Charles Sanders Peirce Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: Largely unrecognized by contemporaries, except for his contribution to pragmatism, Peirce developed a system of philosophy that attempted to reconcile the nineteenth century’s faith in empirical science with its love of the metaphysical absolute. His difficult and often confusing ideas anticipated problems central to twentieth century philosophy.

Early Life

Charles Sanders Peirce, born on September 10, 1839, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was the son of Benjamin Peirce, one of America’s foremost mathematicians. During his childhood, Charles’s mother, Sarah Hunt (Mills) Peirce, took second place to his dynamic father, who personally supervised the boy’s education and provided a role model that inspired but also proved impossible to emulate. Convinced of his son’s genius, Benjamin Peirce encouraged his precocious development. Charles began the study of chemistry at the age of eight, started an intense scrutiny of logic at twelve, and faced rigorous training in mathematics throughout his childhood. In the latter case, he was seldom given general principles or theorems. Instead, he was expected to work them out on his own.

At sixteen, Peirce entered Harvard, where his father was professor of mathematics. Contrary to expectations, Peirce proved a less than brilliant student, and he was graduated, in 1859, seventy-first out of a class of ninety-one. Probably too young and certainly too much the nonconformist to fit into the rigid educational system of nineteenth century Harvard, Peirce’s inauspicious beginning in institutional academics was prophetic. Though he would continue his education, receiving an M.A. from Harvard in 1862 and a Sc.B. in chemistry the following year, his future did not lead to a distinguished career in academics or, indeed, in any conventional pursuit. His lot in life, in spite of so much promise, was frustration and apparent failure.

Peirce’s difficulty in adjusting to the world of ordinary men was related to his unusual and often trying personality. Always his father’s favorite, Peirce became convinced of his own genius and impatient with those who failed to recognize the obvious. Shielded and overindulged as a child, Peirce never developed the social skills required for practical affairs nor the self-discipline necessary to make his own grandiose vision a reality. Such problems were exaggerated by his passion for perfection and his abstract turn of mind. Peirce found real happiness only in the rarefied world of his own philosophical speculation.

As a youth, Peirce both attracted and repelled. Always prone to the dramatic gesture and, when he was inclined, a brilliant conversationalist, he could be an entertaining companion, but he could also use his rapier wit as a weapon. Of medium height, dark, swarthy, and fastidious in matters of dress, the handsome young Peirce reveled in his reputation as a lady’s man and spent much energy in seeking the “good life.” He actually paid an expert to train his palate so that he could become a connoisseur of fine wines. In 1862, Peirce married Harriet Melusina Fay, three years his senior and infinitely more mature and self-possessed. A feminist and intellectual in her own right, “Zina” worshiped her captive “genius” and labored for years to keep him out of serious trouble while restraining his extravagance. Yet she could also be jealous and possessive, and, though Peirce would experience some stability under Zina’s influence, the marriage was doomed.

Life’s Work

Upon his graduation from Harvard, Peirce went to work for the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, a position acquired through his father’s influence. Benjamin Peirce served as a consulting geometer for the organization and became its superintendent in 1867. Charles Peirce remained with the survey in various capacities until 1891, when he was asked to resign. This bureaucratic career, while terminated in less-than-desirable circumstances, was not without accomplishments. His deep commitment to the experimental method helped put the survey on a firm scientific basis, and Peirce himself became internationally known for his work on gravity research. He also continued an association with Harvard, once again through his father’s influence, holding temporary lectureships in logic in 1865-1866 and 1869-1870 and from 1872 to 1875 serving as assistant at the Harvard Observatory. His observatory work on the measurement of light provided data for the only book he published during his lifetime Photometric Researches (1878). Peirce hoped for a permanent appointment at Harvard, but his lack of a Ph.D., his erratic life-style, and a typically personal quarrel with Harvard president Charles W. Eliot made the dream impossible.

More important than his actual work, the atmosphere and personal contacts at Harvard helped mold his philosophical outlook. Never idle, Peirce spent his spare time studying the work of Immanuel Kant, the ideas of the medieval scholastics, and various theories in logic and mathematics. The most useful forum for his developing ideas was the so-called Metaphysical Club. In the meetings of this unusual group, which included William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Francis E. Abbot, and Chauncey Wright, among others, Peirce had the opportunity to test his theories before a critical audience. It was there that he used the term “pragmatism” to describe the relationship between a conception and its effects which allows one to understand the actual meaning of the original conception by knowing its effects. While Peirce intended his idea as a theory of meaning, William James, more than twenty years later, would popularize the term and expand it far beyond the original intention. In fact, objecting to his friend’s interpretation, Peirce, in 1905, coined the term “pragmaticism” to distinguish his thought from James’s version.

In his Harvard years, Peirce began to write articles for The Journal of Speculative Philosophy and other scholarly publications, as well as more popular magazines such as Popular Science Monthly. Such articles, along with numerous book reviews, provided his major public outlet for the remainder of his life. Ignored by much of the philosophical community, these writings contained important contributions to logic, mathematics, and metaphysics.

Peirce finally got his chance to teach when he was hired as a part-time lecturer at The Johns Hopkins University...

(The entire section is 2664 words.)