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Brief Lives

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C.S. Peirce (1839-1914)

Was he the greatest American philosopher? Alistair MacFarlane studies the signs.

Look around you. What do you see? Not merely shapes and colours, but things with meanings: tables, chairs, cars, people, animals… You see what Peirce called ‘signs’. Peirce saw reality in terms of what things mean to us, and his world was a world of signs. He regarded even himself as a sign. His theory of semiotics – the study of signs, their function and their interpretation – was only one of his many highly original contributions to philosophy. In fact, C.S. Peirce is now regarded by many as the greatest American philosopher – yet he was dismissed from the only academic position he ever held, and he died a poverty-stricken outcast.


Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced ‘Purse’) was born on September 10th, 1839, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his father Benjamin Peirce was Professor of Astronomy and Mathematics at Harvard University. Charles was the second of three sons, and he had a younger sister. His mother, Sarah Hunt Mills, was the daughter of an influential Senator, and the family occupied a prominent position in New England society. Peirce suffered the same early misfortune as John Stuart Mill, in that his father educated him and burdened him with a presumption of genius. He inherited the even greater burden of trigeminal neuralgia (random chronic facial agony), together with left-handedness. The left-handedness was triumphantly overcome. Peirce made himself ambidextrous, and was able to astound audiences by writing out a problem with one hand while simultaneously writing out the solution with the other. However, the medical inheritance had grave consequences. He used opium to cope with the intermittent attacks of acute pain, and became addicted to morphine. Together with an arrogance stemming from the inculcated belief in his own special abilities, this contributed to a lifelong inability to fit into conventional society, and doomed any attempts to create a professional life other than through the influence of his father. Peirce craved recognition and success, but his fierce pride made it nearly impossible for him to bend to the demands of the society whose esteem he so fervently desired. The seeds of what was to become a tragic life were there from the beginning.

Benjamin Peirce was the leading American mathematician of his day, with great influence in areas where mathematics was used professionally. Thanks to this, after graduating from Harvard Charles obtained a place with the US Coastal and Geodesic Survey, with which he held a number of posts between 1861 and 1891. This government appointment secured exemption from being drafted into the Union Army during the Civil War (1861-65). Peirce pursued his survey work with great distinction, particularly in the fields of gravimetrics and metrology, and became the first American to represent his country at an international scientific conference. In addition to providing him with a good income, the work gave him plenty of time to pursue his philosophical and scientific researches. Without this early freedom it is unlikely that he would ever have done any significant philosophical work.

Despite financial difficulties due to unwise speculation and an extravagant lifestyle, all went well for some twenty years. He began to make a name for himself as a philosopher, and, again due to his father’s influence, in 1879 he obtained a lectureship in Logic at the newly-founded Johns Hopkins University in Philadelphia, which position he was able to hold alongside his Survey appointment.

Johns Hopkins had opened in 1876 as an elite foundation intended to match the highest European standards in scholarship and research. The ambitious president of this new institution, Daniel Gilman, was determined to create the best graduate school in the United States, and after only four years its published research had matched the entire output from all the other American universities. The head of the mathematics department was J.J. Sylvester, brought in from England, and like Charles’ father, he was one of the greatest mathematicians of his time. The lectureship should have been an ideal appointment for Peirce. Unfortunately, his private and public lives soon collided. In 1876 he had met a mysterious Madame Juliette Pourtalai at a ball in the Hotel Breevort in New York (a favourite haunt), and they embarked on a passionate and public affair. Despite the best efforts of biographers to illuminate them, Juliette’s origins remain obscure. Her own determined efforts to hide them were themselves an incitement to gossip.

