Continuing Education:

Peirce and Morality in the 1898 Cambridge Lectures



This essay examines Peirce’s  1898 Cambridge Lectures on logic and argues that they do not constitute a purely theoretical endeavor.  Rather, these lectures have a thoroughly practical direction, for they are essentially concerned with issues of a moral education.  Peirce’s lectures offer three theses.  First, all learning involves the establishing of continuities.  Second, a genuine education does not simply involve an education in morality (it is not simply one aspect that is essential to a comprehensive education) but instead is nothing but a moral education.   Finally, Peirce’s notions of continuity and moral education are essentially intertwined.  To understand these three theses, in particular the relationship between a moral education and Peirce’s theory of continuity we need to carefully examine what is said in Peirce’s vital first lecture.  It is here that Peirce conveys his difficult and profound conception of the relation between theory and practice.  By taking seriously Peirce’s Platonic and Aristotelian heritage we can see how philosophy as a theoretical enterprise has a profound impact on our ethical being.








The recent collection of essays in the special issue of Studies in Philosophy of Education[i] has opened up a whole new avenue in the work of Charles Sanders Peirce, namely, into his contribution to the philosophy of education.  This essay hopes to contribute to this recent scholarship by focusing on the important and enigmatic Cambridge Lectures of 1898.  I argue that Peirce’s lectures on logic do not constitute a purely theoretical endeavor.  Rather, these lectures on logic have a thoroughly practical direction, for they are essentially concerned with issues of a moral education.  Peirce’s lectures offer three theses.  First, all learning involves the establishing of continuities.  Second, a genuine education does not simply involve an education in morality (it is not simply one aspect that is essential to a comprehensive education) but instead is nothing but a moral education.   Finally, Peirce’s notions of continuity and moral education are essentially intertwined.  To understand these three theses, in particular the relationship between a moral education and Peirce’s theory of continuity we need to carefully examine what is said in Peirce’s vital first lecture.  It is here that Peirce conveys his difficult and profound conception of the relation between theory and practice.  By taking seriously Peirce’s Platonic and Aristotelian heritage we can see how philosophy as a theoretical enterprise has a profound impact on our ethical being.

To begin with, it is helpful to take up Peirce’s infamous correspondence with William James concerning these lectures and the notorious ‘Topics of Vital Importance.’  These letters had the unfortunate consequence of stigmatizing Peirce as a thinker uninterested in fleeting political and social issues, a perspective that has only recently been called into question.[ii]  While Peirce as a scholar had very little to say regarding specific social reforms, political institutions or policies, his thinking is thoroughly imbued with an eye toward human conduct and the realm of practice.  It is clear from what is said by both Peirce and James regarding ‘Topics of Vital Importance’ that such topics were to concern human practice and the good within a community.  James had criticized Peirce’s suggested topic for lecture, viz., formal logic, and requested he discuss something a little more urgent and interesting.  Peirce in private correspondence with James bemoaned the request, and in public lecture offered a number of oily remarks. Far be it from me to dispel the myth of Peirce as a grumpy old curmudgeon who had no appreciation for James’ efforts to provide him with an opportunity to lecture.  Nevertheless, to read his comments concerning ‘topics of Vital Importance’ purely in this light is not to take Peirce’s philosophic concerns seriously.

While it is clear that Peirce initially desired to lecture purely on logic, after having James petition for ‘topics of Vital Importance,’ Peirce “thereupon threw aside what I had written and began again to prepare the same number of homilies on intellectual ethics and economics.”[iii]  In spite of this comment, it is clear that Peirce’s lectures say almost nothing about such issues, and instead surround his complex theory of logic.  Are we to assume that Peirce ignored James’ request, simply producing lectures that had nothing to do with ‘Topics of Vital Importance?’  Did Peirce believe James’ interest in practical matters frivolous, and of no concern to a serious philosopher?  On the contrary, for ‘topics of vital importance’ becomes a central theme in the lectures.  Peirce spends an immense amount of time clarifying why this is such a problematic notion.  In so doing, he gives us insight into his complex view of a moral education, and the important role theory can play in practice.

In fact, a close reading of the correspondence seems to bear this out.  To begin with, when James responds to Peirce’s proposed outline, he emphasizes that “Separate topics of a vitally important character would do perfectly well” (p. 25).  As will be demonstrated, it is not so much the emphasis on practical matters that frustrated Peirce, but the fact that they could be both ‘separate’ and vital. The goal of inquiry for Peirce is to establish continuity, only then can we hope to attain a sense of the truth of the matter under investigation, and the consequent right and just course of action.  To engage in ‘detached ideas’ is to shun this fundamental philosophical task.  Peirce makes the further point, that when a topic is truly vital, where one must make one’s way through the dilemma as expeditiously as possible, it is not prudent to engage in a genuine and thorough inquiry.[iv]  Rather, success is the ultimate concern, and cleverness - not intelligence tempered by a good will - the desired means.  Peirce ironically makes this point in his first lecture when he states, “I shall have a good deal to say about right reasoning; and in default of better, I had reckoned that as a Topic of Vital Importance.”[v]  For Peirce, the current state of the university is desperate.  It is essential that students once again learn how to engage in inquiry.  Peirce reiterates this point in his first letter to James, proclaiming: “No responsibility could be much more grave in my opinion than that of being charged to imbue a considerable number of young men with ideas of logic.  For as I understand logic, the practical issues of it are momentous.”[vi]  Thus, from the very beginning, Peirce understood his lectures on logic to be of utmost practical and educational import.

