Education Reformers Need the Ideas of C.S. Peirce

This post is in draft mode especially the concluding remarks


Education would be well served by the scientific approach of C.S. Peirce, especially in the light of recent reliability problems in psychological research and in their likely reproduction in new technologies. Educational practice has long been accused of being fadish, but now we’re seeing foundations called into question. The focus here is on semiotics and C.S. Peirce’s pragmatic philosophy. Educational practices are goal oriented and imbued with meaning. Research that is insufficiently grounded in the semiotics of its intended practice can’t coherently drive decisions on meaningful educational practices, but that does not mean giving up on science or data at any level.

Yes we live in a neoliberal age. Yes policy is driven by measurement and prediction and a positivist worldview, a la Habermas’s technical knowledge constitutive interests. Yes. Policymakers are looking at data.
Maha Bali

It was during (October2011) that I read Simmons, Nelson, and Simonsohn’s powerful False Positive Psychology paper, which demonstrates that common practices of our field—practices taught to me by my Ivy League professors—could lead us to statistically affirm patently false, sometimes absurd, hypotheses. . . . After that moment, I could no longer read articles in the same way; I could no longer trust the standard practices of our field as I had before; I could no longer treat the field’s accumulated knowledge as sacrosanct. I lost faith in my beloved field.
Michael Inzlicht

Context – What’s Going On

First, this loss of faith is important because a broad, meaningful and scientific approach is needed for a scientifically sound evidentiary approach to educational practice. Even though the two authors quoted represent very different perspectives, they both struggle to find meaning in a science that seems now to belie common sense. Paul Meehl (1986) noted that many theories in psychology are never refuted, but just fade away. Those never refuted theories also tend to leave unresolved remnants in their wake. Meehl complained that we critique logical positivism over and over instead of moving on, but that failed project inspired a model of science that has left us with shaky foundations. Duncan Watts notes the problems of logical inconsistencies that cause social science theories to be unrelated or even contradictorily related to phenomena. What we are left with is often less of coherent theory than a mass of meaningless, disjointed and at times incoherent empirical curiosities. Watts advocates for multidisciplinary solution oriented science, a move toward pragmatism that I believe is growing. It’s time to rethink the logic and philosophy underlying social science. I believe we are moving away from a past of simple mechanistic models to semantically rich and creative approaches. Consider this from Danny Quah (Professor of Economics and Kuwait Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science):

At (the Penang Free School) I’d excelled in mathematics and science, but that is now only a small part of what I need to do to be a productive contributing member of the community. What matters more instead? A good sense of what is artistically compelling and linguistically convincing. A political awareness of what ought to matter to people. . .

This idea is close to M.M. Bakhtin’s dialogical approach who said:

We must renounce our monological habits so that we might come to feel at home in the new artistic sphere which Dostoevsky discovered, so that we might orient ourselves in that incomparably more complex artistic model of the world which he created” (Bakhtin, 1984, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, p.272).

Referring to James’ pragmatism, the Wikipedia article on the Gettier Problem is talking about this very concept when it states:

From a pragmatic viewpoint of the kind often ascribed to James, defining on a particular occasion whether a particular belief can rightly be said to be both true and justified is seen as no more than an exercise in pedantry, but being able to discern whether that belief led to fruitful outcomes is a fruitful enterprise.

If you are looking for universal and decontextualized human capabilities, this reeks of subjectivity. If however you are looking at way of creatively addressing specific practice, you open up the possibility of the creative use of empirical objective data that is also meaningful to practice.

In 1990 Paul Meehl wrote a paper apply titled; Why summaries of research on psychological theories are often uninterpretable. It dealt with weakness in the methodologies of psychological research and can be seen in some ways to presage the recent replicability crisis debate (Baker, 2016). While psychological research is important and methodological improvements will strengthen this research, from the standpoint of evidence-based practices, it does lend an air of pedantry when compared to research that impacts the needs of specific human practice. What changes when moving to a pragmatic perspective is to change the focus from a narrow empiricist orientation to the consequential basis of validity (Messick 1995) in an evidence-informed and measurement based practice. The views of CS Peirce’s pragmatism and model of inquiry is scientific and can be just as quantitive and data driven. It is just human inquiry that is grounded differently.

