IN ONE OF HIS LECTURES on pragmatism at Harvard, Peirce recounted this anecdote about himself and Chauncey Wright. When Darwin’s great book appeared in 1859, Peirce, engaged in surveying in the “wilds of Louisiana,” knew of the sensation it caused only through letters. Upon his return to Cambridge, Peirce heard that Wright was very enthusiastic about Darwin’s theory, and decided to sound him out on the subject. In the course of the conversation Peirce remarked that Darwin’s ideas must inevitably kill mechanical philosophy. Although Wright, of course, did not agree, he was perplexed enough by the statement to inquire why Peirce thought so. Peirce answered that Darwin’s theory, nourished by positive observation, must be deadly to a merely “metaphysical” opinion (5.64).
The story sums up the views Peirce was to develop over the next forty years and indicates succinctly the general intellectual climate in which he would have to air them. Wright was a devotee of Mill’s positivism and thoroughly convinced of mechanical determinism.1 Yet he was one of the staunchest defenders of evolutionism and of Darwinism in particular. Peirce contended that mechanical determinism and evolutionism are basically incompatible. Mechanical philosophy, an a priori (“metaphysical”) position, is not only unsupported by observational evidence such as Darwin’s but positively contradicted by it. Wright’s inability to see that mechanical determinism precluded the possibility of growth and development was typical of the intellectual condition of most of Peirce’s contemporaries.
The preceding section has shown Peirce’s insistence upon the reality of law and regularity in the universe and has indicated in passing that he could not admit that laws of nature were absolutely rigid. That line of thought must be pursued farther. A synechistic theory of law requires that chance be operative in the universe, for otherwise there would be no room for mind. To admit tychism is to admit growth and development as fundamental to the entire cosmos. Conversely, to hold a thoroughgoing and consistent evolutionary account of the universe, one must admit real chance.
1 See E. H. Madden, Chauncey Wright and the Foundations of Pragmatism (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1963), Ch. 1 and Ch. 4. See also P. P. Wiener, Evolution and the Founders of Pragmatism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1949), Ch. III.