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.