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Charles Sanders Peirce: Summary of Human Knowledge


Winter–Spring 1892

Plan for a scientific dictionary, to be called Summa Scientiæ; or,Summary of Human Knowledge. To be contained in one volume of 1500 pages of 1000 words per page. The articles, though elementary, to be masterly summaries valuable even to specialists. C. S. Peirce to be editor and to write about a third of the whole. The other writers to be young men, specialists who have not yet achieved great reputations, but found out and selected by the editor as having exceptional mental power and special competence. These men to conform to certain rules as to matter, arrangement, and style;and required to rewrite until they became trained in the kind of composition required.

Economy of space to be effected by every device that ingenuity and many years’ reflection upon this problem can suggest. Facts to be tabulated as far as possible. The style of writing to be extremely compact, yet scrupulously elegant. The ideas dominant in each branch of science to be emphatically indicated, and its leading principles distinctly stated.Every page, even the tables, to be interesting in matter, stimulating and agreeable in manner. The leading works to be always named.

The arrangement to be alphabetical. The length of the articles such as best subserves economy of space. This generally forbids very short articles; yet articles of more than one page should be rare.

The copy to be completed in two years. As every word would have to be weighed and every statement verified, it would cost $10 to $15 a thousand words. The editor to receive, besides, $3000 a year. The contents to be somewhat as follows:

                          A. Mathematics.
 1.  History of mathematics                                  25   pages
 2.  Pure mathematics. A complete synopsis,                 100      "
     mostly without proofs.
 3.  Tables                                                  25      "
 4.  Rigid dynamics                                          25      "
 5.  Hydrodynamics                                           15      "
 6.  Thermodynamics                                          10      "
 7.  Kinetical theory of bodies                               5      "
 8.  Thermotics, etc.                                         5      "
 9.  Optics                                                   5      "
10.  Electricity and magnetism                               10      "
11.  Mathematical psychics                                    5      "
12.  Mathematical economics                                   5      "
13.  Probabilities                                           10      "
14.  Miscellaneous                                            5      " 

       Total mathematics                                    250   pages. 

                           B. Philosophy.
 1.  History of logic                                         5   pages
 2.  Principles of logic                                     25      "
 3.  Traditional rules of logic                              15      "
 4.  Terminology of logic                                     5      "
 5.  Outlines of the principal ontological and               50      "
     cosmological and transcendental systems
       Total philosophy                                     100   pages. 


                            F. Sociology.
 1.  Tables of languages                                 50   pages
 2.  Miscellaneous linguistics                           20      "
 3.  Rhetoric                                            10      "
 4.  History of literature                                5      "
 5.  Weights, measures, chronology                        5      "
 6.  Anthropological tables                              40      "
 7.  Games and sports                                    10      "
 8.  War                                                 10      "
 9.  History of religion in tables                       40      "
10.  Politics                                            25      "
11.  Ethics                                               5      "
12.  Jurisprudence and criminology                       10      "
13.  History of law                                       5      "
14.  Our law and customs                                 50      "
15.  Domestic economy                                    25   pages
16.  Education                                           25     "
17.  Miscellaneous                                       15     " 

                           G. Individual facts.
 1.  Astronomy and its history                           20   pages
 2.  Geology                                             10     "
 3.  Geography                                           80     "
 4.  Statistics                                          10     "
 5.  General history                                     80     "
 6.  Biography                                           90     "
 7.  Miscellaneous                                       10     " 

      Total individual facts                            300   pages.
      Grand total                                      1500   pages.

This distribution of the contents is subject to changes of detail; but its general character will remain.

The aim is to make the volume the most useful one ever published to persons of modern liberal education.

C. S. Peirce

Peirce on William James

His comprehension of men to the very core was most wonderful. Who, for example, could be of a nature so different from his as I? He so concrete, so living; I a mere table of contents, so abstract, a very snarl of twine. Yet in all my life I found scarce any soul that seemed to comprehend, naturally, [not] my concepts, but the mainspring of my life better than he did. He was even greater [in the] practice than in the theory of psychology.


Charles Sanders Peirce

I am a man of whom critics have never found anything good to say. When they could see no opportunity to injure me, they have held their peace. The little laudation I have had has come from such sources, that only the satisfaction I have derived from it, has been from such slices of bread and butter as it might waft my way. Only once, as far as I remember, in all my lifetime have I experienced the pleasure of praise–not for what it might bring but in itself. That pleasure was beatific; and the praise that conferred it was meant for blame. It was that a critic said of me that I did not seem to be absolutely sure of my own conclusions. Never, if I can help it, shall that great critic’s eye ever rest on what I am now writing; for I owe a great pleasure to him; and, such was his evident animus, that should he find that out, I fear the fires of hell would be fed with new fuel in his breast.

