Commentary Magazine

The Greatest Living American Philosopher

Charles Sanders Peirce, the only American one can confidently place among the world’s great philosophers, had a view of logic as a form of heroism. As he saw it, logical thinking is virtually useless in life, where the most important matters must be settled by faith and instinct. Logicality is heroic precisely because it is unarrested by practical interests, unhindered by the everyday need to leap to judgment. It is reasoning as if for eternity and for humanity as a whole. It is not dispassionate, since a commitment to the life of the mind is itself a sublime passion, but rather disinterested and selfless. It is, in his view, founded upon an altruistic principle.

When Peirce expounded this idea in a series of articles on the philosophy of science for Popular Science Monthly in 1877-78 he could not know that he was fated not merely to praise the heroism of intellect but to become corban to it. He was in those days as comfortably positioned and highly regarded as a forty-year-old logician could hope to be in 19th-century America. He was widely recognized as brilliant, and more importantly, appreciated in a select international scientific circle for his accomplishments in geodesy, astronomy, mathematics, symbolic logic, and philosophy. He had the patronage of the most influential men of science of the older generation and the enthusiastic support of the leading editors of both the very learned and the semi-popular journals. He was able to write on the most esoteric subjects but also to make non-didactic philosophy interesting to the readers of the Nation, Popular Science Monthly, and the North American Review. Besides, he had a remunerative post at the Coast and Geodetic Survey, the major government employer of research scientists. To this he was about to add a lectureship at the newly founded Johns Hopkins University, where he had every prospect of training a generation of graduate students to carry on his devotion to pure inquiry.

Even on the basis of what he had written before his fortieth year, one might have said that there had not been since Pascal a writer so thoroughly grounded in science and mathematics who worked to retrieve rather than to overturn the scholastic heritage of the Middle Ages. And how much bolder an enterprise from a child of Unitarian Harvard.

No one could have then imagined that Peirce would die a shivering pauper, sustained on alms raised for him by William James, that at his death in 1914 his major works would lie uncollected and unpublished, his contact with students nil, his final and most brilliant contributions buried in letters and notebooks that would begin to receive due notice only two generations after his death. No one could have predicted that even dutiful works of scholarship devoted to him would have the effect of delaying a general appreciation of his merit.




But we run ahead of the story. One result of the fate that befell Charles Sanders Peirce is that we cannot assume that the educated English-speaking reader even recognizes his name. Among specialists, of course, his reputation grows—I count seven issues of major international journals devoted to Peirce in the past few years, covering such topics as semiotics, pragmatism, linguistics, philosophy of science, metaphysics, and history of mathematics. One of these, the April 1982 issue of The Monist, contains a bibliography listing more than 600 entries during the previous five years.1 And the attention Peirce receives is not merely archival. As one philosophy professor wrote recently: “I look on him not as a thinker of bygone days, but as a colleague and a co-worker on issues of abiding interest.”

If a philosopher can be considered among the living so long as his ideas continue to spark interest and controversy at the frontiers of inquiry, there is little doubt that Peirce will remain for some time the greatest living American philosopher. There is afoot a kind of back-door Peirceanism in which his positions are rediscovered, often without attribution, or worse still, are alleged to have been superseded in the work of critics (in different generations, Arthur O. Lovejoy, Willard Van O. Quine, and Jürgen Habermas come to mind) who fall well short of comprehending their full range.

In disparate specialties, academic fashions have moved closer to aspects of Peirce’s work that previously seemed outlandish: his diagrammatic habits of thought, his use of the continuum of infinitesimals, his post-Darwinian concept of evolution, his view of science as relying on a community of inquirers, his stress on the imaginative element in scientific discovery, his penchant for combinatorial analysis, his sophisticated use of the concept of modality, his insistence on a “logic of vagueness,” his admiration for Hegel and Duns Scotus, his critiques of what are now called positivism, empiricism, skepticism, and intuitionism, his meticulous lexicographic work in philosophical terminology, and, above all, his founding of the now ubiquitous discipline of semiotics. At the same time, among those who admire philosophy for its own sake, a patient scholarship has begun not only to trace the development and antecedents of the many topics he addresses but to see a common core of animating ideas that gives Peirce’s work its unusual power, self-sufficiency, and coherence.

But none of this ferment has yet reached a cultivated American public. Even among professors of philosophy Peirce has been neglected both by the scientifically inclined, who have looked to Britain and Vienna for philosophical direction, and by the historically, morally, and portentously minded, who have shopped German, French, and Eastern. For example, at Peirce’s alma mater, Harvard, his name has appeared in the catalogue of philosophy courses only once in the past five years, during which period no fewer than two course listings a year have advertised close readings of Wittgenstein.

At last, however, both the professoriat and a broader public will have a chance to know Charles Peirce as only a few devoted scholars have known him. Indiana University Press has now issued the first two of a projected twenty-volume collection of Peirce’s writings, chronologically arranged.2 Though the edition bears the authoritative stamp of the Center for Scholarly Editions of the Modern Language Association, it is something more significant than the final embalming fluid for a classic author. Just as the 19th-century editions by Erdmann and Gerhardt established Leibniz as a writer who still exercises influence, so Peirce, it seems safe to say, will emerge from this collection as an active participant in current philosophical debates.

About half of the projected Indiana material has never been in print before. Peirce’s known corpus would fill more than a hundred 500-page volumes, of which about one-fourth were published during his lifetime, and no book of his collected papers appeared until after his death. The Indiana volumes are thus more than the elegant reprinting of previously available work. They draw upon decades of scholarship in assembling, deciphering, and dating Peirce’s manuscripts.3

Moreover, by placing Peirce’s work in chronological rather than topical order—as was the scheme followed by the Harvard University Press edition of the 1930′s—the new edition will enable a wide readership to follow his philosophical progress on a variety of interconnected problems. This is as Peirce himself would have wished. He saw philosophy not as issuing in systems or settled doctrines but as the working out of a logical point of view.

The chronological selection also focuses attention on piquant historical and biographical issues. Peirce’s life was closely bound up with the founding of the modern American research university, and with the beginnings of federal and foundation patronage for scientific inquiry. Yet after his dismissal in 1884 from Johns Hopkins, some dark scandal was rumored to justify his ostracism from academic life, and the very purity of his devotion to logic was repeatedly used to deny him institutional funds as an independent scholar. He had to fall back on odd jobs, support from friends, and the patronage of a few New England families still prominent in higher learning. Does his exclusion tell us anything about institutional as opposed to individual support for philosophy in the land of pragmatism?




We meet “Charley” Peirce in Volume I as the ultimate Harvard brat. He came from one of those Yankee families which, whatever their professed church—and the Peirce-Nichols family’s drift from Calvinism to Unitarianism to Episcopalianism is typical—have made of Harvard their cathedral.

Charles Sanders Peirce was the grandson of the librarian of Harvard College and the son of America’s preeminent professor of mathematics. At his father’s hands, he received a “laboratory” education that, from a scientific point of view, made John Stuart Mill’s seem like a genteel kindergarten. He was drilled in mathematical games and careful observation of the unreliability of his own senses. At eleven he wrote his own “History of Chemistry” after reading a translation by his father’s sister and brother of the first German chemistry text to be used in American colleges. At fourteen he fell in love with Whateley’s Elements of Logic. At fifteen he inherited his uncle’s library of medical and chemical books. At sixteen his father supervised him in what were to be three years of regular readings in German of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, so that he committed whole chunks of it to memory.

