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on-line forum for discussion of
The Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce
and related topics

Founder: Joseph Ransdell


The Peirce Group
Host: Institute for American Thought
(home of the Peirce Edition Project)
with resources from I.U.P.U.I.

Moderator &

Gary Richmond
Co-manager: Ben Udell
  Online Interface (get password).


Article is by Joseph Ransdell except for updates (in blue), and some excisions, of technical and related text and links.

PEIRCE-L is a public forum,

established by Joseph Ransdell in August 1993, sponsored originally by the Department of Philosophy at Texas Tech University, open to the discussion of all topics pertaining to the life and work of the American philosopher, scientist, and humanist Charles Sanders Peirce, with a central focus maintained on his philosophical work in particular.

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you receive in your email a copy of each message posted to the forum (that is the default option, which you can change), and you can yourself post a message to the forum at any time, thus sending it to each and every member. (There are almost 440 members.) The effect is comparable with conversing orally in a public place set aside for such a purpose, sometimes addressing yourself to particular persons there as well as to the forum members generally, sometimes addressing whomever is there at the time. The forum is open and nonexclusive — no qualifications must be met to participate either actively or as an observer — though to participate actively it is necessary to subscribe first to the member list.

The conversation in the PEIRCE-L forum is recorded verbatim and is available in searchable archives, though access to the entire collection from the beginning is not currently available.

The forum is primarily email-based, but it also offers a supplementary web-based interface which can be used for:

HOW THE FORUM WORKS (Joseph Ransdell) Skip this section's table of contents

The default arrangement is that messages are distributed to subscribers automatically, not requiring any approval or permitting any filtering or editing by the list manager. Although this default can be changed if necessary by the manager, as a means of controlling the flow of conversation, this is rarely done in order to maximize the sense of the communication as something occurring in an open public forum. Experience has shown that — in the case of Peirce-related discussion, at least — this is vastly superior in results to what can be achieved by filtering or editorial intervention. Thus the discussion is "moderated" only in a minimal and unobtrusive way, the basic method of managerial control being of the same sort as the control exercised by other forum members, namely, by participation in discussion as a forum member on par with others.

      A forum is not the same as a discussion group with a more or less definite agenda. Forums are essentially places where communication occurs rather than organizations of persons for special discussion purposes. Special on-line discussion groups can be arranged for, but the preference of the members of PEIRCE-L has always shown itself to be for the open forum. This is perhaps due at least in part to the fact that the existence of places where people can and do critically question and challenge one another without the usual protections of office, rank, agenda, and official moderation all but disappeared from public life — including intellectual life — in the U.S. and many other countries as well during the 20th Century, and there is a strongly sensed need for what such places uniquely provide and which the internet has made possible again. The stylized rhetoric of debate in the political arena, the choreographed presentations of academics at professional conferences, the constraints of fixed agenda and their presupposed frameworks of relevance in discussion groups or seminars, and the inevitable deference to prestige and intellectual fashion implicit in "neutral" managerial control of discussion leave a need which can be met only by the spontaneity of the open forum.


Charles Peirce (1839-1914) is associated with foundational work in logic and the philosophy of science, category theory, theory of meaning, significance, and representation, interpretation theory, and the conception of thought as essentially social and communicational. Although Peirce regarded his vocation or calling as that of the logician and philosopher, he made his living chiefly as a physical scientist, and was an adept in and contributed to an astonishing range of the sciences, from mathematics to psychology. Remarkably, he was an accomplished humanist scholar and devotee of the literary and dramatic arts as well.
      Thus his work appeals to an exceptionally wide range of contemporary intellectual interests, and the subscription membership of PEIRCE-L is correspondingly interdisciplinary and sympathetic with a wide spectrum of discussion topics. The intention in establishing and maintaining the forum, though, has been to keep a continuing focus on basic philosophical conceptions and problems as well as special applications, and that has been the way it has worked out in practice as well.


