Charles Sanders Peirce

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Charles Sanders Peirce (1839 – 1914)[1] was an American logician, mathematician, philosopher, scientist and polymath[2] William James and other pragmatists credited Peirce as Pragmatism's founder.[3] From 1879 to 1884 he was a lecturer at the new graduate university, Johns Hopkins. There he taught logic to Christine Ladd-Franklin and to John Dewey, who became a leader of the liberal wing of pragmatism. Peirce himself was quite conservative when it came to social and economic issues.[4]



Peirce was home-schooled by his father, Benjamin Peirce, a Harvard professor and the nation's leading mathematician. Benjamin especially taught Charles how to solve increasingly complex math and logic problems. He graduated from Harvard College in 1859 with mediocre grades; he later earned degrees in chemistry and biology with distinction. He became a research scientist with the United States Coast Survey, 1861-1891, doing research on gravity. At the same time he taught and did research at Harvard in logic and astronomy.

He suffered from an early age from trigeminal or "facial" neuralgia, an extremely painful condition. Peirce described himself when a senior at college as being vain, snobbish, uncivil, reckless, ill-tempered, and lazy. Lazy he was not, but the other personality traits only worsened and prevented him from securing a permanent faculty appointment anywhere, a cause defeated by his opponents' reporting to potential academic employers the fact of his having lived with his future second wife Juliette while still married to his first. He inherited some money in 1887 and took his books and second wife Juliette to what he called "the wildest county of the Northern States", near Milford, Pennsylvania, an area which attracted him because it was a watering hole for captains of industry[5]. There he built a house which he called Arisbe, where he hoped to have intellectual guests regularly from New York City, and which he and Juliette continued to expand even during the poverty from which they never finally escaped. He wrote many articles for periodicals, over 300 during his lifetime for The Nation, and for dictionaries[6] and encyclopedias, which paid money in those days, but not enough to escape poverty.


In logic Peirce was the first American to take up George Boole's program to find the mathematical laws of logic--a program that began modern logic. Peirce made numerous major contributions from 1866 to 1914. His technical papers of 1867 to 1885 established him as the greatest formal logician in the world, and the most influential in the period from Boole to Ernst Schroeder. Peirce's papers were extremely difficult, but Schroeder explicated them and they became well known in the field.

Peirce radically modified, extended, and transformed Boolean algebra, making it applicable to propositions, relations, probability, and arithmetic. Following De Morgan, Peirce laid the foundations of the logic of relations, the key technique for the logical analysis of mathematics. He invented the copula symbol of inclusion, the most important symbol in the logic of classes. Peirce invented two new logical algebras, two new systems of logical graphs, discovered the link between the logic of classes and the logic of propositions, was the first to give the fundamental principle for the logical development of mathematics, and made fundamental contributions to probability theory, induction, statistics, and the logic of scientific methodology. Peirce wrote an elaborate book on advanced logic but could not get it published.


Peirce was the creator if "Pragmatism;" it emerged from his many discussions in Cambridge at a "metaphysical club" founded in the 1870s. Most influential on peirce were Chauncey Wright, a philosopher; William James, Peirce's lifelong friend and benefactor; and Nicholas St. John Green, a lawyer and follower of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham who interpreted doctrines in terms of their effect upon social life. Peirce began reading philosophy and by 1871 he was converted to the version of realism originally propounded by medieval philosopher Duns Scotus. Peirce remained a realist in philosophy all his life, eventually embracing realism not only about generals or universals but also about modalities such as possibility and necessity. His first major statement of Pragmatism appeared in Popular Science Monthly in January 1878, under the title "How to Make Our Ideas Clear."[7]

In 1898 William James first publicly used the term "pragmatism" and acknowledged Peirce's priority. Peirce's pragmatism, however, is not the same as James's; it has more in common with the somewhat independently developed idealism of Josiah Royce and the later views of John Dewey. Peirce shared many of the views characteristic of the pragmatic school, developing them in his own fashion. He believed in the dependence of logic on ethics, argued as early as 1868 against individualism and egoism, and developed social theories of reality and logic. At the same time he believed that the development of business methods should be left to business without law's interference.[8] He believed and argued that logic precedes metaphysics, and that metaphysicians failing to appreciate that precedence have always barred the way to inquiry.[9]

Peirce held that a conception's meaning is general and does not boil down to its actual consequences (or "cash value") but consists in the conceived object's conceivable practical consequences. He disagreed with other Pragmatists over what he called their "angry hatred of strict logic" and their views that, among other things, "truth is mutable" and "infinity is unreal".[10].