Charley entered Harvard at sixteen. He did not do well in the areas central to computing class rank—compulsory chapel, good behavior, regular recitations, and compositions on set topics (e.g., “What is your favorite virtue?”). His performance declined as he grew older and more disposed to libertine bouts in Boston. His senior year he ranked seventy-ninth in a class of ninety-one. He did, however, spend some time with his Aunt Lizzie, the German translator, on an original rendering of the Transcendental Deduction of the Categories from Kant’s Critique, took loving notes on his father’s lectures in advanced mathematics and physics, and plunged himself into Schiller’s Aesthetic Letters.

He was graduated without honors in the class of 1859, and then spent several months on field trips in Maine and Louisiana with Alexander Dallas Bache, an old family friend who was superintendent of the United States Coast Survey. Then it was on to tutelage under another family friend, Louis Agassiz, for six months of private instruction in biological classification. He entered Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School in 1861 for formal training in chemistry and in 1863 received a B.S. degree in chemistry summa cum laude. In 1861, as the Civil War began, Bache appointed him to a (draft-exempt) post in the Coast Survey, as an aide to his father, who held the rank of assistant, directly below superintendent.

During the 1860′s Charley remained at Harvard as a proctor, tutor, instructor, lecturer, and staff member of the Harvard Observatory. Like all other Harvard students in those days, he studied mathematics exclusively from texts written by his father, with the exception of an analytic geometry section by James Mills Peirce, his older brother.

His marriage, too, was an intramural affair. His wife, Melusina (“Zina”) Fay, was the daughter of his father’s Harvard classmate, an Episcopalian clergyman. Charley had to leave Unitarianism for the union, but his philosophical work had already progressed to a fascination with triadic categories that reconciled the unitarian-trinitarian dispute on a metaphysical level. Though an enthusiastic convert in his first years, he thereafter described himself as a Christian by sentiment rather than creed.

Zina, in any case, was not conventionally pious. Her real religion was separate-but-equal feminism, and her theological interests extended mainly to the person of the Holy Ghost, which she saw as the feminine aspect of the Trinity. She wrote a series of lead articles for the Atlantic advocating cooperative housekeeping to free women for careers, and a female parliament in which women would have their own political voice without having to compete with men. In Cambridge, she organized a school (which only her nephews attended), a Cooperative Housekeeping Society (with her father-in-law chairing its meetings), and a Committee on the Intellectual Education of Women, “by which girls might go through a course of study in some degree equivalent to that of Harvard College.” In politics she advocated a form of proportional representation devised by her husband. She thus helped lay the ground for the founding of Radcliffe College and for the complex system of proportional voting which the city of Cambridge has retained to this day. Zina left Charley in Paris in 1875, and they were legally divorced in 1883. But during their Harvard period they seemed the quintessentially busy and productive Cambridge couple.



We should pause here to note that the three great scientific teachers of Peirce’s youth—his father Benjamin Peirce, Jr., Alexander Dallas Bache, and Louis Agassiz—were more than fast friends. They were the core of the “Lazzaroni,” or beggars for science, lobbyists who used every opportunity to build a national scientific research establishment. They formed a socially prominent yet uncompromisingly meritocratic cabal who sought to remove any obstacles that might deter humble, talented boys from a university career. The up-and-coming American astronomer, Simon Newcomb, an immigrant from Canada, exemplified their ideal. We shall encounter him later.

The Lazzaroni openly despised “practical” studies and “leveling” trends in education, yet were expert at dealing with crass legislatures and private donors in the cause of pure research. Many of their institutions survive to this day. In 1848 they founded the American Academy for the Advancement of Science; in 1863, channeling war fever into funding for science, they helped to write the bill which chartered the National Academy of Science. Their stamping ground was the U.S. Coast Survey, later renamed the Coast and Geodetic Survey. Benjamin Peirce succeeded Bache as its superintendent and inherited from him the dutiful Julius Erasmus Hilgard, an immigrant from Germany, to run the Washington office. Hilgard, too, figures in Charley’s future.

None of the Lazzaroni was a more tireless promoter of science than Benjamin Peirce. He developed elaborate plans for the Lazzaroni dream of “a truly national university,” which he tried at various times to sell to the federal government, the State of New York, and the City of New York. He and Agassiz worked more successfully at moving Harvard in that direction. The two of them were able to influence the choice of two successive Lazzaroni as presidents of Harvard in the 1860′s. And to this day the governing structure of Harvard University, with its various boards and visiting committees loosely coordinated by an overarching board of overseers, owes much to Benjamin Peirce’s Working Plan for the Foundation of a University circulated in 1856.

The first Lazzaroni president of Harvard, a classicist, died after two years, the second resigned unexpectedly after six. While Peirce and Agassiz were preoccupied with blocking an older Unitarian clergyman, they got (as they wished) a scientist and a layman but (as they did not) a young chemist whose elevation to a tenured chair they had previously blocked on the novel grounds that his social connections and administrative gifts were no substitute for scientific ability. This was Charles William Eliot, thirty-five, a professor of chemistry at the newly founded Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the son of a former mayor of Boston and treasurer of the Harvard Corporation.

Since Eliot had proctored the Harvard class of 1859 and had taught chemistry at the Lawrence Scientific School until 1863, he had ample opportunity to form what was to remain an unshakably low opinion of the character of Charley Peirce. But he also appreciated the need to placate the Peirce-Agassiz faction. Within weeks of Eliot’s appointment, he topped an offer that had been made to Peirce’s elder son James from the University of California. He followed with a plum for Charley, who was invited to give eleven university-wide lectures on British logicians in Eliot’s first year as president and a further series his second. The year was then 1871, Charles Peirce was thirty-two, nine years married, and we are at the end of the period in which he wrote the papers collected in Volumes I and II.

Though he had been to the wilds with Alexander Bache, and made a Coast Survey trip to Europe with his brother and father to observe a solar eclipse in Sicily in 1870, he had never had to venture outside the ambit of his father’s influence in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A vignette by Aunt Lizzie in family correspondence of 1867 describes a lively and lovable Charley “seated in his comfortable and handsome study” in front of the new glass-fronted bookcases of which he was inordinately proud (and which already contained a collection in medieval logic more than double that of the Harvard library). He seemed then as bright-eyed as a squirrel. He would, his aunt thought, never grow old.




In his own family correspondence of 1909 Peirce wrote that he did not “gain control” of his philosophical direction until 1867, when he was twenty-eight. The Indiana volumes appear to be edited with this in mind. Volume I takes an immature Charley to 1866, while Volume II covers the momentous years 1867-71, during which the young Peirce, in effect, pioneered a distinctively American and yet post-Enlightenment approach to philosophy. He announced his intention to do so obliquely but unmistakably in the seventh of a series of evening lectures on “The Logic of Science” at the Lowell Institute in Boston in 1866.

At that time, as indeed now, the purveying of philosophy in America was like the dry-goods business in an underdeveloped country, in which trading houses of various European nations supply the more refined native needs. The main imported brands in mid-19th-century America were German transcendental philosophy, Scottish common-sense philosophy, English association philosophy, and French positive philosophy. There was, in addition, a native so-called philosophy, which had not, however, crossed the crucial threshold between moralizing and theorizing. Peirce, therefore, while paying courteous notice to the homespun names of Edwards, Channing, Parker, and Emerson, among others, did not consider their work to be philosophy in the classical sense.

Yet New England, he thought, had three prerequisites for great philosophy: “the love of research and especially of history,” “the capacity for being elevated by an idea,” and, above all, the proverbial Yankee ingenuity rooted in “the same mixture of enthusiasm and patience which are required to originate a philosophic theory.” “But though the Yankee is thus fitted to do so much good service in philosophy, let us by no means forget that he has not done it hitherto.”

