Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Charles Peirce on Transcendentalism, and the Common Good

From one of Charles S. Peirce's college writings, dated 1859.  At the time he was a student at Harvard College.
"The devotion to fair learning is not of this rabid kind, but it is more selfish.  Antiquity has not accumulated its treasures for me; God has not made nature for me: if I wish to belong to the community of wise men, my time is not my own; my mind is not my own; in this age division of labor is indispensable; one man must study one thing; develope one part of his intellect and, if necessary, let the rest go, for the good of humanity.  Emerson, and perhaps Everett [1], pretend to go on a different principle; but really, each has his peculiar mission. Emerson is the man-child and he does men great service by just opening himself to them. "Seraphic [2] vision!" said Carlyle.  Everett possesses "action, utterance, and the power of speech to stir men's blood."  Both these men do good esthetically.  Everett is a gem-cutter, Emerson is a gem." (MS 1633) 
Charles S. Peirce, MS 1633, dated 1859
A section of MS 1633, dated 1859

It's a short paragraph, but it offers considerable insight into the development of Peirce's thought, and it is full of suggestion for our own time.

His claim that a scholar must devote herself to one area only must be taken in the context of Peirce's own studies.  Peirce was himself a polymath who wrote on logic, metaphysics, physics, geometry, ancient philology, semiotics, mathematics, and chemistry, among other disciplines.

What he says about learning here is relevant for the ancient tradition of publishing the results of inquiry, and for the contemporary practice of patenting all discoveries.  Nature is not a gift from God to the individual researcher.  Peirce's invocation of God here calls to mind what he says elsewhere about both God and research.  (For more on how Peirce regarded the relationship between God and science, see my chapter in Torkild Thellefsen's collection of essays on Peirce, Peirce in His Own Words.) The idea of God provides an ideal for the researcher, a reason to expect natural research to be productive of knowledge and a reason to believe in the possible unity of knowledge.

(This helps us to understand Peirce's peculiar interest in religion, by the way: he thought religion both indispensable and unavoidable, claiming that even most atheists believe in God, though most of them are unaware of their own belief, because they have explicitly rejected a particular kind of theism while maintaining a steadfast belief in some of the consequences of theism.  At the same time, Peirce was opposed to all infallible claims, to the exclusionary nature of creeds, and to what he considered to be the illogic of seminary-training.)

Peirce grew up, as he puts it, "in the neighborhood of Cambridge," i.e. near the home of American Transcendentalism.  He says of his family that "one of my earliest recollections is hearing Emerson [giving] his address on 'Nature'.... So we were within hearing of the Transcendentalists, though not among them.  I remember when I was a child going upon an hour's railway journey with Margaret Fuller, who had with her a book called the Imp [3] in the Bottle." (MS 1606)  His critiques of Transcendentalism have to be read in this context: he was raised among them, with Emerson in his childhood living room and with Emerson's writings being discussed in his school.

Emerson's insight is that nature does speak to those who have ears to hear.  His error is in mistaking the relationship of one person to another.  Emerson's genius is in perceiving the Over-soul, and his error is in then presupposing the radical individuality of the genius.  Peirce does not doubt that there are geniuses.  As a chemist, Peirce knew the importance of research and he knew the real possibility of achieving previously unknown insight.  Peirce believed, however, that the insight of the genius, or of any serious researcher for that matter, belongs to the whole community of inquiry.

Peirce, who made his living on research, believed that the researcher deserved to earn her living from her work, and he was sometimes frustrated by the chemical companies who took his ideas and patented them, then refused to pay him for them.  His ideal - one that is admittedly very difficult to realize - was that all research would be made freely available to the whole community of inquiry.  So while the researcher is worth her wages, no one deserves the privilege of hoarding knowledge for private gain.  We are all in this together.


[1] I'm not sure which Everett Peirce alludes to, but possibly to Edward Everett, who was Emerson's teacher; or Alexander H. Everett, with whom Emerson corresponded.

[2] The word on Peirce's manuscript is difficult to read.  I have transcribed this from a photocopy of one of Peirce's original handwritten pages.  The word might be "ecstatic" but I don't think it is. See the image above. [Update: Chris Paone wrote to me with the suggestion that the obscured word might be "seraphic." This is a better guess than any I've come up with so far, so until someone has a better idea, I'll take Chris to be right.]

[3] This word is also unclear, and might read "Ink."  If you're curious about this, or if you've got some insight about this, write to me in the comments below; I've spent some time trying to figure out what book Fuller had with her, so far with only a small amount of success.

With each of these footnotes, I welcome your feedback and corrections in the footnotes below.  Peirce wrote that the work of the researcher is never a solitary affair, but always the work of a community of inquiry, after all.

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