27th Annual SAAP Meeting "The Crisis in American Education"
March 9-11, 2000, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

A Task of Love:
Cross-disciplinarity According to Peirce

Jaime Nubiola
University of Navarra, Spain


In a world of ever growing specialization, co-operative work involving cross-disciplinary points of view is usually encouraged, both as a remedy against the conceptual poverty of the scientific reductionism inherited from the Vienna Circle, and at the same time as a way of efficiently tackling the most stubborn and unresolved problems which our society is facing today.

Within this framework, the aim of this paper is to show with some textual support that Charles S. Peirce identified science as a cross-disciplinary process in which communication enhances new knowledge: "I do not call the solitary studies of a single man a science. It is only when a group of men, more or less in intercommunication, are aiding and stimulating one another (...) that I call their life a science" (MS 1334). The key to the advancement of knowledge is not revolution, but communication, and real communication is always a task of love.

"The Law of Love and the Law
of Reason are quite at one."
C. S. Peirce, Science, 20 April 1900.1

1. Introduction2

In a world of ever growing specialization, the idea of a unity of science is commonly discarded as an impossible ideal. Yet, at the same time, co-operative work involving cross-disciplinary points of view is usually encouraged, though seldom practiced, both as a remedy against the conceptual poverty of the scientific reductionism inherited from logical positivism of the Vienna Circle, and as a way of efficiently tackling the most stubborn and still unresolved problems which our society is facing today. The generation of knowledge is commonly perceived as a strange mixture of hard cross-disciplinary research, personal imagination and a lot of luck; a mixture which calls to mind the saying: ninety per cent perspiration and ten per cent inspiration; or perhaps better, ninety per cent team perspiration and ten per cent individual inspiration.

As Debrock highlighted, Charles S. Peirce's thought helps us to re-assume philosophical responsibility which has been largely abdicated by much of 20th century philosophy and offers suggestions for tackling some of these stubborn contemporary problems (Debrock 1992: 1). The founder of pragmatism not only identified one century ago this paradoxical situation about scientific development, but he also mapped out some paths that we could follow in order to get a clearer view of the problem and to genuinely improve the communication between the various sciences. Along this line, the aim of my paper is to understand from a Peircean point of view the nature of scientific growth and the essential need for cooperation and cross-disciplinarity to develop new knowledge. With that purpose in mind, my paper will be divided in two sections: 2) a short introduction stressing Peirce's personal authority on this issue, with a selection of texts from the mature Peirce about science and the nature of scientific growth; and, 3) an attempt to understand how -according to Peirce- communication and love can be effective to achieve real cross-disciplinarity.

2. The nature of science according to Peirce

Charles S. Peirce should not to be considered mainly a philosopher or a logician, but a real practitioner of science. Peirce not only was trained as a chemist at Harvard, but he worked regularly and strenuously for thirty years (1861-91) for the U. S. Coast Survey as a metrologist and as an observer in astronomy and geodesy (Brent 1993). As Max Fisch wrote, "Peirce was not merely a philosopher or a logician who had read up on science. He was a full-fledged professional scientist, who carried into all his work the concerns of the philosopher and logician" (W 3: xxviii-xxix).

As you well know, 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. This was due in part to the fragmentary presentation of his work in the Collected Papers, and in part to his going against the grain. In recent years a deeper understanding of the architectonic nature of his thought and of his whole evolution has been gaining general acceptance (Hausman 1993: xiv-xv; EP 1: xxix). In the last decade all Peircean scholars have clearly acknowledged the basic coherence and undeniable systematization of his thought (Santaella-Braga 1993: 401; Hausman 1993; Parker 1998).

Following Hookway to some extent (1985: 1-3), I think that the most accurate understanding of Peirce is to see him 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 addition to his personal experience of scientific practice, his sound knowledge of the history of science and of the history of philosophy helped him to establish a general cartography of scientific methodology.

Peirce's personal participation in the scientific community of his time buttresses whatever he has to say about science from a philosophical point of view. Having done research in astronomy, mathematics, logic and philosophy and in the history of all these sciences, in spite of their very different professional labels, Peirce tried throughout all his life to disclose the links between the various kinds of scientific inquiry. From his first experiences as a young scientist on, Peirce believed that the community of inquirers was essential for scientific rationality. For him, the flourishing of sciences can only take place in the context of research communities: the pursuit of truth is a corporate task and not an individual search for foundations. As Peirce wrote in The Ethics of Terminology, "the progress of science cannot go far except by collaboration; or, to speak more accurately, no mind can take one step without the aid of other minds." (CP 2.220, 1903).

And, what is a science for Peirce? I want to provide two beautiful texts of the mature Peirce defining what a science is. The first one is from a manuscript of 1902 on the classification of the sciences (MS 1343, pp. 6-7, 1902):

Science is to mean for us a mode of life whose single animating purpose is to find out the real truth, which pursues this purpose by a well-considered method, founded on thorough acquaintance with such scientific results already ascertained by others as may be available, and which seeks cooperation in the hope that the truth may be found, if not by any of the actual inquirers, yet ultimately by those who come after them and who shall make use of their results (CP 7.55, 1902).

