Paul Weiss
Entry on Peirce in
Dictionary of American Biography (1934)

PEIRCE, CHARLES SANDERS (Sept. 10, 1839-Apr. 19, 1914), philosopher, logician, scientist, the founder of pragmatism, was born in Cambridge, Mass., the second son of Benjamin Peirce [q.v.] and Sarah Hunt (Mills) Peirce, daughter of Elijah Hunt Mills [q.v.]. He was a brother of James Mills Peirce [q.v.]. His father, the foremost American mathematician of his time, an inspiring and unconventional teacher, and a man of forceful character and wide interests, supervised the boy's education to such an extent that Charles could later say, "he educated me, and if I do anything it will be his work." However, Charles had learned to read and to write without the usual course of instruction. He had had independent recourse to encyclopedias and other works for information on out-of-the-way subjects. He showed an intense interest in puzzles, complicated and mathematical card tricks, chess problems, and code languages, some of which he invented for the amusement of his playmates. At eight he began to study chemistry of his own accord, and at twelve set up his own chemical laboratory, experimenting with Liebig's bottles of quantitative analysis. At thirteen he had read and more or less mastered Whately's Elements of Logic (1826). His father trained him in the art of concentration. From time to time they would play rapid games of double dummy together, from ten in the evening until sunrise, the father sharply criticizing every error. In later years this training perhaps helped Charles, though ill and in pain, to write with undiminished power far into the night. His father also encouraged him to develop his power of sensuous discrimination, and later, having put himself under the tutelage of a sommelier at his own expense, Charles became a connoisseur of wines. The father's main efforts, however, were directed towards Charles's mathematical education. Rarely was any general principle or theorem disclosed to the son. Instead, the father would present him with problems, tables, or examples, and encouraged him to work out the principles for himself. Charles was also sent to local private schools and then to the Cambridge High School, where he was conspicuous for his declamations. After a term at E. S. Dixwell's school, where he was prepared for college, he entered Harvard in 1855. At college he again had the benefit of his father's instruction. About that time, they also began to have frequent discussions together, in which, pacing up and down the room, they would deal with problems in mathematics beyond even the purview of the elder brother, himself destined to become a mathematician. Charles was graduated from Harvard in 1859, one of the youngest in his class. But his scholastic record was poor. He was seventy-first out of ninety-one for the four years, and in the senior year ranked seventy-ninth. He was apparently too young and of too independent a mind to distinguish himself under the rigid Harvard system of those days.
        His father wanted him to be a scientist. Peirce hesitated. Not only was he doubtful whether he should devote himself to a life with so few material benefits, but he was drawn to philosophy as well. At college he had already read Schiller's Aesthetische Briefe, and had been led to a study of Kant's Kritik der Reinen Vernunft which he knew "almost by heart." In July 1861, however, he joined the United States Coast Survey, with which he remained for thirty years, living wherever his investigations led him. About that time he also spent six months studying the technique of classification with Agassiz. In 1862 he received an M.A. degree from Harvard and the next year the degree of Sc.B. in chemistry, summa cum laude, the first of its kind. But the interest in philosophy persisted. In 1864-65 he lectured at Harvard on the philosophy of science, and as one of a select group which included Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Park Fisher, James Elliott Cabot, and John Fiske he gave the university lectures in philosophy for 1869-70. The next year he was the university lecturer on logic. Meanwhile, from 1869 to 1872, he worked as an assistant at the Harvard Observatory and, from 1872 to 1875, there made the astronomical observations contained in Photometric Researches (1878), the only book of his published in his lifetime. It contains material still of value. In 1871 he was in temporary charge of the Coast Survey and the following year became an assistant there, holding the latter position until 1884. In 1873 he was made assistant computor for the nautical almanac and placed in charge of gravity investigations. Two years later, in 1875, he was sent abroad to make pendulum investigations, and to attend, as the first American delegate, the international geodetic conference. His report there that pendulum experiments were subject to a hitherto undetected inaccuracy aroused great discussion and much opposition. But he returned two years later, after the other delegates had had the opportunity to investigate his results, to receive a vote of approval of the congress. Plantamour and Cellérier have acknowledged their indebtedness to him, and his originality in pendulum work has been signalized by Helmert In that year (1877) he was elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the National Academy of Science. He had charge of the weights and measures of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1884-85; was a member of the assay commission of 1888, sat on the international commission of weights and measures, and from 1884 to 1891 was retained as a special assistant in gravity research. But in 1891, either because his experiments had proved too costly or his operations too leisurely, or because of his dissatisfaction with the conduct of the Survey, he ceased to work for the government, and terminated his active scientific career. It was he who first attempted to use the wave length of a light ray as a standard unit of measure, a procedure which has since played an important role in modern metrology. Though inaccuracies have been reported, his scientific work has, for the most part, been lauded by competent men for its precision.
