World Report: The Peirce Edition Project

Marco Annoni


Foreword: Visiting the Peirce Edition Project

Looking backward, any scholar can probably identify the precise moment in which her researches took a sudden and decisive turn, thus shaping the rest of her academic life. This shift may be prompted by different reasons, such as the reading of an inspiring book or the talk of a charismatic professor. In my case, this turn coincided with the first lecture I attended at the University of Milan on the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce. That lecture catalyzed my interest toward Peirce’s thought and semiotics, eventually leading me toward my first PhD and then to the opportunity of spending two research periods at the Peirce Edition Project (PEP) in Indianapolis.

The first time I visited the PEP was in 2006 during my first year of doctoral studies at the University of Pisa. Two fortunate events made my coming at the PEP possible. The first was my participation at the 9th International Meeting on Pragmatism in São Paulo where I first met the future editor in chief of the PEP, Prof. André De Tienne; the second was the award of a fellowship for young researchers abroad granted by the Regione Toscana.

Visiting the Peirce Edition Project changed both my researches and the way in which I used to understand scholarship. My original project focused on Peirce’s conception of mathematical and logical continuity, and on how his original ideas about this crucial topic informed his cosmological and metaphysical theory. However, while looking for a good way of defining the concept of Peircean continuity, I discovered that Peirce himself had dedicated, as a semiotician, scientist, and lexicographer, a lot of his efforts to the problem of how we can define the meaning of scientific technical terms. Realizing this link between semiotics, pragmatism, and lexicography led me to shift my research to the study of the relationships between the genealogy of Peirce’s pragmatism, his life-long interest in dictionaries, and his original theory of the ethics of scientific terminology.

In 2008, I started to be involved in the project of collecting, editing, and translating the correspondence between C. S. Peirce and W. James. The renewed necessity to work with Peirce’s manuscripts first-hand both for my dissertation and for the editing of the correspondence prompted my second visit at the PEP. Indeed, the assistance received from the PEP’s staff proved absolutely critical for the completion of both projects, and thus for the prosecution of my academic career.[2]

Despite other experiences abroad, none has been for me as productive and meaningful as the two periods I have spent at the PEP. As I will describe in this report, the reason lies in the particular mix of methodological commitments, available resources, qualified professionals, and inspiring atmosphere that makes the Peirce Edition Project something unique within the panorama of editorial enterprises.


A Legacy of Signs

The Peirce Edition Project was founded by Professor Max H. Fisch in 1976 and since 1983 it has become an integral part of the School of Liberal Arts at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). Today the PEP is one of the core editorial enterprises of the Institute for American Thought[3] (IAT), a research center that houses also the Santayana Edition, the Frederick Douglass Papers, and the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies. In 2010 the critical edition of the Works of Josiah Royce joined the IAT, thus bringing the total number of family components to five. It is possible to take a virtual tour of the Institute, which includes also a short introductory video[4] dedicated to the scope and activities of the PEP.

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If one paid attention only to the official accounts of PEP’s goals and methodologies, one would miss crucial aspects of its activities. In particular, one would miss what makes personal experiencing of the Project something unique, that is, the various ways in which Peirce’s semiotic legacy informs the work and the lives of those who are collaborating on this landmark editorial enterprise.

Bodies of Signs

The first and most tangible way in which one stumbles upon Peirce’s semiotic legacy at the PEP is of course through the physical presence of his writings. Peirce’s signs are everywhere at the PEP, and one feels literally surrounded by a multitude of books, manuscripts, typescripts, notes, variant texts, microfilms, microfiches, thematic and chronological archives, all of which contain millions of words and signs that are somehow connected with the thought and writings of C. S. Peirce.

Though Peirce-related texts are present all over the PEP, two places in particular would catch the attention even of the most distracted newcomer: the Max H. Fish library and the room where incomplete manuscripts are studied and physically reconstructed.

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The Max Fisch Library features a unique selection of material accumulated principally by the joint efforts of the people who work for the critical editions of Peirceand Santayana. Over the years, other personal collections of books and papers have been added, including those of Charles Morris, Carolyn Eisele, Edward C. Moore, Arthur Burks, Richard Tursman, David Savan, John McCormick and Paul Weiss. The library houses also Fisch’s personal volumes and his vast reference catalog, which contains Peirce quotes and other essential information about his writings, professional dealings, colleagues, family, and personal life that Fisch collected during forty years of distinguished research. Indeed, this archive represents a true goldmine for everyone interested in Peirce and American classical philosophy, and it represents alone a good reason to pay a visit to the PEP.

