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The Singular Experience of
the Peirce Biographer

Joseph Brent


EDITOR'S NOTE: This version of the paper is an HTML-marked transcription from a copy of the paper which was originally distributed by the author to the subscribers to the PEIRCE-L discussion forum (peirce-l@ttu.edu) on Sept. 26, 1996. Since there is no normal pagination on a web page, paragraph numbers -- included in brackets and placed flush right, just above the paragraph -- are provided for this version for purposes of scholarly reference.
If you wish to quote from or refer to this version of the paper in a scholarly context please identify it by its URL address, which appears at the bottom of this web page.

"Upon this first, and in one sense, the only rule of reason, that in order to learn you must desire to learn and in so desiring not be satisfied with what you already incline to think, there follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed upon every wall of the city of philosophy:   Do not block the way of inquiry."
--C. S. Peirce to the Harvard philosophers, 1898   

    Charles Sanders Peirce, the United States's greatest philosopher, died some eighty years ago on April 19, 1914. In 1957, when I began to think about a dissertation in the history of American ideas at the University of California at Los Angeles, he was attractive as a subject because, unlike his celebrated contemporaries William James, Josiah Royce and John Dewey, he was the only major figure in the entire field without major studies concentrating upon his life. There were very few biographical studies about Peirce of any kind, none of which, significantly, was based on the large Harvard collection of Peirce's biographical manuscripts. This odd fact was intriguing in itself. The first of these studies, apart from contemporary sketches in such compendia as the 1906 Biographical Dictionary of America, was Morris Cohen's Introduction to Chance, Love, and Logic in 1923, the first and very limited collection of Peirce's philosophical work, drawn from his best known published sources. Cohen, a student of Josiah Royce who was deeply indebted to Peirce for his late work, called Peirce "the founder of pragmatism" and, unlike James's and Royce's successors for sixty years among the Harvard philosophers, found him a major philosophical figure:

In the essays gathered together in this volume we have the most developed and coherent available account of the philosophy of Charles S. Peirce, whom James, Royce, Dewey, and leading thinkers in England, France, Germany and Italy have placed in the forefront of the great seminal minds of recent times. Besides their inherent value as the expression of a highly original and fruitful mind, unusually well trained and informed in the exact sciences, these essays are also important as giving us the sources of a great deal of contemporary American philosophy.(1)
    In 1934, there was Paul Weiss's tantalizing essay in the Dictionary of American Biography, based largely on obituaries and interviews. Weiss called Peirce "the most original and versatile of American philosophers and America's greatest logician" and described how Benjamin, Peirce's father, was aiming him at genius:

From time to time they would play rapid games of double dummy together from ten in the evening until after sunrise, the father sharply criticizing every error...His father also encouraged him to develop his powers of sensuous discrimination, and later, having put himself under the tutelage of a sommelier at his own expense, Charles became a connoisseur of wines.(2)
    In 1949, Philip Wiener, inspired by Dewey's famous essay "The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy," published Evolution and the Founders of Pragmatism. Three years earlier he had already announced his major findings, which were very damaging to those who attributed the origin of pragmatism to Peirce:

Not a single reference to Peirce's "Metaphysical Club" supposed to consist of [Chauncey] Wright, James, O. W. Holmes, Jr., John Fiske, Nicholas St. John Green, Joseph. B. Warner--the latter four trained in law--F. E. Abbot, and Peirce has been found outside of Peirce's inconsistent accounts [in the Collected Papers] in any of their writings or accounts of their lives by their friends, so that Peirce's claim that he first formulated the principle of pragmatism in that group is doubtful. But the group did symbolize the great effect of Darwin's work on American thought in the diverse forms of pragmatism that appear in the works of these men in methodology of science, law, history, and theology.(3)
    In 1952, Max Fisch had published an intriguing description of Peirce's career as lecturer at The Johns Hopkins University from 1879-84, based almost entirely on Hopkins sources, which suggested that President Gilman fired Peirce, despite the promise of tenure because the limit of eccentricity and emotional instability which Gilman could indefinitely tolerate in a man of genius was marked by [the British mathematician J. J.] Sylvester; that Peirce had overstepped the limit; and that...Gilman took the first politic occasion to remove Peirce. If Peirce's unorthodox economic, political, and social views found expression during his Hopkins years, they also must have weighed heavily against him.(4)
    And lastly in 1954, there appeared Perry Miller's biographical sketch in his anthology American Thought: Civil War to World War I in which he offered the typical Harvard view that Peirce is a complicated and difficult mind. He published no philosophical book in his lifetime, only a series of articles which his ardent admirers often found incomprehensible. He lived a rather shoddy existence, never considered respectable enough to be offered a chair of philosophy, got such income as he could by working for the Geodetic Survey or receiving alms from friends. He was cantankerous and isolated, and only in recent years, when his scattered pieces and manuscripts are at last being printed, has he come into his own. In fact, there already exists something of a Peirce cult, and possibly the danger is no longer that he be neglected, but that too much be made of him.(5)
    Miller went on to report that professors of philosophy, presumably idealists and naturalists including those at Harvard, accused Peirce of "vulgarizing the mind into a way of satisfying animal appetites or anxieties".
    Except for obituaries, scattered biographical references in the first six volumes of the Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, his letters to Lady Welby about signs and his life as a gentleman farmer(6), a few memoirs, notably by his students Joseph Jastrow and Christine Ladd-Franklin(7], some occasional sketches, and glancing mention in histories of American thought and books about Peirce's philosophy(8), these essays contained the only biographical information available in 1957, (Arthur Burks's volumes XVII and XIII of the Collected Papers and Carolyn Eisele's "Charles S. Peirce: Nineteenth Century Man of Science" did not appear until 1958 and 1959, respectively) and none of these earlier ones reflected the Peirce biographical manuscripts which the Harvard philosophers had bought at Royce's insistence from Peirce's widow in 1914. Obviously, there was a great need for a biography of Peirce and these few biographical sketches were so provocative that I decided, in my naive ambition, to apply to the Harvard Department of Philosophy for permission to consult their Peirce papers for a biographical dissertation. On March 17th, 1958, Roderick Firth, the chairman informed me that "this Department is willing to allow you to consult the C. S. Peirce collection at Harvard," for a biographical dissertation, subject to its approval of the material I intended to use.(9) As it happened, I was the first and at that time the only researcher to whom the Harvard philosophers had given wide permission for such a study. As a graduate student from the hinterlands, I naturally felt extraordinarily fortunate and queasily uneasy at the same time.
    My pursuit of Peirce, which still continues, began toward the end of June, 1958, when I arrived in Cambridge. Despite the letter of permission, the Widener Library archivist did not allow me to begin research in the papers until he could verify its authenticity, which did not occur for over two months. As I waited, calling and writing the department every week, I began with very limited success to examine the library's holdings for books from Peirce's library of at least 12,000 volumes, which was also brought to Harvard by Royce, finding and spending several fascinated weeks with his annotated copy of the Century Dictionary. I also began asking questions about Peirce of a wide group of persons connected with Harvard, including retired professors and, indeed, anyone likely to have information about Peirce who would entertain my questions. What I discovered astonished me. Most of those I questioned thought of Peirce as an eccentric and debauched genius who was a rich source of unrelated and unformed ideas, significant, if at all, only for having thought of the bright glimmer of ideas like pragmatism, which James had christened and which James, Royce, Dewey, and others then developed into important major systems of thought. One person mentioned his brilliance in logic as well-known and fundamental and another spoke reverently of Peirce as a great, misunderstood, and mistreated thinker whose genuine importance had been suppressed. Almost all of them told stories about his evil ways. Did I know that he was a drunkard, a drug addict, a homosexual, a libertine who had died of syphilis; that he was an atheist who had married the granddaughter of an esteemed Episcopal bishop, who fled him when he tried to seduce her into sexual perversion; that he then had a long adulterous affair with a French whore, whom he married for her money; that he had several bastard children by several women, one a Negress? These accusations and others were a common currency in the older Harvard intellectual community. Few of those I asked showed enthusiasm for a Peirce biography. All of them were concerned with the consequences for Harvard's reputation by bringing such things to light about one of their own; after all, Peirce was Harvard, Class of 1859, his father was a distinguished Harvard astronomer and mathematician, and his grandfather was the first college librarian, who also wrote the first history of the school. Others were distressed about the effects on the Peirce family's feelings and suggested that they would surely sue me for making these embarrassing revelations. Indeed, as I was to learn years later, this general view of Peirce among the Harvard cognoscenti had been summarized in 1892, twenty-two years before Peirce's death, by George H. Palmer a Harvard philosopher, when he wrote to President William R. Harper of the University of Chicago, who was considering hiring Peirce. The characterization remained unchanged in 1958, forty-four years after Peirce's death:

I am astonished at [William] James's recommendation of Peirce. Of course my impressions may be erroneous, and I have no personal acquaintance with Peirce. I know, too, very well, his eminence as a logician. But from so many sources I have heard of his broken and dissolute character that I should advise you to make the most careful inquiries before engaging him. I am sure that it is suspicions of this sort which have prevented his appointment here, and I suppose the same causes procured his dismissal from the Johns Hopkins.(10)
    I did my best to dismiss these unsettling slanders of the man in whose greatness I already firmly believed and joined the Charles S. Peirce Society (founded in 1946 by Frederic H. Young), whose secretary-treasurer Edward Madden announced in its bulletin in February, 1958, that "Mr. Joseph L. Brent, Department of History, U.C.L.A., would appreciate receiving any obscure biographical references to Peirce" (there were no responses). At the same time, I had initiated correspondence with Arthur Burks, Jackson Cope, Carolyn Eisele, Max Fisch, Thomas Goudge, Murray Murphey, Paul Weiss, and Philip Wiener, all Peirce scholars (and Harvard outsiders) with a biographical interest in him, whose work treated his ideas as important and original.(11) None claimed a current interest in a Peirce biography, all supported my plan, and some provided me with advice and counsel, especially in their warnings to me that, for reasons they could only speculate about, any project involving the Harvard philosophers and the biographical part of their Peirce collection was a dangerous undertaking. It was from them that I learned that the Harvard philosophers had (at a time unknown to me at this writing) restricted both the study and the use of his extensive biographical manuscripts. The Development of Peirce's Philosophy, by Murphey, published in 1961 (and reissued in 1993) was and remains, the only detailed book-length study based chronologically on any genuine knowledge of Peirce's extraordinary life. As Murphey was aware, because he tried so hard to get it, a thorough knowledge of that life would have made his book much better, but, like the other would-be Peirce biographers of the time, Murphey made do with what he could get permission to use. He even went so far as to refuse my offer that he make use of my extensive biographical notes, many of which came from the Harvard collections, because, as he recently wrote me:

Yes, I do agree with you that Harvard's boat should have been rocked and sunk. The reason I did not try to do so was because I was fairly sure that the boat that was rocked and sunk would be mine. I didn't have the money to take Harvard to court, and I did not see any other way of bringing pressure on them that would work. I think that cumulatively all of us did finally force them to do something, which was of course to bring in Max [Fisch]. Arrogance is certainly the word to describe those people; they were impossible.(12)
    In his review of my 1993 biography, Charles S. Peirce: A Life (for which permission to quote from their Peirce collection was finally granted by the Harvard philosophers thirty-one years after I completed the Peirce dissertation), Murphey wrote that the biography(13)

would have been published long before this had not the Harvard Department of Philosophy...refused him permission to quote from a number of the manuscripts. Here again, as so often in the past, the Harvard Department of Philosophy acted to obstruct research on Peirce, thus continuing the Harvard vendetta against Peirce which lasted from Eliot's ascension to the presidency of Harvard in 1869 until the advent of Putnam, Scheffler, and a new breed of Harvard professors. The history of the Harvard Department's conduct with respect to the Peirce manuscripts is one of the sorriest tales in American academic history.(14)
    It is finally time to establish in brief the major reasons that lie behind this harsh and, I believe, well-deserved indictment.
    Obviously, the Harvard philosophers had their reasons for the policy of censorship, even though these have never been clearly and openly stated, only vaguely insinuated. At the very least, they believed that there was something dangerous in bringing Peirce's life to light. Their position is expressed in a letter to Murphey of March, 1952, in response to his request to see the restricted papers in aid of his account of the evolution of Peirce's philosophy:

Dear Mr. Murphy [sic]:

I have made inquiries about the confidential Peirce papers in consequence of your letter of March 10 and have learned that they include material to which it is impossible to permit access. I hope that steps can be taken to separate these papers in such a way that some of them could be made available to scholars. We have had to refuse a number of earlier requests similar to yours and this makes it all the more desirable that some such reclassification be brought about. The situation is sufficiently complicated to make it impossible to effect such a rearrangement very soon and I fear, therefore that whatever might be done in this direction would occur too late for the immediate purpose of your thesis.

Sincerely yours,
W. V. Quine

    This segregation was begun in 1954 and completed in 1956. Whether, as part of this process, specific papers were chosen for destruction remains a question. When, in September, 1958, I began working through the manuscript correspondence collection in the attic of Widener Library at Harvard University, what I found was dusty, dirty chaos. There was an incomplete list of holdings by box number. Some attempt had been made at some earlier time to organize the letters by correspondent name in folders stuffed into now disintegrating boxes, but a substantial minority of letters was simply scattered. Some individual files seemed complete, others obviously were missing letters, sometimes a few, sometimes many, often almost all. There was no consistent chronological order. It was sometimes impossible to take letters out of their boxes without tearing them, but I was not allowed to change the existing place or order of any document, or to replace the damaged boxes or folders. The collection of letters written by Peirce was the most confused; there were multiple drafts of many letters, often undated and unaddressed, many pieces of philosophical writing (some of them lengthy), bits and pieces of his inventions and plans for projects, receipts for wine, drugs, coffee, and other purchases, scraps of legal matters, and many other odds and ends. Major parts were obviously missing. One personal file, though, of great interest for and understanding of the development of his life and thought was intact--his application (and various materials connected with it) for a grant from the Carnegie Institution of Washington in 1902-3, when he was sixty-three, to write out his philosophy in thirty-six "memoirs." It contained a number of drafts in which Peirce tried, as well, to explain his inability to finish and publish a major work of philosophy and other personal failures.
    Thinking that perhaps the biographical files were considered unimportant, I surveyed the philosophical manuscripts and found them also to be in dangerous condition and in extraordinary confusion. (It was possible, however, to identify those manuscripts used by Hartshorne and Weiss by their green cover sheets.) With that discovery, I concluded that the Harvard philosophers had no interest in preserving Peirce's work, and that they considered it to be of little value. Nathan Houser has described, in a preliminary but accurate essay, the sad history of the Peirce papers from the time of their acquisition from Peirce's widow, in 1914, until the present.(16)
    For the first two years because of Royce's enthusiasm and respect for Peirce's work, considerable progress was made in sorting and arranging the amazing confusion of manuscripts, but after Royce's sudden death in 1916, although sporadic efforts were made to honor his intentions, the project was allowed to decline and the papers were seriously maltreated. Apparently, some papers were carried away to be studied by teachers, students, and others. Some were simply pocketed, some of the Peirces' intimate letters were removed to the William James collection, and, perhaps, even destroyed. An unknown number was given away as scrap paper to the war drive. His large annotated library, which Royce had promised Peirce's widow would be protected, was dispersed without any record of disposition, many to other universities, including some in Japan. Only twenty-five of Peirce's books are now part of the Peirce Collection; others that remain at Harvard are kept on open stacks. Ten years after Royce's death, Charles Hartshorne, a recent Harvard Ph. D. in philosophy with a deep interest in idealism, but no background in logic and mathematics, was hired to prepare an edition of Peirce's papers in two volumes. Houser quotes him on what he found in a room on the third floor of the Widener Library:

[The papers] were in a small number of big piles on a large table. I don't remember whether there was any label on the top of each pile. I think there were about eleven piles. On the shelves there were, I seem to recall, just fifty-two empty boxes, each of which was labelled, showing that the manuscripts had been sorted under fifty-two categories, but my predecessor on the job had evidently taken them out of these boxes and resorted them into a much smaller number of piles....
    There was, I think, nothing else in the room. This was the room for the Peirce papers during the three years I worked on them. I remember having the impression that these fifty boxes were labelled in a reasonable way and that probably there'd been a pretty good classification which my predecessor had destroyed.(17)
    In the fall of 1926, Paul Weiss, an impoverished, gifted, and ambitious graduate student who had studied at the City College of New York under Morris Cohen (editor of one the of the first collection of Peirce's philosophy called Chance, Love and Logic published three years before), casually joined Hartshorne in the project. Luckily, he was competent in logic and mathematics and had a forceful character. He convinced the department to expand the project to six volumes. He discovered in a basket marked "to be discarded" one of Peirce's most important papers in logic. Written about 1880, while Peirce was at Hopkins, it proposed a Boolean algebra with one constant and was "a striking anticipation" of the Harvard philosopher H. M. Sheffer's proposal to the same effect, published in 1913.(18)
    Neither Hartshorne nor Weiss had any editing experience and Weiss recalls that at no time did any of the Harvard philosophers instruct or oversee their labors, neophytes that they were, nor did they advise them concerning any points of philosophical importance. According to Weiss, only one change was ever suggested in their editing of the papers, and this occurred when he requested that Lewis go over volume 4, "The Simplest Mathematics," and is represented by a footnote.(19) Weiss also recalls that no members of the department ever made more than a perfunctory visit to their workroom during the periods they worked on the papers, although Hartshorne recalls taking a number of manuscripts at different times to A. N. Whitehead for his comment. (I wonder if Whitehead would have written in just the way he did without knowledge of Peirce's work. In Process and Reality, which appeared in 1929 (based on his Gifford Lectures of 1926-7), Whitehead proposed that a philosophical system should be conceived as being generated recursively from a few basic metaphysical categories, which is precisely what Peirce described as his procedure in the manuscript of "A Guess at the Riddle" and in "The Architecture of Theories" published in The Monist series of 1891-93. The issue of the extent of Peirce's unrecognized influence is a genuine one.) When Weiss left for his first appointment at Bryn Mawr College in 1931, he took with him all the manuscripts required for the fourth volume of the Collected Papers, which contains a selection of Peirce's most important then unpublished work on logic and mathematics. He returned them to Harvard two years later, but the Harvard philosophers had made no record of what he had taken and had not requested their return.(20)
    Despite these facts, the Harvard philosophers stated in the introduction to the Collected Papers that:

Nearly all the members of the Department during the last fifteen years, as well as many others who were interested in Peirce, have devoted much time to the very often very intractable material of the manuscripts. But the final and laborious work of selecting, arranging and preparing the papers for the press has been done by Dr. Charles Hartshorne, formerly Instructor in Philosophy at Harvard, and by Dr. Paul Weiss, who is at present an Instructor in Philosophy at this university...(21)
    Weiss and Hartshorne both remember that the original intention of the Harvard philosophers was to name themselves as the members of the department as the editors of the Collected Papers. Weiss recalls that it was only with the greatest difficulty that he convinced R. B. Perry that to do so would be unjust, with the consequence that he and Hartshorne appeared on the title page as editors.
    The papers languished for ten years. In 1941, another Harvard graduate student started to organize and number (the McMahan numbers) the collection in sixty-one boxes, including correspondence, for transferral to Widener Library. Three years later, in 1944, just before the transfer under the chairmanship of C. I. Lewis, there occurred a "give away" of Peirce's manuscripts, in which the Harvard philosophers and their friends took whatever struck their fancy. After strong objections, Lewis issued a recall, but we cannot know now, except by chance, what and how much was taken, or what was returned. (It is fairly said of Lewis that his successful career as a logician grew out of his two year study of Peirce's unpublished logic papers in the early twenties and his earlier knowledge of Peirce's published work in the field, to which he was introduced by Royce. In the first edition of his first important work, A Survey of Symbolic Logic, published in 1918, Lewis devoted twenty-eight pages to Peirce's pioneering work in the field and called it as important as George Boole's. In later editions and in other works, the account of Peirce's importance is left out.) Houser writes:

...some important manuscripts were quietly returned many years later by an eminent Harvard graduate who confirms that the "give-away" did occur and that he kept certain papers because he thought they would be safer in his care. Among the papers returned by this single graduate were such important writings as Peirce's "A Guess at the Riddle," a manuscript on Darwinism and synechism, part of a manuscript on selfishness and political economy, a paper on religion and politics, and notebooks on phaneroscopy.(22)
    The papers were transferred from the Widener to Houghton Library in 1960, which already had nineteen boxes of Peirce manuscripts, probably originally sequestered by R. B. Perry in the early 30's, while he was working on his biography of William James. (It seems likely that a number of the Peirces' intimate letters were destroyed by Perry in an effort to sanitize Peirce's relationship with the Jameses. Perry gave Hartshorne, on condition that he destroy them, a small number of Peirce's widow's letters to James's wife, which, among other things, described Peirce's addiction to drugs and alcohol. The letters are now at the Peirce Edition Project in Indianapolis. In a 1934 letter to Gifford Pinchot, Juliette described how Peirce, as a young man, helped William James to master psychological method and added that "Harry James [William James's son Henry Jr.] is most anxious to get from me the early correspondence and lessons between the two men [Peirce and William James] and he offered to buy them..."(23) The letters have never been found.) A last substantial addition to the Houghton collection was made in 1969, when an old desk filled with important Peirce manuscripts, whose history remains unclear, was found in the underground passageway connecting the Widener and Houghton libraries. The Peirce Collection is now permanently housed in the Houghton. At least a quarter of the philosophical papers, numbering over 80,000 pieces, are still misarranged and the biographical material remains in a state of confusion.
    In November, 1958, after a month of disordered research, when I inquired about a particular box, the archivist informed me that the Peirce collection had been searched for evidence of certain aspects of Peirce's life and that those portions had been restricted. The box I had asked for was one of four so classified. At that point, like my predecessors who tried to study Peirce's life, I seriously considered giving up the entire venture. I sought advice from McGeorge Bundy, then dean of the Harvard faculty, and asked him to intervene in support of my request to consult the restricted boxes. He agreed to look into the matter and suggested the name of an attorney used by the Harvard Corporation to counsel me, but at the same time he gently and elliptically asked me to consider carefully the personal danger I risked in proceeding against the power of Harvard University. The attorney thought I might prevail in a suit, but added that, after bringing the possibility of a suit to the department's attention, he believed that the Harvard philosophers would see to it that my career was ruined. I conferred several times with Firth, the department chairman, who apologized for the great difficulties his mistake, in giving me permission in the first place, had caused; he offered to write a letter of explanation to my department and to give me $500 for my troubles. When I refused the offer, he invited me to apply to the department for appointment as the official Peirce biographer (I did not take the offer seriously, for I was mere graduate student, and I wrote him to that effect). The outcome was that I was allowed to continue to do research, but kept from the restricted boxes. Max Fisch was eventually appointed the official biographer in 1959.
    Shortly before my move to Cambridge to begin research in June, 1958, Fisch wrote me:

Any further work I do on Peirce is likely to proceed so slowly that I see no reason why you should not go ahead as if I were not involved in any way or degree....You have a fair chance to make a major contribution to American intellectual history, in which Peirce seems to me the key figure.(24)
    Murphey, a historian, wrote to me soon after I had agreed to the restriction imposed by the Harvard philosophers that:

I think you are in a very difficult situation....A good biography cannot be written without access to all data.... Whatever Peirce did was of a highly immoral nature....Harvard has a real interest in keeping this quiet. I do not believe it is inertia; there is something dangerous there which they want to keep under cover.(25)
    My decision in November, 1958, to proceed without access to the restricted boxes was based on two assumptions. The first was that, very probably, the Harvard philosophers did not know what was in the biographical materials. Their dismissal of Peirce's importance, and their disgust at his life made it seem to me unlikely that they had made a serious effort to find out what was in the restricted boxes. I also believed that the available material probably had indications of what they were trying to hide. Fisch wrote me later, as he was considering the Harvard philosophers' offer in April of 1959, that he had once surveyed the restricted boxes and "I can assure you that what they add to what a diligent researcher can dig up elsewhere is much less than the restrictive policy assumes."(26) Fisch's here illustrates a point that research historians consider obvious: it is unlikely that significant events are recorded by only one source. I soon discovered important biographical information about Peirce in many collections, nine at Harvard itself. Within a week of my decision to continue with my research into Peirce's life, I discovered much revealing but disconnected material about Charles's personal life in the collection of his father Benjamin's letters. These included many family papers commenting on Charles in addition to his father's letters. The collection was restricted at the request of the Harvard philosophers before I had quite finished studying them. I found some 10,000 pages of Peirce manuscript in the National Archives in the Coast Survey papers, his employers for thirty years. The Hopkins archives included some information not used by Fisch in his Hopkins essay. Other university archives contained papers of Peirce's correspondents. So did the Library of Congress, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and other depositories. Many likely sources for Peirce's life and thought still remain unexplored at this writing.
    By the end of April, 1959, when Fisch conditionally accepted his appointment as Peirce's biographer, I had amassed nearly 2500 notecards on Peirce's life. In our correspondence, I kept Fisch informed of my progress and of my troubles with the Harvard philosophers. Despite this, he expressed a strong interest in a collaboration to save him time and effort. By the end of June, I had completed my study of the Coast Survey material and of several collections at the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Archives and the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and had accumulated more than 3000 notecards. During a visit with Fisch in the summer of 1959 at his home, we cordially discussed at length how we might work together. We agreed that we would write separate Peirce biographies, expressing our different interests, but would collaborate in and pool our research, some of which I would do as his assistant, which I had, in fact, already done at his expense in Milford, Pennsylvania, Peirce's home for the last thirty years of his life. There, I conducted interviews, examined the local newspapers, official records, and a Peirce letterbook in the possession of a Milford resident. Fisch also offered to advance my cause with the Harvard philosophers, especially in the matter of seeing the restricted papers. I offered to let him make copies of all my notes, including leads, which he immediately did. Those notes, with Fisch's annotations, are part of the Peirce Edition Project's collection.
    That autumn, an event occurred which quickly led to the end of our friendship and our collaboration--and for thirty years, to my ambition to write a Peirce biography. Fisch received a telephone call from a retired Peirce scholar and devotee (perhaps cultist in Miller's sense), and member of the Peirce Society who had, on impulse, made a pilgrimage to Milford with a friend to visit the appropriate shrines and talk with the elders about their memories of the Peirces. In doing so, they learned about my earlier presence, misinterpreting it to mean that I was an imposter who claimed to be Harvard's official biographer. Fisch wrote to me:

My informant became quite exercised about the matter;...so he made a trip to Harvard, had a visit with his old friend Donald Williams (who is apparently to be chairman [of the philosophy] department this year), heard from Williams about the department's difficulties with you, and urged Williams to write to key people in Milford stating that I am the biographer chosen by Harvard, that you do not represent Harvard in any way, etc. It is my impression that Firth had not yet showed Williams my letter about you, so he was not in a position to set my informant straight...Well, my informant then went back to Milford, conveyed his authoritative information...and I'm afraid also the information about your difficulties with Harvard and its view of you. Then he began getting other reports in Milford according to which you were my agent, or assistant, or collaborator...I provided him what I could over the telephone. He seemed relieved but still puzzled that I should be accepting help from someone of whom the Harvard department thought so ill....I shall do what I can by correspondence, but perhaps the cloud of misunderstanding will not lift until after personal conversations at Harvard in February and at Milford sometime later.(27)
    Fisch also said that, until this unexpected event, he had intended to send me copies of the notes Jackson Cope had earlier made for him on the restricted papers. He now was reluctant to ask Harvard's permission to do so, which he thought necessary. Though Fisch did his best, the Harvard philosophers would not agree to anything involving me with themselves. Fisch acquiesced in their decision to deny me access to the restricted papers (or to any other Peirce biographer excepting, in some instances, Eisele and, of course, Burks, who had earlier screened the papers for volumes VII and VIII of the Collected Papers, without making much use of them). In giving in to their stipulations, Fisch also broke off our agreement and did not afterwards share any of his research results with me, as he had agreed to do.
    Fisch's appointment as the official biographer had two major effects, one destructive and the other constructive. On the one hand, he became the Harvard philosophers' gate-keeper in all matters affecting access to and use of their biographical information about Peirce. In practice, this meant that no other would-be Peirce biographer had any chance at it. He often exercised this function with a high degree of caprice, allowing a few to read tantalizing bits, but refusing them permission to use what they had seen. Surprisingly, the secrets were kept, though, occasionally, a Peirce scholar took advantage of these glimpses of the extraordinary figure Peirce was.(28) On the other hand, Fisch plunged with single-minded devotion into the chaos of Peirce manuscripts. By 1970, with the help of his wife Ruth, Don D. Roberts, Richard Robin (author of the annotated catalog and identification numbers for the Harvard Peirce Collection), Eisele, Murphey, and other independent scholars, he had managed to bring sufficient order to the philosophical manuscripts so that they could be used on microfilm, though with difficulty, by scholars anywhere. In 1973, he presented "A Plan for a New Edition of the Writings of Charles S. Peirce" to a group of scholars who agreed to ask Harvard to give them permission to make electroprint copies of, and to use the Peirce papers to publish a multivolume chronological selection of Peirce's work. Harvard agreed to the arrangement. The copies were deposited the next year with the Institute for Studies of Pragmaticism at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, a place far removed from the refined hotbed of ideas, culture, and inspiration that Cambridge and Harvard University had been for Peirce in his youth and young manhood. This exile was an appropriate consequence of what Murphey calls "the Harvard vendetta against Peirce." In 1975, the entire project was moved to Indianapolis, bringing it a little closer to home. There, founded and directed by Edward C. Moore and funded through his efforts by Indiana University, The National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Science Foundation, The Peirce Edition Project began. Moore appointed Fisch as general editor with a staff of four. The staff has put most of the materials in order and five volumes of a projected thirty have been published by the Indiana University Press. Over the years, Fisch also collected Peirce materials of various kinds from a large number of sources, and also brought together a large library on 19th century American thought. In 1989, Fisch retired, too ill to write his biography. He left a legacy of a well-conceived, usable and ongoing center for the study of Peirce as a fitting sign of his persistence and devotion.
    In the meantime, I had become an outcast among Peirce scholars. Some of them publicly accused me at meetings of the Peirce Society of slander and character assassination (a still lingering reputation), which led to the surreptitious reproduction and distribution of my dissertation here and in Europe. Several presses and scholars showed an interest over the years in publishing a revision, but the Harvard philosophers told them that no permissions would be forthcoming. In 1977, for example, Charles Crittenden, a philosopher then interested in Peirce, and John Clendenning, editor of the Royce papers, urged me to publish it. Crittenden wrote:

...It seems to me that it could pretty well be published as it stands. The picture given is not altogether favorable to Peirce, of course, but then that may be as it should be. In any case as the Peirce project proceeds there will be great interest in the life of this fascinating man, and your biography will be a prime source of information....let me commend you for a fascinating account of a fascinating and difficult figure, and for your (as it seems to me) sound judgments throughout.(29)
    I sent the letter to Fisch who discouraged the possibility, writing that, "...you have a vision of Peirce that is unlikely to reach print...," and reporting that it was most unlikely that the Harvard philosophers would relent.(30) In thirty years, the dissertation was cited only twice. With sardonic amusement, I realized that I felt a sense of kinship with Peirce in his long-held anger at Harvard's treatment of him.
    Then, in 1990, entirely unexpectedly, long after I had moved into other fields of interest and had given up on the biography, Thomas A. Sebeok, a distinguished semeiotician, linguist and Peirce scholar (who is not an academic philosopher), found my dissertation and asked me to revise it for publication, including in my text, where I thought it appropriate, the results of Peirce scholarship since 1960. In December, 1991, at the request of Indiana University Press, the Harvard philosophers, who could no longer find sufficient reason to deny it, gave me permission to publish selections from their Peirce Collection. In January, 1993, the Press published my biography and Houser, the new director of the Project, allowed me to study the restricted papers, which I had vainly asked to see thirty-five years before, as well as Fisch's files. All Peirce materials at the Project and at Harvard are now accessible to scholars, making it possible, at last, eighty years after his death, to freely study not only Peirce's philosophical manuscripts, but (with the addition of new research into collections likely to have Peirce material but not yet examined) the entire record of his extraordinary and tragic life as well. This opening up of the Harvard and Project sources of Peirce biography--this belated unblocking of the way of inquiry--will mean that we will be able at last to place him more accurately and fully in the fabric of the history of ideas, and to state more rigorously the range of his relevance to the manifold worlds to which he claimed his discovery of semeiotic gives privileged entry.


Citations to works other than those by Peirce are given in the usual form. Those for Peirce are given in abbreviated form: for the Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, CP 1.1 means volume 1 paragraph 1; for Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition, W1:100 means volume 1, page 100.

(1) Cohen (1923): iii

(2) Weiss (1934): 398-403.

(3) Wiener (1946): 181-2, (1949): 24-6.

(4) Fisch (1952): 277-311.

(5) Miller (1954): xxxi.

(6) Lieb (1953)

(7) Ladd-Franklin (1916): 715-722; Jastrow (1914): 571, (1916): 723-726.

(8) Lewis. C. I. (1918) A Survey of Symbolic Logic 79-106; Anderson and Fisch (1939) "Charles S. Peirce" Philosophy in America from the Puritans to James; Schneider (1946) A History of American Philosophy 334-337, 516-523, 546-550; Buchler, Justus (1939) Charles Peirce's Empiricism; Feibleman, James K. (1946) An Introduction to Peirce's Philosophy Interpreted as a System: Goudge, Thomas A. (1950) The Thought of C. S. Peirce; Gallie, W. B. (1952) Peirce and Pragmatism; Thompson, Manley (1953) The Pragmatic Philosophy of C. S. Peirce. For what was then thought to be available about Peirce, see Fisch's bibliography (1964): 483-514.

(9) Allen, Ruth, secretary to the department, to author, March 17, 1958

(10) W4: lxv. Introduction by Houser.

(11) Burks had published on Peirce's theories of probability and abduction, his categories, and on his system of signs, and had just finished his work on Vols. VII and VIII of the Collected Papers, for which he had access to the Harvard Peirce biographical manuscripts, but he made limited use of them and declined Harvard's offer to write the official biography; Eisele was at the beginning of her major work on Peirce, the mathematician and scientist, having published his correspondence with Simon Newcomb, on his gravimetric and astronomical work at the Smithsonian, and other subjects; Fisch had published on O. W. Holmes,Jr. and pragmatism, on Peirce at Johns Hopkins, and on Alexander Bain and the origins of pragmatism; Goudge had published The Thought of Charles S. Peirce and on Peirce's theories of induction and abstraction; Madden had published on Peirce's methodology; Murphey was completing The Development of Peirce's Philosophy; Weiss was co-editor, with Charles Hartshorne, of Vols I-VI of the Collected Papers, and had published on Peirce's architectonic; Wiener, in addition to his Evolution and the Founders of Pragmatism, had published Peirce's correspondence with Samuel P. Langley and, with Frederic Young, had edited the first volume of Studies in the Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce. Of these, only Burks had the chance to study the Harvard biographical manuscripts; Eisele, Murphey, Fisch and Wiener had to use other sources, such as the Smithsonian, the Coast Survey, Johns Hopkins and the personal correspondence of others. For more detail, see Fisch's bibliography (1964).

(12) Murphey to the author, 5/13/1994.

(13) Brent J. (1993).

(14) Murphey (1993): 723-728.

(15) Quine to Murphey, March 13, 1952.

(16) Houser (1992): 1259-1268.

(17) Houser (1992): 1261.

(18) CP 4.12n. H. M. Sheffer (1913): 14:481-88.

(19) CP 4.19n*.

(20) The recollections by Hartshorne and Weiss were made in conversations with the author between 1992 and the present.

(21) CP 1.vi.

(22) Houser (1992): 1262-63.

(23) Juliette Peirce to Gifford Pinchot, September 10, 1934. Pinchot Family Collection.

