Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce

by Charles Sanders Peirce
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In the late 1800’s, Charles Sanders Peirce—in conversation with William James, Chauncey Wright, Nicholas St. John Green, and Oliver Wendell Holmes at informal meetings of the Metaphysical Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts—developed and clearly expressed the central ideas that became the core of pragmatism. In the United States, pragmatism largely replaced idealism, gained numerous adherents, and influenced many American philosophers. The thoughts of American pragmatists can be seen in linguistic empiricism, developed by Vienna positivists, who grounded philosophical claims in experience, and the British philosophers who emphasized the study of ordinary language in the multiplicity of its uses.

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However, Peirce was more than the creator of pragmatism; he was a scientist, mathematician, logician, and teacher, although his career as a professor was limited. He lectured at Harvard and The Johns Hopkins University. Peirce’s failure to find, or to be offered, a university position suitable for one of his talents was a consequence of his independent and undisciplined nature. The result of his being free from academic restrictions was perhaps both fortunate and unfortunate. As an outsider, his creative powers had no formal limits; his intellect was brilliant, and he knew where to stop in his inventions and speculations. However, because he was an outsider, he had neither the security nor the incentive to fashion his essays into any coherent whole. Although he attempted, in later life, to write a great, single work in which his views on logic, nature, science, humanity, and philosophy would be developed in some mutually illuminating and supporting fashion, his poverty and isolation—together with his iconoclastic stubbornness—combined to frustrate his great ambition.

The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce is an eight-volume collection of Peirce’s works, arranged thematically. The first six volumes were edited by Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss and the last two by Arthur Burks. Although critics and editors of Peirce’s essays are not in complete agreement on what constitute the philospher’s major works, most recognize certain essays as characteristic of Peirce at his best. These essays include “The Fixation of Belief,” “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” “The Architecture of Theories,” and “The Doctrine of Necessity Examined.” Because these essays contain some of the most famous and revealing statements of Peirce’s basic opinions, an examination of them will serve as an introduction to other significant essays.

Peirce’s thought, varied and original as it was, falls naturally into four categories: the pragmatic, the epistemological, the logical, and the metaphysical. The poles are the pragmatic ideas of meaning and truth (ideas that condition the epistemological conceptions) and, at the other extreme of his thinking, the metaphysical ideas. The effort to relate these poles to each other rewards the student of Peirce with a synoptic idea of Peirce’s philosophy that illuminates the otherwise confusing variety of essays to be found in the Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce.

Doubt and Belief

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In the essay “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” which first appeared in Popular Science Monthly in 1878, Peirce set out to interpret the vague conception of clarity to be found in French philosopher René Descartes’s writings on method. The first step was to clear up the conception of belief. Peirce began by speaking of doubt as a kind of irritation arising from indecisiveness in regard to action; when one does not know what to do, one is uneasy, and this uneasiness will not abate until one settles upon some mode of action. Belief is “a rule for action,” and as it is acted upon repeatedly, each time appeasing the irritation of doubt, it becomes a habit of action. Thus, Peirce concluded, “The essence of belief is the establishment of a habit, and different beliefs are distinguished by the different modes of action to which they give rise.”

In a previous essay, “The Fixation of Belief,” which appeared in Popular Science Monthly in 1877, Peirce had written of doubt as a state of dissatisfaction from which people try to free themselves and of belief as a satisfactory state. The struggle to remove the irritation of doubt and to attain belief, a rule of action, was described as “inquiry,” and the settlement of opinion was set forth as the sole object of inquiry.

It was Peirce’s conviction that logic, as the art of reasoning, was needed to make progress in philosophy possible; he anticipated logical positivism in urging that only “a severe course of logic” could clear up “that bad logical quality to which the epithet metaphysical is commonly applied.”

Therefore, the first step in learning how to make one’s ideas clear is to come to the realization that belief is a habit of action, the consequence of a process of inquiry undertaken to appease the irritation of indecisiveness. Because the entire purpose of thought, as Peirce conceived it, is to produce habits of action, it follows that the meaning of a thought is the collection of habits involved. If the question involves the meaning of a “thing,” its meaning is clear once one knows what difference the thing would make if one were to become actively, or practically, involved with it. Peirce’s conclusion was that “there is no distinction of meaning so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of practice.”

