Charles Peirce

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Charles Sanders Peirce

Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced , lived September 10, 1839April 19, 1914) was an American logician, philosopher, scientist, and mathematician.

He is considered to be the founder of pragmatism and the father of modern semiotics. In recent decades, his thought has enjoyed renewed appreciation. At present, he is widely regarded as an innovator in many fields, especially the methodology of research and the philosophy of science.



Charles Sanders Peirce was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the son of Sarah and Benjamin Peirce. His father was a professor of astronomy and mathematics at Harvard University. Though the young Peirce received a graduate degree in chemistry from Harvard, he never succeeded in obtaining a tenured academic position. Peirce's academic ambitions were frustrated by his difficult (perhaps manic-depressive) personality and by the scandal surrounding his divorce from Harriet Melusina Fay and his marriage to Juliette Froissy which immediately followed. He made a career as a scientist for the United States Coast Survey (18591891), working especially in geodesy and in gravimetry, refining the practice of pendulum determinations. From 1879 until 1884, he was also a part-time lecturer in Logic at Johns Hopkins University. In 1887, Peirce moved with his second wife to Milford, Pennsylvania, where, after 26 years of prolific writing, he died of cancer. He had no children.


Peirce published two books, Photometric Researches (1878) and Studies in Logic (1883), and a large number of papers in journals in widely differing areas. His manuscripts, a great many of which remain unpublished, run to some 10,000 pages. In the years 1931 to 1958, a selection of his writings was arranged thematically and published in eight volumes as the Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Since 1982, a number of volumes have been published as part of a Chronological Edition, which will eventually consist of thirty volumes.

Peirce's philosophy

Founder of pragmatism (according to William James), and unlike some later pragmatists such as James and John Dewey, Peirce conceived of pragmatism primarily as a method for the clarification of ideas, which involved applying the methods of science to philosophical issues. Pragmatism has been regarded as a distinctively American philosophy.

Also considered to be the father of modern semiotics (the science of signs), Peirce defines semiosis as "an action, or influence, which is, or involves, a cooperation of three subjects, such as a sign, its object, and its interpretant ..." ('Pragmatism', Essential Peirce 2:413, 2:411, 1907). Peirce revised his view of semiosis throughout his career, beginning with this triadic relationship and ending with a system consisting of 59,049 possible elements and relationships. One reason for this high figure is that Peirce allowed each interpretant to act as a sign, creating a new signifying relationship.

Moreover, his often pioneering work is relevant to many disciplines, such as astronomy, metrology, geodesy, mathematics, logic, philosophy, the theory and history of science, linguistics, econometrics, and psychology. His work and his views on these subjects have become the subject of renewed interest and lavish praise. This revival is inspired not only by Peirce's intelligent anticipations of recent scientific developments but also, and especially, by his demonstration of how philosophy can be applied responsibly to human problems. Bertrand Russell opined, "Beyond doubt...he was one of the most original minds of the later nineteenth century, and certainly the greatest American thinker ever." Karl Popper viewed him as "one of the greatest philosophers of all times."

Abductive reasoning (abduction)

In some ways, Peirce was a systematic philosopher in the traditional sense of the word. But his work also deals with modern problems of science, truth, and knowledge, starting from his own personal experience as a logician and experimental researcher who labored within an international community of scientists and thinkers. Peirce made relevant contributions to deductive logic, but he was primarily interested in the logic of science and specifically in what he called abduction (as opposed to deduction and induction). Abduction is the process whereby a hypothesis is generated, so that surprising facts may be explained. "There is a more familiar name for it than abduction," Peirce wrote, "for it is neither more nor less than guessing." Indeed, Peirce considered abduction to be at the heart not only of scientific research but of all ordinary human activities as well. His pragmatism may be understood as a method of sorting out conceptual confusions by relating the meaning of concepts to practical consequences. Emphatically, this theory bears no resemblance to the vulgar notion of pragmatism, which connotes such things as the ruthless search for profit or political convenience. It appears that his focus was to find an objectively verifiable technique to test the "truth" of our "knowledge". This was a reaction to the foundational alternatives of 1) deduction from absolute truths/rationalism or 2) induction from observable phenomena/empiricism. His approach is often confused with the latter form of foundationalism, but is differentiated by the active process of postulation/theorizing and subsequent testing through attempts at application of the theory and verification of the theory's ability to predict and control the environment, rather than merely relabeling patterns of phenomena with generalizations as attempted by the inductive method. This was the first attempt to put forth what we now recognize as the scientific method as a philosophical theory of epistemology. A theory that proves itself more successful in predicting and controlling our world than its predecessor is said to be nearer the "truth." Truth in this theory is a matter of degree, constantly open to improvement. The objectivity provided by having our knowledge directly connected through a chain of logic, which was traditionally thought to be provided by the foundationalist theories of rationalism and empiricism, is recognized as an illusion by this approach. True objectivity can never be deduced from immutable truths or perceived directly in the environment, but it can be postulated to exist, and to be used as the objective measure of the accuracy of our "knowledge" in the form of theories. In this sense, "Truth" and "Reality" are akin to the Platonic Forms, with our knowledge being merely our mental shadows, which are attempting to depict the unreachable reality, and it is through the scientific method of postulation and verification that allows us to touch reality and be steered and comforted by its guidance.

Peirce also established various other facets of modern logic:

Further reading

  • Joseph Brent. Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life. Revised and enlarged edition. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998. A valuable study of Peirce's career and of his troubled life, highlighting his failures and frailties.
  • Phyllis Chiasson. Peirce's Pragmatism. The Design for Thinking. Amsterdam/Atlanta, GA: Rodopi Bv Editions, 2001. Introduces Peirce and explains how modern education and philosophy still have much to gain from his ideas.
  • Guy Debrock. "Peirce, a Philosopher for the 21st Century. Introduction." Transactions of the Ch. S. Peirce Society 28 (1992): 1-18. An introductory paper that explains beautifully why Peirce's philosophy is relevant to our time.
  • Christopher Hookway. Peirce. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985. A very good general account of Peirce's work as a forerunner of contemporary analytical philosophy.
  • Richard Kirkham. Theories of Truth. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995. Includes a very good exposition of Peirce's theory of truth.
  • Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America , New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001, ISBN 0374199639, (paperback ISBN 0374528497). A wonderful biography of Pierce, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, and John Dewey. The first three met in 1872 as the "Metaphysical Club", a discussion group that infuenced the development of the philosophy of pragmatism.
  • Kelly A. Parker, The Continuity of Peirce's Thought. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998. An outstanding scholarly work describing the continuity of Peirce's thought throughout his life.
  • Peirce, Charles S. The Essential Peirce, 2 vols. Edited by N. Houser, et al. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992-98. An excellent edition of Peirce's most relevant philosophical works. The introductions to both volumes by Houser are the best brief presentation of Peirce written to date.
  • Walker Percy Signposts in a Strange Land. Edited by P. Samway. 271-291. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1991. A suggestive introduction to Peirce for non-philosophers by a well-known novelist and writer.

Related topics

External links


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