Peirce had married Harriet Fay in 1862. Since they had difficult and divergent characters, their marriage came under increasing strain, and broke down irretrievably in 1876. When Peirce took up his Johns Hopkins appointment in 1879 he was living with Juliette but still married to Harriet. This fanned the fires of scandal already fuelled by rumours of drug addiction, overbearing arrogance, erratic behaviour and previous infidelities. Peirce divorced Harriet in 1883 to marry Juliette. Despite this, the scurrilous gossip continued to spread. Making matters worse, Peirce had a bitter disagreement with Sylvester about the attribution of some of his work in logic, antagonising the only person who might have helped him.

Peirce seems to have been oblivious of the growing danger, writing to a relative that he was sure to get tenure soon and be promoted to a professorship. However, in 1883, President Gilman finally moved to safeguard the reputation of his new and growing university, and with no support coming from Sylvester to protect Peirce, summarily dismissed him. Life for Peirce changed abruptly for the worse, and became increasingly difficult for him. His work at the Survey deteriorated, and after receiving a small legacy in 1891 he resigned his appointment there. Apart from a short spell of tutoring in New York and occasional lecture courses in Harvard, he spent the rest of his life in seclusion, in the small town of Milford in Pennsylvania. His intention on retiring there was to complete a set of volumes containing all the major philosophical discoveries he had made during the previous thirty years, but the great books failed to appear. Increasing financial difficulties drove him to devote much of his time and energy to writing popular reviews of philosophical and scientific books instead. During the final years of his life, illness prevented him from working at all, and he subsisted on the charity of his younger brother Herbert and a few friends. The most generous of these was the Harvard philosopher William James, who confided to one of his colleagues, “I owe him everything.”

Peirce died on 19th April 1914. He was survived by Juliette, who kept his ashes in a silver urn on her mantelpiece until her own death twenty years later, when they were interred in her grave in Milford.


C.S. Peirce is best known as founder of the quintessentially American philosophy known as Pragmatism. Its basic idea is contained in his Pragmatic Maxim: “Consider what effects which might conceivably have practical bearings we might conceive the object of our conception to have. Then our conception of the effect is the whole of our conception of the object” – in other words, Pragmatism is the philosophy that the whole meaning anything has for us is the perceivable effects it produces. This basic idea was taken up and developed by William James and later John Dewey, and, with many shifts of emphasis and interpretation, it still flourishes in the philosophies of Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam.

Over many decades Peirce sought to create an all-embracing metaphysical system. However, he saw himself primarily as a logician. His work on scientific methodology anticipated Popper’s critical rationalism. Peirce saw the scientific method as composed of three stages: abduction (creating hypotheses), deduction (inferring their implications), and induction (testing these implications). His long experience of practical measurement with the Geodesic Survey convinced him that we do not live in a wholly deterministic world, and anti-determinism became an important girder in his philosophical constructions. He would have felt at home in the modern quantum world in a way that few (if any) of his philosophical predecessors could have.

Peirce worked continuously on his philosophy throughout his turbulent and disorganised life. After his death, the eminent philosopher Josiah Royce arranged for all his papers and books to be transferred to the philosophy library in Harvard. All this material has been made freely available, except for some personal writings which have been withheld from biographers. The collected works are being edited and published. This huge task is still less than half completed, but it has become a matter of scholarship rather than revelation. The many highly original lines of inquiry which Peirce opened up are now part of the philosophical mainstream, and have been pushed far further than he reached with them. Nevertheless, Peirce’s reputation as a great philosopher continues to grow.

If anyone can be said to have been born before their time, that person is surely Charles Sanders Peirce. He anticipated many of the fundamental shifts in philosophy and science which took place in the century following his death. Who can say what difference a less sheltered childhood, proper medical treatment of his cripplingly painful affliction, a more tolerant society, and more open academic institutions, might have made? Genius alone is not enough to guarantee recognition in a lifetime, but its products eventually triumph for the benefit of those who follow. Nothing else can bring any comfort in a contemplation of the tragedy of Peirce’s life.

© Sir Alistair Macfarlane 2012

Sir Alistair MacFarlane is a former Vice-President of the Royal Society and a retired university Vice-Chancellor.


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