Peirce, Reid and Kant

Posted on October 1, 2014 by

It is known that C.S. Peirce had a Kantian bent. By his own description he had “devoted two hours a day to the study of Kant’s Critic of the Pure Reason for more than three years, until [he] almost knew the whole book by heart, and had critically examined every section of it.” However, in Peirce’s later work it appears as though the Kantian influence has diminished while, despite his early dismissal of Scottish Common-sensism, a distinct Reidian influence has emerged. It is possible to find the roots of this influence very early on. In this post I suggest that Peirce’s early infatuation with Kant might have kept him from realizing this otherwise Reidian inclination.

Peirce’s early writings are replete with reference to Kant. In the first volume of the chronological collection of his writings Kant has by far the largest index entry. Peirce devotes a whole lecture of his first lecture series to Kant (which is also the very first appearance of Reid in his writing). Further, in what are now recognized as his first major works (“Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man” and “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities”, 1868) he draws the core of his argument explicitly from Kantian principles. However it is also in these writings that he puts forward a metaphor for inquiry that stays with his work through to the end:

  •  “Philosophy ought to imitate the successful sciences in its methods, so far as to proceed only from tangible premises which can be subjected to careful scrutiny, and to trust rather to the multitude and variety of its arguments than to the conclusiveness of any one. Its reasoning should not form a chain which is no stronger than its weakest link, but a cable whose fibers may be ever so slender, provided they are sufficiently numerous and intimately connected.” (Some Consequences of Four Incapacities, 1868)

This passage will rouse the Reidian, who will be reminded immediately of the following passages from Reid’s Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man:

  •  “In every chain of [demonstrative] reasoning, the evidence of the last conclusion can be no greater than that of the weakest link of the chain, whatever may be the strength of the rest.” (EIP 544)


  • “Such evidence [that makes up probable reasoning, the only sort we can apply to contingent truths] may be compared to a rope made up of many slender filaments twisted together. The rope has strength more than sufficient to bear the stress laid upon it, though no one of the filaments of which it is composed would be sufficient for that purpose.”  (EIP 556)

The resemblance here is striking, and with a little digging is found to be more than coincidental. Peirce quotes the second passage two years before Four Incapacities (in the same lecture series that contained the Lecture on Kant).

Though this may suggest an early familiarity with Reid, it is harder to find admiration. In the ‘cable’ passage above Peirce does not cite Reid, and brings the example forth rather as a ‘return to the schoolasticism’ (Some Consequences of Four Incapacities, 1868).

This may come as surprising! Looking into even the early Peirce we find several similarities with Reid (not to mention similarities between Reid and Kant, which Peirce ought to have found appealing (exemplified, for example, in “A Commonsense Kant?”, Karl Ameriks; “How is Nature Possible”, Daniel N. Robinson; “Reid Kant and the Philosophy of Mind”, Etienne Burn-Rovet)).

Why, then, might we find the early Peirce saying:

  •  “I hold the Doctrine of Common Sense to be well fitted to Reid’s philosophical caliber and about as effective against any of the honored systems of philosophy as a potato-pop-gun’s contents might be against Gibraltar.” (On The Doctrine of Immediate Perception, 1864, W1, 153; this mention of Reid is missed by the index but helpfully pointed out by Susan Haack (How the Critical Common Sensist Sees Things, 1994))

There are many potential reasons, but it is worth noting that this paper’s criticism of Common-sensism is based on Kant’s! There is a literature surrounding Kant’s misunderstanding of Reid and the Common Sensists (“Kant’s Quarrel with Reid: The Role of Metaphysics”, R.E. Beanblossom offers a nice summary), a misunderstanding that has perhaps infiltrated Peirce’s thought as well.

Further, we tend to notice Peirce’s acceptance of Reid correlates with his release of Kant. In the same year he writes his major paper on Critical Common-sensism we find Peirce saying “my father, who was an eminent mathematician, pointed out to me lacunæ in Kant’s reasoning which I should probably not otherwise have discovered… [which brought him to regard facets of Kant’s work as] most hasty, superficial, trivial, and even trifling,”

As a final, minor point: One might say that Peirce’s passion for approaching philosophy scientifically ought to bolster his support of Reid. Both Kant and Reid were scientific men, to be sure. But while Kant tried to secure Newton’s approach Reid made use of it. For example, Kant’s theory of perception reads as part of a metaphysical treatise in which we find it, while Reid’s theory of perception deserves mention in the history of optics. Peirce put weight on approaching philosophical problems as a man of science. Why didn’t he recognize this approach in Reid?

To finish: given this brief sketch, we might support Susan Haack’s conjecture: “that the influence of Kant and Reid on Peirce may have shifted over time, with Kant’s influence gradually lessening and Reid’s increasing”(See above citation). I would further conjecture that the influence of Kant over the earlier Peirce included his flawed criticism of the Common-sensists and blinded Peirce not only to what he would have, and later did value in Reid, but also to the numerous Reidian themes in many of Kant’s arguments. Finally, (and perhaps for these reasons) it may be the case that the loosening of Kant’s grip on Peirce allowed him to recognize the already evident Reidian themes in his work.