Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914)
Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) was a polymath who did original work in logic, language, communication, and semiotics. He wrote extensively on a wide range of subjects including mathematics, logic, physics, astronomy, psychology, anthropology, history, and economics. While he was one of the most brilliant minds of his or any era there are some issues that confront a reader trying to make sense of Peirce’s vast oeuvre.
The most vexing problem is that Peirce, a rigorous and systematic thinker, never created a comprehensive statement of his ideas. What we get is a systematic philosophy without a systematic presentation.
Another issue is that Peirce’s ideas were constantly changing. As his ideas were always developing and evolving, what we see in his writing is the process but never a definitive statement or overall view. What we get are periodic snapshots of parts of the system in the process of development and change.
Also, Peirce wrote short articles for a variety of different publications. Some were written for a general audience, others for academic professionals in a variety of fields. Therefore, he had to fill in the gaps every time he published—providing synopses or summaries of previous articles and the foundational ideas that he was building upon. As a result, when reading Peirce one gets the impression of too much repetition and frequent inconsistency. This is made even worse through bad editing.
The challenge for us then is to read Peirce as a process not a statement. It helps to be aware of chronology and small changes. Peirce’s philosophical work breaks down into phases, each with a complete philosophical system. Keeping track of which system helps to overcome what seems at first to be contradictions and inconsistency.
The first system of his youth was an attempt to develop a Semiotic idealism that combined Kant’s Transcendental Analytic with Platonic idealism.
The second system includes his Subject-Predicate theory of propositions as well as his “New List” of categories. The second system is represented by selection 1 in Susan Haack’s Pragmatism: Old and New with the essay “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities” (1868) from the Journal of Speculative Philosophy: Cognition series (1868-9).
The third system develops his Doubt-Belief theory and influential Pragmatist theory of meaning. In his writing of this period Peirce creates one of the first attempts at outlining a philosophy and methodology of science. Further developments of this philosophy of science would eventually form the basis of Pragmatism and became a basic cornerstone of Peirce’s philosophical system.
The third system is represented by selections 2-3 in Susan Haack’s Pragmatism: Old and New with the essays “The Fixation of Belief” (1877) and “How to Make our Ideas Clear” (1878) from the Popular Science Monthly: Illustrations of the Logic of Science series (1877-1878).
In the fourth system he completes another revision of categories as the basis for his Theory of cognition and reality. Much of his late work further develops and elaborates his theory of Pragmatism. Particularly his 1905 essay “What Pragmatism Is” from his Pragmatism series of articles in The Monist presents one of his best discussions of his view of Pragmatism as philosophy. Also, his description in Baldwin’s Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology is informative. (See selection 4 in Susan Haack’s Pragmatism: Old and New).
The fourth system is represented by selection 4 in Susan Haack’s Pragmatism: Old and New which includes edited pieces from the essay “What Pragmatism Is” (1905) from The Monist: Pragmatism series (1905) as well as excerpts from Baldwin’s Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology and others miscellaneous writings. If you would like to read the original “What Pragmatism Is” it is available here: What Pragmatism Is (1905)
There are additional very short selections in Susan Haack’s Pragmatism: Old and New which can be read to give you some idea of his innovative thinking and range of ideas.
- “The Backward State of Metaphysics” (1898/1903)
- “The Categories” (Harvard Lectures, 1903)
- “On the Strengthened Liar “1869 (On logic)
- “On Logic Machines” 30 Dec 1886 (An early idea for computer)
- “On the Triadic Logic” MS 339 Logic Notebook 23 Feb 1909 (Peirce’s idea for a triadic logic)
When reading Peirce try to see if you can picture his philosophy as a whole. Is it possible to define the essence of a philosophy that holds together all his diverse interests and ideas? What would that look like?