• Kenneth Jacobs

Do not Block the Way of Inquiry

Updated: May 9, 2020

The current post is a part of the Thematic Quotes section of the Pragmatic Means blog. The purpose of this Thematic Quotes section is to present and reference the writings of pragmatic thinkers for two reasons: (1) to link readers to the pragmatic literature and (2) to illuminate other Pragmatic Means posts.

All quotes revolve around a theme specified in the current title: The Way of Inquiry.

In the Cambridge Conference Lectures of 1898, Charles Sanders Peirce said this of the first rule of reason:

Upon this first, and in one sense this sole, rule of reason, that in order to learn you must desire to learn, and in so desiring not be satisfied with what you already incline to think, there follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed upon every wall of the city of philosophy: Do not block the way of inquiry (CP 1.135).

Inquiry is blocked, for instance, when it ends with deference to an authority. Peirce elaborates by identifying at least four barricades that hamper the progress of reason in science and in everyday discourse.


The first is the shape of absolute assertion. That we can be sure of nothing in science is an ancient truth. The Academy taught it. Yet science has been infested with overconfident assertion, especially on the part of the third-rate and fourth-rate men, who have been more concerned with teaching than with learning, at all times (CP 1.137).

The ancient truth of science is that we cannot be absolutely certain of anything. Scientific claims are probabilistic claims, yet teachers more concerned with teaching than learning, make absolutistic claims: about the nature of people, places, and things.


The second bar which philosophers often set up across the roadway of inquiry lies in maintaining that this, that, and the other never can be known (CP 1.138).

Knowledge of "the heavens" was unattainable before astronomy, and the origin of species was "a mystery of the faith" before Darwin. Inquiry is indefinitely prolonged––as long as there are humans to do it––so that which we do not know now, may be known later.


The third philosophical stratagem for cutting off inquiry consists in maintaining that this, that, or the other element of science is basic, ultimate, independent of aught else, and utterly inexplicable -- not so much from any defect in our knowing as because there is nothing beneath it to know (CP 1.139).

This is to say that something is the be-all and end-all. It is something that ends all inquiry because it is the supposed bottom of everything; the foundational element of it all.


The last philosophical obstacle to the advance of knowledge which I intend to mention is the holding that this or that law or truth has found its last and perfect formulation -- and especially that the ordinary and usual course of nature never can be broken through (CP 1.140).

There is not much left for inquiry if a law of science or truth of everyday life is perfect in its formulation. Furthermore, to say that the "usual course of nature never can be broken through" is to say something like "rockets will never be reusable." As it turns out, our previous formulations of the lifespans of rockets has changed, as we can land them after launch for reuse.

The four barricades to inquiry that Peirce recognizes are largely academic (i.e., logical in the sense of how we might reason with one another). Some readers might ask, "Aren't there some paths of inquiry that we just shouldn't go down?" The answer is yes, and by drawing upon Dewey's notion of ends-in-view, we can eschew dangerous lines of inquiry without blocking the way of inquiry in general.

Take the example of The CRISPR-baby Scandal. CRISPR is the gene editing technology that He Jiankui used to change the genome of human embryos. Scientists like He envision a future in which newborns have certain disease-resistant genes. He edited the genome of newly born twin girls to do just that, but He did not consider (or chose not to consider) the real and potentially harmful consequences for those girls and humans on the whole. The scientific community agrees, for the most part, that the world is not ready for CRISPR edited babies: it's just too dangerous, given the technology in its current state and because of the potential for numerous unintended consequences.

An ends-in-view take on the current situation tells us that the costs of gene-editing human embryos are currently too high. And in line with that ends-in-view take, scientists have called for a moratorium on the means by which scientists may currently make genetically modified children. Note that a moratorium is temporary and that the scientists have not banned or blocked the use of CRISPR more generally (e.g., in laboratory research where genetically modified children is not the sought after end). By keeping an end in one's line of sight, we can choose not to follow certain paths of inquiry without indefinitely blocking those paths of inquiry. The call for a moratorium on genetically modified children is a case in point.

Peirce was right that we should not block the way of inquiry, but some ways of inquiry are better and less harmful than others. In order to avoid those potentially harmful (or just plain ineffective) paths, they must be named and identified by their costs. In a vein similar to that of the CRISPR-baby moratorium, William James named and identified a potentially ineffective and harmful means to an end without necessarily blocking it as a way of inquiry.

Ruth Anna Putnam told it like this:

William James testified before the Massachusetts legislature when that body considered what to do about what we now call “alternative medicine.” James suggested that, on the one hand, the practice of alternative medicines should be permitted; not to do so would be to block the path of inquiry—but, on the other hand, the practitioners of those forms of healing should not be permitted to call themselves “doctor”—because the patients needed to know whether they were consulting a graduate of a medical school or a healer belonging to some alternative tradition (pp. 14-15).

Patients need to know who's who because not all ways of inquiry are equal in terms of method. Pragmatists may not want to block the way of inquiry, but they do want to know the means by which those inquiries are conducted, so as to name them for what they can or cannot do practically.