Chauncey Wright Papers


Date: 1850-1875 | Size: 0.5 Linear feet


A philosopher, metaphysician, and mathematician, Chauncey Wright graduated from Harvard in 1852 and taught occasionally at the College while employed as a "computer" with the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac. A positivist and empiricist in the British tradition, he exerted an influence on the development of American Pragmatism through his younger friends William James, Charles S. Peirce, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, but is perhaps best remembered as one of the earliest and most able defenders of Darwinism and Darwinian natural selection. The bulk of the 137 items in the Wright Papers is comprised of personal letters addressed to Wright during the adult years of his brief life. From the typical letters of a college student, the correspondence branches out to touch upon philosophy, mathematics, and Wright's meeting with Darwin in 1872. Among the more prominent correspondents are C. S. Peirce, Charles Eliot Norton, Francis Bowen, Susan and J. Peter Lesley, and James Bradley Thayer and William Sydney Thayer.

Background note

A philosopher, metaphysician, mathematician, and Darwinian stalwart, Chauncey Wright was born in Northampton, Mass., on September 20, 1830. The son of Ansel Wright, a grocer and constable, and Elizabeth Boleyn, Wright was an able student with a particular aptitude for the quantitative sciences, and his reputation for scholarship earned him the largesse of a local philanthropist that enabled him to attend Harvard as an undergraduate. After his graduation in 1852, he benefited further from the influence of friends, most notably William James, who helped secure him a lectureship at the College. A standard academic position, however, was not immeidately in the cards, however. For all his intellectual talents, his affability and sociability, he proved to be a miserable teacher, dull and often incomprehensible from a student's pespective, and as a result, he failed to flourish in the academy.

In 1852, Wright therefore took an appointment as a "computer" with the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac, a position that provided him with sufficient financial support and, more importantly, sufficient time to devote himself to intellectual cultivation and collegiality. His home in Cambridge became a modern day salon beginning in the later 1850s, attracting colleagues from Harvard and the Almanac. By 1872, this lifelong bachelor had become one of the elders of the proto-pragmatist Metaphysical Club, a veritable "boxing-master" for his junior colleagues C. S. Peirce, William James, and the younger Oliver Wendell Holmes, renowned for his prowess in intellectual jousts. Although they never eventuated into an ongoing appointment, his connections to Harvard circles earned him a one year lectureship in psychology in 1870-1871,and he subsequently taught mathematical physics there to an small, but indifferent crowd of students.

Publishing principally, though too seldom, in the North American Review and The Nation, Wright established himself during the 1860s as an important American philosopher. He was best known, perhaps, as one of the early and most adept proponents of Darwinian thought in America, and he was an ardent defender of natural selection against the plethora of alternative evolutionary mechanisms. His support for Darwin and his attack on Saint George Mivart in the North American Review, brought Wright to Darwin's personal attention and earned him the naturalist's regard and sincere appreciation. During a visit to England in 1872, his only trip abroad, Wright garnered a special invitation to visit Darwin at Down House, an incident he later recalled as one of the highlights of his life.

As a philosopher, Wright grew away from an early allegiance to the Common Sense writings of Thomas Reid and his student William Hamilton to take up a radical version of the new British empiricism. The catalyst to this transformation was Wright's reading of John Stuart Mill, and particularly Mill's devastating critique of Hamilton, although Wright subsequently modified Mill. In turn, Wright's radical empiricism influenced the rising generation of pragmatist philosophers, most notably his Metaphysical colleagues Holmes, James, and Peirce. Insisting on the primacy of empirically-deteremined "facts" over a priori elements, Wright sketched a theory of knowledge based larged opn empiricist contingency rather than a priori certainty. His insistence that science remain free of metaphysical or theological assumptions has remained influential in scientific epistemology led him to reject the writings of Herbert Spencer, whose allegiance to empiricism and evolutionism might otherwise appear palatable. Spencer's insistence upon "law" and invariability and his inveterate teleology, however, led Wright to dismiss his writings as mere metaphysical speculation. Wright was also became known for his efforts to apply natural selective theory to human psychological development, prefiguring modern evolutionary epistemology.