The library is flanked by some of the IAT’s principal offices. A large conference table borders it on one side. Normally used for consultation and staff reunions, it faces a row of shelves where are exposed all the volumes edited by the PEP, including the seven volumes of the Writings of Charles S. Peirce, A Chronological edition (I-VI; VIII), the two volumes of the Essential Peirce (1867-1893; 1893-1913), and the recently published Peirce’s Philosophy of Mathematics: Selected Writings which is a choice collection of Peirce’s most important mathematical papers edited by Matthew Moore under the PEP’s supervision.

Across from the library lies another key place of the Peirce Edition: the room where the disorganized complex manuscripts are clipped and hung together on a line to facilitate the reconstruction their original compositional order. This is probably one of the most iconic places in the whole Institute.

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By visiting the PEP one gets the impression that Peirce’s signs of thought may well be livelier today than in the past. Once individual and fragile manuscripts, they can now be found in thousands of perfectly identical replicas embodied in a huge variety of different material substrates, from the paper copies that pervade PEP’s offices to the digital editions of the same texts that can now be accessed from everywhere on-line. As living beings, the signs left by Peirce have finally spread within the semiosphere, and indeed the Project’s environment provides the ideal sanctuary for their survival and publication.

The Making of the Critical Edition

The second way in which Peirce’s semiotic legacy informs PEP’s activity derives from the very scope of its editorial enterprise: the making of a critical and chronological edition of the writings of Charles Sanders Peirce. Not only do Peirce’s signs literally pervade the PEP with their physical presence, but here they get also constantly identified, transcribed, selected, corrected, integrated and developed as part of a coordinated and scientifically driven process of interpretation finalized to the production of a very specialized kind of text. One cannot visit the PEP without becoming a part of this process of collective semiosis, even if only for a short period of time and in incidental ways.

The editing of the Writings began under the leadership of M. H. Fisch and E. C. Moore in 1975. The projected series consists of 30 volumes containing a comprehensive selection of “all the writings, on any subject, believed to shed significant light on the development of Peirce’s thought”.[5] So far, only seven volumes (I-VI; VIII) have seen the light, with the last one being published in 2010. The slow rate at which the volumes have been published in the past can be largely explained by taking into account the nature of Peirce’s Nachlass and the particular working method pursued by the editors at the PEP.

As is well known, during his life Peirce published many journal articles—some of which are of seminal importance for philosophy, logic, and semiotics—dozens of scientific reports, thousands of scientific definitions for world-leading dictionaries, and hundreds of reviews and notes. However, of the three books that he wrote or edited, not one contained a systematic exposition of his architectonic system of thought. After a brilliant scientific career Peirce died isolated from the academic and scientific elite of his time, and this prevented his philosophy from becoming a public object of debate. Yet, he relentlessly kept on thinking, leaving more than 100,000 pages of material and manuscripts. These texts range from quick notes up to entire books and cover a huge variety of topics, from mathematical card-games to metaphysical cosmology.[6] The composite and messy condition of the corpus of manuscripts is such that Peirce himself considered their re-ordering as a desperate task.

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The aim of producing a critical and not a documentary edition of Peirce’s writings is the other reason behind the complexity of PEP’s enterprise.  In fact, whereas the documentary editor focuses on preserving the text, the critical editor focuses instead “on recovering the author’s discernible intention for the text”.[7] If the aim of the former is that of reproducing a faithful copy of a given text, the aim of the latter is instead that of producing a new text. This means essentially two things: first, to reconstruct the original intention of the author by identifying the most mature and coherent version of the text; second, to provide a comprehensive and ordered list of all the changes, interventions, and corrections made throughout the evolving editorial process.

At the PEP the methodology followed in editing the Writings is that of copy-text selection and emendation.[8] A copy-text usually coincides with the final draft of a manuscript closest to Peirce’s unmediated hand, though not necessarily: strictly speaking, it is the text that editors, following a minute analysis of the manuscript and taking into account all of Peirce’s textual deletions, insertions, and transpositions, have established as the form and extent of the text that needs to be transcribed before editing occurs. In case several drafts of a single text are extant, the copy-text will normally be based on their most mature form if it can be identified, while if only one version exists it automatically becomes the single source for establishing the copy-text.

In the case of Peirce’s published and unpublished texts, the difficulty of reconstructing a clear copy-text is due not only to the presence of many incomplete manuscripts, but also to the author’s unusual writing habits. Peirce frequently composed several versions of the same text (versions that often are not drafts but “variants,” i.e., distinct strategies of investigation or discussion regarding a particular topic) before reaching some level of satisfaction. Moreover, he kept correcting his texts, even the published ones, sometimes correcting errors, adding marginal insertions, or even recycling older texts into new ones with quantities of revisions.

