Charles Sanders Peirce
Charles Sanders Peirce; drawing by David Levine


Charles Sanders Peirce is a notable figure in the histories of logic, semiotics, statistics, mathematics, metrology (the science of measurement), and experimental psychology; but he is famous to people who are not logicians, semioticians, statisticians, mathematicians, metrologists, or experimental psychologists because in 1898 William James, in a lecture at Berkeley, named him as the founder of pragmatism.

In 1898, James was an international academic celebrity, and Peirce was a bankrupt. He had not had an academic appointment since 1884 or a job since 1891. He had been living, sometimes on the street, in New York City, a fugitive from Pennsylvania, where he was being sued, in separate cases, for aggravated assault and battery (by a former servant) and for nonpayment of debts (by various creditors). But in 1898 he was expelled from the Century Club, where he had been in the habit of cadging food in order to survive, and he returned (after settling the lawsuits) to the enormous, dilapidated estate in Milford, Pennsylvania, that he and his wife had bought in 1888 but were unable to sell. Much of the time there he was without heat; he sometimes went for days with nothing to eat but oatmeal and crackers, and for weeks without speaking to anyone but his wife at mealtime. James’s attribution, though he repeated it on many prominent occasions, had no effect on Peirce’s circumstances. In 1907, when pragmatism was the hottest philosophical topic of the day, Peirce was discovered by some of James’s students in a rooming house in Cambridge, alone and near death from malnourishment.

Peirce was not a recluse or a pauper by choice. He was a brilliant and tireless conversationalist and a dedicated bon vivant. His professional behavior could be graceless and domineering; but he wanted nothing more than to be regarded by his peers as a laborer in the common enterprise of intellectual inquiry. It was the peculiar and profound misery of his life that he never was. One of the purposes of Joseph Brent’s fascinating biography is to explain why.

Brent’s book is the first life of Peirce ever published. He began it in 1957, as a dissertation in history at UCLA.1 He was given a hard time with his research by the Harvard philosophy department, which—by no wish of Peirce, who not only had never been a member of the Harvard philosophy department, but had been banned, for most of his life, from speaking on the Harvard campus—had taken control of Peirce’s papers after his death. Brent was prevented from examining several boxes of materials; and although the dissertation was completed in 1960, it could not be published, because Harvard refused permission to quote from Peirce’s letters. UCLA (evidently to Harvard’s annoyance) put the dissertation on microfilm anyway, and it remained in celluloid until Brent was encouraged, a few years ago, to resurrect and revise it.

This time, Harvard cooperated. The result, unsurprisingly, is not quite all of a piece: there are passages that read distinctly like a dissertation, and there are passages, more grandly speculative, that distinctly don’t. A few things have been skimmed over or left out—both in the account of Peirce’s thought (which, as Brent sensibly acknowledges, it would strain most competences to explain fully anyway) and in the account of Peirce’s experiences. And Brent can’t quite make up his mind (he’s not the first person to have had this trouble, either) whether Peirce was a neglected genius or simply a brilliant failure. But he understands the interest of his subject thoroughly, he knows he’s lucky to have a story in his hands that no one has told properly before, and he has produced a thoughtful, sometimes moving, and entirely accessible intellectual biography which is also, under the circumstances, indispensable. There will be more comprehensive lives of Peirce, but none of them is likely to be quite as absorbing, because none of them will be the first.

Going without a biography for nearly eighty years hasn’t been Peirce’s only posthumous problem. He has also lacked a decent edition of his work. He published just one book in his lifetime (with the title, not exactly immortal, Photometric Researches [Leipzig, 1878]); and he left behind 80,000 pages of unpublished manuscripts. In the 1930s Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, then graduate students at Harvard, culled six volumes of material from this archive and from Peirce’s journal publications, and Harvard published them as Peirce’s Collected Papers. Everyone agrees that the Collected Papers (to which two volumes, edited by Arthur Burks, were added in 1958) is inadequate: it stitches together excerpts from published and unpublished writings, and it is arranged (on no particular authority) thematically, rather than chronologically. The impression it leaves is of a cluttered mind prone to the abandonment of grandiose projects.


