In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Charles Sanders Peirce

  • Introduction
  • Peirce’s Life
  • The Fate of Peirce’s Writings
  • The Broad Relevance of Peirce’s Ideas
  • A Passion for Logic
  • The Classification of the Sciences
  • Phenomenology
  • General Semiotics
  • On the Sign and Its Classifications
  • Types of Reasoning: Abduction, Induction, Deduction
  • Diagrammatic Reasoning
  • The Normative Sciences: Logic, Ethics, and Aesthetics
  • Pragmatism or Pragmaticism
  • Synechism, Tychism, and Fallibilism

Literary and Critical Theory Charles Sanders Peirce
Lucia Santaella
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 November 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0118


Charles Sanders Peirce (b. 1839–d. 1914) was a polymath who contributed many insights to diverse sciences, from cartography to photometry, from mathematics to metaphysics, and from linguistics to psychology. His fields of philosophical interest cover logic, ontology, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, history, and the philosophy of religion. Today, he is recognized as the founder of the philosophy of pragmatism. Besides being a scientist, logician, and philosopher, Peirce is the patron of modern semiotics, which is the core of his philosophical system. Logic conceived as semiotics, and semiosis, defined as the agency of the sign, are key concepts of his philosophical architecture. The sign, in turn, is a synonym of thought, mind, and continuity. Semiotics, according to Peirce, is founded on phenomenology, whose three universal categories are at the root of his philosophical system. Logic or semiotics is not isolated but coordinated within two other normative sciences, ethics and aesthetics, which guide human ideals. The interconnections between these three branches of philosophy are essential to Peirce’s evolutionary pragmatism. Peirce’s insistence on the principle of continuity as well as evolutionism tout court lies in the two cornerstones of his metaphysics, synechism, the doctrine of continuity, and its complementary opposite, tychism, the doctrine of absolute chance. In the philosophy of science, his corresponding doctrine is the one of fallibilism, which postulates that our knowledge is never absolute but always swims in a continuum of uncertainty and indeterminacy. Fortunately, the times when Peirce’s originality was considered a symptom of incoherence have passed. Years of competent scholarship testify to the contemporary relevance of his genius.

Peirce’s Life

Comments on Charles Sanders Peirce’s work are generally introduced by his biography. Weiss 1934 and Feibleman 1969 are examples of the first generation of specialists in his work. Details of Peirce’s life in connection with his work can be found in Fisch 1982; Fisch is considered among the most reliable Peirce scholars. In Germany, the biography Walter 1989 is a good presentation for a German-speaking audience. This work anticipated the publication of Brent 1993. Brent is the most recognized biographer of Peirce, and his book is a careful study of Peirce’s life intertwined with the advances in his prolific work. Peirce’s biography is very controversial. It presents an upward movement until 1884 in which Peirce’s lectures and publications gained notoriety, and a progressive downward movement until the tragic poverty of his private life to the point of being supported by the charity of his old friend William James. Ketner 1998 faces the intricacies of Peirce’s life with the presentation of a very original biography developed as a blend of reality and fiction. Despite his private misery, Peirce continued giving series of lectures at Harvard University at various times during his remaining career and maintained a wide-ranging contact with prominent figures in several intellectual fields. He was better known as a scientist, logician, philosopher, scientist, the founder of pragmatism, and also more widely published than it may be supposed. More than that, Peirce’s manuscripts, after 1885, surprisingly reveal that he never let himself be shaken by his biographical failure. As his life went into poverty, his enthusiasm for his work and discoveries grew at the same but contrary pace.

  • Brent, Joseph. C. S. Peirce: A Life. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

    This is considered a definitive study of Peirce’s life, with emphasis on his multifaceted geniality in contrast with his private life’s failure.

  • Feibleman, James K. “The Historical Development of Peirce the Individual.” In An Introduction to the Philosophy of Charles S. Peirce. By James K. Feibleman, 3–31. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1969.

    Comments on Peirce’s work are generally introduced by a lengthy biography of Peirce. This book was chosen due to its influence on Peirce scholars.

  • Fisch, Max. “Introduction.” In Writings of Charles Sanders Peirce: A Chronological Edition. Vol. 1, 1857–1866. Edited by Max Fisch, xv–xxxv. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.

    Fisch is one of the most prominent Peirce scholars who dedicated his life to the ordained recovery of Peirce’s manuscripts. This is an introduction to Peirce’s early career.

  • Ketner, Kenneth Laine. His Glassy Essence: Autobiography of Charles Sanders Peirce. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998.

    An original biography written in the first person by a fictional character who mixes his text with Peirce’s own discourse about his life. Based on careful investigation, the minute details about Peirce’s life are remarkable.

  • Walter, Elisabeth. Charles Sanders Peirce, Leben und Werk. Baden-Baden, Germany: AGIS, 1989.

    A good introduction to Peirce’s life and work for German readers. Although the book is brief, the development of Peirce’s ideas is closely related to comments about the specific periods of his life.

  • Weiss, Paul. “Peirce, Charles Sanders.” In Dictionary of American Biography. Vol. 14. Edited by Dumas Malone. New York: Scribner, 1934.

    Weiss dedicated part of his life to the organization of six volumes of the Collected Papers of C. S. Peirce. Hence, this is an early and valuable biography. Available online from Arisbe.

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