Hitherto. Between 1867 and 1871 Charles Sanders Peirce would publish ten papers, on a range of seemingly disparate topics—five papers on logic and mathematics for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, three metaphysical essays for the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, a further essay in symbolic notation applying the algebra of Boole to an entirely new field, and a long semi-popular review of a new edition of the works of Bishop Berkeley. These pieces, all reprinted in Volume II, do not comprise a system so much as a related set of beginnings. They lay down the main lines of inquiry to which Peirce would devote his life. But more than this: the best of them, taken together, constitute at once the declaration of independence of American philosophy and the movement of that philosophy into a central position in the mainstream of Western thought.

By the end of Volume II, indeed, it is clear that Peirce has launched a philosophical enterprise remarkable in three enduring respects. First, he shifts the ground of Western philosophy to a concern with the medium about which philosophy is itself a message—language, or more generally, signs. Second, he refounds modern science in terms seen as continuous with the logic of Aristotle and the Middle Ages rather than as based on a sharp break with them. Third, he prepares the way for mapping in formal terms territories of thought that still elude textbook logic.

These undertakings are all closely related. Philosophically, the first and third of them remain the most radical and fruitful in new lines of inquiry. But it is the second—the logical reconceptualization of modern science—that provides the most accessible approach to Peirce’s work during this period. Unlike the purer logical undertakings—and pure logicality, the reader will recall, is heroically incomprehensible to those of us preoccupied with daily chores—it is susceptible of historical and polemical presentation. Peirce himself delivered semi-popular polemics on the failings of the fathers of modern science from which one can, with a few philosophical short cuts and a few forward glances, extract an underlying argument.

As I have suggested, Peirce’s sensibilities about science recall Pascal’s, but in a very different idiom. Pascal, living through the instauration of modern science, had an acute sense of the insufficiency of scientific categories in moral conduct: he had described in belles lettres the differences between the rigorous demonstrations of “the geometrical spirit” and the refined discriminations of everyday life. Yet as a result of his religious conversion, he asserted an ultimate unity of reason and faith.

On these same questions Peirce took a more austerely logical tack. What Pascal had experienced as a personal religious crisis, Peirce was already well advanced in treating as a problem for the method and logic of science. What he sought was a unified theoretical criterion adequate to science and moral practice alike. If certain logical categories were incompatible with moral conduct, they must also be incompatible with the activity of being a scientist. Scientific inquiry, after all, was itself a form of conduct, a practice with its own shared standards and mores. Like medieval religion it rested on real, catholic assent. The difference lay in the manner of fixing belief: the medieval church invoked canonical authority, buttressed from time to time by the bonfire and rack, while science relied more on reasoned agreement. The task for Peirce, then, was not to vindicate revealed religion, but rather to make explicit the postulates of scientific inquiry, and with them to reform the philosophical habits of the scientific community.

These philosophical habits had, as Peirce saw it, been perverse from the start. For historically contingent reasons the scientific movement had adopted a jerry-built metaphysics incompatible with science itself. The so-called “new philosophy” of science had been founded on an unexamined rejection of positions associated with religious orthodoxy. Because the Church revered Aristotle, science became anti-Aristotelian; because the Church glorified faith, science embraced systematic doubt; because orthodox scholastics accepted the reality of universals, the “new philosophers” followed the unorthodox Ockham in attending to empirically verifiable particulars; because the Roman priesthood invoked the world to come, science stressed utility in the here and now.

In adopting what were, in effect, forensic positions, modern science had gotten off on the wrong philosophical foot. It was therefore stuck with logical dogmas that would ultimately block the road to inquiry. The remedy was to find for it a true logic not vitiated by what Peirce would later call “a barbaric reaction against the Middle Ages.” This logic was implicit in the actual practice of science—in, as Peirce would later argue, Galileo’s stress on the “natural light” of reason or Kepler’s continuing struggle to readapt his initial cosmology to new empirical evidence. But the logic-in-use, the logica utens of modern science, had never been explicated and systematically pursued as a textbook logic, a logica docens.



What was then taught as the so-called philosophy of science was a bifurcated method thought to consist of induction and deduction. Each strand could be traced to one of the “church fathers” of modern science. The deductive strand was personified in Descartes, the inductive one in Bacon. The inadequacies of the one were thought to be complemented and corrected by the other. And each had associated with it a meta-physic that provided a line of philosophical retreat for the other. Deduction drew upon the supposed priority of intuition and the ultimate validity of introspective knowledge. Induction drew upon empiricism, the doctrine of the primacy of external fact. Together they gave science the semblance of a working metaphysic. How did we know which experimental facts were significant? By intuition. How did we establish that our intuitions were valid? By experiment.

For Peirce, by contrast, neither deduction nor induction nor some mysterious oscillation between them could account for the methods of science. For the two left out the crucial, creative element in scientific inquiry—successful hypothesis. In the vulgar mythology of science the bifurcated method gave rise to a misleading folklore of experimental observation. There was, for example, the tale about Galileo coming to his laws of motion by observing a lamp swinging in the cathedral of Pisa. This sort of legend lent support to the views of John Stuart Mill, who had lately proclaimed that even the axioms of geometry were founded in induction.

Now Galileo’s most important experiments, as Peirce (correctly) understood them, were “thought experiments” only. They were not founded either in induction or in deduction but in the crucial tertium quid of scientific method: hypothesis. Peirce presented successful hypothesis as a method in its own right, and he would extend his view of it beyond science and see it as an instance of what, for the sake of parallelism with induction and deduction, he would call “abduction” or sometimes “retroduction.” The term retroduction suggests a method of reasoning backward from presumptions to supporting evidence. It aims at demystifying the “intuitive leaps” that scientists rely upon.

Peirce’s view of its centrality to science was not a point about method alone. It was a rejection of a deeper error that both Descartes and Bacon shared: a failure to deal with the artificiality and fallibility of the scientific construction of reality. Philosophically, the lurching from intuitionism to empiricism did not correct the metaphysical errors of the “new philosophy” but compounded them. For the two were simply two versions of the same underlying error—the attempt to establish some fixed point, unmediated by language, as an ultimate and certain foundation for knowledge. As Peirce saw it, any such certainty was meretricious.

Contra the Cartesians, he argued that there was no truth that could be established intuitively because there was no such thing as purely introspective knowledge. Even the apparently introspective methods of the mathematician were nothing of the sort. The seeming certainty of mathematics derived not from introspection or intuitive access to the absolute but from (as he would later put it) the simple fact that mathematicians reason about ideal constructs—diagrams, really—wholly within their control.

But this did not mean that the brute facts are the final authority. For Peirce also argued, against the dogmatically skeptical empiricists, that facts can have no logical priority to concepts. Every fact of which we are able to form a proposition at once involves us in a world of conceptions from which there is no exit and no extra-conceptual authority. However loudly we may assert that an extra-conceptual world patterns our thinking, our very assertion is intelligible only within a world of ideas.

In short, science is not exempted from the human predicament of abstraction. For abstraction, to put it simply, is the price of attending to one aspect of reality to the neglect of another. Since one cannot attend to everything at once, there is no escape from it. One does not get beyond abstraction by ignoring it but by having an articulated grasp of its power and limitations. For science this required, Peirce saw, a new metaphysic; for logic, a rededication to it as “the science of the conditions which enable symbols in general to refer to objects.” And both the metaphysical and logical projects required a new view of the old medieval debate on the degree of reality to be accorded to universal conceptions.




One of the anti-scholastic prejudices that modern science had embraced was a deep skepticism toward universals, toward general ideas. Science had adopted what was commonly called Ockham’s razor (which Peirce traced to Ockham’s nominalist contemporary Durand de St. Pourçain): that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily. The class of entities that the late medieval nominalists had wished to cut out were universals. They denied that universal terms could have any reality apart from the individual things to which they referred. Universals were mere names—whence the label “nominalism.” And since this view, though piously and cautiously expressed, contained suggestions subversive to a universal and catholic order, it naturally had great appeal when that order was breaking up into individual, quasi-national units. Moreover, its cash value for science was to argue for economy, for the elimination of what Hobbes called the “insignificant speech” and “empty words” of the learned doctors.