Not the least interesting question to be answered by the new, chronological edition of Peirce being published by Indiana University Press2 is whether that impression is, after all, the accurate one. Though it is expected to run to thirty volumes, even this edition is a selection: the editors estimate that a truly complete Peirce would require more than a hundred volumes. Still, it has taken them eleven years to get from volume one to volume five; so they have helpfully provided, for those content to reach a snap judgment on the matter, an Essential Peirce,3 in a mere two volumes (the second is due in 1994), edited by Nathan Houser and Christian Kloesel—a firstrate edition, which supersedes all other portable Peirces. I know that I stand to be contradicted sometime in the early decades of the next century, but The Essential Peirce seems to me to be all the Peirce most people will ever need.

Peirce was born, in Cambridge, in 1839, a year after Henry Adams. The Peirces and the Adamses did not see each other—there would have been political friction, since the Peirces were pro-slavery, and Peirce’s father considered Charles Sumner, the great friend of the Adamses, a fraud—and there is no evidence that Charles and Henry formed any sort of friendship later on. But their lives are in some respects strikingly parallel. They were both scions of the New England establishment. Peirce’s family was not as distinguished as Adams’s, of course—but his maternal grandfather, Elijah Hunt Mills, was a senator from New Hampshire, and his other grandfather was the librarian of Harvard College. Longfellow, Lowell, Parkman, Norton, the older Holmes, Daniel Webster (Elijah Mills’s successor), and Emerson were family friends.

Peirce attended Harvard, an experience he seems to have found even less rewarding than Adams had. When he graduated, in 1859, he ranked seventyninth in a class of ninety. (Adams, at least, had been class orator the year before.) And like Adams, he began his career under the patronage of his father.

Benjamin Peirce, as Brent tells us, was “easily the most brilliant and outstanding mathematician to appear in America before the Civil War.” He was chairman of the Harvard mathematics department, twice president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a founder of the National Academy of Science, and, from 1867 to 1874, superintendent of the United States Coast Survey, which he helped build into the leading government scientific organization of the day. He knew that Charles was a prodigy, and he took his son’s education into his own hands (which helps to explain the poor undergraduate record: Peirce was bored, and he undoubtedly held teachers less brilliant than his father in contempt). They discussed complex mathematical problems together, and sometimes stayed up all night playing rapid games of double dummy, the father pointing out each of the son’s mistakes, as a method of learning concentration. Through his father’s influence, Peirce was given a position at the Coast Survey (thereby acquiring a draft exemption) in 1861—the year Henry Adams sailed for London to serve as Minister Adams’s private secretary.

In 1862, Peirce married Harriet Melusina Fay, a woman of his own social circle. Her father was a minister who had been Benjamin’s classmate at Harvard; her grandfather was the Episcopal bishop of Vermont. Melusina Peirce (called Zina) was a feminist: she established the Cooperative Housekeeping Society, in Cambridge, as part of a crusade to liberate women from housework, and was an organizer of the effort that led to the founding of Radcliffe. She was also devout—a conversion experience, when she was twenty-three, had convinced her that the Holy Ghost represented the feminine principle in the universe—and she succeeded in turning Charles into a lifelong Episcopalian. (The Peirces were Unitarian; Episcopalianism was about as ultramontane as you would want to get in nineteenth-century Cambridge.)

Zina, Brent reports, “was repelled by the sensual in love and saw marriage as a Platonic ideal”; she thought the punishment for adultery should be life imprisonment or death. These were not views conducive to a happy marriage with Charles Peirce; and in 1875, in the middle of a European trip on Survey business, she abandoned her husband and returned to America. Charles, alone in Paris, suffered a severe breakdown; he and Zina were reunited and briefly reconciled. But when, back in the United States in 1876, he moved to New York, she remained in Cambridge, and, Brent says, “they were never together again.”

