Arisbe is the on-line counterpart of a fine old three-story house by that name, located just outside the small town of Milford, Pennsylvania, near the Delaware River — now an officially recognized national site administered by the National Park Service — in which Charles Peirce and his second wife, Juliette, lived alone in their later years.
(Peirce's first wife was Melusina Fay, an impassioned advocate of women's rights, a political theorist, and a novelist: a person of exceptional interest in her own right.) The Milford Arisbe was named by Peirce after a place in the ancient Greek world, just south of the Hellespont, which was a colony of the city-state of Miletus on the Ionian coast, locale of much of early Greek philosophy, cosmology, and science, and also associated with Homer, the legendary teller of epic tales.
It seems fitting to organize the resources of the Peirce telecommunity using the architecture of this remarkable home as a suggestive graphical metaphor, especially in view of Peirce's own conception of philosophy as something that should be developed architectonically. This graphical metaphor is not yet implemented here, but we hope to be making substantive progress on that soon. Since the Milford Arisbe is under the protection of the National Park Service, which itself has a very ambitious website, preliminary inquiry leads us to think we might be able to count on their cooperation in developing a sophisticated graphical interface for Arisbe that will help make it more than usually attractive as a website and also be helpful in inducing an intuitive sense for its use that will encourage imaginative development. But there are deeper reasons as well for identifying this website imaginatively with the Peirce home at Milford.
The Milford Arisbe was largely built (in the sense of designed) by Peirce himself, reconstructed from what was originally a farm house into a sumptuous and attractive two-story resort cottage, then developed further into an imposing three-story structure of more than twenty rooms, the ground plan being greatly lengthened in the process. Peirce describes his dreams for it to a friend as follows:
Now I propose to put up three pretty cottages of about 4 rooms each, and make the house a sort of Casino [i.e. resort] for fashionable people of "cultural" tendencies, to spend the summer, have a good time, and take a mild dose of philosophy. There is now no railway through the valley. When it comes, as it will in a few years, values will be greatly enhanced, and my place, with the business I shall have built up will be worth considerable. My ultimate aim is to set going an institution for the pursuit of pure science & philosophy which shall be self-supporting.
Although this plan came to nothing, and perhaps expresses a naive optimism about the reliability of economic predictions, it is not unreasonable. Peirce had reason to think that his expertise as a chemist in particular could provide a basis in the profits from inventions of industrial value to sustain the maintenance and development of Arisbe across the years that would be required to establish it; he was well-connected socially in a way that made that seem plausible enough; and Arisbe is located close enough to New York by water to make the idea of developing it as a summer resort reasonable, too, on the optimistic supposition that American life was in fact producing a few people who would be inclined to take advantage of such an opportunity for study.
Nor is there anything especially questionable in the idea of establishing "an institution for the pursuit of pure science & philosophy which shall be self-supporting": that sort of autonomy has been the goal of many if not all of the private schools of higher education, and the reference to pure science and philosophy included for Peirce what we would now think of as a liberal education devoted to the cultivation of self-reflective critical inquiry. Arisbe was conceived, in short, as a place in which research and education would be indistinguishable.
Thus although it might at first seem that Arisbe was built as a huge but empty emblem of vanity wildly out of proportion with the two persons, Charles and Juliette, who were its creators and sole inhabitants apart from servants, it was not that at all but rather an idealistic vision of a home from which would grow an alternative to the institutions of higher education which were under construction during his lifetime and with which he was profoundly at odds. This dream was never realized, though Peirce and his wife continued to expand the house long after the prospects would seem to have become hopeless.
But what happened that stifled these prospects? In retrospect, Peirce's accomplishments both in science and philosophy can be seen to be without parallel, taken as a whole, though far from being as widely recognized as they should be. And even though his more advanced ideas were largely just incomprehensible to his contemporaries, his substantive contributions as a working scientist and the ground-breaking character of his work in logic were appreciated by a substantial number of his professional peers, in Europe as well as in the U.S. He was regarded as a figure on the leading edge in several fields, not as an obscure outsider or crank, and the word "genius" was routinely used of him, and not in a trivial sense, by nearly everyone who had anything to say about him. Yet he was blocked systematically from a permanent academic position, and that and other consequences of an intense animosity toward him in his later life dashed all hopes for the development of Arisbe along the line indicated.
