The American Aristotle
August 20, 2019 12:58 PM   Subscribe

Holy crap, I thought this was an obit for Charlie Pierce, of "What Are The Gobshites Saying These Days?" fame. You scared the hell out of me, OP.

Off to read about the other Charles Peirce!
posted by Mayor West at 1:03 PM on August 20, 2019 [5 favorites]

That article doesn't even have time to mention his foundational work in insurance. As he (not so) famously said, "We are all insurance companies."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:17 PM on August 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

This article certainly makes the case that I should add Peirce (pronounced 'Purse' it turns out!) to my reading list, but my god is the presentation breathless. It's very wrapped up in this "Great Man amongst Great Men" narrative, but I find the whole "Great Men" view of philosophy and science highly misleading at best, and pernicious and destructive at worst.

But its still interesting, and the article is well-written in its own way.
posted by Alex404 at 1:47 PM on August 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

The Crying of Lot 49 and C. S. Peirce's Theory of Self-Organization [PDF] by Victoria N. Alexander: The possible relevance of the unusual names Oedipa, Thurn and Taxis, and Pierce Inverarity to themes in The Crying of Lot 49 has intrigued Pynchon critics since the novel's publication. Oedipa's name, many agree, points to her role as a solver of riddles, after Oedipus, who answered the riddle of the Sphinx. The historical postal family Thurn and Taxis has been investigated, but nothing particularly significant about the name itself has been found. Regarding a Pierce/Peirce link, in "a novel so concerned with signs and the processes of signification," John Johnston observes, "Pierce's name evokes the name of the American founder of semiotics, C. S. Peirce" (52, 56). In fact, evidence suggests that all three names are linked to one another through C. S. Peirce (1839–1914) –not necessarily his semiotics, but his less well-known theory of self-organization. The way each name functions can be understood in relation to what I consider the main question of the novel: What is responsible for organization that emerges out of an essentially anarchic world, a world without a centralized source of direction?
posted by chavenet at 1:51 PM on August 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

I've read several other arguments to the effect that Pierce is the most important figure in American philosophy, but that he is unjustly neglected in large part because his major contributions are in his vast unpublished manuscripts. The absence of a well-defined body of work certainly makes learning about Pierce's thought more challenging. On the other hand, I had no idea that he published 800 articles. That's pretty impressive.

I'm trying to think of examples of modern philosophers whose work became well-known even though they didn't publish it. Certainly major parts of Hegel's legacy come to mind - the Aesthetics, for example, are students' lecture notes. And in linguistics there is the famous case of Saussure's Course in General Linguistics. Who else?
posted by a certain Sysoi Pafnut'evich at 3:22 PM on August 20, 2019

We studied Pierce very early on at U of Toronto as part of semiotics courses: I already thought of him as highly as the article suggests...I'm surprised to think of him as underrated.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 3:54 PM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

John Austin, How To Do Things With Words is also a collection of lectures.
posted by ipsative at 3:57 PM on August 20, 2019

I came here to add his contributions to semiotics, but was beaten to it. I learned of him through Umberto Eco, who provides an easy entryway in several of his surveys of semiotics.
I have Pierce's collected works and they are not easy reading.
posted by OHenryPacey at 4:02 PM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

We studied Pierce very early on at U of Toronto as part of semiotics courses: I already thought of him as highly as the article suggests...I'm surprised to think of him as underrated.

The one non-linguist in my thesis defense committee was a philosopher. At the end of my presentation (cognitive semantics with a pragmatics interface) he just goes, "This is Peirce. Have you read any of his work?" Considering Aristotle is also pretty much unavoidable while going deep into the construction of meaning, I can't help but be curious about the old Charles S.

I find it much easier to remember philosophical arguments when there's context & gossip attached to it, so I just asked Twitter to recommend a good Peirce biography. Would anyone reading this be able to give me some suggestions as well?
posted by ipsative at 4:03 PM on August 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

Peirce is much-lauded in certain circles for his work in semiotics, but has been an underappreciated figure in science, mathematics, and wider philosophical circles, even though he contributed to those fields as immensely as the article suggests. Part of his obscurity probably that his time in academic institutions was brief, and so he didn't give rise to a generation of students who would give rise to subsequent generations of students who followed his work. (John Dewey and Thorstein Veblen are often mentioned as his most famous students, but neither of them even completed a dissertation with him.) He was also a leading figure at his peak on subjects in mathematics and logic like quantifiers (Frege narrowly got there first, but Peirce was bettern known for them in his own time), three-valued logic, and probability. But I think the most revolutionary work he did - which really changed and informed my own thinking and writing, for one - was his work on scientific methods. (See "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" for the usual introduction.) But for all that, he was a lot better starting projects than finishing them. His collected writings take up three feet of the shelves at my office, but he never finished a book on any of it.