As an example, he referred to the doctrine of transubstantiation and to the Catholic belief that the elements of the Communion, though possessing all the sense properties of wine and wafers, are literally blood and flesh. To Peirce, such an idea could not possibly be clear, for no distinction in practice could be made between wine and wafers, on the one hand, and what appeared to be ine and wafers, on the other. He argued that no conception of wine was possible except as the object of the reference, “this, that, or the other, is wine,” or as the object of a description by means of which certain properties are attributed to wine. However, the properties are conceivable only in terms of the sensible effects of wine; “Our idea of anything is our idea of its sensible effects.” Consequently, “to talk of something as having all the sensible characters of wine, yet being in reality blood, is senseless jargon.” The rule for attaining clearness of thought, Peirce’s famous pragmatic maxim, appears in “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” as follows: “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.”

Peirce’s discussion of his maxim, revolving about examples, makes it clear that the rule for the clarification of thought was not designed to support a simple phenomenalism. Although Peirce used sentences such as “Our idea of anything is our idea of its sensible effects,” he did not use the expression “sensible effects” to mean merely sensations. By conceiving, through the use of the senses, the effects of the action of a thing, one comes to understand the thing; one’s habit of reaction, forced upon one by the action of the thing, is a conception of it, one’s belief regarding it. The object is not identifiable with its effects, but the object can be conceived as “that which” one conceives only in terms of its effects.

Pragmatism and Pragmaticism

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Peirce’s pragmatic rule should be distinguished from philosopher William James’s version of the same principle. James stressed an idea’s becoming true; he used the misleading expression “practical cash-value” to refer to the pragmatic meaning of a word, and he sometimes emphasized the satisfactoriness of an idea, as constituting its truth, in such a way that no clear line was drawn between sentimental satisfaction and the satisfaction of a scientific investigator.

Peirce, on the other hand, in developing the ideas of truth and reality made careful use of the contrary-to-fact conditional in order to avoid any loose or emotional interpretation of the pragmatic method. He wrote, in “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” that scientific processes of investigation “if only pushed far enough, will give one certain solution to every question to which they can be applied.” Again, in clarifying the idea of reality, Peirce came to the conclusion that “The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real.” In other words, those opinions to which systematic, responsible investigators would finally give assent, were the matter thoroughly investigated, are true opinions. It was Peirce’s dissatisfaction with the tender-minded versions of the pragmatic method that led him finally to give up the name “pragmatism,” which he invented, and to use in its place the term “pragmaticism.”

The Scientific Method

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Peirce’s preference for the scientific method of inquiry is nowhere more clearly expressed and affirmed than in his early essay “The Fixation of Belief.” Regarding the object of reasoning to be the discovery of new facts by a consideration of facts already known and having argued that a belief is a habit of action that appeases the irritation of doubt or indecisiveness, he went on to examine four methods of fixing belief: the method of tenacity, which is the method of stubbornly holding to a belief while resisting all criticism; the method of authority, which consists of punishing all dissenters; the a priori method, which depends on the inclination to believe, whatever the facts of the matter; and, finally, the method of science, which rests on the following assumption:There are real things, whose characters are entirely independent of our opinions about them; those realities affect our senses according to regular laws, and, though our sensations be as different as our relations to the objects, yet, by taking advantage of the laws of perception, we can ascertain by reasoning how things really are, and any man, if he have sufficient experience and reason enough about it, will be led to the one true conclusion.

Peirce strongly endorsed the scientific method of inquiry. He argued that no other method provided a way of determining the rightness or wrongness of the method of inquiry itself; the test of a procedure undertaken as scientific is an application of the method itself. In support of the realistic hypothesis on which the method of science is based, Peirce argued that the practice of the method in no way cast doubt on the truth of the hypothesis; furthermore, everyone who approves of one method of fixing belief in preference to others tacitly admits that there are realities the method can uncover. The scientific method is widely used, and it is only ignorance that limits its use. His final argument was that the method of science has been so successful that belief in the hypothesis on which it rests has been strengthened proportionately.

These passages should be of particular interest to those who suppose that Peirce, as the founder of pragmatism, was absolutely neutral in regard to commitments ordinarily regarded as metaphysical. He did not claim to know the truth of the realistic hypothesis, but it did seem to him eminently sensible, accounting for the manner in which nature forces experience upon people and making uniformity of opinion possible.

Firstness, Secondness, Thirdness

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In the essay “The Architecture of Theories,” published in The Monist in 1891, Peirce introduced the critical conceptions of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness, which he described as “principles of Logic,” and by reference to which he developed his metaphysics of cosmic evolution. He defined the terms as follows: “First is the conception of being or existing independent of anything else. Second is the conception of being relative to, the conception of reaction with, something else. Third is the conception of mediation, whereby a first and second are brought into relation.”