The list was established in August 1993, and numbers around 300 or so members at present. It includes people from at least 35 to 40 different nations and from a remarkable range of disciplines and fields of interest and competence, and is not limited to those with academic posts or connections: a substantial number of its participants have no vocational connection with academia at all. Whether it is in spite of this diversity or because of it, the participants have found little difficulty in sustaining discussion at a high level of rigor, a vigorous pace, and a generosity of attitude without need for recourse to artificial moderation. The manager participates on par with others on the list except where special responsibilities require otherwise. There are few days without some messages being posted, and some 8 to 10 posts would be a typical day, though like all such forums, it is susceptible to very irregular pacing.

      No limitation is put upon the length or number of posts. Many are quite short but some are extensively developed, and the policy is neither to encourage or discourage on the basis of length: either stance seems to the manager to be, in effect, a discouragement of the attempt to do or to further philosophy in this public forum.


The forum is moderated only in the sense that the manager attempts to maintain a presence in one way or another so that the subscribers can be confident that their posts are being read by at least person, even if no overt response is forthcoming. I will intervene where necessary to redirect or shut down lines of conversation which seem clearly alien or destructive to the purposes of the list, but this is unusual and has in fact happened no more than a handful of times since the list was instituted four years ago, and even then those involved found nothing to complain about. In general, the list functions as an open public forum, and it is up to the subscribers, not the forum manager, to determine what is discussed.


Since PEIRCE-L is best thought of as a public forum, which is primarily a place rather than a discussion group, people contribute or not as they think best, and come and go freely, as is taken for granted in public forums wherever they occur. There is no standing agenda except the promotion of philosophical conversation of the sort which one would expect from people with a special interest in Peirce and of other communication in support of that. Thus discussion should be Peirce-related but not necessarily on Peirce, and the working test for relevance would simply be a plausible explanation of why the topic in question should be under discussion on a list called "PEIRCE-L: The Philosophy of Charles Peirce", given that people subscribe to such lists with some more or less definite expectations about subject-matter in mind.


It is expected that criticism will be vigorous and diligently pursued: philosophy is understood here to be essentially a critically directed and self-controlled conversation. But there is one important caveat in this connection: If you feel that some messages being posted are not to the purpose of the list or that there is something someone is doing which should be discouraged, do NOT attempt to rectify that yourself by posting a message to that effect to the list in general. Because there is so little overt or formal moderation by the list manager, it is natural to suppose that the individual members can and should take that role as needed. But this rarely if ever produces the effect intended, regardless of how reasonable it may seem at a particular time. Contact me instead off-list and we will see what can or should be done, if anything, without generating a chain reaction of protests and counter-protests, which are the typical result of attempting to rectify the problem on-list.


Should you contact the person yourself first, off-list, in an attempt to rectify their way of participating rather than bothering me with it? Although you do of course have a right—professional, moral, legal, whatever—to do this, and it may seem best to you, let me urge you to contact me first, nonetheless, unless there is some truly special and urgent reason to the contrary. There are several reasons for this:

(1) None of us really knows yet what the most humane and productive communicational mores will turn out to be for communication of this sort: it is continually surprising, and if anything is certain here it is that our initial hunches tend to be unreliable. The list manager is more likely to understand enough about the dynamics of this particular list than anyone else, and has also had enough experience of these things to have learned what is likely to be the most effective response to something problematic.

(2) It is the list manager who is ultimately responsible for the list, as regards institutional accountability. Speaking directly to this: I need to have these things under my own control if I am to handle judiciously the problems that can arise in such connections. I am open to advice and counsel at all times and try not to act imperiously. But there is no way that I can effectively delegate my responsibility to the list members, which would be essential if the members were themselves to participate in the management of the list other than as informal advisors in off-list discussion.