The second text comes from the manuscript of the Adirondack Summer School Lectures and deserves to be quoted extensively:

But what I mean by a "science", both for the purpose of this classification and in general, is the life devoted to the pursuit of truth according to the best known methods on the part of a group of men who understand one another's ideas and works as no outsider can. It is not what they have already found out which makes their business a science; it is that they are pursuing a branch of truth according, I will not say, to the best methods, but according to the best methods that are known at the time. I do not call the solitary studies of a single man a science. It is only when a group of men, more or less in intercommunication, are aiding and stimulating one another by their understanding of a particular group of studies as outsiders cannot understand them, that I call their life a science. It is not necessary that they should all be at work upon the same problem, or that all should be fully acquainted with all that it is needful for another of them to know; but their studies must be so closely allied that any one of them could take up the problem of any other after some months of special preparation and that each should understand pretty minutely what it is that each one of the other's work consists in; so that any two of them meeting together shall be thoroughly conversant with each other's ideas and the language he talks and should feel each other to be brethren. In particular, one thing which commonly unites them is their common skill unpossessed by outsiders in the use of certain instruments and their common skill in performing certain kinds of work (MS 1334, pp. 11-14, 1905) 3.

Actually, this text serve as a salutary admonition against the present state of competitiveness amongst scientists in the same field or in the same department battling to gain the Nobel prize or a modest postdoc grant! Perhaps one of the roots of the present crisis of American education can be traced back to this point.

Peirce carefully studied upwards of a hundred different classifications of the sciences and made many attempts to work out his own general classification of the sciences, as so many branches and sub-branches of a tree, springing out of one another (CTN 3, 217, 1905; L75, 1902; HP 805, 1904 and 1124, 1899). Following him, "sciences must be classified according to the peculiar means of observation they employ" (CP 1.101, c.1896), because each community of scientists grows around some specific ways of perceiving, some special methods of research. Each science corresponds then to a special kind of observations which renders peculiar the modes of thought of the students of each special branch (CP 1.100, c1896) 4.

For the mature Peirce "science is a living historic entity" (CP 1.44, c.1896), "a living and growing body of truth" (CP 6.428, 1893). And what is the nature of scientific growth for Peirce? Scientific growth is not only the accumulation of data, of registrations, measurements or experiences. Though the scientist is invariably a man who has become deeply impressed with the efficacy of minute and thorough observations, he knows that observing is never enough: his "ultimate aim is to educe the truth" (HP 1123, 1898). To learn the truth requires not only collecting data, but abduction, the adoption of a hypothesis to explain the surprising facts, and the deduction of probable consequences which are expected to verify his hypotheses (CP 7.202, 1901; Génova 1997: 69-76).

3. Cross-disciplinarity: communication and love

Peirce identified science as a diligent inquiry into truth for truth's sake developed by a community of inquirers skilled in the manipulation of particular instruments, and trained in some ways of perceiving or peculiar modes of thought. Sciences are traditions of research which have developed in both time and space. For Peirce, "science does not advance by revolutions, warfare, and cataclysms, but by cooperation, by each researcher's taking advantage of his predecessors' achievements, and by his joining his own work in one continuous piece to that already done" (CP 2.157, c.1902). Science is a way of life, a craft handed down from masters to apprentices. Scientific method "is itself a scientific result. It did not spring out of the brain of a beginner: it was a historic attainment and a scientific achievement" (CP 6.428, 1893).

For this reason, the key to the advancement of knowledge and to the development of sciences is not revolution, but communication. Communication between the members of a science community is essential for scrutinizing the evidence and the results achieved in research. Because there is no algorithm -no routine or unfailing method- for finding out the truth or knowing sure when you have it, truth and knowledge at least in the hard sciences are located at the level of the scientific community rather than the individual inquirer (Ransdell 1998: 2).

More specifically, Peirce clearly asserts that the scientific community far from being an assembly or a parliament, whose members fight each other with fierce arguments, should be more like a family. "A given science with a special name, a special journal, a special society, studying one group of facts, whose students understand one another in a general way and naturally associate together, forms what I call a family" (CP 1.238, c.1902). A scientific community is always -or at least should be according to Peirce- an affective community. In this respect, scientific practice is unfortunately quite different. It is not uncommon to find in our time fields of research in which "disputational activity is for the purposes of annihilation of the opponent rather than regarded as part of a process aiming at mutual accommodation" (Ransdell 1999).

A second point of interest is the encouragement of cross-disciplinarity between sciences: "One of the most salient phenomena of the life of science is that of a student of one subject getting aid from students of other subjects" (HP 805, 1904). It is not only that "... the higher places in science in the coming years are for those who succeed in adapting the methods of one science to the investigation of another. That is what the greatest progress of the passing generation has consisted in" (CP 7.66, 1882), but that new knowledge is generated wherever communication between different branches of science is enhanced.

