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A Scientist's Voice in American CultureSimon Newcomb and the Rhetoric of Scientific Method$

Albert Moyer

Print publication date: 1992

Print ISBN-13: 9780520076891

Published to California Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520076891.001.0001

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Interactions with Wright and Peirce

Interactions with Wright and Peirce

(p.52) Chapter IV Interactions with Wright and Peirce
A Scientist's Voice in American Culture

Albert E. Moyer

University of California Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses Newcomb's interactions as a young man with Chauncey Wright and Charles Sanders Peirce. It is difficult to distinguish the influence on Newcomb of Comte, Darwin, and Mill from the influence of his colleague and friend, Chauncey Wright (1830–1875). The confusion results because Wright advocated elements from the outlooks of all three of the European thinkers. Charles Peirce once characterized Wright, for example, as being “one of the most acute of the followers of J. S. Mill.” The issue of influence is further complicated in that ideas did not always flow from the older and more experienced philosopher, Wright, to the unseasoned newcomer. Although never a match for Wright in philosophical breadth and subtlety, Newcomb contributed, at least on one occasion, to the developing ideas of the two men.

Keywords:   Simon Newcomb, Chauncey Wright, Charles Sanders Peirce

It is difficult to distinguish the influence on Newcomb of Comte, Darwin, and Mill from the influence of his colleague and friend, Chauncey Wright (1830–1875). The confusion results because Wright advocated elements from the outlooks of all three of the European thinkers. Charles Peirce once characterized Wright, for example, as being “one of the most acute of the followers of J. S. Mill.”1 The issue of influence is further complicated in that ideas did not always flow from the older and more experienced philosopher, Wright, to the unseasoned newcomer. Although never a match for Wright in philosophical breadth and subtlety, Newcomb contributed, at least on one occasion, to the developing ideas of the two men.

Chauncey Wright

For the first years after beginning work in 1857 at the Nautical Almanac Office in Cambridge, Newcomb maintained a formal, professional relationship with his co-worker, “Mr. Wright,” who was five years older.2 By 1859, however, their relationship became more personal. In his diary for April of that year, for example, he reports a philosophical talk with his senior colleagues John Runkle (later president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Wright: “The latter had Hamilton's lectures, just published.” During 1861, he records two long walks with Wright and again Runkle, first “around (p.53) mount Auburn, stopping for a sherry cobbler while returning,” and second “to Camp Cameron … to see Porter's artillery.”3

During January of the same year, 1861, Newcomb also describes the possibility of collaborating with Wright on a rebuttal to some opinion espoused by Francis Bowen. “Wright and I think of cooking up a reply to Bowen.” Three days later, a Sunday, he added: “After dinner called on Chauncey Wright, and talked with him most of the afternoon.”4 There was much in Bowen's beliefs that might have sparked the ire of Wright and Newcomb. Bowen, the Alford professor of natural religion, moral philosophy, and civil polity at Harvard, opposed the views of Comte, Mill, and Darwin.5 Perhaps Bowen's polemics against Darwin in the American Academy meeting of March 1860, as later published in the April issue of the North American Review, had prompted Wright and Newcomb to consider a reply.6

The Academy meetings in which Bowen participated did help coalesce Wright's views on natural selection. In later recalling the meetings, Newcomb wrote: “Wright was a Darwinist from the very beginning, explaining the theory in private conversation from a master's point of view.” Perhaps because he had shared in Wright's early exposure to the theory of evolution, Newcomb in later years admired Wright's explications of Darwinian thought, even elevating Wright's works to the level of Asa Gray's. “In philosophic comprehension, scientific accuracy, and clearness of thought,” Newcomb wrote in 1876, “the essays of Wright and of Gray might well head the list in a competition among those of all nations.”7

Newcomb summarized his experiences as one of Wright's Cambridge “disciples” in a letter to James B. Thayer, a Harvard professor of law and friend of Wright. Thayer, following Wright's death in 1875, was compiling a volume of Wright's correspondence. Newcomb wrote:

My acquaintance with him began in 1857, when I became a computer for the Nautical Almanac, and hence a sort of scientific colleague. He had then an abominable habit of doing his whole year's work in three or four months, during which period he would work during the greater part of the night as well as of the day, eat little, and keep up his strength by smoking. The rest of the year he was a typical philosopher of the ancient world, talking, but, so far as I know, at this period, seldom or never writing. His disciples were his fellow-computers on the almanac. He regarded philosophy as the proper complement of mathematics,—the field into which a thinking mathematician would naturally wander. Philosophic questions were our daily subjects of discussion.

(p.54) Newcomb presented similar recollections in an unpublished, handwritten manuscript titled “Autobiography of My Youth”:

In some respects the lax organization [of the Nautical Almanac Office] was favorable to scientific progress, as it gave an opportunity to those so disposed to improve their mathematical knowledge, and general culture. One feature of our work which I remember with great interest was the philosophical discussions with Chauncey Wright—which were sometimes of almost daily occurrence. About the first I heard from him on the subject was in connection with Hamilton's Lectures on Metaphysics[,] the appearance of which seemed to start him on a new line of thought.8