        Peirce said that he had been brought up in a laboratory, but he always called himself a logician. Originally led to a study of logic by his philosophic problems, he soon saw philosophy and other subjects almost entirely from a logical perspective. In 1847 George Boole, the founder of modern logic, published The Mathematical Analysis of Logic, to be followed in 1854 by his definitive work, An Investigation of the Laws of Thought. These works, destined to revolutionize the entire science of logic and free it from the thrall of the Aristotelian syllogism, were practically unnoticed in America until Peirce, in 1867, in a short but important paper read before the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Proceedings, Mar. 12, 1867, vol. VII, 250-61; Collected Papers, vol. III), referred to Boole's work and made a number of vital and permanent improvements in the Boolean system. He proposed at that time to publish an original logical paper every month, but soon gave up the attempt because insufficient interest was shown in his published work. Nevertheless, for almost fifty years, from 1866 until the end of his life, while with the Survey and after he left it, he occupied himself with logic in all its branches. His technical papers of 1867 to 1885 established him as the greatest formal logician of his time, and the most important single force in the period from Boole to Ernst Schröder. These papers are difficult, inaccessible, scattered, and fragmentary, and their value might never have been known if it had not been that Schröder based a large portion of his Vorlesungen über die Algebra der Logik (3 vols., in 4, 1890-1905) on them, and called attention to the high character of Peirce's contributions. He radically modified, extended, and transformed the Boolean algebra, making it applicable to propositions, relations, probability, and arithmetic. Practically single-handed, following De Morgan, Peirce laid the foundations of the logic of relations, the instrument for the logical analysis of mathematics. He invented the copula of inclusion, the most important symbol in the logic of classes, two new logical algebras, two new systems of logical graphs, discovered the link between the logic of classes and the logic of propositions, was the first to give the fundamental principle for the logical development of mathematics, and made exceedingly important contributions to probability theory, induction, and the logic of scientific methodology. He completed an elaborate work on logic but could not get it published. It was too specialized for the publishers, who preferred elementary textbooks and perhaps the writings of a man in an academic chair. Many of his more important writings on logic, among which are his detailed papers on his new science of semiotics, he never published, and the final appreciation of his full strength and importance as a logician awaits the assimilation of the posthumous papers.
        Benjamin Peirce, in a public address in the late sixties, said that he expected Charles to go beyond him in mathematics. In the early eighties, J. J. Sylvester, the great mathematician of the day, is reported to have said of Charles that he was "a far greater mathematician than his father." However, Charles published only a few papers on pure mathematics. His concern was with the more difficult and fascinating problem of its foundations. In 1867 in his paper, "Upon the Logic of Mathematics" (Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Sept. 10, 1867, vol. VII, 402-12; Collected Papers, vol. III), he clearly anticipated the method for the derivation and definition of number employed in the epochal Principia Mathematica (3 vols., 1910-13) of A. N. Whitehead and Bertrand Russell. He edited with important notes and addenda (Collected Papers, vol. III) his father's Linear Associative Algebra (in American Journal of Mathematics, July, Sept 1881), having originally, in the sixties, interested his father in that work. He showed, among other things, that every associative algebra can be represented by one whose elements are matrices. He also made a number of contributions, over a period of years, to the theory of aggregates and transfinite arithmetic, his work often anticipating or running parallel with the heralded work of Richard Dedekind and Georg Cantor. Many of his unpublished studies in such subjects as analysis situs were subsequently repeated by other and independent investigators. Had all his mathematical papers been published in his lifetime, he would have been a more important factor in the history of mathematics than he is today. His work on the logical and philosophical problems of mathematics remains, however, among the foremost in the field.
