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Charles S. Peirce AmE
Brief version
by Jaime Nubiola

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  His manuscripts, a great many of which remain unpublished, run to some 100,000 pages.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 all times."N

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 philosophy.

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.

Peirce, Charles 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 .