The article that starts this thread really, really elides a lot when it says that it will pass over the story of his life, though. Peirce's obscurity is much easier to understand when you know how narcissistic, unreliable, irascible, unpredictable, irresponsible, and just flat-out fucking bonkers he could be. Some of that is understandable. A lot of his colleagues did stab him in the back at one point or another. He suffered from trigeminal neuralgia, which is typically excruciating, and resorted to heavy use of cocaine, morphine, and ether to cope with the pain, though none of that helped his social aptitude or improved his disposition. He was born into a very wealthy, privileged family, and kind of assumed he belonged in those social positions, no matter what he did. So he had a habit of blowing through money (including grants for research) on his own luxury, and while never convicted of a crime for this, he was eventually blacklisted by the most lucrative sources of funding in his day. He drove his first wife away in 1875, then became involved with a much younger and somewhat mysterious woman before his divorce went through. That cost him his job as a professor at Johns Hopkins - probably the most important academic position in the US at the time - and drove him into seclusion in rural Pennsylvania. He thought his genius would draw others to him there, and he would become the center of a new intellectual world. He just sank deeper into poverty. He had a million get rich quick schemes, all of which were terrible. (Though he figured out how to create the digital circuits needed for modern digital computing, and then did nothing about it.) Rather than pay some laborers working on his property, he assaulted a couple of them, which led to criminal charges, which led to him living on the run for a couple years in New York City, hiding from the cops. Once he was apprehended and those legal issues were worked out, William James - his friend and arguably the person most influenced by his ideas, and the biggest rockstar in American philosophy at the time - arranged for a series of lectures at Harvard that would be published as a book to set aside some money for Peirce and his second wife. Overcoming his own worst habits, Peirce actually did the work and showed up. The lectures opened with a sustained, scathing attack on William James for making such a mess of his ideas and slapping a catchy name ("pragmatism") on it. At least his wife got the money, I suppose.

If you want a good, accessible history of Peirce and American intellectual circles of the late 19th century in which he traveled, Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club is a good source. It's a lot wider than just Peirce, but that actually helps make more sense of his life. I do think Menand is a bit too breezy at accounting for the philosophical currents in the work of these figures (to be a little pissy about it, he makes everyone sound like they're always driven by grand passions rather than grappling with problems). But it will make abundantly clear how brilliant Peirce appeared to everyone who ever met him, and why even someone with that much ability and social privilege could sink unnoticed into the past.
posted by el_lupino at 5:19 PM on August 20, 2019 [20 favorites]

I'm trying to think of examples of modern philosophers whose work became well-known even though they didn't publish it.

I think the only thing Wittgenstein published in his lifetime was the Tractatus.
posted by stinkfoot at 5:31 PM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

el_lupino, I'm a student of outsider scientists and you've given me something to add to my collection alongside Reich, Fuller, Korzybski, etc.

I mean, their actual scientific output varies in quality from zero to 100 and Peirce was way on the high end of that scale, but wow. Wow.
posted by sjswitzer at 5:54 PM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

His collected writings take up three feet of the shelves at my office, but he never finished a book on any of it.

This isn't quite right, but it's probably close enough. Peirce did publish a book on his Photometric Researches (conveniently linked in the article), in which he attempted to determine the shape and size of the Milky Way galaxy. (I think he was the first to do so. His approach is very interesting, taking essentially all of the reports of the magnitudes of stars that he could find, stretching all the way back to the ancient Greeks.) Peirce serialized six chapters of a book, Illustrations of the Logic of Science, in (of all places) Popular Science, Monthly. It's not entirely clear whether he intended to write more in the series or not. So, it's not clear whether the work was finished. He also published a volume of papers written by his students in logic at Hopkins. That volume is very solid and along with papers solely by Peirce, it's clear that his students (especially Mitchell and Ladd-Franklin) were massively influenced by what Peirce taught them. Peirce finished a couple of books later in life that were not published for one reason or another. One of them was a large-scale conceptually very interesting re-working of his father's geometry textbook (which he modestly titled The New Elements), and the other was a book-length report to the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey on measurements of the geoid.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 6:05 PM on August 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

This isn't quite right, but it's probably close enough.

True. I started writing that looking for a phrase like "a real book" or "a comprehensive book," and just didn't go back to round it out. (But hey, we're all good Peircean fallibilists here, so let's correct the mistake!) There isn't a major work where the important novel arguments in one of his various fields come together, and that kind of work tends to be central to a big-name legacy.
posted by el_lupino at 6:26 PM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I wonder how Peirce's reputation would have gone had he finished and published his Minute Logic in, say, 1903.

I think that a big book on logic at the time when Russell was actually reading logic would have had a large influence on how Peirce was perceived in philosophy. On the other hand, I have recently wondered a lot about how things would have gone if he had just applied his proto-confidence interval technique (from "The Probability of Induction" in 1878) to a huge raft of practical problems in agriculture and industry, as Neyman, Pearson, and Fisher did.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 6:36 PM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Something not discussed in the article (unless I just missed it) is his amazing experiment with a young Joseph Jastrow (of duck-rabbit fame, later a charter member and president of the American Psychological Association) in which they use randomization and blinding in a repeated-measures design to challenge the just-noticeable-differences approach in psychophysics.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 6:50 PM on August 20, 2019

My university roommate's older brother was a philosophy grad student who loved Pierce. Plato bad, Pierce good, MFs. And it's ok to smoke in the shower - I just wish you wouldn't leave the butts in there.
posted by sneebler at 2:46 PM on August 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

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