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Much has been written on the relationship between Charles S. Peirce’s pragmatist maxim and the logical positivists’ “verification principle.” The former is a methodological principle which suggests that the meaning of abstract conceptions can be elucidated by referring to their “practical bearings”; the latter proposes that the meaning of a proposition is to be sought in the methods that allow it to be verified. Some analyses have simply highlighted the analogy between the two. Others have detected different stages in Peirce’s thought: a first stage that seems to lend itself to this comparison, including in particular the so-called “pragmatist” writings of 1877–1878, and a second one that departs from it, starting with the moment when Peirce, a vigorous defender of a scholastic realism, began to take seriously the reality of “would be-s.” The comparison usually serves to open the way toward a critique of both positions, as is the case, for example, in the reading proposed by Putnam in the 1970s. That particular affair has received a great deal of attention, which has made it possible to identify that part of Peirce’s work which cannot be reduced to logical positivism.
The present article takes a different angle, within which there are two issues at stake. Firstly, the history of philosophy: focusing on the writings of the young Peirce from the 1860s, the aim is to show that from the start, his project sets itself up in opposition to another, historical, form of positivism stemming from the writings of Auguste Comte…


This article discusses Peirce’s relationship to Comte, based on criticisms made by Peirce in his early writings. It has a twofold purpose: firstly, addressing an important question in the history of philosophy that is surprisingly overlooked, even though here we find Peirce reading, commenting on, and criticizing Comte. The second issue is epistemological and metaphysical: Peirce sees in Comte’s theory of hypotheses a position close to the pragmatism he develops but burdened with nominalist presuppositions that ultimately make it untenable, unless one adopts a “charitable” reading of it. The confrontation with Comte then seems to be a privileged opportunity, for Peirce, to clarify his own pragmatism.


L’article étudie la relation de Peirce à Comte, en partant des critiques formulées dans ses écrits de jeunesse. Son enjeu est double : il relève d’abord d’une question d’histoire de la philosophie étonnamment peu traitée, alors même que Peirce lit, commente et critique Comte. Le second enjeu est épistémologique et métaphysique : Peirce voit dans la théorie comtienne des hypothèses une position proche du pragmatisme qu’il développe, mais grevée de présupposés nominalistes qui la rendent finalement intenable, à moins que l’on n’en adopte une lecture « charitable ». La confrontation avec Comte semble alors être l’occasion privilégiée d’une explicitation de son propre pragmatisme.

Mathias Girel
École Normale Supérieure-PSL, République des Savoirs Unit, Centre Cavaillès.
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Uploaded on on 10/02/2022
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