Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) was the greatest American philosopher of the 19th century and the founder of philosophical pragmatism. He is best known for his distinctive conception of philosophical method (his ‘pragmatic maxim’, a rule for the clarification of ‘intellectual concepts’, reflecting his highly original theory of meaning), his ‘semeiotic’ or theory of signs, his conception of truth as indefeasible belief, and his profound contributions to philosophical logic. He is also known for anticipating numerous significant developments in philosophy and other disciplines, many of them only fully realized long after his death. Sometimes dubbed ‘the American Aristotle’, he was “a prolific and perpetually over-extended polymath” (Crease), the scale of whose work is staggering and virtually impossible to summarize. Even today, Peirce’s work has yet enjoy a fraction of the attention or recognition it deserves. There are numerous reasons for this: his work is often extremely technical, his papers were left in disarray for decades after his death, and the majority of them remain unpublished; he also had a fraught, scandal-ridden career. He died ‘in abject poverty and almost completely forgotten’ (de Waal). Interest in and appreciation for Peirce has only grown in recent decades, however, and Peirce scholarship is an unusually lively field in the history of philosophy.
Despite his systematic ambitions, Peirce never succeeded in producing a single comprehensive statement of his philosophical views. As such, Peirce’s interpreters have had to reconstruct them from a series of lectures and articles scattered across various journals over several decades, along with a vast wealth of unpublished material. His most important published works are as follows: 1) The three “Cognition series” essays published in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy (1868-9): 1868, 1868, and 1869; in which Peirce critiques Cartesianism and seeks to outline an alternative. 2) The “Berkeley Review” of Alexander Campbell Fraser’s The Works of George Berkeley, published in North American Review (1871); in which Peirce expresses sympathy for a Kantian methodology which secures empirical realism by way of a ‘Copernican’ or ‘anthropocentric’ turn. 3) The six “Illustrations of the Logic of Science” essays, originally published in Popular Science Monthly (1877-8), but collected in 2014 in which Peirce outlines his theory of inquiry and scientific reasoning. The first two papers of the series were later described by William James as providing the “birth-certificate” of American pragmatism. 1878 contains the earliest public statement of what would later become known as “the Pragmatic Maxim”. 4) The five “Monist Metaphysical Series” essays published in The Monist (1891-3): 1891, 1892, 1892, 1892, and 1893; in which Peirce develops a speculative idealist metaphysics inspired by Schelling and Hegel. (5) The “Cambridge Conference Lectures” (1898), available in 1992; in which Peirce responds to James’s invitation to give a series of popular lectures. Peirce is understood to have resented the recommendation that he speak on “matters of vital importance” and the first of the lectures, “Philosophy and the Conduct of Life” is a source of considerable disagreement amongst his interpreters. 6) The “Harvard Lectures on Pragmatism” (1903) in 1997; in which Peirce offers an outline of his architectonic system. 7) The “Lowell Lectures” delivered under the title “Some Topics of Logic Bearing on Questions Now Vexed” (1903); in which Peirce further addresses matters of scientific reasoning and distinguishes his position from others then popular. The two-volume The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings is an ideal introductory compilation of Peirce’s works. The principal resources for scholars of Peirce’s thought are the eight-volume Writings of Charles S. Peirce and the eight-volume Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce.
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