Zina’s desertion was the decisive event in Peirce’s life. Brent thinks Zina had simply realized that Peirce was a disaster waiting to happen. He suffered (as Brent is the first to note) from a severe and chronic form of facial (or “trigeminal”) neuralgia, which he relied on a variety of drugs—opium, ether, morphine, and, later, cocaine—to alleviate. The recurring pain and the drugs made him unstable and abusive, sometimes violently; but, thanks in part to an indulgent upbringing, he was emotionally undisciplined anyway. During the European trip that precipitated his marital crisis, he squandered the money advanced by the Survey, made a hash of his accounts, caused some of the expensive scientific instruments he was commissioned to purchase to be broken, and, by neglecting to provide the Survey with his address in any of the frantic letters he wrote to Washington requesting funds, was unable to get the money he needed to pay his bills. In the middle of this catastrophe—and this is the echt Peircean touch—he hired an expensive French sommelier for several months to give him instruction in the red wines of Medoc.


All these things undoubtedly distressed Zina Peirce. But she had a more personal grievance as well. She had already complained, before the trip to Europe—not only to her parents, but to Peirce’s—of her husband’s infidelity, and it is hard not to imagine (since she remained solicitous about Peirce’s health and financial condition) that it was some sort of sexual escapade in Paris that finally tore the marriage apart. In any case, the Fays were outraged by what Zina reported; the story was spread; and Peirce, whose quarrelsomeness had already made him persona non grata at Harvard, became a pariah in Cambridge society.

Peirce was not oblivious of the scandal, but he was not exactly daunted by it, either. Soon after the separation, he took up with a woman called Juliette Annette Froissy Pourtalai. On Peirce’s later account, they were introduced at a ball at the Brevoort, on Fifth Avenue, where (since it was luxurious) Peirce liked to stay when he was in town. But Juliette was apparently French (in one of her versions of her story she is a Habsburg princess; Pourtalai is supposed to have been the name of a deceased husband, though Brent can discover no such person), and it is possible that she was the Parisian femme who proved fatale to the Peirces’ marriage.

There is a hint that this is what happened—and that Peirce arranged for Juliette to come to America and live secretly in Boston when he and Zina returned together in 1876—in some letters by Peirce’s Aunt Lizzie, who turns out to have been a thoroughly and delightfully nasty gossip, and from whose correspondence Brent wisely quotes a great deal. Whenever they met, by the time Peirce accepted a lectureship in the philosophy department at Johns Hopkins, in 1879, he was living openly with Juliette on his travels for the Survey. He initiated divorce proceedings against Zina in 1881; in 1883, two days after the divorce was final, he married Juliette.

Peirce had been given every indication by the president of Hopkins, Daniel Coit Gilman, that he would eventually be awarded a permanent position. He was not a popular teacher, in part because of the difficulty of the material: John Dewey, who was one of the first students in the Hopkins department (the university was founded in 1876), had to drop Peirce’s course in logic the first time he tried to take it because he found the mathematics too hard; he eventually completed it, as did Thorstein Veblen. But Peirce was an exceptionally active and productive academic professional at a school founded specifically to foster academic professionalism. Then, in 1884, his contract, without explanation, was not renewed.

If Peirce ever guessed the reason, he does not seem to have said so anywhere. It was, of course, that the trustees had learned that Peirce’s marriage to Juliette had, in the unforgettable Victorian ellipsis of the professor who leaked the news to them, “made no change in the relations of the parties.” The scandal, though it was never made public, finished Peirce in the academic world. When William James proposed him for an appointment at the University of Chicago, in 1892, the recommendation was dismissed on grounds of Peirce’s “broken and dissolute character.” (The job went to John Dewey.) More than ten years after the Hopkins dismissal, Gilman left a house he was visiting after learning that Peirce was there, explaining that he “would not stay under the same roof with so immoral a man.”

Peirce’s marriage to Zina Fay resembles Adams’s marriage to Clover Hooper mostly in its ending prematurely. The aftermaths, though, are not unlike. Adams elected to withdraw from the world, of course, and Peirce was forced to; but the suffering that came in consequence (besides leading them to an interest in Buddhism) made them both develop emotional dependencies on much younger, intellectually “safer” women. Juliette’s age is one of the many mysteries about her; but she seems to have been a teen-ager when she met Peirce. (He was thirty-seven.) Lizzie Cameron, the senator’s wife with whom Adams (who was nineteen years older than she) carried on his long, unconsummated affair, was a much more elegant type; but then Adams acted out his disaffection with the times as a fastidious celibate, and Peirce acted out his as a moral derelict.

