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10/7/10

The Final Days of Charles Sanders Peirce


One morning in late December 1906, Henry Alsburg was called by his landlady in Prescott Hall at 471 Broadway in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She wanted Alsburg "to come into one of the rooms to see an old gentleman, who had been ill and was very likely dying."

Entering the room, Alsburg found a sick man, suffering from malnutrition, his body worn out. Asked his name, the man answered "Charles Peirce."

Without enough money to buy food, Peirce was the same man of whom Bertrand Russell later said, "Beyond doubt . . . he was one of the most original minds of the later nineteenth century, and certainly the greatest American thinker ever."

Today there are university research centers devoted to Peirce studies and pragmatism in Brazil, Finland, Germany, France, Spain, and Italy. His writings have been translated into several languages, including German, French, Finnish, Spanish, and Swedish.

Peirce was a brilliant man, acknowledged as the brightest of the bright even in his day. A logician, he pioneered the modern study, Semiotics--the study of sign processes (semiosis), or signification and communication, signs and symbols.

Henry Alsburg--who found Peirce ill and dying--studied under William James, the first of the modern psychologists. Alsburg quickly told James about Peirce, whom James had held as a friend. Hearing about the man, James said, "Why, I owe him everything!" He and Alsburg left the Harvard campus, climbing into a cab to take Peirce home to James' house.*

Peirce spent much of his last two decades unable to afford heat in winter, and living on stale bread given him by the neighborhood baker. Unable to afford new stationery, he wrote on the blank side of his old manuscripts. An outstanding warrant for assault and unpaid debts led to his being a fugitive in New York City for a while. His debts were settled and his property taxes as well as mortgage were paid by his brother James Mills Peirce and his neighbors, relatives of Gifford Pinchot (chief of the US Forest Service under Theodore Roosevelt).

As an example of Peirce's mind, there is this: In his "F.R.L." [First Rule of Logic] (1899), Peirce states that the first, and "in one sense, this sole" rule of reason is that, in order to learn, one needs to desire to learn and desire it without resting satisfied with that which one is inclined to think.

So the first rule is to wonder.

Without steady income, he wrote for money in Popular Science Monthly Number 12 (November 1877), an essay titled "The Fixation of Belief." It can be read here.

*(William James In The Maelstrom of American Modernism, Richard Robertson, Houghton Mifflin 2007, p. 137)

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