In 1933 Ernest Nagel wrote an extended review (here) for the Journal of Philosophy of the then recently published Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Volume I of the Collected Papers was published in 1931, Volume II in 1932. The Collected Papers would eventually come to a total of eight volumes (the eighth published in 1958). This collection has come to be superseded by the Peirce Edition Project's ongoing Chronological Edition of the Writings of Charles S. Peirce out of Indiana University Press (see here), which is slated to total some 30 volumes when completed.
At the very beginning of his review, Nagel notes that having Peirce’s writings published will allow for “a measure of justice” to be done for the long neglected Peirce. “Unfortunately,” Nagel adds, “the handsome volumes of this edition can not undo the damage which both Peirce and philosophy have suffered when he was not permitted, except for a brief period, to receive the intellectual and literary discipline which regular university teaching would have given him.” (p. 365, emphasis mine). In other words, with the exception of the five years Peirce taught at Johns Hopkins (1879-1884), Peirce’s philosophical work was largely done without the discipline that comes with “regular university teaching,” and this, for Nagel, was to have unfortunate consequences both for Peirce’s philosophy and for philosophy in general.
Given the important role Nagel played in fostering and encouraging the analytic trajectory that much of Anglo-American philosophy has come to take (as discussed here, here, and here), Nagel’s concern for the lack of “disciplining” of Peirce is noteworthy and raises at least two questions: 1) How did this lack of discipline negatively affect Peirce’s philosophy?; and 2) more generally how does a lack of discipline, on Nagel's understanding, affect philosophy negatively? The short answer to the second question is that if a lack of discipline does have a negative effect then one can better understand the criticism analytic philosophers often make of continental philosophers for lacking rigor and clarity – in short, continental philosophy is a philosophy without discipline. But what if, by contrast, an important task of philosophy is to be without or outside discipline, to be indisciplined if you will?
As for the first question, of the problems that arise within Peirce’s philosophy, Nagel cites his unfortunate “fondness for trichotomous divisions,” divisions that are further divisible into further varieties in such a “crack-brained” (366) manner that the result, Nagel more than intimates, is an unwieldy mess. Nagel also argues that Peirce “uses (and thereby abuses) propositions in the general theory of conics to illustrate fundamental metaphysical distinctions, and the outcome is a very mystifying metaphysics indeed” (367); he accuses Peirce of using “with abandon an uncritically formulated principle of continuity” (369); he cites Peirce for failing “to analyze the meaning of contingency” (370); and finally, though not exhaustively, regarding Perice’s efforts to account for how chance, law, and “the tendency for things to take on habits” all fit together, Nagel asks, rhetorically, whether it is “possible to make a coherent scheme out of all this?” (371). Nagel’s eventual answer, unsurprisingly, is “no.”
This is not the place to launch into a defense of Peirce against Nagel’s criticisms, and it should be noted that the review is not entirely critical – Nagel praises Peirce’s theory of signs for instance and finds, with qualifications, much of value in his studies of probable inference. The question I’m interested in, however, is the role institutions play in disciplining philosophical theorizing so that it is less likely to succumb to the types of problems Nagel finds in Peirce. The implication for Nagel is clear: had Peirce been able to continue teaching within a university setting he would have acquired the discipline that would have allowed him to avoid some of the problems that Nagel cites. But is discipline a criterion without fault? One could launch into a Foucauldian discussion of disciplinary institutions at this point, and appropriately so, or one could launch into a litany of philosophers whose work was done outside the disciplining grasp of academic institutions, or done away from the marketplace as Nietzsche puts it (e.g., Spinoza, Schopenhauer, among many others), but one could also stick with Peirce himself.
One of the main reasons Nagel finds Peirce's efforts to account for chance, law, and the tendency for things to take habits problematic is that he finds Peirce's concept of chaos incomprehensible and not up to the task Peirce envisions for it it. In particular, Nagel argues that Peirce “can not possibly get order and connection by simply taking them as growths from a primal chaos; he must take for granted some form of order, e.g., a tendency in things to take on and conserve habits.” (371). In other words, one must begin with a disciplined nature, or a nature already predisposed to a particular “form of order,” and consequently for Nagel to posit a primal chaos without "form of order" “is completely unintelligible, and can not be the explanation of anything.” (372). A lack of discipline, in short, can quickly become a mystifying, obscurantist metaphysics.
For Peirce, however, a case can be made that this chaos is precisely that which cannot be reduced to a predetermining “form of order,” an already established discipline. And it is on this point where a number of continental philosophers (e.g., Deleuze) have found in Peirce’s work an effort to think through the emergence of order and identity without presupposing an order or identity to guide and predetermine the process (Spinoza can be read this way too, as I have argued here). Moreover, a Peircean argument could be made that the very institutional discipline Nagel promotes and calls for could well be an obstacle on the road of inquiry, an impediment to a more encompassing and creative philosophy. There is no doubt that for most people who want to devote a large portion of their time to doing philosophy it is a practical necessity to become affiliated with an academic institution. This is a sociological reality. But perhaps what is needed is an awareness of the discipline that comes with such institutions and a complementary (for discipline isn’t all bad) awareness of the need for a philosophy without discipline.