With this in mind, we can now proceed to the difficult task of clarifying Peirce’s three theses, beginning with his important notion of continuity.  Peirce’s theory of continuity has been well documented, and it is beyond the bounds of this paper to offer a comprehensive analysis of the topic.  Rather, the role of this theory within these lectures and within Peirce’s notion of education will be examined.  To begin with, Peirce claims in his third lecture:

The whole universe of true and real possibilities forms a continuum, upon which this Universe of Actual Existence is, by virtue of the essential Secondness of Existence, a discontinuous mark – like a line figure drawn on the area of the blackboard.[vii]

Peirce’s notion of continuity is indebted to the Aristotelian distinction between dynamis (potentiality) and energeai (actuality). Reality has being only insofar as it has come to be in the context of variability, contingency and indefiniteness.  What is could have been otherwise.  The fact that life emerged out of the primordial ooze, that humanity evolved in such a way as to give us language, or that history unfolds in the manner it does, is to be understood as the realization of certain possibilities. While what has been actualized only comes to be out of the vast continuum of possibility and contingency, it has come to be only through a ‘logic of events,’ with a determinate character and according to general principles of movement. 

            This may be one of Peirce’s most difficult ideas.  First, we must recognize that his metaphysics understands movement as real – as having being.  Peirce does not offer a metaphysics of presence, where all that is, is understood as present, fixed and constant.  According to Peirce, the universe develops, grows, lives, and evolves. All that is, which is to say all that has being, exists between the realm of the actual and the possible, between being and becoming – it is a mixture of the two.  What is actual only exists insofar as it has come to be.  Capability or potentiality can only be understood through the reality of this transition into actuality.  Dynamis (capability), which constitutes Peirce’s continuum, is the origin of movement, the origin of enactment; therein, it is the origin of what is.  Existence emerges out of the potential that is present in the continuum.  As such, “There is room in the world of possibility for any multitude of such universes of Existence.”[viii]  Yet, we can only understand our existence, this reality, through the continuity out of which it emerged, a continuity that is also real through the potentiality out of which the actual comes to be.

By attributing being to potentiality, Peirce is not espousing some naďve formalist metaphysic.  There are no perfect, transcendent truths that supervene over reality, where the universe attempts to unfold according to some pre-made eternal plan such as could be found in the mind of God.  Instead, what the universe is striving to realize only comes into view in its actual striving.  The logic of the universe unfolds only through its movement, progressing toward higher order and greater complexity.  Thus, Peirce claims, “Evolution, wherever it takes place is one vast succession of generalizations, by which matter is becoming subjected to ever higher and higher Laws; and I point to the infinite variety of nature as testifying to her Originality or power of Retroduction.”[ix]  The truth of reality is not derived through deduction, where everything follows from a single eternal truth.  Both the words evolution and continuity speak to this point.  Being itself is the process of coming to be – a creative process that allows for originality and new relations.  The universe creates hypotheses, new forms of potentiality, out of which certain aspects come to be actualized, which then lead to further potentialities.  To understand the universe as the movement between potentiality and actuality is to take seriously the being of movement and to deny any form of naďve Platonism.

Peirce’s reading of the dialogue the Sophist helps to clarify this point, where Peirce argues that Plato turns away from the doctrine of ideas toward mathematics: “the Platonic Ideas became Mathematical Essences, not possessed of Actual Existence but only of a Potential Being quite as Real, and his maturest philosophy became welded into mathematics.”[x]  Too often commentators are guilty of overlooking the relevance of Peirce’s incisive comments regarding the Ancients.  This passage is particularly informative, reading Plato’s eidetic philosophy through Aristotle’s notion of dynamis and energeia

Plato uses math to demonstrate a separation of ideas from appearances, a separation of the sensible from the intelligible.  Math and geometry constitute eidetic sciences for Plato.  The circularity of a circle is certainly something quite independent of any specific rendering of a circle.  Similarly, a line is not something that ever exists in actuality, for it is a length with no width.  Both a circle and a line are ideal objects.  This is not to deny their reality.  Yet, they exist only as pure relationships, simply as hypotheses.  What Plato is emphasizing through his notion of math as an eidetic science is that to think the truth of what is encountered in appearance is to discern what is invariable within it – its eternal truth.  What is invariable though, is not some independent entity, but the structure of relations that constitute a circle.  Mathematics as a science is composed entirely of this potentiality, a term Peirce defines as “indeterminate yet capable of determination in any special case.”[xi]