Newcomb's appointment in 1861 to the Naval Observatory in Washington did not signal the end to his relationship with Wright. Through letters and Newcomb's occasional visits back to Cambridge, they maintained their philosophical, scientific, and personal discourse.9 A flurry of letters from 1865 in which they called on each other for personal favors—and exchanged congratulatory comments on the North's victories in the closing campaigns of the Civil War—illustrates the continuing depth of their friendship. Newcomb begins the exchange by asking Wright to review his first book, on American financial policy, for the North American Review. “I don't ask for a puff,” Newcomb explains, “or want you to agree with all my doctrines. It will satisfy me if you can conscientiously say that the book is worth reading.”10 Although Wright begged off reviewing a book outside his area of competency, he in turn asked his own favor of Newcomb. He inquired whether Newcomb would finish an article Wright had begun on the Nautical Almanac Office. Newcomb agreed, but then Wright did an about-face and asked to reclaim the project. In case this loss of a publication in the North American Review (and presumably the associated loss of remuneration) upset Newcomb, Wright offered consolation: “Perhaps some other subject may interest you more. If any does and you feel inclined to write it for the N. A. R. I will secure for it a favorable consideration from the Editors.” Three months later, Newcomb took up Wright's offer.11

A few weeks after the initial flurry of letters, Newcomb instigated a more circumscribed, philosophical dialogue—a dialogue in which he appeared as the originator of substantive ideas. The ideas were an elaboration of John Stuart Mill's rejection of traditional notions of free will in favor of what has come to be called a “compatibilist” position; in particular, the English philosopher affirmed the compatibility of two seemingly antithetical doctrines, free will and determinism. Mill, (p.55) troubled by the ambiguity of traditional terminology, carefully explained that, while human actions can be “free” in the sense of not coerced, they are still “determined” in the sense of being part of an invariable sequence subject to the all-inclusive law of causality.12 Newcomb later submitted this philosophical correspondence to James Thayer for inclusion in the volume of Wright's letters published in 1878. In a cover letter to Thayer, he explained the circumstances of the exchange.

My favorite subject [in philosophy] was that to which the enclosed correspondence relates,—the compatibility of free-will with absolute certainty regarding human acts, and the absence of any reason for supposing that human actions are any less determinate than the operations of nature. Wright was at first inclined to claim, in accordance with popular notions of free-will, that these propositions were not well founded, but at length was led to maintain that, considered simply as phenomena, they were correctly formulated; that is, that we have no reason to believe human acts, considered simply as phenomena, to be any less determinate than the operations of nature. This is the ground which you will see that we agree upon in the enclosed correspondence.13

In other writings, Newcomb was more emphatic and explicit about influencing Wright's view on free will during their Cambridge days. In a passage about Wright published in an 1891 autobiographical note, he commented, “I shall always remember him as the only man, so far as I know, whose theories I ever changed by argument. After much wrestling on the subject of the freedom of the will, he was led to accept the logic of Jonathan Edwards and John Stuart Mill.” Similarly, in the unpublished “Autobiography of My Youth,” he wrote: “The only question [in philosophy] in which I took especial interest was that of the subjection of the will to the general law of causation. For a long time Wright held out against the affirmative view, which I always maintained; but one morning he suddenly informed me that I had convinced him, and from that time he maintained the view with as sound arguments as could be desired.”14

The initial paragraph of Newcomb's 1865 letter to Wright merits full quotation to correct a possible misconception. Thayer, in reprinting only Wright's reply, left the impression that Newcomb functioned as an inconsequential partner in the exchange.15 This was not so.

Dear Wright,

I want to draw upon your classical knowledge, or rather upon your knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages for words expressive of certain philosophical ideas which have never been analysed, so far as I am aware, (p.56) but which it is extremely desirable should be. You may rember [sic] that at the [Nautical Almanac] office I used to argue that all words such as may, can, power, possibility, liberty, free agency, all words in fact which express or imply the attribute of potentiality, in contradiction to the attribute of actuality [,]have a threefold application; that in ordinary speech and ordinary thought we make no distinction between the three meanings, and that for want of making such distinctions men who have written on free agency have fought on verbal quibbles, and been guilty of the crime of ignoratio elechi [answering to the wrong point] to a wholloy [sic] unnecessary extent.

Newcomb then proceeds to the core of his analysis, specifying and discussing the three meanings of propositions involving potentiality. When we say that an event may happen, we variously mean that: (1) we are ignorant of any reason it should not happen; (2) there is nothing now in nature to cause it to happen, but something entirely new, for example an act of the will, could arise to induce it to happen; or (3) we are conscious of having liberty of choice regarding its occurrence. “The second and third meanings,” Newcomb remarks, “seem to be so continually confounded that it is often hard to tell what writers on the freedom of the will really mean to assert.” While acknowledging the feeling of liberty of choice (as described in the third meaning), he suggests that acts of the will (as described in the second meaning) are not independent of but, like other phenomena, actually subject to the law of causality. This is what he meant in the letter to Thayer when, in the spirit of Mill, he wrote of “the compatibility of free-will with absolute certainty regarding human acts, and the absence of any reason for supposing that human actions are any less determinate than the operations of nature.” Newcomb explains to Wright that this compatibility of “freedom” with “determination” becomes obvious “if one will only think from examples, e.g. as you pass Cambridge bridge you are every moment at perfect liberty to jump over into the river. But, this fact does not interfere with the other fact that you are conscious of a good and sufficient reason why you never will jump over.” He ends by asking Wright if he can “coin some words” to express the three meanings. “If you do so,” he further remarks, “you will add greatly to men's power of correct thought and bring the question of human liberty into a very narrow compass.”16