Never a hale figure, Wright's health declined in the late 1860s and 1870s. He suffered from a bout of whooping cough in 1869 and years of too little sleep and too much drinking and smoking took their toll. Late at night on September 11, 1875, Wright suffered a stroke while sitting at his desk, and while he was discovered alive on the following morning, a second led to his death.

Scope and content

Frustratingly sparse, the surviving papers of Chauncey Wright nevertheless provide glimpses into the mind and personality of one of America's great philosophers of the mid-nineteenth century. Primarily personal in nature, and nearly all addresssed to Wright, these letters span most of Wright's brief life from his last two years as a student at Harvard bewteen 1850-1852 until nearly the end of his life in 1875.

In a small handful of letters, Wright's philosophical and intellectual interests shine through. There is a particularly fine exchange of letters with Francis Bowen regarding Wright's theory of the mathematics and metaphysics of the honeycomb, but these also relate more generally to Wright's perspective on causality. As might be expected, Mill's philosophy comes up repeatedly, especially in letters from Bowen, Edwin Lawrence Godkin, Catherine Innes Ireland, and Charles Sanders Peirce, and Mills' and Wright's thoughts of the equality of sexes appears in several of these letters, and in a letter from Sara Sedgwick. Of particular interest in this regard is a letter from C. S. Peirce to Wright, September 2, 1865, working through the mathematics of a card trick, but also through Mill's discussion of free will and his criticism of William Hamilton. Peirce believed Mill's arguments were ingenious, but aimed with "malicious intent. Mill wants to root out this philosophy, by adequate arguments or by inadequate ones."

Darwin appears as a subject in letters from Charles Eliot Norton, who was delighted that Wright had visited Darwin in 1872. Having learned that Wright had dined at Down House, Norton effused about Darwin: "He is a man whose personal qualities, only to be known by acquaintance with him in his own home, complete and satisfy the highest conception of him that one may have formed from his books. He is one of the most satisfactory of men." A receipt from the Massachusetts Historical Society acknowledges the gift of Wright's famous essay against St. George Mivart's Genesis of Species.

Other letters in the collection provide brief glimpses into the personal and political context of Wright's intellectual circle. The letters from Reginald Heber Chase, a Harvard classmate, provide some particularly pointed references to the politics of the Civil War and digust over the draft, the president, and the state of the nation. Still less happily, Wright became entangled in the controversy over the Dudley Observatory and earned the umbrage of Benjamin Apthorp Gould. The sole letter from Wright in this collection is a draft reply to Gould. There are two school essays by Wright in the collection, and a poem, the "Posivitivist Hymn."

The 137 items in the Wright Papers are arranged alphabetically by correspondent.

Digital objects note

This collection contains digital materials that are available in the APS Digital Library. Links to these materials are provided with context in the inventory of this finding aid. A general listing of digital objects may also be found here.

Collection Information


Acquired from Chauncey Wright Pearson, August 1978 (1978-1252ms).

Preferred citation

Cite as: Chauncey Wright Papers, American Philosophical Society.

Processing information

Recatalogued by rsc, 2002.

Related material

The Harvard University Archives also contain a small collection of the Papers of Chauncey Wright. He appears as a correspondent as well in the Records of the North American Review at the Houghton Library, Harvard.


Wright, Chauncey, Letters of Chauncey Wright, ed. by James Bradley Thayer (Cambridge, Mass.: J. Wilson and Son, 1878) Call no.: B W933t

Wright, Chauncey, Philosophical Discussions (N.Y.: Holt, 1877) Call no.: 104 W93

Indexing Terms

Corporate Name(s)

  • Dudley Observatoy
  • Harvard College (1780- )

Personal Name(s)

  • Agassiz, Elizabeth Cabot Cary, 1822-1907
  • Bowen, Francis, 1811-1890
  • Chase, Reginald Heber, 1832-1885
  • Comfort, George Fisk, 1833-191
  • Darwin, Charles, 1809-1882
  • Godkin, William Lawrence, 1831
  • Gould, Benjamin Apthorp, 1824-1896
  • Hamilton, William, 1788-1856
  • Ireland, Catherine Innes
  • Lesley, J. P. (J. Peter), 1819-1903
  • Lesley, Susan I. (Susan Inches), 1823-1904
  • Mill, John Stuart, 1806-1873
  • Norton, Charles Eliot, 1827-1908
  • Oliver, James Edward, 1829-189
  • Peirce, Charles S. (Charles Sanders), 1839-1914
  • Pratt, Orson, 1811-1881
  • Sedgwick, Sara
  • Thayer, James Bradley, 1831-19
  • Thayer, William Sydney, 1864-1
  • Wright, Chauncey,1830-1875.