In this seemingly innocuous comment regarding Platonism, Peirce thus reads potentiality, the capacity to become determinate out of an original ambiguity, into Plato’s doctrine of Ideas, and in so doing challenges the traditional reading of Plato that attributes falsity or non-being to the realm of appearances.  For, the eternal nature of the essences is not something that stands above reality, but is something that emerges out of the relations posited by mathematical hypotheses.  In order to make something of Peirce’s many difficult comments concerning Plato, it is helpful then to read this doctrine as commensurate with Peirce’s own theory of continuity.  The ideas do not refer to some isolated realm such as a ‘Platonic heaven.’ The idea of a circle is not something that exists apart from the circles that participate in it, a thing-in-itself, nor is it a circle that exists alongside other circles, only with a perfect structure.  Rather, its essence is found as a very real potentiality that is harbored within the positing of certain relations.  Only, concerning the pure ideas of math and geometry, we cannot ever truly actualize these ideas for they are necessarily pure.  The actuality of a circle, then, is nothing more than this potentiality.  As such, mathematics constitutes an eidetic science, it is a pure science, “it is the only one of the sciences which does not concern itself to inquire what the actual facts are, but studies hypotheses exclusively.”[xii] 

When Peirce introduces this discussion of Plato, he does so to clarify the respective domains of the sciences.  Math is considered to be the most abstract and universal of the sciences, standing above even philosophy which searches for ‘real truth.’  Therefore, philosophy concerns both actuality and potentiality.  Ethics is excluded from the domain of philosophy insofar as it is “the most concrete” of any science, while philosophy is the “most abstract of all the real sciences” (of all the sciences that deal with actuality).[xiii]  Ethics, on the other hand, is the most concrete because it deals entirely with practical matters, with the specific actions one ought to pursue.

But what of the fact that Plato’s inquiry into the pure ideas of math always takes place in the context of an inquiry into the good?  It is evident that all of the Platonic dialogues are rooted in some concrete question of morality and virtue (including the Sophist, which Peirce refers to when raising the issue of mathematics).   More obviously, Plato’s doctrine of the ideas, which always hinges upon the purity of mathematics and the desire to bring the principle of all numbers – the one – into view, is always directed to the unity of the good.  His metaphor of the sun found in the Republic is perhaps the greatest example of this ubiquitous theme in Platonic writing.  In referring to Plato’s relationship with math, is Peirce merely correcting a gross error on Plato’s behalf?  Certainly, many of his comments in the first chapter seem to point in this direction. 

Or perhaps the issue is not so simple.  Clearly Peirce understood the implication of Plato’s doctrine of the Ideas and its relation to the good, for Peirce himself also makes reference to this aspect of Plato’s philosophy, with the cryptic claim:

Only having committed the error of making the value and motive to philosophy   consist mainly in its moral influence, he surprises his reader by balancing this             error by the opposite one of making the whole end and aim of human life to             consist in making the acquaintance of pure ideas.[xiv]

This quote is crucial not only to understanding Peirce’s relation to Plato, but also his own sense of the relation between theory and practice.  At first, it seems as though Peirce is making a basic distinction between an inquiry into the true and an inquiry into the good.  However, this fails to capture Peirce’s central point.  The first error, regarding the aim of philosophy, concerns making the most concrete of inquiries – what course of action I am to take – the object of the most abstract of the ‘real’ sciences.  The latter error, regarding the aim of human life, concerns making the most abstract of inquiries – an inquiry into the universal and eternal principles of the universe – the aim of our particular and concrete existence.  In a sense then, Plato confuses the aim of practice with the aim of theory, but only because he does not take into account the mode of each inquiry – the former being concrete and the latter being abstract.  Above all, it is important to note that this confusion is no mere confusion.  Rather, the two errors counterbalance one another.  This confusion leads us to an essential truth regarding both theory and practice: “the two propositions taken together do express a correct view of the ultimate end of philosophy and of science in general.”[xv] 

Let us begin by examining the first error, concerning the aim of philosophy.  Peirce’s negative argument concerning this error is made explicit throughout the lectures.  Peirce is worried that if the aim of philosophy is to govern practice, it will become peculiarly threatened by what Plato referred to as sophistry, the moderns referred to as dogmatism, and more recently, Harry G. Frankfurt referred to as bullshit. According to Peirce, to use philosophy for practical concerns is a risky business if philosophy as a practice has yet to be fully understood: “it is precisely because of this utterly unsettled and uncertain condition of philosophy at present, that I regard any practical applications of it to Religion and Conduct as exceedingly dangerous.”[xvi]  What is the danger involved in applying philosophy as a general and abstract science to concrete situations? Essentially, Peirce is wary of the fact that reason could be manipulated and even abused if the object of its inquiry is not clarified.  Philosophy under such auspices is nothing more than a tool employed to produce predetermined results that justify a particular way of life.  

