The Trouble with Theory and Practice:

Another look at Philosophy and the Conduct of Life




In this paper I argue that the general conception of Peirce as holding a strict division between theory and practice in his 1898 lecture Philosophy and the Conduct of Life does not hold up to close scrutiny.  Contrary to popular interpretations, Peirce does create a space for the use of reason in everyday affairs and, specifically, that space allows for the development of intelligent habits. 


Prepared for the

SAAP 2009 Graduate Student Session


In the late 1890s, William James was busying about Cambridge and Harvard trying to find work for his friend Charles Peirce.  At one point, there was some confusion about what kind of work James was able to find Peirce, but it was eventually settled that Peirce would give a series of lectures entitled Reasoning and the Logic of Things during The Cambridge Conference Lectures of 1898.  In the preamble to the very first lecture entitled Philosophy and the Conduct of Life, Peirce informs the audience that he condemns, with the whole strength of conviction, the Hellenic tendency to mingle philosophy with practice.[1]  It doesn’t take much of a stretch to understand why some commentators have parted company with Peirce on this point.  “Why,” we could imagine these commentators asking, “would anyone even begin to think that philosophy and practice should be separated, let alone end up holding that as a tenable position?”  As it turns out, Peirce does hold this position, but neither to the degree nor in the way that we might think. 

                Peirce did argue that philosophy and practice should not be mixed, but what he meant by ‘philosophy’ and what he meant by ‘practice’ have very specific meanings that serve to confuse the reader.  A patient reading will help to elucidate these terms and to draw out their implications for the rest of Peirce’s philosophy.  With this in mind, I would like to start by looking at these difficult passages, then move to how these passages have been interpreted in the secondary literature, and then conclude with an alternative interpretation that attempts to unify the lecture.  To let the cat out of the bag, I will say that this new interpretation relies on an understanding of habit as a mediation between theory and practice.

Let us first turn to the most controversial quote:

Now, Gentlemen, it behooves me, at the outset of this course, to confess to you that in this respect I stand before you an Aristotelian and a scientific man, condemning with the whole strength of conviction the Hellenic tendency to mingle philosophy and practice. (Ketner, 107)

Here Peirce says outright that ‘philosophy’ and ‘practice’ should not mix.[2]  The quote follows from a brief discussion of Aristotle’s distinction between the theoretical sciences (metaphysics, logic, mathematics, and natural science), and the practical sciences of Aesthetics and Ethics.  The latter two are radically foreign in their nature and idea from the theoretical sciences because the theoretical sciences have “knowledge of theory as its ultimate end and aim” (Ketner, 107).  For holding this distinction, Peirce calls himself an Aristotelian. 

                Aristotle was different from the other Greeks, according to Peirce, because Plato, Democritus, Diogenes and the like expected philosophy to affect life,

not by any slow process of percolation of forms, as we may expect that researches into differential equations, stellar photometry, the taxonomy of echinoderms, and the like will ultimately [affect] the conduct of life, --but forthwith in the person and soul of the philosopher himself rendering him different from ordinary men in his views of right conduct. (Ketner, 106) 

Greeks other than Aristotle thought that the study of philosophy would entail an immediate shift in one’s perceptions of reality and thereby effectuate a change in conduct.  We can only speculate as to what exactly Peirce meant here and what he was denying.  On the face of it, it would be difficult to deny the connection between, for example, Diogenes’ thinking and his behaviour, that of being a radical ascetic, but perhaps Peirce is suggesting that Diogenes’ behaviour is unwise because it violates the dictates of ordinary common sense.  It would seem, then, that Peirce is denying the Greek connection between philosophy and practice because it can lead the philosopher to adopt a lifestyle contrary to the comportment of the rest of society.[3]  Peirce is not saying that the problem here derives from the mistaken belief that philosophy should have an effect on the views of society, but that philosophy should have an effect on the views of society today. 

