The Metaphysical Club, 4

Reading: Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club, Ch. 7-8

The Peirces (Benjamin, the father, and Charles, the son) perhaps come out of these chapters seeming too smart for their own good, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. For the purposes of Menand’s larger narrative about the rise of pragmatism, it seems most relevant here to try to understand Charles Peirce’s dilemma, as he tried to defend his father’s conviction that “the universe makes sense” in a post-Darwinian intellectual context where uncertainty and chance seemed to reign.

Both father and son embraced the “law of errors,” which allowed a researcher to take account of the fact that humans inevitably make mistakes when they record observations about the world. (The analogy about the target and arrows helps explain how this law works, quite nicely and without mathematical equations.) Menand will eventually show how this way of thinking played into pragmatism.

As Menand illustrates, too, the new statistical ways of thinking could lead in different directions. On the one hand, there was the idea of “social physics,” which was predicated upon the assumption that everything in the universe is determined, including human social behavior. According to this view, the universe has an underlying order that humans often can’t see directly but that can be quantified statistically. For the social physicist, freedom and chance were both illusions. On the other hand, Darwinian science seemed to embrace chance. According to Darwin’s view, the biological world, at least, lacked an underlying order beyond the basic principles of natural selection, where chance played many roles. (William James and others have seen the indeterminism of Darwin’s world as a harbinger of freedom.)

Charles Pierce had to deal with these various ways of looking at the world, as he took up the burden of defending his father’s way of thinking. These chapters don’t yet explore how Peirce made this defense, but Menand hinted at the beginning that Peirce wasn’t going to be very successful. For the present, however, it seems important to describe Benjamin Peirce’s worldview, in order to understand the intellectual problems that his son faced.

7 thoughts on “The Metaphysical Club, 4”

  1. Mathematics, along with Science, are heavily based on so called laws, or truths. However, as Darwin suggested,there is much randomness which also contributes to life, our world, and the rest of the universe. Peirce along with Agassiz may have been pioneers in their specific fields of study, however they themselves were very much flawed when it came to ideas of society, race, and human dignity. The sections discussing both Agassiz’s ice age theory, as well as Benjamin Peirce’s defense of slavery due to his beliefs on an African’s inability to think mathematically, are proof of “the law of errors,” which both Benjamin and Charles believed in.

  2. Probabilities and statistics showed some interesting correlations between humanity, science and religion and raised some concerns as well about determinism. Calvin might have said “I told you” regarding PRE-determination and Charles Pierce seems to support it with statistics. But Darwin’s theory that chance upset the apple cart simply by pointing out what some already asked: what other forces are working to form society? Can different races have just appeared by chance of natural selection?
    Mistaken observations play into the social equation and order in the universe to which transcendentalism and enlightenment movements alluded. Can we employ a pragmatic view matching uncertainty against certainty, tolerance v. intolerance, creationism v evolution and apply indifference?

  3. Charles Peirce seems like his own worst enemy in the realm of thought. He attempts to hold to opposing thoughts about the spontaneity of life and the order and sense of the universe. He agreed with his father’s “faith that the world is constructed to be known by the mind” (195), but devoted his life to proving that the world was random and orderly at the same time.
    His conclusion was that “in a universe in which events are uncertain and perception is fallible, knowing cannot be a matter of an indiviual mind ‘mirroring’ reality”(200). This coincides directly with the basis of pragmatism’s theory that no belief is justified by its correspondence with reality, because mirroring reality is not the purpose of having a mind.

  4. Charles Pierce had a fascination between science and mathematics which was influenced from his father Benjamin Peirce. Charles wanted to prove like his father that the universe and the mind are linked together. Charles believed that people could not be individualistic, but everyone had free will. Through the advancements in math, statistics, and science in the law of errors it was concluded that knowledge was social. Charles believed that this idea was his key contribution to American thought.

  5. I have to agree with Chase. I do not believe you can answer every thing with mathematics. At the time when Charles Pierce and his father had been working on this subject, any new idea was plausible. There is more to live and the creation of the Universe then mathematics can answer. The existence of life is more complex then anyone can explain.

  6. It seems so odd that two great minds such as the Pierces would work mainly on trying to find a link between math and science. While I do believe that there is somewhat of a link and while I do think that math can explain some things, I do not believe that everything can be expained by science. In high school my math teacher said that math was the easiest thing to learn and remember because unlike science, it never changed. Science is an always changing event. We are always discovering things and changing our minds and such and it seems like such a waste of the Pierces time to make a square fit into a circle.

  7. I would also agree that you can not figure out everything through mathematic’s. Because it does not always figure in the chance of random occasion’s, mostly because what we do not understand. Although it may be argued through math we may understand. Math simply does not prove everything in the universe. There is natural error in the universe and math can not figure that out itself. Much the same and human’s are not perfect, math can not figure out the perfect universe.

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