To illustrate, Peirce opens up his lectures speaking of the way the Greeks believed philosophy was to effect life.  Yet, by turning away from the concrete demands of their lives Democritus was given to hysterical laughter, Heraclitus to unstoppable weeping, and Thales fell into a ditch.  These tales call to mind Aristotle’s discussion at the end of the Nicomachean ethics, a discussion that exemplifies the problem between word and deed, theory and practice.  In it, Aristotle tells us of a character by the name of Eudoxus who believed that the ultimate good was pleasure.[xvii]  However, Eudoxus was not found convincing based on the excellence of his argument, but by virtue of his character – he was known to be a temperate man.  Yet, his deeds are not commensurate with his words, for one who understands pleasure as the ultimate good would have no need for temperance.  So, it would seem once again that Peirce is asserting a basic distinction between the true and the good – an inquiry into truth does not necessarily translate into good action. 

However, to engage in an argument for hedonism is to effectively deny one’s own position.  For, an affirmation of hedonism is always connected with a resistance to justification, since such an affirmation is also concomitant with the denial of reason as the highest good.  To give in to pleasure is to turn oneself over to the forces of nature, to the blindness of one’s drives.  Even to question what is more pleasurable, to question the preferred course of action, is to submit pleasure to the good of reason.  Only by giving justifications – giving reasons – can one affirm one path over another.  By making a choice, instead of giving oneself over to the forces of nature, one is affirming reason as a higher good.  Having to choose always entails wanting to know, namely, wanting to know what is best.  For Aristotle, this capacity to choose is what differentiates us from other living beings. 

Turning back to Peirce, we can see how Plato’s first error is consistent with the error of Eudoxus, but in a way that opens his philosophy to an even higher truth.  Eudoxus’ problem may have been that he thought his concrete choices could be justified through an abstract theory of the good.  Philosophy, then, was to be put in service of practice.  This is precisely the fear of sophistry, the fear that one engages reason not as a form of inquiry, but to justify a pre-given end.  This error is not necessarily a malicious one.  Only, it puts us in danger of missing what is truly good.  Philosophy is not the art of good argumentation, but instead defines itself in its effort to cut through the bullshit and get to the truth of what is at issue.  As Peirce astutely puts it:

Men many times fancy that they act from reason when, in point of fact, the         reasons they attribute to themselves are nothing but excuses which unconscious        instinct invents to satisfy the teasing ‘whys’ of the ego.  The extent of this self-      delusion is such as to render philosophical rationalism a farce.[xviii]

However, Peirce’s negative thesis – the fear of sophistry – is not all there is to Plato’s first error.  This is demonstrated through the problem of offering a justification for hedonism as the highest good. When confronted with a decision of vital importance we are compelled to choose in the moment.  One cannot hold off on making the decision until all the intricacies of the dilemma have been fully weighed and examined.  One needs to act based upon what is seen as best at the time, in the midst of all the peculiarity, vagueness and contingency that inevitably arises in any given situation.   While there may be some general principle or rule of thumb to which we would like to appeal, this principle can never abrogate one’s responsibility to choose in the moment and do what is believed right.  Nor could any rule ever fully account for all the contingencies of the event.  Thus, even if we were to have some general appeal rule that we could apply to the situation, it would not absolve us of the hermeneutic difficulty of applying a universal to a particular. 

However, in matters of morality, we do not have the benefit of appealing to some method or procedure that can guarantee success.  Eudoxus was found to be good not because of his ability to apply a theory to his practical situation, but because of his temperance, a sign of phronesisPhronesis is a form of knowledge that is distinct from techne due to its concrete nature.  Techne is a form of productive knowledge, but a knowledge that can be taught and acquired because of the universalizability of its content.  It is the knowledge of the shipbuilder or lyre player.  It is this general nature that allows it to be easily communicated and passed on.  Clearly, one who acquires a new skill needs experience such that they can readily apply the universality of that skill to their particular situation.  Nevertheless, this hermeneutic problem does not impact the general nature of this knowledge, the fact that one can be educated in the basic structure of the process.

Phronesis, on the other hand, is a form of knowledge that cannot simply be taught.  The reason for this is it is an utterly concrete form of knowledge.  What is good, right, and just, is always in reference to the concrete situation.  As we know, given certain realities, what is just often contravenes the law.  Furthermore, there are times when it is not possible to even find a law that applies to the situation given its novelty.  In matters of morality, what needs to be done emerges out of the situation, it is not imposed upon it by means of some general principle.  Phronesis refers to a sort of measuredness, an ability to see what is fitting under the circumstances.  Eudoxus demonstrated this knowledge through the actions of his life.  He had the wisdom to weigh what was presented to him and see what was appropriate.  Yet, as we can see from his general theory of morality, it was not based upon some abstract or general knowledge.  Rather, the good is nothing more than what emerges as best within the reality of that situation. 

By affirming the concrete nature of ethics in pointing to the error of Plato, Peirce reveals something about his own sense of morality.  His emphasis upon sentiment or instinct clarifies this point.  Peirce is not saying that we ought to give ourselves over to the blindness of our drives, for to do so would be to deny that there is any moral dilemma at all.  Instead, Peirce is pointing to the genuinely concrete nature of ethical inquiry.  What is best in my life is not what is best in yours, for I am confronted with fundamentally different choices than you.  As such, we cannot rely upon general rules or principles to direct us to what is right and just.  That is not to say that they are helpful aids in finding what to do.  Rather, they can never be the ultimate arbiter of what is found good.  Ethics is not a science that searches for abstract, universal principles to govern action.  What is right and just can only be justified in reference to the particularity and contingency of the event. There is no general form of knowledge we could be imbued with that could prepare us for such choices; therein, we have no choice but to leave matters of morality to sentiment.

