was educated at Harvard, where his father was a mathematics professor.
His greatest philosophical influence was Kant, and he saw himself as
constructing the philosophical system that Kant might have developed
had he not been so ignorant of logic. But the influence of Thomas Reid
and other commonsense philosophers became increasingly important: in
late writings, the two influences were combined in his 'critical
common-sensism'. Describing himself as a logician, Peirce made major
contributions to formal logic (independently of Frege he and his
students developed a logic of quantifiers and relations after 1880) and
to the study of the logic of science. Indeed, he lectured on these
topics at Harvard in the late 1860s and held a lectureship in logic at
Johns Hopkins University from 1879 until 1884. But he also served as an
experimental scientist, working at the Harvard laboratory after he had
graduated in chemistry, and being employed for over twenty years by the
United States Coastal Survey.
Peirce was a difficult man, widely
perceived as an immoral libertine, prone to paranoia and wild mood
swings, and possessing an assessment of his own intellectual powers
which may have been accurate but which was sometimes accompanied by
contempt for the capacities of those of lesser talents. In 1884, when
confident of obtaining tenure at Johns Hopkins, information about his
irregular life-style, together with suspicion of his unorthodox
religious beliefs, led to his being removed from his post. From then
until his death, it was understood that he could expect no orthodox
academic employment: he lived precariously with his second wife in
north-eastern Pennsylvania, writing extensively and giving a few
important series of lectures arranged by his friend William James. He
never completed the canonical statement of his philosophical position
that he sought, but he published extensively and left hundreds of
thousands of manuscripts; his work is gradually becoming more readily
Theory of Inquiry and Pragmatism
a late paper, Peirce described himself as a 'laboratory philosopher',
claiming that years of laboratory experience encouraged him, like any
experimentalist, to approach all issues in the distinctive manner which
comprises his pragmatism. This is clearest in the approach to
epistemological matters which emerges in his earliest published work,
from the 1860s and 1870s - most clearly in a series of papers in the Popular Science Monthly (1877-1878).
epistemological work begins from a rejection of Cartesian strategies in
philosophy. They do not, he pointed out, accord with our ordinary
practice of carrying out investigations: the latter is a cooperative
venture, while Descartes suggests that a responsible investigator
should carry out a solitary investigation of his or her cognitive
standing. Ordinary inquiry takes for granted all the propositions we
find certain as we begin the inquiry, while Descartes's sceptical
arguments prompt philosophical doubt about what occasions no real
doubt. And ordinary inquiry is impressed by the number and variety of
the arguments supporting a conclusion, while the Cartesian requires a
single indubitable train of reasoning to ground any belief. Peirce
proposes to begin from our everyday and scientific experience of
inquiry, and to investigate the norms which govern cognition on that
The first paper of the series suggests that inquiry
begins only when one of our previously settled beliefs is disturbed,
and it is ended as soon as we have a new answer to the question that
concerns us: the aim of inquiry is to replace doubt by settled belief.
What methods should we use if we are to carry out our inquiries well?
He considers four, the first three being devised to bring to light the
key features of the fourth. (1) The method of tenacity requires us to
choose any answer, and to take all means necessary to maintain it; (2)
the method of authority requires us to defer to an authority and accept
whatever the authority requires (it may be no accident that Peirce
wrote soon after the bull of papal infallibility had been promulgated);
and (3) the a priori method requires us to go by what seems agreeable
to reason. It will be no surprise that these methods fail: the second
has the advantage over the first that our beliefs will escape the
constant buffeting of disputes from those who have decided differently,
but we are still likely to meet those who accept a different authority,
and our own authority will not be able to settle matters about
everything. So fixation of belief must be independent of will or human
choice. The third method secures that, but it is likely to make belief
a matter of fashion: selection of belief still has a subjective basis.
Hence we should adopt (4) the 'method of science', which holds that
'there are Real things, whose characters are entirely independent of
our opinions about them; those realities affect our senses according to
regular laws, and, though our sensations are as different as our
relations to the objects, yet, by taking advantage of the laws of
perception, we can ascertain by reasoning how things really are'.
probably believed that this claim was a presupposition of inquiry and
that we should adopt only such methods as were in accord with it. The
remainder of the series of papers offers a more detailed account of
what this method involves: Peirce was one of the first philosophers to
arrive at a satisfactory understanding of statistical reasoning, and
this is central to his account of science. He is a 'contrite
fallibilist': any of our current certainties might turn out to be
mistaken, but relying upon them will not prevent our making cognitive
progress; any errors will emerge with time.
principle' forms part of this theory of inquiry, and was elaborated in
the second paper of the series, 'How to Make Our Ideas Clear'. When
William James won notoriety for pragmatism, crediting it to Peirce, the
latter renamed his principle 'pragmaticism'.
