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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Charles Santiago Sanders Peirce, ’59

Harvard Alumni

Volume XVI Wednesday, May 27, 1914Number 34

[Pages 549-50]

Charles Santiago Sanders Peirce, ’59
By George F. Becker, ’68, U. S. Geological Survey.
IT would be difficult to bring home to the average reader of American periodicals a due sense of the loss sustained by the community on April 19 in the death of Charles Peirce at the age of 75, for his work was done in the least popular realms of knowledge: Logic, mathematics, metaphysics and physics. To the worshipers of the Golden Calf his name is meaningless, but none the less he has added to the sum of human knowledge and to the fecundity of human thought, leaving the world the wiser for his existence.
From boyhood he showed great aptitude for learning and a very unusual originality, qualities which he inherited from his father, Benjamin, the leading American mathematician of his clay. Benjamin Peirce’s most brilliant achievement was an investigation on linear associative algebras. These form a large group of methods of mathematical reasoning each distinct from the rest, and including as special cases ordinary algebra, infinitesimal calculus and quaternions. In this investigation Charles collaborated, and to it he made extensive additions after his father’s death. Charles himself also wrote a memoir of great originality on the algebra of logic, of which the purpose is to apply the infallible mechanism of mathematics to the elucidation of logical relations, whencesoever these may be derived. Peirce was not the first to make such an attempt, but is said to have attained a far greater measure of success than his predecessors. On the whole, these memoirs and others which need not be mentioned here show that he was quite as able a mathematician as his father.

C. S. S. Peirce, ’59.

Allied to these researches in pure reason, but distinct from them, are Peirce’s two great contributions to philosophy. Of these, the first, is now known as “pragmatism”; his own term, but first used in print by the famous philosopher, William James, with due acknowledgments to the originator. This ambiguous term denotes a method of thought founded upon the very simple and fundamental generalization, now called by so eminent a philosopher as Mr. F. C. S. Schiller, “Peirce’s Principle”, viz.; Every truth has practical consequences and these are the test of its truth. To the uninitiated this may seem a truism, but by purely logical processes it is capable of development into a whole system of philosophy ; or conversely, a certain philosophic system is reducible in ultimate analysis to “Peirce’s Principle.”
Not less important is his treatment in a series of papers, published during the last decade of the last century, of the statistical method as applied to the nature of evolutionary processes depending upon the association of entities in large numbers. This method (which likewise underlies most of the very recent investigations into the properties of matter) is proving efficacious in philosophy in the hands of Professor Josiah Royce on the lines laid down by Peirce.
His most important contribution to physics resulted in an increase in the precision of geodetic surveys, which are useless unless they are of extreme exactness. Peirce detected the fact that the flexibility of the stone piers, on which pendulums are swung to determine the force of gravity, is great enough to introduce important errors into the observations, and showed how to apply appropriate corrections.
Passing by his various contributions to astronomy and other subjects, be it mentioned that Peirce was responsible for nearly all of the excellent definitions of mathematical terms in the two editions of the Century Dictionary, as well as those on mechanics, astronomy, logic and metaphysics. In this enormously laborious and responsible task he came closer to the habitat of the man of ordinary education than in any of his other works.
Genius Peirce indubitably had; he also had its eccentricities; they stood sadly in his way, diminished his intellectual output, and exposed him to privations. Though he could be very charming, he was so intensely individualistic that cooperation was for him almost an impossibility, he could not “get along” with associates, and, as he grew older, ill-health aggravated his peculiarities. To his friends these were an inconvenience, speedily forgotten; to himself they were a misfortune, and this is the only considerable reason for regretting them or referring to them ; they deprived him of the popularity, prosperity, and honors to which his great achievements would have entitled him.
Peirce was for many years a member of the National Academy of Sciences. His official biography will be prepared by a colleague eminently fitted for that difficult task, Josiah Royce.