(3) It is probably because everybody on the list understands (at least unreflectively) that no list members as such have any special right to regulate or moderate the conduct of others as list members that criticisms of one another that suggest directly or indirectly that someone is not of the proper sort to be on the list because of what they post are highly inflammatory and are the cause of most so-called "flame wars".

Contrary to what one might think, "flame wars" do NOT begin because people, excited by ideas, sometimes go too far and say things they shouldn't. Errors like this are to be expected in a new discussion medium and they are easily corrected by apology and retraction immediately thereafter. Anybody who participates vigorously in this medium will make errors of judgment like this, and those familiar with the medium do not condemn one another for it. They do expect, though, that those who are at odds with one another in this way be both generous in their tolerance of the other when excess occurs and in their readiness to make verbal amends when excess is imputed to them. When in doubt, apologize: you are never diminished by it.


Special situations do arise, though, in which someone feels aggrieved at what someone else has said to or about them in the public forum and feels it important to set the record straight in the forum as well, not necessarily out of anger but as a matter of the practical need to exercise self-defense of reputation as regards personal or professional comportment. I will address this more fully and adequately in an appendix below, but it should be understood that not even the list manager has the right to deny to a person the opportunity of rectifying, by speaking in his or her own behalf, what he or she believes to be serious misunderstandings about themselves as persons, private or public, that have been or are being generated in the forum. This right of personal self-defense must be respected, even when the person seems to be mistaken or to be using poor judgment in pursuing it. See the appendix in further explanation of the reason for this and for some procedural points and policies that are especially important in this connection.


If you are new to this discussion medium you may make the common mistake of thinking that a public forum should be impersonal. Not so. In fact, all relationships of persons established here in virtue of becoming a subscriber to the list are necessarily person-to-person relationships. PEIRCE-L is not a community or a group, though it will hopefully function to encourage community relationships. It is simply a place where persons talk to persons in a public setting, and it is normal to address one another personally while speaking in a public place. The personal is not the same as the private. The question is whether the discussion concerns matters that pertain to the purpose of the forum in general, and when that condition is met it is quite in order to pursue special interests in public in list-based discussions of this sort as long as there is nothing exclusive of others in it, either explicitly or in tone.


In general, it is preferable for purposes of the forum itself to keep discussion about the topic in question public since off-list discussions can result in a damaging loss of shared public understanding of what is being said. This is worth special mention because there are philosophy lists which encourage taking the conversation off-list as quickly as possible. The aim is to inhibit extended philosophical discussion on the list in favor of the maximization of some other value, which varies from list to list. Whatever the wisdom of this may be elsewhere, this is NOT encouraged here. People can of course pursue off-list communication with one another as much as they please; but the point to bear in mind is that if the topic is under public discussion on the list then the quality of that discussion can be seriously degraded if parts of it are not publicly accessible. Moreover, those who are "out of the loop" off-list may feel — and rightly — that they are not being treated as peers in the discussion, even though that is not the intention.


Your messages normally go directly to the distribution mechanism: I do not normally intercept and approve them. I do occasionally invoke that privilege but usually only for a brief period for some special reason. In the nearly four years of the list's existence I have actually done this only twice that I can recall. It requires a special effort on my part to do so, and it is not a standing practice.


The present policy is that one can post in any language one wishes, the only constraints on that being practical ones, which are left to the judgment of the person(s) posting. These constraints are great, though, and one wants to be realistic about it. The communicational realities are that at this point in time the subscriber list is dominated by people from English-speaking countries, with those from the U.S. being the largest group. It is difficult to say to what extent this corresponds to the present interest in Peirce and to what extent it reflects instead the relative size of the English-speaking countries and the relative extent of the development and deployment of computer-based communication in each country. The important thing, though, is that the numerical dominance of Americans means that the number of people likely to understand a message in any language other than English is quite small, possibly far less than people from more cosmopolitan cultures may tend to think.

