C H A R L E S S. P E I R C E

Charles Sanders Peirce was born on 10 September 1839 in Cambridge, Massachusetts--when Darwin was only 30 years old--and he lived until 1914, the year World War I began. His father, Benjamin Peirce, was a distinguished professor at Harvard College and the most respected mathematician in America. Benjamin was Harvard's Perkins Professor of Astronomy and Mathematics for nearly forty years, was largely responsible for introducing mathematics as a subject for research in American institutions, as his son Charles would be for logic a generation or so later. Benjamin is known especially for his contributions to analytic mechanics and linear associative algebra, but he is also remembered for his early work in astronomy and for playing a role in the discovery of Neptune. He was a member of a small group of men, known as the Lazzaroni, who were largely responsible for the 19th century American institutionalization of science in such organizations as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Science, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Lawrence Scientific School. Benjamin Peirce was widely recognized as the most powerful mind thus far produced in the United States.

Intellectually, Charles Peirce and his father had a lot in common. One curious statement to this effect comes from a letter from Thomas Davidson to William Torrey Harris. After listening to Charles give a lecture to the Harvard Philosophy Club on 21 May 1879, Davidson wrote to Harris: "Peirce's paper was captious, bright, and poor. After it was over, I had a long talk with Prof. Ben. Peirce, who undertook to prove to me mathematically that space has four dimensions. The Peirce's are all a little crazy, I think." Just 7 years later, Charles's friend, Francis Ellingwood Abbot, made this entry in his diary:

Attended a meeting of "philosophers,' including John Fiske, James, Royce, and Perry, at Prof. J. M. Peirce's, 4 Kirkland Place, to welcome Prof. Chas. S. Peirce, of Johns Hopkins, (my classmate), and hear from him a new "logical theory of Evolution." Peirce begins with absolute or pure potentiality, with absolute chance or negation of all law, even logical, to evolve at last Absolute Being and Absolute Law--in fact, to evolve Infinity out of Zero, God out of Nothing. Brilliant, ingenious, and--impossible. Had a wine supper, during which Charley continued to spin his glistening cobweb.

The Peirce family was well connected in academic and scientific circles, and Charles grew up on intimate terms with the leading figures. He was regarded as a prodigy both in science and philosophy, and more brilliant in mathematics than even his father. Although Peirce always thought of himself as a logician, his most sustained career was as a scientist for the Coast Survey. His career with the Survey began in 1859 when he worked as a field aid. He worked his way up in the Survey until 1872 when his father apponted him as Assistant, a rank just below that of Superintendent. Peirce's primary field of scientific research was geodesy, and after 1872 he was put in charge of pendulum operations. The two main aims of Peirce's geodetic work were to determine the force of gravity at various locations in the United States and abroad and, from these results, to determine the figure of the earth. Charles did more than anyone until perhaps the 20s or 30s to integrate the geodetic work of the United States with the work of other nations, especially England, France, and Germany. According to John W. Servos, Charles Perice was one of a very small group of scientific men in America who were capable of contributing to sciences that were laden with mathematical theory. Other men in this group, mainly mathematical astronomers, included Simon Newcomb, Asaph Hall, and George William Hill. All of these men were students of Benjamin Peirce.

Peirce's independence of mind, which was at first much admired, turned out to be a severe impediment to his success. In part this was due to the times. For, as James Feibleman has pointed out, with the expansion of the United States and the rise of the great western cities, New England, and especially Boston and Cambridge, became more and more insular and conservative and grew fearful of genius and originality. As great a thinker as any that America has ever produced, Peirce was thwarted at almost every turn, and only by great effort of will was he able to fulfill some of the promise he exhibited as a young man.

Peirce's importance as a thinker was not entirely lost on his own age. Among his friends and admirers were many respected scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers, including such figures as Wolcott Gibbs and Samuel Langley, Ernst Schröder, and William James. Yet because of a number of misfortunes and misjudgments, Peirce's influence rose and fell rapidly and was carried forward only because of the resolve of his friends and followers to carry on what they took to be the work of a great mind.

