World Report

Notes on the Charles S. Peirce Society: The Concrete Realization of a Peircean Ideal[1]

By Vincent Colapietro

The community of scholars who are committed to the study of Peirce owe to Frederic H. Young, the founder of the Charles S. Peirce Society,[2] a deep debt, for his efforts in transforming an informal, inchoate assemblage of individuals into a formal, identifiable community of scholars. Not only is human inquiry a communal activity, but human communities are quite often, at certain points in their maturation, aided by assuming institutional form. Peirce was no less aware than William James of what the latter once observed: “when a living want of mankind has got itself officially protected and organized in an institution, one of the things the institution most surely tends to do is to stand in the way of the natural gratification of the want itself.”[3] But far more than James, Peirce was sensitive to the value of traditions and institutions, himself observing:

Descartes marks the period when Philosophy put off childish things and began to be a conceited young man. By the time the young man has grown to be an old man, he will have learned that traditions are precious treasures, while iconoclastic inventions always cheap and often nasty. … The childishness [regarding traditions] only comes in when tradition, instead of being respected, is treated as something infallible before which the reason of man is to prostrate itself… (Collected Papers, 4.71)

The community of inquirers, at least as envisioned by Peirce, cannot be merely contemporaneous: it must be intergenerational. That is, it must be nothing less than a tradition (from the Latin traditio, to hand on), a community spanning generations wherein the accomplishments of predecessors are taken up and carried forward by successors. Such an intergenerational community might even benefit from becoming embodied formally in an institution. In any event, this has been the case, beginning in 1946, with many of those who have devoted themselves to the investigation of Peirce’s voluminous writings and intricate thought. To adapt Josiah Royce’s distinction to our purpose, a community such as this is at once a community of memory and one of hope.[4] Our hopes are sustained and intensified by our recollection of those who have aided us so greatly in our own endeavors, just as our memories are focused and enlivened by our hope to be worthy of our inheritance. It is appropriate in this forum to recollect a fragment of a history, in the hope of carrying forward the task of those from whom we have so greatly benefited – that fragment being the story of the Peirce Society.

It is reasonable to conjecture that the momentum generated by the publication of the first six volumes of the Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1931-1935) was partly responsible for the founding of the Charles S. Peirce Society in 1946, just as it is plausible to surmise that the gap between the publication of volume VI of the Collected Papers and the inauguration of this organization was due in some measure to external events (most obviously, the occurrences leading up to, then the outbreak of World War II). A gap virtually twice as large stretched between the formal founding of the Peirce Society and the inaugural issue of the Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society in 1965. The inauguration of this journal was largely due to the administrative ability of Edward C. Moore, who at the time was Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Massachusetts, and the intellectual vision of Moore, Richard Robin, and Edward Madden.[5] Madden served briefly as editor of the Transactions, then Robin assumed this role in 1971. Peter Hare joined Robin as co-editor two years later. These remarkably talented and humane editors formed a dynamic duo until Robin stepped down as co-editor several years ago.[6] At this point, Randall R. Dipert joined Hare as co-editor of the Transactions.[7] At first, this journal was a semi-annual publication. In 1968, however, three issues per yearly volume were brought out and the scope of the journal was itself altered, a fact signaled in a newly attached subtitle: A Journal in American Philosophy. At least implicitly in accord with Peircean principles, the thought of Peirce was to be investigated in the broader context of American culture. But, from its very beginning in 1968, there was never anything insular about the Transactions. An indication of this is that in one of its earliest issues we find an article by a Russian scholar.[8] However deeply divided was the geopolitical world at this time, the intellectual world (at least the small community of Peirce scholars) was not split into two intractably polarized spheres. The Transactions was modified yet again in 1968 by becoming a quarterly (a change clearly registered in its slightly altered subtitle: no longer A Journal, but A Quarterly in American Philosophy). In 2005, Indiana University Press assumed responsibility for the publication of the Transactions; it is also the publisher of the chronological edition of the Writings of Charles S. Pierce as well as The Essential Peirce (two volumes).

If one looks at the earliest issues of the Transactions, one sees its future foreshadowed. For example, the inaugural issue (Spring 1965) contained two articles, Victor F. Lenzen’s “Reminiscences of a Mission to Milford, Pennsylvania” (a memoir of the author’s trip to Arisbe to acquire Peirce’s manuscripts and library from Juliette Peirce) and Murray Murphey’s “On Peirce’s Metaphysics” (a still illuminating account of the centrality of Peirce’s categories to his metaphysics and more generally his philosophy). In the second issue of volume 1, more than twice this number of articles were published, with two of them on explicitly semiotic topics (“Thomas A. Goudge’s “Peirce’s Index”[9] and Richard M. Martin’s “On Peirce’s Icons of Second Intention”). Hence, the Transactions has been, and still is, a forum for historical and systematic work as well as explorations of Peirce’s theory of signs and the broader context within which he himself invariably located semeiotic.

