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Pierce’s Abduction of Science: Is Anti-Intellectualism of American Universities Rooted in Pragmatism

Пишу злобную анти-американскую статью про измерение науки деньгами. Выложу-ка сюда кусок черновика, может, у кого какие замечания? Я, в частности, пытаюсь дать свои ответы на часто задаваемый вопрос: если в Америке так не любят науку (когда она не ради денег), почему же у американцев так много нобелевских премий и филдсовских медалей? Черновик пока не вычитан на предмет английского, заранее извиняюсь, я буду еще несколько раз его переписывать.

Pierce’s Abduction of Science: Is Anti-Intellectualism of American Universities Rooted in Pragmatism?
by Michael Nosonovsky

Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee,
3200 North Сramer St, Milwaukee, WI 53211, USA, Tel. +1-414-229-2816, nosonovs@uwm.edu

Anti-intellectualism is deeply rooted in American Culture. Charles Pierce (1839-1914) was a pioneering American scholar and one of the greatest thinkers of the Fin de Siècle period. Being a prominent logician and philosopher and living far away from European centers he developed the original American concept of “Pragmatism,” which later became a part of Analytic Philosophy, the dominant school of philosophy in the US, characterized by scientism, nominalism, linguistic analysis of fundamental problems, and pragmatic attitudes towards science. One influential Pierce’s epistemological idea was the concept of abduction or selection of scientific hypotheses based on their practical, including monetary, value. Abduction was thought to be a third mode of inference, in addition to deduction and induction. In this way, money was introduced into the epistemology and scientific methodology. One can hypothesize that the current obsession with measuring scientific discovery by research expenditures in American universities is a direct continuation of the Pragmatist tradition. I explore the metaphor of the “Abduction of Europa” (the Rape of Europe) and bring examples of measuring science by money from my faculty experience at the Mechanical Engineering department of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and relate them to Pierce’s ideas.

Abduction in the epistemology of Pragmatism

The intellectual life of every nation is shaped by its national philosophical tradition. Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger in Germany, Descartes, Pascal, and Derrida in France, Dostoevsky and Berdyaev in Russia influence mentality and attitudes of intellectuals to various issues at every level. In America, the original local branch of thought, which formed the intellectual landscape of the country, is Pragmatism associated with the names of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) and John Dewey (1859-1952). Pragmatism is a bizarre school of philosophy, which, on the one hand, is an offspring of the classical European metaphysical tradition, but, on the other hand, it has drifted far away from the traditional continental approaches towards fundamental philosophical issues.

The founder of the Pragmatism, Charles Peirce (1839-1914) was a prominent scholar and thinker, whose legacy is diverse and has not yet been completely studied and published until today. Born in Cambridge, MA, he was a son of a Harvard mathematics professor. Following his graduation from Harvard with an M.A. degree (1862), Pierce worked intermittently for the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey. He also served a lecturer in logic at Johns Hopkins University starting 1879 and until he was dismissed in 1884 for an extramarital affair with a lady, apparently, of a Romani origin (Pierce later married the lady). Pierce was pro-slavery until the outbreak of the Civil War; however, later he became a Union partisan .

Being the first significant philosopher and logician in America, far away from European centers of thought and scholarship, Pierce made a huge contribution into various areas of science, often inventing weird and unusual concepts and terminology: Tychism, Synechism, Fallibilism, to list a few. Working on logic, Peirce did not prove many theorems. Instead, he invented and developed novel systems of logical syntax and fundamental logical concepts. Besides the teaching of Pragmatism (which he later called Pragmaticism), Pierce is best known for being a pioneer of Semiotics (he actually viewed Logic as a part of Semiotics) and for his invention of the Sheffer Stroke (the NAND logical operation ↑, also known as the Pierce Arrow) long before Sheffer.

A part of Pragmatism’s heritage is its epistemology including the attitude towards the science and scientific method. It is not widely known, but some adepts of Pragmatism believed that intellectual and scientific accomplishments should be measured by the cash value. Thus, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states:

“All resources for carrying out research, such as personnel, person-hours, and apparatus, are quite costly; accordingly, it is wasteful, indeed irrational, to squander them. Peirce proposed, therefore, that careful consideration be paid to the problem of how to obtain the biggest epistemological “bang for the buck.” In effect, the economics of research is a cost/benefit analysis in connection with states of knowledge.”

