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Charles Sanders Peirce

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Charles Sanders Peirce
(Undated photograph)

Charles Sanders Peirce (often known as C. S. Peirce) (1839 - 1914) was a 20th Century American philosopher, logician, mathematician and scientist, and is considered among the greatest of American minds.

He is best known as the founder of the largely American philosophical school of Pragmatism, which was later popularized by his life-long friend William James and his one-time student John Dewey, although his contributions to the development of modern Logic were also of the first order.

He was largely ignored during his lifetime (secondary literature was scant until long after World War II), and much of his huge output is still unpublished.


Peirce (pronounced PERS, as in purse) was born on 10 September 1839 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, the second of five children. His father was Benjamin Peirce, a renowned professor of astronomy and mathematics at Harvard University and one of the first serious research mathematicians in America; his mother was Sarah Hunt Mills, the daughter of a Senator. He suffered all his life from what was then known as "facial neuralgia" (trigeminal neuralgia), a very painful nervous-facial condition, which often left him depressed and subject to violent outbursts of temper.

He was a child prodigy, and was educated mainly by his brilliant father (who refused to discipline his children in case he destroyed their originality). At the age of 12, he read an older brother's copy of "Elements of Logic" by Richard Whately (1787 - 1863), then the leading English language text on the subject, and began a lifelong fascination with Logic and reasoning. Soon after, he learned philosophy mainly by reading a few pages each day of Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" in the original German. Despite his disdainful and indifferent attitude, he obtained his B.A .and M.A. degrees from Harvard University, as well as beginning lifelong friendships with Francis Ellingwood Abbot (1836 - 1903), Chauncey Wright (1830 - 1875) and William James, and then, in 1863, an M.Sc. in chemistry from the Lawrence Scientific School. In 1872, he began the now legendary Metaphysical Club with, among others, William James and, in 1873, he married Harriet Melusina Fay, who came from a leading Cambridge family and was an active feminist campaigner.

From 1859 until 1891, Peirce was intermittently employed in various scientific capacities by the United States Coast Survey, where he enjoyed the protection of his highly influential father until the latter's death in 1880, and which also exempted him from participation in the Civil War of 1861 - 1865. He was involved with, among other things, geodesy and gravimetrics, the measurement and representation of the Earth's gravitational field by the use of pendulums. From 1869 to 1872, he was also employed as an assistant in Harvard's astronomical observatory, where he worked on determining the brightness of stars and the shape of the Milky Way. In 1876, he was elected a member of the American National Academy of Sciences and, in 1878, he was the first to define the unit of length the meter as so many wavelengths of light of a certain frequency, the definition employed until 1983.

For a period from 1879, Peirce was appointed untenured lecturer in Logic at the new Johns Hopkins University (which was very strong in the areas of philosophy, psychology and mathematics), the only academic position Peirce ever held. His efforts to obtain academic employment, grants and scientific respectability may have been deliberately frustrated by the covert opposition of another major American scientist of the day, Simon Newcomb (1835 - 1909).

His ongoing physical illness and some elements of his personal life also handicapped him. His first wife left him in 1876, but the divorce only became final in 1883. In the meantime, he had been openly living and traveling with a French gypsy called Juliette Froissy Pourtalès, and Peirce was dismissed from Johns Hopkins University when this scandal was pointed out by Newcomb, and his subsequent applications to several major Amercian universities were all suspiciously unsuccessful. He married Juliette seven days after the divorce came through in 1883, but the damage had been done.

In addition to spells in New York and Washington D.C., his work with the United States Coast Survey took him to Europe several times during the 1870s and 1880s, and he took the opportunities to seek out British mathematicians and logicians whose turn of mind resembled his own, including Augustus De Morgan (1806 - 1871), William Stanley Jevons (1835 - 1882) and William Kingdon Clifford (1845 - 1879). His interest in his Coast Survey work waned during the 1880s, and Peirce sometimes took years to write reports that he should have completed in mere months. Meanwhile, though, he was writing hundreds of logic, philosophy and science entries for the "Century Dictionary". In 1891, he was "requested" to resign from the Coast Survey, and never again held regular employment, devoting himself to the philosophical and other pursuits which had always been mere spare time activities.

In 1887, Peirce spent part of his inheritance on some rural land near Milford, Pennsylvania. The land never yielded an economic return, but he built a large house there, where he spent the rest of his life writing prolifically on philosophy and other subjects, much of it unpublished to this day. However, he was living beyond his means and soon encountered financial and legal difficulties, unable to afford heat in winter or new stationery, and subsisting on old bread donated by the local baker. He earned some money from scientific and engineering consulting, and wrote dictionary and encyclopedia entries, reviews for "The Nation" and translations for the Smithsonian Institution (all for meager pay), but he relied on his brother, James Mills Peirce, and his neighbors to settle many of his debts. During these desperate times, his old friend William James also helped, arranging for Peirce to be paid for a series of lectures at Harvard and canvassing his friends in the Boston intelligentsia for financial contributions to help support Peirce.