It is a rule for clarifying the content of concepts and hypotheses, and
is supposed to reveal all features of the meaning of concepts and
hypotheses that are relevant to scientific investigations. Suppose I
wish to test whether a sample before me is sodium. In the light of my
knowledge of sodium, I can predict that if it is sodium then, if I were
to drop it into hot water, it would ignite: I make predictions about
the consequences of actions if the hypothesis is true. Peirce expresses
his principle: 'Consider what effects, which might conceivably have
practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have.
Then our conception of those effects is the whole of our conception of
the object.' When I have listed all the
predictions I would make about the consequences of my actions if the
substance were sodium, I have a complete clarification of my
understanding of the hypothesis: nothing which could be relevant to
testing it scientifically has been omitted.
As well as showing
its value in clarifying hypotheses, and arguing that it can be used to
dismiss some metaphysical 'hypotheses' as empty, Peirce illustrates the
value of his pragmatism by clarifying our conception of truth and
reality. If a proposition is true, then anyone who investigated the
matter long enough and well enough would eventually acknowledge its
truth: truth is a matter of long-term convergence of opinion. 'The
opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed upon by all who
investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented
in this opinion is the real.' Although the principle bears a
superficial resemblance to the verification principle
of the later Logical Positivists, there are important differences.
First, there is no suggestion that, in clarifying our conception, we
list only those conditional expectations that are analytic or true by
definition: Peirce expects the content of a conception or hypothesis to
develop as our scientific knowledge advances. And, second, as he
developed his philosophical position, he insisted that the principle
could only be taken seriously by someone who shared his realism about
natural necessity: the conceptual clarifications are expressed as
subjunctive conditionals ('would-bes'); and such conditionals report real facts about the world.
logic is a theory of cognitive norms: methods of inquiry, standards of
inference, rules for identifying plausible hypotheses, principles for
clarifying meanings, and so on. He was unsatisfied with the kind of
grounding he provided for cognitive norms in the papers just discussed,
and his attempts to correct the Kantian framework were directed at
remedying this. His sophisticated architectonic
approach to philosophy rested upon a classification of the sciences.
Logic was the least fundamental of three normative sciences, being a
special application a system of norms initially developed in ethics and
aesthetics. All of these investigations made use of a system of categories,
a correction of Kant's system, which was defended through a kind of
phenomenological investigation. And these philosophical and
phenomenological inquiries used mathematical methods to study
experience and reality, mathematics being the only discipline which
had, and needed, no foundations. So Peirce's later work developed a
highly sophisticated account of how we can have knowledge of cognitive
or logical norms.
His system of categories is most easily
understood from the perspective of his logic of relations. Properties
and relations can be classified according to the number of relata they
have: '... is blue' is a one-place predicate, '... respects ...' is a dyadic, two-place relation, and '... gives ... to ...' is a triadic, three-place
relation. Peirce argued that a language adequate for scientific or
descriptive purposes must contain terms of all these three kinds, but
that there are no phenomena which can only be described in a language
which contains expressions for four-place relations. Thus he classified
phenomena and elements of reality numerically: according to whether
they are forms of firstness, secondness, or (like giving) thirdness.
The irreducibility of thirdness is, he thinks, a distinctive part of
his philosophical outlook, something which allies him with realist
philosophers in opposition to nominalism. In early work, his defence of
his categories was largely found in his work on formal logic, but later
he turned to phenomenology: reflection on experience of all kinds was
to convince us that triadicity was ineliminable but that no more
complex phenomena were involved in experience.
Thus we are aware
that our experiences have raw qualitative characters which do not
directly involve relations with other things: they exhibit firstness.
They also stand in relations to each other, interacting against one
another and so on: this involves secondness, as when fire immediately
follows our dropping the sodium in hot water. But we are aware that
this interaction is intelligible, it is 'mediated': we can bring it
down into a continuous spread of small changes which go together to
make up the big one; and we are aware that it conforms to a law.
Finding it intelligible introduces thirdness: we understand the two
elements of the interaction by reference to a third mediating fact. The
aim of inquiry, for Peirce, is to find the thirdness (law and pattern)
in the manifold of sensory experiences that we undergo. The norms
employed by the scientific method are to be vindicated by showing how
they provide means for finding more and more pattern and mediation
(more and more thirdness) in the world of our experience.
According to Peirce, the most important forms of thirdness involve meaning
and representation, and all of his work is underpinned by a
sophisticated theory of meaning: his semiotics. He probably believed
that everything was a sign, but the signs of most interest to him were
thoughts and 'the assertions of a scientific intelligence'. This theory
of meaning ('speculative grammar') was to provide foundations for his
writings in logic.
The key to the thirdness involved in signs was Peirce's notion of interpretation. A sign
denotes an object only by being understood or interpreted as standing
for an object: and this interpretation will always be another sign with
the same object. Semiotics is thus primarily a theory of understanding,
an account of how we are guided and constrained in arriving at
interpretations of signs. Interpretation often involves inference,
developing our understanding of the object in question. Thus my
understanding of your assertion that you are tired may be manifested in
my thinking that you want me to believe you are tired, in my believing
you are tired, in my expecting you to fall asleep, in my offering you a
cup of coffee, and so on. The interpreting thought mediates between the
sign and its object.
