Politics & Policy

The Man With a Kink in His Brain

A conference in Massachusetts gives American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce his due.

More than 200 scholars from all over the world assembled in Lowell, Mass., last week for one purpose: to give a genius the honor in death that he did not receive in life.

The Charles S. Peirce International Centennial Congress held its conference at University of Massachusetts, Lowell from Wednesday through Friday to explore the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce, who died April 19, 1914.

Although not a household name, Peirce (pronounced “purse”) was an American philosopher and scientist of staggering brilliance and originality. In summing up his own eccentricities, Peirce wrote, “There is a kink in my damned brain that prevents me from thinking as other people think.”

Over the course of Peirce’s life, that kinky brain produced a total of about 12,000 printed pages and 80,000 handwritten pages. The Peirce Edition Project, founded in 1976, is still organizing and editing the massive Peirce corpus. So far, Indiana University Press has published seven volumes of his writings — of an expected thirty.

Peirce was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts September 10, 1839. His father, Benjamin Peirce, was a professor of mathematics at Harvard University. Visitors to the Peirce home included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Lowell. The younger Peirce, if his writings do not exaggerate, digested Immanuel Kant’s notoriously difficult Critique of Pure Reason at the age of 13.

Peirce received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Harvard University in 1863. Although he taught logic at Johns Hopkins University from 1879 to 1884, Peirce was never able to hold down a job as a full-time professor. He was often as short on practical wisdom as he was long on cognitive ability. He was plagued by creditors and rumors of scandal, but his irregular employment may have helped. Rather than becoming a stale academic, Peirce made his living conducting scientific experiments for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, where his father was serving as director. Like Einstein’s menial job in the Bern patent office, Peirce’s geodetic career stimulated his mind and allowed him to pursue theoretical interests in the off-hours.  

In many ways, Peirce was a man ahead of his time. In 1886, he and his former student at Johns Hopkins, Allen Marquand, became the first to design a logical computation machine that used electric circuits. Over the course of his lifetime, he also developed a general theory of signs that is still generating interest in such disparate fields as literary criticism and biology.

Peirce’s rejection of determinism, the idea that all events and human actions are causally determined, also showed him to be ahead of his peers. While most of his contemporaries denied the possibility of objective chance, and even Einstein denied that God plays dice with the universe, Peirce envisioned an evolving universe of genuine spontaneity. The subsequent discovery of quantum chance gave respectability to that highly unorthodox view.  

Peirce’s other philosophical achievements were no less remarkable. One of Peirce’s most important contributions was his “maxim of pragmatism,” which he presented as a method for clarifying thought. Roughly, Peirce’s maxim states that we can understand the meaning of something best by considering all the ways it could possibly have a bearing on practical affairs. So, the meaning of “water” would amount to all the ways water affects – and could possibly affect – our experiences. The more novel experiences of water we have, the greater our understanding of water becomes.

While Peirce said little about politics, conservatives might find him a fellow traveler in some respects. Unlike his more famous students, William James and John Dewey, Peirce was not associated with any progressive causes. He preferred philosophical inquiry to be dreary and exact, rather than lively and socially relevant, which may account for his comparative obscurity.

“I must confess that I belong to that class of scallawags who purpose, with God’s help, to look the truth in the face, whether doing so be conducive to the interests of society or not,” he said.

Also unlike both thinkers, and despite being called “the father of pragmatism,” Peirce never accepted the idea that “truth is what works.” When the word “pragmatism” became associated with that view of truth he promptly renamed his own view “pragmaticism.” This, he thought, was a moniker “ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers.”

The Peirce lexicon is chalked full of coinages – Aristotelicity, agapism, phaneroscopy – that appear to have fallen from a semantic ugly tree and intercepted every branch on the way down. If his linguistic preferences make his writings forbidding to outsiders, they do serve to protect against misappropriation. Some of his terminology, like “quale” (usually used in the plural, “qualia”), have become mainstream – in academic philosophy, of course.

In retrospect, it seems fitting that Peirce’s life of furious intellectual activity ended just weeks before the outbreak of the Great War. Despite his scientific career, Peirce intellectually belonged to the older world. It’s difficult to imagine that he would have had much sympathy for many of the major philosophical trends that followed the First World War.

Some have noticed the similarity between Peirce’s pragmaticism and logical positivism, the view that only verifiable statements are meaningful. But while the logical positivists wanted to dismiss most of philosophy as meaningless, Peirce wanted to unveil the true nature of reality.

Conservatives who feel jaded with modern philosophy but who respect modern science may find inspiration in the work of Charles Sanders Peirce. The theme of the Lowell conference is “Invigorating Philosophy for the 21st Century.” Let’s hope it provides the needed invigoration.

— Spencer Case is a philosophy graduate student at the University of Colorado and a National Review intern. He is a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and an Egypt Fulbright alumnus.

Spencer CaseMr. Case is a freelance writer and an international research fellow in the Wuhan University school of philosophy.


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