October 18, 2016

1. Charles Sanders Peirce

A. Deduction, Induction, and Abduction

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Socrates is mortal.

Here we have an example of deductive reasoning. Notice that it relies on a solid first principle (“All men are mortal”). But we don’t always have a solid first principle. Notice also that it doesn’t lead to new truths, it merely applies what we already know. It gives us a certain conclusion, but it doesn’t extend our knowledge, it doesn’t lead to new truths.

Here’s an example of inductive reasoning:

Having studied 100 species of ducks, we notice that they all have webbed feet.
We conclude that all ducks probably have webbed feet.

Notice that the conclusion isn’t certain, but must be qualified with “probably.” Here’s another example of inductive reasoning:

All the swans that we’ve observed are white.
We conclude that there are probably no non-white swans.

We now know, however, that some swans are black (the expression “black swan” has come to mean “anomaly,” something that doesn’t fit the pattern). Induction starts with a number of observations/experiments. It then draws a conclusion from these observations; in other words, it finds a pattern in these observations.

One might say that induction is the opposite of deduction because it moves from particulars to a general, rather than from a general to particulars. The word “induction” literally means “leads to [a general truth],” while the word “deduction” means “leads from [a general truth].” Induction leads to a certain conclusion only if the pattern is always true, only if there are no exceptions to the rule. But it’s difficult to tell in advance if the pattern is always true.

The American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce formulated a third form of reasoning, which he called abduction. Here’s a model of abduction:

The surprising fact, C, is observed.
But if A were true, C would be a matter of course.
Hence, there’s reason to suspect that A is true.

Notice that, while induction starts from a pattern, abduction starts from an anomaly. Notice also that both induction and abduction lead to a probable conclusion, not a certain conclusion.

Wikipedia gives the following example of abduction:

The lawn is wet.
If it rained last night, then it would be unsurprising that the lawn is wet.
Therefore, there’s reason to believe that it rained last night.

Here’s another example:

Quantum physics shows particles that are connected in inexplicable ways, particles that seem to “know” what’s going on elsewhere.
If the whole universe were connected (we know not how), then the findings of quantum physics would be unsurprising.
Therefore, there’s reason to believe that the whole universe is connected.

This example shows that abduction can lead to new truths, big truths (indeed, I regard the connectedness of the universe as the biggest of all truths). Here’s another model of abductive reasoning:

D is a set of data (facts, observations, givens).
S is a surprising or unexpected fact within the field of D.
H is an hypothesis that would explain S.
No other hypothesis can explain S as well as H does.
Therefore, H is a valid hypothesis upon which to act.

Sherlock Holmes uses abductive reasoning to solve crimes. He notices odd facts, anomalies, then forms a hypothesis that would explain these facts. An American lawyer named Ben Novak wrote about how abduction is used in the novels of Karl May (May was a popular German novelist who often wrote about the American West). Novak writes,

Abduction has been defined as a “type of reasoning that derives plausible explanations for the data at hand.” It begins when one faces bare, unexplained facts that seem to “call out” for an explanation. Abductive logic takes the facts as “clues” that suggest a cause behind or antecedent to the facts and reasons “backward” to try to imagine a plausible explanation for how the given facts came to be. Abduction is the “operation of adopting an explanatory hypothesis,” writes Peirce.1

About ten years ago, before I ever heard of abduction, I discussed the need for such “backward reasoning.” I argued that neither deduction nor induction could explain mysteries/anomalies. Discussing Shakespeare’s 27th sonnet, and Hank Whittemore’s theory about it, I wrote,

To someone who rejects Hank’s theory, Sonnet 27 contains little evidence that Southampton is the poet’s son, that he has just been “Towered”, etc. But if we assume that Hank’s theory is true, hypothetically, we find that everything in Sonnet 27 is compatible with Hank’s theory. We can’t start from 27, and say, “27 proves that Southampton is in the Tower.” In other words, 27 doesn’t function as a “forward proof.” But if we assume that Hank’s theory is true, or if someone we respect says “I find Hank’s theory convincing,” or if we read Hank’s 75-page pamphlet and find it somewhat persuasive, then we can come back to 27, and say “Hank’s theory fits 27 perfectly.” Thus, 27 functions well as a “backward proof” though not as a “forward proof.”

I think this is an important distinction, and doubtless has wide application in the sciences and the humanities. If I had studied logic, epistemology, etc., I suppose I could give you technical terms, instead of terms like “forward proof” and “backward proof.”

