Essential Biography


Added by Claudia Cristalli – January 2021

1839    Born on September 10 in Cambridge, MA, to Benjamin and Sarah Hunt (Mills) Peirce. Benjamin Peirce, mathematician of fame and professor at Harvard University, played a prominent role in the education of his son and influenced him deeply.

1850    Aged 11, Charles S. Peirce wrote a “History of Chemistry,” today lost. At 12, Peirce red Whately’s Elements of Logic (1826)and, shortly after, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Schiller’s Letters on Aesthetic Education. Those last readings oriented him towards philosophy while the first one made him desire to become a logician.

1855    Entered Harvard College; Graduated (AB) after four years (1859).

1860    Studied classification with the biologist Louis Agassiz (1807-1873).

1861    Entered Lawrence Scientific School (Chemistry). Thanks to his father, he was appointed Regular Aid in Coast Survey, 1 July. The U.S. Coast Survey was an important scientific institution of the time, where Peirce worked as researcher and correspondent in astronomy, geodesy, meteorology and spectroscopy for 30 years.

1862    Married on October 16 Harriet Melusina Fay, who will become one of the first supporters of women’s rights movements.

1863    Graduated “Summa cum Laude” in chemistry at Lawrence Scientific School, Harvard.

1865    First lecture series (written but not delivered) at Harvard University on “The Logic of Science,” spring; Began Logic Notebook, 12 November; last entry in November 1909. In these years Peirce studies Stoics and Epicureans, Diogenes Laertius and Medieval philosophy, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hobbes, Hume, Berkeley, Whewell and John Stuart Mill.

1866    Second lecture series on the logic of science (“The Logic of Science; or Induction and Hypothesis,”) this time at the Lowell Institute, MA, 24 October-l December.

1867    Elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 30 January. In that same year, Peirce presented to the Academy 5 papers on the algebra of logic and on the theory of categories.

1868    Published on the Journal of Speculative Philosophy three papers on the theory of knowledge (epistemology), known today as the “Cognition Essays” or “anti-Cartesian Essays,” which contribute to the theory of signs (semiotics).

1869    First of ca. 300 Nation reviews, in Mar.; last in Dec. 1908. Becomes assistant at Harvard Observatory, October 1869-December 1872. Always at Harvard, Peirce delivers a third lecture series, this time on “British Logicians,” December-January.

1870    First European mission on behalf of the U.S. Coast Survey. Published “Description of a Notation for the Logic of Relatives,” which brings de Morgan’s topic forward with a different notation (W2: xxxi).

1871    Together with William James, Peirce starts participating to the meetings of the so-called “Metaphysical Club” in Cambridge, Boston. Other notable members were Chauncey Wright, biologist and friend of Darwin; Nicholas St. John Green; Oliver Wendell Holmes, who will become a judge of the U.S Supreme Court; Joseph Warner; Francis Abbott; and John Friske. None of them was an academic philosopher, but it is in this context that the theory that will later become “pragmatism” starts to be articulated.

1875    Second trip to Europe on behalf of the U.S. Coast Survey, which lasts until August of the following year. Charles is the first American delegate to participate to the International Geodetic Association in Paris.

1876    Peirce and his wife Melusina Fay separate in October.

1877    On April 20, Peirce is elected to National Academy of Sciences. Third Survey assignment in Europe: 13 Septemner-18 November. Represented U.S. at International Geodetic Association conference in Stuttgart, 27 September-2 October, where he read a paper on pendulum movement. The first paper of his Illustrations of the Logic of Science paper series, “The Fixation of Belief,” appears in the U.S and the following year in France. In this year Peirce meets Juliette Froissy (also known as Pourtalai), whom he would marry in 1883. Little is known about Juliette’s life before she met Peirce, which left room for speculation and gossip.

1878    Published Photometric Researches, the results of his observations at Harvard. In the same year, the rest of papers forming his Illustrations of the Logic of Science appear in the Popular Science Monthly. Peirce had a project to republish the papers in book form, but this project never became reality.

1879    Hired by Johns Hopkins University, Baltimora, as a lecturer in logic. Peirce will keep this position ‘till 1884. He founds the Johns Hopkins Metaphysical Club. In these years Peirce is often sick, afflicted with chronic pain, and has nervous breakdowns. According to his biographer Joseph Brent, Peirce started assuming cocaine and had alcohol issues. 

1880    In March, Peirce is elected member of the London Mathematical Society. Fourth trip to Europe on behalf of Coast Survey. Publishes “On the Algebra of Logic.”