Time and Process – Looking to the Future

We must understand the past, but also look to the future. More than just policy and methodology, the future is also about data and technology. The widespread use of computing systems is coming to education and society in general. Many, if not most computing systems treat data and analysis in a similar way to the positivist styled paradigm that is being critiqued. This is true even though computing systems are embedded in practice not in research. To understand what these systems are doing their embedded measurement practices should be subject to the same validity practices as other educational measures. As Gardner Campbell notes, the venture backed Ed Tech industry often does not really go beyond Skinner’s ideas of programmed instruction and technology often seem to be directed toward replacing teachers rather that providing them with more relevant tools. Even Skinner rejected the idea that Teaching Machines could replace teachers. As Campbell says:

Mechanistic paradigms reduce learning to linear relationships within concepts that are complexly related or even formulated along multiple dimensions, while constructivist paradigms are rejected for failing to meet reductive, tautological criteria for easily-measured “learning.” . . . will we persist in our rush to redefine learning in terms of what we can easily do, easily measure, and easily replicate?

When the educational operations are black boxed the trust that is a cornerstone of pedagogy is put at risk as was evidenced by the failure of InBloom. We value and place tremendous resources on the education of students because there is meaning in the outcomes, hopes and dreams for our students. Educational programs must be grounded in these values, they must be grounded in transparent ways and they must convince us that they are valid for their design.

This still ascendant positivist worldview leads me to the fear that the nuts and bolts of educational practice may soon be out of our conscious control, guided by the blackbox of Artificial Intelligence (AI), that we will lose control of underlying educational processes and some problem may even become embedded into the unexamined infrastructure of practice. When critiquing approaches that are easily measured, the issue is not disdain for measurement or a scientific approach, but advocates for approaches that address the full range of intellectual achievement, are transparent and understandable and do not narrow the scope to meaningless measures. Technology is important not because it can replicate past pedagogy, but that it can enable teachers to adopt the best of teacher led innovative individualized pedagogies. Many current technologies individualize for students only after a standardization process designed for efficiency in producing identical outcomes. These standardized processes can be useful for standardized sub-goals, but the end goal is to develop students’ effectiveness (Richardson & Dixon). Each student is unique and needs an individualized pedagogy that reflects their uniqueness. As McLuhan said, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” There is a place for technology and for standardization, but we do not want to become standardized or a servent of technology. We should shape out tools only will an deep understanding of how they will shape us.

A Central Issue is Pragmatic Semiotics  (Meaningful Solutions)

We should respond by seeking new ways of seeing that are truly data-based and scientific, but achieves a level of semantic clarity; for I believe the truest criticism leveled against positivists is that their machinations effectively obscures rather than clarifies our deeper understanding of scientific results as well as the neoliberal power structures that affect our everyday actions and theoretical stances. A positivist experimental approach, by seeking universal truths, obscures a real understanding of the intended purpose of research and disciplinary development.

Disciplines do not proceed from theoretical discovery of some universal truth of nature to specific practical applications in solving problems, but rather from specific practical problems and human needs to a wide range of analytical and theoretical and technical methods useful in various historical situations. The practical need, the human problem, determines the goal (Russell, 2003 p.177)

In the post of Maha Bali quoted above, she seems to echo Russell saying:

I have problems with privileging quantiative data in a positivist manner in education. Notice I said privileging and positivist. Having quantiative data is useful. Having it drive the questions and priorities is not.

Maha’s distrust of data does not apply a perspective where the underlying metaphysics are clear. As Russell says so well, we need technical and analytic methods, but directed toward the goal of human needs. Analytical methods and technologies are needed, but we must use them within a broader logic of science. Duncan Watts’ proposal for solution oriented social science is needed, but it should also be firmly grounded in logic and philosophy.

A Turning Point in Frege Vs. Peirce

Where to begin? Following the ideas of Paul Feyerabend, belief is not often changed by argument, but by adopting new attitudes, new standards and new ways of looking at the world and that is my intention. In addition to narrow positivism logic dualist alternatives like the quantitative /qualitative divide or Habermas’ approach also distort our view of science and its  underlying arguments. CS Peirce saw that phenomena and practice can’t be adequately addressed in an environment of “axe-welding” “demarcationist science”. Instead, find a legitimate place for semiotics and a broader logic throughout science. To begin a new way of looking I’d like to tell a story about the advent of positivism in the logic of Gottlieb Frege and Charles S. Peirce’s alternative view.

