Victor Nuovo: Peirce the Pragmatist

29th in a series

Pragmatism is a philosophical movement that originated in America shortly after the Civil War, and it is commonly supposed to be a uniquely American philosophy. Scholars describe the time of its founding as the Classical age of American philosophy. William James (1842–1910) is its best known proponent, but its creator and presiding genius was Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914). James readily acknowledged this. Therefore I begin with Peirce.

There is another reason for putting Peirce first. He has come to be acknowledged to be this nation’s greatest philosopher, of world-class originality, belonging in the same class with Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza and Kant.

The key to Pragmatism is expressed in the term itself, which is derived from the Greek word “pragma.” which means action or practice. In this respect, Peirce was taking direction from the experimental sciences. He was by training a chemist, and was employed for many years as a scientist by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey.

The first principle of pragmatism is the “pragmatic Maxim,” which states that philosophical ideas and theories have meaning only if they have observable consequences; if they have none, then they mean nothing. These consequences need not be material events. And in any case, they reside primarily in the mind. For example, consider the word “truth.” What does it mean to tell the truth? Is it true that George Washington never told a lie? What makes it true? Why would anyone make such a claim? The meaning of the truth becomes evident as we consider what it means in these sentences, and more broadly as we search after truth, discover it, declare, and defend it.

Likewise, by taking things in a contrary direction we may arrive at the meaning of “false” or “lying.” This may be applied to words in general. To learn the meaning of a word you may begin with its definition, but you only learn its meaning by using it or by engaging with the thing itself, which means paying attention to the universe around you with an open and reflective mind. If you do this, you will be doing philosophy in the manner of Peirce.

Related to this, Peirce insisted on the importance of logic in clarifying our ideas and forming them into hypotheses, and in this connection he perceived the logical basis of mathematics; an idea that was later worked out by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead in their work Principia Mathematica.

Peirce was well versed in the history of philosophy; he had read all the principal works in their original languages, and seemed to have retained everything that he read in his memory. The clarity and precision of his thinking, and the broad range of his ideas, together with his evident originality, is awesome. There is enough in his writings to satisfy a lifetime of labor in the philosophical vineyard, and when the grapes are harvested and pressed, the wine will be found to be most satisfying.

Peirce’s training in mathematics and the empirical sciences led to fascinating conclusions about the nature of things. For example, he came to believe that the universe is a continuum, that it is infinitely dense. In this respect, he supposed that every straight line is infinitely divisible: Take any straight line, divide it in half, you will find that the process will never end, that there are infinitesimal magnitudes. This was argued two and one-half millennia ago by Zeno of Elea, and the notion of infinitesimal magnitudes occurs also in Lucretius, in his doctrine of the swerve.

Both ideas were part of Peirce’s system of the cosmos. He supposed that the universe was infinitely dense, its parts seamlessly connected, and that the causes of things were determined as much by chance as by necessity. He had read Darwin and concluded that the universe in all its aspects is evolving. He was an intellectual companion of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., whom he knew very well.

Yet, unlike Holmes, Peirce remained a theist. Towards the end of his life, he published an essay entitled “A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God,” and I shall conclude this essay with a brief account of it.

It is not a formal argument. Rather it is a way of thinking or awareness that Peirce describes as musing, a kind of thinking that is more commonly assigned to poets or artists. Nor is his argument original. It belongs to a class of arguments that have been labelled arguments from design. In brief, it asserts that the design of natural things when perceived and reflected upon by rational beings leads them to conclude that their authorship is divine. Joseph Addison’s poem, “The sacred firmament on high,” is a celebration of it.


“What though, in solemn Silence, all

Move round the dark terrestrial Ball?

What tho’ nor real Voice nor Sound

Amid their radiant Orbs be found?

In Reason’s Ear they all rejoice,

And utter forth a glorious Voice,

For ever singing, as they shine,

The Hand that made us is Divine.”


Peirce was more prosaic, yet no less imaginative or fanciful. And that he is able to present an entire system of philosophy in little over 20 pages makes it no less wonderful.

Musing occurs when the mind is unburdened by preoccupations, morbid sentiments, anxieties due to unfinished tasks, quiet, its imagination at play, the mind fancy free, in a playful mood dwells upon some object: a flower in bloom, a bird in flight, a child at play, a majestic sunset or sunrise, and what at first might have been an idle moment becomes an intense period of thought and communion with reality. And there the mind rests and is content. It is, I suppose, a sort of meditation. There is no analysis, no attempt at definition, just enjoyment of the thought, which lingers indefinitely. It may be worth a try.

Postscript: Peirce’s “Neglected Argument” is included in volume 2 of The Essential Peirce (Indiana University Press). This volume contains most of Peirce’s later writings, and can be purchased at a modest cost. Visit your local bookshop.

Postscript #2: It should be noted that in the name “Peirce” the initial “e” comes before “i,” and it is properly pronounced “purse” or “perse,” never “pierce,” although it is true that his mind was piercing, acute.

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