1883    Edits and publishes a collected volume on logic – Studies in Logic – with papers of his and of some of his students (among which Christine Ladd). On Aril 24, he divorced from Melusina. After a few days, he married Juliette J. Froissy (or Pourtalai). From May to September, Peirce is in Europe again on behalf of the Coast and Geodetic Survey. (Congress approved the change of name from U.S. Coast Survey to the Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1878). Peirce studies Aristotle and Lucretius. Begins collaborating to the Century Dictionary, contributing regularly from 1889.

1884    The Johns Hopkins position comes to an end and is not renovated, for reasons which are still not fully understood. His openness about Juliette before his divorce and the quick second wedding offered a justification for this rejection. From now on, the possibility of an academic career becomes for Peirce progressively more remote. His job at the Coast and Geodetic Survey was also criticised, on the grounds of unjustified expenses. To quit this controversy, Peirce accepted to change office and became in charge of the Office of Weights and Measures, October-22 February 1885.

1888    Thanks to an inheritance, Peirce purchased the countryside home “Arisbe” situated outside Milford (PA), where he lives with Juliette for the rest of his life. He spends all of his savings in a renovation project that intended to transform the house in a School of Logic. While the house was significantly enlarged in the course of the years, the school project never became reality. Peirce also works on a book titled “A Guess at the Riddle.” Studies cosmology and reads Schelling. Drafts various lectures and works at academic teaching projects which will all be rejected.

1891    Starts publishing in The Monist a series of five papers also known as his “Cosmology series.” On December 31st, Peirce resigns from the Coast and Geodetic Survey because of disagreements with the new leadership. A period of economic hardship begun, lasting until the end of his life. Without a pension, his income was based on his Century Dictionary contributions and on the charity of friends, among which William James.

1892    (until 1893) Peirce delivers a series of lectures “On the History of Science” at the Lowell Institute, one of his most important historical works.

1893    Peirce projects the edition of Petrus Peregrinus’ Epistola de Magnete (1269), on which Peirce had worked already in 1883. Peirce saw in Peregrinus’ Epistola “more of the spirit of science than is found in Bacon himself” (HP: 31) and the first conscious use of modern scientific method (i.e., experimentation and induction). However, only the prospectus is published. Search for a Method, which should have been a revised edition of his 1867-1893 papers, was announced by Open Court but not completed.

1894    The Principles of Philosophy (in 12 vols.) is announced by Henry Holt Co.; it is not completed. the Grand Logic, also known as How to Reason. A Critik of Arguments is rejected by both Macmillan and Ginn Co.

1895    New Elements of Mathematics rejected by Open Court publishing.

1896    Finds and employment as consulting chemical engineer (until 1902), St. Lawrence Power Co. Swamped with debts, Peirce is often fleeing his creditors. He spends long periods of time in New York.

1898    Delivers the Cambridge lectures on “Reasoning and the Logic of Things,” February 10 – March 7. Another book, The History of Science announced by G. P. Putnam’s; not completed.

1901    Becomes a contributor to Baldwin’s Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology. In the following years, in order to provide for his wife and himself, he will write some hundred entries. His research shifts heavily towards phenomenology (or phaneroscopy) and semiotics.

1902    Writes an application for a grant to from the Carnegie Institution, “Proposed Memoirs on Minute Logic.” The aim of the project was to re-organise and publish his writings on logic. The application is rejected.

1903    Delivers the Harvard Lectures on “Pragmatism” (Mars 26 – May 17) and the Lowell lectures on “Some Topics of Logic” (November 23 – December 17). The surviving drafts contain fundamental writings in Peirce’s logical graphs (Existential Graphs). Wrote “Telepathy,” which is at the same time a reply to existing debates, a treatise on scientific method, and his mature theory of perception. “Telepathy” too remains unpublished.

1905-6 Publishes on the Monist a series of articles on “pragmaticism,” a revised version of “pragmatism,” distancing himself from William James.

1907    Peirce holds at the Harvard Philosophy Club some lectures on “Logical Methodeutic,” i.e. on scientific practice, on April 8-13. He lives almost confined to Milford in a destitute state, tending to his ill wife, sometimes not knowing what to eat. He threatens suicide more than one time. These conditions notwithstanding, Peirce continues to project grand philosophical works.

1908    Publishes on the Hilbert Journal the paper “A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God.”

1914    Died on April 19 of abdominal cancer.