Pragmatism allows ideas to have any origin; what matters is not where we got an idea from but where we can go with it. In the case of science the usefulness of an idea includes reliability and fruitfulness. "Fruitfulness" does not mean practical utility but, rather, the opening up of original lines of successful research, what mathematicians nowadays call fecundity. As reliability is to truth, so fruitfulness is to depth and breadth of understanding. The test of truth and fruitfulness lies in the future. Truth, for the pragmatist, depends on our developing the implications of ideas so that we can find ways of applying them experimentally.[11]


Peirce's work in logic established the foundation for yet another branch of study, semiotics, which would not flourish until 40 years after his death. The discipline of semiotics studies how information, in the form of language or any other type of communication (music, painting, etc.), is transmitted and received. In Peirce's formulation, signs are presented not only by culture but also by nature (reactions, natural semblances, etc.) and logic (abstract ideas are signs), and there is a triangular relationship between sign, object, and interpretant. A sign represents a particular thing or idea which is being communicated (the object). A sign's object is either immediate to the sign, that is, the object as represented by the sign, or is a dynamic object, the object as it really is, even if fictional such as Rip Van Winkle. An interpretant is a sign's effect that amounts to a further sign, for instance a quality of impression (an immediate interpretant, immediate to the sign) which the sign is suited to produce, or an actually resulting interpretation (a dynamic interpretant) such as a translation, state of agitation, or forming of an idea in an interpreter's mind; or a kind of ideal or norm (a final or normal interpretant), the conduct that would be produced if the sign were to be sufficiently interpreted.

The sign itself can take on three forms, an icon, an index, or a symbol. An icon directly resembles the object, regardless of factual connection to it (the object need not even exist) and regardless of interpretation (the resemblance is objective though relative to sight, intellect, etc.). An index represents through factual connection to the object; for example an ongoing effect such as smoke is an index of fire; the smoke need not resemble the fire, nor is its connection with fire a matter of interpretation. A symbol does depend on interpretation, and so it requires a dependable rule or habit of interpretation; that rule is essentially the symbol. A symbol represents the object by an interpretive norm or rule that may be logical, cultural, or even inborn but in any case without depending on resemblance or factual connection to the object. Written and spoken language therefore rely heavily on symbolic signs, in that a word's meaning must be understood by both the speaker and the listener in order for communication to take place. Designations such as proper names and words such as "this" Peirce usually considered to be indices. Peirce considered language as involving a mind's ability to supply mental indices and icons to accompany it. Peirce regarded diagrams as icons, and "All___is___" as a linguistic diagram, subject to logical transformations.

Peirce's ideas were highly influential on later linguistic scholars such as Noam Chomsky, as well as on deconstructionists Jacques Derrida and Paul le Man. His ideas have also entered music theory, in a separate branch known as musical semiotics. Leading exponents of this field include Wilson Coker, Robert Hatten, David Lidov, and V. Kofi Agawu.

Further reading

  • Auspitz, Josiah Lee. "The Greatest Living American Philosopher." Commentary 1983 76(6): 51-64. 0010-2601 Calls Peirce a living philosopher because his ideas remain relevant online edition
  • Brent, Joseph. Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life (1998), 404pp; the standard biography excerpt and text search
  • Burch, Robert W. "Charles Sanders Peirce" in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2006), advanced online
  • Haack, Susan. "Vulgar Rortyism" in The New Citerion (1997). Review of Louis Menand's Pragmatism: A Reader. Opposed to Menand's and Rorty's views of Peirce. Online edition.
  • Houser, Nathan. "Charles S. Peirce", the Peirce Edition Project, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis online edition.
  • Peirce Edition Project editors, "Chronology" (of Peirce's life), Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, online edition.
  • Short, Thomas. "The Conservative Pragmatism of Charles Peirce," Modern Age Volume 43, Number 4; Fall 2001 online edition pdf. Non-pdf online edition at First Principles.
  • Weiss, Paul. "Peirce, Charles Sanders" Dictionary of American Biography (1935), online edition.

Specialized studies

  • Braude, Stephen E. "Peirce on the Paranormal". Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 1998 34(1): 203-224. 0009-1774 Looks at P's ideas 1887-1906 regarding telepathy, spiritualism, psychokinesis, postmortem survival, and miracles. Online edition.
  • Delaney, Cornelius. Science, Knowledge, and Mind: A Study in the Philosophy of C. S. Peirce (1993)
  • Fisch, Max H. Peirce, Semeiotic, and Pragmatism. ed. by Kenneth Laine Ketner and Christian J. W. Kloesel, Indiana U. Press, 1986. 464 pp.
  • Hartman, Matthew. "Utopian Evolution: The Sentimental Critique of Social Darwinism in Bellamy and Peirce." Utopian Studies 1999 10(1): 26-41. 1045-991X Compares Peirce's essay "Evolutionary Love" (1893) with Edward Bellamy's utopian novel Looking Backward (1888), exploring the elevation of creative love over greed as agents of change. Both works were written in the utopian vein in response to the growing prominence of capitalist economic theory and Social Darwinism during the Gilded Age. Online edition
  • Hausman, Carl R. Charles S. Peirce's Evolutionary Philosophy (1993)
  • Hoopes, James. Community Denied: The Wrong Turn of Pragmatic Liberalism (1998), argues for Peirce's view of pragmatism, which perceived an individual in terms of his relations with others, over James's and Dewey's "weak liberalism."
  • Ketner, Kenneth Laine. His Glassy Essence: An Autobiography of Charles Sanders Peirce. Vanderbilt U. Pr., 1998. 420 pp.; this is a novel in which Ketner combines some actual documents with an imaginary reconstruction of P's life. Excerpt online
  • Leja, Michael. "Peirce, Visuality, and Art." Representations 2000 (72): 97-122. 0734-6018 Examines the visuality of his semiotics and the use of images and reflected meaning; based on drawings in Peirce's unpublished notes
  • Locke, Gordon. "Peirce's Metaphysics: Evolution, Synechism, and the Mathematical Conception of the Continuum." Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 2000 36(1): 133-147. Explores his use of the mathematical concept of the continuum, an image he used to express the tightly packed connectedness of related concepts. His metaphysics of evolution depends completely on a continuum completely lacking inherent divisions, one that is "nothing but pure potential for demarcation."
  • Midtgarden, Torjus. "Peirce's Speculative Grammar from 1895-1896: Its Exegetical Background and Significance." Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 2001 37(1): 81-96. Examines the changes in Peirce's epistemological thinking that were determined by his innovations in predicate logic during the 1880s, focused on "On the Algebra of Logic" (1885) and "Grand Logic" (1893).
  • Moore, Edward C., ed. Charles S. Peirce and the Philosophy of Science: Papers from the Harvard Sesquicentennial Congress. U. of Alabama Press, 1993. 424 pp.