      The only significant steps toward a solution to this problem will be those that can be devised by making use of facilities that might be incorporated into the Arisbe website or that might be instituted as modifications of the browser programs that access websites. Time spent in trying to do something on the basis of the listserver and mailer technologies alone will probably be wasted. Ideas and help on developing the facilities at the website in this respect will be greatly appreciated by all, I am sure, and a special list could be established now or in the near future devoted to addressing this problem. It seems likely that one could expect to find special funding from one source or another, and the donation of special facilities as well, if one could come up with a generalizable experimental approach toward ameliorating a networking communications problem which is going to be increasingly pressing in the future.


If you think you are not receiving messages that have been posted you are probably right, but it will not be because you have been arbitrarily removed from the list. There are many breakdowns of one sort and another on the internet and it is impossible for me to monitor them in such a way as to insure that you actually receive every post or indeed any of them. Please inform me when you think that something has happened to your subscription, though, so that I can do what is within my power to rectify it: I usually have no idea that this has occurred until someone informs me themselves of their concern. [As of 2011, inform the co-managers. — B.U.]


Observers as well as active participants are welcome, and equally so: this is a public forum. Moreover, observers are participants, too, insofar as they are affected by what they observe; and those who believe, as Peirce did, that thought is best regarded as essentially communicational in form will tend to place more emphasis than usual on the importance of recognizing observation as participation, drawing no general distinction between participants and observers as list members. I should add that I have learned, as list manager, that there are always a substantial number of persons on the list who never post — there are various reasons for this — who nevertheless follow the conversations closely and avidly. It should also be borne in mind that the list is subscribed in various ways to further mailing list and bulletin board media.


You should feel free to introduce a new topic for discussion, or to respond to a "thread" or line of thought already in process, or to participate only by observation, as you see fit. This type of communicational arrangement takes multiple "threads" of discourse for granted, which means that except in special cases you are not interrupting a conversation in process when you introduce a new topic. In fact, concurrent multi-thread conversation can result in the sort of gratuitous conceptual enrichment we prize as serendipity, and is to be encouraged. So don't wait for the right time to introduce a topic: just jump right in with it. Also, you should take it for granted that nobody "owns" a public discussion or publicly developed line of thought: you can enter into it at any time, just as those already involved in it can pay as much or as little attention as they see fit in view of the relevance of what you say, as they perceive it.


If you are already acquainted with list-based communication of this sort then you are aware that it is in some ways importantly unlike face-to-face group discussion, and the effective use of this medium requires the cultivation of attitudes appropriate to much looser patterns of communicational responsiveness and of a kind of patience and tolerance that may at first seem unnatural (especially on those occasions when you post something and no one seems interested in responding at all!).

      But is it unnatural? It is the custom of the Huicholes in Mexico, when they wish to visit someone, to sit down some 50 feet or so from the friend's house, in full view of it but not facing the house directly, as if their interest just happens to be in something located nearby. The people in the house may come and go for many hours, indeed all day, without showing the slightest indication that they perceive the would-be visitor, and the latter may or may not stay waiting long enough to be overtly noticed, with no one ever saying anything later to indicate that any visiting activity like this has occurred. Communication in forums of this type is often like that—though it can sometimes be very like rapid-pace face-to-face discussion, too—and there are other unusual features of it as well which we may also want to discuss on the list itself.

      If nobody responds to your posts you should NOT assume that it is because of lack of interest, or that your post is perceived as something negligible. You really have no basis for doing that, given the understandings and practices of lists like this. Frequently, the interested people just don't have time to respond, and few of us have time to respond to more than a small percentage of the things that interest us, in any case. Since you usually have no way of knowing why you didn't get the response you hoped for, it is best to be Stoic about it—or as it says in the Bhagavad Gita: "Do not work for the fruits of your action." Pose your questions and comments well by your own standards and remind yourself that even if there is no overt response, what you have said or asked will be read by hundreds of people in any case, and with what results or "fruits" you cannot know. If overt response is also important to you, then wait a month or so and try it again.