In 1888, using Perice’s income from the Survey, where he was still employed, and some money Juliette had apparently inherited, the Peirces bought their two thousand–acre Milford estate, which they named Arisbe. Three years later, Peirce was fired by the Survey, after a congressional investigation into a series of internal financial abuses (in which, by virtue of a long record of wastefulness, he was implicated) had led to the appointment of a new director. Peirce then plunged into a series of schemes—among them the construction of a hydroelectric station in upstate New York and the establishment of a correspondence school in logic—guaranteed to make his fortune. He seems sometimes to have been swindled; at other times, he must merely have thrown his or his investors’ money away. By 1893, the year the country entered a serious economic depression, Peirce was broke. Though poverty reduced him to begging for money to buy food, it did not prevent him from hiring workers to improve his estate—which is why in the year James announced the birth of pragmatism, the movement’s putative founder was sleeping on the sidewalk.

Most of the rest of Peirce’s life was devoted to philosophy and to supplication. He produced book reviews (mostly for the Nation); dictionary entries; multi-part journal articles; lecture series (which James arranged for him to deliver in Cambridge); and stacks of unpublished and unfinished manuscripts. And he starved. In 1905, when he was sixty-seven, he was writing to James that he had only “29 cents, am too ill to write successfully, & there is one can of beans in the house & nothing more. If you could spare me a loan even if only five dollars….” That winter, after the discovery in the Cambridge rooming house, James, who was himself dying of heart disease, organized a fund, and Peirce was able to live on the proceeds. In 1909, by way of appreciation, he added a second middle name, Santiago—Saint James.

James died the following year. Peirce died, of cancer, in 1914. Zina, an outcast after her desertion of Charles, had tried to support herself by running boarding houses in New York and Chicago; she died, poor and alone, in 1923. Juliette stayed on at Arisbe, a recluse. She survived her husband by twenty years.


Peirce believed that meaning does not inhere in concepts, but is always a function of the relations among concepts; this is the basis of the logic of relations, a field he helped to create. He believed that concepts, or signs of any kind, refer to objects only through the meditation of other signs: this is the basis of semiotics, a field he is generally credited with having founded. And he believed that objects are not substances-in-themselves, but are constituted entirely by the laws which describe their behavior under all possible conditions: this is the basis of his pragmatism.

He regarded the self as just another sign, and rejected the Cartesian notion of inherent mental faculties, such as a power of “introspection” by means of which the mind is able to contemplate an internal world of ideas without reference to external facts. He thought, contrary to Euclidean theory, that the parts—for example, the number of points on a line—can be greater than the whole (thus anticipating what is called “nonstandard analysis” in mathematics). 4 And he believed that physical laws are not absolute: if (as Karl Popper put it5 ) Newtonian physics assumes that all clouds are clocks—that all motion is strictly determined according to the law of cause and effect—Peirce thought that all clocks, to some degree, are clouds. He believed, in short, that the universe is charged with indeterminacy, and he believed that the universe makes sense. He spent his life trying to explain how both of these things could be the case.

The great mistake in adding all these beliefs up is to conclude that Peirce is our contemporary, and not a nineteenth-century mind. The mistake gets made partly through an overestimation of Peirce and partly through an underestimation of the nineteenth century. Peirce was, of course, exceptionally precocious. Until isolation and poverty made it impossible for him to keep up with the literature, his work was on the leading edge of many fields—from chemistry (which his father thought his strongest subject) to cartography. It is fair to say (as it often is said by his admirers) that Peirce anticipated the ideas of a number of twentieth-century scientists and philosophers, from Popper to Umberto Eco. But he did so not because he rejected the scientific and philosophical models of his day, but because he understood them more fully than many of his contemporaries did. Peirce was not somehow outside his own bubble.

His logic was built on the work of the nineteenth-century English logicians George Boole and Augustus De Morgan. His understanding of indeterminacy and universal law developed out of the work with statistics done by Adolphe Quetelet, John Herschel, James Clerk Maxwell, and many other nineteenth-century scientists. His ideas about consciousness and language echo an essay by his friend Chauncey Wright, and can be found in the Principles of Psychology of his friend William James. And the central concepts in his cosmology—chance and continuity—are plainly Darwinian. Peirce’s grasp of the implications of nineteenth-century thought was extraordinary, but it was nineteenth-century thought whose implications he grasped.