Wright begins his response to this request with a reservation: “Much more thought and care than I have yet given to it would be necessary to a final and valuable decision on so important a matter as the invention of a nomenclature, which is to ordinary metaphysics what the construction of a machine is to the working of it.” Then, after (p.57) generally agreeing with Newcomb “that the ideas you propose for baptism have never before been analyzed, or at least signalized, with any distinctness,” he suggests appropriate Latin phrases for Newcomb's three meanings. Wright also presents his own commentary on the issue of free will. He winds up in overall accord with Newcomb (and “Mr. Mill”), stating that there is no evidence that human actions are distinct from other natural phenomena which fall under “the law of causation.” He concludes that “if the terms in which the problem of philosophic liberty is discussed be freed from ambiguity and metaphor, there will be little or nothing left to discuss.” That is, in line with Newcomb and Mill, he dismisses the freedom-determinism issue as being in some sense a pseudo-problem arising from ambiguity in the metaphorical use of language.17

Apparently, Newcomb carefully pondered Wright's reply. A week after receiving the reply, and then misplacing it, he wrote to his vacationing wife: “I read over again this morning Mr. Wright's long metaphysical letter which I received Monday. It was in myoid coat pocket at the observatory all the time.” Two months later, however, he sent Wright a tardy and rather nit-picking response: “I beg pardon for not acknowledging the receipt of your philosophical letter, which was very satisfactory. But don't you think it would have been preferable if the ideas of potentiality could have been expressed by single words instead of phrases?” Fifteen years later, this correspondence was still fresh in Newcomb's mind; in an 1880 address that partially dealt with meanings of the phrase “freedom of the will,” he cited his philosophical exchange with Wright, “one of the most acute thinkers of the country.”18

Although Newcomb guided this dialogue on free will, he usually assumed the role of Wright's follower. In 1868, for example, Newcomb acknowledged Wright's direct influence on his opinion regarding natural law. He made this comment while proposing an article to the editor of the North American Review, Charles E. Norton: “I have a set of ideas on the nature and limits of natural law, which were formed in discussion with Mr. Chauncey Wright eight or ten years ago, which have since been maturing, but which have never been commutted [sic] to paper. These I may commut [sic] to paper and offer you in the course of the present year.” Although Newcomb immediately began preparing for this article by reading William Hamilton's views on metaphysics, he published nothing of substance on the topic of natural law until a decade later. When he did, it would bear the imprint of Wright. (p.58) William James could have had Newcomb in mind when he wrote his eulogy of Wright, a man who published little: “His best work has been done in conversation; and in the acts and writings of the many friends he influenced[,] his spirit will, in one way or another, as the years roll on, be more operative than it ever was in direct production.”19

Editor Norton was an old Cambridge friend of Wright. When Wright died in 1875 at the age of forty-five, Norton arranged to collect and reprint his main writings. Newcomb was on the original subion list of patrons who agreed to help underwrite the project.20 About this same time, Thayer set out to compile and publish Wright's letters. In following years, Newcomb praised both of these volumes, Philosophical Discussions (1877), edited by Norton, and Letters of Chauncey Wright (1878), edited by Thayer. He felt that these posthumous volumes provided “a deserved reputation in the narrow sphere of pure philosophies” to a close colleague who previously had “remained unnoticed.”21 Newcomb also had a more immediate reaction. The issuing of these two volumes of hitherto scattered articles, reviews, and letters rekindled his appreciation for Wright's views. In particular, the volumes provided Newcomb with easy access to stimulating ideas for his own works on the nature and method of science. During the years around 1880, Newcomb borrowed heavily from Wright's writings.

Charles Sanders Peirce

Historians of American thought often link the name of Chauncey Wright to that of his younger Cambridge colleague, Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914).22 Wright served as one of Peirce's philosophical mentors, although later Peirce diverged from various of Wright's views. Peirce, remembered today primarily for his general theory of signs and secondarily for his pragmatic theory of meaning, was also an associate of Newcomb. Whereas Newcomb's relationship with Peirce seemed more formal and impersonal than that which either of them had with Wright, it was definite and long-standing.

In their younger years, around 1860, Newcomb and Peirce shared a similar professional training. Both benefited from the scientific riches of Harvard and of the government agencies located in Cambridge. Just as Newcomb worked in the Almanac Office while also attending the Lawrence Scientific School, Peirce worked for the U.S. Coast Survey while attending the Scientific School. Peirce first obtained regular (p.59) degrees from Harvard in 1859 and 1862 before graduating from the Scientific School in 1863; Newcomb graduated from the school in 1858, continuing for the next three years as a resident graduate. During his Cambridge years, Newcomb profited also from the formal tutelage of Benjamin Peirce—Charles's father and professor of mathematics, astronomy, and physics at Harvard and the Lawrence Scientific School as well as an associate of the Almanac Office and Coast Survey. Newcomb shared too in the personal hospitality of Benjamin Peirce, being a frequent visitor to the professor's home. And as might be expected, Newcomb and Charles Peirce enjoyed many mutual friends and colleagues in the Cambridge scientific community. Besides Chauncey Wright, these included Alexander Agassiz, Charles Henry Davis, and Benjamin Gould. Sharing all of these common educational and professional roots, Newcomb and Charles Peirce developed similar interests in, among other topics, mathematics, astronomy, physics, and philosophy.23

Despite this shared background and these like interests, Newcomb and Peirce always remained only impersonal colleagues, never intimate friends. One Peirce scholar, in analyzing the Newcomb-Peirce relationship especially as manifested in their animated scientific correspondence around the 1890s, suggests: “Perhaps the fact that Peirce was four years younger than Newcomb and the fact that Newcomb lacked social roots in Cambridge accounted to a large extent for the surprising lack of evidence of a personal friendship.”24 Perhaps also there was an element of jealousy in that Peirce's lackluster scientific career paled in comparison to Newcomb's success25—a success acknowledged, as we will see, by even Peirce's father. Diaries and letters allow us to glimpse the tenor of this stilted but enduring relationship.