One particular logical and epistemological Pierce’s innovation was the concept of abduction. Peirce suggested distinguishing between three modes of inference: deduction, induction, and abduction. While deductive (from general to particular) and inductive (from particular to general) reasoning were classical methods of logic, abduction was a novelty invented by Peirce. In general, abduction is a selection of certain hypotheses, most promising from a particular point of view, at the expense of disregarding less promising conjectures. This included economic considerations in terms of the cost-benefit analysis. Below is an example of the use of abduction:

“Consider, for instance, the inference of John is rich from John lives in Chelsea and Most people living in Chelsea are rich. Here, the truth of the first sentence is not guaranteed (but only made likely) by the joint truth of the second and third sentences.”

However, abduction goes much farther than regular common-sense reasoning or conventional wisdom. Pierce views it as a necessary part of a successful scientific methodology. According to Pierce, actual research is not motivated by the goal of the ascertainment of truth but rather by the purpose of attaining “personal distinction” of a researcher or by some other practical utility. This “utility of knowledge” enables us to calculate how we should act . By introducing abduction into his system of reasoning, Pierce, for the first time in history, incorporated money into logic, epistemology, and methodology of scientific research .

Images of abduction / rape of Europa in Art. Europa and bull (circa 480 BCE, Tarquinia Museum, Italy), The Rape of Europa by Titian (1562), Gardner Museum, Boston; The Rape of Europa by Félix Vallotton (1908).

The term “abduction” has many meanings and one of the meanings is kidnapping or rape. The Abduction of Europa also called the Rape of Europa is the common motif in antient mythology and in European painting explored by Titian, Rembrant, Rubens, Goya, and many others. Europa was a legendary Phoenician princess abducted by Zeus, mentioned in the Iliad, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and in other Greek sources. Metaphorically, the European epistemology was kidnapped (and one could argue, raped) by these pragmatic attitudes towards scientific research.

The recognition of the epistemological role of money had far-fetching consequences, and I will explore them in the consequent sections of this essay.

Analytic Philosophy and English language

The ideas by Pierce were suggested in the right time and at the right place. Pragmatism was supported by Pierce’s followers such as Dewey. More importantly, Pragmatism was associated with the “Linguistic Turn” in the philosophy in the beginning of the 20th century, and it eventually it became a part of Analytic Philosophy movement. The Linguistic Turn is “a radical reconception of the nature of philosophy and its methods, according to which philosophy is neither an empirical science nor a supraempirical enquiry into the essential features of reality; instead, it [studies]… interrelationships among philosophically relevant concepts, as embodied in established linguistic usage, and by doing so dispel conceptual confusions and solve philosophical problems.”

While Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), who are often viewed as founders of Analytic Philosophy, had German language background, this school of thought is typically associated with English language countries (and mostly with the US) . The contraposition of the “continental” (or metaphysical) and “analytic” thinkers is the common cliché in numerous philosophical and culturological discussions. Many experts say that the Analytic Philosophy, with its inclination towards scientism, reductionism, nominalism, denial of the transcendent, and attempts to present fundamental philosophical problems as language games and paradoxes, has drifted far away from the continental (mostly German) metaphysics.

It is not by chance that the Pragmatism developed in America, remotely from European centers of metaphysical (neo-Kantian and Hegelian) philosophy, by Pierce who was a stranger to Academia during most of his life. Being a thinker of great intellectual potential and erudition who was isolated from other scholars due to his geographical location, Pierce spend most of his efforts on the development of his original systems, terminology and paradigms, whether this is in logic, metaphysics, ontology, or epistemology, hence his use of unusual terms and words.

The spirit of Pragmatism fitted well the economic and social environment in rapidly developing United States at the end of the 19th – beginning of the 20th centuries. Attracted by many immigrants as a “Golden country”, America was viewed as a land of opportunities, where combination of dynamic capitalism and freedom manifested pragmatic attitudes towards not only economy but towards life in general.

Another factor which is sometimes cited as a reason of why Analytic Philosophy thrived in America is the English language itself and English cultural traditions. The languages are classified as synthetic and analytical depending on whether they use inflections to express syntactic relationships or use word order. English is one of the most analytic European languages, which relies heavily on the world order. The same word form, such as “water” can be a subject (“Water flows”), an object (“She drinks water”), or a predicate (“He waters the garden”). This is different from synthetic languages, where subject and object would be distinguished by inflections such as case endings. Apparently, in some situations this may create difficulties for understanding subtle metaphysical concepts by English speakers. In the early modern period, some translators of classical Greek metaphysical works complained that they do not understand why so many metaphysical terms were introduced by Aristotle. According to this theory, languages with a rigid word order and no inflection are well suited for commerce but not for metaphysics.