Peirce would have been entirely satisfied with this judgment. He regarded originality as, on the whole, a specious concept, and he considered “the spirit of the age” a real thing: “I believe,” he wrote, “that all the greatest achievements of mind have been beyond the powers of unaided individuals.”6 The anti-essentialist elements in his work are features of turn-of-the-century American thought generally, from Oliver Wendell Holmes to Henry Adams, and they underwrite many different world views: you can find them in the young John Dewey, and you can find them in the young T.S. Eliot (who studied, as a graduate student, under the one genuine disciple Peirce had in his lifetime, Josiah Royce). The interesting historical question isn’t why Peirce was neglected; the interesting question is why this whole way of thinking became so obscured that it had to be “discovered,” a century later, by poststructuralism—by a mode of thinking associated with writers like Derrida and Foucault.

Peirce’s semiotics is the clearest example of his anti-essentialism. It is common sense to say that a sign must consist of two elements: a word and a thing, a signifier and a signified. And it is common sense among semioticians, at least, to say that the relation between these two elements is fundamentally arbitrary: there is no reason why “tree” should signify a tree and not a house, and so forth. The question is, How is meaning generated? Peirce proposed that in order to mean, signs must contain a third element, which he called an “interpretant.”

An interpretant is “a mediating representation”:7 it is the already existing conception of a tree which the word “tree” evokes in the mind of the reader. But that conception is, of course, a representation, as well, and it has meaning in turn by virtue of its relationship to yet another interpretant—and so on, indefinitely. “The meaning of a representation,” Peirce wrote in an undated fragment.

can be nothing but a representation. In fact, it is nothing but the representation itself conceived as stripped of irrelevant clothing. But this clothing never can be completely stripped off; it is only changed for something more diaphanous. So there is an infinite regression here. Finally, the interpretant is nothing but another representation to which the torch of truth is handed along; and as representation, it has its interpretant again. Lo, another infinite series.8

Our representations can be filled out and elaborated in all sorts of ways; they can even become “better,” in the sense of “more useful.” But we can never say that they are identical with their objects—not because knowledge is always imperfect, but because there are no pre-representational objects out there. Things are themselves signs: their being signs is a condition of their being things at all. You can call this notion counterintuitive, because that is exactly what it is: it is Peirce’s attack on the idea that we can know some things intuitively—that is, without the mediation of representations. For Peirce, knowing is inseparable from what he called semiosis, the making of signs, and of the making of signs there is no end. If you look up a word in the dictionary, you find it defined by a string of other words, the meanings of which can be discovered by looking them up in the dictionary, leading to more words to be looked up in turn. There is no exit from the dictionary. Peirce didn’t simply think that language is like that. He thought that the universe is like that.

The relevance of Peirce’s theory of signs to twentieth-century philosophy of language is frequently credited: he plays a role in the argument of Eco’s A Theory of Semiotics (1976), and Derrida pays him a brief compliment (for anticipating the deconstruction of the “transcendental signified”) in Of Grammatology (1967). But what is most likely to give people today the sense of Peirce’s contemporaneity is the fact that he called himself a pragmatist.

Since it was revived almost single-handedly by Richard Rorty a decade ago, pragmatism has been enjoying a spirited reexamination, and the interest thus provoked in James has led (thanks, in part, to James’s repeated attributions) to an interest in Peirce—which the resurrected biography and the new editions are clearly designed to meet. But Peirce’s pragmatism was nearly the most nineteenth-century thing about him, and what it shares with James’s pragmatism is precisely the stuff in James that most twentieth-century pragmatists are inclined to ignore.

The question of Peirce’s influence on James has always been a little vexed. James’s widow, Alice, insisted that James had exaggerated his debt to Peirce out of sympathy for an old friend down on his luck; and James’s official biographer, Ralph Barton Perry, treated the influence as more or less accidental: “The modern movement known as pragmatism,” he says, “is largely the result of James’s misunderstanding of Peirce.”9 Peirce himself never used the term “pragmatism” (in print, at least) until after James’s lecture of 1898 had launched the movement; and though he then began using the term all the time, he eventually changed it to “pragmaticism,” in order to distinguish what he meant by it from what everyone else meant. But by then—around 1905—what Peirce meant had ceased, for most people, to matter.