                Philosophy should affect society, not immediately in the body of the philosopher, but through a slow percolation of forms.  What Peirce has in mind here is, again, not entirely clear.  We can look to our own society to provide examples of how this percolation takes place, such as the effect that theories of evolution have had on our understanding of human psychology, but that would imply that Peirce has missed a fundamental aspect of the telephone game where scientific research sits on the one end and pop-science on the other: what starts out as scientific fact eventually ends up as a convoluted paradigm through which behaviour gets wrongly interpreted by society.  Surely this is not what Peirce meant.  Perhaps I am looking at too short of a time frame.  Perhaps it will be the case that corrective forms will eventually emerge that will provide us with a more accurate understanding of reality, that is, if we adopt the belief that evolution is the explanation for human psychology, then eventually counter-explanations for human psychology will eventually emerge, swinging the pendulum back, and correcting our initial interpretations of human behaviour.  This is one way of making sense of Peirce’s claim that philosophy should affect society through a slow percolation of forms.  These forms, according to Peirce, arise from philosophical investigation. 

                Peirce breaks philosophy off into Logic and Metaphysics, excluding ethics because it is too particular, contingent, and too concrete, not being abstract enough to arrive at universal necessity.[4]  Logic, Peirce says, “is the science of thought, not merely of thought as a psychical phenomenon but of thought in general, its general laws and kinds.  Metaphysics is the science of being.”[5]  Though Metaphysics and Logic are two separate branches of philosophy, Metaphysics must rely upon the theory of logic for direction.[6]  Were metaphysics to strike out on its own, it might risk losing the necessity of the must be that logic provides.  The interesting point for our purposes is that Peirce here, as elsewhere in the lecture, explicitly excludes Ethics from the Theoretical Sciences. This Peirce does, not only to protect the sciences from the contingencies of ethics, but also to protect the socially grounded ethics from the oft-changing science.

                At this point, Peirce distinguishes between the ground of Metaphysics (logic/reasoning) and the ground of Ethics (sentiment/instinct).  Ethics relies on instinct and sentiment, a foundation completely unfitting scientific pursuits.  Metaphysics, following logic and reasoning, questions into the nature of both the potential and the actual world.  It takes its guidance from logic and asks how the world must be.  Ethics, on the other hand, seeks answers not what must be now and for eternity, but simply what must be the case now; what am I to do in this particular situation.  Because of the time-sensitive nature of ethical questions, it cannot appeal to the same sources as metaphysics.  Whereas fifty generations is nothing in the life of science, ethics doesn’t have that luxury, it must act now.  In order to act, Ethics relies on instinct or sentiment. 

                Instinct and sentiment are the product of an “induction summarizing the experience of all our race.”[7]  Although Peirce was only referring to the immediate, instinctual reaction against incest, I think that he had in mind all of our instinctual reactions as the sedimentation of our race’s experience.[8]  Were reason to be employed as a means of overcoming difficult ethical situations, our ethical sensitivities could be called into jeopardy.  Should a man somehow deem it reasonable to sleep with his 12-year-old daughter, no one would be convinced that his action was a good action, no matter how powerful his syllogism might be.  This is what Peirce is getting at when he talks about the necessity of reasoning remaining independent of ethical considerations.  The reverse applies for sentiments and rationality:  sentiments and rationality should stay out of the way of scientific pursuits for fear that we may assent to propositions which would seem logically true because they appeal to our desires. 

                The point here is that sentiment and instincts should play no role in metaphysical speculation and that we should not listen to reason alone when deliberating about ethical situations.  Though this formulation does bear similarities with the idea that theory and practice should remain distinct, the aforementioned qualifications of that statement inevitably lead to a different understanding of Peirce’s lecture: philosophy, understood as metaphysical speculation relying on logic, should have no part to play in ethical deliberation, which involves sentiment and instinct.

