Dusty Quotations

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Who is Charles Sanders Peirce?

Charles Sanders Peirce (/pɜːrs/ PURSS; September 10, 1839 – April 19, 1914) was an American philosopher, logician, mathematician and scientist who is sometimes known as “the father of pragmatism“. He was known as a somewhat unusual character.

Educated as a chemist and employed as a scientist for thirty years, Peirce made major contributions to logic, a subject that, for him, encompassed much of what is now called epistemology and the philosophy of science. He saw logic as the formal branch of semiotics, of which he is a founder, which foreshadowed the debate among logical positivists and proponents of philosophy of language that dominated 20th-century Western philosophy. Additionally, he defined the concept of abductive reasoning, as well as rigorously formulated mathematical induction and deductive reasoning. As early as 1886, he saw that logical operations could be carried out by electrical switching circuits. The same idea was used decades later to produce digital computers.

In 1934, the philosopher Paul Weiss called Peirce “the most original and versatile of American philosophers and America’s greatest logician”.

Bertrand Russell (1959) wrote “Beyond doubt […] he was one of the most original minds of the later nineteenth century and certainly the greatest American thinker ever”. Russell and Whitehead‘s Principia Mathematica, published from 1910 to 1913, does not mention Peirce (Peirce’s work was not widely known until later). A. N. Whitehead, while reading some of Peirce’s unpublished manuscripts soon after arriving at Harvard in 1924, was struck by how Peirce had anticipated his own “process” thinking. (On Peirce and process metaphysics, see Lowe 1964). Karl Popper viewed Peirce as “one of the greatest philosophers of all times”. Yet Peirce’s achievements were not immediately recognized. His imposing contemporaries William James and Josiah Royce admired him and Cassius Jackson Keyser, at Columbia and C. K. Ogden, wrote about Peirce with respect but to no immediate effect.

The first scholar to give Peirce his considered professional attention was Royce’s student Morris Raphael Cohen, the editor of an anthology of Peirce’s writings entitled Chance, Love, and Logic (1923), and the author of the first bibliography of Peirce’s scattered writings. John Dewey studied under Peirce at Johns Hopkins. From 1916 onward, Dewey’s writings repeatedly mention Peirce with deference. His 1938 Logic: The Theory of Inquiry is much influenced by Peirce. The publication of the first six volumes of Collected Papers (1931–1935), the most important event to date in Peirce studies and one that Cohen made possible by raising the needed funds, did not prompt an outpouring of secondary studies. The editors of those volumes, Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, did not become Peirce specialists. Early landmarks of the secondary literature include the monographs by Buchler (1939), Feibleman (1946), and Goudge (1950), the 1941 PhD thesis by Arthur W. Burks (who went on to edit volumes 7 and 8), and the studies edited by Wiener and Young (1952). The Charles S. Peirce Society was founded in 1946. Its Transactions, an academic quarterly specializing in Peirce’s pragmatism and American philosophy has appeared since 1965. (See Phillips 2014, 62 for discussion of Peirce and Dewey relative to transactionalism.)

By the 1943 such was Peirce’s reputation, in the US at least, that Webster’s Biographical Dictionary said that Peirce was “now regarded as the most original thinker and greatest logician of his time”.

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