Arguing that philosophical theories should be built architectonically, Peirce offered the conceptions of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness as providing the logical principles of construction. Any adequate theory, he maintained, would order the findings of the various sciences by the use of the principles of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness. Thus, in psychology, “Feeling is First, Sense of reaction Second, General conception Third, or mediation.” Significantly, as a general feature of reality, “Chance is First, Law is Second, the tendency to take habits is Third,” and, Peirce maintained, “Mind is First, Matter is Second, Evolution is Third.”

Peirce sketched the metaphysics that would be built by the use of these general conceptions. He wrote that his would be a “Cosmogonic Philosophy.” It would describe a universe that, beginning with irregular and unpersonalized feeling, would, by chance (“sporting here and there in pure arbitrariness”), give rise to generalizing tendencies that, continuing, would become “habits” and laws. The universe, such a philosophy would claim, is evolving toward a condition of perfect rationality and symmetry.

Peirce elaborates on the ideas introduced in “The Architecture of Theories” in four papers collected in The Essential Peirce (1992-1994, 2 volumes), edited by N. Houser and C. Kloesel. They are “The Doctrine of Necessity Examined,” “The Law of Mind,” “Man’s Glassy Essence,” and “Evolutionary Love.”

“Tychism” and “Synechism”

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In “The Doctrine of Necessity Examined,” Peirce argued for the presence of chance in the universe. However, Peirce’s conception of chance was not the usual conception of the entirely uncaused and irregular, acting without cause or reason. He wrote of chance as “the form of a spontaneity which is to some degree regular,” and he was careful to point out that he was not using the conception of chance as a principle of explanation but as an element in the description of a universe in which there is the tendency to form habits and to produce regularities. The doctrine of absolute chance was named “tychism,” and the doctrine of continuity was named “synechism.” The essay “The Law of Mind” develops the latter doctrine.

In “The Law of Mind,” Peirce argued that there is but one law of mind, that ideas spread, affect other ideas, and lose intensity but gain generality and “become welded with other ideas.” In the course of the article, Peirce developed the notion of an “idea” as an event in an individual consciousness. He argued that consciousness must take time and be in time, and that, consequently, “we are immediately conscious through an infinitesimal interval of time.” Ideas are continuous, Peirce claimed, and there must be a “continuity of intrinsic qualities of feeling” so that particular feelings are present out of a continuum of other possibilities. Ideas affect one another, but to understand this, one must distinguish three elements within an idea: First, the intrinsic quality of the idea as a feeling, its quale; Second, the energy with the idea that affects other ideas (its capacity to relate); and Third, the tendency of an idea to become generalized (its tendency to be productive of law). Habits are established by induction; general ideas are followed by the kind of reaction that followed the particular sensations that gave rise to the general idea. Mental phenomena come to be governed by law in the sense that some living idea, “a conscious continuum of feeling,” pervades the phenomena and affects other ideas. Peirce concluded “The Law of Mind” with the striking claim that matter is not dead, but it is mind “hidebound with habits.”

Matter and Consciousness

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In the essay “Man’s Glassy Essence,” Peirce argued that mind and matter are different aspects of a single feeling process; if something is considered in terms of its relations and reactions, it is regarded as matter, but if it is understood as feeling, it appears as consciousness. (This is a more sophisticated philosophy than James’s radical empiricism, which resembles Peirce’s hypothesis in some respects.) A person is a particular kind of general idea.

If it seems intolerable to suppose that matter is, in some sense, feeling or idea, one must at least consider that for Peirce an idea must be considered not only in its Firstness, but in its Secondness and Thirdness as well. In other words, an idea or feeling, for Peirce, is not simply a feeling as such; that is, a feeling is more than its quality, its Firstness. A feeling is also that which has the tendency to relate to other feelings with which it comes in spatial and temporal contact, and it works with other feelings toward a regularity of development that can be known as law. Peirce differs from a physical realist who maintains that matter is in no way feeling or mind. His philosophy is much more acceptable to one concerned with the multiplicity of physical phenomena than an idealism that regards ideas as static individuals existing only in their Firstness (merely as feelings).


