Friday, February 15, 2013

Pragmatist Scripture: Peirce and The Book of Acts

A few months ago a friend who is interested in both scripture and philosophy asked me which scripture mattered most to Charles Peirce.  One obvious answer would be the writings of John, the gospeller of agape love, since agape plays such a great role in Peirce's philosophy.

The Book of Acts has recently come to mind as another strong candidate, for several reasons.  I plan to write about all this in more detail soon, but I'll use this space to jot down my thinking quickly, in order to make it available to anyone who might be interested, in the Peircean spirit of shared inquiry.

The Greek title of the Book of Acts is Praxeis Apostolon, or the Deeds of the Apostles.  We guess that the author of the text was the same as the author of the Gospel attributed to Luke.  The title might well have been added after the book was in circulation for a while, but that's probably inconsequential.  It occurred to me recently that this text begins with reminding us that the author wrote a previous book about "the things Jesus began to do and to teach," and then it narrates, without further introduction, the things that the first Christians did after Jesus' death and resurrection.

In other words, it is a book of acts, of deeds.  It is a book of narratives about what people did.

Which is to say that it is not primarily a book of prayers, or of songs, or of doctrines.  It tells a story, without much attempt to interpret that story.  And it is the story of a community learning to work together, and learning how it must adjust its doctrines in light of the community's expansion across and into cultures, and in light of the surprising things they find the new community is empowered to accomplish.

This is appealing to Pragmatists like Peirce, who are more concerned with the way decisions lead to actions than with fixing metaphysical doctrines and whose notions of truth, ethics, and metaphysics are more experimental and transactional than systematic and permanent.  Pragmatists are given to the idea that it is good for communities to work with tentative, revisable and fallible tenets, ever striving to improve their practices as the community grows.


Peirce is not exactly easy to read, which helps to explain why most of what he wrote remains unpublished even a century after his death.  Nevertheless, the patient reader of Peirce is often rewarded by a writer who took words very seriously.

Some of the words he used to great effect in his lectures and essays are derived from the Book of Acts.  Among these phrases are a phrase he uses in his 1907 essay "A Neglected Argument For The Reality Of God," and one that comes at the end of his Cambridge Conference Lectures of 1898.  The phrases are "scientific singleness of heart," and "things live and move and have their being in a logic of events."   See Acts 2.46 and 17.28 for the sources of these two phrases.  (The first one might also have come to Peirce through the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, as I have argued elsewhere.)

Two such phrases are not enough to make the case that Peirce was dependent on the Book of Acts, but thankfully that's not the case I'm trying to make.  Peirce was well read and he cited other portions of scripture and, of course, many other books, after all. I only want to suggest that Peirce might have found the Book of Acts to be a scripture that resonates with his Pragmatism.


That being said, I wish to point to one figure in the middle of the Book of Acts who might be taken to be a kind of Pragmatist saint: Epimenides.

I won't belabor that point here, as I have already written about it elsewhere.  I'll only add that Epimenides appears to be the unnamed source that St Paul appeals to and cites in Acts 17.28.

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