Peirce, Charles Sanders

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Peirce, Charles Sanders

(pûrs), 1839–1914, American philosopher and polymath, b. Cambridge, Mass., grad. Harvard, 1859; son of Benjamin PeircePeirce, Benjamin,
1809–80, American mathematician and astronomer, b. Salem, Mass., grad. Harvard, 1829. From 1833 he was a professor at Harvard; he helped establish the Harvard Observatory and was an organizer of the Dudley Observatory, Albany, N.Y.
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. Except for occasional lectures he renounced the regimen of academic life and was in government service with the Geodetic Survey for many years. Regarding logic as the beginning of all philosophical study, Peirce felt that the meaning of an idea was to be found in an examination of the consequences to which the idea would lead. This principle was published in 1878 in Popular Science Monthly, using the term pragmatismpragmatism
, method of philosophy in which the truth of a proposition is measured by its correspondence with experimental results and by its practical outcome. Thought is considered as simply an instrument for supporting the life aims of the human organism and has no real
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, which was later employed, with acknowledgment, by his friend William JamesJames, William,
1842–1910, American philosopher, b. New York City, M.D. Harvard, 1869; son of the Swedenborgian theologian Henry James and brother of the novelist Henry James.
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A major thinker in a number of fields, Peirce is also recognized as the originator of the modern form of semioticssemiotics
or semiology,
discipline deriving from the American logician C. S. Peirce and the French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. It has come to mean generally the study of any cultural product (e.g., a text) as a formal system of signs.
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 and the first American experimental psychologist. His influence is clearly seen in the works of Josiah RoyceRoyce, Josiah,
1855–1916, American philosopher, b. California, grad. Univ. of California, 1873. After studying in Germany and at Johns Hopkins, he returned to California to teach (1878–82). From 1882 until his death he was at Harvard, becoming a professor in 1892.
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 and John DeweyDewey, John,
1859–1952, American philosopher and educator, b. Burlington, Vt., grad. Univ. of Vermont, 1879, Ph.D. Johns Hopkins, 1884. He taught at the universities of Minnesota (1888–89), Michigan (1884–88, 1889–94), and Chicago (1894–1904) and at
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, but recognition of his importance was delayed because of the scarcity of published works. He had a difficult and tumultuous life, died in poverty, and left many fragmentary manuscripts. The only book published during his lifetime was Photometric Researches (1878), in which Peirce originated the technique of using light waves to measure length. His scientific interests had also led him to design an electric switching circuit computer. In all, Peirce made significant contributions to chemistry, physics, astronomy, geodesy, meteorology, engineering, cartography, psychology, philology, the history and philosophy of science and mathematics, phenomenology, and logic. After his death his major essays were edited by M. R. Cohen in Chance, Love, and Logic (1923).


See his collected papers (8 vol., 1931–58); selections of his letters, ed. by C. S. Hardwick (1977); biography by J. Brent (1993); studies by J. Buchler (1939, repr. 1966), M. G. Murphey (1961), A. J. Ayer (1968), J. K. Feibleman (1970), F. E. Reilly (1979), R. J. Bernstein, ed. (1965, repr. 1980), E. Freeman, ed. (1983), and J. Hoopes, ed. (1991).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Peirce, Charles Sanders


Born Sept. 10, 1839, in Cambridge, Mass.; died Apr. 19, 1914, in Milford, Pa. American idealist philosopher, logician, mathematician, and natural scientist. Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1877) and of the National Academy of Sciences (1879).

Son of the well-known American mathematician B. Peirce, Charles Peirce graduated from Harvard University in 1859. From 1866 to 1891, he was on the staff of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey. He lectured on logic, history, and the philosophy of science at Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and elsewhere.

Peirce’s philosophy combines two contradictory tendencies: the empirical and positivist tendency that derives from Kantian “criticism” and the objective-idealist tendency associated with Plato and F. W. Schelling. The basic scheme of Peirce’s ontolog-ical constructions is expressed by the following thesis: “Spirit is first, matter is second, and evolution is third.” Peirce criticized agnosticism, saying that an incognizable but real thing-in-itself is inherently contradictory. Yet at the same time he denied certainty of knowledge: “All our knowledge floats in the continuum of weak semblances and vagueness.”