        Pragmatism, Peirce's creation, had its origin in the discussions, in Cambridge, of a fortnightly "metaphysical club" founded in the seventies. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the jurist, John Fiske, and Francis E. Abbot were members. But more important for the history of pragmatism were Chauncey Wright [q.v.], a philosopher of power with whom Peirce had frequent heated but profitable discussions  William James [q.v.], Peirce's lifelong friend and benefactor, in whose honor he seems later to have adopted the middle name "Santiago" ("St. James" in Spanish); and Nicholas St. John Green, a lawyer and follower of Bentham who had a tendency to interpret doctrines in terms of their effect upon social life. It had been Kant's emphasis on formal logic which drove Peirce to take up that subject, the history of which he studied with characteristic thoroughness. His interest in the history of logic, in turn, was largely responsible for his contact with the schoolmen. By 1871 he was converted to Duns Scotus' version of realism, a position which he held throughout his life. In the very paper in which Peirce first expounded his Scotistic realism and criticized the nominalism of Berkeley, he roughly outlined the pragmatic position (North American Review, Oct. 1871, pp. 449-72). The first definite statement of Peirce's on the pragmatic principle, as it is alternatively called, was not given, however, until 1878. It is contained in a paper, originally written in French in 1877 while he was on his way to the international geodetic conference, later translated by him into English, and published in the Popular Science Monthly in January 1878, under the title "How to Make Our Ideas Clear." It was the second of a series of six articles dealing mainly with problems in logic (Nov. 1877, Jan., Mar., Apr., June, Aug. 1878; Collected Papers, vol. V, book II; vol. II, book III, B; vol. VI, book I). Together with the first paper of that series which he translated into French, it was published in the Revue Philosophique (Dec. 1878, Jan. 1879). In that article he formulated, as the most important device for making ideas clear, the principle that we are to "Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object" (Popular Science Monthly, Jan. 1878, p. 293; Collected Papers, vol. V, par. 402). This formula has been ridiculed for its awkward and somewhat bewildering repetition, but Peirce contended that he chose each word deliberately, wishing to emphasize that it was concerned with concepts and not with things and was a principle of method rather than a proposition in metaphysics. As usual, he was to receive no recognition for his work until another man called attention to it much later. In 1898 William James first publicly used the term "pragmatism" and acknowledged Peirce's priority in the creation of the doctrine and the name it bears. Peirce's pragmatism, however, is not the same as James's; it has more in common with the somewhat independently developed idealism of Josiah Royce and the later views of John Dewey. In fact, when James heard Peirce lecture on pragmatism in 1903 he confessed that he could not understand him. On the other hand, Peirce soon rebelled against the characteristic twists which James and others gave to pragmatism. In 1905 he coined the term "pragmaticism," which was "ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers" (Monist, Apr. 1905, p. 166; Collected Papers, V, par. 414), to characterize his own views; these Included much (such as the Idea of an Absolute and a belief in universals) that the other pragmatists were disposed to discard. For his version of the doctrine he had but few supporters, and most of these were not in America.
        Peirce did share, though, many of the views characteristic of the pragmatic school, developing them in his own, independent fashion. He was a firm believer in the dependence of logic on ethics, argued as early as 1868 against individualism and egoism, and developed social theories of reality and logic. His most important published philosophical contributions, however, are those that embody his cosmology. They are contained In a series of five articles written for the Monist (Jan. 1891-Jan. 1893; Collected Papers, vol. VI). There he vigorously opposed the mechanical philosophy, defended the reality of absolute chance and the principle of continuity, attempting to solve the hallowed problem of the relation of mind and body, to explain the origin of law, to account for the impossibility of exactly verifying the laws of nature, and to develop his theory of an evolutionary universe. Dewey, James, and Paul Carus, among others, were quick to recognize their importance. The latter, who was the editor of the Monist, engaged Peirce in controversy, providing him with some of the space necessary for the further clarification of his position. Though Peirce's tychism, or theory of absolute chance, received more consideration and favorable attention, it was his synechism, or doctrine of continuity, which he considered his real contribution to philosophy, holding it to be, however, a regulative principle rather than an ultimate absolute metaphysical doctrine. His characteristic metaphysical views do not seem to have been wholeheartedly accepted by any established philosopher during his lifetime, though James, Royce, and Dewey have unmistakably acknowledged his influence.