In England, especially, nominalism reigned supreme, often without any awareness of its late-scholastic origins. There it seemed, simply, part of the national character. As Peirce observed in his 1871 essay on Berkeley:

From very early times, it has been the chief intellectual characteristic of the English to wish to effect everything by the plainest and directest means, without unnecessary contrivance. . . . In philosophy this national tendency appears as a strong preference for the simplest theories, and a resistance to any complication of the theory as long as there is the least possibility that the facts can be explained in a simpler way. And accordingly, British philosophers have always shown strong nominalistic tendencies since the time of Edward I, or even earlier.

Since Britain had, on Peirce’s view, been the exclusive or shared home of every major scientific advance of the previous three centuries, its national habits of thought had penetrated the common sense of science. Men of science took for granted the nominalist doctrine that every general idea was a generalization from particulars or “cases,” and could have no meaning beyond the individual things it covered. Reality was a preexisting standard that science uncovered by small incremental inductions. Such advances as hypothesis could yield were intuitive leaps beyond the existing (inductive) evidence that were later vindicated by it.

But Peirce, trained to his fingertips as a “man of science” (Whewell’s neologism “scientist” was one of the few he detested), found this notion backward-looking and restrictive. Hypothesis to him was a leap not beyond reality but into it. If one wished to use a mysterious word like intuition, it had to be understood as the completion of ideas already achieved and presupposed in scientific inquiry. It depended on an element that was conceptual yet not introspective, real yet never wholly verifiable as present fact.

The hallmark of nominalism was a backward-looking view of reality. It accepted as fact only that whose existence was established. Hypothesis, by contrast, meant pursuing as real that which would be agreed upon as real by some future community of inquirers. It presupposed what Peirce would later call the doctrine of the “unsettled universal.” That is, it granted a degree of reality to general ideas whose limits remained to be determined.

Hypothesis, in sum, posited a reality that would be accepted by the scientific community after inquiry had run its full course. Every (hypothetical) concept was to be judged not merely as a recapitulation of previous instances but as a forward-looking anticipation of its working-out. Its meaning consisted in all the imaginable uses to which it might be put. It stressed not what was but what would be. In so doing, hypothetical reasoning had a power well beyond random guessing. One could not account for its success without conceding some degree of reality to forward-looking general ideas. As Peirce would later put it, “no agglomeration of actual happenings can ever fill up the meaning of a ‘would be.’ ”

But ever since Hume’s critique of causation, the philosophical presumption was against a “would be” as wishful thinking. So the question still remained: could any supposedly universal conceptions, whether one took them forward or backward, be more than collections of particular aspects of individual things? Could one speak seriously of real universals? Even if one granted some basis in reality to the scientist’s need for hypothesis, how far could this be extended into one’s view of experience as a whole?

In addressing such questions—and we can, of course, only provide signposts toward them here—Peirce had two advantages over later logicians. Though many of them have, like him, been trained in classics, science, and mathematics, Peirce added to this a grounding in both German metaphysics and scholastic logic. Following the Germans, he put the problem of universals in terms of “the categories,” those elementary conceptions that since Aristotle were held to underlie all discourse. Following the scholastics, he also cast the problem as one of “speculative grammar” (to use the title of a 13th-century treatise), an inquiry into the degree of reality to be accorded the formalities of discourse. Combining these two approaches with a scientific sensibility yielded powerful results, so powerful, in fact, that we shall have to become a bit more familiar with them to understand the logical categories reinforced both by the logica utens of modern science and by the American experience.




I have suggested that Peirce’s writings during the period 1867-71 mark a coming of age not only for him but for American philosophy. I have even said that they amount to “the declaration of independence of American philosophy,” words that may seem hyperbolic and loose. As it happens, I mean them quite literally.

Much as the colonies broke with their mother country by proclaiming certain English liberties to be founded in universally “self-evident truths,” so Peirce broke with English nominalism over the status of universals themselves. These two declarations of independence share more than a family resemblance. They are both premised on a post-nominalist view of public discourse, in which universals are taken as living realities. In practical American politics this view reaches its apotheosis in Lincoln. Ultimately, it is at odds with the deeper logical categories of John Locke, who is both overplayed as the progenitor of all that is American and underrated for his coherence as a philosopher.

I say ultimately, because one can read Locke’s political treatises very far without noticing the implacable and shrewdly couched hostility of his logical writings to anything that smacks of universalism. His nominalism coupled with his horror of “enthusiasm” repels the universalistic strain in the American regime. Scholars who have noticed this have accordingly looked elsewhere for literary influences: to Montesquieu and other writers of the French Enlightenment, to the Scottish common-sense philosophers, to Cicero, to Aquinas, to Shakespeare, Calvin, Aristotle, the Bible. As a historical matter, these are interesting leads to explore.

But if what is sought is an articulated and enduring philosophical basis for American universalism, it comes in the difficult, apolitical, post-Civil War work of Charles Peirce. And if the best American statecraft has tamed an almost Gallic universalism with a very British sense of particular and contingent practices and interests, Peirce has given us a comparable achievement in logic: a presumption in favor of universals checked and balanced with devices for making them corrigible and concrete.

Peirce’s first lasting contribution to the literature of universals was a deceptively modest paper entitled “On a New List of Categories” presented to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1867. It is cast as a technical improvement upon Kant’s transcendental deduction. Kant, in revising Aristotle’s list of the categories, had limited himself to those for which he could find an a-priori, transcendental basis. His revised tables reaffirmed logical categories that were by then traditional—quantity, quality, modality, and relation. Later German writers who tried to supersede him (Hegel, Fichte, Schiller) invoked some mode of experience (history, morals, art) that went beyond mere textbook logic.

One move remained inadequately explored: an approach to the categories through the notion of representation itself. It could be called, following Locke, a semiotic approach (from the Greek sema, a sign, as in semaphore). It had been broached by Kant in the footnote that concludes his summary of the three critiques, and more explicitly by the early Kantian Karl Leonhard Reinhold, with whose work Peirce was acquainted.

The semiotic approach (or “semeiotic,” as Peirce punctiliously spelled it) preserved the approaches of the German idealists while remaining neutral among them. Since all ideas, even those declared to be a-priori, absolute, or “things-in-themselves,” could be seen as signs, it was fair to ask: what categories were postulated in semiosis, the activity of signification? In casting the question in this way, Peirce reoriented philosophy from a concern with the theory of knowledge (sometimes called “epistemology,” another word he disliked) to the conditions of representation.

This reorientation had the ironic advantage of using Ockham’s razor to cut down the Ockhamists themselves. The nominalist presumption against general ideas was, as Peirce saw it, a mystical doctrine masquerading as a skeptical one. For if ideas in general are not the criterion by which we judge other ideas, then we must posit some incognizable reality as that criterion. But a reality beyond cognition is a metaphysical, not to say mystical, superfluity. If one values parsimony, there is, as Peirce put it in 1868, no need to posit “a reality more recondite than that represented in a true representation.”

Of course, a true representation is not a simple thing. And Peirce’s subtle paper of 1867 sets forth the category of representation as presupposing other categories which are, however, accessible to us only through representation itself. To put it another way, each sign is abstracted from a welter of qualities and relations which are themselves accessible to us only as signs. As a bare simplification one can speak of two orders of such ulterior relations—that between the sign and its object, and that between the sign and some interpreting mind. Absent signs, there is no relation between one mind and another or between mind and the world of external objects. All experience, in short, is mediated, and mediated experience is the sole basis of our knowledge.