Peirce is not an easy man to depict. He was a man of great complexity of character, and his life seems to have been enveloped in a rather mysterious quality. Probably the most difficult problem for a biographer is Peirce's truly polymathic scope: in addition to several branches of philosophy, including phenomenology and the philosophy of science, Peirce contributed extensively to semiotics, to mathematics and logic, to several exact sciences including geodesy, metrology, and astronomy, and he also contributed to psychology, to lexicology, and to operations analysis. Peirce's breadth of curiousity and competence, coupled with the novelty of his ideas, raises a considerable barrier for anyone foolhardy enough to attempt an assessment of Peirce. The problem was understated by Alfred North Whitehead: Peirce was a very great man with a variety of interests in each of which he made original contributions. The essence of his thought was originality in every respect that he taught. For this reason, none of the conventional labels apply to him. He conceived every topic in his own original way. [Whitehead to F. H. Young, Studies, p. 276.]

There were perhaps two high points in Peirce's career. The first came in the 1870's when Peirce's work in geodesy brought him world-renown and raised the stature of the U.S. Coast Survey to position of respectability in international scientific circles. During the 70's and early 80's Peirce made five extended trips to Europe, primarily to connect European results with his work at initial stations throughout the U.S. (at such sites as Washington D.C.--where Peirce had a station at the Smithsonian--, Pittsburgh, Ann Arbor, Madison, and Ithica--and numerous north/south stations from Montreal to Florida).

The second high-period in Peirce's life came during the years of his appointment as a lecturer in Logic at Johns Hopkins (from 1879 to 1884). Although Peirce's official connection with Johns Hopkins was with the Philosophy Department, he quickly became a member of the mathematical community which included James Joseph Sylvester, for a time Arthur Cayley, and such brilliant young instructors and students as George B. Halsted, William E. Story, Christine Ladd, Fabian Franklin, Allan Marquand, and Oscar Howard Mitchell. During this period Peirce was standardly regarded as one of the world's great logicians. When in 1922 Jan Lukasiewicz delivered his address as rector of Warsaw University, he included Peirce, along with Leibniz, Boole, Frege, Russell, and himself, in the "still tiny group of philosophers and mathematicians who have chosen mathematical logic as the subject or the basis of their investigations." It was also at Johns Hopkins that Peirce conducted some early experiments in Psychology that have led some to regard him as America's first experimental psychologist.

Unfortunately, the great promise of these high times in Peirce's life, was soon to fail. In 1884, due to a scandal-fearing board of trustees at Johns Hopkins, after it was reported by Simon Newcomb that Peirce had openly consorted with a Frenchwoman while still married to his estranged wife, his contract was not renewed and he was forced to leave academia. Not long afterwards, a new administration in Washington, fed up with the cost of pure scientific research, decided to "clean house". Various scandals resulted from the ensuing investigations, and one of the more serious ones greatly damaged the Coast Survey. Peirce was one of the higher eschalon figures to survive with his reputation intact, but the economization that followed made Peirce's high-standards for geodesy outdated, and made U.S. geodesy secondary to European work for several decades. Peirce's obstancy, for example, his refusal to use 1/4 meter pendulums for what was supposed to be precision gravity determinations, led to the loss of his leadership in the geodetic work of the Survey, so in early 1887 Peirce and his 2nd wife, Juliette (the Frenchwoman), moved to Arisbe, a country home in Milford, PA, where he worked for 2 or 3 more years to complete a major report on his 1880 gravity determinations. When he finally completed his report it was rejected for publication, for reasons that now appear to be suspect. In fact, for many years, the report remained lost, until sometime in the 50's or 60's when it was finally discovered in an obscure place in the National Archives.

Victor Lenzen has studied this report and claims that it would have been a major contribution to geodesy if it had been published when it should have been. But, as it happened, the rejection of the paper led to Peirce's dismissal from the Survey, and Peirce was left without any regular income. Peirce was unable to obtain regular employment again, and spent much of the latter third of his life struggling to make ends meet, and many of his writings of those years were done for pay. These include book reviews for newspapers and popular journals (hundreds for the Nation), contributions to dictionaries and encyclopedias, and translations (mainly from French and German, and most for the Smithsonian).

