Laws of Nature

Seventh Selection, pp. 67-74.

MS and TS from the Smithsonian Institution Library (doc. 3804.10) [Published in Philip P. Wiener's Charles S Peirce: Selected Writings, pp. 289-321.]

Origin of the Text

Only the first four sections (out of eleven) are printed in EP2, of a text titled originally "Hume on Miracles and Laws of Nature." On April 3, 1901, Samuel P. Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, invited Peirce to write a very short article "on the 'Laws of Nature,' as understood by Hume's contemporaries and by our own, with special reference to his argument on miracles." Although Peirce was not thrilled by the subject, convinced as he was that there was no connection between Hume's argument and the idea of a law of nature, he tried to comply with Langley's wishes as best as he could. In two months, he produced no less than seven texts, three of which he submitted to the Secretary.* Langley rejected the first two on the ground that they were too difficult to the readers of his annual Report. The third one (sent on June 1), he judged more acceptable but too long, and he had it typed with many excisions and revisions in his own hand. Peirce received the typescript on July 19, and revised it with several important additions a few weeks thereafter; he sent the document back to Langley in early September. For reasons unknown, Langley finally decided not to publish it, and substituted a paper of his own on "The Laws of Nature." The text in EP2 reproduces Peirce's autograph manuscript and incorporates those of his corrections to the typescript that were not forced by Langley's alterations. For additional information, see Philip Wiener's "The Peirce-Langley Correspondence and Peirce's Manuscripts on Hume and the Laws of Nature" in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 92 (1947), 201-228.

* Not counting the document printed in EP2, here is the probable chronological order of the six manuscripts that preceded it:

1. MS 872, "The Idea of a Law of Nature among the contemporaries of David Hume and among advanced thinkers of the present day." Written between April 4 and 10, 1901, this is the first text Peirce sent to Langley (on April 11, 1901); it was reviewed for Langley, negatively, by Lester F. Ward. Langley rejected it on April 19. Published in Carolyn Eisele's Historical Perspectives 2:880-889.

2. MS 873, "Hume's Argument against Miracles, and the Idea of Natural Law." An unfinished text probably composed around April 20, 1901. Published in Historical Perspectives 2:904-912.

3. MS 869, untitled, marked "H[ume] on M[iracles]." Probably composed toward the end of April 1901 as a working document toward the next one. Published in CP 6.522-547.

4. MS 692, "The Proper Treatment of Hypotheses: a Preliminary Chapter, toward an Examination of Hume's Argument against Miracles, in its Logic and in its History." This was the second paper Peirce sent to Langley, who received it on May 13, 1901. Peirce wanted it to be the first of three chapters. Langley rejected the paper and the plan on May 18. Published in Historical Perspectives 2:890-904.

5. MS 870, "What is a Law of Nature?" (title suggested by Langley). A very interesting document, preliminary to the final version; composed around May 20, 1901.

6. MS 871, "Laws of Nature and Hume on Miracles." Composed at the end of May 1901, this is the complete draft of the final Smithsonian document.