Positivism and Pragmatism both grew from the seeds of logic, a desire for clarity and the development of psychology as a science in the late 19th Century; most notably in the work of Gottlieb Frege and Charles S Peirce. These men had views that often converged, but I will make a sharp distinctions with semiotics; a parallel concern for Peirce who saw it’s importance to science. Positivism and Frege’s views became more popular in the 20th Century. Why? I will make a logical conjecture; they wished to believe that scientific data can be derived from observation in a straightforward way in order to enact a mathematically modeled logic and that this logic could be straightforwardly applied to understand human functioning and everyday practices. This was an attempt to distance both semiotics and metaphysics. The inclusion of semiotic and metaphysical aspects was thought to needlessly complicate things and led to endless regression. They wanted philosophical clarity and sought to achieve that by limiting the scope of questions that could be asked. This from John Sowa (2006) quoting Peirce;

Find a scientific man who proposes to get along without any metaphysics — not by any means every man who holds the ordinary reasonings of metaphysicians in scorn — and you have found one whose doctrines are thoroughly vitiated by the crude and uncriticized metaphysics with which they are packed.(p.4)

What Peirce meant was that Frege’s approach in reducing metaphysics to mathematics did not eliminate the reality that people addressed in everyday practice, but it caused science to often become irrelevant to those things. It achieved perfect precision, but at the cost of being senseless. It was similar to what Wittgenstein said in the Tractatus:

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless.

I want to qualify this idea of senselessness for everyday scientific usage in devising hypothesis and deriving conclusions. First, when we create a measurable construct, we must recognize that we are observing the world under artificial laboratory conditions; what Peirce called chunks of experience. This in many instances enables analysis, but it also create limitations as the resulting knowledge remains laboratory knowledge, not direct practice knowledge. If we then direct our hypothesize to identify abstract abilities rather than situated abilities, these abstractions again create limitations in our knowledge base vis a vis human practices. Cuncks of human capabilities can not be smoothly assembled into situated functionality. Does this mean that our scientific knowledge is invalid; of course not. But a lack of interpretive care can create points of senselessness, or as I conclude from Michael Inzlicht experience, a lack of interpretive care can lead us to affirm  false or even absurd, hypotheses. So science is not necessarily senseless, but Wittgenstein can help to understand how a science that eschews semiotics, can operate senselessly.

Peirce for Education

What should be the goals of education today. Here’s one: to guide students to stand on the shoulders of our cultural giants in order to create a vision of the future using knowledge and discourse forms as interactive tools in collaborative problem solving processes. Meanwhile, positivism’s goals seeks things like improvements on specific measures, but never explains how that process produces a viable vision for the future. Because positivism clouds visions, political programs like No Child Left Behind will allow the underlying metaphysics, their version of reality, to remain unexamined. A Peircian pragmatic educational science can help shine a light on what now remains unexamined. Sowa (2006) explains how Peirce relates differently to a broader view of philosophy in science:

In focusing their attention on tiny questions that could be answered with utmost clarity in their logic, the analytic philosophers ignored every aspect of life that was inexpressible in their logic. The Continental philosophers did address the unclear questions, but their prose was so opaque that few people could read it. Although Peirce invented the logic that the analytic philosophers adopted, he incorporated logic in a much broader theory of signs that accommodates every possible question, answer, perception, feeling, or intuition — clear, unclear, or even unconscious. With that approach, the border between analytic and Continental philosophy vanishes. In fact, all borders in cognitive science vanish, except for local borders created by differences in methodology.

The difference between the positivist school of analytic philosophers and Peirce is more than a strip down mathematic model. It includes an analysis of meaning that is grounded not just in reference to other words (like the structuralists), but includes analyzing how words are used. Like later educational thinkers Vygotsky, Wittgenstein and Bakhtin, it’s a view of semantics as tools of action and thought. The meaning of a tool like a hammer is grounded in how the hammer is commonly used as a class 2 or class 3 lever for construction. Similarly, the meaning of any word is ultimately grounded in how the word is used in discourse and action. We need educational policy that makes sense to teachers, parents and policymakers in ways that is scientific, but is also meaningful beyond numbers. This does not mean that numbers are not useful, but that they need to connect to practices and visions. For example, linear positivist style practices are useful for increasing some skill like learning basic vocabulary, improving reading levels or gaining a basic understanding of literature passages. To raise students to a higher level, students need to grow beyond simple definitions to understand their tool like nature and to practice and experiment in using these tools in different ways and for different purposes.