Charles Sanders Peirce, “Preface to an Unwritten Book”

I was introduced to Peirce by a man who said that Peirce scholars tended to be rather eccentric, like the man himself. At age 27, he published the fairly brilliant “On a New List of Categories” (the greatest American work of neo-Kantianism of the 19th century?), whose idiosyncratic depiction of the process of judgment gives little indication of his forays into physics, biology, logic, philosophy of mind (where he shares some of his views with William James), philosophy of language and linguistic development, and “pragmaticism.” As far as comprehensiveness goes, I think he doesn’t have a real American successor until Wilfred Sellars.

But the eccentricity of some Peirce specialists wasn’t concretized for me until I stumbled on this book: His Glassy Essence: An Autobiography of Charles Sanders Peirce, by Kenneth Laine Ketner. It is written in an informal style in the voice of Peirce (and this is before the Reagan “autobiography” that garnered so much attention). I have no problem with the approach in principle, but it does make sense that it would be applied to Peirce; I can’t ever imagine someone writing an “autobiography” of Hegel or Heidegger. Ketner is also the co-author of US Patent 6819474 – Quantum Switches and Circuits, alongside another Peircian and…Charles Sanders Peirce himself, possibly with reference to Peirce’s hypothesis that electrical switches could execute logical operations.

Ketner is, of course, the Charles Sanders Peirce Professor of Philosophy at Texas Tech University.

Sellars on Following a Rule

The key to the concept of a linguistic rule is its complex relation to pattern-governed linguistic behavior. The general concept of pattern governed behavior is a familiar one. Roughly it is the concept of behavior which exhibits a pattern, not because it is brought about by the intention that it exhibit this pattern, but because the propensity to emit behavior of the pattern has been selectively reinforced, and the propensity to emit behavior which does not conform to this pattern selectively extinguished.

“Meaning as a Functional Classification” (1974)

Sellars’ main point that following a rule does not require intentionality is very much his own (I guess it owes something to Peirce’s notions of conceptual acquisition), but this is a very lucid statement of what I believe Wittgenstein himself to be saying about following linguistic rules: i.e., that it is a genuinely evolutionary process in which various linguistic patterns thrive or die off, and it is the very act of their linguistic usages in a particular pattern that legislates their continued use in that pattern.

But I’ll also, somewhat grudgingly, admit that I see some Hegel in here too. As all legislative usage has the potential to be transgressive against some dominant propensity, perhaps I can draw the analogy to the very end of the Phenomenology and its two antagonists, Acting Consciousness and Judging Consciousness. AC transgresses, JC condemns. AC confesses, JC forgives, and thus in that reconciliation we reach Absolute Knowing. Okay, that was the quick version. But linguistic usage brushes up against two opposing walls that are somewhat analogous to AC and JC: behavioral dissuasion and behavioral reinforcement, respectively. It is all conditioning, but it is a process of reconciliation too, in the same way that evolution reconciles mutation with fitness.

Richard Rorty, 1931-2007

Here I was about to write on Dante, and I hear that Rorty has passed away. Rorty is such a paradoxical and multifaceted figure that his death gives me cause to ponder my own philosophical orientations and biases. Even more than other analytic “slipstream” figures (my appropriated, tongue-in-cheek term for those analytics who headed, intentionally or unintentionally, towards an epistemological and hermeneutic rapprochement with continental developments: late Wittgenstein, Quine, Sellars, Goodman, Putnam, Davidson, McDowell, and Brandom, all of whom owe some kind of debt to the American pragmatists, particularly Peirce), Rorty let himself abandon the analytic style and rigor and embrace far more historicist positions. And I feel this pull myself. But complicating this is the seeming existence of three Rortys. In roughly chronological order:

  1. the analytic “linguistic turn” Rorty (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, etc.)
  2. the pragmatic deconstructionist Rorty (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, etc.)
  3. the liberal populist Rorty (Achieving Our Country, late essays, etc.)

Even worse, the earlier Rortys continued to coexist with the later ones, although the analytic Rorty disappears mostly from the picture post-Contingency. The reason for this vanishing is that Rorty wisely realized that the post-Sellarsian philosophy of language was neither useful nor supportive of the relativistic pragmatic liberalism that the other two Rortys wanted to promote. Between the first two Rortys is Rorty turning his back on the analytic tradition and collapsing the lessons of Sellars and Quine into a roughly deconstructionist stance that Rorty inherits from Derrida, as well as an explicit embrace of historicism. There is little talk of sensing, mind, or language as practice in his later work, though clearly Rorty maintained enough affinities with his analytic forefathers to acutely criticize post-Kripkean analytic metaphysics. I am in great sympathy when in that article, he observes, criticizing Kripke-worshiper Scott Soames:

To my mind, the story of 20th-century analytic philosophy (including the role of Kripke in that story) is best told by highlighting questions about whether truth is a matter of correspondence, about what is and is not ‘out there’ to be corresponded to, and about whether there is any sense in which thought makes ‘direct contact’ with reality. So I regret that Soames’s history shoves these issues into the background. But perhaps correspondence is just my hobbyhorse, as necessity is his.

