logo

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839 -1914)

Charles Sanders PeirceCharles Sanders Peirce is known as the founder of pragmatism or as he later came to call it, in order to differentiate it from other later forms, 'pragmaticism'.

Peirce described his pragmaticism  as "a method of determining the meanings of hard words and abstract conceptions."

Peirce was born on September 10, 1839 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the son of Harvard mathematician Benjamin Peirce.

While he wrote prolifically on many subjects including mathematics, economics, anthropology, psychology and much more, he was a practicing chemist and geodesist by profession, yet he regarded scientific philosophy as his vocation. 

Peirce was unusual for a philosopher, in that, he published no major work based on his thoughts. Nevertheless, his contributions were significant and his published works consist of about 12,000 pages and his known unpublished manuscripts of about 80,000 handwritten pages.

Due to his father's profession, Peirce grew up in a very intellectual atmosphere and was exposed to the top scientific and philosophical thinkers of the time, many of whom visited the Peirce household regularly. By the time he was eight years old, he was studying chemistry, and at thirteen, he started to read Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Later on, as one who was devoted to logic and scientific practices, Peirce applied his scientific principles to philosophy.

The guiding principle of Peirce's 'pragmaticist' philosophy is summed up in a statement from his article How to Make Out Ideas Clear, which was published in Popular Science Monthly in 1878:

 "...If one can define accurately all conceivable experimental phenomena which the affirmation or denial of a concept could imply, one will have a complete definition of the concept.....Our idea of anything is our idea of its sensible effects....It is absurd to say that thought has any meaning unrelated to its only function."

The Life of Charles Sanders PeirceIn other words, we can get clarity about the content of a thought or concept by working through all its experimental consequences. This process also gives us the ability to distinguish between nonsensical metaphysical propositions, which have no sense because they don't represent any idea that has observable, reasonable effects, from the genuinely meaningful prepositions of 'scientific metaphysics'.  

For Peirce, scientific metaphysics is an observational discipline derived from the first and most basic elements of experience and one that begins with phenomenology (the way things are represented to us).

Peirce also had an interesting take on truth and the nature of reality through the notion of scientific method. He saw scientific enquiry as proceeding according to three principles of inference. First, was abduction, which refers to the generation of hypotheses for the purposes of explaining particular phenomena. Secondly, deduction, which is the means by which testable propositions are derived from hypotheses; and thirdly, inference, which is the whole process of experimentation which takes place in order to test hypotheses.

Peirce also came to argue that one should never be attached to the truth of current scientific opinion, but rather accept it as a stage on the way towards truth.

Ultimately Peirce's, pragmatism is a doctrine about how to establish empirical meanings or to arrive at truth. He saw pragmatism and account of inquiry as methods for both resolving metaphysics and supporting scientific inquiry.

As well as his contributions to pragmatism and providing its name, Charles Sanders Pierce was an important influence upon the works of William James and John Dewey.

Philosopher Archives
Immanuel Kant

footer2