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Saturday, April 4, 2009

Charles S. Peirce as a Teacher, by Joseph Jastrow

The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods

Vol. XIII. No.26: December 21, 1916. Pages 723–726.

Charles S. Peirce As a Teacher

TO record an impression of Charles S. Peirce as a teacher is a grateful opportunity. A deep conviction of the significance of the problems presented and a mastery of the intellectual processes were his sole and adequate pedagogical equipment. The logical quality was the dominant trait of his thinking; rectitude became a rational virtue. In the deductive field where premises were sharply defined and under control, the orderly development of conclusions was the true function of the well-trained mind, and the mark of the scholar. The “Algebra of Logic” was an expert tool usable only by the expert and extending the scope of the logical grasp. Deeply mathematical, his thinking had not the trace of a scholastic quality; there was no love of the tool for its own sake, but an admiration of its cutting edge as the issue of human care and skill. His interests were comprehensive, though not scattered. In the field of inductive problems the fertility of his resources imparted a breadth to his treatment that brought to the student the constant leadership of a rich mind. His knowledge never gave the impression of a burden, but of strength. His command of the history of science was encyclopedic in the best sense of the word. The hypotheses of the great thinkers of the past were transformed into logical exercises for the present-day student. The great advances of science were due as much (if not more) to an increased hold over the logical instrument as to an enlarged realm of observation. The history of science was a record of man’s growth in logical stature. In dealing with the more fluid and versatile considerations of induction, as in the more rigid and closed systems of deductive reasoning, the skilled focusing of his mind excited admiration. The irrelevant was discarded, the significant composition revealed. The chips fell away and the statue in the block appeared. This sense of masterly analysis accomplished with neatness and dispatch, all seemingly easy, but actually the quality of the highest type of keen thinking remains as the central impression of a lecture by Professor Peirce.

When I came to the Johns Hopkins University in the autumn of 1882, Mr. Peirce’s career was well established. He had inspired a remarkable group of young men, now leaders in intellectual affairs; a group to which is to be added the name of Christine Ladd-Franklin, whose exceptional abilities secured for her exceptional privileges. The “Studies in Logic” by “Members of the Johns Hopkins University” appeared in 1883. The concluding paper which Mr. Peirce contributed to the volume on “A Theory of Probable Inference” exhibits the qualities of his teaching and the charm and lucidity of his language, and remains an admirable example of the construction of his thought and the finish of his art. I refer to it because it reflects the interplay of logical and psychological trends, which he developed as a fertile principle of interpretation. Logic was an emanation of habit; the trend was biological, the product required the schooling of discipline and the inspiration of genius. It was this side of his teaching that gave the humanistic value; out of it grew the insight that made him the father of pragmatism. The doctrine had a distinct pedagogical value; it made the student feel the reality of the discussions by adding a moderate insight to a growing capacity. “In point of fact a syllogism in Barbara virtually takes place when we irritate the foot of a decapitated frog.” After developing the idea, he concludes : “Although these analogies, like all very broad generalizations, may seem very fanciful at first sight, yet the more the reader reflects upon them, the more profoundly true I am confident they will appear. They give a significance to the ancient system of formal logic which no other can at all share.”

My predilections at that formative period were, I must confess, rather negative. My college course had left me with a series of dislikes, not violent, but distinctive. By elimination I enrolled as a student in philosophy. Mr. Peirce’s courses in logic gave me my first real experience of intellectual muscle. Though I promptly took to the laboratory of psychology when that was established by Stanley Hall, it was Peirce who gave me my first training in the handling of a psychological problem, and at the same time stimulated my self-esteem by entrusting me, then fairly innocent of any laboratory habits, with a real bit of research. He borrowed the apparatus for me, which I took to my room, installed at my window, and with which, when conditions of illumination were right, I took the observations. The results were published over our joint names in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. The demonstration that traces of sensory effect too slight to make any registry in consciousness could none the less influence judgment, may itself have been a persistent motive that induced me years later to undertake a book on “The Subconscious.”