Peirce provides an impressive amount of historical evidence. His account of the cooperation between the sciences of the earth and the astronomy and the so-called physics of the globe to establish the relative position of the elements of our planet; of the help that comes to linguistics from phonetics and from acoustics; of the historian regulating his chronology to conform the information furnished by the astronomer, and learning the distances and other spatial relations from the geographer, and so on (HP 805-6, 1904).

In contrast to science which grows upon special experience, philosophy is precisely "that science which limits itself to finding out what it can from ordinary everyday experience, without making any special observations" (HP 825, 1904). While special sciences grow in laboratories or in very sophisticated contexts of research, the laboratory of the philosophers is our ordinary experience, our real lives even in academic environments. For this reason, the philosophers are perhaps in a better position to call for the unity of sciences, but this calling should not be seen as a return to the old scientism of Neurath's failed attempt at an International Encyclopedia of Unified Science.

The unity of science is not achieved by the reduction of special sciences to more basic ones. The new name for the unity of the sciences is cross-disciplinarity, not the unity of the science, but the unity of the scientists, the real inquirers of the truth. The key to cross-disciplinarity of knowledge is not revolution, but sharing efforts in a very peculiar mixture of continuity and fallibilism, of affection and reason, the attempt to understand others as well as oneself, putting oneself in the shoes of the others and walking several moons with them.

Let me conclude suggesting that the atmospher of the meetings of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy provides good evidence that a real cross-disciplinary community has been built around the ideals of communication, love and reason. In some sense, this fact confirms the Peircean image of the scientific community as a family, with a peculiar mixture of interaction and differences, kept united by agape (Hausman 1974; 1998, 97).

Sources of Peirce's Texts

CP Peirce, Charles S. (1931-1958). Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vols. 1-8, C. Hartshorne, P. Weiss y A. W. Burks (eds.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

CTN Peirce, Charles S. (1975-1979). Contributions to 'The Nation', vols. 1-4, K. L. Ketner y J. E. Cook (eds.). Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech Press.

EP Peirce, Charles S. (1992-98). The Essential Peirce. Selected Philosophical Writings, vols. 1-2, N. Houser et al (eds.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

HP Eisele, Carolyn (1985). Historical Perspectives on Peirce's Logic of Science: a History of Science, vols. 1-2. Berlin: Mouton.

MS The Charles S. Peirce Papers (1966). 32 microfilm reels of the manuscripts kept in the Houghton Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Library, Photographic Service.

W Peirce, Charles S. (1982-95). Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition, vols. 1-5, M. H. Fisch et al (eds.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Bibliographic References

J. Brent, Charles S. Peirce: A Life, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1993.

G. Debrock, "Peirce, a Philosopher for the 21st Century. Introduction", Transactions of the Ch. S. Peirce Society 28 (1992), 1-18.

G. Génova, Charles S. Peirce: La lógica del descubrimiento, Cuadernos de Anuario Filosófico, 45, Pamplona, 1997.

C. Hausman, "Eros and Agape in Creative Evolution: A Peircean Insight", Process Studies 4 (1974), 11-25.

C. Hausman, Charles S. Peirce’s Evolutionary Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1993.

C. Hausman, "Charles Peirce and the Future of Philosophy", The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 12 (1998), 83-97.

C. Hookway, Peirce, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1985.

B. Kent, Charles S. Peirce: Logic and the Classification of the Sciences, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Kingston, 1987.

K. A. Parker, The Continuity of Peirce's Thought, Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville, 1998.

J. Ransdell, "Science as Communicational Communities", Version 3.1, November 21, 1998 at Arisbe: International Peirce Telecommunity.

J. Ransdell, "Peirce's View of Community", message to the Peirce-List, 13 January 1999, available at Arisbe: International Peirce Telecommunity.

L. Santaella-Braga, "Difficulties and Strategies in Applying Peirce’s Semiotics", Semiotica 97 (1993), 401-410.

J. J. Stuhr, ed. Classical American Philosophy. Essential Readings and Interpretative Essays, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1987.

P. P. Wiener, ed. Charles S. Peirce: Selected Writings. (Values in a Universe of Chance), Dover, New York, 1966.


1. "Review of Clark University, 1889-1899. Decennial Celebration", Science 11 (1900), p. 620; reprinted in Wiener 1966: 332.

2. This paper is related with my contribution to the International Colloquium "The Challenge of Pragmatic Process Philosophy", held in Nijmegen University, May 19-21, 1999. That contribution with the title "The Law of Reason and the Law of Love", benefited a lot with suggestions and comments from Guy Debrock and Carl Hausman, and it will be published in the proceedings of that Colloquium.

3. This text was first published by Ken Ketner under the title "The Nature of Science" in Stuhr 1987: 49-50. It was translated into Spanish by Sara F. Barrena and included in the collection Claves del pensamiento de C. S. Peirce para el siglo XXI, special issue of the journal Anuario Filosófico XXIX/3 (1996), 1435-1440.

4. I will not go into the details of Peirce's classification of sciences; it has been nicely studied by Beverley Kent (1987) and Kelly Parker (1998).

Última actualización: 27 de agosto 2009

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