These remarks were probably influenced by Steven Sage, author of Ibsen and Hitler. Sage was influenced by Ben Novak, and Sage introduced me to Novak (Sage and Novak share an interest in Hitler — more specifically, literary influences on Hitler).2 I wrote thus:

Near the end of his book Ibsen and Hitler, Steven Sage discusses how he made his discovery about Hitler, and he compares his approach to the approach that Sherlock Holmes took to solving crimes: “Anomalies were the keys to Sherlock Holmes’s success.... Holmes would delve for that which did not fit. Oddities, he knew, led the way to solutions. He worked back from seeming trifles.... This process differed from either deductive or inductive logic.... Where a phenomenon is intrinsically aberrant, these forms of reasoning are insufficient.”

Novak says that an Indian scout, like a detective, uses neither deduction nor induction but abduction:

The clearest example of abductive logic in practice is the Indian scout. He is walking through the woods. Everything appears normal and he sees only what one expects to see. Suddenly he sees some bent grass and freshly broken twigs. This does not occur naturally in nature. This is unexpected and unusual. He attempts to imagine the reason why this particular grass is bent and these twigs broken. He hypothesizes that... an enemy troop may be nearby observing him.... He might further infer that they might be preparing an ambush. He immediately goes back to his leader to inform him that there may be other Indians in the area and both to proceed with caution and perhaps to send out further scouts. All this from some broken twigs and bent grass, which according to deductive and inductive logic mean nothing, but which, according to abductive logic suggest a very important story.3

Novak shows how the novelist Karl May uses such reasoning in his novels about the American West. Knowledge is power, May’s heroes become powerful through knowledge, we enjoy their power vicariously, and perhaps we think that we can obtain power by similar means. May became very popular by showing abduction in action, just as the Sherlock Holmes stories showed abduction in action. The young Hitler was a fan of Karl May’s novels, and he sent thousands of copies of May’s novels to his soldiers. Novak argues that Hitler used abductive reasoning to gain power.

Novak notes similarities between Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and Karl May’s stories:

The prominence of these two authors, and the enduring popularity of the characters they created — Holmes and Watson in the case of Doyle, and old Shatterhand and Winnetou in the case of May — is largely due to the brilliant exposition of abductive logic in their respective works.... The major works that brought these two authors immediate fame and fortune appeared at or near the same time: Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet in 1887, and May’s Winnetou in 1893. This was at the same time that Peirce was working on the discovery of a new form of logic [i.e., abductive logic].

It’s striking that Doyle, May, and Peirce were all working at the same time, and doubtless working independently of each other. It seems that truth is the product of a time, not the creation of a solitary thinker. Novak recommends a book called The Sign of Three: Dupin, Holmes, Peirce; it’s a collection of essays about abductive reasoning and crime fiction (Dupin was Poe’s detective). The collection is edited by Umberto Eco and Thomas Sebeok.

One of the 19th-century’s major writers on logic was John Stuart Mill. Mill insisted that logic wasn’t an abstract science, unconnected to the life of the time; he said that logic is related to values and feelings, related to the life of the time. Doubtless Mill would have been keenly interested in Peirce’s abductive logic, and how it was related to the popular literature of the time. (Mill died in 1873, before Peirce coined the term “abduction.”)

Like Mill, Novak connects logic to the broader civilization. Novak argues that deductive logic was dominant in Greco-Roman times and medieval times, while inductive logic was dominant after the Middle Ages (Renaissance and Enlightenment?). Abductive logic “became the dominant form of logic by the end of the nineteenth century.”4

The earliest example of abductive reasoning in literature is in Voltaire’s story “Zadig,” which was published in 1747.

In 1880, Thomas Henry Huxley wrote an essay, entitled “The Method of Zadig,” extolling the new and revolutionary logic he found in this story. Huxley described the basis of the new logic he found: “What, in fact, lay at the foundation of all of Zadig’s arguments, but the coarse and commonplace assumption, upon which every act of our daily lives is based, that we may conclude from an effect to the pre-existence of a cause competent to produce that effect?”

Was Huxley the first to see the significance of “Zadig”? Perhaps we should say that Huxley was the co-discoverer of abduction, with Peirce. In Huxley’s day, abductive reasoning was new and revolutionary but also old and common. It was new within the science of logic, but old in everyday life.

