.


Colapietro, Vincent Michael. Peirce's Approach to the Self: A Semiotic Perspective on Human Subjectivity. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.


Greenlee, Douglas. Peirce's Concept of Sign. The Hague: Mouton, 1973.


Hookway, Christopher. Peirce. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985.


Hookway, Christopher, Semantics and Self-Control in Brunning, Jacqueline, and Paul Forster. Rule of Reason : The Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.


Peirce, Charles S. (Charles Sanders). Collected Papers. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1958.


Ventimiglia, Michael. Three Educational Orientations: A Peircean Perspective on Education and the Growth of the Self, in Studies in Philosophy and Education. Dordrecht: Springer, 2005. p. 291-308.


[1] This paper is, in a way, a response to Vincent Colapietro’s comment, “The influence of inwardness on autonomy, of our inner life on our self-controlled conduct, is deeply appreciated by Peirce and curiously neglected by his commentators.”  See  Colapietro, Vincent, Peirce's approach to the self : a semiotic perspective on human subjectivity, Albany: SUNY Press , 1989, p. 106.

[2] Michael Ventimiglia, Three Educational Orientations: A Peircean Perspective on Education and the Growth of the Self, in Studies in Philosophy and Education, Dordrecht: Springer, 2005, p. 304.

[3] For more on this, see CP 1.50: “ it is the law of habit that it tends to spread and extend itself over more and more of the life.”

[4] Collected Papers 1.191

[5] Ibid.

[6] Hookway, Semantics and Self-Control, in Brunning, Jacqueline, and Paul Forster. Rule of Reason : The Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997, p. 205.

[7] Greenlee, Douglas, Peirce's Concept of Sign. The Hague: Mouton, 1973. 17.

[8] 2.773

[9] Michael Ventimiglia, Three Educational Orientations, 304

[10] It should be noted here that failure means failure to achieve certain ends and not failure to achieve the educator’s ends.

[11] Michael Ventimiglia, Three Educational Orientations, 305


[12] CP 5.441

[13] Maybe it’s the case that we cannot talk discursively about esthetics because esthetics involves an immediate assent to the thing/object/...  But we can still form a proposition about it and we can still analyze the associations the object has.

[14] Joseph Brent, Peirce: A Life, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993, p. 343