                With this in mind, let us turn to one of the interpretations[9] that have arisen as a response to the complicated division that Peirce has set up in his lecture.  According to Cheryl Misak, Peirce was fundamentally misguided in his attempt to divorce theory from practice.  Misak argues that Peirce’s philosophy leads to unwanted conclusions and, because of this, Misak puts forward a theory on Peirce’s behalf, a theory that, in her words, is “one which he ought to have held, not ... one that he actually held.”[10] Misak dismisses Peirce’s account in favour of a cognitivist account of ethics that gives priority to reason over instincts and sentiment: “I would like to see Peirce as a moral cognitivist—as one who holds that moral belief falls under the scope of truth, knowledge, and inquiry.”[11]    But this is not Peirce’s position.  Misak is able to tie together later pieces of his work, specifically those of 8.158 (1901) and MS 673 (1911), to work towards a cognitivist ethics, but even with these she is bending and stretching the text in order to make Peirce a rationalist when it came to ethics, which he clearly wasn’t.

                The main reason that I am reacting so strongly against this attempt to set up a theoretical ethics by merely ignoring the hold that sentiment and instinct have over us, is the fact that it misses a valuable insight that Peirce has passed on to us.  Peirce says, very clearly, that “It is the instincts, the sentiments, that make the substance of the soul.  Cognition is only its surface, its locus of contact with what is external to it.”[12]  Misak ignores the substance of the soul.

                 The position that I would like to put forward has been hinted at all over the secondary literature, but has not been spelled out in complete detail.[13]  Although there is not enough time to draw in every single detail of this position, there is enough time to give a general sketch.  In broad strokes, the position that I argue for isn’t all that different from Misak’s insofar as both of us want to make more out of Peirce’s ethics.  The main difference is that my approach doesn’t idolize cognition.

                There’s a rather innocuous looking passage where, just after outlining the quasi-successfulness of reason in everyday affairs, Peirce says, “A Logica Utens, like the analytical mechanics resident in the billiard player’s nerves, best fulfills familiar uses.”[14]  Certainly.  It wouldn’t make much sense for a successful billiard player to possess the theoretical knowledge of how to play billiards without the ability to actually play billiards.  But I think there’s a little more going on here.  Peirce locates the ability to successfully navigate everyday issues in the nerves.  Successful navigation depends, not on reason, but on something else.  That something else is instinct.  Now instincts are not biologically/evolutionarily determined entities, but are entities that are subject to growth and change.[15]  If instincts were not subject to growth and change, then we could never get better at the things we actually do get better at.[16]  It is not much of a stretch to say that when Peirce is here talking about instincts and sentiments, that he also has in mind habits, which we have seen him talking about at least as early as the 1860s.[17]  During that time period, Peirce develops an understanding of habits as conditioned responses to irritations in our surrounding environments, irritations that impede our goal realization. 

Notice here that reason is neither necessary nor sufficient for overcoming obstacles.  There might be certain cases where the employment of reason facilitates goal realization, but the point here is that not all cases require the use of reason.  I don’t think the moral cognitivists understand this.  When we encounter obstacles, we don’t just sit back and reason our way through them.  We try things, we experiment, we make mistakes, and this is a process that can take place completely devoid of reason and the higher functions of the brain.[18]

The development of proper habits is the means whereby we successfully navigate our surrounding environment.  Habits develop through experimentation with that surrounding environment, which can involve the use of reason, but may just as well not.  Now, if it is the case that we are primarily geared towards goal realization and effective habit development as a means of dealing with the world around us, then this can happen with the aid of theoretical science.  Peirce talks about the slow percolation of forms that gradually reach the very core of our being, which core, we remember, is the instinctual/sentimental part.  The instincts/sentiments have been equated with habits.  Thus, to reach the very core of our being is to develop the proper habits.  If we focus on the development of habits, then we have the means of incorporating theory into our practice.