Newcomb's earliest recorded mention of Charles Peirce, although brief, reveals that Newcomb offered Peirce advice on his philosophical writings. In his diary for January 1868, seven years after moving from Cambridge to Washington, Newcomb made the following note: “Wrote a letter to Charles Sanders Peirce acknowledging receipt of his logic papers, and making comments thereon.” These papers were likely the first three of five that Peirce read before the American Academy of Arts and Sciences between March and November of 1867, including his now well-known “On a New List of Categories.” After having offprints of the early papers bound, Peirce distributed this package of “Three Papers on Logic” to colleagues; during the following year, the Academy published the full series in its Proceedings. Newcomb, presumably (p.60) at Peirce's invitation, was drawing on his own considerable knowledge of logic to review some of the seminal philosophical writings of Peirce, a man today recognized for his contributions to logic. He had a chance to scrutinize Peirce's complex and evolving views on George Boole's use of mathematics to analyze logic; the logical structure of “argument,” including induction and hypothesis; and the possible “categories” of conceptions. The latter topic embraced an analysis of the symbolic nature of terms, propositions, and arguments, and their relation to “the manifold of sensuous impressions.”26

The paths of Newcomb and Peirce crossed again in a more literal sense two years later, in 1870, when both participated in a solar eclipse expedition to the Mediterranean. Newcomb was stationed with a party of observers in Gibraltar, however, and apparently had little contact with Charles Peirce, who was positioned in Sicily with his father, the director of the American expedition.27 During the following year, Newcomb and Peirce both became active participants in the meetings of the recently founded Washington Philosophical Society, a “society for the advancement of science” presided over by Joseph Henry. With Peirce employed in Washington at the Coast Survey Office—he spent his middle years there as a gravitational specialist—and Newcomb at the Naval Observatory, they occasionally exchanged technical information, for example, regarding maps.28

They also once exchanged points of view on economics. During December of 1871, through mailings between Washington and Cambridge, Peirce was helping his father, Benjamin, prepare a talk on the application of mathematics to aspects of political economy. Toward the middle of the month, presumably at Peirce's invitation, Newcomb visited his Washington colleague to consult on economics. Peirce noted the visit in a letter to his wife, who also was in Cambridge: “Simon Newcomb came to see me today.… I have been quite interested in political economy which I generally spend my evenings in studying.” The only surviving record of the actual discussion between the two men is a follow-up comment that Peirce sent to Newcomb later in the same day. In this letter, which opens with the formal greeting of “Dear Sir,” Peirce provides a technical clarification of an earlier statement of his on the law of supply and demand, a clarification rooted in A. A. Cournot's extension of calculus to economics.29 Whereas in 1868 Newcomb had been offering advice to Peirce on one of Peirce's specialties, logic, Peirce was now offering advice to Newcomb on one of his, economics. And whereas the earlier exchange provided Newcomb (p.61) with an opportunity to delve into Peirce's views on logic, Peirce now had a chance to probe Newcomb's thoughts on political economy.

For a few years around 1880, Newcomb and Peirce both supplemented their government jobs by teaching part-time at Johns Hopkins University. While Newcomb served as a lecturer from 1876 to 1883 (and a professor of mathematics and astronomy from 1884 to 1893), Peirce lectured on logic within the Mathematics Department from 1879 to 1884.30 A letter during this period from Newcomb to Peirce exemplifies their continuing scholarly interaction. Newcomb sought Peirce's opinion on the originality of his realization that it was theoretically impossible for spectroscopic observations to produce blatant evidence that the earth was moving through the universe relative to a pervasive ethereal medium.31 Revealingly, Newcomb sent an almost identical inquiry to another of his colleagues at Johns Hopkins, physicist Henry Rowland; though he had opened his letter to Peirce, as was their pattern, with the formal greeting, “My Dear Sir,” he addressed Rowland with the more familiar, “My Dear Rowland.”32

Newcomb's distant but amicable relationship with Peirce began to deteriorate while they were both at Johns Hopkins. Late in 1883, Newcomb learned and passed on some personal information about Peirce that hastened his dismissal from the Hopkins faculty the following year. It seems that Newcomb inadvertently alerted a university trustee, who in turn alerted President Daniel Gilman, about Peirce's having earlier lived out of wedlock with the widow of a French count. In a letter to his wife, Newcomb described this prior relationship as a “great scandal” that had even caused the couple to have been “expelled from hotels.” “It is sad to think,” Newcomb further commented, “of the weaknesses which may accompany genius.”33