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The twofold aim of producing a critical edition of Peirce’s writings as he would have done while reporting virtually all editorial interventions is, together with the nature of the material, what makes the PEP’s work a special scholarly enterprise in the contemporary panorama of critical editing.

To provide a more precise idea of the work required to achieve this objective, a good strategy is to take a look at the table of contents of the last volume of the Writings, and to see how it is organized. The first thing that would strike the occasional reader is that the plain texts cover less than half the entire volume. All the selected texts are published without notes except for those originally inserted by Peirce. The other half of the volume can then be subdivided into two parts. In the first there are the Preface, a short Chronology of Peirce’s life, and a very detailed and informative Introduction that covers the period in which the selected texts were composed, reconstructing their genealogy within the general context of Peirce’s biography and thought development.

Then, following the 56 selected texts, there is the critical apparatus, which again can be subdivided into two parts. The first is composed by the Annotations, in which the editors “clarify passages, provide historical background, suggest contemporary connections, identify and explain philosophical and scientific terms … or [reproduce or] refer to relevant passages elsewhere in Peirce’s work”.[9] The second part contains instead the Bibliography of Peirce’s References—which provides a list of bibliographic references to the editions of the texts that Peirce is most likely to have used—and the Chronological Catalog, which lists all the manuscripts in the corpus that have been identified as belonging to the period covered in the volume, together with other essential information (title, document type, n. of sheet, archival source, key-reference, etc.).

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Finally, the last part of the volume contains the Essay on Editorial Theory and Method, which explains the principles behind the editorial work, and the Textual Apparatus, which provides “a nearly complete record of what has been done in the editing process, and it presents the necessary evidence for the editorial decisions that have been made in the critical edition”.[10] Ideally, starting from the plain text published in the volume, and using the information contained in the Chronological Catalog and in these two sections, one could work his way back up to the construction of a fair icon of the original text, with the possibility to understand the rationale behind any difference between the two texts.

Spending even a short time at the PEP would expose anyone to the various working practices associated with the compilation and composition of all those editorial sections. They include, just to name a few, all the discussions about particular interpretative points, the search for historical references and the team-proofreading sessions to check the transcriptions. And yet, there is also another layer, more difficult to notice but equally important, which informs throughout the working habits of the Peirce Edition Project, namely how the application of principles derived from Peirce’s own semiotics is helping the PEP staff to achieve its objectives. A very good example of this latter aspect is provided by how Peirce’s “pragmatic maxim” is used by the editors to guide the editorial process.

As is well known, in his original formulation Peirce’s maxim reads as follows: “Consider what effects, that 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”.[11] As a theorem of formal semiotics concerning the meaning of signs, the maxim tells us which symbolic transformations we have to undertake in order to make fully explicit—or to “clarify”—the meaning of any symbol in the most rational way. However, by rephrasing the maxim in the light of other aims concerning the meaning of signs, what we obtain is a working principle that may help us in a variety of other tasks, such as to decide which texts are scientifically relevant and thus worthy of being published, or whether an alteration (such as a correction, an insertion, or a note) in the original manuscript is noteworthy for the readers.

In the former case the maxim can be rephrased as follows: “Consider whether the omission from publication of a text under consideration would produce an effect that might conceivably hamper, distort, or lessen any reader’s understanding of Peirce’s developing thought. If there is any such conceivable effect, then the text has critical significance and must be further examined to assess whether some other version does not supersede it”.  In the second case, however, the maxim can be rephrased in this way: “Consider whether reporting the change of intention manifested in the alteration produces an effect which might conceivably modify a reader’s perception or understanding of the thought process leading to the final reading. If there is any such conceivable effect, then the alteration is critically significant”.[12]

The consistent use of the ‘pragmatic maxim’ as a working principle for critical editing is only one of the ways in which Peirce’s theory of signs is constantly shaping the working practices of the PEP’s staff, thereby fostering, among other things, its own replication.


Future Plans

In the past decades the archive and research work required to begin the critical editing of Peirce’s literary remains consumed a formidable amount of resources, strategic thinking, and time. Finally things are now accelerating and the fruits of this endeavour are getting closer to publication.