At the end of the lecture, right after saying that the ultimate ideal is the pursuit of the real potential world, Peirce says that,

Instinct is capable of development and growth,-- though by a movement which is slow in the proportion in which it is vital; and this development takes place upon lines which are altogether parallel to those of reasoning.  And just as reasoning springs from experience, so the development sentiment arises from the soul’s Inward and Outward Experiences. ...  Not only is it of the same nature as the development of cognition; but it chiefly takes place through the instrumentality of cognition.  The soul’s deeper parts can only be reached through its surface.  In this way the eternal forms, that mathematics and philosophy and the other sciences make us acquainted with will by slow percolation gradually reach the very core of one’s being, and will come to influence our lives; and this they will do, not because they involve truths of merely vital importance, but because they [are] ideal and eternal verities. (Ketner, 121-122) 

However, two problems arise from this quote, as some of the secondary literature rightly points out: First, what will ultimately be agreed upon isn’t necessarily the truth and second, truth functions as an ideal end point by which scientific behaviour is guided.  So it might be the case that these real/ideal/eternal verities themselves are just ideal points and their trickling down into the very core of one’s being occurs not because they are truths, but because they have simply been accepted as such.  This renders problematic Peirce’s statement that these verities will eventually trickle down into one’s core because they are verities.  However, Peirce did not subscribe to the eternal truth model—that is, truth independent of how you or I experience it—saying that verities are independent of us and come to affect us in some way that we don’t have control over.  A better way to speak of it would be to say that what is ultimately agreed upon by all investigators has such a strong power that the inevitable result is the transformation of our daily practices—our practices will eventually butt up against the reality science has described for us.[19]  But how does this fit with Peirce’s understanding of the inability of philosophy to inform practice? 

Remembering what we said about the very specific role that philosophy plays, that philosophy is a metaphysical pursuit reliant on logic, then it doesn’t seem to be much of a problem to say that our other faculties can be employed for the purposes of figuring out how to get on, we just can’t call it Peircean philosophy.  This would seem to imply that we are using reason in order to navigate our everyday affairs and, aside from the definitional games that one can play with philosophy and theory being able to inform practice, Peirce specifically said that instinct and sentiment are more apt to answer to the problems of vital matters than reason is.  So how do we get out of this one?  Peirce says,

Here we are in this workaday world, little creatures, mere cells in a social organism itself a poor and little thing enough, and we must look to see what little and definite task our circumstances have set before our little strength to do. The performance of that task will require us to draw upon all our powers, reason included.

If we take the two of these statements together, that is, that reason should have no say in matters of vital importance and that, given the nature of the difficulties that life throws at us, we should employ whatever powers, including reason we have at our disposal to deal with those difficulties, then we need to re-think this division between reasoning and practice that Peirce puts forward in the lecture.  We should conclude, then, that Peirce’s strict divide between theory and practice is not as strict as one might think upon a surface reading of the lecture.

                Having prepared a space for reason in combating everyday affairs, what can we do with reason that is in line with Peirce’s original recommendation that matters of vital importance be left to sentiment and instinct?  The answer, I think, is the development of habits that are both respectful to the conservative tradition within which we are raised and that recognize the inability of that tradition to respond to the diversity of situations we face today.  The present is neither a replication of the past nor a radical departure from the past, and so to develop habits devoid of both conservatism and reason would be to our own detriment.

                Two questions immediately arise: 1) how do we develop these habits?, and 2) how is this any different from what we are already doing?  The honest answer to both of these questions is that we are already constantly developing new habits and letting older habits fade away.  If we didn’t spend any more time thinking about it, we would still be developing new habits all the time.  So what, then, is the point of all this?  The point is that a conscious awareness that we are constantly in the process of habit development can lead to the control of that process in a way that can lead to the development of habits that can result in a more successful navigation of our workaday world.  To answer the first question, that is, how to take charge and develop the habits we want to develop, involves a much longer story of Semiotics, Associations, Self-Control, Consciousness, and the distinction between logica docens and logica utens, to name but a few of the components that need to be addressed, and this is obviously far too ambitious a project to discuss in this paper.

                The point of this paper has been to dispel some of the criticisms that state that Peirce held a strict divide between theory and practice based on his Cambridge Lecture Series of 1898.  I have argued that, beyond the problems of defining philosophy as metaphysics, there are ways of understanding Peirce that create a space for the use of reason in everyday affairs through an understanding of intelligent habits, that is, habits that take into consideration some of the benefits that reason has to offer.  The description of the manner in which habits are infused with reason will demand a far more lengthy examination, which I look forward to providing in the future.