        Peirce was not given the opportunity to teach for more than eight years during his entire life. His longest academic connection was with the Johns Hopkins University where he was a lecturer on logic from 1879 to 1884. Apart from his early Harvard University lectures of 1864 1869, and 1870, he lectured three times before the Lowell Institute: in 1866 on logic, in 1892 on the history of science, and in 1903 on logic. The only other official or semi-official contact he seems to have had with students was through a lecture on number at Bryn Mawr in 1896, three or four lectures on "detached topics" delivered at Mrs. Ole Bull's in Cambridge in 1898, his seven lectures on pragmatism at Harvard in 1903, and two lectures on scientific method before the philosophy club at Harvard in 1907. Yet he was an inspiring teacher. Too advanced perhaps for the ordinary student, he was a vital formative factor in the lives of the more progressive ones, who remembered him later with affection and reverence. He treated them as intellectual equals and impressed them as having a profound knowledge of his subject. Of his small class in logic at Johns Hopkins, four, one of whom was Christine Ladd-Franklin [q.v.], made lasting contributions to the subject in a book which he edited and to which he contributed (Studies in Logic. By Members of the Johns Hopkins University, 1883). His love of precision made it impossible for him to make a popular appeal, and he had no capacity for making himself clear to large numbers. This failing would perhaps have been considerably overcome if he had had the opportunity to come into more contact with students who challenged his statements and demanded explications. There is some justice in James's remark that Peirce's lectures were "flashes of brilliant light relieved against Cimmerian darkness" (Pragmatism, 1907, p. 5) though the lectures on pragmatism, which this phrase was supposed to characterize, are lucid when placed against the background of his entire system. He would buttress his ideas with a technical vocabulary, creating odd new terms in his attempt to articulate new ideas, trying to cover vast fields in limited space. He did at times show a sudden gift for clear expression, but he lacked the ability to know where further explanation was necessary.
        He was eager to teach, but personal difficulties barred his way. He had described himself when a senior at college as being vain, snobbish, uncivil, reckless, lazy, and ill-tempered. He certainly was not lazy out of college. But he was always somewhat proud of his ancestry and connections, overbearing towards those who stood in his way, indifferent to the consequences of his acts, quick to take affront, highly emotional, easily duped, and with, as he puts it, "a reputation for not finding things." He was irregular in his hours, forgetful of his appointments, and, later, careless of his personal appearance. This dark-bearded man of stocky build and medium height with a short neck and bright dark eyes could, however, be charming at social gatherings, recite with skill and converse delightfully; he was singularly free from academic jealousy' and he could work twenty hours at a stretch on a subject for which he had for years failed to find a publisher. A "queer being" James called him. Peirce himself felt there was something peculiar in his inheritance and put emphasis on the fact that he was left-handed. He could, however, write with both hands in fact, he was capable of writing a question with one hand and the answer simultaneously with the other. In his years of early promise his peculiar traits were certainly no serious handicap to an academic career. But not only, as he regretted, had his father neglected to teach him moral self-control, so that he later "suffered unspeakably," but he had domestic difficulties as well. On Oct. 16, 1862, when twenty-three years old, he had married Harriet Melusina Fay, three years his senior, a grand-daughter of Bishop John Henry Hopkins [q.v.]. She joined him in his early scientific work, was respected in Cambridge circles, and afterward distinguished herself as an organizer and writer. He divorced her on Apr. 24, 1883, in Baltimore, alleging she had deserted him in October 1876. Shortly afterward, he writes that he married Juliette Froissy of Nancy, France, with whom he lived for the rest of his life and who survived him. His difficulties with his first wife seem to have been an important factor in his loss of academic standing and the partial estrangement of his friends and relatives.
        Having inherited some money, he retired in 1887, when only forty-eight years old, to "the wildest county of the Northern States" near Milford, Pa. There he secured a house and tract of land, and fortressed by his large and select library of scientific and philosophic works, many of which were of considerable value, he devoted himself to his writings on logic and philosophy. At the same time he wrote all the definitions on logic, metaphysics, mathematics, mechanics, astronomy, astrology, weights, measures, and universities for the Century Dictionary (6 vols., 1889-91), and a gradually increasing number of book reviews on a wide range of topics for the Nation. He records that he wrote about 2,000 words a day. This was done with care and in a clear hand. Having a remarkable capacity for self-criticism, on which he prided himself, he would work over his copy, rewriting it as often as a dozen times, until it was as accurate and as precisely worded as he could make it. More often than not, the final manuscript, which might have involved weeks of work, would not be published, but together with all the preceding drafts and miscellaneous scraps incidental to its writing would be allowed to remain on his tables. Immediately, with the same enthusiasm, he would begin another formulation or start on a new topic, to be subjected to the same treatment. He has characterized himself as having the persistency of a wasp in a bottle.