Peirce gave primary importance to the problem of formation, reliability, and validity of scientific knowledge and opinion. In his view, the problem can be solved only if meaning is interpreted exclusively in terms of results: “Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of those effects is the whole of our conception of the object” (Collected Papers, vol. 5, Cambridge, Mass., 1934, paragraph 402). This principle of Peirce’s received further development in the idealist conceptions of pragmatism; indeed, the term “pragmatism” was introduced into philosophy by Peirce. Thus, following Peirce, W. James went on to identify truth directly with practical results, with utility.

Peirce’s principal achievements were in mathematical logic and semiotics. In mathematical logic, he investigated the concept of degree of confirmation, worked on the classification of propositions and arguments, studied the nature of logic and the relationship between logic and mathematics, investigated the limits and possibilities of formalization, and discovered minimal systems of logical operations through which the remaining operations can be expressed. Semiotics, which studies all sign systems used in human collectives, was essentially created as a science by Peirce.


The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vols. 1–8. Cambridge, Mass., 1931–58.


Mel’vil’, Iu. K. Filosofiia Ch. S. Pirsa. Moscow, 1964.
Stiazhkin, N. I. Formirovanie matematicheskoi logiki. Moscow, 1967.
Basin, E. Ia. Semanticheskaia filosofiia iskusstva. Moscow, 1973. Chapter 9.
Thompson, M. The Pragmatic Philosophy of C. S. Peirce. Chicago, 1963.
Gallie, W. B. Peirce and Pragmatism [2nd ed.]. New York, 1966.
Goudge, T. A. The Thought of C. S. Peirce. Toronto, 1950.
Dobrosielski, M. Filozoficzny pragmatyzm C. S. Peirce’a. Warsaw, 1967.
Feibleman, J. K. Introduction to the Philosophy of Charles S. Peirce. Cambridge, Mass.-London, 1970.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Peirce, Charles Sanders

(1839–1914) philosopher, logician, mathematician; born in Cambridge, Mass. He was the son of Harvard mathematics professor, Benjamin Peirce; although his father early cultivated his intellectual abilities and he was obviously brilliant, he did not do all that well at Harvard. After a temporary post with the U.S. Coast Survey (1859), he remained associated with it for 30 years (1861–91). He performed important experiments with the pendulum and contributed to gravity theory, the use of the wavelength of light as a standard unit of measure, and to conformal map projections. He also lectured at Harvard (1864–65, 1869–70) and Johns Hopkins (1879–84), but his difficult presentations appealed only to the brightest students. Highly temperamental, careless in dress, unsociable to an extreme, he was divorced in 1883; when he inherited some money, he retired in 1887 to an isolated part of Pennsylvania, spending his time writing down his diverse and complex ideas; in his later years he turned to writing book reviews and encyclopedia entries to support himself. During his lifetime he published only one book, Photometric Researches (1879), but he produced a prodigious number of papers; his works were collected and published in eight volumes (1931–58). Not a systematic philosopher, he ranged over an incredible variety of topics and singlehandedly anticipated several of the main currents of modern logic, mathematics, and philosophy. He developed the work of the 19th-century Englishman, George Boole, to help lay the foundation of the logical basis of modern mathematics. He set forth ideas since regarded as the beginning of semiotics, the study of the use of signs and symbols. He is probably best known as one of the founders of pragmatism, the quintessentially American school of philosophy—the idea that the real value of any idea lies in its practical effects, its real consequences. Little known and less understood in his day, Peirce has come to be recognized as one of the most important of all American thinkers.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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Claves del pensamiento de C. S. Peirce para una teoria constitutiva de la comunicacion.
C. S. Peirce's Rhetorical Turn: Prospects for Educational Theory and Research.
Although C. S. Peirce is generally regarded as the founder of American pragmatism, the fragmentary and incomplete character of many of his texts makes it hard to glimpse any systematic or coherent philosophy of pragmatism in them.