Peirce was famous for his classifications
of signs, and some of his terminology has acquired wide currency. For
example, signs can be distinguished according to the features of them
exploited in arriving at an interpretation. A symbol denotes a
particular object because there exists a practice of interpreting it as
denoting that object: an index denotes an object to which it stands in
a direct existential relation: the conventions governing the use of
ordinary indexical expressions such as 'this' do not fix the reference
unaided but rather guide us in interpreting it as an index. And iconic
signs share some feature with their object which each could possess if
the other did not exist: maps are straight-forward examples, the
conventions governing their use fixing how we are to interpret them as
icons. Mathematical and logical symbolisms are iconic representations,
and it was important for Peirce that sentences of natural languages
have iconic elements too: formal inference exploits the fact that
sentences exhibit a form which is shared with their subject-matter.
Much of Peirce's later work attempted to use this systematic theory of
meaning to provide a proof of the pragmatist principle.
itself is a process of sign interpretation. And Peirce's account of
scientific reasoning has some important elements. As mentioned above,
Peirce models all inductive reasoning on statistical sampling:
quantitative induction involves attempting to estimate the chance of a
member of a population having a particular property; and qualitative
induction tests hypotheses by sampling their consequences. He denies
that induction ever establishes that a conclusion is true or even
probable. Rather, the practice of inductive testing is justified
because continued use of it will eventually lead us to converge on the
correct value for the chance of a member of the population having the
property in question. The pragmatist principle teaches that probability is a propensity:
if the chance of a coin coming up heads is 0.43, then, if we were to
continue to toss it fairly, the proportion of times on which it comes
up heads would converge on 0.43.
The logic of abduction
is a logic of discovery: it studies how we are guided in constructing
new hypotheses from the ruins of defeated ones; and it examines the
norms guiding us in deciding which hypotheses are worth testing. All
scientific activity is grounded in the hope that the universe is
intelligible, and intelligible to us. And we are to take seriously no
hypothesis that 'blocks the road of inquiry', forcing us to accept
regularities as brute or inexplicable. It is connected to this that
Peirce espouses 'synechism', the doctrine that we are to expect the
universe to display continuities rather than discontinuities. Peirce
contributed to the mathematical analysis of continuity, exploiting his
ideas about the logic of relations and trying to use it as the basis of
his realism about natural necessity: continuity is 'ultimate
mediation'. The logic of abduction advises us to favour theories that
posit continuities over those that allow for brute unmediated
Peirce envisaged that pragmatism would eliminate 'ontological
metaphysics', he claimed that scientific progress demanded that we
construct a 'scientific metaphysics'. Supposedly this was an empirical
discipline, differing from the special sciences in using no
sophisticated techniques of experiment and observation: it was
'coenoscopic', relying only on familiar everyday observations which are
surprising only because their familiarity prevents our noticing them.
In part, it was an attempt to describe how the world must be if science
was to be possible - if there were to be no inexplicable phenomena, if
'realism' was to be true, if the three categories were to be as Peirce
suggested. And in part it was an exercise in 'descriptive metaphysics':
drawing out features of our everyday conception of mind or matter (for
example) can be a valuable corrective to unthinking theoretical
prejudices, especially in psychology.
Two elements of this metaphysics are especially interesting. Peirce defended an evolutionary cosmology,
explaining how the world of existing things and law-governed behaviour
evolved from pure possibility. Offering an evolutionary explanation of
law, he argued, was the only alternative to asserting that fundamental
laws are simply true, with no explanation of why they obtain being
available. If every regularity must have an explanation, we avoid a
regress of ever more general and abstract laws by invoking a historical
explanation. And Peirce's account of how this evolutionary process
works leads to a form of objective idealism according to which matter
is 'effete mind', and physical phenomena are modelled on thought and
sign interpretation rather than the mental being reduced to the
physical. This is because a 'realist' account of law involves finding
'mediation' in the natural world, and sign interpretation is our best
model of mediation.
Secondly, it may accord with the importance he attached to statistical reasoning in science that he accepted tychism,
the thesis that there is absolute chance, that the universe is not
wholly governed by determinist laws. This partly reflects his
understanding of the importance of statistical laws in science, and his
understanding that observation could never establish that laws were so
exact as never to permit slight deviations. He also supposed it was
required to explain the evolutionary process discussed in his
cosmology: without appeal to such 'chance spontaneity', he doubted that
we could make sense of growth and increasing complexity. C.J.H.
See also Fallibilism.
Bibliography J. Brent, Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life (Bloomington, Ind., 1993).
M. Fisch, Peirce, Semeiotic and Pragmatism (Bloomington, Ind., 1986).
N. Hauser and C. Kloesel (eds.), The Essential Peirce (Bloomington, Ind., 1992).
C. J. Hookway, Peirce (London, 1985).
C. Kloesel et al. (eds.), Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition (Bloomington, Ind., 1982- ).
C. S. Peirce, Reasoning and the Logic of Things (Cambridge, Mass., 1992).