Published in The Oyster Club. The Scottish Journal of Philosophy 6, 1995, 17

Why read ... PEIRCE ?

by Jaime Nubiola

"Most people have never heard of him, but they will". This was something like a prophecy from the late American novelist Walker Percy and there are some hints that it is beginning to come true. Until now the figure and thought of Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914) have been neglected for decades, but there has been a recent burst of interest. A whole intellectual industry has developed around him fuelled by European philosophers like Karl-Otto Apel, Umberto Eco and Jürgen Habermas, and from the American side by Richard Bernstein, Hilary Putnam and an extended community of Peirce's scholars connected via electronic mail in the U. S. and all over the world.

The figure of Charles S. Peirce has an ever increasing relevance in very different areas of knowledge, and his influence is still growing: in astronomy, metrology, geodesy, mathematics, logic, philosophy, theory and history of science, semiotics, linguistics, econometrics, and psychology. In all these fields Peirce has been considered a pioneer, a forerunner or even a 'father' or 'founder' (of semiotics, of pragmatism). It is very common to find general evaluations like Russell's "beyond doubt ... he was one of the most original minds of the later nineteenth century, and certainly the greatest American thinker ever", or Popper's description of him as "one of the greatest philosophers of all times". Factors which have increased the growing interest in Peirce's thought are his personal participation in the scientific community of his time, his valuable contribution to the logic of relatives, and his sound knowledge of the philosophy of Kant as well as of the Scholastic tradition, in particular Duns Scotus.

The interpretation of Peirce's thought and its evolution from his early writings in 1865 until his death for many years provoked wide disagreement amongst Peirce scholars. In part this was caused by the fragmentary presentation of his work in the eight volumes of Peirce's Collected Papers. In more recent years a deeper understanding of the basic coherence and undeniable systematization of Peirce's thought and of his whole evolution has been gaining general recognition. The new chronological edition of Peirce's writings (eventually to consist of twenty volumes: the first five have already appeared) is enabling a thorough reception of his thought, but for a beginner it will be better to start with The Essential Peirce, edited by Christian Kloesel and Nathan Houser in Indiana University Press.

American pragmatism has commonly been seen as something parochial and outside the mainstream of philosophy. Among European philosophers pragmatism has often been understood (and sometimes despised) as an 'American way' of dealing with knowledge and truth, and as something alien to the general discussion. However, the transplantation of the Vienna Circle and the analytic movement to the United States was successful owing to the common ground established by the general pragmatist orientation of academic philosophy in the previous decades. A key source for developing an integrated study of both pragmatism and analytic philosophy as different aspects of one broad philosophical attitude is to be found in Charles S. Peirce, who was interpreted by Apel as the milestone in the semiotic transformation of transcendental philosophy into analytic philosophy. Along these lines von Wright said recently that Peirce "may in fact be counted another founding father of analytic philosophy -alongside Russell and Moore and the figure in their background, Frege".

Christopher Hookway has characterized Peirce as a traditional and systematic philosopher, but one dealing with the modern problems of science, truth and knowledge from a very valuable personal experience as a logician and as an experimental researcher in the bosom of an international community of scientists and thinkers. In this sense the best approach for understanding Peirce would be to see him as an analytic philosopher before his time, anticipating the intersubjective 'linguistic turn' in philosophy with his general theory of signs. Thirty years ago the similarities between Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations and the philosophical framework of Charles S. Peirce were pointed out. Richard Rorty suggested that Peirce had envisaged and repudiated positivist empiricism fifty years earlier, and had developed a set of insights and a philosophical mood very similar to those of contemporary philosophers working under the influence of the later Wittgenstein.

In spite of this proximity, academic research focusing on the thought of Wittgenstein and Peirce has almost always tended to handle both philosophers quite separately. This breach is a continuous tradition whose origin can perhaps be traced back —as Susan Haack suggested— to Russell's personal hostility towards F. C. S. Schiller as the British representative of pragmatism. Along these lines Alfred J. Ayer stressed the historical interest of Morris Cohen's anthology of Peirce's texts under the beautiful title Chance, Love and Logic in 1923, since until then British philosophers had derived their mainly unfavourable ideas of pragmatism from the popular writings of James and Schiller.

In recent years there has been an increasing amount of scholarship trying to understand both pragmatism and analytic philosophy as different aspects of one broad philosophical attitude. In Peirce's work there is not just the parallel development of the themes found in the work of Frege, Russell or Wittgenstein, but also the framework for an integrated theory of culture (Hookway). A Peircean approach to philosophy offers both deep involvement in currently highly specialized and technical philosophical discussion and the resources to participate in the general conversation of mankind. It maintains in a stable equilibrium both Kantian concepts of philosophy, and is thus probably the best way in which analytic philosophy can gain a human face (Putnam). In this sense Guy Debrock identified Peirce as a philosopher for the 21st century, not only for his suggestions for tackling some of the most stubborn problems in contemporary philosophy, but in particular because he may help us to reassume a philosophical responsibility which has been largely abdicated by much of 20th century philosophy.

Última actualización: 17 de agosto 2007

[Jaime Nubiola] [Sugerencias]

Universidad de Navarra