If abduction is as old as hunting and tracking, and if everyone uses it in daily life, what motivated Peirce to formulate the process of abduction? Peirce wanted to determine how scientists made discoveries, he wanted to find the logic of science, and dispel the notion that scientific discoveries were irrational leaps. Peirce didn’t understand intuition, perhaps because he didn’t use intuition himself, and never made a discovery himself.5 He didn’t understand that scientific discoveries are irrational leaps, intuitive leaps, not guesses or hypotheses. Peirce is only regarded as a great philosopher by academics who are interested in the process of reasoning.

Emerson understood intuition, understood that a big discovery falls into your lap like manna from heaven: “Every man discriminates,” Emerson wrote, “between the voluntary acts of his mind and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due.”6 A scientific discovery is an involuntary perception, an intuition, and it carries with it a feeling of complete certainty. Words like “guess” and “hypothesis” aren’t suitable.

B. A Sketch of Peirce’s Life

Peirce was born in 1839 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father was a Harvard professor. Beginning in his late teens, Peirce suffered from

a nervous condition then known as “facial neuralgia”.... In the throes of its pain “he was, at first, almost stupefied, and then aloof, cold, depressed, extremely suspicious, impatient of the slightest crossing, and subject to violent outbursts of temper.”7

As a student at Harvard, Peirce began a lifelong friendship with William James. He also made a lasting foe out of Charles Eliot, who was then a lowly instructor, but later became Harvard’s President. During his 40-year tenure as President, Eliot “repeatedly vetoed Harvard’s employing Peirce in any capacity.”8

Peirce’s family was politically conservative, opposed to abolition, and sympathetic to the Confederacy. No one in the family fought for the Union.

Peirce taught at Johns Hopkins, but never obtained tenure. Somehow he antagonized a scientist named Simon Newcomb, who obstructed his career much as Charles Eliot did. “Newcomb pointed out to a Johns Hopkins trustee that Peirce, while a Hopkins employee, had lived and traveled with a woman to whom he was not married; the ensuing scandal led to his dismissal in January 1884.”9

Peirce was married twice. Using inherited money, Peirce bought a large property in eastern Pennsylvania, where he and his wife had a mansion called Arisbe. But his income was small, and he could barely pay his taxes. “He spent much of his last two decades unable to afford heat in winter and subsisting on old bread donated by the local baker.” During these lean years, William James assisted Peirce, partly by hiring him to deliver lectures at Harvard, partly by asking his Boston friends to donate to Peirce.

When Peirce and James were in their early 30s, they participated in a discussion group called The Metaphysical Club, which met in Cambridge. Another member of the group was Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. It is said that the school of philosophy known as Pragmatism originated in these discussions. The Club was inclined toward pragmatist and positivist thinking, and “rejected traditional European metaphysics.”10 (I mentioned elsewhere that Louis Menand wrote a popular book called The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America.)

C. Peirce and Descartes

Peirce criticized Descartes for saying that “philosophy must begin in universal doubt.” Peirce believed that, “we start with preconceptions, ‘prejudices... which it does not occur to us can be questioned,’ though we may find reason to question them later.”11 For example, most of us don’t begin by doubting who wrote Hamlet. On the contrary, we think we know who wrote Hamlet, and it doesn’t occur to us that anyone could doubt it. Only later do we discover that there’s reason to doubt the prevailing view, and that there’s a mystery, a controversy, over who wrote Hamlet and the other works ascribed to Shakespeare.

Peirce argued that sound reasoning is more like a cable than a chain. Sound reasoning relies on “the multitude and variety of its arguments.” It’s like “a cable whose fibers,” soever “slender, are sufficiently numerous and intimately connected.”12 On the other hand, a chain of reasoning is easily broken, it’s only as strong as its weakest link. This argument is aimed at Descartes, who used “chain reasoning” rather than “cable reasoning.” Descartes tried to

  • begin by doubting everything
  • find a solid foundation in his own consciousness of his own existence (cogito ergo sum)
  • construct a chain of reasoning from this solid foundation, from this first link

Finally, Peirce criticized Descartes for making the individual consciousness the test of truth. Peirce said that a theory should stay on probation until agreement is reached, until there are no doubters left. Until this time, “even the theory’s author should feel doubts about it.”13 On this point, I agree with Descartes, not Peirce. A bold new idea, like Einstein’s e = mc2, can scarcely hope to make any converts, much less convince everybody, but the theory’s author will nonetheless be certain of it. And in a controversy like the Shakespeare Controversy, we can reach certainty, though we’re completely unable to convince our opponents, whose minds are already made up.

