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The Pride and Sorrow of American Philosophy

Nov 11, 2008, 6:59 PM 6
Once again, the Bishop Berkeley, a friend to all and  an occasional associate of mine, sent me a quite facinating piece on an amazing contemporary of the great Paul Morphy.

The letter went as follow [I've included some photos at no extra charge]:

. . .Should you wish to, please feel free to share it with anyone who might be interested, especially with anyone who might appreciate the Chess connection....

He was born in 1839.  He invented the word "Pragmatism" and the philosophy that bears that name.  (The word itself has become part of the popular vocabulary.)  He was a friend of the man who would become America's premier Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, of philosopher and psychology pioneer William James, of his (James') brother, novelist Henry James, and of many other intellectuals in their circle (including the famed "Metaphysical Club" at Harvard).  His influence on western thought has been vast -- his ideas are reflected to one degree or another in the writings of William James, John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the "Vienna Circle".  [From Wikipedia]: Bertrand Russell opined, "Beyond doubt [...] he was one of the most original minds of the later nineteenth century, and certainly the greatest American thinker ever...."  [Alfred North] Whitehead, while reading some of [his] unpublished manuscripts soon after arriving at Harvard in 1924, was struck by how [he] had anticipated his own "process" thinking.... [Sir] Karl Popper viewed [him] as "one of the greatest philosophers of all times".  The range of his intellectual work was enormous: logic, mathematics, philosophy, semiotics, epistemology, metaphysics, the philosophy of science, etc.

And yet, he died in poverty and obscurity in Milford, Pennsylvania in 1914.  In one of his last letters he lamented, "I came within an ace of teaching men something to their profit.  But certain misfortunes have prevented my keeping up to the times...."  (As late as 1907, a student of William James had discovered him "ill, and near death from malnourishment, in a Cambridge rooming house." (Louis Menand, "The Metaphysical Club", p. 435))

We might easily regard him as "the pride and sorrow of American philosophy."

What is known by very few people about him is that, at the age of 55 -- struggling with financial problems as he had throughout much of his adult life -- he made an unsuccessful attempt to become a Chess columnist!  And we actually possess some of his writings on Chess (though again, they are known to very few.)  I have just placed some of them online (more about that below).

He is, of course, Charles Sanders Peirce.  (His last name is pronounced "purse," like a ladies handbag.)  Among the "demons" (to society's thinking) that troubled him throughout his life was his love of certain women of whom "polite" society did not approve -- this facilitated by his own rakish good looks (e.g.
and ) and his less-than-fully-developed monogamy.

You may read more about him at these sites:
                                                                 Site #1 
Site #2         
                                                                 Site #3        
                                                    [or here: Site #4 ]

Almost nothing has been written about the connection C. S. Peirce had to Chess, and yet his love of the game was considerable.

One of the living authorities on the writings and thought of Peirce is Professor Richard S. Robin (retired) of Mount Holyoke College.  Professor Robin himself is quite a Chess enthusiast, and as one of the primary organizers of Peirce's papers, he was keenly aware of the Chess content of Peirce's writings.  (Professor Robin was also educated at Harvard (like Peirce).)

I have placed a copy of Professor Robin's article, "Metaphysical Reflections on Peirce on Chess" online.  It is quite thought-provoking.  I'm not sure how accurate the historical material on Paul Morphy is, but the direct content on Peirce is well worth reading.  (Professor Robin had conferred with former U.S. Chess Champion Patrick Wolff who offered his opinion that, based on his writings, C. S. Peirce was playing at about (USCF) "Expert" strength.)

As chance would have it, I happen to work with Professor Robin's son, who is a brilliant physicist and (at least in my estimation) a very fine person.  Through him, I have had the good fortune of chatting with Professor Robin on two occasions.  Now in his 80s, his enthusiasm for philosophy and Chess remains colossal!!

Click here to read Professor Robin's wonderful, "Metaphysical Reflections on Peirce on Chess"

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