The Routledge Companion to Nineteenth Century Philosophy

By Dean Moyar | Go to book overview

24
C. S. PEIRCE

Vincent Colapietro

Charles Sanders Peirce was born in 1839 into a prominent family in Cambridge, Massachusetts, graduated from Harvard College in 1859, received a master’s of science from the Lawrence Scientific School in 1862, taught at the newly founded Johns Hopkins University from 1879–84 (when he was dismissed under mysterious circumstances in the middle of the academic year), and died as a recluse in his home (named Arisbe in honor of the pre-Socratic cosmologists) in Milford, Pennsylvania, in 1914. That is, he was born in the same year as was Ludwig Mond (d. 1909), a German-English chemist, who founded Mond Nickel Company, was born (Mond’s company symbolizing scientific technology being subordinated to commercial interests); the year in which Charles Goodyear (1800–60), an American inventor, made possible the commercial use of rubber by his discovery of the process of “vulcanization”; and that in which John D. Rockeller (d. 1937), an American industrialist who preached the gospel of social Darwinism, was also born. Moreover, Peirce graduated from Harvard College the year in which Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was published, also the one in which the philosophers Henri Bergson, Edmund Husserl, and John Dewey were born. Finally, he died shortly before the First World War, also during the years in which not only the geopolitical world but also the scientific one (especially theoretical physics) was undergoing cataclysmic upheavals.


Portrait of the philosopher as a young scientist

Peirce was the second and favored son of a prominent father (Benjamin Peirce), born into the intellectual capital of the United States in the nineteenth century. He was a child of privilege who in terms of worldly success squandered many of his inherited advantages. Especially in his later years, however, Peirce exemplified nothing less than intellectual heroism, devoting himself indefatigably (without much of an audience and with little hope of a publisher) to work on a variety of topics, including cosmology, pragmatism, semeiotics (or the theory of signs), and most of all logic. The scientifically trained philosopher was, until the end, a philosophically speculative experimentalist who devoted himself to nothing less than offering a guess at the riddle of the Sphinx, that is, the enigma of the universe.

We obtain a sense of the household in which this experimentalist was reared by recalling what he wrote years later in retrospect:

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