During these Arisbe years, there were also a number of articles composed to satisfy the expectations and instructions of paying editors. For a period, beginning about 1890, Peirce's life was often dominated by one unsuccessful "get rich" scheme after another. He perfected and patented a bleaching process, from which he hoped to acquire wealth, But to no avail--apparently someone swindled him out of his rights. He also develeped a process for extracting accetlene, which he and his business friends thought would become the main source for lighting. But Edison's electric light ended that venture. Peirce also did contract work as a structural engeneer. He made the stress calculations for a New York engineering firm working on suspension bridges. He also worked at other odd jobs which required the scholarly abilities he possessed. He was an advisor to the New York Public library for several years, advising them on their science and mathematics collections. He also worked as an advisor and sometimes buyer for Plimpton, whose collection of mathematical books was to become a classic resource in the history of mathematics. By the turn of the century, Peirce had come to regard himself as a failure as far as career aspirations went, and he began to worry about getting his program of philosophy and his discoveries in mathematics and logic into print. As it turned out, he was right to worry, for most of his attempts failed either for lack of support or because he could not take time from his hack-writing to bring them to completion. The Peirce collection is filled with unfinished, although sometimes extensive, studies.

Peirce died in 1914, a nearly forgotten man. His dream of having his work become the focus of serious theoretical research was slow in being fulfilled. It was more than twenty years after his death, and only after the Harvard Philosophy Department brought out a collection of his papers, that scholars began more generally to glimpse the importance and profundity of Peirce's thought. By 1936 Alfred North Whitehead would describe America as the developing center of worthwhile philosophy, and identify Charles Peirce and William James as the founders of the American renaissance. "Of these men," Whitehead said, "W.J. is the analogue to Plato, and C.P. to Aristotle."

Interest in Peirce has grown enormously in recent years, and estimates of his significance as a thinker continue to run high. His work in logic, algebraical and graphical, has come to be regarded as substantial both for its historical impact and its enduring importance for research. Hilary Putnam expressed his surprise upon discovering "how much that is quite familiar in modern logic actually became known to the logical world through the efforts of Peirce and his students," and W. V. Quine dates modern logic from "the emergence of general quantification theory at the hands of Frege and Peirce." More recently, John Sowa has demonstrated how Peirce's graphical system of logic (his existential graphs) improves on other logics for the representation of discourse, and the study of language generally, and he has used the existential graphs as the logical foundation for his own conceptual graphs, "which combine Peirce's logic with research on semantic networks in artificial intelligence and computational linguistics." In philosophy more generally, Peirce's work has been the focus of a considerable resurgence of interest throughout the world. This is demonstrated by the growing number of books and articles about Peirce, by increasing references to his ideas, and by the testimony of respected philosophers like Karl Popper, who regards Peirce as "one of the greatest philosophers of all time." Finally, in the rapidly growing field of study known as semiotics, Peirce is universally acknowledged as one of the founders, even the founder, and his theory of signs is among the most frequently studied and systematically examined of all foundational theories. The importance of semiotics for all disciplines that deal crucially with representation (among them epistemology, linguistics, anthropology, and cognitive science, and probably all the fine arts) is only beginning to be recognized. In his 1989 Jefferson Lecture, Walker Percy argued that modern science is radically incoherent--"not when it seeks to understand things and subhuman organisms and the cosmos itself, but when it seeks to understand man, not man's physiology or neurology or his bloodstream, but man qua man, man when he is peculiarly human"--but that, with his theory of signs, Peirce laid the groundwork for a coherent science of man that is yet to be worked out.

(Extracted from an unpublished paper by Nathan Houser.)

For fuller accounts of Peirce's life see Joseph Brent, Charles Sanders Perice: A Life (Indiana University Press, 1993; revised ed. 1998); and Kenneth Laine Ketner, His Glassy Essence: An Autobiography of Charles Sanders Peirce (Vanderbilt University Press , 1998). Also see Max H. Fisch, Peirce Semiotic and Pragmatism (Indiana University Press, 1986). For a short account of Peirce's intellectual development see the introduction to The Essential Peirce, vol. 1.