This is how, in 1898, James summarized what he called “the principle of Peirce, the principle of pragmatism”:

The soul and meaning of thought…can never be made to direct itself towards anything but the production of belief….When our thought about an object has found its rest in belief, then our action on the subject can firmly and safely begin. Beliefs, in short, are really rules for action; and the whole function of thinking is but one step in the production of habits of action. If there were any part of a thought that made no difference in the thought’s practical consequences, then that part would be no proper element of the thought’s significance. 10

James was paraphrasing from two essays Peirce published in the Popular Science Monthly in 1877–1878: “The Fixation of Belief” and “How to Make Our Ideas Clear.” But those essays are simply elaborations of several chapters of an unfinished book on logic (there would be many more) which Peirce was working on in 1872 and which he read, that year, to an informal discussion group—famous in pragmatist legend as the Metaphysical Club—of which James was a member.

The genealogy goes two steps farther; for Peirce later maintained that the germ of his theory came from another member of the group, a lawyer named Nicholas St. John Green, who (Peirce said) was fond of quoting the Scotsman Alexander Bain’s definition of belief as “that upon which a man is prepared to act.”11 No doubt Bain stands upon the shoulders of more giants still, but he’s as far down the stack as we probably need to go.

Bain’s “definition of belief” is not (and this is the important point) metaphysical; it is physiological. It appears in The Emotions and the Will (1859), a standard psychology text James knew well, for it became one of the sources for the celebrated chapter on “Habit” in The Principles of Psychology (1890). “The whole plasticity of the brain,” James says there, “sums itself up in two words when we call it an organ in which currents pouring in from the sense-organs make with extreme facility paths which do not easily disappear.”12 These neural paths, once established, constitute habits: they ensure that our reaction to stimulus will—on average, for habit is a statistical concept—be predictable, repeatable, habitual.

The simplest example of what James is talking about is the acquisition of some physical skill—say, shooting free throws in basketball—by practice. That the organism is designed to learn how to shoot free throws is proved by the fact that the more we do it, the better we get: success and failure are not randomly distributed over the total number of attempts. Each time a coordinated series of actions meets with success—each time the ball goes through the hoop—we attempt to duplicate it. We’re wiring ourselves, in effect, to become a mechanism for making free throws—so that some day, with the score tied and no time left on the clock, while the stadium howls, we can calmly sink the winning basket.

That’s a simple example of what James is talking about. A difficult example is belief in God. It’s not exactly emphasized any longer, but one of James’s original purposes in promoting pragmatism was not to get rid of empirically unverifiable beliefs, but to make room, in a scientistic world view, for faith in God. James was not preaching pragmatism to the faithful; he was preaching it to the atheists. This was explicitly the context for the 1898 lecture, and the ambition persisted. “If the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word,” James says at the end of the 1907 Pragmatism, “it is true.”13

Belief in God “works” in the same way that learning to shoot free throws—or to tie our shoes, speak French, or honor our father and mother—works: each time it issues in a successful deed, it gets reinforced as an organic habit, a belief. When James started calling this “pragmatism,” he was simply giving a philosophical spin to a notion he’d relied on for a long time: we find him using it during his terrible mental crisis of the early 1870s, when he says, in his diary, that he has decided to act as though there were such a thing as free will; and it underwrites the title of his 1897 volume, The Will to Believe, in which he insists on the utility of religious faith.

On James’s view, if behaving as though we had free will or that God exists gets us results we want, we will not only come to believe in those things; they will be, pragmatically, true. For “the true,” as his classic formula has it, “is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief.”14 (This verification by experience is how, in Peirce’s terms, beliefs become “fixed.”) But thoughts that make no difference for us have no significance. If it does not help us to think that we will go to hell if we miss the free throw (or if we fail to honor our father and mother) then that is a belief we can do without. This is how (again in Peirce’s terms) we make our ideas “clear”—by stripping them of what is experientially inconsequential. This is the pragmatist razor, which Dewey would later use to try to slice to pieces what he regarded as the paper problems of traditional metaphysics.

