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Sunday, April 5, 2009

In Memoriam Charles S. Peirce, by Francis C. Russell

The Monist     Vol. XXIV.     July 1914     No. 3.     Pages 469–472.

In Memoriam Charles S. Peirce.
(Born 1839, died 1914.)

Concerning genius, its advent discovery and nurture, history informs us that with rare exceptions its worldly case is one of the utmost austerity. On reflection this appears not at all strange. Pro re nata, genius issues as an outlaw. It breaks over and through the accustomed rules and conceptions to the confusion and perplexity of a world otherwise comfortable in conventions regarded by it as settled possessions. Hence it is unwelcome. Hence the futility of all extant provisions in its favor. Had any Nobel foundation been in existence in 1841, would any of its benefits have found its way to Hermann Grassmann? Not in a thousand years. His case is typical of the general case of genius. Neglect and poverty are its portion in life. Then afterwards lapse of time reveals to a stupid, jealous and oftentimes spiteful world that it has conspired for the suffocation of a divine messenger.

In the late sixties the distinguished Prof. Benjamin Peirce of Harvard, lecturing before the Boston “Radical Club” on “The Impossible in Mathematics,” spoke of his son Charles and of his expectations that the latter would develop and fertilize the vistas he had been able only to glimpse. On April 19, 1914, after at least a half century of assiduous probings into the most recondite and the most consequential of all human concerns, in a mountain hut overlooking the serene Delaware, in privation and obscurity, in pain and forsakenness, that son, Charles S. Peirce, left this world and left also a volume of product the eminent value of which will sooner or later be discovered, perhaps only after it has been rediscovered. For his issues have so far anticipated the ordinary scope of even professional intellectual exercise that most of them are still only in manuscript. Publishers want “best sellers.” At least they want sellers that will pay the expenses of publication, and buyers of printing that calls for laborious mental application are scarce. Let me here with the utmost solicitude beg all to whom it falls to handle his books and papers to beware how they venture to cast away any script left by him.

Is this panegyric unwarranted? If so, then why should Professor James in his Varieties of Religious Experience call Mr. Peirce “our great American philosopher”? Why should Professor Schroeder base his great work “Exact Logic” on the prior work of Mr. Peirce? Why should the editors of the great Century Dictionary employ Mr. Peirce to write so many of its logical, mathematical and scientific definitions? Why should the editors of Baldwin’s Dictionary make a similar draft? Why should the editors of the New York Evening Post and of The Nation for years refer their books of serious import to Mr. Peirce for examination and review? Why should Dr. Carus recognize in Mr. Peirce a foeman worthy of his incisive steel on the fundamental problem of necessity?

Of course genius is unconformable. “’T is its nature to.” It is often very hard to get along with. It tries the patience to the limit. It is so immersed in and so saturated with the inspiration of non-conformity that it often neglects to observe what is really and plainly only a merely defensive right on the part of the world of conformity. There ought to prevail a mutual spirit of forgiveness. If much is to be forgiven because of much love why should not much be forgiven to much promising and well directed power?

Mr. Peirce died a faithful man. His earlier studies led him far towards the goal of materialism, but in the course of those studies he was led to the discovery of that touchstone of values, that at first until the conception and word became mangled and aborted out of its true intent and utility he called Pragmatism, the principle that all rational significance of conceptions and of the terms embodying the same lies between the four corners of their conceived consequences in and to actual practice mental and otherwise. Since all logic is only a comparison and criticism of conceptions, this principle affects and effects our whole rational life and conduct. He was thus led to his conception of reality as that which has the natural prerogative of persistence as a possession forever. He perceived that intellectual entities, like, say, the law of gravitation or the ratio of the radius to the circumference of a circle, have just as abiding a persistence as any material entity and hence just as real an obtaining. Hence actual medieval realism, when better introduced and explained, is more pragmatically valuable than any case of nominalism or conceptualism can possibly be. The recognition of ideal realities opens out into the recognition that all existence is grounded in and upon that ideal substance the best names for which are Form, alias Reason, alias Mind, alias Truth, alias the Good, alias Beauty. The perception of Reason immanently in and throughout the universe and identical in nature with human reason solves at once the vexed question of the relation of body and mind, invites the soul to faith and repose and at the same time stimulates the soul to a vivid aspiration after cooperation with the Universal Spirit in accordance with its course of procession.

So lives Charles S. Peirce. The Universal Spirit has him and the world that neglected him will care for him—after many days perhaps, but most assuredly.

Francis C. Russell.


Jeff Carreira said...

This is a powerful piece of writing - particularly the last line. I continue to be amazed by the Peirce's genius.