- Conversation and the Infinite Long Run
Conversation is a significant notion in the work of Charles S. Peirce: from his view of the history of philosophy as the conversations of the philosophers to his account of the sign as necessarily addressed, from his understanding of hypothesis as question to his construal of science as taking place in a community of inquiry, there are always (minimally) two voices—two sources of ideas—engaged attentively with each other and committed to discovering the consequences of their exchange. There is much disagreement, and much doubt, in such a process, and—as for Peirce’s emblematic two tramps who leave messages for each other along the road of inquiry—much building on the work of predecessors. In his own exchanges with colleagues and friends, Peirce was a fine reviewer of the work of other people, and the evidence shows that his discussions of their work—often in richly reflective letters—mattered deeply to his correspondents. Alongside these facts, we might set this other: much of his writing takes the form of series of lecture series or papers; though he wished to produce a system in the form of a philosophical treatise, it is clear that these more local modes with their invitation to immediate uptake suited him better. Through them, he had the greatest impact during his life, and, while it is standard practice now to consult the mass of manuscript writings for buried treasures, it is [End Page 689] they that show how Peirce was in constant dialogue with himself. As Manley Thompson demonstrated many years ago,1 Peirce’s habit was to explore in one series of papers or lectures a problem thrown up in the previous one. Even in silent solitary meditation, he writes, one’s thoughts are addressed to one’s self of the next instant. It is the pervasive theme of conversation along with this habit of dialogue that make not only the title, but the conception, of this book so felicitous.
It consists of twelve chapters, each the upshot of conversations between the two principal authors or between one of them with other colleagues. Divided into three parts—Conversations I on the metaphysics, Conversations II on the epistemology, and Conversations III on Peirce and religion—the book is remarkable for overcoming its multiple occasions in a cable of interwoven threads: closure vs. openness, the infinitely long run, the relations of “chance, love, and logic,” and continuity are the Peircean themes par excellence whose bearing on standard philosophical topics is continually demonstrated.
The most satisfying chapters are those examining conversations between Peirce and other philosophers—from the past (Berkeley), with his contemporaries (Josiah Royce, John Dewey, William James, and Karl Pearson), and discussions of his work by ours (Joseph Margolis and Richard Rorty). The compare-and-contrast method enables the authors to draw on their shared formidable knowledge of Peirce’s writings, illuminating the issues with an admirable combination of textual precision and transversal understanding. Two painstaking chapters by Housman, on the “dynamic object” and the beginning of interpretation, take us to the heart of the difficulties in assessing the relation between Peirce’s metaphysics and his semiotic: no reader of Peirce can avoid this matter and, while these topics have been discussed frequently, their juxtaposition with the debates regarding the history of Pragmatism is particularly revealing. The end of the book consists of an eloquent case, made by Anderson, for not bracketing out Peirce’s theism, leading to a final chapter staging a response from Peirce to fundamentalism. This is a pragmatic use of Peirce, making a pair with Anderson’s account of Peirce’s objections to Pearson’s social utilitarian views of science. Both chapters have a strongly polemical undercurrent; they are addressed firmly to the public forum, and both rest on the philosophical work done in the other chapters to demonstrate how what I call the Peircean thematic (mentioned earlier) helps to cut through the impasses of contemporary social debate. [End Page 690]
The conversations with...