Continuity and Continuousness: The Chain of Ideas Linking Peirce's Synechism to Veblen's Cumulative Causation

By Hall, John; Whybrow, Oliver | Journal of Economic Issues, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Continuity and Continuousness: The Chain of Ideas Linking Peirce's Synechism to Veblen's Cumulative Causation


Hall, John, Whybrow, Oliver, Journal of Economic Issues


This paper traces and also emphasizes strong connections between ideas regarding continuity and continuousness introduced into American philosophical thinking by Charles Sanders Peirce. Some decades after attending a seminar held by Peirce, Thorstein Bunde Veblen introduced these ideas into seminal contributions to social science thinking and economic science.

Connections between Peirce and Veblen, and especially Peirce's influence on Veblen's ideas have been speculated. In his book, Thorstein Veblen and His America ([1938] [1943] 1972), Joseph Dorfman appears to be the first to note the connections between Peirce and Veblen. Some decades later, Alan Dyer (1986) elaborates on a host of similarities related to scientific inquiry and method between Peirce and Veblen. Dyer (1986, 30-2) stresses that Peirce's seminal contributions to epistemology found their way into Veblen's preference for reasoning by "induction" over "deduction." Dyer (1986, 31) further suggests that Veblen's understanding of, definition of, as well as his use of "deduction" would be more accurately interpreted as a direct borrowing of Peirce's concept of "abduction."

In addition, Robert Griffen (1998) explores what initially was a short term contact between Peirce and Veblen at Johns Hopkins University in 1881: a contact that would yield long term influences on Veblen's thinking. However, Griffen's detailed account of Peirce's influence on Veblen--like Dyer's--remains limited mostly to questions of epistemology, namely what Veblen's borrowed from Peirce regarding theory of knowledge and scientific method.

What Dyer and Griffen fail to emphasize--and what we seek to establish in this inquiry--is what we suggest is Veblen's most important and enduring contribution to economic science. Namely, Veblen sought to lead economic science away from its foundation in Newtonian mechanics, recasting economics as an evolutionary science. And in these efforts, Veblen appears fully indebted to Peirce's contribution to American philosophical thinking, as Veblen relies on concepts advanced by Peirce for developing his understanding of "cumulative causation," and other notions related to processes and changes rooted in continuity and continuousness.

Peirce on Synechism

Charles Peirce devoted his creativity and brilliance toward engaging in numerous areas of inquiry: ranging from geology, to chemistry, to semiotics, to logic, as well as other areas. However, political economy and economic science remained beyond the scope of Peirce's inquiries. Veblen's ranges of interests were indeed broad--in the tradition of Peirce. Veblen's interests ranged--from war and peace to questions of epistemology and even the state of American higher education. Unlike Peirce, Veblen tended to concentrate on and devote the largest portion of his writings to topics related to economic science.

Peirce devoted a portion of his broad inquiry into realms of knowledge toward understanding "continuity" and "continuousness." Peirce borrowed the term Synechism from his reading of ancient Greeks, relying on understandings of synechismos, that is related to syneches, suggesting "continuity" or how things are "held together," as Reynolds' (2002, 10-11) teaches us. Following the Greek understanding, Peirce assigned the definition and meaning of "continuous" to the Greek words. Thus, a "synechist," in Peirce's view, would then be a person who recognizes the importance of continuity and continuousness.

In a philosophical nutshell, synechism appears as a tendency in philosophical inquiry that insists on the necessity of hypotheses involving true continuity. In his 1898 book, Cambridge Lectures on Reasoning and the Logic of Things, Peirce teaches us that synechism considers the importance of "firstness," "secondness," and "thirdness."

To wit, firstness is suggested to be wholly related to chance. Secondness would then be characterized as a "brute" reaction to firstness. …

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