Yet our mediations—which Peirce calls signs and representations—carry with them evidence of their own fallibility. Whence the central predicament of all discursive theorizing: the theorist is always trying to capture in representations a precise account of experience which from the very nature of representation he knows will remain beyond his grasp. His predicament is not different in kind from that of the artist or businessman or politician, who deal with their own worlds of representation. But since his world requires that everything be articulated, he, unlike them, must have a reasoned account of the signs he uses and the inferences he makes with them and from them. For Peirce this led, as his insights invariably did, to a three-pronged project in the study of signs (“semiotic”): first, to a ramified typology of signs and their elemental constituents (“stecheotic”); second, to an investigation of the methods by which signs earn the patent of truth among the scientific community (“methodeutic”); third, to a view of philosophy as an inquiry into the “postulates” of logical experience (“critic”).

What still distinguishes Peirce’s contributions in these fields is his awareness of their medieval roots. And the second distinctive component of his discussion of universals is that he sees it as a continuation of the scholastic debate between the followers of Duns Scotus and those of William of Ockham—a debate between the “realists” and the “nominalists.”

His views on this debate were presented most forcefully in the 1871 review of the works of Bishop Berkeley, often considered an “idealist” voice at odds with the dominant, “empirical” spirit of British philosophy. Peirce, by contrast, saw Berkeley as a link between Hobbes and Locke, on the one hand, and Hume, on the other. And he saw all of them as playing out the nominalist themes introduced by William of Ockham. He thus used the Berkeley review to expose the dogmatic nominalism of modern English philosophy and to declare his independence from it.



Over the course of his life Peirce would systematically replace the keystones of nominalist logic with an alternative set of leading principles. Instead of the nominalist habit of assuming ideas to be discrete and to be related by the principle of association, he would employ the principle of continuity, which assumed fuzzy boundaries. Instead of taking doubt as the norm of inquiry, he would stress belief: “To make believe that one does not believe anything is an idle and self-deceptive pretense.” In place of a merely parsimonious prejudice against multiplying concepts, he would propound a general rule for simplifying all relations of more than three terms into triadic form.

He would even provide an alternative to the algebraic notation which Boole and he had pioneered as the basis of symbolic logic. Algebraic form, after all, subtly encourages the old nominalist prejudice that logical thought, like mathematical calculation, consists in the concatenation of precisely defined elements. Toward the end of his life Peirce would devise two systems of logical graphs to give diagrammatic form to his own sense that the most powerful thinking begins with indeterminacy and moves from the vague to the precise. Within precise algebraic notation, meanwhile, he would replace the central technical device of nominalism (Ockham’s “syncategorematic”) with the “quantifier,” a term he coined to describe the device that encourages individuation while building in a bias against isolated individuals.

On the fruitfully vague level of metaphysics, he would readapt his own notion of the “unsettled universal,” which looked to the future for vindication, to cover also the ground of Hegel’s “concrete universal,” which was better attuned to the past. And he would rework the central concepts of Plato’s Timaeus and Aristotle’s Metaphysics so that they applied not to the nature of the universe directly but only mediately through the human interpretation of signs.

The result is a body of work that does not fall neatly on one or the other side of what are often portrayed as irrevocable watersheds of modern philosophy—realism versus idealism, empiricism versus transcendental speculation, mathematical precision versus anti-formalist vagueness, an epistemological versus a metaphysical approach to first philosophy. It marks Peirce as the most scientific of the German idealists, the most profound of the Scottish common-sense school, the most powerful of the neoscholastics, the most far-ranging of the modern realists, the first American.




The unfolding of this astonishing development is a story for the years beyond 1867-71, and thus falls outside the volumes considered here. Still, “by their fruits shall ye know them.” The best-known fruit of Peirce’s youthful anti-nominalism is “pragmatism,” another term he is credited with introducing. The idea is already evident in Volume II. It will make its full appearance in Volume III, as a maxim for clear thinking. Here is the way Peirce presented it in “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” the second of his Popular Science Monthly articles of 1877-78:

Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.

Read in its chronological place, the pragmatic maxim is, I think, indisputably not a theory of truth but of meaning, not a fancy word for anti-intellectualism but an attempt to extend our intellectual purview. It is one of a wide array of devices by which Peirce developed his post-nominalist logic of science.

Specifically, the pragmatic maxim is Peirce’s counter and corollary to Ockham’s (that is, Durand’s) razor. For if we accept that “entities are not to be multiplied unnecessarily,” the question remains: how do we know what constitutes an unnecessary entity?

The nominalist answer, as we have seen, is to rule out universals, to admit only the (universal?) principle of resemblance and association among particular cases. The pragmatic maxim, by contrast, provides a more open-minded reading of the razor. It proposes that we weed out unnecessary ideas by a principle of clarity. Presented with any idea, the pragmatic maxim leads us to ask: what practical difference could it conceivably make? If there is no conceivable difference, the idea is superfluous.

Peirce’s pragmatic maxim does not build in a dogmatic presumption in favor of universals; it merely permits them to earn their own way. On pragmatic grounds, then, how do universals earn their way? What practical difference does it make whether we view universals as real possibilities or as mere associations of particulars? What difference whether we proceed with realistic or nominalistic presumptions?

For science, as we have seen, the difference is to be found in whether hypothesis is treated as a mystical exercise of “intuition” or as a method in its own right, to be studied and improved. Outside science, the practical consequences of the debate on universals are no less far-reaching. Here is the description of them with which Peirce concludes the Berkeley review:

. . . though the question of realism and nominalism has its roots in the technicalities of logic, its branches reach about our life. The question whether the genus homo has any existence except as individuals is the question whether there is anything of any more dignity, worth, and importance than individual happiness, individual aspirations, and individual life. Whether men really have anything in common, so that the community is to be considered as an end in itself, and if so, what the relative value of the two factors is, is the most fundamental practical question in regard to every public institution the constitution of which we have it in our power to influence.



Q.E.D. Peirce’s philosophical declaration of independence from nominalism provides a belated logical ground for the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America. For if, as the nominalists have it, reality only inheres in discrete individuals, it cannot be “self-evident” that, in Jefferson’s words, “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Such self-evidence presupposes the reality of universals or the reality of human community, or both. The American Declaration of Independence, then, insofar as it is more than a merely opportunistic assertion of power, requires a non-nominalist logical ground. It asserts that the legitimate authority of government rests upon universal truths, accessible to common reason.

Writing after that assertion had been put to its bloodiest test in a great civil war, Peirce provided a moderate basis for it—one that permits but does not require or encourage any further commitment to innate ideas, natural law, general will, collective conscience, or revealed religion. Unlike Locke, Peirce was not a man of politics, and it would be wrong to read him as consciously justifying an abolitionism, Civil War, or Reconstruction for which, among his close circle, only his wife Zina had any enthusiasm. But he was certainly aware that the way in which the particular, the individual, and the universal are related in logic is totemic of the relation between the individual and the community. The generalizing power of science encourages one to grant a degree of reality to universals; the American regime has required it as an article of faith. Peirce’s “unsettled universal” reconciles these demands.

It is thus not surprising that Peirce’s forward-looking view of the reality of universals was taken up in cruder form by other Americans. It is, for example, the central idea behind Josiah Royce’s notion of progressive revelation in religion, in which the truth of Christianity is made manifest in a Community of Interpretation. It is equally pronounced in John Dewey’s Great Community, in which science and democracy are seen as twin progressive forces uncovering universal principles by self-correcting procedures of public discourse.