Even if you have no substantive contribution to make—no question to raise, etc.—to the list-group initially and perhaps plan only to observe, the other members would appreciate it if you were to introduce yourself briefly, saying anything you like about yourself that would give all of us some idea of what your special interests in Peirce might be and what you might hope to gain from participation in the discussion, even if only as an observer. This can encourage others, who might only be waiting for a pretext to get into the topic that especially interests you. Do this whenever you want to do it. Don't wait for some especially appropriate time since there is none.


You can probably use the reply command or its equivalent in your software and your message will be sent to the list with the same subject specified. That is, the listserver software is set for that; but there are vagaries beyond our control here, and you should verify that your own mailer program is not resetting the software switch in such a way that replies to your post will come directly to you rather than to the list in general, which is what is usually wanted.

      Unfortunately, even when there is no problem in this respect, it does NOT mean that people on the list will necessarily know to whom or about what you are replying: subject descriptions are skimpy and often misleading, they are frequently difficult to find in long and complicated headers, and there are some mailer programs that strip away the headers so extensively or so ineptly that they convey nearly no information at all. In replying, therefore, it is prudent to have a beginning line in the message itself in which you indicate to whom you are replying and about what, if that is appropriate, and, for the same reason, a closing signature line or block in all of your messages that identifies who you are. The latter is especially important. How much information you wish to provide about yourself is up to you, but the participants need enough information about identity to keep track of the conversational flow. Anonymous or intentionally unidentifiable contribution is not acceptable here.

* * *


  PEIRCE-L has not had serious problems arising from people taking offense at things said about them — such occurrences are inevitable in an arena of lively discourse but the few occasions of this on PEIRCE-L have been resolved quickly and without serious effects — but all lively list-based discussion arrangements are inherently prone to runaway communicational patterns because we have not yet developed traditions of communicational self-control for this medium that will tend to contain them automatically. It is true that a manager can regulate discourse on such lists by using this or that technique of moderation, usually involving message filtering, that insures that no such thing occurs, but it will probably be at the expense of insuring that little spontaneous thinking will occur either.

Good thinking is often driven by strong feeling, and the stance taken here is that the problem is not how to eliminate the expression of impassioned thought but how to compensate for its tendency to excess. When moderation takes the form of message filtering, the public forum as such ceases to exist, implicitly replaced by an ill-defined discussion group that is unlikely to generate much worthwhile discussion either unless still further control measures are introduced. This may well be justified for this or that purpose, but the aim of PEIRCE-L is to make a public forum available, and the control here has to be compensatory rather than prohibitive.

In general, the solution seems clear enough on the face of it: the medium itself makes it possible to rectify or attempt to compensate for mistakes almost immediately, and we should become accustomed to the idea that what is said is not something that is completed at the moment it is uttered but is a function of the ongoing communicational process in which it occurs. There is a very real sense in which the future can and does determine the past, in communication, and because we can reclaim, shape, and rectify what we say so easily here we can afford to take more chances than would be prudent in a less plastic communicational medium. This can be liberating in that it makes it easier for us to acknowledge what we have actually said and done, since what has been done can so easily be undone or re-done—at times and in part, at least—and we are not so strongly compelled to denial and to averting our eyes from our own behavior in order to preserve our sense for our own integrity. In a fluid and sufficiently rapid communicational process we can see ourselves as becoming rather than simply as being, and we can become more supple and adaptive in the interest of cultivating a developing integrity rather than being tempted constantly to falsify ourselves to ourselves to achieve the illusion of a past—and increasingly petrified—integrity.

The conversational dynamics of this type of communication is not well enough understood by us yet to take it for granted that conversational sanity will always prevail as it has thus far, though. The following are intended as having the force of more or less loosely adhered to procedural policies in cases where somebody believes that somebody else has responded to them in a way that must be construed as a personal attack, with the understanding that application always requires judgment and that it is the spirit rather than the letter that should rule. They are formulated both as advisories and to provide the list manager with a basis for action in case the need for it should arise.

