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.
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
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...
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