Metaphysical Club Ch.7
This chapter talks a lot about Charles Peirce’s father, Benjamin. Ben was the first internationally recognized mathematician from America. He believed that math was ‘the supreme science.’ He believed that we can obtain genuine knowledge about the world and warned against skepticism. Darwin added frustration to this idea by proving that the world evolved through random variations. So the question is, how can you obtain systematic knowledge from imperfect observations of a random world? The answer, says Ben, is by using the scientific method, which applies mathematics and reason in conjunction with observations. The basic idea is that first we observe. Then we approximate/generalize our observations mathematically. Then we verify our generalization through further observations. If our mathematical generalization matches our further observations, then we can treat it as fact, i.e. we have obtained genuine knowledge. This way of obtaining systematic knowledge of the world worked, not only for knowledge of the physical world, but also for moral facts (including notions such as free will, etc.).
Charles “regarded his work as an amplification and extension of what his father had done” (152). For example, in “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” he explained that the meanings of all of our words/concepts are entirely cashed out in practical terms, i.e. they fall within the boundaries of our experience. We have epistemic access to experience. Hence, if a statement is meaningful then genuine knowledge of it (at least in principle) is attainable.
Benjamin was very arrogant. He seemed to get satisfaction from the fact that few could understand his ideas because it confirmed that he was an ‘intellectual elitist.’ He also considered Negros to be inferior and felt that they were not capable of grasping mathematical science. Charles seems to have inherited this arrogance and racism.
Benjamin was also very prominent politically. He rubbed shoulders with many prominent and influential men such as Agassi, Holmes, Bache, etc. Together they “maneuvered themselves into a position to control, and to a great extent, the institutional shape of American science” (157). E.g. he was a cofounder of the Florentine Academy (Lazzaroni) and the Coast Survey. So, Charles was very well connected through his father.
Early on, Ben realized that Charles was a prodigy, and he put a great deal of effort into cultivating Charles’ intelligence. By the time Charles entered Harvard he was ‘thoroughly bored’ with the curriculum, which contributed to his horrible personal character. He was a womanizer and had violent fits of temper. He listed his our character traits as vanity, snobbishness, incivility, recklessness, laziness, and ill-tempered.