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...

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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 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...

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Pragmatism and Pragmaticism

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

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...

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Firstness, Secondness, Thirdness

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”

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...

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Matter and Consciousness

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,...

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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...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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