Reforming Practice

The problems we are addressing today belie a narrow positivist approach. Look at past positivist projects. The early 20th Century gave us Behavioralism and Operationalism, The second half of the 20th Century gave us and the lead up to the No Child Left Behind standards movement and the aforementioned replication crisis in psychology. Recently we have seen AI programs that reproduced bias in law enforcement and birth racist chat bots. Many educational technologies in development today are not built around a firm and meaningful idea of what constitutes an educated and accomplished individual. None of these programs will substantially violated any positivist principles, but they will all failed if they can’t meaningfully address the common sense needs of teachers and students that require semiotics and an ultimate purpose behind social practices. Frege’s view is that the purpose of science was finding objective truth with a mathematical precision, but that view fails in the face of the complex ever shifting reality of practice meeting the goals for a better society. The hermeneutic and metaphysical aspects of human practice can’t be waved away. The progress of Peircian science is better founded and more realistic. It grows from the shared work of scientific networks and their communities of practitioners. It’s time to look at Peircian pragmatism as a viable scientific alternative to positivism.

The key to Peirce’s modernity is his solid foundation in history. Unlike Frege and Russell, who made a sharp break with the Aristotelian and Scholastic work on logic, many of Peirce’s innovations were based on insights he had derived from his studies of medieval logic. In fact, Peirce had boasted that he had the largest collection of medieval manuscripts on logic in the Boston area. In general, major breakthroughs are most likely to come from unpopular sources, either because they’re so new that few people know them, so old that most people have forgotten them, or so unfashionable that nobody looks at them. (Sowa, 2006, p.12)

On a last note; although Peirce predates constructionism and he didn’t specifically address learning theories, and even though his intellectual mentors lend a inclination toward romantic idealist ideas; his grounding in practices still gives his thought a natural realism. In fact the demarcated science of Frege looks more idealist when compared to Peirce pragmatic grounding.

Searching for a Definition of Peirce’s Pragmatism

This is still very much a work in progress, but I would like to propose 4 principles that Peirce proposed that would be a good start to move us forward in establishing pragmatic evidentiary educational practice.

  1. Do not block the path of Inquiry
  2. Synecism
  3. Putting meaning at the center of Inquiry
  4. The Pragmatic Maxim – Putting practice at the center of Inquiry

Do Not Block the Path of Inquiry

Susan Haack describes this phrase as Peirce’s Motto and a core of his beliefs regarding science. Yes, logical positivism is no longer supported, but there are still many way in which inquiry is block by certainty (Peirce is a fallablist in a broad sense) such as ignoring any aspects of belief that lies outside of a mathematically modeled science or by saying they can’t be known. While claiming a Popperian Falabilism, many in science nonetheless strive for such a level of infallablism in they validity claims that they still walk very close to a verificationist reality.


According to Haack Synecism means that we should look for underlying continuities, and recognize that supposedly sharp distinctions may be better conceived as lines of demarcation drawn at some point on a continuum. . . . The regulative principle of synechism advises a preference for abductive hypotheses positing continuities, because “the only possible justification for so much as entertaining a hypothesis is that it affords an explanation of the phenomena”. Peirce liked the analysis of some science as taking an axe to the phenomena, breaking reality into unrelated components of being without explaining how we might put them back together and in the process setting up a barrier across the path of science. (Hack, 2015)

Another way to think about synecism is to think through the process of measurement. When we establish an operational definition of a phenomena to enable it’s measured, we also  reduce its semantic clarity and our potential to understand its full complexity as it exists in practice. There are good reasons to limit our gaze, but a synecist recognizes that this is for instrumental purposes and our conclusion should recognize inherent limitations. This process is often presented in a way to obscure these limitations when it comes to interpreting results, which can easily mask over-representation in terms of the validity of our conclusions.

Synecism also recognizes that there are many legitimate forms of inquiry and form the basis of his idea about blocking inquiry and that all inquiry has limitations. Sowa (2006) quotes Whitehead in this regards:

Human knowledge is a process of approximation. In the focus of experience, there is comparative clarity. But the discrimination of this clarity leads into the penumbral background. There are always questions left over. The problem is to discriminate exactly what we know vaguely. (p.9)

Sowa goes on to noted that logic and poetry can be conceived as complimentary approaches to symbolic inquiry.

Contrary to Carnap, poetry and logic are not at opposite extremes. They are complementary approaches to closely related problems: developing patterns of symbols that capture important aspects of life in a memorable form. Logic is limited to expressing factual content, but poetry can express aesthetic and ethical interpretations of the facts.” (p.9)

Putting meaning at the center of Inquiry

The Pragmatic Maxim – Putting practice at the center of Inquiry