W9, which covers the period from 1892 to early summer 1893, is now expected before the end of 2011, while W11 containing Peirce’s almost finished but never published book from 1894 How to Reason, A Critick of Arguments is scheduled for 2013. At about the same time W7 is also expected, which will be a special volume containing a large selection of Peirce’s definitions for the Century Dictionary. The latter volume is edited by the PEP in collaboration with the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and under the supervision of Professor François Latraverse.[13]

Other future plans include the publication of volume 22, slated to contain Peirce’s Lowell Lectures of 1903. The reason for seeking to publish this volume before W10 is that these lectures are among Peirce’s most important philosophical writings and they have never been published as a fully reconstructed sequence of texts. After a long wait, this new wave of critically edited volumes will provide much relief both to the PEP staff and anyone interested in Peirce.

Another positive news is that in June 2010 the PEP was awarded a two-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which will last until 31 August 2012. Besides allowing for the hiring of an assistant textual editor, this grant provides also $ 30,000 in matching funds, meaning that for every dollar that will be donated to support PEP’s activities, the NEH will provide another one. Indeed, in order for the PEP to continue its work, adequate resources must be secured, and this grant provides for anyone willing to support its activities a great, cost-effective, opportunity to do so.

Money and time alone, however, are not sufficient if there is not a group of professionals determined to pursue a shared objective. After all, the history of Peirce’s semiotic legacy has always been the story of the tenacious survival of certain sign-patterns through the efforts of a few individuals convinced of the importance of bringing them to their destined public form. Securing this result, today as in the past, brings into play the third and probably most important way in which Peirce’s semiotic legacy informs the activity of the PEP, namely, the sense of community and collective endeavour that permeates its atmosphere. A quotation taken from Peirce himself, in which he explains what he meant by the phrase “a life of science”, illustrates perfectly the kind of spirit to which I am here alluding to:

[A] life devoted to the pursuit of truth according to the best known methods on the part of a group of men who understand one another’s ideas and works as no outsider can. It is not what they have already found out which makes their business a science; it is that they are pursuing a branch of truth according, I will not say, to the best methods, but according to the best methods that are known at the time. I do not call the solitary studies of a single man a science. It is only when a group of men, more or less in intercommunication, are aiding and stimulating one another by their understanding of a particular group of studies as outsiders cannot understand them, that I call their life a science. It is not necessary that they should all be at work upon the same problem, or that all should be fully acquainted with all that it is needful for another of them to know; but their studies must be so closely allied that any one of them could take up the problem of any other after some months of special preparation and that each should understand pretty minutely what it is that each one of the other’s work consists in; so that any two of them meeting together shall be thoroughly conversant with each other’s ideas and the language he talks and should feel each other to be brethren. In particular, one thing which commonly unites them is their common skill unpossessed by outsiders in the use of certain instruments and their common skill in performing certain kinds of work (MS 1334, pp. 11-14, 1905)
In contrast to an idea of science as an individualistic endeavour driven by competition, Peirce thought instead that what qualifies a life as “a life of science” was the awareness of being part of a dedicated group of professionals committed to the achievement of a collective purpose. And indeed, Peirce himself would be delighted to know that it is precisely this spirit that inspires the work of the Peirce Edition Project.

[1] I am grateful to Paul Bouissac for asking me to write this report and to André De Tienne for his useful comments on its earlier drafts. All the photographs of the PEP were taken by me; text images are taken from two different manuscripts (MS 492: 61, 93; and MS 693: 99) and are shown here only for illustrative purpose. For a general index of Peirce’s manuscripts, one can consult The Annotated Catalogue of the Papers of Charles S. Peirce, edited by R. Robin, at the following link:

[2] The outcome of the two projects has been my final dissertation, entitled “Peirce, Pragmatism and the Words of Science”, and the volume Alle origini del Pragmatismo, edited by Giovanni Maddalena and myself, and recently published by Nino Aragno Editore.

[5] W8: Preface xi.

[6] The side story of the fortunes and misfortunes of these papers, and of how they were rescued by Josiah Royce after Peirce’s death and then kept in Harvard, has been reconstructed by Nathan Houser, PEP’s former editor in chief, and is in itself worth of interest; it can be found at the following link:

[7] W8: “Essay on Editorial Theory and Method,” p. 517.

[8] For a more detailed explanation of how the PEP uses this editorial methodology see W8: “Essay on Editorial Theory and Method,”. pp. 516–18.

[9] W8: Annotations, p. 362.

[10] W8: Textual Apparatus, p.532.

[11] See C. S. Peirce “How to Make Our Ideas Clear“, Writings of Charles S. Peirce (Indiana University Press, 1986), vol. 3, p. 266.

[12] Quoted from André De Tienne’s discussion of the “pragmaticistic stance” adopted by the PEP editors in the newsletter News from the Peirce Edition Project, September 2010, p.1.


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