(24) Fisch to the author, April 18, 1958.

(25) Murphey to the author, February 27, 1959.

(26) Fisch to the author, February 18, 1959.

(27) Fisch to the author, September 17, 1959.

(28) For example, Auspitz (1983): 51-64. He used manuscript material concerning Peirce's addiction that Fisch had not cleared.

(29) Charles Crittenden to the author, 1/11/1977.

(30) Fisch to the author, 5/18/1977.


Auspitz, Josiah Lee, 1983. "The Greatest Living American Philosopher." Commentary. 76:51-64

Brent, Joseph. 1993. Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Buchler, Justus 1939. Charles Peirce's Empiricism. London: Keegan Paul.

Eisele, Carolyn. 1959. "Charles S. Peirce: Nineteenth Century Man of Science." Scripta Mathematica 24:305-24.

______. 1954. "Charles S. Peirce and the History of Science." Yearbook of the American Philosophical Society 353:358.

______. 1957. "The Charles S. Peirce-Simon Newcomb Correspondence." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 101:409-433.

______. 1957. "The Scientist-Philosopher Charles S. Peirce at the Smithsonian." Journal of the History of Ideas 18:537- 547.

Feibleman, James K. 1946. An Introduction to Peirce's Philosophy Interpreted as a System, with a forward by Bertrand Russell. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Fisch, Max H. 1954. "Alexander Bain and the Genealogy of Pragmatism." Journal of the History of Ideas 15:157-59.

______. 1939, 1969. "Charles Sanders Peirce." Introduction to Part 4, Section 20 in Philosophy in America: From the Puritans to James. Edited in collaboration with Paul Russell Anderson. New York: D. Appleton Century. Reprinted New York: Octagon Books.

______. 1964. "Draft of a Bibliography of Writings about Charles Sanders Peirce." (with Barbara E. Kretzman and Victor F. Lenzen.) Studies in the Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce, Second Series. edited by Edward C. Moore and Richard S. Robin. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

______. 1952. "Peirce at the Johns Hopkins University." (with Jackson I. Cope.) Studies in the Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce. edited by Philip P. Wiener and Frederic H. Young. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Gallie. W. B. 1952. Peirce and Pragmatism. Penguin Books.

Goudge, Thomas A. 1950. The Thought of C. S. Peirce. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Houser, Nathan. 1992. "The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Peirce Papers." Signs of Humanity/L'homme et ses signes. General Editor Gerard Deledalle. Vol 3 Semiotics in the World/La semiotiques dans le monde. Edited by/Edite par Michel Balat and Janice Deledalle. The Hague: Mouton de Gruyter. 1259-1268.

______. 1986. "Introduction." Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition. Vol. 4. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Jastrow, Joseph. 1914. "The Passing of a Master Mind." Nation, 98:571.

______. 1916. "Charles S. Peirce as a Teacher." Journal of Philosophy, 13:723-26.

Ladd-Franklin, Christine. 1916. "Charles S. Peirce at the Johns Hopkins." Journal of Philosophy, 13:715-722.

Madden, Edward H. 1956. "Chance and Counterfacts in Wright and Peirce." Review of Metaphysics 9:420-432.

Miller, Perry, editor. 1954. American Thought: Civil War to World War I. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Murphey, Murray G. 1961 and 1993. The Development of Peirce's Philosophy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. Reprinted with a new preface and appendix Bloomington: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

______. Review of Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life. Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 29: 723-28.

Peirce, Benjamin. Family Papers. The Houghton Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1923. Chance, Love and Logic: Philosophical Essays by the Late Charles Sanders Peirce, The Founder of Pragmatism. Edited with an introduction by Morris R. Cohen. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc.

______. 1931-35. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Edited by Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss. Vols. I- VI. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

______. 1958. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Edited by Arthur Burks. Vols. VII-VII. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

______. 1953. Letters to Lady Welby. Edited by Irwin C. Lieb. New Haven: Whitlock's.

______. Papers. The Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

______. 1982-. Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition. Edited by the Peirce Edition Project. Projected in thirty volumes. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Peirce, Juliette. Papers. Peirce Edition Project, Indiana- Purdue University, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Pinchot, Gifford. Family Papers, Library of Congress Manuscripts, Washington, D. C.

Robin, Richard S. 1967. Annotated Catalogue of the Papers of Charles S. Peirce. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press.

Schneider, Herbert W. 1946. A History of American Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press.

Sheffer, H. M. 1913. "A set of Five Independent Postulates for Boolean Algebra, with application to logical constants." Transactions, American Mathematical Society 14:481-88.

Thompson, Manley. 1953. The Pragmatic Philosophy of C. S. Peirce. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Weiss, Paul. 1934 "Peirce, Charles S." Dictionary of American Biography S. v.

Wiener, Philip P. 1949. Evolution and the Founders of Pragmatism. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

______. 1946. "Peirce's Metaphysical Club and the Genesis of Pragmatism." Journal of the History of Ideas 7:218-233.

______. 1947 "The Peirce-Langley Correspondence and Peirce's Manuscript on Hume and the Laws of Nature." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 91:201-228.

Wiener, Philip P. and Young, Frederic H., editors. 1952. Studies in the Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

END OF:  Joseph Brent, "The Singular Experience of the Peirce Biographer

Posted to Arisbe website March 24, 1998


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