Charles Peirce

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Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced purse), September 10, 1839April 19, 1914, was an American polymath, the founder of pragmatism and one of the founders of semiotics. In recent decades, his thought has enjoyed a significant revival. He is now seen as an innovator in many fields, especially mathematics, logic, the methodology of research, the philosophy of science, epistemology, and metaphysics.

Peirce was the initiator of the pragmatism movement in philosophy, but remained largely unknown until his life-long friend William James made pragmatism popular. All Peirce's works were published posthumously. Peirce believed any truth is provisional, and in any proposition there must be a coefficient of probability taken into account. This theory Peirce called "fallibilism" which he set forth as a substitute for scepticism, a constituent of his philosophical system, which was to him no lesser in importance than pragmatism, which he in turn substituted for positivism.


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, and arguably the first serious research mathematician in America. Peirce obtained one of the first M.Sc. degrees awarded in America, in chemistry. He was employed as a scientist by the United States Coast Survey (18591891), working mainly in geodesy and in gravimetry, refining the use of pendulums to determine small local variations in the strength of the earth's gravity. During the 1870s, he worked in Harvard's astronomical observatory.

Peirce never obtained a tenured academic position. His academic ambitions may have been frustrated by his reportedly difficult personality; Brent (1998) conjectures that Peirce may have been manic-depressive. Peirce's first wife, Harriet Melusina Fay, left him in 1876. He soon took up with a woman whose maiden name and nationality are uncertain to this day; the best guess is that she was French and named Juliette Froissy; he did not marry her until Fay divorced him in 1884. The resulting scandal led to his dismissal from the only academic position he ever obtained, Lecturer in Logic at Johns Hopkins University. In 1887, Peirce used his inheritance from his parents to purchase a farm near Milford, Pennsylvania, where he spent the rest of his life, writing prolifically and struggling with grave financial difficulties. He had no children.


Peirce never published a monograph elaborating his thought on mathematics, logic, and philosophy. While at Johns Hopkins, he edited a book containing chapters by himself and his graduate students, called Studies in Logic (1883). His reputation is almost entirely based on academic papers, most of them reprinted in the eight volumes of the Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, published between 1931 and 1958. He was also a frequent book reviewer and contributor to the Nation; this journalism fills the four volumes of Kettner, K L, and Cook, J E, eds., C. S. Peirce: Contributions to the Nation. Texas Tech University Press.

Harvard University acquired the papers found in Peirce's study after his death, but did not microfilm them until 1964. They were not cataloged until 1971 [1]. Only then did it become clear that Peirce left approximately 1650 unpublished manuscripts, totalling 80,000 pages and still largely unpublished. Because the Collected Papers are seriously incomplete (as well as flawed in other ways), a critical Peirce edition, organized chronologically, was begun in the 1970s. To date, six of a planned 31 volumes have appeared. [2]

Peirce's philosophy

Peirce was not a professional philosopher. In his day, one made a name in the field by publishing monographs on the subject; Peirce never did so. While a Harvard undergraduate, Peirce taught himself philosophy by reading a few pages of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason every day, in the original German. William James, among others, deemed two papers Peirce published in the late 1870s to be the source of the philosophical school known as pragmatism. Unlike James and some later pragmatists, e.g., John Dewey, Peirce conceived of pragmatism primarily as a method for the clarification of the meaning of ideas, by applying the scientific method to philosophical issues. Pragmatism is regarded as a distinctively American philosophy.

Peirce's writings bear on an wide array of disciplines, including astronomy, metrology, geodesy, mathematics, logic, philosophy, the history and philosophy of science, linguistics, economics, and psychology. His work on these subjects has become the subject of renewed interest and approval. This revival is inspired not only by Peirce's anticipations of recent scientific developments but also by his demonstration of how philosophy can be applied effectively 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." (Yet he did not cite Peirce in his Principia Mathematica.) Karl Popper viewed him as "one of the greatest philosophers of all times."

Peirce's accomplishments were slow to be recognized. He held a university appointment for only five years, in logic. His only book was a short technical monograph on astronomy, the Photometric Researches of 1878, little noted. His contemporaries William James and Josiah Royce were admirers, but to little effect. Once they died, Cassius Keyser at Columbia and Morris Raphael Cohen at CCNY were perhaps Peirce's only admirers of consequence. The publication of the first six volumes of the Collected Papers, 1931-35, did not lead to an immediate outpouring of secondary studies. The editors of those volumes, Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, did not become Peirce specialists. Peirce scholarship arguably began with the monographs by James Feibleman (1946) and Thomas Goudge (1950), the 1952 volume edited by Philip Wiener and Frederick Young, and the manifold work of Max Fisch. The Charles Sanders Peirce Society was founded in 1946; its Transactions, an academic journal specializing in Peirciana, has appeared since 1965.

Abductive Reasoning (abduction)

Although Peirce left no treatise laying out a system, in some respects he can be seen as a systematic philosopher in the traditional sense. But his work also deals with the scientific and logical questions of truth, and knowledge, questions grounded in his personal experience as a logician and working experimental scientist, one who was a member of the international community of scientists and thinkers of his day. Peirce made important contributions to deductive logic (see below), but 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 linking the meaning of concepts to their operational / practical consequences.

