- Peirce’s Empiricism: Its Roots and Its Originality by Aaron Wilson
Peirce’s Empiricism: Its Roots and Its Originality
Lanham: Lexington Books, 2016. 343 pp., incl index.
Empiricism in philosophy is either a method or a theory. The two are separable: one might hold that all knowledge is empirical but that philosophy does something other than add to our knowledge, e.g., that it clarifies concepts; or one might hold that philosophy’s method is empirical and that one of the things known in that way is that not all knowledge is empirical, e.g., mathematics. And what is the empirical? If it is knowledge based on observation, then what is it that can be observed? If philosophy is in method empirical, the range of the observable must be broad, perhaps including mental processes, human history, social institutions such as language, and even the difference between good and evil.
In Peirce’s Empiricism, Aaron Wilson presents Peirce as an empiricist in both senses (barely distinguished) and as taking a broad view of what is observable (extensively discussed). The overarching theme of the book is essentially historical: that, for Peirce, metaphysical and normative claims are empirical, from which it follows that he owed less to Kant, for whom such claims when true are true a priori, than is often supposed, but also that he transcended the British tradition, despite its greater influence on him, in which, for the most part, empiricism was understood to cast doubt on pretences to metaphysical and normative knowledge. Wilson’s contribution is to have elaborated this theme in greater detail, both historical and systematic, than anyone hitherto has done.
Chapters 6–8 are mainly on aspects of Peirce’s philosophy qua empirical, but with many references to his predecessors; Chapters 1–5 are primarily historical, with emphasis on the British empiricist, ‘common sense’, and associational psychology traditions, but also tracing Peirce’s debts thereto. No one else has presented so extensively Peirce’s [End Page 622] relation to the whole of British philosophy, from Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, through Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and Berkeley, to David Hartley and Thomas Reid. The discussion is broad, including also Descartes and touching on Aristotle, but not shallow. So far as I can tell (I know little of Reid and Hartley), Wilson’s treatment of these figures is accurate. His project requires him to repeat much that is, among philosophers, common knowledge and much that has been established by specialists (debts inadequately acknowledged). Though unavoidable, this material could have been better digested, more concisely presented. For example, as this is not a book for beginning students, it is hardly necessary to tell the reader that Descartes’ philosophy is ‘eponymously called “Cartesianism”’ (p. 77). And there is an unconscionable amount of repetition.
The material on Peirce also of necessity repeats much that is well-known (and also leaves debts unacknowledged) and is marred by repetition; often, for example, we are told what is said in a quoted passage, both before and after the quotation, when the passage itself is pellucid, sometimes more so than are its glosses. Yet, it, too, is wide-ranging, covering major parts of Peirce’s philosophy, without being shallow, and therefore it will be of use to many readers. Wilson raises many difficult questions, some of which have been missed by others, and he is fearless in posing answers to them. Unfortunately, he evidently wrote in too much haste to consider obvious objections to his bolder assertions or to notice flaws in his arguments.
There is no room in this review to document the preceding complaints; brief mention of one example must suffice. Peirce made the external to be a subset of the real, the latter being what it is independently of what is thought about it, the former being independent of all thought; but in 1902, in a passage Wilson quotes (p. 83), Peirce said, ‘. . . mind . . . is essentially an external phenomenon’, and ‘. . . it is much more true that the thoughts of a living writer are in any printed copy of his book than they are in his brain’ (7.364). Wilson rightly asks, how can...