Couple “language” with “thought” and “truth,” and this is indeed my view of modern analytic philosophy as well. But even as he says this, his later work makes it clear that Rorty had lost interest in this question in and of itself, and was far more concerned with its implications and utility in political and cultural frameworks. His leap to an embrace of continental traditions is not surprising in this light, and his status as a maverick seems to be mostly due to this leap alone. His actual positions fit squarely into a deconstructionist (or “post-structuralist,” if you will) mainstream, with a little American flavoring. With regard to his treatment of meaning and language, Rorty’s actual separation from Derrida lies less in his ideology and more in the comparative clarity of his writing, which did as much to offer analytics a bridge to deconstructionist thought as it did to antagonize them towards it.

Perhaps it was this clarity that caused the third Rorty to evolve, in which he popularized his style even further and, most notably, wrote a little book called Achieving Our Country, celebrating Emerson and Dewey as models for a pragmatic politics. No matter that much of what he advocates in this book is unsubstantiable by Rortys 1 and 2. It was clear that after having embraced a heterodox liberalism under the guise of “liberal ironism” in his second incarnation, he was ready to put that into practice and drop the theory to attempt a concrete politics in the tradition of Dewey. Yet while Habermas attempted to ground such a liberalism in a dense, coherent account of intersubjectivity, Rorty seemed to have lost interest in fighting with other philosophers, and wanted to speak to the people. The book was not popular, though it earned an amusing rebuke from George Will in Time, who must have seen it as some sort of threat, or as a convenient strawman for attacking academia. That last point is particularly ironic, as Rorty #3 did indeed drop (or at least obscure) all of the relativist baggage that David “Black Panthers and Blacklists” Horowitz thinks threatens our nation. Some good it did him. In the late essays published (by Penguin!) in Philosophy and Social Hope, he is attacking Marx and criticizing philosophical leftists like Derrida for embracing Marxism, in between celebrating Forster and (again) Dewey.

Ironically enough, I see something of a parallel development in Derrida, who begins as an unorthodox but traditional Husserlian phenomenologist, then develops an aggressive deconstructionism in contrast to preceding structuralist trends, and finally ends his life advocating for the EU and Enlightenment values and making nice with arch-enemy Habermas in the name of liberalism. But Derrida never quite abandoned his audiences the way that Rorty 1 and Rorty 2 did.


There have been countless accounts of analytic vs. continental personalities, and I only offer this one on the
grounds that it’s purely anecdotal. (I use “continental” here as shorthand for the poststructuralist mainstream that holds sway in America: Derrida, De Man, Foucault, Kristeva, Lacan, Agamben. No need to correct me on this point; I know.) But my experience has been that on assuming a position, analytics are far more likely to take it as truth to be put into practice, while continentals tend to embrace a position as justificatory rhetoric. For instance, the analytic incompatibilist determinists I know, who believe in no free will and no moral responsibility, seriously apply such beliefs in their daily lives: they picture people as robots to be corrected when they malfunction, and they have no patience with even the idea of revenge. Derek Parfit’s views on (lack of) personal identity, by his own admission, brought him great comfort in facing death. David Lewis, to cite an extreme example, truly believed in an infinite number of alternate worlds for modal purposes. (Indeed, another modern history of analytic thought could be the effect that rigidity can have in inflating pedantic disputes into highly unintuitive beliefs.) On the other hand, the continentals I’ve known have been far more likely to stick with what is, in effect, a foundationalist standpoint, and use philosophical works, appropriately or otherwise, to justify them. I have seen many continentals discourse on the indefinite postponement and deferral of truth and meaning, only then to proclaim the moral evil of the Enlightenment, capitalism, the United States, Europe, etc. One could blame Heidegger for being especially bad at this, but my unjustified suspicion is that the indifference to rhetoric falls out of the modern continental approach itself, just as the analytic approach produces its dogmatists. For whatever reason, Rorty’s “irony” came to dominate his view to the point that such a serious embrace of analytic metaphysical positions became anathema to him. Yet because he was in America or because he was outside the continental scene or because he just was like that, he failed to feel the urgency to dive into the continental pool.

Many of the figures mentioned above, despite my complaints, were brilliant and did remarkable work in analytic or continental philosophy. I think Rorty will be remembered for pursuing a more aggressive synthesis than most more than for espousing a particular position. I don’t necessarily see this as a fault, because I think his intent ultimately was not to stake out a singular philosophical position, but it does complicate how to assess his stature. Maybe because I am something of a philosopher, I can’t think of him as being as important as Habermas, Davidson, or even Derrida, even though I have problems with all three of them. If Rorty had had another fifty years, perhaps he would have produced a big book that would have been a liberal, anti-communitarian version of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue; more likely, though, he would have gotten involved in politics (as another of his spiritual compatriots, Charles Taylor, actually did). He would have made a good columnist for the New York Times, certainly a better one than the universally ridiculed Stanley Fish. (But there I go, shooting Fish in a barrel again….)

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