CHARLES PEIRCE IS EMERGING, in the eyes of philosophers both here and abroad, as one of America’s major thinkers. He is not likely, however, to become the founder of a philosophical tradition. Father Potter is correct in seeing that, unlike that of Aristotle, Aquinas, or Kant, Peirce’s thought cannot be understood through some one principle or thesis that might be made into a “platform” for a school of thought. Although Peirce’s philosophy actually possesses a greater unity than many would admit, the peculiar language, the often cryptic style, and the nonsystematic form in which he presented many of his ideas stood in the way, and few of his contemporaries caught the main drift of his thought. Fortunately, the situation has changed. The high quality of his thought has not escaped notice; recent years have witnessed the efforts of philosophers and historical scholars alike to recover his works, to expound, to criticize, and to evaluate their import. In the end it will be discovered that Peirce accomplished something more important for the cause of philosophy than the founding of a tradition; through arresting questions and some most original answers he has forced us back to philosophical reflection about those basic issues that inevitably confront us as human beings, especially in an age of science. Peirce’s concern for experience, for what is actually encountered, means that his philosophy, even in its most technical aspects, forms a reflective commentary on actual life and on the world in which it is lived. To read Peirce is to philosophize, for to follow his arguments it is necessary for the reader himself to be wrestling with the very problems Peirce envisaged.
Father Potter’s fine study exhibits at one stroke both the originality of Peirce’s thought and the kind of serious treatment now being given to his ideas. No part of Peirce’s philosophy is bolder than his attempt to establish esthetics, ethics, and logic as the three normative sciences and, even more, to argue for the priority of esthetics among the trio. The author treats these ideas about the normative, the standards that structure and guide an activity, with clarity and good judgment, showing at the same time their connection with Peirce’s pragmatism and his realism. As Father Potter makes clear, Peirce expressed views on the same topic at different times, and he was not always consistent in these utterances. The present study, however, shows that Peirce did take seriously his trinity of normative sciences and that, at least on some occasions, he was convinced of the priority of the esthetic over the other two. Logic is said to be normative because it governs thought and aims at truth; ethics is normative because it analyzes the ends to which thought should be directed; esthetics is normative and fundamental because it considers what it means to be an end or something good in itself.
Father Potter brings to the accomplishment of his task two principal philosophical virtues; he combines sympathetic and informed exposition with straightforward criticism, and he deals in a sensible way with the gaps and inconsistencies in Peirce’s thought. The author always prefaces his critical commentary with a sustained effort to discover, by attending to all the relevant passages, exactly what Peirce was asserting on a given topic. Father Potter wisely stands with those who see in Peirce’s many writings not a mere mélange of ideas but an original and generally consistent position which can survive some, if not all, of its incoherences. His study shows that Peirce was above all a cosmological and ontological thinker, one who combined science both as method and as result with a conception of reasonable action to form a comprehensive theory of reality. Peirce’s pragmatism, although it has to do with “action” and the achievement of results, is not a glorification of action but rather a theory of the dynamic nature of things in which the “ideal” dimension of reality—laws, thoughts, tendencies, and ends—has genuine power for directing the cosmic order, including man, toward reasonable goals.
JOHN E. SMITH