Monday, April 1st, 2013...10:00 am

April Fun: Peirce’s Puzzler

Jump to Comments

Riddle: What does a semiotician do for fun?


 For your amusement this April Fools’ Day, we offer a rebus from the papers of American philosopher and scientist Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914).

Peirce (pronounced like “purse”), a scholar of astonishingly wide-ranging interests, was best known in philosophy for his theory of “pragmatism,” but he made many other significant contributions to the fields of linguistics, semiotics, logic, and the philosophy of science as well.

And he liked to doodle. Today’s rebus (that is, a puzzle using pictures to represent syllables or words) can be found on a double-sided sheet in a folder filled with pages and pages of Peirce’s doodles.  Rebus writing appears to have been a Peirce family pastime, as implied by the  inscription, “This one is by Charley Jim Mamma & me…drawn by [ditto mark indicating Charley].” This puzzle may date from 1868, when our young doodling philosopher and budding semiotician, “Charley,” would have been 29 years old. (A second companion rebus bears the tiny note “H.H.P. Oct 68.”) “Mamma” is Charles’s mother, Sarah Hunt Mills, wife of Benjamin Peirce, distinguished mathematics professor at Harvard. “Jim” is his older brother James Mills Peirce, a mathematician following in his father’s footsteps. “Me,” and the “H.H.P” of the second rebus, is likely Helen Huntington Peirce, the philosopher’s younger sister.

Kindly, the puzzle masters provided the solution to their rebus, which we print for you below, so as not to give too much away at the start.

Sq. 58 from Charles Sanders Peirce papers, MS Am 1632 (1538)

Sq. 58 from Charles Sanders Peirce papers, MS Am 1632 (1538)

“When we two parted in silence & tears
Half broken hearted to sever for years,
Pale grew thy cheek & cold colder thy kiss
Truly that hour foretold sorrow to this.”

[This post contributed by Houghton Reference Assistant, Emily Walhout with thanks to Houghton Reference Assistant/Metadata Assistant Emilie Hardman.]

Comments are closed.