Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) was one of America's most important philosophers. Many of his writings were not published until after his death, but he made important contributions in both philosophy and science. His work in logic helped establish the philosophical school of thought known as pragmatism.
Charles Sanders Peirce was born on September 10, 1839, to Benjamin Peirce and Sarah (Mills) Peirce. His father was a professor at Harvard University and a leading mathematician of his day, and his mother was the daughter of Elijah Mills, U.S. senator from Massachusetts. Peirce grew up in the academic environment of Harvard at a time when science was challenging traditional religious views. He attended local private schools and then Cambridge High School, but his father closely supervised his education, exercising him in games of concentration and complicated mathematical analyses. Peirce was later to comment that his father's educational influence on him was the most important one.
Peirce entered Harvard in 1855 and graduated in 1859, one of the youngest members of the class. His interests pointed in the direction of philosophy, but at the urging of his father he entered scientific work. In 1861 he secured a position with the United States Coast Survey, for which he conducted scientific statistical research, a position he held until 1887. He also continued his formal education. In 1863 Harvard awarded him the B.Sc. in chemistry, summa cum laude. Over the following years his work in science was of such note that in 1877 he was elected a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was made a member of the National Academy of Science. Peirce's interest in philosophy continued, however. From 1864 to 1871 he gave occasional lectures in logic and the philosophy of science at Harvard and was a member of a select intellectual circle that included such luminaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Fiske.
Scholar and Author
Because of circumstances and temperament, Peirce did not make teaching his career. His most significant academic post was as a lecturer in logic at the Johns Hopkins University from 1879 to 1884. He also lectured occasionally at the Lowell Institute and at Bryn Mawr College. He was an inspiring teacher for advanced students, but his insistence on logical precision and his use of a highly technical vocabulary did not appeal to most students. He once described himself as vain and ill-tempered; certainly he was a proud person, conscious of his intellectual power, and often insensitive to the feelings of others. Peirce's temperament apparently affected his first marriage, to Harriet Melusina Fay in 1862, which ended in divorce in 1883. However, his second marriage, to Juliet Frossy, lasted until his death.
A creative and productive scholar, Peirce worked long hours and wrote voluminously. Yet his philosophical work remained obscure until 1898, when William James recognized him as one of the originators of philosophical pragmatism. This reputation grew out of several articles Peirce published in Popular Science Monthly, particularly "How To Make Our Ideas Clear" (1878). In this piece he quarrelled with the accepted view in logic, dating back to Rene Descartes, that a clear idea is defined as "one which is so apprehended that it will be recognized wherever it is met with, and so that no other will be mistaken for it." Peirce labeled this "a prodigious force of clearness of intellect as is seldom met with in this world" and held that it was really based on the subjectivism of familiarity and not on the merits of logic itself. Descartes' use of methodical doubt, set forth in the cogito ("I think; therefore, I am"), was intended to permit at least some skepticism and to reject the practice of appealing to authority for the source of truth; instead, it transformed the traditional appeal to authority into an appeal to subjective introspection.
Rather than seeking the foundation of logic in subjective introspection, Peirce maintained, it is necessary to look to experience in the objective world. The action of thought is excited or motivated by the irritation of doubt, and this activity ceases when a belief is attained. In other words, Peirce held, the production of belief is the sole function of thought. But we also want beliefs that are sound, and hence we need a conception of logical thought process which will lead to clear ideas upon which sound beliefs may follow. The essence of belief is the establishment of sound habits of conduct in the world of people, events, things, and ideas. For Peirce, it was inconceivable that we should have an idea in our minds which relates to anything but conceivable sensible effects. As he put it, "Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the objects of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object." In other words, "Our idea of anything is our idea of its sensible effects. … ." Many people took this to be a skeptical and materialistic principle, but Peirce pointed out that it was only an application of the principle of logic recommended by Jesus: "'Ye may know them by their fruits. … "' Peirce was pleased with James's recognition of his work, but he came to disagree with the latter's rendition of the principle as "Truth is what works." This interpretation led Peirce, in 1905, to devise another name for his own views, and he settled on the term "pragmaticism, " allowing that it was "ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers."
Scientist and Philosopher
During his work with the United States Coast Survey, Peirce conducted astronomical research at the Harvard Observatory which resulted in the only complete book he published during his lifetime, Photometric Researches (1878). In 1884, while teaching at Johns Hopkins, he also published Studies in Logic, a collection of essays by himself and some of his students. He did, however, publish a number of articles in journals such as The Monist, North American Review, The Nation, Journal of Speculative Thought, Hibbert Journal, and Popular Science Monthly. He was a significant contributor to such standard reference works as Century Dictionary (1889-1891) and Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology (1901-1905).
In his later years Peirce's philosophical reputation and fortune, never very extensive, suffered decline. When he retired from the Coast Survey in 1887, he and his wife Juliet moved to the countryside near Milford, Pennsylvania. Gradually indebtedness, advancing age, and ill health took their toll. He approached the end of his life in poverty and without the recognition his work deserved. He finally succumbed to cancer on April 20, 1914.
The greater part of his work was not published until after his death when his papers were purchased by Harvard University. Much of this collection was disorganized, with many parts undated and with important manuscripts in several drafts. Nevertheless, significant portions have been published and have afforded scholars easier access. The Collected Works of Charles Sanders Peirce, volumes 1 to 6 (1931-1935) and volumes 7 and 8 (1966), made most of his major writings available. More recently, Writings of Charles Sanders Peirce: A Chronological Edition, volume 1 (1982), helped show the evolution of his thought in the early years. Future volumes are expected.
Along with these publications has come a better appreciation of Peirce's many contributions. Not only did he provide valuable work in logic, but in several other fields of philosophy as well. He grew to intellectual maturity during the time when Darwin's theory of natural selection created significant changes in people's outlooks. Although Peirce was well grounded in science, Darwinian naturalism was not a major part of his philosophical outlook. Instead, his thrust was toward the Kantian philosophical tradition of seeking the philosophical foundations of science in metaphysics or first philosophy. Peirce developed an evolutionary cosmology, but it was based on objective idealism rather than naturalism, which helps account for his attempt to separate himself from James and other pragmatists. These undercurrents in Peirce's thought led him to explore a wide range of philosophical interests, including the history of philosophy, the theory of signs, phenomenology, and perception—explorations which are now being more thoroughly studied by contemporary scholars.
Further Reading on Charles Sanders Peirce
Biographical material on Charles Sanders Peirce, written by Paul Weiss, may be found in the Dictionary of American Biography, volume XIV (1934). The same material is reprinted in Perspectives on Peirce (1965), which also contains critical essays on Peirce's philosophical contributions. More recent is the biographical sketch of Peirce's early life by Max H. Fisch, "Introduction, " Writings of Charles Sanders Peirce, volume I (1982). The most complete edition of Peirce's writings is The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, volumes I-VIII (1931-1935, 1966). Selected papers may be found in Essays in the Philosophy of Science (1967). A helpful analysis of the overall philosophy is Christopher Hooking, Peirce (1985), which also contains a biographical sketch in the introduction. A briefer treatment is Peter Turley, Peirce's Cosmology (1977).