Charles Sanders Peirce (1839 – 1914 CE, pronounced ‘purse’ like the handbag, not ‘pierce’, like puncture) is considered the founder of Pragmatism.  While employed as a chemist, he made major contributions to philosophy, linguistics, logic and mathematics.  He met fellow founding pragmatist William James at Harvard, and the two were the founding members of the Metaphysical Club in 1872.  Peirce, James and the other club members wanted to free philosophy from Continental metaphysics, influenced by Hume, Berkeley, Kant and Hegel but in opposition to the metaphysical framework of their ideas.  As an undergraduate, Peirce slowly worked his way through Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, reading a few pages a day.  Later, Peirce lectured on logic at Johns Hopkins University, where fellow founding Pragmatist John Dewey studied with him as his student.  Bertrand Russell, not a fan of Utilitarianism or Pragmatism, considered Peirce to be the greatest of American philosophers.  Karl Popper, a philosopher of science we will examine next week, believed Peirce to be one of the greatest philosophers to have lived.

Alexander Bain

James credited Peirce with coining the term ‘Pragmatism’, though Peirce credited Alexander Bain with the invention of its core idea, as Bain had defined belief’ as that upon which one is willing to act.  This is similar in ways to the Unity of Knowledge and Action of the Neo-Confucian Wang Yangming, the idea that if one does not act compassionately, one does not in fact believe in compassion no matter how well one has memorized Confucius’ Analects.  Note that this says nothing about the abstract truth of the belief, but only that it is practically capable of inspiring action.  Peirce wanted to clarify philosophical thinking and make it practical so it could engage in action rather than mere metaphysical speculation.  Karl Marx famously said that philosophers have so far thought very much about the world, but the point is to change it.


Peirce adhered throughout his work to his pragmatic maxim:  “Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.”  A maxim is a general rule, one often good to follow, unlike an axiom which is an unproven rule that should always be followed as it is assumed to be true.  Like Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Mill, Peirce argued that things are how they are used and to what effect.  Consequently, truth is not static and abstract but dynamic and practical.  Peirce argued that human truth is always fallible, always capable of being wrong, but that the truth is objective and is discoverable.  This is similar to John Locke, who argued that human knowledge is incomplete but that primary objective qualities do exist.

triangle three points

In response to the work of Kant and Hegel, Peirce argued that there are three universal categories of the mind.  He used the concepts of ‘firstness’, ‘secondness’ and ‘thirdness’ repeatedly throughout his work.  Firstness is the vague and possible.  Secondness is the distinct and actual.  Thirdnessencompasses the first two as joined together, similar to Hegel’s idea of the unity of the objective and subjective as well as understanding and reason.  Peirce argued that communication and representation are a fusion of the possible and actual, of the vague and distinct.  For instance, when we reason about mathematics or ethics, we must inquire about vague abstractions such as the infinite and the good based on distinct facts we experience.


Like Heidegger and Wittgenstein, preceding them both and possibly influencing them both, Peirce was interested in the use of signs, such as Wittgenstein’s roadsigns and Heidegger’s turn signal.  The sign, what it signifies, and the interpretation of its signification forms a triad.  As for Heidegger and Wittgenstein, Peirce saw the ‘interpretant’, not the interpreter but the result of interpretation, as social and not merely individual.  As we learn to drive, we learn what turn signals mean in the culture of driving, and thus agree with each other in interpretations and practices.  Peirce worked on a typology of signs through which he hoped to better understand the methods of human thought and logical argument.