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Who Was Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life – Review

Who Was Charles Sanders Peirce
Charles Sanders Peirce – New York Public Library

Everyone has heard of Aristotle and Socrates. Most have heard of Kant, Nietzsche, Descartes, Sartre, and many other famous philosophers. But who was Charles Sanders Peirce.

Joseph Brent’s biography Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life dives deep into the life and philosophical genius of America’s Aristotle.

Peirce was born on September 10th, 1839 to the well-respected, probable genius and expert mathematician, Benjamin Peirce. From the start, the elder Peirce wanted big things from his son, expecting him to become famous from his genius.

Charles Sanders Peirce lived a troubled life, equally mixed with chronic illness and self-destructive behaviors. He suffered greatly with trigeminal neuralgia, a neurological disorder that brought debilitating, acute pain in his head. He was plagued with other illnesses throughout his life. His second wife was also ill countless times, something that greatly troubled Peirce.

The other major flaw of Peirce was his desire to be as what Brent describes in detail, a “dandy”. Charles overspent on luxuries, including a grandiose estate in Milford, Pennsylvania. He bought a library full of books, arguably necessary for his studies, and attempted to appear wealthier than he was. Oddly enough, his efforts paid off to a degree as he often spent time with high society.

His friendships and acquaintances include William James, philosopher and brother of author Henry James, Henry Cabot Lodge (cousin), and the Pinchot family (Gifford Pinchot being Theodore Roosevelt’s close political ally and forester). Even Theodore Roosevelt supported Peirce’s attempt at a Carnegie Institution grant.

But, ironically it would be high society, particularly academic elites that would partially be the reason we ask who was Charles Sanders Peirce.

Peirce was a logician, mathematician, philosopher, astronomer, chemist, geodesist, surveyor, rhetorician, metaphysician, engineer, inventor, cartographer, meteorologist, historian, and prolific writer. He was unequivocally a genius. Writing a biography (or book review) on the life of a genius, it is difficult to not try to match the level of genius (I’m not trying).

Joseph Brent does a well job of trying to explain Charles’s philosophy. He includes many examples of Peirce’s writings to support the man’s genius. Me being neither a philosopher or a genius, I wasn’t always able to grasp the crux of Peirce’s thoughts. But some major points to stand out and are worth further discovery.

Peirce’s philosophical creation pragmatism and later pragmaticism along with pedestrianism are some of the standouts from Peirce. Pedestrianism is the step-by-step, lifelong effort to unearth knowledge, theory, and thought. Peirce used this throughout his life to build on his philosophy and all other fields of study. Ahead of his time in nearly all his thoughts, this ability is used today in the development of almost every technological advancement and personal ones too.

This concept is often overlooked today as many people want immediate success without the minute labors of day to day and year to year effort.

Pragmatism is “an approach that assesses the truth of meaning of theories or beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application”. William James and John Dewey also get credit for this concept, but from Brent’s book, it seems Peirce is the main creator.

Charles, as his thoughts evolved, changed this to pragmaticism as he felt the original theory was being misused in “literary journals”.

Semiotics, the “study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation” is perhaps the biggest contribution from Peirce. Brent covers this well in his book but to truly understand Peirce requires reading his papers on this.

For a truly excellent, and over my head, analysis of Peirce’s theory of signs, check out Daniel Everett’s article The American Aristotle (Aeon). It was reading this article that I first heard of Peirce and decided to read Brent’s book.

Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life is not an easy read. The mix of writings from Peirce, biographical info, and Brent’s analysis don’t always flow well. But with such a complicated person with complex topics, this is a most excellent book for a better understanding of who was Charles Sanders Peirce.

Was Peirce America’s Aristotle? Peirce died in destitute and little understood by his peers. If it wasn’t for Josiah Royce, one of Peirce’s students, we would know hardly anything about the genius. Royce convinced Harvard to preserve Peirce’s writings.

I plan on reading Peirce’s collected writings to attempt to answer the above question. Reading Peirce requires a lot of great-tasting coffee. I suggest some New Mexico Pinon Coffee to keep your brain alert.