| by Jaime
September 10, 1839 - April 19, 1914. American scientist,
logician, and philosopher, considered to be the founder of pragmatism
and the father of modern semiotics. In recent decades, his
thought has enjoyed renewed appreciation. At present, he
is widely regarded as an innovator in many fields, especially
the methodology of research and the philosophy of science.
Charles Sanders PeirceP
was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the son of Sarah and Benjamin
Peirce. His father was a professor of astronomy and mathematics
at Harvard. Though the young Peirce received a graduate
degree in chemistry from Harvard University, he never succeeded
in obtaining a tenured academic position. Peirce's academic
ambitions were frustrated by his difficult (perhaps manic-depressive)
personality and by the scandal surrounding his divorce from Harriet
Melusina Fay and a second marriage, to Juliette Froissy, which
immediately followed. He made a career as a scientist for
the United States Coast Survey (1859-1891), working especially
in geodesy and in pendulum determinations. From 1879 until
1884, he was also a part-time lecturer in Logic at Johns Hopkins
University. In 1887, Peirce moved with his second wife to
Milford, Pennsylvania, where, after 26 years of prolific writing,
he died of cancer. He had no children.
Peirce published two books, Photometric Researches (1878)
and Studies in Logic (1883), and a large number of papers
in journals in widely differing areas. His manuscripts,
a great many of which remain unpublished, run to some 100,000
pages. In the years 1931 to 1958, a selection of his writings
was arranged thematically and published in eight volumes as the
Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Since 1982,
a number of volumes have been published as part of a Chronological
Edition, which will eventually consist of thirty volumes.
William James credited Charles Peirce with founding pragmatism.
Unlike some later pragmatists such as William James and John Dewey,
Peirce conceived of pragmatism primarily as a method for the clarification
of ideas, which involved applying the methods of science to philosophical
issues. Pragmatism has been regarded as a distinctively
American philosophy. Peirce is also considered to be the
father of modern semiotics, the science of signs.
Moreover, his often pioneering work is relevant to many disciplines,
such as astronomy, metrology, geodesy, mathematics, logic, philosophy,
the theory and history of science, linguistics, econometrics,
and psychology. His work and his views on these subjects
have become the subject of renewed interest and lavish praise.
This revival is inspired not only by Peirce's intelligent anticipations
of recent scientific developments but also, and especially, by
his effective demonstration of how philosophy can be applied responsibly
to human problems. Bertrand Russell opined, "Beyond doubt...he
was one of the most original minds of the later nineteenth century,
and certainly the greatest American thinker ever."N
Karl Popper viewed him as "one of the greatest philosophers of
In some ways, Peirce was a systematic philosopher in the traditional
sense of the word. But his work also deals with modern problems
of science, truth, and knowledge, starting from his own valuable
personal experience as a logician and experimental researcher
who labored within an international community of scientists and
thinkers. Peirce made relevant contributions to deductive
logic, but he was primarily interested in the logic of science
and specifically in what he called abduction (as opposed
to deduction and induction). Abduction is the process whereby
a hypothesis is generated, so that surprising facts may be explained.
"There is a more familiar name for it than abduction," Peirce
wrote, "for it is neither more nor less than guessing."N
Indeed, Peirce considered abduction to be at the heart not only
of scientific research but of all ordinary human activities as
well. His pragmatism may be understood as a method of sorting
out conceptual confusions by relating the meaning of concepts
to practical consequences. Emphatically, this theory bears
no resemblance to the vulgar notion of pragmatism, which connotes
such things as the ruthless search for profit or political convenience.
For Further Reading
Brent, James. Charles
Sanders Peirce: A Life. Revised and enlarged edition. Bloomington,
IN: Indiana University Press, 1998. A valuable study
of Peirce's career and of his troubled life, highlighting his
failures and frailties.
Debrock, Guy. "Peirce,
a Philosopher for the 21st Century. Introduction."
Transactions of the Ch. S. Peirce Society 28 (1992): 1-18. An
introductory paper that explains beautifully why Peirce's philosophy
is relevant to our time.
Hookway, Christopher. Peirce.
London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985. A very good general
account of Peirce's work as a forerunner of contemporary analytical
Parker, Kelly A. The
Continuity of Peirce's Thought. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt
University Press, 1998. An outstanding scholarly work
describing the continuity of Peirce's thought throughout his life.
S. The Essential Peirce, 2 vols. Edited
by N. Houser, et al. Bloomington, IN: Indiana
University Press, 1992-98. An excellent edition of
Peirce's most relevant philosophical works. The introductions
to both volumes by Houser are the best brief presentation of Peirce
written to date.
Percy, Walker. Signposts
in a Strange Land. Edited by P. Samway. 271-291. New
York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1991. A suggestive introduction
to Peirce for non-philosophers by a well-known novelist and writer.
Posted 2000-10-31; reviewed and approved by the Philosophy and Logic group; editor, Thomas Ryckman
; lead reviewer, Wesley Cooper ; lead copyeditors, Larry Sanger . and Jasmina Brankovic .