James dedicated The Will to Believe to Peirce, who was pleased by the attention (when he received his copy, he wrote to James, he had gone without food for nearly three days), but less pleased by the book. “Will” seemed to him exactly the wrong word to use about something—belief—which is meaningless if it is not instinctive. Belief and doubt, on Peirce’s view, are not names for feelings we can choose to have. James came to regret the title, too; he later said he wished he had used the phrase “the right to believe” (though that would scarcely have been more palatable to Peirce). But individualism and voluntarism were values fundamental to James’s nature, and they color everything he wrote.

Peirce hated individualism and voluntarism, as he hated two other ideas we find everywhere in James: nominalism and pluralism. He was far more doctrinaire a behaviorist than James, and far more thorough-going an evolutionist. For him, habit is not simply a law of the mind; it is the law of the universe. All matter, he thought, acquires habits, in exactly the same way that people do: “For atoms and their parts, molecules and groups of molecules, and in short every conceivable real object, there is a greater probability of acting as on a former like occasion than otherwise,” he wrote around 1888.15 Matter is simply “mind whose habits have become fixed so as to lose the powers of forming them and losing them.”16

Habit, in other words, is what makes things what they are, what enables them to persist in their condition of sameness—as I am (to you) the set of repeated behaviors observable in me. If my behavior was perfectly random—that is, not habitual—I would have no identity; the price of my having an identity is my inability fundamentally to transform it. As Frank Sinatra has germanely observed, “I gotta be me.” Habit-taking is a “plastic” faculty, in the sense that every person has the potential to produce a variety of responses to a given stimulus: the peculiar characteristic of habit, Peirce explained, is “not acting with exactitude.”17 But the number of possible responses cannot be infinite, since if it were, law would not be possible.

This definition of a thing as the sum of its possible behaviors is what Peirce meant by pragmatism. Pragmatism “is only an application of the sole principle of logic recommended by Jesus,” he explained in 1893, “‘Ye may know them by their fruits.”‘ And he added: “We must certainly guard ourselves against understanding this rule in too individualistic a sense.”18

Scientific laws, Peirce maintained, are therefore only statistical averages describing the habits of objects (just as sociological laws, as the nineteenth century discovered, are statistical averages describing the habits of people). For example, gravity: “The laws of physics,” Peirce told an audience at Hopkins (Dewey was present) in 1884, are “habits gradually acquired by systems. Why, for instance, do the heavenly bodies tend to attract one another? Because in the long run bodies that repel or do not attract will get thrown out of the region of space leaving only the mutually attracting bodies.”19

What keeps the system evolving, what stops it from becoming pure mechanism, is the presence of chance—the infinitesimal possibility that the next time the apple leaves the tree, it will not fall to the ground. (This theory of the existence of absolute chance Peirce called “tychism,” from the Greek word for fortune.) But the tendency to form habits is itself habit-forming; and Peirce believed that the secret of the universe is that it is evolving from a condition of chaos, in which things are governed entirely by chance, toward a condition of absolute law, or complete determinism, in which chance will disappear and all habits will be perfectly fixed. In the long run, he thought, the evolutionary process weeds out bad habits and encourages the reproduction of good ones: “Chance in its action tends to destroy the weak and increase the average strength of the objects remaining. Systems or compounds which have bad habits are quickly destroyed, those which have no habits follow the same course; only those which have good habits tend to survive.”20

Among these habits are, of course, our beliefs. As the universe becomes more predictable, our beliefs about it become truer, less plastic, more “fixed.” “Just as conduct controlled by ethical reason tends toward fixing certain habits of conduct, the nature of which…does not depend upon any accidental circumstances, and in that sense may be said to be destined,” Peirce announced in his answer to James and Dewey, “What Pragmatism Is” (1905), “so, thought, controlled by a rational experimental logic, tends to the fixation of certain opinions, equally destined, the nature of which will be the same in the end, however the perversity of thought of whole generations may cause the postponement of the ultimate fixation.”21 Peirce called this final condition, in which the universe is perfectly lawlike and our beliefs perfectly rational and true, “concrete reasonableness.” And “concrete” is unquestionably le most juste.

