Charles Sanders Peirce Biography

Charles Sanders Peirce was an American scientist, philosopher, and logician who made significant contributions to the fields of logic, mathematics, and philosophy. He is best known for his work on the logic of relations and his development of pragmatism as a research method. Peirce’s career began with his involvement in the ‘Geodetic Survey’ and his research on pendulum swinging to measure gravitational force. He was a Harvard graduate and believed in the three methods of problem-solving: abduction, induction, and deduction. Peirce’s interests also extended to semiotics, or the theory of signs, and he connected his work to the concepts of linear algebra, probability, and statistics. Despite his groundbreaking contributions, Peirce lived a reclusive life, facing poverty and illness. Many of his unpublished works were released after his death.

Quick Facts

  • Died At Age: 74
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Juliette Peirce (m. 1883), Melusina Fay Peirce (m. 1860–1883)
    • Father: Benjamin Peirce
    • Mother: Sarah Hunt Mills
    • Siblings: Herbert H. D. Peirce
  • Born Country: United States
  • Linguists
  • Scientists
  • Died on: April 19, 1914
  • Place of death: Milford, Pennsylvania, United States
  • Cause of Death: Cancer
  • U.S. State: Massachusetts
  • More Facts
  • Education: John A. Paulson School Of Engineering And Applied Sciences, Harvard College, Harvard University

Childhood & Early Life

Charles Sanders Peirce was born on September 10, 1839, at Phillips Place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, to Sarah Hunt Mills and Benjamin Peirce. He was one of the four sons of his parents. His father was a professor of math and astronomy at ‘Harvard University.’

At the age of 12, Charles read a copy of Richard Whately’s ‘Elements of Logic,’ which was a major English-language text on the topic. This was when he began to develop an interest in logic and reasoning.

He earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree (1862) from ‘Harvard.’ In 1863, he received a BS degree from the ‘Lawrence Scientific School’ of ‘Harvard.’ It was ‘Harvard’s first “summa cum laude” chemistry degree.

At ‘Harvard,’ he became acquainted with Francis Ellingwood Abbot, William James, and Chauncey Wright.

Peirce began suffering from facial neuralgia in his late teens. The ailment is now known as trigeminal neuralgia. This condition is attributed to his social isolation later.


He had earlier worked with field parties of the ‘U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey.’ He re-joined the ‘Survey’ in 1861, working as an assistant to his father. In 1871, his father decided to go on a gravimetric survey of North America to find a precise idea of the Earth’s ellipticity. Peirce was to supervise the project and later added to the theory of pendulum swinging for measuring gravitational force.

He was the first to calculate the length of the meter in terms of a wavelength of light (1877–1879). From 1873 to 1886, Peirce conducted pendulum experiments at 20 stations all over Europe and the U.S., and (through his associates) at several other places, such as Grinnell Land in the Canadian Arctic.

His work brought him international recognition. His ‘Report on Gravity at the Smithsonian, Ann Arbor, Madison, and Cornell’ (1889) remained unpublished, because of differences with the authorities. He finally resigned by 1891. Since then till his death in 1914, he did not have stable employment or income. He worked as a consulting chemical engineer, an inventor, and a mathematician from time to time.

In 1867, Peirce became a fellow of the ‘American Academy of Arts and Sciences.’ In 1877, he became a member of the ‘National Academy of Sciences.’ He presented 34 papers before the ‘National Academy of Sciences,’ from 1878 to 1911.

Most of these papers were on logic, while others were on mathematics, physics, experimental psychology, and other subjects. In 1880, he became a member of the ‘London Mathematical Society.’

Contribution to Logic

By 31, he had published many papers in logic, besides works in philology, chemistry, the philosophy of history and religion, and the history of philosophy.

He delivered two series of logic lectures at ‘Harvard University’ and one at ‘Lowell Institute.’

From 1879 to 1884, he held a lectureship in logic at ‘Johns Hopkins University,’ while also working for the ‘Survey.’

