Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Milford, Pike County
American philosopher Charles S. Peirce created the school of pragmatism.
Charles S. Peirce was born in 1839 in Massachusetts to intellectual parents who encouraged his education from a young age. Upon graduating from Harvard, Peirce worked in various scientific fields, including the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. While he was passionate about his work, Peirce’s true interests involved logistics. Throughout his life, Peirce developed his idea of Pragmaticism, amongst others, but never was able to publish his full theory. Peirce was unable to gain respect from other scholars which lead to employment. He moved to Milford, Pennsylvania to focus on philosophy where he remained until he died in 1914.
Charles Saunders Peirce was born on September 10, 1839 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was born the second of five sons to Benjamin Peirce, a well-known Harvard mathematician and astronomer, and Sarah Hunt Mills, daughter of Massachusetts Senator Elijah Hunt Mills. His father was very driven intellectually; during his life time he helped found the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (an organization that manages national coordinate system), the Smithsonian Institution, as well as the Department of Mathematics at Harvard University. Peirce’s’ father refused to discipline his children, believing it would smother their individuality. He did, however, believe that education was an important factor in the raising of his children. The children, including Charles, were often encouraged and challenged academically by their father starting at a young age. Peirce was introduced to intellectual thinking by scholarly visitors who often frequented the house to visit with his father. These men, including scientists, lawyers, and writers, had an extraordinary effect on Peirce, foreshadowing his future.
In 1851, at the age of 12, Peirce read a textbook by Bishop Richard Waterly that began the logical ways of thinking that he would continue for the rest of his life. Following in his brother’s and father’s footsteps, Peirce attended college at Harvard. As a sixteen year old freshman, he read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason; this book would become a reference to him throughout all of his studies. Peirce graduated from Harvard in 1859, and earned his Bachelors of Science in Chemistry in 1863, graduating summe cum laude. Prior to graduating, Peirce married his first wife, Harriet Melusina Fay, a feminist theorist and activist, in October 1862.
At first, Peirce’s work was mainly scientific. From 1863 to 1891, he worked with his father at The U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. Despite working, he relentlessly continued with his academics. He was elected a member of the National Academy of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Science in 1877. He also studied the methods of species classification with zoologist Louis Agassiz at the Harvard Observatory, which was the basis of Peirce’s first and only published book, Photometrics Researches. At the same time, Peirce was working a second job teaching logic at John Hopkins University, from 1879-84; while teaching, he published a series of essays in The Monist and developed a theory of relatives and quantifiers.
During the late 1860’s and early 1870’s, Peirce was a member of the Metaphysics Club, a discussion group of prestigious Harvard men, including William James, who would become America’s most well know philosopher as well as Peirce’s mentor and friend. According to Croce, these men conversed about the impact of science on philosophy, and it was during this time that Peirce discussed his ideas for his book of logistics, which he would never publish.
He continued to write about the logic of numbers in many unpublished papers. In his studies, he conducted groundbreaking research on the determination of accurate weights and measures and was a pioneer in the mathematics of probability. Through his work, he continued to see philosophy as a science. In 1877 and 1878, he published a six essay series in the Popular Science Monthly entitled “Illustrations of Logic of Science,” mainly influenced by his time spent in the Metaphysics Club. The first two of the six, “The Fixation of Belief” and “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” would become his most popular works. The popularity of his articles was due in part to his friend, William James, who picked from Peirce’s writing and focused on what was the beginning of Peirce’s theory of pragmatism. James turned this theory into a psychology, while Peirce kept the idea ambivalent and focused on logistics; he defined his theory as a method to clarify the meaning of vague ideas through the application of logics. Later renamed as “pragmaticism” in order to distinguish it from James’ psychology, this theory would become Peirce’s most beneficial addition to the world of science and logistics long after he had passed.
By 1876, Peirce’s marriage was failing and he began a public affair with Juliette Froissy Pourtalai. Towards the end of 1883, Peirce filed for divorced from his wife and two days after the divorce was final, he married Pourtalai. Johns Hopkins did not approve of this affair, and later removed him from his job. In 1880, Peirce’s father died, causing Peirce to lose status at the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, leading him to eventually be let go. He would struggle financially for the rest of his life.
The couple moved to Milford, Pennsylvania in 1887. Peirce built a house in Milford himself, with hopes of eventually turning it into a resort where other intellectuals could spend a summer vacation. He had hoped to add extra cottages so that others could come to have fun and discuss philosophy. For this reason, he named his house “Arisbe” in reference to a Greek colony that housed many early philosophers and was also associated with cosmology, science, and Homer.
Peirce spent the rest of his life performing odds-and-ends jobs to earn money, as well as completing consulting work in chemical engineering for extra cash. The couple became isolated in Milford but Peirce continued to focus on logistics. Charles Pierce died in Milford, PA on April 19, 1914.
None of Peirce’s works ever came together as a solid idea. His works were very scattered; most of his writings were unpublished essays and notes. After Peirce’s death, his wife sold his unpublished work to the Department of Philosophy at Harvard University. Many people took it upon themselves to try to piece together all of Peirce’s works to develop a flowing theory. In the 1930’s, TheCollected Paper of Charles Saunders Peirce were assembled, but they neglected to create a coherent theory from Peirce’s works. A half a century later, the Writings of Charles S. Peirce: a Chonological Edition produced volumes of Peirce’s work that provided more organized structure to his ideas. Also, Peirce had a significant influence on the thinking of others beyond his death, especially the students he taught at Johns Hopkins, including John Dewey.
Joseph Ransdell, a Peirce biographer, explains [u]ntil recently, he has usually been thought of as ‘a philosopher’s philosopher’ whose work is too recondite and difficult to be of interest to any but professionals in philosophy; but within the past decade or two it has become increasingly apparent that the difficulty in understanding him has been due to the fact that he jumped beyond the concerns that have occupied the generality of academic philosophers in the 20th century to open up inquiry into topics that are only just now moving to the forefront of general interest.
Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Series (5 total)
“On an Improvement in Boole’s Calculus of Logic.” Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 7 (1867), 250-261.
“On the Natural Classification of Arguments.” Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 7 (1867), 261-287.
“On a New List of Categories.” Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 7 (1867), 287-298.
“Upon the Logic of Mathematics.” Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 7 (1867), 402-412.
“Upon Logical Comprehension and Extension.” Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 7 (1867), 416-432.
Journal of Speculative Philosophy Cognition Series
“Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 2 (1868), 103-114.
“Some Consequences of Four Incapacities.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 2 (1868), 140-157.
“Grounds of Validity of the Laws of Logic: Further Consequences of Four Incapacities.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 2 (1869), 193-208.
Illustrations of the Logic of Science (6 total)
“The Fixation of Belief.” Popular Science Monthly 12 (Nov. 1877), 1-15.
“How to Make Our Ideas Clear.” Popular Science Monthly 12 (Jan. 1878), 286-302.
“The Doctrine of Chances.” Popular Science Monthly 12 (Mar. 1878), 604-615.
The Monist Essay Series
“Evolutionary Love: at first blush. Counter-gosphels second thoughts. Irenica. A third aspect. Discrimination…” The Monist, A Quarterly Magazine Devoted to the Philosophy of Science (1890-1905) 1 Jan. 1893: 176.