This is the vision behind Peirce’s theory, much touted today by neopragmatists attracted to its communitarian implications, that the truth is what the community of inquirers, in the last analysis, agrees on. In the much-quoted passage: “The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real.”22

The claim is now frequently invoked to help authorize a pluralistic theory of truth, according to which each group of language-users, each cultural formation or discursive universe, constructs a “reality” that is, in its practical consequences, real enough. But Peirce would not have had the smallest degree of patience with such a theory. For him, the community is always identical with the species, and the last analysis really is the last. In his cosmology, everyone’s beliefs have to be the same in the end, because in the end everyone’s beliefs will be perfectly instinctive, the genetic inheritance of the species. Individualism and pluralism are obviously not features of such a universe; neither, for that matter, is mind. Peirce’s philosophy has the Midas touch.


The obvious impolite question is how a man whose own habits had brought him so much unhappiness came to exalt the part played by habit in the gradual perfection of the cosmos. In a grand evolutionary theory like Peirce’s, of course, personal faults are of no account: the anthill always survives the ant. And Brent, in an interesting chapter on the relation of Pierce’s life to his thought, suggests that it was this indifference to the individual and the short run, as against the species and the long run, that underwrote what he calls the “moral blindness” of Peirce’s life.

It’s true that Peirce’s explanation for the existence of error and failure in the universe has a self-exculpatory ring to it. In “tychastic evolution [that is, evolution by chance variation],” he wrote in 1893, the year of his financial demise, “progress is solely owing to the distribution of the napkin-hidden talent of the rejected servant among those not rejected, just as ruined gamesters leave their money on the table to make those not yet ruined so much the richer. It makes the felicity of the lambs just the damnation of the goats, transposed to the other side of the equation.”23 The bad apple, in other words, saves the whole barrel.

The argument may have been self-serving; but this way of understanding chance—as the willingness to risk damnation in the hope of gaining salvation—is the ethical core of pragmatism. It is the basis for all the exhortatory writings of James; and it is (minus the teleology) the idea behind pragmatism’s greatest single contribution to American life, the free-speech opinions of Holmes. The Constitution, Holmes says in the Abrams dissent, by way of explaining why we should tolerate speech we loathe, “is an experiment, as all life is an experiment. Every year if not every day we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge.”24 Even the metaphors are Peircean.

In Peirce’s own work, the emphasis on the value of risk shows up in his commitment to the experimental methods of scientific inquiry, which it was the purpose of his logic to describe. “Induction” and “deduction,” he thought, are not the only methods of producing knowledge; there is also what he called “abduction,” by which he meant, simply, guessing. We proceed by guesses, Peirce explained, because “our knowledge is never absolute but always swims, as it were, in a continuum of uncertainty and of indeterminacy.”25 We can’t know whether an idea is a good one unless we take a chance on it. Life is the only test of belief we have.

This respect for uncertainty is, no doubt, what made Peirce a good scientist. But it did not satisfy him as an account of the universe. He thought that something higher than evolution by chance variation must exist, and he called this higher form “agapastic evolution,” or “evolutionary love”—evolution in which “advance takes place by virtue of a positive sympathy among the created springing from continuity of mind.”26 “Continuity of mind” is a synonym for “spirit of the age”: it names the shared consciousness of people who belong to the same community of inquiry.

The community of inquiry to which Peirce belonged had been at pains, of course, to deny him its sympathy: in imagining this universe, Peirce was not being self-serving. He had had exactly the scientific education Adams complained one needed in order to make sense of the modern world; he even believed that he had solved the riddles of causation and indeterminacy that had left Adams so baffled. But he found himself, at the end, feeling even less at home. If he did not entirely grasp the pathos of his isolation from an age of which he was in so many ways a representative mind, he did not entirely miss it, either. “I came within an ace of teaching men something to their profit,” he wrote, near the end of his life, to one of the few correspondents he had left after the death of William James. “But certain misfortunes have prevented my keeping up to the times.”27

This Issue

December 2, 1993