He tied logic with semiotics, or the theory of signs. His work revolved around the differences between the sign action (semiosis) and dynamic (or mechanical) action. One of his major works, ‘A System of Logic, Considered as Semiotic,’ remained unpublished.

Contribution to Mathematics

Peirce made many contributions to the field of pure mathematics. His works encompass the topics of linear algebra, matrices, different geometries, topology, graphs, Bell numbers, the four-color problem, and the nature of continuity.

He contributed to applied math in engineering, economics, and map projections (for instance, the Peirce quincuncial projection). He was predominantly involved in in statistics and probability.

He made discoveries related to Boolean algebra and the axiomatic set theory. He also classified mathematics into three parts: mathematics of logic, discrete series, and pseudo-continua (including the real numbers) and continua. He also wrote innumerable articles on the mathematics of logic.

Contribution to Philosophy

His view of pragmatism was first published in a series of ‘Illustrations of the Logic of Science’ in ‘Popular Science,’ and American magazine, in 1877–1878. He believed the scientific method was one of several means of fixing beliefs and that beliefs were habits of action.

In his lectures at ‘Harvard’ in 1903, he linked pragmatism with abduction. Pragmatism became popular in the early 1900s. However, by then, Peirce had grown dissatisfied with the forms of pragmatism that were in practice then. He spent his final years trying to explain “pragmaticism,” a new word he had coined in 1905, to clarify the definition of his previous “pragmatism.”

His most important contribution to philosophy, according to him, was his “new list of categories.” While Kant believed in 12 categories, Peirce brought them down to three: quality, relation, and representation. Later, he called them quality, reaction, and mediation. Finally, he termed them firstness, secondness, and thirdness.

He referred to them as concepts, initially. He then stated the elements of concepts: the univalent, bivalent, and trivalent elements. The main aim of the new list was offer a structure to his division of arguments into abductions, inductions, and deductions.

Major Works

His primary works have been published in journals such as ‘Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,’ ‘The Monist,’ the ‘Journal of Speculative Philosophy,’ ‘Popular Science,’ the ‘American Journal of Mathematics,’ ‘The Nation,’ and others.

His only full-length book published in his lifetime was ‘Photometric Researches’ (1878), which revolved around spectrographic methods and their application to astronomy. At ‘Johns Hopkins,’ he edited ‘Studies in Logic’ (1883), which contained articles written by him and his students.

Following his death, it was discovered that Peirce had left 1,650 manuscripts unpublished. An anthology of Peirce’s articles named ‘Chance, Love and Logic: Philosophical Essays,’ was published in 1923.

Some of his most prominent posthumous publications were ‘Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce’ (1931–1958), ‘Charles Sanders Peirce: Contributions to The Nation’ (1975–1987), ‘The New Elements of Mathematics by Charles S. Peirce’ (1976), ‘Semiotic and Significs: The Correspondence between C. S. Peirce and Victoria Lady Welby’ (1977), ‘Writings of Charles S. Peirce, A Chronological Edition’ (1982), ‘Historical Perspectives on Peirce’s Logic of Science: A History of Science’ (1985), ‘Reasoning and the Logic of Things’ (1992), ‘The Essential Peirce’ (1992–1998), ‘Pragmatism as a Principle and Method of Right Thinking’ (1997), and ‘Philosophy of Mathematics: Selected Writings’ (2010).

Personal Life, Family, & Death

In 1862, Peirce got married to Harriet Melusina Fay. She left him in 1876.

Peirce then got married to Juliette Pourtalai (née Froissy) in 1883. He did not have any children.

In his final years, he lived with Juliette on a farm located along the Delaware River near Milford, Pennsylvania.

Toward the end of his life, he became a recluse. He also fell ill and lived in poverty. He was at times helped by friends such as William James.

He breathed his last on April 19, 1914, in Milford, Pennsylvania, United States, at the age of 74.

Leave a Comment