There is about it, too, more than a faint echo of theological doctrine. A real universal is what is predestined to be accepted as such, in the way, for example, that in rabbinic tradition the whole development of the Oral Law is held to have been revealed along with the Written Law at Sinai, or in the way that in the Gospel According to St. John a preexistent Christ is held to have been present with God in the form of the Word, or (to get closer to home) in the way in which among Peirce’s Puritan forebears the elect were held predestined to work themselves into that condition. And in the popular religion of Peirce’s day, the notion of a universal truth both objectively real and continuously unfolding was embodied in the refrain of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “His truth goes marching on.”




None of which, to be sure, constitutes a philosophical case. Quite to the contrary: merely to suggest a theological analogue, a cultural resonance, or an institutional need for a philosophical argument is often taken, prima facie, as proof against it. To play fair, we should not judge a philosophical position by its agreement with some extraneous interest but, at the first threshold, by its integrity on its own terms. For Peirce the relevant terms always refer to the future.

As we have seen, around 1867 the young Peirce began to view reality as a “would-be”—as what would be agreed upon if all the evidence were known and all the possible viewpoints on it critically evaluated. For him what is called “truth” consists not in any settled doctrine but in the fated forward movement of inquiry itself. That usually irrelevant question—what is the relevance of this philosophy for us?—thus seems in Peirce’s case reasonable and apt. To what extent has the progress of the past century vindicated him?

Within academic philosophy, Peirce’s youthful anti-nominalism takes on, if anything, a sharper edge today. It reads as an attack on unnamed eminences—Wittgenstein and Strawson on one side of the Atlantic, Willard Quine and Nelson Goodman, the polestars of Harvard’s postwar preeminence, on the other—writers who have helped to make orthodox that peculiar vacillation between worlds of fact and intuition that Peirce calls nominalism.

Right after World War II, which many thought to have been fought in part over universal ideals, Professors Quine and Goodman declared universals unreal. They were perhaps reacting against C.I. Lewis, an admirer of Peirce who had been America’s reigning logician in the interwar period. They issued (in the Journal of Symbolic Logic) a manifesto entitled “Steps Toward a Constructive Nominalism,” which reads like a parodist’s version of the attitudes Peirce criticized. The authors declaim against “abstract objects” in terms that reintroduce the confusion between the “abstract” and the “general” that Peirce had taken some pains to dispel in 1867. And they candidly confess the grounds of their skepticism: “Fundamentally our refusal [to accept ‘abstract objects’ even in mathematics] . . . is based on a philosophical intuition that cannot be justified by appeal to anything more ultimate.” The extremism of this statement necessitated many adjustments over the years, often with ideas that show a greater continuity with C.I. Lewis and thence with Peirce than the initial break would lead one to suppose. Here, then, the reader of Peirce has a head start in understanding the backing and filling of postwar academic philosophy.

Peirce’s thought circa 1871 also puts in some perspective the work of Saul A. Kripke, often described as the leading younger logician of the analytic school. His most recent book, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language (Harvard, 1982), would appear at first glance a careful and respectful reinterpretation of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, which abandons an extreme for a more supple nominalism. In point of fact, it sets up the terms for a radical break with Wittgenstein on issues adumbrated in Peirce’s Berkeley review. Walking unawares along Peirce’s path, Kripke finds a common structure in the central arguments of Wittgenstein, Berkeley, and Hume. He describes this as due to “skepticism” rather than “nominalism,” and he notices points of comparison with Quine, Goodman, and other latter-day nominalists (“skeptics”). He takes care to note that his interpretation of Wittgenstein came to him in the early 1960′s, so that, if he does in fact make the open, Peircean break—if he sees “community” not as an independent concept but as a derivative one entailed in the character of signs themselves—it will seem roughly fair to say that in the century following the original publication of the materials in Volume II, American philosophy of logic has moved from the early Peirce to the early Peirce.

As latter-day nominalism runs its course, the caveat conveyed in Peirce’s work on medieval texts is especially pertinent: crudely put, don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Just as the achievements of scholastic logic were ignored in the first three centuries of the scientific movement, so there are now portents of a compensatory barbarism. Increasingly, academic philosophers are expected to earn their keep by pronouncing on morally meaningful topics. This has led in some quarters to a nostalgia for pre-scientific times and to a general berating of “modernity,” by which is sometimes meant something much broader than the via moderna of the early Ockhamists: an attack also upon the humane skepticism and cultivated individuality often associated with the nominalist school. Peirce, in his willingness to entertain universals and in his insistence on methods for making them open-ended, workable, and precise, suggests a more civilized and arduous procedure for those wishing to do philosophy on non-scientific topics: instead of rejecting out of hand the entire body of modern philosophy, to understand its limitations on its own terms. Indeed, Max H. Fisch, the dean of Peirce scholarship, has suggested that Peirce’s greatest future influence may lie in his bearing upon the “philosophy of institutions” other than those of modern science.



Outside the departments of philosophy there are also fruits to be plucked from the young Peirce. He puts forth a model for disciplined thought still in advance of the prevailing canons. Instead of beginning with what is precise and verifiable, one begins with what is ill-defined. Inquiry then appears not like a mosaic in which one works with tesserae already cut to size, but like the molding of an unshapen piece of clay. The discipline consists not in avoiding what is vague or grandiose but in the self-control to entertain indeterminate ideas until one can give them precise definition. Since definition itself results from a back-and-forth procedure of testing, relation, and negation, it is this procedure, not the canonical forms called induction and deduction, that is at the heart of creative work.

But unlike clay modeling, Peirce’s method of thought does not stop with a settled form. Its concepts never rest in equilibrium. They are never baked into a hardened mold. Peirce’s early thought lays the ground not only for an alternative to nominalism as a school of thought but to the noun as a crutch for thought. As his later correspondence has it, Peirce sought a “mode of thinking that never results in a concept that is equivalent to a noun substantive.” He elsewhere notes that Gaelic lacks a subject noun, that Egyptian hieroglyphs are subversive of the Indo-European subject-predicate form, and that in biblical Hebrew and other Semitic languages nouns have obvious verbal roots and force.

In effect, Peirce is advocating a suspension of the Law of the Excluded Middle, which stipulates that anything must be either A or not A. He is proposing also a doctrine of the “continuous predicate,” in which no logical relation is static. I, for one, doubt whether the equilibrium theories of modern economists, or the notion of discrete stages, periods, and social classes that are so convenient in the writing of history are compatible with thinking in Peirce’s terms.

There is, finally, a way in which the young Peirce speaks to what is often called common sense—that sphere in which outworn philosophies supply counters for everyday thought. Current political discourse, for example, is structured around quasi-philosophical antinomies—“idealism” versus “realism,” a “pragmatic” versus an “ideological” approach—that cannot survive a reading of Volume II. To distinguish the real from the fictitious or the external from the internal is tenable enough. But as the young Peirce shows, to distinguish the real from the ideal is a very different matter. The real, as he sees it circa 1871, is an idea that would be agreed upon independently of what you or I now happen to believe. In this sense the real has an inescapable ideal character, and it is a profoundly corrupting discourse that sets “realism” and “idealism” at antipodes, as if Philistinism were the ultimate realism.

An ideal or conceptual basis is also at the heart of what can properly be called pragmatism. Whether used as a term of praise or derision, “pragmatism” now connotes a hearty anti-intellectualism, a robust willingness to be buffeted by the winds of fortune, to accommodate, to compromise, to succeed under the pressures of the moment. In this vulgar pragmatism, whatever succeeds is true, and if it ceases to succeed, something else must be true, until such time as it, too, can be associated with some documentable debacle, such as a lowering by two percentage points of the gross national product.