But sentiment in what sense?  In banning theoretical inquiry from the realm of practice, Peirce cannot be saying that in life we are to abandon ourselves to our drives, to be bandied about by the forces of nature, much like a blade of grass bent by the wind or a helpless fish carried away by the current. On the contrary, Peirce is saying that we only leave issues of vital importance to sentiment “at the dictation of reason itself.”[xix]   Unlike techne, phronesis is a capacity we are all endowed with, though we may fail to successfully utilize it.  Whereas with certain abilities, such as literacy or carpentry where one needs to acquire the skill, there is no point at which one could claim mastery in matters of morality.  One does not specialize in phronesis.  This is because what needs to be done in matters of morality requires that we see what is the right thing to do here and now.  It requires a different sort of rationality then that found in matters of mere utility, where it is only a question of means, not of ends.  In morality both the ends and the means are at issue.

Perhaps at this point it is important to clarify that Peirce’s emphasis on sentiment and instinct is not a wholesale denial of the virtue of moral deliberation.  Peirce is quite clear on the matter.  Peirce only stresses the importance of instinct regarding matters of vital importance.  In many of our choices it is worthwhile to engage in deliberation, but we should be clear upon what form this deliberation is to take.  It is to be wholly concrete, not a turn to supervening principles.  As such, Peirce implores us to rely upon experience, a view not incommensurate with Aristotle’s sense of phronesis.  Given the concrete nature of this form of knowledge, it is a knowledge that is always tied to one’s experience of the situation.  Reasonableness is to be understood as the capacity to see what is right in the experience, and, just as importantly, to be capable of justifying one’s action.  Regarding matters of vital importance on the other hand, it simply would not be prudent to fully think matters through.  In such instances the situation demands that something be done.  Thus, it would not be prudent to fully weigh the issue, i.e., it would not be reasonable.  So even in these instances it is our reason that tells us what would be good, and one demonstrates phronesis only by answering the pressing demand in action

We have thus far demonstrated that Plato’s first error concerns how practical knowledge, insofar as it demands right action, is always tied to concrete reality – to the actual.  We have done so with a brief comparison to specialized knowledge known as techne.  Yet, it still seems as though Peirce is advocating a sharp division between issues of morality (the realm of the good), and issues of purely theoretical concern (the realm of the true).  For one, our sense of the good is always immanent to the situation.  The concrete nature of ethics makes it unfitting for the abstract nature of philosophical inquiry.  As we have seen, philosophy, like mathematics, concerns potentiality, even if it must proceed from actual being.  Are we not to find his lectures on logic, as dealing with potential being, wholly separate from a moral education?  Moreover, does not the concrete nature of ethics, insofar as it abjures general principles, seem to make it a science of detached ideas, a science that fails to establish continuity?  Finally, isn’t Peirce actually denying the possibility of a moral education given its radically concrete nature – a nature that does not offer itself up to basic procedures or a general methodology? 

Before making this claim let us examine the second error of Plato.  This is an error concerning the proper end of life as making the acquaintance of pure ideas.  His critique of ethics as a general science already speaks to this issue.  The life that I must live is not some generalizable fact.  It is mine and mine alone.  Only I can choose the course of this life, for only I am called to respond to these particular events.  Therein, Peirce states that, “undoubtedly each person ought to select some definite duty that clearly lies before him and is well within his power as the special task of his life.”[xx]  It is the end of practice to inquire into the end of life – an inquiry that is wholly concrete because it necessarily results in action.  The end of life, then, is not something that can be known in some general fashion such as we find in techne.  As convincing as Dr. Phil and Oprah are, there is no 12 step program to a flourishing life.

We are then left with a question concerning the proper end of philosophy as the most abstract of the real sciences.  Clearly, as has already been demonstrated, philosophy concerns itself with potentiality, and therefore it is an examination of continuity.  As we have seen, this is not an inquiry into a Platonic heaven, a transcendent reality that supervenes over our own.  We should not understand metaphysics as the study of that which stands above the physical; instead, it is an extension of the study of nature, looking through actuality toward the potentiality out of which it emerged. 