First, it should be taken for granted, as mentioned in the body of the welcome message above, that if somebody does feel that someone else has personally attacked them and in such a way as to be damaging to them if this is not rectified somehow, they have a right to self-defense in the public forum in which that has supposedly occurred. This is so regardless of whether or not one thinks they are using good judgment in pursuing the matter. This does not mean they have a right to "fight it out" but rather that they have a right to take public steps designed to demonstrate the truth of the matter, as they conceive it. This should of coure be done as economically as possible.

Second, someone who has taken offense should be ready to specify *exactly* what it is that has been found offensive — preferably by use of direct quotation — since the supposed offender may misunderstand or even have little or no idea as to what the person offended is disturbed about and thus be in no position to make the necessary corrections. Vague allusions to the tone or character of the message as a whole will not do, and are irresponsible when the opportunity is plainly available to be exact since all conversation is recorded and retrievable by all in verbatim form. Refusal to make good on this negates the application of the first principle, i.e. the person supposedly attacked has no right to claim that any such damage has occurred if they are unwilling to substantiate it by verbatim quotation.

Third, if one is offended and feels that this must be addressed publicly one should explicitly direct one's requests for amends (apology, retraction, whatever) to the supposed offender, as distinct from addressing the forum in general in a manner that gives the impression that one is doing the verbal equivalent of pointing an accusing finger at someone outside the circle of those explicitly addressed. It is easy to lapse into the latter stance unthinkingly (I have done it myself more than once) since there is often reason to comment to the list in general about what an individual has said. There is nothing illegitimate in that; but when the content or tone becomes accusatory in such a way that the accused is being spoken of as if external to the persons being directly addressed, then the finger-pointing rhetorical stance begins to take on unwanted implications. It is, in fact, the stance that typically leads to public stonings and scapegoating generally. These things do occur in this medium — never by conscious intention, to be sure, since people never regard themselves as actually doing that sort of thing even after they have done it (other descriptions are always readily available) — but they need not if we recognize how they begin and stop the process before it is well-established.

Fourth, other list members should not attempt to do the impossible, which is to resolve the problem themselves by intervening and arguing for who is in the right. List members simply do not relate to one another as such in a way that makes that possible, tempting though it may be. Be patient with the people involved, even though you find it irritating that it is happening, recognizing that they have a right to protect their personal reputations by correcting what they think, rightly or wrongly, to be damage done to them. You might someday find yourself in such a position, rightly or wrongly, and it would then be quite clear to you why it is so important to recognize that fundamental right of self-defense. If the manager is acting competently, the aggrieved parties will be allowed to make the appropriate statements, so that all can see what has really happened or is being claimed, after whichnall public discussion of that matter in the forum will be closed, and regular conversation should continue undisturbed. (Indeed, regular conversation can continue regardless of what else is happening, anyway, but in practice it usually comes to a halt temporarily when something disturbing occurs.)

A final word: note that these are managerial procedures and are not to be confused with legal or quasi-legal procedures. The aim is only to control the conversational flow in an appropriate way, not to provide procedures for determining who is right and who is wrong. This is not a court of law and cannot be converted into one. Neither the manager nor anybody else can decide who is right or wrong as a public conclusion. All that can be required here—but it is enough— is that the people in the forum are given a chance to understand what has actually happened, insofar as that can be achieved in the way indicated.


PEIRCE-L was established in August 1993. Publicly available are the messages sent between February 16, 2000 (the adoption of a new listserver program) and September 19, 2001, and since August 9, 2002. It is still hoped that the other messages will be recovered and made publicly available.


One can subscribe, unsubscribe, or modify one's subscription settings by commands sent via messages, and one can unsubscribe or modify one's settings via an online interface (below):


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