Open animosity developed later in the decade. Peirce repeatedly complained, for example, that Newcomb as editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Mathematics (from 1885 to 1893) thwarted the publication of Peirce's papers. In addition, in 1889, a disagreement flared up between the two men in the pages of the Nation. This public squabble followed Newcomb's criticism of Peirce's definitions in the new Century Dictionary (1889) of certain crucial terms in astronomy and experimental physics. Newcomb found the definitions to be “insufficient, inaccurate, and confused in a degree which is really remarkable.” Through the 1890s and up to Newcomb's death in 1909, Newcomb and Peirce settled into a pattern of scholarly dialogue broken by occasional bickering. From 1890 to 1894, for example, they had an (p.62) especially creative and emotionally charged exchange of letters on the technical and conceptual foundations of mathematics and astronomy.34 Despite the discord, Newcomb expressed guarded respect for Peirce's views on philosophy of science. In particular, Newcomb replied positively in 1894 to Peirce's request for advance financial support of a proposed twelve-volume set of his writings: “I am persuaded that whatever you might write on the subject of scientific philosophy would be provocative of thought and discussion, and therefore interesting, whether one accepted your conclusions or not.” Toward the end of this reply, seemingly hoping to minimize further involvement with the multivolume project, Newcomb added a self-effacing comment in which he questioned his ability to evaluate Peirce's proposed work: “I am sorry to say that you greatly overestimate the value of any expression from me on your subject. My experience leads me to believe that people have very little confidence in my views on subjects outside of mathematics and astronomy. The general subject of the greater number of your volumes is one on which people already have their minds made up.”35

Apparently, in seeking Newcomb's advice on his philosophical writings from at least as early as 1868 up through 1894, Peirce was one person who respected Newcomb's views both in and out of mathematics and astronomy. As Peirce, however, frequently lacked financial and institutional support for his projects, this respect partially reflected a desire to cultivate the influential Newcomb. Later, in an unsigned review from 1904 of Newcomb's Reminiscences of an Astronomer, Peirce had an opportunity to express more candidly his opinion on Newcomb's scientific contribution. Writing anonymously, he characterized his colleague of almost half a century as “quite the most distinguished man of science in this country today, as well as one of the most eminent in the whole world.” “His name will remain upon the page of scientific history, and eventually take its place,” Peirce added, unable to resist tempering his praise with a slight snub, “high in the second rank, distinctly above Leverrier's or even Hansen's, because of the breadth of his work.”36

Views of Wright and Peirce

The 1870s loom large in the history of American thought and culture—especially, the foundations of pragmatism. Charles Peirce (p.63) published his only early pragmatic essay in 1878. During the prior year, Chauncey Wright's friends reissued his main essays in the posthumous volume Philosophical Discussions. Then in 1878, Wright's friends published his Letters. It was also during the mid to late 1870s that Newcomb began regularly publishing essays on the nature and method of science and its philosophical, theological, and social implications. Newcomb's midcareer ideas on language and meaning paralleled those of his two colleagues, especially Wright. The three men agreed, for example, that the success of recent scientific inquiry reflected the scientists' reliance on concepts having clear sensory definitions. And all three men sought to extend this “practical” method of inquiry to issues in areas such as philosophy, theology, and economics. Before going on to Newcomb's midcareer writings, it is worthwhile to summarize the main parallel writings by Wright and Peirce.

Wright's writings reflected the positivism of Comte and Mill and presaged, but did not explicitly prefigure, the pragmatism of Charles Peirce and William James. As early as 1865, Wright revealed such tendencies when he published a lengthy attack on English philosopher Herbert Spencer for misappropriating and muddling the clear, experiential concepts of physics and biology. In the Spencer article, Wright endorses the positivists' criterion for establishing the meaning of “ideal or transcendental elements” in scientific discourse; such elements “must still show credentials from the senses, either by affording from themselves consequences capable of sensuous verification, or by yielding such consequences in conjunction with ideas which by themselves are verifiable.”37 Just before his death ten years later, moreover, Wright—who had remained unappreciated except by a circle of Cambridge colleagues and protégés—published one of his most precise statements on meaning. He presented the statement in a muted manner without special emphasis as part of an extended book review in the Nation titled “Speculative Dynamics.” In evaluating a recent monograph on Newtonian mechanics, he sharply criticized the author, a nonscientist, for using scientific terms to serve philosophically speculative ends. Regarding, for example, the physicists' term “force,” Wright insisted:

All its uses in mathematical language, or the equivalent terms, acceleration, mass, momentum, and energy, refer to precise, unambiguous definitions in the measures of the phenomena of motion, and do not refer to any other substantive or noumenal existence than the universal inductive fact that the phenomena of all actual movements in nature can be clearly, and definitely, (p.64) or intelligently analyzed into phenomena, and conditions of phenomena, of which these terms denote the measures.

