One way to begin assessing the significance of the thought of Charles Sanders Peirce is to consider the story of his papers and the ongoing effort to publish a substantial critically edited selection of them. After Peirce died in 1914, the bulk of his papers and library were shipped--first by horse-drawn sled and then by train--to Harvard University and were deposited in the office of Josiah Royce. In January 1915 Royce wrote to Wendell Bush, editor of the Journal of Philosophy, that he expected Peirce's manuscripts to be "a real prize" and that he looked "forward to some arrangement for editing them." But things did not turn out as Royce hoped. He died in 1916 and plans for a Peirce edition floundered.
For nearly ten years after Royce's death, the Harvard philosophy department sought without success to find a suitable editor. Bertrand Russell was offered the job but could not get a visa. George Santayana was asked but he declined, suggesting that a young philosopher or mathematician might be found. C. I. Lewis began the task but after spending two years with the manuscripts decided he would rather teach and write. Many at Harvard "dipped into" the Peirce Papers to try what Royce's assistant had described as a task burdened with "inconceivable textual confusion," yet one that was "engrossing, wonderful and fascinating beyond belief." Finally in 1923, Morris Cohen brought out a collection of Peirce's published philosophical papers (Chance, Love, and Logic), but he gave up on the manuscripts. It was not until the late '20s that Harvard found in Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss young editors who would commit to the daunting task.
The first six volumes of the Harvard edition, Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, edited topically by Hartshorne and Weiss, came out between 1931-35. Two volumes, edited by Arthur Burks, came out in 1958 to complete that edition. This was the culmination of a great effort on the part of the Harvard philosophy department and a landmark event for American philosophy. Yet the very success of the Harvard edition began almost at once to turn on itself, for the resurgent interest in Peirce's thought brought with it a need for a more critical edition organized chronologically to reveal the development of Peirce's thought. But the disorganized state of the manuscripts from the time of their arrival at Harvard, coupled with an unfortunate period of neglect after the completion of the first six volumes of the Harvard edition, left the papers in a confused state that could be alleviated only by an intensive and long-term editing project.
In 1959, shortly after Burks's volumes appeared, Max H. Fisch began work on an intellectual biography of Peirce. He soon realized that the selection and organization of the Collected Papers and the state of disorganization of the manuscripts made the systematic study of Peirce's thought a nearly hopeless task. With the help of a number of colleagues and associates, including Carolyn Eisele, Don Roberts, Murray Murphey, and Richard Robin, Fisch began a reorganization effort that is only now nearing completion in the work-rooms of the Peirce Edition Project.
What was it about Charles Peirce that could motivate such a long-lived and against-the-odds effort to organize his manuscripts and edit his writings? It was respect for a mind unique in American intellectual history and of seminal import for modern thought. As early as 1879, it was reported in the British journal Mind that Peirce's pragmatism promised to be "one of the most important of American contributions to philosophy." That prediction, made by G. Stanley Hall less than a year after Peirce published his first paper on pragmatism, turned out to be remarkably prescient. Pragmatism has indeed become America's great contribution to philosophy. The origin of the pragmatic movement was the classic school of American thought led by the Cambridge philosophers, Peirce, James, and Royce, and the great Chicago pragmatist, John Dewey. Peirce's pragmatic thought, while a touchstone that motivated and guided the independently brilliant thought of the other original pragmatists, remains unique and has recently been assessed as the much-needed foundation for a new democratic liberalism (James Hoopes, Community Denied, Cornell University Press, 1998). As more and more scholars from around the world turn toward America for philosophical inspiration, Peirce is emerging as the central figure of our intellectual heritage. It is as important today as it was a century ago to look to Peirce's subtle and sophisticated writings as a guide to both the richness and the pitfalls of pragmatism.
Peirce's leadership in the pragmatic movement would by itself more than justify whatever attention has been given to his work, but he was much more than just a pragmatist. He was a career scientist who made notable contributions to geodesy and metrology. He was a linguist and lexicographer who contributed thousands of definitions to encyclopedias and dictionaries. He was a writer who contributed hundreds of reports and reviews to popular magazines and newspapers. He was a psychologist and a historian. And he was, in his own words, first and foremost a logician. He was, in fact, the man who introduced logic as a subject for research in America, and he was responsible for a great deal of "the shape" of logic today. As Colin McGinn has pointed out (The New Republic, 28 June 1993), Peirce anticipated more of the course of 20th-century philosophy than did Frege, and "he was onto the right things before almost anyone else."
It is, then, the relevance and power of Peirce's ideas that have kept alive Royce's plans for a Peirce edition, and it is their continuing relevance and power that saw Fisch's plans for a chronological edition through some difficult years. Peirce's importance for current thought and culture has increased dramatically in the past two or three decades as philosophy has turned away from a narrow analytical program and has begun to reconsider the richer and wider fields of intellectual experience that Peirce believed it was the purpose of philosophy to explore. The current focus on the importance of language (broadly construed) for thought, the rehabilitation of speculative metaphysics, the shift away from logicism in logic and a renewed interest in the theory of induction, the growth of mainstream interest in the history of science--all in addition to the rebirth of pragmatism--have contributed to the current sense of the relevance of Peirce's writings. In his 1989 Jefferson Lecture, Walker Percy announced that Peirce, with his pioneering theory of signs, "had laid the groundwork for a coherent science of [humankind]," a science that can bridge the dangerous rift between the "hard sciences" and the "human sciences." This view is echoed by John Sheriff who says that Peirce's semiotic philosophy, which emphasizes the importance of sentiment, is destined to have a revolutionary impact on the humanities (Charles Peirce's Guess at the Riddle, Indiana, 1994).