Peirce died of cancer, destitute, on 19 April 1914 in Milford, Pennsylvania. Although such 20th Century philosophical luminaries as Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead and Karl Popper (1902 - 1994) were to hail Peirce as one of the most original minds of the late 19th Century, recognition had to wait until many years after his death.

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The only books that Peirce had published in his lifetime were the "Photometric Researches" of 1878 (a monograph on the applications of spectrographic methods to astronomy) and the short "Description of a Notation for the Logic of Relatives" of 1870. However, after his death, he left approximately 1,650 unpublished manuscripts, totaling over 100,000 pages, which were acquired by Harvard University, but not cataloged until 1967, and most of it remains unpublished. His writings bear on a wide array of disciplines, including astronomy, metrology, geodesy, mathematics, Logic, philosophy, the history and Philosophy of Science, linguistics, economics and psychology. He had planned a magnum opus called "The Minute Logic" which was unfinished and unpublished at his death.

Peirce always thought of himself first and foremost as a logician, although he interpreted the term "logic" very widely, describing it as "the art of devising methods of research" and seeing it to large extent in terms of semiotics (the study of signs and sign processes). His "Logic of Relatives" looked into the relationships of objects, signs and impressions of the mind more deeply than the formal Logic of the time allowed, considering anew the concept of relative terms, which had its roots in antiquity. It is considered one of the wellsprings of contemporary systems of Logic, which then entered a radically new phase of development. Much of his work on Logic and foundational mathematics has been found to have anticipated much later developments (in Boolean algebra and set theory in particular) by many years.

Although he was only really a professional philosopher during the five years he lectured at Johns Hopkins University (and a working scientist for 30 years), he initiated the philosophical tendency known as Pragmatism, a variant of which his life-long friend William James and his one-time student John Dewey would later popularize. Early in his work, Peirce outlined a theory of three universal categories which he would apply throughout his philosophy (and elsewhere) for the rest of his life: firstness (a quality of feeling), secondness (a reaction, resistance or relation) and thirdness (representation). These were foundational ideas, breaking the ground for his blueprint for a Pragmatic philosophy, which can be seen to originate in two of Peirce's papers from 1877 and 1878, "The Fixation of Belief" and "How to Make Our Ideas Clear".

Peirce initially conceived Pragmatism as a method for clarifying the meaning of specific difficult ideas (which he called "intellectual terms"), rather than the clarification of all terms, although he did also try to extend his theory later on. As a practicing scientist all his life, his goal was mainly to clarify terms as a means of furthering and expediting scientific investigation, and not just as an academic exercise. He had, then, a rather more rationalistic and realistic goal than some of the enthusiasms of later Pragmatists like William James and John Dewey.

The way he sought to achieve this clarification was through the application of what he called the "pragmatic maxim". For Peirce, this was a method of sorting out conceptual confusions by equating the meaning of any concept with the conceivable operational or practical consequences of whatever it is which the concept portrays. Put another way, for any concept to meaningful, then its application in reality must make an observable difference on something. The corollary of this is that any theory that proves itself more successful than its rivals in predicting and controlling our world, can be said to be nearer the truth. He held that, although the scientific method may be the best for theoretical questions, it is not always better than tradition, instinct, etc, for time-sensitive practical questions.

Peirce stated the pragmatic maxim in many different ways over the years, but the simplest of these may be: "Consider what effects that might conceivably have practical bearings you conceive the objects of your conception to have. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object" (my emphasis).

Peirce was also largely responsible for another rather revolutionary development in 20th Century thought. He believed that any truth, even "proven" scientific "facts", is necessarily provisional, and that the truth of any proposition cannot be certain but only probable, a view known as Fallibilism. Thus, scientific theories, for example, should be used for as long as they work, but we must be prepared to replace them if difficulties come to light subsequently. Peirce's Fallibilism and Pragmatism may be seen as playing roles in his work similar to those of Skepticism and Positivism, respectively, in the work of others.

In Metaphysics, Peirce declared himself a "Scholastic Realist" about generals and also about modalities (possibility, necessity, etc). He believed in God, not as an actual or existent being, but all the same as a real being. In physical Metaphysics, he held the view which he called Objective Idealism, that the world "out there" is in fact Mind communicating with our human minds, and that there is only one perceiver, and that this perceiver is one with that which is perceived.

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