The Society has met annually in conjunction with what is now the Eastern Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association for the purpose of reading and discussing scholarly papers.[10] At these meetings, several papers are presented. In addition, the Transactions for more than four decades has provided an indispensable forum where cutting-edge research on Peirce and other figures in American thought is made available to the scholarly community. At the website for the Transactions maintained by Indiana University Press one can obtain a Table of Contents for every issue from volume 1 in 1965 to the most recently published number of this journal. In 1984, the Society established a Peirce Essay Contest in order to encourage young scholars to devote themselves to the study of Peirce. Winners present a version of their essay at the annual meeting of the Society and then the Transactions publishes this piece. In 1998, the publication of Jaako Hintikka’s presidential address to the Peirce Society ( Transactions, XXXIV, 3: 503-33) inaugurated another important tradition. Parallel to, and intersecting with, the traditional form of this scholarly society there is a vibrant virtual community of Peirce scholars. It is Peirce-L, an on-line forum for the discussion of the philosophy of Peirce. As identified more fully on its website, it is “a public forum, established by Joseph Ransdell in August 1993, sponsored by the Department of Philosophy at Texas Tech University, open to the discussion of all topics pertaining to the life and work of the American philosopher, scientist, and humanist Charles Sanders Peirce, with a central focus maintained on his philosophical work in particular” (

Countless names also deserve to be mentioned for their contribution to the Society, above all, Max H. Fisch, Carolyn Eisele, John E. Smith, Christian Kloesel, Joseph Ransdell, T. L. Short, Sandra Rosenthal, Susan Haack, Nathan Houser, Kenneth Laine Ketner, André De Tienne, Mark Migotti, and Robert Lane, along with those already noted (Moore, Madden, Hare, and Robin). Any partial list hazards slighting the significant contributions of unnamed individuals, for which I apologize in advance.

As noted at the outset, the founder of the Society was Frederic H. Young, a co-editor of one of the most important early collections of essays on Peirce – Studies in the Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952). Its first president was Paul Weiss, of course the co-editor of the Collected Papers. Charles Hartshorne, the other co-editor of CP, was the third president and ahead of its – Isabel Stearns (1952-53) – was the fourth. The truly international character of the Peirce Society is evident not least of all in the nationalities of those who have served as presidents of this organization, Klaus Oehler (1982) and Karl-Otto Apel (2000) of Germany, Christopher Hookway (1995) of England, Umberto Eco (2001) of Italy, Gerard Deledalle (2002) of France, Lucia Santaella (2007) of Brazil, and Jaime Nubiola (2008) of Spain.

Even if the community of inquirers is, in actuality, never much more than a motley assortment of companionable antagonists, this particular cluster of talented, committed scholars has done a great deal to promote the disciplined study of a thinker who is an undeniable yet still elusive genius. Even such a cursory survey of the brief history of this scholarly society should make evident how admirably some of the very best Peirce scholars have carried out the “mission” of the Society as originally envisioned by Young and re-affirmed at several junctures in the slightly amended constitution of this organization: “The purpose of the Charles S. Peirce Society shall be to encourage study of and communication about the work of Charles S. Peirce and its ongoing influence in the many fields of intellectual endeavor to which he contributed.” In the ongoing fulfillment of this purpose, this Society has proven itself to be nothing less than the realization of a Peircean ideal – an ever expansive community of critical inquirers.


[1] In revising this piece, I have been aided immensely by suggestions and corrections of Peter H. Hare, Christina Ljungberg, Mark Migotti and Nathan Houser.

[2] For a detailed account of the founding of the Peirce Society and Young’s role in this, see Peter H. Hare’s “In Memoriam: Harold Frederic Young (1905-2003) and the Founding of the Peirce Society” in the Transactions, XL, 3: 393-415. Hare points out here that “Young sometimes hesitated to give himself that title,” characterizing himself rather as “Founding Member” or “Co-Founder” (pp. 414-415, note 6). Young was an ordained minister as well as an academic philosopher. While it might seem ironic that such an individual was so instrumental to founding a society honoring a philosopher who disparaged “seminary-trained philosophers,” this appearance is dispelled if we note how sharply Young focuses on the scientific character of Peirce’s philosophical project (see Hare, 2002: 397-99) and also how unashamedly Peirce conceived his scientific philosophy to encompass the central insights of traditional religion.

[3] “Human Immortality” in The Will to Believe & Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (NY: Dover Publications, 1956), p. 1.

[4] See, e.g., The Problem of Christianity, volume II, 50ff.

[5] Hare, “In Memoriam” (2002: 4).

[6] This transition was formally marked by a special double issue of the Transactions, XXXVIII, 1/2 containing “Essays in Honor of Richard S. Robin.”

[7] For this part of the story, see Peter H. Hare’s “Richard S. Robin: Present at the Creation” in the Transactions, XXXVIII,1/2: 1-6; also, Edward C. Moore’s and Arthur W. Burks’ “Three Notes on the Editing of the Works of Charles S. Peirce” in the Transactions, XXXVIII, 1: 83-106.

[8] Yuri K. Melvil (University of Moscow), “The Conflict of Science and Religion in Charles Peirce’s Philosophy” in Transactions, II, 1: 33-50. But Philip Wiener appealed to the editor (Ed Moore), Peter Hare has informed me, of being allowed to respond to Melvil’s article: his rather intemperate “A Soviet’s View of Peirce’s Pragmatism” hence appeared in the Transactions (III, 2: 3-12). Especially after Peter H. Hare became co-editor of this journal in 1974, the international scope of this publication became one of its defining features.

[9] In addition to the piece by Goudge, there is also in this issue one by David Savan (“Decision and Knowledge in Peirce”), a fact making plain the contribution of Canadian philosophers to the study of Peircean thought.

[10] For an account of the organizational meeting at Sarah Lawrence College on February 22, 1946, see Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, VI, 4, pp. 657-58; quoted in Hare’s “In Memoriam” (2004: 409-10). Given the gulf between analytic philosophers and representatives of other traditions and approaches, it is instructive to recall that, at this meeting, Sidney Hook, Philip Wiener, Arthur W. Burks, Justus Buchler, Max Black, David Savan, Roderick Chisholm, and John E. Smith (among others) were present. Such a cross-section of traditions and perspectives seems especially fitting in the case of Peirce, even if many analytic philosophers at this time and later were rather dismissive of Peirce’s contribution to philosophy (see, e.g., Burks in Transactions, XXVIII, 1: 93).