Similarly, he explained that physicists had in mind particular “sensible properties” and “sensible measures” when they referred to the seemingly metaphysical concept of “stores of energy,” that is, potential energy.38

Charles Peirce expressed views similar to those of Wright, but with some significant differences. His meaning criterion, while better focused than Wright's musings on meaning, appeared originally as just one briefly used tool in what was his growing and ever changing philosophical program. Following William James's lead around 1898, most scholars seeking the American roots of pragmatism point to a single paper by Peirce, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear.” Peirce published the paper in 1878 but supposedly formulated it during the early 1870s while meeting in the informal “Metaphysical Club” with Wright, James, and other Cambridge thinkers. (Newcomb was living in Washington by then.) The paper, published in Popular Science Monthly, was the second of a series of articles that Peirce had written to provide, as the title of the series indicated, “Illustrations of the Logic of Science,” by which he specifically meant illustrations of “the method of scientific investigation.”39 Embedded within this second paper were two sentences that later became known as Peirce's “pragmatic maxim”: “Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.” For example, “by calling a thing hard,” we mean that “it will not be scratched by many other substances.”40

Peirce had introduced the maxim by examining the religious doctrine of transubstantiation, particularly the elusive and highly metaphysical notion of the conversion of wine into blood. After insisting that both a “sensible perception” and a “sensible result” are essential components of a conception, he drew the hard-nosed conclusion that “we can consequently mean nothing by wine but what has certain effects, direct or indirect, upon our senses.” He further concluded “how impossible it is that we should have an idea in our minds which relates to anything but conceived sensible effects of things.” Later, in going on to illustrate his pragmatic maxim, Peirce specifically echoed Wright in rejecting metaphysical interpretations of scientific concepts. Thus, regarding the term “force,” to which commentators often attributed intangible qualities, Peirce wrote: “The idea which the word (p.65) force excites in our minds has no other function than to affect our actions, and these actions can have no reference to force otherwise than through its effects. Consequently, if we know what the effects of force are, we are acquainted with every fact which is implied in saying that a force exists, and there is nothing more to know.”41 Whereas Peirce paralleled Wright in applying his meaning criterion to expressly abstract concepts such as “force,” only Peirce further applied the criterion to ostensibly simple concepts such as “hard.” In other words, as we will see later, Wright's meaning criterion is less general than that of Peirce and later pragmatists.42

To recap, Peirce's essay appeared early in 1878 in Popular Science Monthly, the second of his series “Illustrations of the Logic of Science.” During the prior year, Wright's main essays, including “Speculative Dynamics” and “The Philosophy of Herbert Spencer,” appeared in the posthumous volume, Philosophical Discussions. Then in 1878, Wright's friends issued his Letters. Given the publication dates of these writings by Peirce and Wright—and given Newcomb's acquaintance with Peirce as well as his friendship with and admiration for Wright—it seems more than coincidence that Newcomb's midcareer writings parallel those of his two colleagues, especially Wright. Indeed, it seems more than coincidence that Newcomb first publicly presented a meticulous statement of his linguistic, empirical method late in 1878. As we shall soon see, Newcomb echoed in his speeches and essays the views of Peirce and Wright along with those of Comte, Darwin, and particularly Mill.


(1.) Charles Peirce, “Concerning the Author,” MS (ca. 1897), reprinted in Philosophical Writings of Peirce, ed. Justus Buchler (New York: Dover Publications, 1955), 2.

(2.) See, e.g., Diary for 1859, 11 March 1859 and 16 March 1859; Diary for 1860, 10 Jan. 1860, SNP, Box 1.

(3.) Diary for 1859, 14 April 1859; Diary for 1861, 15 May 1861 and 10 Sept. 1861, SNP, Box 1.

(4.) Diary for 1861, 9 Jan. 1861 and 13 Jan. 1861, SNP, Box 1.

(5.) Kuklick, Rise of American Philosophy, 28–45. For Wright's disregard for orthodox philosophers like Bowen, see Madden, Chauncey Wright, 116–120. See also Wright, review of A Treatise on Logic, by Francis Bowen, North American Review 99 (1864): 592–605.

(6.) Bowen, review of On the Origin of Species, by Darwin, North American Review 90 (1860): 474–506. For Wright's attack on Bowen's anti-Darwinian views, see Dupree, Asa Gray, 289–293.

(7.) Newcomb, Reminiscences, 70; see also, Newcomb to James B. Thayer, Letters of Chauncey Wright, ed. Thayer (1878; reprint, New York: Burt Franklin, 1971), 71; and Newcomb, “Autobiography of My Youth” (see chap. 2, n. 4), 64. Newcomb, “Abstract Science in America” (see chap. 3, n. 27), 109–110.

(8.) Newcomb to Thayer, Letters of Chauncey Wright, ed. Thayer, p. 70. Newcomb, “Autobiography of My Youth,” 63–64. Cf. to Newcomb, Reminiscences, 70.

(9.) For Newcomb's visits to Wright, see e.g., Newcomb, Diary for 1867, 27 Aug. 1867, SNP, Box 1. For evidence of Newcomb sending his scientific papers to Wright, see Diary for 1866, “Memoranda” page, SNP, Box 1.

(10.) Newcomb to Wright, 24 Feb. 1865, SNP, Box 4. The book, published at Newcomb's own expense, was Critical Examination of Our Financial Policy.

(11.) Wright to Newcomb, 28 Feb. 1865, SNP, Box 44. Newcomb to Wright, 11 March [1865] and 1 April 1865, SNP, Box 4; see also Newcomb, Diary for 1865, 15 March 1865 and 1 April 1865, SNP, Box 1. Wright to Newcomb,5 April 1865, SNP, Box 44; see also Diary for 1865, 7 April 1865, SNP, Box 1. Newcomb to Wright, 7 April 1865 and 21 July 1865, SNP, Box 4; see also Diary for 1865, 14 July 1865, SNP, Box 1.

(12.) See Mill's chapter “Of Liberty and Necessity,” System of Logic, 521–526; see also 207–208n. For a concise explication of Mill's position, see Paul Edwards and Arthur Pap, eds., A Modern Introduction to Philosophy: Readings from Classical and Contemporary Sources (New York: Free Press, 1965), 6–9, 44–50.