As a further illustration of his fertile suggestiveness and use of cooperative stimulus I mention his study of great men. He prepared an elaborate question-sheet regarding the ancestry, qualities of mind and body, mode of work, stages of growth, etc., of the great men of all times. He invited a small group of students to join him in reading the chief biographies of great men and extracting the data that might furnish the entries for the syllabus. We then held conferences for the discussion and tabulation of the results. The project was never completed. A number of years later, I was permitted to formulate two rather simple conclusions, the one relating to “Longevity,” the other to “Precocity.” This was done at a time when such studies were not general, though Galton’s work was known. Such a conclusion as that later associated with Dr. Osier’s misquoted verdict regarding the correlation of early manhood with germinal ideas, was anticipated in this study. Such were his methods.

Mr. Peirce’s personality was affected by a superficial reticence often associated with the scientific temperament. He readily gave the impression of being unsocial, possibly cold, more truly retiring. At bottom the trait was in the nature of a refined shyness, an embarrassment in the presence of the small talk and introductory salutations intruded by convention to start one’s mind. His nature was generously hospitable; he was an intellectual host. In that respect he was eminently fitted to become the leader of a select band of disciples. Under more fortunate circumstances, his academic usefulness might have been vastly extended. For he had the pedagogic gift to an unusual degree, had it by dower of nature, as some men handle a pencil and others the bow of a violin. It may be an inevitable result of the conventional system of education, but it is none the less a sad one, that his type of ability does not flourish readily in an institutionalized atmosphere ; and no university had a more wholesome atmosphere than had Johns Hopkins in those days. The moral, if there be one, is that systems must give way to personalities, if the best talents of the best men are to be available.

The young men in my group who were admitted to his circle found him a most agreeable companion. The terms of equality upon which he met us were not in the way of flattery, for they were too spontaneous and sincere. We were members of his “scientific” fraternity; greetings were brief, and we proceeded to the business that brought us together, in which he and we found more pleasure than in anything else. This type of cooperation and delegation of responsibility came as near to a pedagogical device as any method that he used. One instance of it stands out with embarrassing clearness. To my consternation I was informed by Mr. Peirce that he would be absent at the time of the next lecture in logic, and that he would like me to present the next stage in the development of his topic to the class of graduate students. About half the hour was over, when Mr. Peirce walked in, took his place and insisted upon my concluding the exercise. I know of no more enlightening comment upon the atmosphere of the place and the day than that the procedure was accepted naturally by all concerned except myself.

It should be mentioned that during these years Mr. Peirce was continuing his work in the Geodetic Survey and was thus carrying on a considerable range of scientific work of quite different scope. He came of a family of exact scientific men with academic traditions. It needed no change of manner or interest to set his activities in the professorial direction. By those who knew him in other relations I am confirmed in my impression that he had more pleasure in the academic pursuits. To these he turned when he retired, recognizing in his work as a scholar surveying broadly the field of intellect, the strongest bent of his versatile mind. To those who believe that for the training of the leaders of men, nothing is more inspiring and more helpful than training by example—than the privilege of association in the cooperative spirit with a master mind—the example of Charles S. Peirce will continue to remain a cherished memory. An educational policy that makes it possible to find a place for such men as Peirce in the faculties of the great universities is a worthy ambition for those who control the educational future of America.

Joseph Jastrow.
University of Wisconsin.


Jeff said...

Ben, just a compliment on the typography... nice! As you probably noticed, I've been of two, or three... maybe four minds regarding the look of my own website... hup! I think I'm done experimenting for awhile...

Ben Udell said...

Thank you. It was specific for the post. I tried to reproduce some of the look of the original Jastrow article.