It seems almost a fresh revelation to be reminded that pragmatism, as originally set forth, is a maxim for appraising concepts rather than an excuse for playing fast and loose with them. Insofar as it bears on politics, pragmatism consists simply in understanding the meaning of a doctrine in terms of its practical effects. Thus if, for instance, a given view of the state carries with it the need for wholesale liquidation of populations, suppression of freedoms, and regimentation of everyday life, these are not, pragmatically considered, “means” to an “end”; rather, they are the “meaning” of the doctrine itself.




In part, Peirce’s precocity on a wide range of issues is a tribute to the philosophers he worked hardest to understand—the “nominalists” Kant and Ockham, the “realist” Duns Scotus. But the ranging relevance of his early thought also has an institutional cause. Boston in those days aspired to be an American Athens. Peirce had to go no farther than his father’s house to meet the country’s leading poets, jurists, scientists, preachers, and statesmen. And as we have already seen, his father, aunt, uncles, and other teachers were at the very center of the Lazzaroni clique. They were all imbued with an ideal of a scientific research university fed by elite secondary schools. They sought a combination of intellectual rigor and democratic recruitment that would improve upon rather than ape the available European models. Peirce wrote for that kind of a research establishment, but without the compromises by which the contemporary version of it has been achieved. If his work, even when wrong, enters easily into the conversations of contemporary specialists, it is because he had them specifically in mind. If it goes beyond them, it is because he was not limited by their institutional blinders.

When Peirce wrote the materials in Volume II there was no such thing as a graduate department of philosophy in America. The system of our own day, in which a philosopher is employed as a scholar in some subfield of a balkanized faculty, has advantages that Peirce, with his faith in the cultivation of the specialized sciences, appreciated. In philosophy, however, the departmental system has also resulted in the sundering of elements that he united in his person. Few American philosophy departments, let alone individuals, combine his historical sense of philosophy with a dedication to precise, mathematical notation with broad speculative and scientific abilities. As a result, readings of Peirce by scholars in this or that philosophical subdivision have often missed a larger sense of what he is doing.

He was, after all, consciously recasting the logical basis of modern science, consciously developing the first systematic American philosophy, consciously justifying the vision of an ideal university as a community of ongoing inquiry, and doing so in a way that both ratified and moderated the religiously grounded universality that had triumphed in the American Civil War. All this gives his theoretical work a breadth and depth not equaled by any other American philosopher. He emerges as a post-Enlightenment writer untinged by romanticism, aestheticism, or nostalgia. Independently of the techniques pioneered, arguments made, and doctrines expounded—and the ritual admission that one “cannot do justice to them here” is especially appropriate for a writer as meticulous and difficult as Peirce—the truly exciting thing about the two volumes at hand is that they document the founding of American philosophy. They exhibit the maturation and then the first bold strokes of an epochal mind.




They also set the stage for a tragedy. The bright-eyed young scholar of 1867 will become, in his own words of 1898, “an old hermit, white and wild,” and in the words of William James five years later, “a seedy, almost sordid old man.” His collection of medieval texts will have long since been sold to the Johns Hopkins library to raise money. He will have become involved in the 1890′s in frenetic, failed, Gilded Age moneymaking schemes to float new inventions, build great canals, sell oil paintings, write bestselling texts. In the end he will be reduced to offering himself to declaim the part of King Lear before a hall in Boston for $200. His old friend William James will rescue him first by laundering private funds through the Harvard Corporation to provide him a dignified forum for a lecture series in 1903, then by direct charity.

The whole spectacle will point comfortable lessons for his tenured contemporaries: genius without character is vain; brilliance cannot be sustained without colleagues; the most important book is a balanced checkbook; slow and steady wins the race.

And not for his contemporaries alone. There is an undercurrent in much writing on Peirce that suggests he got what he deserved, that it was his own flaws that brought him down. Overprotected by his father, he was too self-centered to get on with others, too erratic to work in harness, too lacking in self-control to manage his finances. His star rose only while his father lived. After that his academic career collapsed and his work became hopelessly eccentric. His separation from university life has seemed to point a special moral about the impossibility of a life of the mind outside academe, and to this day in the institutions that blackballed him there arise exculpatory rumors of other sins made darker by being unnamed.

This account, at least insofar as it concerns his intellectual output, seems to have been rejected by the Indiana editors: of their twenty volumes, sixteen will be devoted to Peirce’s post-academic period. But I also think the “tragic-flaw” account faulty in giving insufficient credit to the indifference and malevolence of others. And since this academic year marks the centenary of Peirce’s firing from Johns Hopkins, in a prejudicial way that ended his university career, it is perhaps fitting to conclude by pursuing to 1884 our brief chronicle of Peirce’s relation to academic life.

Documents which have not yet received public notice suggest that, whatever his personal weaknesses, Peirce was the victim at Johns Hopkins of a star-chamber proceeding set in motion by a scientific rival, Simon Newcomb, and abetted by a bureaucratic one, Julius Hilgard.

The prime mover of the piece was Simon New-comb, described by Peirce in later years as America’s leading man of science of the 19th century. Newcomb had been a protégé of Benjamin Peirce and his brother-in-law Charles Henry Davis. He had made his early career entirely within the Lazzaroni circle. Like Peirce’s father, he led a publicly irreproachable life and had an institutional influence equal to his scientific achievement. He and Charles Peirce were among the extraordinary group of younger scholars and scientists assembled by Daniel Coit Gilman, the founding president of Johns Hopkins.

Hopkins in those days was the university of Lazzaroni dreams. Gilman announced that the $4-million Hopkins bequest would be devoted to pure graduate research. This bold stroke spurred other college presidents, notably Eliot at Harvard, to invest in advanced research. Peirce was hired by Gilman in 1879 as a part-time lecturer in logic, with the remainder of his time devoted to work at the Coast and Geodetic Survey. The quality and general tenor of his graduate teaching may be surmised from what was to have been the first of a series edited by him of collected papers of his students, Studies in Logic by Members of the Johns Hopkins University (1883).4 Though he was, as a personal matter, what would now be called highly neurotic, his main personal disability was a great resource to a research university. He was cursed with a systematic mind chained to an impulsive nature. Unable to find a form for all his ideas, he was forever generating insights that were immensely stimulating to others. He was for five years hired on a year’s renewable contract. At the beginning of his fifth year, in September 1883, he was encouraged by Gilman to take a two-year lease on a house in Baltimore.

Before coming to Hopkins, Peirce had alerted Gilman to possible embarrassment resulting from his permanent separation from his wife. Peirce’s formal divorce went through in 1883 and was followed with an immediate marriage to a French widow, who claimed to be of a partly noble background. Juliette, the new Mrs. Peirce, made a favorable initial impression on Mrs. Gilman. There was nothing in the remarriage that changed Peirce’s status at Hopkins, until Newcomb took it upon himself to bring certain rumors about Peirce to the attention of a straitlaced member of the board of trustees.

The source of the rumors was Julius Erasmus Hilgard, whom we have encountered as assistant under Bache and Benjamin Peirce. Twice blocked by the elder Peirce for promotion to superintendent of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, Hilgard finally succeeded to the job, but as a bitter, broken, and sick man. He was morally outraged at young Peirce’s remarriage: he knew Charley and Juliette to have been in flagrant consort prior to the divorce. Newcomb retailed this and perhaps other rumors to the Baltimore burgher in a railroad-car conversation. The trustee, horrified, reported the rumors as fact to Gilman. Newcomb then followed with a written note to Gilman confirming that the source of the rumors felt it a moral duty to supply whatever further testimony was needed.