Word Count: 3301 (minus footnotes)
Works Cited

Anderson, Douglas R. 2006. Philosophy Americana : making philosophy at home in American culture.1st ed ed. New York: Fordham University Press.

Apel, Karl-Otto. 1981. Charles S. Peirce: from pragmatism to pragmaticism. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press.

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

Krois, John Michael. C.S. Peirce and Philosophical Ethics in Parret, Herman, ed. Peirce and Value Theory: On Peircean Ethics and Aesthetics. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1994.

Misak, C. J. 2004. Truth and the end of inquiry: a Peircean account of truth.Expanded pbk. ed ed. Oxford : New York: Clarendon ; Oxford University Press.

Misak, C. J. 2000. Truth, politics, morality: pragmatism and deliberation. London ; New York: Routledge.

Mitscherling, Jeffrey A., DiTommaso, Tanya, and Nayad, Aref. 2004. Author's intention. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.

Mullin, Richard P. 2007. Soul of classical American philosophy: the ethical and spiritual insights of William James, Josiah Royce, and Charles Sanders Peirce. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Peirce, Charles S. 1958. Collected Papers. Edited by Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1958-60 (V.1.

Peirce, Charles S., Houser, Nathan, and Kloesel, Christian J. W. 1992. Essential Peirce : selected philosophical writings. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Peirce, Charles S., and Ketner, Kenneth L. 1992. Reasoning and the logic of things: the Cambridge conferences lectures of 1898. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Shook, John R, and Margolis, Joseph. 2006. Companion to pragmatism. Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell Pub.



[1] I will be using the edition of the lecture found in Peirce, Charles, Reasoning and the Logic of Things, ed. Kenneth Laine Ketner (Harvard University Press, 1992), 105-122.  This is the most complete copy of the lecture and it includes an informative commentary and copies of Peirce’s correspondence with James leading up to the lecture series.

[2] I put each of these words in quotes in order to emphasize the suspension of meaning that we must undergo in order to understand them properly.

[3] Why this is problematic, one could speculate, is that it moves away from the general trend of making the world more continuous.  See Richard P. Mullin on Synechism, 134.

[4] Peirce will later change his mind and include Ethics among the normative sciences: EP2, footnote to page 36.

[5] Ketner, 116

[6] Ketner, 116

[7] Ketner, 111

[8] This would simultaneously account for similarities in peoples of a race and difference between different peoples of a race.  Though it is inevitably the case that individuals will differ within a race, the shared common history of a race or culture does bear some defining relationship to the instincts carried within that race. 

[9] Though there are overtones of this throughout the secondary literature on his work

[10] Misak, Truth and the End of Inquiry, 169

[11] Misak, Truth, 169

[12] Ketner, 110

[13] There are elements of this in the work of Hookway, Mullin (Virtue Ethics), and Krois (understanding that instincts are inherited habits), and Apel, incarnating the universal in a habit (89).

[14] Ketner, 109 I am going to make a lot of this comment so I would advise those readers whose sensibilities are easily offended by writers making mountains out of molehills, that those readers should probably skip a few pages.

[15] See Ketner 121-122 or the rest of the paper on what growth and change might entail.

[16] I am presupposing here that there isn’t something besides instinct and sentiments that Peirce gives space to.

[17] See The Fixation of Belief (1877) and How to Make Our Ideas Clear (1878).  See also CP2.170 of 1902, stating that instincts are inherited habits.

[18] An extreme version of this happens in a Simpson’s episode where Grandpa Simpson is trying to get Jasper Beardley’s Beard out of the pencil sharpener by constantly turning the pencil sharpener, thus getting more beard caught though not trying anything new and obviously not thinking about how to resolve the situation.  See [2F19] The PTA Disbands

[19] Christopher Hookway has a different interpretation of truth as “a statement is true if and only if none of its perceptual consequences clash with experience” (71).  This is a semantic definition of truth, which is, as I understand it, slightly different from the experiential notion of truth mentioned above.  A way to reconcile them would be to say, somewhat tritely, that what is true is what works with our experience.