Philosophy takes as its end of inquiry the true universal, just as in math we seek out its pure ideas.  However, this inquiry is much more problematic than in math, for philosophy searches out universals by looking to experience, to the actual.  As we saw in the discussion of math, potentiality concerns pure hypotheses and the resultant pure relations.  Philosophy, on the other hand, deals with a mixture of potentiality and actuality, examining the eternal development of the universe.  The continuity out of which the universe evolves is not transitory, but is instead eternal, it is the very essence of the universe.  However, this continuity is “utter vagueness,” while actuality is the determination of this “completely undetermined and dimensionless potentiality.”[xxi]  What brings it into determinacy is difference, as in Peirce’s celebrated example of the mark on the chalkboard.  Yet, this difference is held within the potentiality of the continuum – the chalkboard has the capacity to endure or bear the drawing of a line.  With this line now drawn, the chalkboard has now opened itself up to more concrete relations, such as perpendicular line, or an encircling line, or a parallel line.  Similarly, the universe takes on greater and greater complexity, perpetually differentiating itself, increasing its relations in the process of realizing certain potentialities.[xxii]  To say that there is a logic to the unfolding of the universe is not to imply the universe is known deductively from a single principle, for the one eternal truth of the universe is the process of growth and the movement toward the realization of greater order and complexity.  To understand the universe is to examine its arche (origin) itself as unfolding, which requires that we look past the actual toward the continuity out of which it has emerged.  We do this by seeking that potential realized by what has come to be, and seeing that these actualizations lead to new and richer possibilities.

Philosophy, then, seeks what is most abstract concerning the actual – those universal laws that govern its relations.  The universe proceeds from the vague to the determinate.  Think of a painter creating an image.  She begins with utter indeterminacy – a blank canvas – that can bear any number of relations.  Thus, there is a radical degree of potentiality harbored within the canvass.  As she proceeds, even if there is a vague idea of underlying what is to be depicted, only certain possibilities become realized – a dab of red here, a shade there.  Specific relations emerge, and a form begins to assert itself.  The painting thus becomes determinate, gathers a sense and articulates a meaning.  However, its determinate meaning only comes to be out of the original vagueness, it is not something that was held in view prior to its construction.  Similarly, the universe comes into existence, enriching its meaning through the realization of certain potentialities over and against others.  The ideas articulated by the universe do not stand alone, independent from all others.  There is no pure form of the good, the true, or the beautiful.  Instead, they participate in one another, are co-dependent, and are understood only in relation.  The ideas “spring up in reaction upon one another, and thus into a kind of existence.”[xxiii] 

This eternal movement of the universe, a movement that does not allow itself to be known only in reference to a separate, transcendent truth, grants philosophical knowledge a peculiar character.  For one, it is unlike ethical knowledge, for it strives toward a knowledge of general laws that govern what is.  As such, it is a knowledge that concerns the logic of the universe, those basic principles of the universe that regulates its inherent relations.  Plato may not have been ignorant of this insight according to Peirce, stating, “Plato himself had come to see, if not that the Eternal Essences are continuous, at least, that there is an order of affinity among them, such as there is among Numbers.”[xxiv]  The ideas are not singular, independent entities that are understood as something fully ‘in-itself.’  The ideas are co-determined, they participate in one another, and delimit one another.  The purity of an idea is something we attain only through dihairesis (division, differentiation).  Hence, the importance of Peirce’s semiotic, where meaning is never a simple one-to-one reference, but instead the endless movement across difference. 

This brings us back to the discussion of math.  For the ancients, particularly for Plato, one was not a number.  Rather, it was the principle of all numbers.  It is the unity toward which all mathematical relations strive.  Similarly, the ideas could be understood not as independent entities, but as the unity of a manifold.  This is seen most clearly through the idea of the good, where the unity that constitutes the idea of the good is the structure of goodness – the right mixture.  The structure of the good refers to the right measure, what is fitting for a thing.  As such, the good is also the beautiful.  The cosmos strives toward a unity, but it is a unity that is at the same time a manifold.  It endeavors to attain a higher and higher order.  Order requires relations, and to have relations one requires difference.  Thus, firstness is not enough to provide order.  Firstness requires secondness such that it can become the unity that it is, allowing it to take on a definite character.  Still, sheer difference is not order, for it is an absolute severance.  It is only through thirdness, through the principle that governs the relation that we come to achieve order.  What is sought by the cosmos when it strives toward order is not a movement back toward some original governing principle.  What it seeks is richer and richer harmony.  The pure tones are determinate insofar as they are differentiated from one another.  However, they only realize their potential, truly become what they are, when they are put in harmony with one another.  This is what actuality strives for insofar as it is the realization of a certain potential.  Through the relations we find in actuality we can come to know the unity present in the ideas:

As to detached ideas, they are of value only so far as directly or indirectly, they can be made conducive to the development of systems of ideas.  There is no such        thing as an absolutely detached idea.  It would be no idea at all.  For an idea is          itself a continuous system.[xxv]

The aim of philosophy, then, is to seek out this harmony, to seek the universal governing principles of the universe.  As such, it is the most abstract of the ‘real’ sciences.  So what, if anything, does this have to do with ethics, let alone a moral education?  For one, the evolution of the universe strives for harmony.  Similarly, in our concrete existence we too aim at a sort of order, insofar as action aims at what is fitting to the situation, a form of measuredness.  When we seek out what is fitting in our life we are not left to some arbitrary process.  Nor is it ever simply a question of utility, an effort to make one’s way out of a situation.  We rely upon sentiment and instinct because as beings of nature we too seek continuity.  Our ultimate aim is the harmony found in continuity.  As Peirce said, “Generalization, the spilling out of continuous systems, in thought, in sentiment, in deed, is the true end of life.”[xxvi]  Only, the way in which we aim at harmony is not by giving oneself over to our drives.  We choose, or better, we create our path, and, above all, we do so with an eye to what is right, just, and good. 