Though there is no record of any further inquiry having been made, Peirce soon found himself severed from Hopkins without any idea of the cause. The university simply declared itself to be discontinuing instruction in logic and terminated all three faculty in the subject. It then hired two of them back under other rubrics. Unaware of Newcomb’s role and never informed of the charges against him, Peirce accused Gilman of “treachery.” Juliette made a special appeal in a stormy private meeting that made matters worse. Neither Gilman nor the trustees ever gave any statement of cause for their action, though they did, in the end, make restitution for the second year of rental on Peirce’s house. A reputation for moral turpitude followed the Peirces during their subsequent thirty years of quiet rural life, and there are written records to attest that a bad moral character was used to deny Peirce consideration for further university posts.

Newcomb’s role can be substantiated mainly from his gossip-laden correspondence with his wife, who spent 1883-85 in Europe supervising the Swiss education of the three Newcomb daughters. Those letters also reveal that Mary Hassler Newcomb, a granddaughter of the founding superintendent of the Survey, did some Peirce research of her own. She reported to her husband allegations of financial improprieties in Peirce’s commissioning of the European manufacture of pendulums for the Survey. Newcomb passed these reports on to Hilgard, who tried to use them to compel Peirce’s resignation. But the European source of the allegations could not (to Newcomb’s annoyance) be induced to commit them to writing, and Peirce was able to demonstrate an out-of-pocket payment that Mrs. Newcomb’s informant had neglected. Hilgard and Newcomb thus did not find sufficient grounds to complete the destruction of Peirce’s livelihood. As a public agency, the Survey could not chop Peirce quite so neatly as Johns Hopkins, and he was still drawing his assistant’s salary when Hilgard’s alcoholism forced his own premature retirement. Newcomb, foreseeing Hilgard’s demise, corresponded with his wife about giving up his tenured chair at Hopkins to become Hilgard’s successor. But he did not need the superintendency to confirm his victory in the one-sided war for the Lazzaroni succession.

Peirce and Juliette had some inherited income, which along with his Survey job gave them a very comfortable $10,000 a year with which to retire to a newly bought house in Milford, Pennsylvania. It was his hope to live as a country gentleman/philosopher. As long as his money lasted, his wife was continually making additions to the chateau. In the early 1890′s, however, Peirce lost everything in a stock-market crash, was terminated for neglecting his duties at the Survey, went through a sheriff’s seizure of his house, and had to support himself by writing reviews for the Nation and definitions for the Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia. Newcomb, when the first edition of the dictionary appeared, published a needlessly captious letter criticizing some of Peirce’s definitions.

By the turn of the century, when Peirce was nearly destitute, his friends encouraged him to apply to the newly formed Carnegie Institution, set up to support outstanding intellectual work in “every department of study.” His application may well be the most impressive foundation-grant proposal ever submitted, both in intellectual scope and in the accompanying testimonies of support. Some two dozen letters of recommendation were filed from the leading philosophers and statesmen of the day. The president of that newly founded institution, however, was Daniel Coit Gilman, who had the secretary of the executive committee solicit an independent professional opinion from Simon Newcomb. Peirce’s application was refused, on the old Johns Hopkins grounds that work in logic fell outside the defined sphere of the Carnegie Institution, which would limit itself to work in the special sciences. Under this rubric, Newcomb himself received a grant at a later date, as did one of his close associates.




Peirce was without rancor. He remained unflagging in his high estimation of Newcomb’s contribution to science and of Gilman’s institution-building role. Their failure to support him does not erase these achievements. But I am not the first to see it as raising serious questions about institutional support of what is called genius. For it is in the nature of groundbreaking work that few can identify it. Of these, fewer still command the resources to support it. And in highly theoretical fields the very activity of inquiry often carries with it incapacities in practical affairs that limit effective control to still fewer hands. If those hands are unsteadied by some extraneous passion, even a brilliant light may be extinguished. In Peirce’s day, the modest resources he required were concentrated in two places—Harvard and Johns Hopkins—and both failed him.

As a result, his later life was subjected to torments beyond those already built into his work. Any critical examination of the deepest logical categories risks severing the bonds that unite the philosopher with his fellow men. Any attempt to develop an alternative to orthodox habits of thought requires a dedication and regularity that put severe strains on any but the most phlegmatic temperament. For the prickly and emotional Peirce, there was enough agony simply in pursuing his aim in life. To this were added financial uncertainty, social ostracism, and poignant contradictions: Peirce, the philospher par excellence of the communal basis of inquiry, forced to work in utter isolation; the warrior against the noun substantive having to make his livelihood writing dictionary definitions; the pampered child of the Lazzaroni exiled from the university of their dreams to a cruel world of piecework and business ventures; the believer in heroic dedication to an indefinite future begging for tomorrow’s bread. That he managed nevertheless to complete a body of work which, for all its many imperfections and unfulfilled projects, will provide, as it is issued over the coming years, more to raise the general standard of theoretical study than that of any living American philosopher, is one of the more inspiring stories to have taken place on this continent.

It would be comforting to think that in our own day a vast, bureaucratized, and pluralistic research establishment and the system of “peer review” prevent a repetition of Peirce’s tribulations. But there are never peers to review unique work, and the very bureaucratization of intellectual labor entrenches the conventional. Moreover, the mere maintenance of overhead costs seems to require making and therefore enforcing a case for inquiry in terms of some irrelevant utility, as in books by university presidents with such titles as Beyond the Ivory Tower (Harvard) or The University and the Public Interest (Yale) or The Uses of the University (California). There is, however, no utilitarian formula for the propagation of genius, or even of simple intelligence, no institutional procedure more efficacious than the exercise of spacious judgment, and no rule more reliable than this: to pursue our intimations of what is important for its own sake, and when we find it in others, to support it as best we are able.

It will perhaps be clear why among friends of learning these Peirce volumes will be welcomed as more than a publishing event. They provide an occasion to retrieve a sense of clarity about fundamental concerns. Attractively produced, impeccably introduced and annotated, they pay tribute to a remarkable mind. In so doing they advance by a giant step the life of the mind to which Charles Sanders Peirce was heroically devoted:

Sometimes we can personally attain to heroism. The soldier who runs to scale a wall knows that he will probably be shot, but that is not all he cares for. He also knows that if all the regiment, with whom in feeling he identifies himself, rush forward at once, the fort will be taken. In other cases we can only imitate the virtue.


1 An updated version of this bibliography, by Christian J. W. Kloesel, has recently been published in The Relevance of Charles Peirce, edited by Eugene Freeman, Hegeler Institute (La Salle, Illinois), 410 pp., $29.95.

2 Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition. Volume I 1857-1866. Preface by Edward C. Moore, Introduction by Max H. Fisch. Indiana University Press, 698 pp., $32.50. Volume II 1867-1871. Preface by Edward C. Moore. Introduction by Max H. Fisch, C. F. Delaney, and Daniel D. Merrill. Forthcoming, January 1984.

3 The Peirce Edition Project at the joint campus of Indiana and Purdue Universities in Indianapolis houses the files and library of Max H. Fisch, who has devoted the past forty years to scholarship on Peirce. It serves as an ongoing scholarly center. In addition, the Project has benefited from two preparatory collections: three volumes of Texas Tech Graduate Studies (1975, 1978, 1979) devoted to Peirce's contributions to the Nation, compiled and annotated at the Institute for Studies in Pragmaticism, Lubbock, Texas, by K. L. Ketner and J. E. Cook; and a multivolume, 2,500-page collection of Peirce's mathematical papers, The New Elements of Mathematics, edited and introduced by Carolyn Eisele (Humanities Press, 1976).

4 Recently reissued as Volume I of the Foundations of Semiotics series, Achim Eschbach, general editor (John Benjamins Publishers, Amsterdam and Philadelphia, 1983).

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