The Power of Positive Pragmatism

The Origins of Pragmatism: Studies in the Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce and William James

by A.J. Ayer
Freeman, Cooper, 336 pp., $8.00

C. S. Peirce and William James
C. S. Peirce and William James; drawing by David Levine

Any philosopher of whatever persuasion who tries to write the history of his subject in America from its beginnings to the First World War will sooner or later discover that, of all the thinkers he is obliged to study, the two most brilliant and most original were those life-long friends and partners in pragmatism, Charles Peirce (1839-1914) and William James (1842-1910). Both were sons of intellectual fathers, both were Harvard men, and both began their careers in natural science, but soon after their intellectual launchings they sailed into very different seas.

James became an international success upon the appearance of his Principles of Psychology in 1890, made a triumphal entry into philosophy in the next decade, and died with the knowledge that he was one of the most famous philosophers in the world. Peirce’s luck was very different. He never succeeded in publishing a book in philosophy, never had a permanent academic position, often lived in squalor, and was constantly forced to keep body and soul together by lecturing, reviewing, and writing dictionary entries. He was a thorny, unconventional mathematical logician who had a genius for being unpleasant to his benefactors, yet he never seems to have driven away the ever-generous James, who made allowances for Peirce’s nuttiness and who praised and supported him in every kind of emergency. James handsomely announced to the world in 1898 that Peirce had been the founder of pragmatism but Peirce’s distinction took an inexcusably long time to sink into the American academic mind. It was not until the 1930s, when his posthumous Collected Papers began to appear, that Peirce’s greatness was generally acknowledged by philosophers.

America had been much too late in discovering its philosophical Cinderella, but better late than never. After Peirce’s works joined James’s on library shelves, it became evident what a powerful pair they had been. They compared favorably with any philosopher produced by England or the Continent in their time, and alongside their American predecessors and contemporaries they shone with almost solar brightness. Before Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) there was virtually nothing of lasting philosophical value in what may be called Perry Miller Land after that dedicated explorer of the Puritan mind. And although Edwards was an acute and even powerful arguer on the subject of free will, he was hardly a heavyweight when compared with Locke, Hume, or Berkeley. Emerson (1803-1882) was a great man and a seer, but what little technical philosophy he espoused was connected with his slavish acceptance of Coleridge’s distinction between the Reason and the Understanding. Chauncey Wright (1830-1875), often said to be the ur-pragmatist, turns out on careful reading to be better regarded as a highly intelligent and knowledgeable disciple of Darwin and John Stuart Mill. Josiah Royce (1855-1916), the younger colleague of James and the friend of Peirce, is not to be put in the same class…

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