The good that we aim at in our concrete existence is the unity we find in continuity.  It is that unity that brings together our different relations and bestows upon them what is right and proper.  Only, we cannot simply be taught how to attain a harmonious existence.  The harmony of my life is not identical with the harmony of yours.  Nor do I simply fall into it, as other beings that are carried along by the forces of nature.  The story of Eudoxus illuminates this distinction, for in choosing and creating a path we are affirming reason as the source of what is good.  There is something akin to rationality in the self-movement of nature, for as Peirce tells us, nature syllogizes and is a source of retroduction.  Nature itself unfolds according to a logic of events.  This logic is much more apparent within human existence.  Insofar as Continuity emerges only as a process, it requires deliberate guidance.  As Peirce says, “Even in this transitory life, the only value of all the arbitrary arrangements which mark actuality … is to be shaped into a continuous delineation under the creative hand”.[xxvii]  The concrete reality of my existence demands that I work to become a part of a higher unity.   It is something that can only be found through the concrete realization of potential. 

Thus, Plato was incorrect in claiming that the end of life is to be found in philosophy, for philosophy is the mere study of continuity.  The true goal of life is to be found in the realization of continuity.  Nor can philosophy tell us how this is to be done, for it is a task that is utterly concrete, that demands a particular response and creative originality in each and every life.  However, Plato’s notion of the relation between philosophy and the conduct of life does turn us toward the true end of science.  It is not that we are to be educated in science, but that we are to be educated by science, and such an education is what impacts our moral being.

What Peirce’s lectures on logic offer us is training in reasoning.  Through philosophy we acquire good habits, habits that cultivate a tendency toward establishing continuity.  It works to affirm the moral imperative that constitutes the first rule of logic: Do not block the way of inquiry.  By blocking inquiry one stagnates development, putting an end to evolution and growth.  We must not overlook the unity of reason that is presented in this text, particularly the ubiquitous nature of abduction.  This insight could be seen as the progenitor of what many contemporary philosophers refer to as the moral imagination, for abduction is that essential imaginative moment found in all forms of reasoning and understanding.[xxviii]  In all forms of inquiry one must offer up a hypothesis.  This is the imaginative and creative impulse of reason, the desire to bind the old with t he new.  It is what grants us the capacity to establish continuity by establishing new relations.  No truth is to be found in pure deduction, and no truth can ever be taken as indubitable.  For, understanding is the perpetual task of connecting ideas by placing them within a greater system of relations.  One never simply and fully understands.  Rather, one is always coming to an understanding through the interplay of semiotic.  Abduction is that form of reason that perpetuates growth insofar as it instantiates new possibilities and grants us greater potential.

This notion of effectuating continuity is not a fanciful notion, something that fails to get at our actual relations and doings with other beings.  Peirce makes this point quite vividly:

Endeavors to effectuate continuity have been the great task of the Nineteenth     Century.  To bind together ideas, to bind together facts, to bind together       knowledge, to bind together sentiment, to bind together the purposes of men, to             bind together industry, to bind together great works, to bind together power, to             bind together nations into great natural, living, and enduring systems was the          business that lay before our great grandfathers to commence and which we now see just about to pass into a second and more advanced stage of achievement.  Such a work will not be aided by regarding continuity as an unreal figment, it       cannot but be helped by regarding it as the really possible eternal order of things to which we are trying to make our arbitrariness conform.[xxix]

In the political realm we strive to attain solidarity.  However, this form of continuity is not such that it is to be established under a univocal system or single driving idea.  Rather, we seek out diverse relations that lead to a rich and abundant harmony.  Our community seeks to grow, not through the coercion and dominance of a single principle, but through an increase of relations that enriches the lives of each and every citizen.  Peirce was a pluralist through and through.

            How we establish such continuity is not open to some general process – there is no techne that can teach us how to build a good state.  No policy is perfect, no institution is complete.  Each needs to be responsive to the needs of the day.  Thus, we need to be open to new ideas, ideas that create common projects, powerful solidarities, and broad understanding.  We cannot be taught how to develop a just community, but we can develop habits that are conducive to such an enterprise.

            Peirce believed that training in reasoning would establish such habits.  It prepares us for the endless path of inquiry through a logic of relatives that points to the ever-present aspect of abduction.  Furthermore, the study of philosophy gives us a sense of what we are striving after, a sense of a harmonious order established through continuity.  The harmony that emerges out of continuity constitutes the good.  Thus, the good is both what is most general (the abstract structure of continuity) and what is most concrete (the actual play of relations).  It was the impossibility of simply communicating knowledge of phronesis, and the essential need of theory to be as pure from limited, practical interests that forced Aristotle to instantiate the distinction between the theoretical and practical sciences. As such, Peirce is quite correct in claiming, “I stand before you an Aristotelian and scientific man, condemning with the whole strength of conviction the Hellenic tendency to mingle Philosophy and Practice.”[xxx]  The mode of inquiry for each is radically different, neither of which constitutes a specialized body of knowledge.  One is exceedingly abstract, and the other is utterly concrete.  Yet, questions of this most concrete of sciences are ever-present – they are eternal questions.  To pursue them is to direct us to the eternal harmony that governs the movement of the universe.  In seeing this divine order we are driven to realize it in our own being.  It is with this hope that Peirce sees the necessity of philosophy to the development of a good and just soul:

            The soul’s deeper parts can only be reached through its surface.  In this way the            eternal forms, that mathematics and philosophy and the other sciences make us      acquainted with will by slow percolation gradually reach the very core of one’s         being, and will come to influence our lives; and this they will do, no because they            involve truths of merely vital importance, but because they are ideal and eternal verities.[xxxi]


[i] Studies-in-Philosophy-and-Education. Jl 2005; 24(3-4).

[ii] Again, this recent special issue in Studies in Philosophy and Education has constituted a great step in the advance of Peircian scholarship and issues of human practice.  But there has been other work, most of it recent, surrounding Peirce’s political bent. Peirce has been used extensively by philosophers as diverse as Drucilla Cornell for work in legal hermeneutics, to feminists such as Mary Magada-Ward to the democratic theory of Jurgen Habermas.  Yet, with the possible exception of Habermas, most read Peirce as not directly addressing these political issues, but instead offering insights that are readily translated into such topics.  As for recent work that has directly engaged Peirce’s own political thinking, Douglas Anderson’s treatment of Peirce in “A Political Dimension of Fixing Belief” in The Rule of Reason, University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 1997, and Roger Ward’s “Peirce and Politics” in Philosophy and Social Criticism, 27 (3), 67-90 are among the best. Ward’s treatment wonderfully outlines the political dimension of the 1903 Cambridge lectures, but he is somewhat misguided in referring to them as a political treatise.  They are thoroughly political, but only through the essential relation Peirce holds between ethics and politics.  These lectures are unabashedly lectures on ethics (we should take Peirce at his word when he introduces the lectures as an inquiry into ethics in lecture one), yet as I shall argue, Peirce not only borrows his philosophical divisions from Aristotle, but also the interdependency of these areas of study.  Thus, the 1903 lectures on pragmatism while on ethics open up onto a discourse on politics.  Closer to a political treatise are the 1898 Cambridge lectures which open up a discourse onto ethics.  However, what these analyses all seem to miss is Peirce’s understanding of the relation between theory and practice that imbues all his work with a dimension of the political.  That is, they miss the fact that Peirce is a political philosopher.

[iii] Charles Peirce. Reasoning and the Logic of Things, ed. Kenneth Ketner. Harvard Univeristy Press: Cambridge, 1992, pp. 108.

[iv] Re: Ibid, pp. 28.

[v] Ibid, pp. 108.

[vi] Ibid, pp. 16.

[vii] Ibid, pp. 162.

[viii] Ibid, pp. 163.

[ix] Ibid, pp. 161.

[x] Ibid, pp. 115.

[xi] Ibid, pp. 247.

[xii] Ibid, pp. 114.

[xiii] Ibid, pp. 116.

[xiv] Ibid, pp. 119.

[xv] Ibid, pp. 119.

[xvi] Ibid, pp. 108.

[xvii] Re: Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics 1172b (9-25).

[xviii] RTLT, pp. 111.

[xix] Ibid, pp. 112.

[xx] Ibid, pp. 119.

[xxi] Ibid, pp. 258.

[xxii] Re: Ibid, pp. 258.

[xxiii] Ibid, pp. 259.

[xxiv] Ibid, pp. 115.

[xxv] Ibid, pp. 163.

[xxvi] Ibid, pp. 163.

[xxvii] Ibid, pp. 163.

[xxviii] This notion is extremely popular among Dewey scholars, and it is no coincidence that one could find its roots here in Peirce.  In fact, when one reads Peirce’s idea of education as a response to the contemporary notion that divides up ideas into simple generalizable realms of knowledge, one can see a kinship with Dewey’s emphasis on experience in education.  This comes out most strongly in Peirce’s fourth lecture: “The First Rule of Logic” where Peirce chastises the rigid and segmented form of education found in the contemporary university.  The problem for Peirce is that such a form of education stagnates inquiry, rather than cultivating it.  Such an education promotes bad habits, for it stultifies the creative capacity of the pupil to effectuate new continuities.  Genuine learning emerges out of one’s participation in what comes into view, as opposed to being a mere spectator to accepted truths.  For treatment on the moral imagination see: Alexander, T., John Dewey and the Moral Imagination. Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 1993. 29(3): p. 369-400; Fesmire, S., John Dewey and moral imagination : pragmatism in ethics. 2003, Bloomington: Indiana University Press; Garrison, J., Dewey and Eros. 1997, New York: Teachers College Press; Johnson, M., Moral imagination : implications of cognitive science for ethics. 1993, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[xxix] Ibid, pp. 163.

[xxx] Ibid, pp. 107.

[xxxi] Ibid, pp. 122.