Primary sources

  • Peirce, Charles Sanders. The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, Volume 1 (1867–1893) (1992) ed. Nathan Houser and Christian Kloesel, and Volume Two (1893-1913) (1998) ed. Peirce Edition Project excerpt and text search; online edition.
  • Peirce, Charles Sanders. Peirce on Signs: Writings on Semiotics (1991) ed. James Hoopes, University of North Carolina Press excerpt and text search
  • Peirce, Charles Sanders. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (vols 1-6 1931-35) ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss and (vols. 7-8 1958) ed. Arthur W. Burks, Harvard & online subscription.
  • Peirce, Charles Sanders. The New Elements of Mathematics by Charles S. Peirce, ed. Carolyn Eisele (4 vol. in 5, 1976), Mouton and Humanities Press.
  • Peirce, Charles Sanders. Contributions to 'The Nation' ed. Kenneth Laine Ketner and James Edward Cook (4 vol 1975-1987) Texas Tech University and online subscription.
  • Peirce, Charles Sanders. Historical Perspectives on Peirce's Logic of Science: A History of Science. ed. by Carolyn Eisele, 2 vol. New York: Mouton, 1985. 1130 pp.
  • Peirce, Charles Sanders and Lady Welby, Victoria. Semiotic and Significs: The Correspondence between C. S. Peirce and Victoria Lady Welby (1977) ed. Charles S. Hardwick with James Cook, Indiana University Press. 2nd ed. 2001, Press of Arisbe Associates.
  • Peirce, Charles Sanders. Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition (vols. 1-6 & 8 of projected 30, 1981-present) eds. Peirce Edition Project electronic version, Indiana University Press and (vols. 1-6) online subscription.
  • Peirce, Charles Sanders. Reasoning and the Logic of Things, The Cambridge Conference Lectures of 1898 (1992) ed. Kenneth Laine Ketner, intro. and commentary Hilary Putnam, Harvard.
  • Peirce, Charles Sanders. Pragmatism as a Principle and Method of Right Thinking: The 1903 Harvard "Lectures on Pragmatism" (1997) ed. Patricia Ann Turisi, SUNY Press.


  1. pronounced "purse"
  2. He wrote important essays on logic, pragmatism, metaphysics, mathematics, geodesy, religion, astronomy, and chemistry. He also wrote on psychology, early English and classical Greek pronunciation, psychical research, criminology, the history of science, ancient history, Egyptology, and Napoleon, prepared a thesaurus and an editor's manual, and did translations from Latin and German.
  3. Pierce later called his ideas "pragmaticism", but the new term did not prove useful to philosophers and has been abandoned.
  4. See Short (2001)
  5. See "Discovering the American Aristotle" by Edward T. Oakes in First Things, 1993, online edition.
  6. Peirce wrote or reviewed many entries in the Century Dictionary (online edition) and Baldwin's Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology (online editions here and here)
  7. see "How to Make Our Ideas Clear," by Charles S. Peirce; Popular Science Monthly 12 (January 1878), 286-302
  8. See the 1910 quote from Peirce in the third section of "Pragmatism and American Democracy: An Elective Affinity Analysis" by Norbert Wiley, presented at the American Sociological Association Meetings, 2003, online edition.
  9. See for example "F.R.L." (First Rule of Logic), 1899 manuscript, not to be confused with another piece given that title. Published in Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce vol. 1, paragraphs 135-140, online edition.
  10. Peirce, C.S. (1908), "A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God", Hibbert Journal vol. 7, pp. 90-112. Reprinted in Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce vol. 6, paragraphs 452-485 and The Essential Peirce vol. 2, pp.434-450.
  11. See Short (2001)
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