The first letter is positioned too high when viewed in Firefox. Getting special effects to work in both Internet Explorer and Firefox is often a challenge. Some say that the fault is the individual coder's (i.e., mine) or Microsoft's, since Firefox "just shows you what you do," since it rigidly adheres (when not itself buggy) to the Official Standards of some techie association, as if the standards were pure logic or laws of nature and couldn't be buggy or misconceived, for instance the ridiculous and apparently never-to-be-repaired hyphenation problem. The turf battle between Microsoft and the standards people, and the often (not always, but often) less forgiving (less amateur-markup-friendly) nature of Firefox, make it harder for smaller business to do a really nice Website without external professional help. Dealing with the different ways of calculating margins plus widths etc., requires weird hacks which I'll probably have to use for this site if I'm ever to get the masthead to center properly in all browsers and which for all I know I'll have to redo after the next versions of the browsers. I usually don't even bother worrying about Opera and Safari and I've no idea what this site looks like on a Mac or in Linux, though I included some Linux fonts in the CSS and generally tried to avoid adding complication. Right now I'm tempted to do what I did at Peirce Matters and make the sidebar seem static and separately scrollable without using frames - another IE vs. Firefox struggle for me - (that site looks weird and crowded but it's for other reasons, and I'm not sure that I needed to move the Blogger Navbar to the bottom), but this new Blogger template is weird, so I don't know. Anyway, now that I've gotten all that off my chest....


Your site's home page's arrangement is superb, it looks like a magazine or something (though unlike like the way actual magazines on the Internet tend to look - they should hire you for design and execution), and is highly convenient. If I create another blog, I might steal some looks at your page source.

When one clicks on your current main post, one finds a beautifully done photo image.

Your current color scheme leaves some of the words way too light - in the subtitle and in the link bar along the top. Not everybody has good vision, or good vision in both eyes (and defective vision is not always correctable by lenses - e.g., cornea damage). I see things from both sides now so to speak.

Me, I love colors - hues - but tend to tone it down in team work. Yet both the tendency to unpainted statues and the Georgetown style of whitish room walls were based historically on mistakes about what the Ancients and George Washington actually used - actually they used hues that weren't so subdued. That not all that glitters is gold is insufficient reason for gold not to glitter.

Nam ad pulchritûdinem tria requîruntur. Prîmô quidem, integritâs sîve perfectiô, quae enim dîminûta sunt, hôc ipsô turpia sunt. Et dêbita prôportiô sîve consonantia. Et iterum clâritâs, unde quae habent colôrem nitidum, pulchra esse dîcuntur. — Summae Theologiae, Prîma Pars, Quaestiô 39, Articulus 8.

“For in fact for beauty three things are required. First certainly, integrity or perfection, indeed things which have been dashed to pieces [or destructively violated], by this very fact are ugly [base, disgusting, “gross”]. And due proportion or harmony. And again clarity [or brightness], whence things which have bright [or glistening or blooming] color are said to be beautiful.”— Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 39, Article 8. (tr. mine).

On the other hand, I admit that, besides the stăre dêcîsîs of the faint-hue fashion, there are other reasons for the undecorated look of serious text. I remember that funny scene on the TV I, Claudius where he rages at the scroll makers for having added elephant illustrations to his text. I wonder whether scholars in his time really had that attitude.

Ben Udell said...

Oops, forgot to link nitidum to a translation.

Jeff said...

Thanks for the kind words, Ben! I can't claim the design of the site as my own... it's a Wordpress theme, designed by David Garlitz. It's one of the best free themes out there that I've seen to date!

Ben Udell said...

Well, you certainly have good taste.

Now I've finally repaired the problem where the sidebar was jumping beneath the totality of posts when the browser window gets too narrow. It's always a learning experience.

Jeff said...

Thanks! I can claim the photography though... at least the ones in my gallery and the ones labeled photo of the day... except for the Hubble pix. ;>

Ben Udell said...

I get ambivalent about those colorful pics - after I've said that I love colors! I know that they're supposed to reflect actual frequency differences, but still.... The ending pics on the original Outer Limits were all pretty much black and white, one would watch each expanding slowly, as if one were heading to those unbelievably far, majestic, strange places (some astronomers have said that those scenes were what got them into astronomy). Then there was the original version of the book Cosmic View. Gilbert Sorrentino wrote poem that I've suspected took some inspiration from that book. He wrote:

        color is is
        in those places we
        have made within the

world, but they are
simply, places, the world passes
        hugely on each side, huge
        and black, and

I posted the whole poem here at the blog of one "Aussiegirl," actually an American of Ukrainian heritage, who is gone into light now. Aquinas, if I recall aright, said that the beauty of heaven is not purely intellectual and oolorless light but to the contrary.