The Anglo-Saxon precedent law system (when no external law-giving authority) also supported the anti-metaphysical (and somewhat atheistic) tendency of the perception, that “there is nothing in the world except for moving matter.” Practice oriented and pragmatic attitudes towards knowledge thrived in the English-speaking world. It is not surprising that such concepts as Pragmatism and Behaviorism became extremely popular there.
Another interesting observation is that the term “science” is often used in English in a narrow sense meaning “natural sciences” (although in some cases more general meaning is used, for example “a Department of Mathematical Sciences”). Moreover, some American religious sects gladly acquire the name “scientific” (The Church of Christ-Scientist, Scientology).

One can conclude that the English language tradition favored scientism and pragmatic, materialist attitude towards science. The most material thing and simultaneously the symbol and the essence of material is money, a universal measure of goods, time, work, effort, quantity, quality, energy and information. It is not surprising that money became also a measure of scientific research.

Measuring science by money in promotion criteria of American universities

In the preceding sections I have discussed the pragmatic, money-centered view of scientific research and scientific discovery as a part of epistemology of Pragmatism. Apparently, this pragmatic view on scientific research influenced the attitudes towards science in American universities in general. While traditional criteria of successful research include acceptance of results by peers, for example, in the form of citation and publication in prestigious journals, in many American universities the amount of research expenditures generated by a scientific project is the main (if not the only) criterion of research quality.

Certainly, research administrators in Europe, Asia, and in other regions of the world also use money as a criterion of scientific accomplishments. However, their intellectual traditions have antidotes against that. European colleagues tend to laugh in disbelief when I tell them that American scholars use research expenditures as a criterion of scientific achievements, and that we even have special research awards for top spenders.


Post-Tenure Review and the Academic Freedom of Research

Post Tenure Review (PTR) was instituted in the University of Wisconsin System in 2017. In the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee (UWM), tenured faculty members are reviewed by their departments once in five years. A committee determines whether their performance “meets expectations” and issues a performance evaluation letter. Then the evaluation is reviewed by the dean and by the chancellor.

Practice showed that negative reviews (when a professor does not meet expectations) are rare. If a faculty member does not meet expectations, a remediation plan of improvement for two years can be prepared, after which that professor will be reevaluated again. Eventually, the failure to meet expectations may lead to a discipline up to the dismissal for cause. As far as I know, no one has been fired from the UWM as a result of the PTR so far.

However, other issues of concern have emerged. One of them is that the performance evaluation letter may interfere with faculty member’s research agenda. Normally, university professors have independence in choosing topics of their research, especially when it comes to topics which do not require a lot of funding or expensive equipment, such as mathematical research or theoretical research in natural sciences. This is reflected in the concept of “academic freedom.” The AAUP states that “teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance.” Academic freedom gives both students and faculty the right to study and do research on the topics they choose. Faculty members have every right to work successfully on their own scientific problems and topics, rather than on external sponsors’ agenda.

From my experience, PTR letters sometimes dictate faculty research agenda, such as “to seek extramural funds from federal and corporate sponsors.” I think the infringement of the academic freedom, which sometimes comes with the PTR, should be a topic of consideration and discussion by faculty.

Repressions against brain drain from the US

In the situation when countries like China, Russia, or United Arab Emirates view science as a priority and an enterprise of their national prestige, while in America (at least in its Midwest states like Wisconsin) the priorities are different, it is not surprising that some American scientists start to look for research opportunities abroad.


How money still provides advantage?

Despite the money-centric attitudes towards science (and some people would claim that exactly because of these attitudes), the US still remain a world leader in successful scientific research. The question which is often asked and which certainly should be addresses: if American attitude towards science is so anti-intellectual, why the US remains a world leader in terms of scientific research? The US is at the first place in the world by the number of Nobel Prize Winners having 390 Nobel prizes out of the total 889, with the UK (134) being at the 2nd place, EU countries totaling about 396, Russia/Soviet Union at 31, Japan (28), Switzerland (27), Canada (27), Israel (12), and so on. Moreover, resonant scientific discoveries of recent decades were made in America. The human genome was deciphered in the United States, the Internet and mobile phones came from the United States, the gravitational waves were discovered in America, as well as the black matter and Mars exploration. All these accomplishments indicate that the US remains a world leader in science and technology in the 21st century. How that can be consistent with the alleged anti-intellectualism of American research administrators?

