Where do we get our “ideas” or “beliefs”? Before answering, it is helpful to define each of those terms—they tend to be terms that we presume ourselves to know but may not really understand. First, “idea”: an idea is a conceptualization of meaning. In other words, it is the means by which we understand the what of something. Therefore, an idea is also frequently called a “concept”. Second, “belief”: a belief is the conviction in the truth of an idea so as to dispose us to act in a certain way given a certain situation. For example: someone may have the belief that red (an idea) is a color (another idea), and when asked to name a color, will say “red”. Or for another example, someone may believe that others have a right to the truth (an idea), which belief disposes that someone habitually to tell the truth (or, at the very least, to struggle with lying).
We are all familiar with having ideas and beliefs. We can entertain an idea without believing in it. We cannot believe in something without having ideas; that is, beliefs are dependent upon ideas. But how do ideas become formed? Or, where do they come from? This is a very complex topic, both historically and philosophically, often studied as the subject matter of at least one undergraduate philosophy course, and mastering the issue requires a great deal study beyond that. But the really important point, and one which must be hammered home here and repeatedly, is that we do not know our ideas themselves. Believing that we know our ideas directly and their significates only indirectly undermined the entirety of modern philosophy. This strange notion, having distilled into the culture for centuries, still wreaks havoc on our society today. In contrast, it must be known that our ideas or concepts are means on the basis of which we are oriented towards possible ways of being. This character of cognitive orientation we call “intentionality”.
But while the question of ideation occupies a more fundamental position in the theory of knowledge, the more accessible question is how beliefs are formed. That is not to say it is a question easily answered; but it is answered more easily than the same question about ideas. Moreover, we can find some help from Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914).
In brief, Peirce (1877: “Fixation of Belief”, in The Essential Peirce, vol.1, p.109-23) outlines four different ways of “fixing” (in the sense of “affixing”) our beliefs: what he calls the methods of tenacity, authority, the a priori, and the scientific. In the first method we repeat an idea to ourselves until it seems true and natural; clinging to the idea no matter what anyone else says or what anything else shows. For examples, think perhaps of sports fanatics who have unshakeable faith in the supremacy of their teams, or the way that someone convinces him or herself that something is a good plan, or that he or she is special, or that a love interest has mutual feelings.
The second method, of authority, is by something of external form of the first: that is, by a figure imbued with authority repeatedly and/or forcefully telling others that something is true. Historically, this has been the most common way of fixing beliefs. Doubtlessly, the imagery evoked is of priests in pulpits and nuns in school; but in truth, while religious authority has often operated in this fashion, other authorities have as well—in fact, the existence of law itself has often functioned in precisely this belief-affixing fashion, law being seen for most of history not as the restrictive clauses of a social contract but as a formative principle for society. Likewise, the beliefs of one’s parents—and not the kind they attempt to impose by stricture, but the kind received by a social osmosis—are often accepted on an implicit authority.
The third method, the a priori, operates by discerning what fits one’s experiences and already-conceived beliefs. In other words, there is a semi-critical element in this method: such that a proposed new belief is rejected if it does not cohere with one’s prior beliefs. This way has the merit of consistency—avoiding the holding of contradictory beliefs, which the ways of tenacity and authority may not—but nevertheless presupposes the truth of those beliefs we already possess. Thus, while a stronger edifice than the straw-like constructions provided by the aforementioned methods, the a priori remains merely a house of sticks.
The fourth way, the “scientific”, should not be confused with the common conception of science as the empirical observation of experiments done by people wearing white coats in laboratories—though such observation and experimentation is included in what the scientific approach to belief comprises: namely, any critical evaluation of the relation between what is observed and what is thought about what is observed. In other words, the scientific approach to fixing belief never rests; always, the veracity of the connection between the observed and the believed lies open to further scrutiny. Not to be confused with skepticism—where one withholds belief from any proposition not absolutely certain—the scientific method does rely heavily on doubt: doubt being understood not as an “irritation of the mind” which drives it to seek resolution. Doubt is the movement which, followed earnestly, brings us to belief.
While it may not always have been the case, today, most people probably form their beliefs through some combination of these four ways and, sadly, for the most part through the first two. Consequently, we can identify two broad tendencies of such formation: towards the sentimental and towards the critical. By the “sentimental” here, I mean attachment to a belief on the basis of feeling. By the “critical”, I mean conscious formation of belief by the deliberate pursuit of and openness to doubts. Sentimental attachments become a vicious circle: feelings determine the acceptability of beliefs which reinforce the feelings. Our sentiments arise in a way just as complicated as our ideas, but being affixed usually through some form of tenacity—whether through repetition to oneself or through someone taken as an authority.
Often, someone may begin their lives from sentimental attachments but proceed into an a priori way of thinking. For instance, someone may take it on authority that there is or is not a God who imbues the cosmos with a natural order that gives normative moral force to human behavior. If someone does begin with this as a sentimental attachment, then one can systematically construct a moral theory which is logically consistent with this authoritatively-given belief. Contrariwise, if someone does not, an alternative moral theory could be formed which is logically consistent, but only given some other authoritatively-given a priori belief: such as, say, that everyone should do as they please so long as it does not hurt or interfere with the goals of others. So long as each a priori claim—that of a natural, normative order or that of moral relativism—is simply taken for granted as true, neither consequent theory has any claim to validity over the other. You might as well argue over whether the Pittsburgh Steelers or New England Patriots are the better football team (“better” not in the sense of victories and losses, but better-to-be-a-fan-of).
For much of the past 2000 years, the majority of people in the Western world have taken it as a given that there exists a divinely-appointed normative order. In the past century, that majority has waned as the opposite, relativistic a priori has waxed, accelerating with the spread of electric technology. In other words, the sentimentally-founded beliefs most commonly appropriated at a given time and place are largely a product of cultural determinations: the context in which each human individual grows up, the things they see as “norms”; with television and now the internet, the “great stereopticon” of media can now spread instantaneously. There may be no central authority, in other words, but we are very much under the influence of authoritative fixation of belief: less by explicit condemnation of old moral beliefs, but more by presenting the alternatives as the norm.
As we will see in the next entry, all this is explicable in terms of signs: that is, there is a specific kind of causality particular to a sign—a causality we can call objective or specifying, or objective specifying—which orients us towards our objects. An uncritical attitude towards the causality of signs leaves us open to determination by them; and, not infrequently therefore, leaves us standing on the shaky ground of mere culturally-cultivated sentiment.