That there was a massive failure on the part of the academic world to find a place for him is commonly acknowledged, and that this was due to some fundamental flaw in the system or its leadership seems clear enough, too, since it is not a matter of a one-time blunder but of a persistent and unyielding antagonism across decades. But why? This institutional failure is frequently explained — or explained away — as if it is at least understandable, if not justified, in view of Peirce's unconventional life style and uncompromisingly independent attitude, which have become academic legends, subject to unrestrained exaggeration and embellishment from his time to our own. Thus there has been much emphasis on the moral disapproval of Peirce by the conventional minds in control of academia at that time.
But although this disapproval existed, the objective basis for it is disproportionately thin, and it clearly was not Victorian morality alone that set the academic powers in implacable opposition to Peirce: indeed, there is reason to think it may well have been his strengths, rather than his weaknesses, which were the real problem for these institutions that so clearly failed to live up to their own pretensions. For in the aftermath of the Civil War — which was not solely a conflict about slavery but also about values of another kind as well — profound disagreements existed as regards the conception of what an institution of higher learning should be like, and Peirce's family connections both within academia and in the U.S. government, taken together with his own well-established position in the international scientific community, would have made him an exceptionally dangerous opponent to the policies being established in academia at that time, had he been given the position within it appropriate to him.
The extent to which it was radical differences in institutional vision — doubtless connected with individual ambitions as well — rather than moral disapproval that actually motivated the systematic exclusion of Peirce from positions of influence within academia cannot reasonably be adjudged until an adequate account of the former has been given, which still remains to be done. But there is a story yet to be told about that, and one directly pertinent to our own time. This is one among many special projects we want to undertake or continue here, where informed contributions to our understanding of this and related matters will be welcome and made publicly available in a cumulative way. Needless to say — we hope! — this thesis, like any other put forth here at the virtual Arisbe, can be controverted here as well, and we encourage your contribution to the issue (see below on how to contribute).
Finally, the naming of the Peirce website "Arisbe" is especially fitting in view of the fact that the web itself, which originates in the communicational needs of the particle physics laboratory CERN, at Geneva, is primarily a creature of the sciences, in the sense of being driven originally by the need for establishing collaborative communicational communities of inquiry at the world-wide level. The frantic commercial development concurrently underway tends to obscure this, as does the common mistake of equating the scientific and the academic. The web is not a creation of academia as such. Much of the relevant research is located there and will continue to be, in any case, but it may well turn out to be among the last of our major institutions to accommodate it adequately.
The web does not offer an alternative to academia in the sense of being competitive with it, but it does represent alternatives in the sense of providing an independent public place for the development of alternative visions that can sustain critical thought of a kind which academia in its present form seems incapable of encouraging or sustaining, including critical and visionary thought about academic practices themselves, some of which have hardly been scrutinized at all since the time of its origins in the late middle ages. Providing a location for the representation of alternative visions that can support and encourage critical thought is fully in the spirit of the original Arisbe in Milford.
That systems ought to be constructed architectonically has been preached since Kant, but I do not think the full import of the maxim has by any means been apprehended. . . . When a man is about to build a house, what a power of thinking he has to do before he can safely break ground! With what pains he has to excogitate the precise wants that are to be supplied! What a study to ascertain the most available and suitable materials, to determine the mode of construction to which those materials are best adapted, and to answer a hundred such questions! Now without riding the metaphor too far, I think we may safely say that the studies preliminary to the construction of a great theory should be at least as deliberate and thorough as those that are preliminary to the building of a dwelling house.
— Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers 1.1
|This page contributed by: Joseph Ransdell
1. Fisch, Max (1986), "Peirce’s Arisbe: The Greek Influence in His Later Philosophy", in Peirce, Semeiotic, and Pragmatism, eds. Ketner and Kloesel.
2. Gorman, Vanessa B. (2001), Miletos, the ornament of Ionia: a history of the city to 400 B.C.E., 4th edition, page 244.
3. Houser, Nathan (2009), Page 27 in "Introduction" (unabridged online version in PDF format) to Volume 8 of Writings of Charles S. Peirce. As to the Axylus connection, Houser credits Frank Palmer Purcell for noting (in "Why Arisbe" 2008-10-24 at The Arisbe Network) a popular poem by Sam Walter Foss, "The House by the Side of the Road."
4. De Tienne, André (1999), "The Mystery of Arisbe", Peirce Project Newsletter v. 3, n. 1, pages 11 (pdf) & 12 (pdf).