(13.) Newcomb to Thayer, Letters of Chauncey Wright, ed. Thayer, pp. 70–71. Joseph Henry, in contrast to Newcomb, leaned toward a deistic determinism; see Henry, Scientific Writings 2: 6.

(14.) Newcomb, “Formative Influences” (see chap. 2, n. 1), 188–189. Newcomb, “Autobiography of My Youth,” 64. Arthur Norberg doubts that Newcomb led Wright to Mill's view; see Norberg, “Newcomb's Early Astronomical Career,” p. 216 n. 28.

(15.) Letters of Chauncey Wright, ed. Thayer, p. 71. Cf. Madden, Chauncey Wright and the Foundations of Pragmatism, 18, 90–91.

(16.) Newcomb to Wright, included with letter of 29 April 1865, SNP, Box 4.Cf. Mill, System of Logic, 523–525. For analyses of free will similar to that in his 1865 letter to Wright, see two apparently early MS fragments by Newcomb in the folder “Foreknowledge of the Deity-Fatalism and Free Will,” SNP, Box 94. One fragment contains the following relevant paragraph: “Every term implying freedom, power, possibility, &c in contradistinction to determination, necessity, certainty, &c has its origin in circumstances of common life which have no relation to questions of pure philosophy and therefore entirely loses its signification when applied to the latter. In any branch of physical science the greatest care is taken accurately to define all terms which are applied to new things; how much greater necessity for such precaution in metaphysics where, from the extreme sublety [sic] of the analysis, the mind is much more likely to substitute a common place phrase for a refined idea.”

(17.) Wright to Newcomb, 18 May 1865, Letters of Chauncey Wright, ed. Thayer, pp. 71–75. The original letter, with some portions torn away, is in SNP, Box 44. Quotations are from the original version when possible. Cf. Chauncey Wright, “Limits of Natural Selection,” North American Review (1870), reprinted in Philosophical Discussions by Chauncey Wright, ed. Norton, 119–125, and “Evolution of Self-Consciousness,” North American Review (1873), also reprinted in Philosophical Discussions, 233, 244. Also cf. Charles S. Peirce, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” Popular Science Monthly (Jan. 1878), reprinted in Christian J. W. Kloesel, ed., Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition, vol. 3 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 267.

(18.) Simon Newcomb to Mary Newcomb, 27 May 1865, SNP, Box 8. Newcomb to Wright, 21 July 1865, SNP, Box 4. Newcomb, “The Relation of Scientific Method to Social Progress” (Washington, D.C.: Judd & Detweiler, 1880), 9–10, 13.

(19.) Newcomb to Norton, 18 Feb. 1868, Charles E. Norton Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Item bMS Am 1088 (4946). Newcomb, Diary for 1868, 29 Feb. 1868, SNP, Box 1. William James, “Chauncey Wright,” Nation (1875), reprinted in Madden, Chauncey Wright and the Foundations of Pragmatism, 143–144.

(20.) Norton to Newcomb, 19 Nov. 1875, SNP, Box 34.

(21.) Newcomb, “Autobiography of My Youth,” 57; Newcomb, Reminiscences, 71–72; Newcomb, “Formative Influences,” 188.

(22.) Philip P. Wiener, Evolution and the Founders of Pragmatism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1949), 18–96.

(23.) For the overlap in the careers of Peirce and Newcomb, see Carolyn Eisele, “The Charles S. Peirce-Simon Newcomb Correspondence,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 101 (1957): 409–433; reprinted as chap. 5 of Eisele, Studies in the Scientific and Mathematical Philosophy of Charles S. Peirce (The Hague: Mouton, 1979), 52–93.

(24.) Eisele, “Peirce-Newcomb Correspondence,” 410.

(25.) Carolyn Eisele, “Peirce the Scientist,” in Historical Perspectives on Peirce's Logic of Science: A History of Science, ed. Eisele (Berlin: Mouton Publishers, 1985), 1: 31.

(26.) Diary for 1868, 6 Jan. 1868, SNP, Box 1; Newcomb used Charles Peirce's full, formal name perhaps to distinguish him from his father. The five papers are reprinted in Edward C. Moore, ed., Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition, vol. 2 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 12–97; see also “Editorial Notes,” 501–503. The papers are items P 00030, 31, 32, 33, and 34 in A Comprehensive Bibliography and Index of the Published Works of Charles Sanders Peirce …, ed. Kenneth L. Ketner, et al. (Greenwich, Conn.: Johnson Assoc., 1977). Also see Murray G. Murphey, “Peirce, Charles Sanders,” Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 6: 71–72.

(27.) “Tuck Memorandum” book (inside frontispiece reads “Simon Newcomb, U.S. Navy”), SNP, Box 1. In his notes specifying the observation sites of expedition members, Newcomb impersonally wrote of “Benj. Peirce & Son” being located in Sicily; he listed by name the many other members throughout the region.

(28.) See “Index to Names of Contributors,” Bulletin of the Philosophical Society of Washington 1 (March 1871-June 1874): 47–48. See also J. Kirkpatrick Flack, Desideratum in Washington: The Intellectual Community in the Capital City, 1870–1900 (Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman, 1975), 60–65. Newcomb to Peirce, 25 Oct. 1872, Charles S. Peirce Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Section L 314; this Peirce collection contains the originals of many of the letters cited in Eisele, “Peirce-Newcomb Correspondence.”

