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Charles Sanders Peirce - Biography

Charles Sanders Peirce was born September 10, 1839 in Cambridge, Massachusetts and died April 19, 1914 in Milford, Pennsylvania. He was a logician, philosopher, and scientist.

As the son of Benjamin Charles Sanders Peirce, an eminent scientist and professor of mathematics at Harvard, Charles Sanders Peirce grew up in an intellectually stimulating environment. Under the guidance and education of his father he soon, reportedly at the age of just twelve, became fascinated with logic.

In 1855, Charles Sanders Peirce began his studies at Harvard. There he started a life-long friendship with the philosopher and psychologist William James, who greatly supported him for most of his life. During his first year, Charles Sanders Peirce undertook private studies in philosophy, especially focusing on Kant. He graduated in 1859 and then went on to pursue a Masters as well receiving his M.A. from Harvard in 1862. Four years later, he also obtained a Bachelors of Science, summa cum laude, in chemistry.

From 1859 until 1891 Charles Sanders Peirce worked as a scientist for the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, while privately pursuing his studies in logic. During his employment at the Survey, Charles Sanders Peirce was sent to Europe in 1870-71 to work and again in 1875/76 and 1877. He also worked as an assistant at the astronomical observatory at Harvard, between 1869 and 1872. As a result he published Photometric Researches (1878), which turned out to be his only book published during his lifetime.

In 1867, he became a member of the The Academy of Arts and Science and ten years later, in 1877, a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He was appointed a lecturer in logic at the Johns Hopkins University in 1879, his only academic position. He lost his post a few years later, in 1884, as it was made public that he had been living with a “gypsy” yet was still married. From his lectures Charles Sanders Peirce edited Studies in Logic (1883), an essay collection by the scholar and his students.

Still working for the Survey, Charles Sanders Peirce stayed in Washington for two years after his dismissal. In 1891, he then had to leave the U.S. Coast Survey. After his discharge, Charles Sanders Peirce purchased a house and property in Milford, Pennsylvania, where he lived until his death. This was a time of great poverty. Charles Sanders Peirce was dependent on financial aid and, having no other income, sporadic jobs as a translator and scientific consultant. William James remained committed and tried to help Charles Sanders Peirce. Among other things, he organized two paid lectures for him at Harvard, both on issues of Pragmatism, and he also sought support for Charles Sanders Peirce from his friends.

Regardless of his financial situation, Pierce continued to write copiously. Throughout his life, Charles Sanders Peirce published a large number of academic articles in renowned journals, such as Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, or the American Journal of Mathematics. Yet, much of his publications were either rejected or were never completed. His reputation as philosopher came relatively late. Being a chemist by training and a geodesist by profession, Charles Sanders Peirce nevertheless considered scientific philosophy, and especially logic, to be his vocation. His perhaps best-known works were How to Make Our Ideas Clear, where he established his pragmatic philosophy, and The Fixation of Belief, where he defends the scientific method, which for him was the only way through which progress towards ultimate knowledge can be attained. Both were published in The Popular Science Monthly series between 1877 and 1878.

Though, or maybe because, his main interest was logic, he is first and foremost recognized as the founder of the school of pragmatism, a name which Charles Sanders Peirce himself changed into “pragmaticism” in 1905 in order to dissociate his theories. Charles Sanders Peirce’s pragmati(ci)sm was based on the idea that every concept must have practical and observable consequences, assuming that the value of a concept depends on its outcome. Consequently, one of his main interests was to demonstrate how philosophy could be practically applied to human problems. This he tried by applying scientific principles. For Charles Sanders Peirce, philosophy is to be based on mathematical principles.

In How to Make Our Ideas Clear, Charles Sanders Peirce had argued in favour of a “pragmatic” notion of clear concepts, distinguishing between three levels of conception. Whereas the first related to familiarity and self-evidence, the second considers the relation between reality and fiction, i.e. it relates to an interpretant. The third level relates to our conception of effects, which causes our conception of an object.

Charles Sanders Peirce is known for his frequent use of the number three. Apart from the sciences (which are to be divided into sciences of discovery, review, and the practical sciences, with the first one also being divided into further ternary divisions), he differentiates between three forms of philosophy. In this very hierarchical order are phenomenology (what appears: investigating phenomena), normative science (what are the norms of the relation of phenomena to beauty, right, and truth), and metaphysics (what is the reality of phenomena). For Charles Sanders Peirce, phenomenology is the most abstract branch, whereas the other two provide a more concrete applicability. Further, he distinguishes between three elements of phenomenology: firstness (unmediated qualities, ideas), secondness (existence, or facts), and thirdness (understanding, or mediation/signs). He then divides normative science into aesthetics, ethics, and logic, and metaphysics into general metaphysics (ontology), religious metaphysics, and physical metaphysics.

Having worked on algebra, graphs, the four-colour problem etc., Charles Sanders Peirce also made several important discoveries in mathematics, for example in the "Logic of Relatives" (1870), where he extended the theory of relations. "On the Algebra of Logic: A Contribution to the Philosophy of Notation" (1885) was cited by Ernst Schröder with whom Charles Sanders Peirce had an intensive correspondence. Pierce is also considered to be one of the founders of statistics.

Additionally, as is well known, Charles Sanders Peirce developed a theory of signs at almost the same time as Saussure. He called his theory, semeiotics. For Charles Sanders Peirce, the sign is a representative relation, i.e. the sign mediates the relation between objects and interpretants. Once more he offers a triad and distinguishes between them: the Representamen, the sign; the Interpretant, the sense or meaning made by the sign, either immediate (the meaning is the sign), dynamic (the meaning is an effect), or final (normative/ideal meaning); and The Object, represented by the sign, either immediate (the object is represented in the sign) or dynamic (the real object).

Being a tremendously innovative and creative scholar, Charles Sanders Peirce had an enormous and widespread influence on other thinkers such as Alfred North Whitehead, Karl Raimund Popper, Bertrand Russell and his student John Dewey.

Charles Sanders Peirce died of cancer on April 20, 1914. He left a vast amount of works on a very wide range of topics, including logic, mathematics, geodesy, astronomy, physics, philosophy, and economics, to name a few. Among his most important works on pragmatism are What Pragmatism Is (1905), Issues of Pragmaticism (1905) and Prolegomena To an Apology For Pragmaticism (1906). His most notable treatises on logic include Grounds of Validity of the Laws of Logic: Further Consequences of Four Incapacities (1869), The Harvard lectures on British logicians (1869–70), Description of a Notation for the Logic of Relatives (1870) and On the Algebra of Logic (1880). Other philosophical works include The Monist Metaphysical Series (1891–93) and A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God (1908).

Most of Charles Sanders Peirce’s works were published posthumously; the most important among them are: Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, 8 volumes (1931-1958), Reasoning and the Logic of Things: the Cambridge Conferences Lectures of 1898 (1992), The Essential Charles Sanders Peirce. Selected Philosophical Writings, 2 volumes (1992/1998), Pragmatism as a Principle and Method of Right Thinking: the 1903 Harvard Lectures on Pragmatism by Charles Sanders Peirce (1997), Writings of Charles Sanders Peirce: a Chronological Edition, 8 volumes (1982-2010).

The most eminent research on Charles Sanders Peirce was conducted by the historians Carolyn Eisele and Max Fisch and, in 1946, the Charles Sanders Peirce Society was founded.



Charles Sanders Peirce was a logician, philosopher and scientist. (September 10, 1839 - April 19, 1914)