Peirce's pragmatism bears no resemblance to "vulgar" pragmatism, which misleadingly connotes a ruthless and Machiavellian) search for mercenary or political advantage. Rather, Peirce sought an objectively verifiable method to test the truth of knowledge, one going beyond 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 distinct from it by virtue of the:

  • Active process of postulation/theorizing;
  • Subsequent application of the theory;
  • Verification of the theory's ability to predict and control the environment,

rather than by inductive generalization, the mere relabeling of phenomenological patterns. Peirce's pragmatism was the first time the scientific method was proposed as an epistemology for philosophical questions.

A theory that proves itself more successful in predicting and controlling our world than its rivals is said to be nearer the truth. This is an operational notion of truth employed by scientists. Unlike the other pragmatists, Peirce never explicitly advanced a theory of truth. But his scattered comments about truth have proved influential to several epistemic truth theorists, and as a useful foil for deflationary and correspondence theories of truth.

The Semeiotic

Peirce is also one of the founders of semiotics, for which his preferred term was "semeiotic", the science of signs (the other founder was Ferdinand de Saussure). Peirce defined semiosis as "...action, or influence, which is, or involves, a cooperation of three subjects, such as a sign, its object, and its interpretant, this tri-relative influence not being in any way resolvable into actions between pairs." ("Pragmatism", Essential Peirce 2: 411; written 1907). He revised his view of semiosis throughout his career, beginning with the triadic relation just described, and ending with a system consisting of 59,049 possible elements and relations. One reason for this high number is that he allowed each interpretant to act as a sign, thereby creating a new signifying relation.

As with his other subjects, Peirce never wrote a definitive treatment of his semeiotic. Instead, he touched on it intermittently over the course of his entire life, often changing his mind about the definitions of key terms. Liszka (1996) is an earnest attempt at a coherent exposition.

The Logician

Peirce made major discoveries in formal logic:

Peirce's logical work is ably exposited and defended in the Introduction to Hauser et al (1997), Hilary Putnam (1982), and [3]

Peirce admired Georg Cantor, was admired by Ernst Schröder (the sentiment was less than mutual) and William Kingdon Clifford, wrote a dismissive review of Bertrand Russell's Principles of Mathematics, and was apparently ignorant of Frege's work, despite their rival achievements in logic, philosophy of language and the foundations of mathematics.

Parallels with Leibniz

Given the range and depth of his achievements, it would be tempting to conclude that Peirce's polymathy is unique in the history of ideas, but such is not the case: there are striking parallels between Peirce and the 17th century German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Both men were mathematicians, logicians, natural scientists, historians, philosophers of language and mind, and metaphysicians. Both were fascinated by semiotics and mathematical notation, and the interplay between philosophy and mathematics. Both were realists in their metaphysics, and surprisingly friendly to at least parts of scholastic thought (e.g., Peirce admired Duns Scotus). The ideas of both men underwent oversimplification in the hands of others, and were little appreciated for some time after their deaths. Leibniz differed from Peirce mainly in his freedom from financial difficulties, his passionate Christianity, and his correspondence consisting of around 15,000 letters.

Both published few books but many articles, and left voluminous writings. The critical editions of the works of both men are far from complete (although Leibniz's is further along). The secondary literature on both men mostly dates from the end of WWII.



  • C. S. Peirce, 1982-. Writings of C. S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition. Indiana University Press. Incomplete.
  • C. S. Peirce, 1992, 1998. The Essential Peirce, 2 vols. Edited by N. Houser, et al. Indiana Uni. Press.
  • C. S. Peirce, 1885, "On the algebra of logic", American Journal of Mathematics 7: 202. Reprinted in vol. 4 of Writings and in Ewald, W. ed., (1996) A Source Book in the History of Mathematics, 2 vols. Oxford Uni. Press.


  • Brent, Joseph, 1998. Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life. Revised and enlarged edition. Indiana Uni. Press. The only extant biography.
  • Chiasson, Phyllis, 2001. Peirce's Pragmatism. The Design for Thinking. Rodopi, Amsterdam.
  • Debrock, Guy, 1992. "Peirce, a Philosopher for the 21st Century. Introduction." Transactions of the C. S. Peirce Society 28: 1-18.
  • Fisch, Max, 1986. Peirce, Semeiotic, and Pragmatism. Indiana Uni. Press.
  • Nathan Houser, D. D. Roberts, J. Van Evra, eds., 1997. Studies in the Logic of C. S. Peirce. Indiana University Press.
  • Hookway, Christopher, 1985. Peirce. Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • Kirkham, Richard, 1995. Theories of Truth. MIT Press.
  • Liszka, J. J., 1996. A General Introduction to the Semeiotic of C.S. Peirce. Indiana University Press.
  • Menand, Louis, 2001. The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. ISBN 0374199639, (paperback ISBN 0374528497). Biography of Pierce, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, and John Dewey.
  • Murphey, Murray, 1961. The Development of Peirce's Thought. Harvard University Press.
  • Parker, Kelly, A., 1998. The Continuity of Peirce's Thought. Vanderbilt University Press.
  • Walker Percy, 1991. Signposts in a Strange Land. Edited by P. Samway. 271-291. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.
  • Hilary Putnam, 1982. 'Peirce the Logician'. Historia Mathematica 9: 290-301. Reprinted in Putnam, H., 1990. Realism with a Human Face. Harvard University Press: 252-60.


The definition of finiteness from "On the Algebra of Logic": Now, to say that a lot of objects is finite, is the same as to say that if we pass through the class from one to another we shall necessarily come round to one of those individuals already passed; that is, if every one of the lot is in any one-to-one relation to one of the lot, then to every one of the lot some one is in this same relation.

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External links


An earlier version of this article, by Jaime Nubiola, was posted at Nupedia.

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