(29.) Charles Peirce to Zina Peirce, 17 Dec. 1871, reprinted in Eisele, Studies, 367–368; also see p. 253. Peirce to Newcomb, 17 Dec. 1871, SNP, Box 10; reprinted in Eisele, “Peirce-Newcomb Correspondence,” 414. Max H. Fisch, “The Decisive Year and Its Early Consequences,” in Moore, ed., Writings of Charles S. Peirce, xxxv-xxxvi.

(30.) Eisele, “Peirce-Newcomb Correspondence,” 411 n. 17. Daniel C. Gilman to Newcomb, 7 Feb. 1876, SNP, Box 24. See also Max H. Fisch and Jackson I. Cope, “Peirce at the Johns Hopkins University,” in Studies in the Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce, ed. Philip P. Wiener and Frederick H. Young (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1952),277–311; Daniel C. Gilman, The Launching of a University (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1906), 55, 62.

(31.) Newcomb to Peirce, 8 July 1882, SNP, Box 5. Newcomb had in mind the ether-drift experiment of his younger colleague, Albert A. Michelson. Nathan Reingold has reprinted the Newcomb-Michelson correspondence on this topic and others in Science in Nineteenth-Century America: A Documentary History (New York: Hill & Wang, 1964), 275–306.

(32.) Newcomb to Henry Rowland, 8 July 1882, SNP, Box 5.

(33.) In a personal letter to the author of 24 Sept. 1980, Arthur Norberg documented the disclosure, referring to letters from Simon to Mary Newcomb dating from 14 Oct., 21 Nov., and 25 Dec. 1883. For a related note from Newcomb to either the trustee or Gilman, see Max H. Fisch's 1975 transcription of a letter dated 22 Dec. 1883, Daniel Coit Gilman Papers Ms. 1, Special Collections, Milton S. Eisenhower Library, Johns Hopkins University. See also Paul Conkin, Puritans and Pragmatists (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1968), 199.

(34.) Eisele, “Peirce-Newcomb Correspondence,” 414–428. See also “Correspondence,” Nation 48 (1889): 488, 504–505, 524.

(35.) Newcomb to Peirce, 3 Jan. 1894, reprinted in Eisele, “Peirce-Newcomb Correspondence,” 426. Two weeks later in another letter on Peirce's proposed philosophical volumes, Newcomb explained: “I quite coincide with your expression of the spirit in which you treat the subject, although I fear my philosophy would diverge a good deal from yours.” Newcomb to Peirce, 16 Jan. 1894, reprinted in Eisele, “Peirce-Newcomb Correspondence,” 426.

(36.) [Peirce], review of Reminiscences, by Newcomb, Nation 78 (1904): 237. See also Eisele, “Peirce-Newcomb Correspondence,” 429–430. For a more negative judgment written in the heat of argument-that Newcomb's outlooks were “very narrow both on the philosophical and on the mathematical side”—see Peirce to Baldwin, 26 Dec. 1900, quoted in Eisele, “Peirce-Newcomb Correspondence,” 415–416.

(37.) Wright, “The Philosophy of Herbert Spencer,” North American Review (Jan. 1865), reprinted in Philosophical Discussions by Chauncey Wright, ed. Norton, pp. 43–96. Wright discusses concepts such as “force” on, for example, p. 78; he discusses “sensuous verification” on pp. 44–47. For Edward Madden's doubts that Wright fully anticipated pragmatism, see Madden, Chauncey Wright and the Foundations of Pragmatism, 73–81. For a more positive interpretation of Wright's anticipation of pragmatism, see Wiener, Evolution and the Founders of Pragmatism, 31–69. For support of Madden's views on Wright, see Robert Giuffrida, Jr., “The Philosophical Thought of Chauncey Wright: Edward Madden's Contribution to Wright Scholarship,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 24 (Winter 1988): 33–64.

(38.) Wright, “Speculative Dynamics,” Nation (June 1875), reprinted in Philosophical Discussions by Chauncey Wright, ed. Norton, 385, 388–389.

(39.) For the first paper, see Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief,” Popular Science Monthly (Nov. 1877), reprinted in Kloesel, ed., Writings of Charles S. Peirce, 254. See also Francis E. Reilly, Charles Peirce's Theory of Scientific Method (New York: Fordham University Press, 1970).

(40.) Peirce, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” Popular Science Monthly (Jan. 1878), reprinted in Kloesel, ed., Writings of Charles S. Peirce, 266. Philip Wiener is typical of many past scholars when he acclaims this 1878 essay, saying that “perhaps no earlier and clearer presentation of the ‘operationalist’ theory of meaning can be found in American philosophy.”. See Charles S. Peirce: Selected Writings, ed. Philip Wiener (New York: Dover Publications, 1960), 113. For more cautious appraisals, see: Richard Smyth, “The Pragmatic Maxim in 1878,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 13 (1977): 93–111; Bruce Altshuler, “The Nature of Peirce's Pragmatism,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 14 (1978): 147–175.

(41.) Peirce, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” 265–266, 270–271.

(42.) For this distinction, see Madden, Chauncey Wright and the Foundations of Pragmatism, 80; see also n. 37. For an overview of Wright and Charles Peirce as scientist-philosophers, see Daniel J. Wilson, Science, Community, and the Transformation of American Philosophy, 1860–1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 12–36.