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In “Evolutionary Love,” Peirce maintained that his synechism calls for a principle of evolution that will account for creative growth. How is it that out of chaos so irregular that it seems inappropriate to say that anything exists, a universe of habit and law can emerge? Chance relations develop, the relations become habits, the habits become laws; “tychism” emphasizes the presence of chance, “synechism” emphasizes the development of relations through the continuity of ideas, and “agapasm” (Peirce’s term) emphasizes the evolutionary tendency in the universe. The logical (ordering) principles of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness make intelligible not only the idea (with its quale, its relatedness, and its tendency to contribute to the development of law), but also the person (who is a general idea), matter (which is mind hidebound with habits), and the character of the universe. The logical principles become metaphysical.

Peirce is important in contemporary thought primarily because of his pragmatic, logical, and epistemological views. There is a great deal of material in the Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce that remains to be explored, and those who would picture Peirce as the forerunner of linguistic and empirical philosophy can find much to support their claims in his essays. His metaphysics is generally regarded as interesting though pragmatically insignificant. When interest in metaphysics revives, and there is no methodological reason why it cannot revive and be respectable, the metaphysics of Peirce, his theory of cosmic evolution or agapasm, will certainly be reconsidered.


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Additional Reading

Almeder, Robert F. The Philosophy of Charles S. Peirce: A Critical Introduction. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980. An analysis of Peirce’s philosophy, stressing his epistemological realism, which contains a perceptive and detailed discussion of his theory of knowledge.

Brent, Joseph. Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. A study emphasizing how Peirce’s dandy-like, almost demonic personality undermined his professional achievements but influenced the evolution of his ideas.

Conkin, Paul K. Puritans and Pragmatists: Eight Eminent American Thinkers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968. One of the finest overviews of American intellectual history. Places Peirce within the context of the development of American thought between Jonathan Edwards and George Santayana.

Corrington, Robert S. An Introduction to C. S. Peirce: Philosopher, Semiotician, and Ecstatic Naturalist. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1993. Begins with a brief biography contrasting personal failure with intellectual genius. Explores pragmatism, semiotics (particularly Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness), and the evolution of Darwin’s ideas and Peirce’s metaphysical categories.

Goudge, Thomas A. The Thought of C. S. Peirce. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1950. One of the most perceptive studies of Peirce’s thought. Sees Peirce’s philosophy as resting on a conflict within his personality that produced tendencies toward both naturalism and Transcendentalism.

Hookway, Christopher. The Arguments of the Philosophers: Peirce. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985. The first section examines Peirce’s pursuit of truth through analyses of logic, realism, naturalism, ethics and aesthetics, phenomenology, and a theory of signs. The second section looks at knowledge and reality through key ideas on perception, mathematical reasoning, induction and abduction, pragmatism, and evolutionary cosmology and objective idealism. For more advanced students.

Ketner, Kenneth Laine, ed. Peirce and Contemporary Thought: Philosophical Inquiries. New York: Fordham University Press, 1995. An interpretive guide by renowned scholars on Peirce’s views of logic, science, and metaphysics.

Parker, Kelly A. The Continuity of Peirce’s Thought. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998. An analysis of four major areas: refining Immanuel Kant’s architectonic and developing a blueprint for Peirce’s classification of the sciences; revising Georg Cantor’s theory of transfinite sets and refining mathematical categories; using the continuity principle to bridge the gap between metaphysics and mathematics; and examining cosmology.

Potter, Vincent G. Charles S. Peirce: On Norms and Ideals. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1967. An analysis of Peirce’s attempt to establish aesthetics, ethics, and logic as the three normative sciences. The author places particular emphasis on the role of “habit” in the universe.

Potter, Vincent G. Peirce’s Philosophical Perspectives. New York: Fordham University Press, 1996. Highlights the British influence on the evolution of Peirce’s philosophy. Examines three key issues in Peirce’s ontology and theory of knowledge—realism, notion of substance, and foundationalism—and shows how continuity is a key mathematical notion.

Raposa, Michael. Peirce’s Philosophy of Religion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. An analysis of Peirce’s conception of religious experience and belief in God. Explains that “theosemiotic” involves ways the self becomes attuned to the traces of God (the divine sign maker) in the world.

Rosenthal, Sandra B. Charles Peirce’s Pragmatic Pluralism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. An analysis of pluralism as the core of Peirce’s philosophy. Interrogates “habit” in Peirce’s mathematical essays, examines his proofs for realism, and connects metaphysics with a Kuhnian-Peircean interpretation of science.

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