        As a young man he had little control over his money; he always remained extravagant. By his retirement from the Survey, he had cut off his government salary of $3,000, and had to live on what he could glean from his occasional lectures, sales of his books, translations, private tutoring, collaboration on dictionaries, work as a consultant, and from private donations. In his home he built an attic where he could work undisturbed or, by pulling up the ladder, escape from his creditors. Though he had been employed by J. M. Baldwin in 1901 to write most of the articles on logic for the Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology (3 vols. in 4, 1901-05), by 1902 he was in debt and on the verge of poverty, doing his own chores and dissipating his energies in small tasks in order to obtain immediate funds. He then applied to the Carnegie Fund for aid in getting his works published. Nine years before he had planned a twelve-volume work on philosophy, which he had to give up, despite many endorsements from leading persons, for lack of subscribers. Now he proposed to submit thirty-six memoirs, "each complete in itself, forming a unitary system of logic in all its parts." These memoirs were to be submitted one at a time and to be paid for when and as approved. Though his proposed memoirs would have dealt with vital issues, and though his application was accompanied by eulogistic letters from the greatest men of the time, his application was rejected, the official reason being that logic was outside the scope of the fund, not being a "natural science." By 1906 he had ceased to review for the Nation and had lost most of his other sources of income; the next year he was practically penniless. Under James a small fund, barely enough to keep Peirce and his wife alive, was secured for him through appeals to old friends and appreciative students. He published for three years papers on logic, pragmatism, epistemology, and religion which are among the best he ever wrote. By 1909 he was a very ill man of seventy, compelled to take a grain of morphine daily to stave off the pain. With undiminished persistency, forming his letters to judge from the tremulous, painstaking script with great difficulty, he kept on writing or rather rewriting, for by that time he had finally ceased to be original. Five years later he died of cancer, a frustrated, isolated man, still working on his logic, without a publisher, with scarcely a disciple, unknown to the public at large.
        After his death his manuscripts were bought from his wife by the Harvard philosophy department (for their publication, see bibliography). There are hundreds of them, without dates, with leaves missing, unpaginated and disordered; there are duplicates and fragments, repetitions and restatements. His interests were not restricted to logic, pragmatism, metaphysics, mathematics, geodesy, religion, astronomy, and chemistry. He also wrote on psychology, early English and classical Greek pronunciation, psychical research, criminology, the history of science, ancient history, Egyptology, and Napoleon, prepared a thesaurus and an editor's manual, and did translations from Latin and German. James called Peirce the most original thinker of their generation; Peirce placed himself somewhere near the rank of Leibniz. This much is now certain; he is the most original and versatile of America's philosophers and America's greatest logician.

[The following note of 1934, perhaps by Weiss, is appended to the above by the editors of the volume:] 

[For years futile attempts were made to organize Peirce's papers; he had himself said that he could not have put them together. In 1927, however, Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss thought they saw a systematic connection between most of them, and prepared a ten-volume selection, now in process of publication as Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (6 vols., 1931-34). The foregoing sketch is based mainly on these papers, autobiographical notes, and letters and reminiscences of his relatives, friends, and pupils. See also R. S. Rantoul, Essex Institute Hist. Colls., XVIII (1881), 161-76; articles in Jour. of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, Dec. 21, 1916, by Josiah Royce, Fergus Keman, John Dewey, Christine Ladd-Franklin, Joseph Jastrow, and M. R. Cohen; Chance, Love and Logic (1923), ed. by M. R. Cohen, containing some of Peirce's published philosophical papers, an introduction, and an almost complete bibliography; F. C. Russell, "In Memoriam Charles S. Peirce" Monist, July 1914; E. W. Davis, "Charles Peirce at Johns Hopkins," Mid-West Quart., Oct. 1914; Harvard College. Records of the Class of 1859 (1896); F. C. Peirce, Peirce Genealogy (1880); obituary in Boston Evening Transcript, Apr. 21, 1914.]