Several answers are possible for this question. First, most of US academic researchers are not US born Americans. Many of them are foreigners and naturalized US citizens recruited by American academic institutions, although top administrators are typically Americans. It is just easier to recruit scientists with skills for research, analysis and academic presentation of the results from the countries where such skills are cultivated in elite schools rather than to create a cultural environment needed to develop such skills. For that reasons, educational institutions overseas, such as elite mathematical high-schools prepare graduates who later would become key personnel in American research institutions.

Second, there is a difference between money-intensive science and the “small science” where most scientific discoveries are made (cite Clifford Truesdell here). Examples of money-intensive scientific enterprises, which are best known to the wide public are the LIGO collaboration on gravitational astronomy, the supercolliders or molecular biology research. These are mostly experimental areas which require huge investments. The intellectually intensive science includes such areas as mathematics, theoretical physics, mechanics, control theory and similar. If we look into these areas, the situation in the US will not be that good in comparison to Europe and Asia. My own area of mechanics is almost non-existent, with old professors retired and no new professors hired for the vacant positions, because ME departments prefer hiring faculty who would bring grants with overheads, rather than theoreticians. Saying that, note that mathematical education has a different organization, and because of that some pure mathematicians succeed. In mathematical departments, professors train postdocs and doctoral students who in turn teach basic mathematics courses for engineering, science and business students, thus mathematical education is on dement. While the American school of mathematics is perhaps among three top in the world (along with French and Russian), it is sustained by a significant brain drain from countries like Russia, EU countries, and Israel. Out of 60 Fields Medals, 26 are Americans, but only 10 of them are US-born, and the proportion is even bolder, with 3 US-born and 12 non-US born American mathematicians, if Fields Medals after 1985 are considered.

Third, one could argue that the Fields-level and Nobel-level science is restricted to a small number of elite American universities, who are autonomous in their operation and to a large extent they can be viewed as international, rather than American institutions. Many scientists with experience of looking for academic jobs would agree that such elite institutions as Harvard or Stanford are simply not on the American job market, i.e., they do not advertise positions and never call for interviews. Consequently, I would just exclude them from my discussion – my essay is not about them. The Nobel-level science almost does not affect the regular American way of doing scientific research. Say, in southeastern Wisconsin I remember only one case when a Nobel Prize winner gave a lecture at the UWM.

However, it is more important for the purpose of my discussion that money speaks, and money has material power. While being a symbolic substance absent from nature, money is indeed a material force or power, which drives some types of scientific research and expansion of human knowledge, although in a somewhat twisted way. Thus money has its epistemological function and Charles Pierce was not very wrong when he introduced his concept of abduction, which departed from earlier European idealistic tradition of considering scientific knowledge as a value independent of its monetary implications.


When Charles Pierce added “abduction” as the third type of inference, in addition to deduction and induction, his intention was to account for potential pragmatic usefulness in the process of selection of scientific hypnoses. Only most promising and most effective hypotheses should be selected, to maximize the economic impact. This implied that money would become an integral part of the epistemological process combining money and knowledge, so that money viewed as a universal measure not only of material goods and of labor, but also of scientific knowledge.

Modern American followers of Pierce (who often are not aware of his existence) apply monetary criteria, such as research expenditures, to judge scientific success. Many universities provide examples of such criteria including the Division of Natural Sciences of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, as well as its departments of Mechanical Engineering. This approach undermines the importance of scientific discovery. It is not by chance that the word “abduction’ has a connotation of “the unlawful carrying away of a woman for sexual intercourse.” These people are trying to abduct science by using the power of money.

Peirce was an outstanding philosopher and logician, perhaps the greatest scholar and thinker of the 19th century in America, creator of the Pragmatism and an icon of American intellectual culture whose huge and often controversial legacy is being studied by various professional and amateur institutions of philosophers. Pragmatism contributed to the Analytical Philosophy, the dominant school of philosophy in the English-speaking world, which is sometimes criticized for breaking ties with the continental European metaphysics. Peirce was also a part of the wealthy white protestant New England establishment. In our time of the cancel culture and institutionally cultivated resistance to “whiteness” (understood as arrogance of predominantly white US-born administrators) his legacy perhaps could be reevaluated.
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