2. Elena Ferrante

In the last issue, I mentioned the mysterious Italian novelist Elena Ferrante. Now it appears that the mystery has been resolved: “Citing financial records related to real estate transactions and royalties payments, investigative reporter Claudio Gatti concluded that Anita Raja is the real author behind the Ferrante pseudonym.”14 A good example of the saying “Follow the money.”

Raja’s mother was a Jew who fled Germany in the Nazi era. Raja was born in 1953, and grew up in Rome. She has translated German literature into Italian. One of the writers she translated is the EastGerman writer Christa Wolf, whose work influenced the ElenaFerrante novels; one critic said, “Thematically the works of Ferrante intersect considerably with those of Wolf.”

When Gatti began searching for the person behind the pseudonym, he didn’t start from scratch (as Looney did when he searched for the person behind “Shakespeare”). There were already rumors that pointed to Raja. In February 2015, a gossip website wrote, “There’s not a cat or a dog that doesn’t know that Ferrante’s real name is Raja.”

Anita Raja, 2015

3. Miscellaneous

A. Discussing the Shakespeare mystery, Roger Kimball speaks of, “the poor souls who believe that Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays commonly attributed to Shakespeare.”15 Kimball says that the English writer Ronald Knox wrote a satire of the Shakespeare controversy. The satire was called “The Authorship of In Memoriam,” and it argues that the real author of In Memoriam was not Tennyson but Queen Victoria.

B. I discovered two American mystery writers, John Marquand and Mignon Eberhart. Both were born in the 1890s. Marquand wrote a series of spy novels featuring a character named Mr. Moto; several of these novels were made into movies. He also wrote literary novels, the best-known of which is The Late George Apley, a satire of a Boston Brahmin. Marquand was from an old NewEngland family with roots in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Marquand went to high school in Newburyport, then went to Harvard, then served in the armed forces during World War I.

Mignon Eberhart began publishing fiction in the 1920s, and her career lasted about sixty years. She’s sometimes called the American Agatha Christie.

4. Nikos Kazantzakis

I discovered a Greek writer named Nikos Kazantzakis. Wikipedia calls him “a giant of modern Greek literature.” He’s known for novels like Zorba the Greek (1946) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1955), both of which were made into popular movies. He was especially proud of his long epic poem, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel.

In his youth, Kazantzakis earned a law degree with a thesis on Nietzsche, then studied Bergson at the Sorbonne, then translated philosophy. He became friends with the Greek poet/playwright Angelos Sikelianos, and together they visited Greek monasteries and churches. Later he led a political party, and served in government. He travelled widely, and wrote numerous travel books.

Kazantzakis is buried in Heraklion, Crete, his hometown, and his grave is inscribed,

I hope for nothing
I fear nothing
I am free

Grave of Nikos Kazantzakis

He had a deep interest in religious questions, and wrote about Jesus and St. Francis. He was often criticized by religious authorities, and the authorities didn’t allow him to be buried in an Orthodox cemetery, so he’s buried on Heraklion’s city wall.

5. Suicide and Terrorism

Depression and suicidal feelings are a danger not only to the individual, but to society; suicidal feelings sometimes take a homicidal turn. Depression and suicidal feelings seem to be on the rise; in the U.S., it has become difficult to meet a young person who isn’t taking anti-depressant medication. Depression and suicidal feelings are one cause of terrorist violence, shooting sprees, etc.

The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, “One must avoid that emotion which has seized many people — the lust for dying (ille quoque vitetur affectus, qui multos occupavit, libido moriendi).”16 Is Muslim terrorism fueled, in part, by a libido moriendi?

Many people find life burdensome, and want out. Suicidal feelings can even possess entire societies. Nietzsche spoke of “those death-seeking mass deliria whose dreadful cry ‘evviva la morte’ [long live death] was heard all over Europe.”17

As we’ve learned in recent years, those who decide to commit suicide may want to take other people with them, sometimes for a political purpose, sometimes for the thrill of killing. Samuel Johnson said, “I have often thought, that after a man has taken the resolution to kill himself, it is not courage in him to do anything, however desperate, because he has nothing to fear.”18

People have lost faith in life, they lack a religion/philosophy. Perhaps one indication of a healthy religion is that it gives one a desire to live, it makes life meaningful, interesting, exciting. Nowadays people often combat depression with medication, but can the best medication be a substitute for a worldview?

