The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.XVII. Later Philosophy
§ 18. Charles S. Peirce
If philosophic eminence were measured not by the number of finished treatises of dignified length but by the extent to which a man brought forth new and fruitful ideas of radical importance, then Charles S. Peirce (1840–1914) would easily be the greatest figure in American Philosophy. Univalled in his wide and thorough knowledge of the methods and history of the exact sciences (logic, mathematics, and physics), he was also endowed with the bountiful but capricious originality of genius. Few are the genuine contributions of America to philosophy of which the germinal idea is not to be found in some of his stray papers.
Peirce was too restless a pioneer or explorer to be able to settle down and imitate the great masters who build complete systems like stately palaces towering to the moon. He was rather of those who are always trying to penetrate the jungle that surrounds our patch of cultivated science; and his writings are all rough, cryptic sketches of new fields, without much regard to the limitations of the human understanding, so that James found his lectures on pragmatism “flashes of brilliant light against Cimmerian darkness.” Overt departure from the conventional moral code and inability to work in harness made it impossible for Peirce to keep any permanent academic position, and thus he was deprived of a needed incentive to intelligibility and to ordinary consistency. Intellectual pioneers are rarely gregarious creatures. In their isolation they lose touch with those who follow the beaten paths, and when they return to the community they speak strangely of strange sights, so that few have the faith to follow them and change their trails into high roads. Peirce was fortunate in that two powerful minds, Josiah Royce and William James, were able to follow some of the directions from his Pisgah heights and thus take possession of rich philosophic domains. What further gains philosophy might make by developing other of his numerous suggestive ideas, is not an affair of history. We may note, however, that in our own day the field of mathematical logic which he developed has become the ground which supports our latest philosophic movement, neo-realism.
Peirce was by antecedents, training, and occupation a scientist. A son of Benjamin Peirce, the great mathematician, he had a thorough knowledge of pure mathematics and of modern laboratory methods. He made important contributions not only to mathematical or symbolic logic but also to photometric astronomy, geodesy, and psycho-physics, as well as to philology. For many years he was engaged in the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, and one of his researches on the pendulum received unusual attention form the International Geodetic Congress to which he was the first American delegate. He was, therefore, predominantly concerned with a philosophy of science.
Science, according to Peirce, is a method of banishing doubt and arriving at stable ideas. Commonly we fix beliefs by reiterating them, by surrounding them with emotional safeguards, and by avoiding anything which casts doubt upon them—by “the will to believe.” This method breaks down when the community ceases to be homogeneous. Social effort, by the method of authority, to eliminate diversity of beliefs also fails in the end to prevent reflective doubts from cropping up. Hence we must finally resort to the method of free inquiry and let science stabilize our ideas by clarifying them. How can this be done? Early in his life in Cambridge Peirce came under the personal influence of Chauncey Wright, and in a little club of which Wright was the strongest spirit he first developed the doctrine of pragmatism. The Newtonian experimental philosopher, as Wright had pointed out, always translates general propositions into prescriptions for attaining new experimental facts, and this led Peirce to formulate the general maxim of pragmatism that the meaning of any concept is to be found in “all the conceivable experimental phenomena which the affirmation or denial of a concept could imply.”