Perhaps we can identify five factors that shape one’s mental state:

  1. Philosophy, religion
  2. one’s psychological make-up (usually the result of one’s upbringing)
  3. body chemistry, which we try to alter nowadays with medication
  4. economic situation (the suicide rate spiked during the Depression of the 1930s)
  5. social arrangements (small village, big city, etc.)

In addition to these factors, human nature probably contains a death-instinct, which draws man down toward death with a kind of “psychological gravity.” (Freud discusses the death-instinct in his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle. If my theory of history is eventually accepted, it will function as a proof of the death-instinct.)

Perhaps the chief task of philosophy in our time is to make life palatable, to make the world attractive, to build an argument against suicide. Surely art has a role to play here; as Nietzsche said, “Art is the great stimulus to life.” We need a worldview expressed in art, as the Middle Ages expressed the Christian worldview in architecture, poetry, etc.

For more on this subject:

© L. James Hammond 2016
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1. Hitler and Abductive Logic, Ch. 2. Novak’s essay on Karl May and abduction can be found on his website. Novak published an article in the Weekly Standard: “Cowboys und Indians: Karl May’s Teutonic American West,” Dec. 25, 2000. See also an article called “The Cowboy Novels That Inspired Hitler.”

When I described my theory of history, I began with facts that called for an explanation:
That the best Italian painters were born within forty years of each other violates the laws of probability and demands explanation. And why were the best Greek dramatists and the best Roman poets and the best Russian novelists also born within forty years of each other? Why was the Renaissance so fruitful for various kinds of culture, in various countries? History includes a series of decadent eras, as well as a series of renaissance-type eras. What are the causes of decadence and renaissance? back

2. In other words, Sage led me to Novak, and Novak led me to abduction and Peirce. But when I first wrote about “backward reasoning,” I was familiar only with some remarks in Sage’s Ibsen and Hitler, remarks which didn’t mention Peirce or abduction. back
3. See Novak’s essay, “The Sign of Four: Dupin, Holmes, Peirce and Karl May,” which is on his website. back
4. ibid back
5. I would call Peirce’s “third form of logic” an interesting theory, but not a major discovery, not a discovery about reality, not a discovery like Einstein’s e = mc2. I certainly don’t share the view that Peirce is the greatest philosopher that the U.S. has produced. back
6. “Self-Reliance” back
7. Wikipedia back
8. Charles Eliot was a cousin of T. S. Eliot, and also a cousin of Charles Eliot Norton (Ruskin’s friend).

Peirce was one of those who anticipated computers: “As early as 1886 he saw that logical operations could be carried out by electrical switching circuits.” back

9. Wikipedia describes Newcomb as “an autodidact and polymath. He wrote on economics and his Principles of political economy (1885) was described by John Maynard Keynes as ‘one of those original works which a fresh scientific mind, not perverted by having read too much of the orthodox stuff, is able to produce from time to time in a half-formed subject like economics.’” Newcomb corresponded with Michelson about measuring the speed of light. Newcomb took a keen interest in early attempts to build a flying machine. Though he’s known for doubting whether these attempts would ever succeed, he also said, “Quite likely the 20th century is destined to see the natural forces which will enable us to fly from continent to continent with a speed far exceeding that of a bird.” back
10. Wikipedia back
11. Wikipedia back
12. Wikipedia. My theory of Connections relies on many strands of reasoning, many fibers (quantum physics, Shakespeare, Jungian psychology, primitive thought, the Hermetic Tradition, Eastern philosophy, etc.). back
13. Wikipedia back
14. Wikipedia back
15. newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/The-rape-of-the-masters-1625 back
16. Epistles to Lucilius, Loeb Classics, vol. 1, 24

In the U.S., “Suicide... increased 24% between 1999 and 2014... and is a leading cause of death among those under 34.” (NY Times) There are now about 43,000 suicides a year in the U.S. Men are more than 3 times more likely to commit suicide than women. (NY Times) back

17. Genealogy of Morals, III, 21 back
18. James Boswell, The Life of Johnson, Aetat. 64

In recent years, there have been several intentional plane crashes. The most recent was in East Hartford, Connecticut; a student pilot flew a small plane into the ground. “The student, Fera M. Freitekh, 28, was a Jordanian national of Palestinian descent who came to the United States several years ago.” The crash occurred near Pratt & Whitney, a defense contractor, and may be a blend of suicide, homicide, and terrorism. back