  • American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac
  • Bees.
  • Card tricks
  • Epistemology
  • Materialism
  • Mathematics
  • Metaphysics
  • Mormons
  • Philosophy
  • Probability
  • Statistics
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865

Detailed Inventory

 Chauncey Wright Papers
1850-18750.5 lin. feetBox 1
 Agassiz, Elizabeth Cabot Cary, 1822-1907.
letter to Chauncey Wright
n.d.3 ALsS
 Andrew, John F..
letter to Chauncey Wright
1875 July 26ALS

Has seen the Psycho and finds Wright's theory of it convincing.

 Boies, William.
letter to Chauncey Wright
1850 June 5ALS
 Bowen, Francis, 1811-1890.
letter to Chauncey Wright
1860-18644 ALsS

Mathematics and bees' construction of the honeycomb: "I don't believe it is conscious of anything -- certainly not the necessity of husbanding its resources. It works blindly -- unconsciously -- like a machine which is at every moment guided and kept in motion by some power and intelligence foreign to itself." Thanks Wright for review in North American Review of Bowen's book; Metaphysics: Wright inclines to Mill, Bowen to the Scots. Probability and epistemology, causation and causality. Theory of probabilities.

 Cary, George S..
letter to Chauncey Wright
1853 January 30, 1854 November 262 ALsS

Abstracting Orson Pratt's arguments against materialism.

 Chase, Reginald Heber, 1832-1885.
letter to Chauncey Wright
1861-18644 ALsS

Country's going to L; why? "Look at the photographic group of Uncle Abe & his Cabinet 'in council' -- and that will tell you why. A gorilla in the executive chair; Seward and Cameron looking like two pickpockets on trial..." Complains of the "bigoted malignity of the Lincoln despotism" and having been drafted. Does not wish to pay his way out or skedaddle: "My natural candor forbids me to give even the abolition tyranny such a very false impression of my motives & intentions." Will purchase a substitute. Supports Lincoln, "sincerely regretting certain of his peculiarities, & hoping that I may be spared to see the time when the interest of the nation will permit the election of a gentleman to the highest executive office." Sub rosa: has been considered to replace Taney on the court.

 Cheever, David W..
letter to Chauncey Wright
1853 February 1ALS, calling card

Tutor Chase.

 Comfort, George F..
letter to Chauncey Wright
1868 October 26ALS

Re: formation of an American Philological Society and reaction of American linguists.

 Curtis, George William, 1824-1892.
letter to Chauncey Wright
1868 October 25ALS
 Dodge, Lydia C..
letter to Chauncey Wright
1864 October 31ALS

Inquiring into Wright's terms for delivering lecture to a natural history society in Hingham.

 Eden, John.
letter to Chauncey Wright
1852 August 10ALS

Inquiring how the knee gets on.

 Eliot, Charles William.
letter to Chauncey Wright
1875 July 6ALS

Cancelling Physics 1 due to low enrollment.

 Fisher, George H..
letter to Chauncey Wright
1850-18586 ALsS

Letter of Oct. 1850 includes rough sketch of "Wright wasting the midnight oil," studying.

 Garrison, Wendell Phillips.
letter to Chauncey Wright
1868 November 4; 1874 October 282 ALsS

Re: reviews for The Nation.

 Godkin, Edwin Lawrence.
letter to Chauncey Wright
1874 May 31ALS

Defends his stance on women's suffrage, the natural difference between the sexes (and against John Stuart Mill).

 Gould, Benjamin Apthorp, 1824-1896.
letter to Chauncey Wright
1866 February 25-March 144 ALsS

Re; controversy over lack of consultation on a paper, Dudley Observatory matter. Includes one letter from Wright to Gould (1866 March 2).

 Gray, Asa, 1810-1888.
letter to Chauncey Wright

Requesting return of a book.

 Grinnell, Charles E..
letter to Chauncey Wright
1873 December 13ALS

Meeting of the sub-sub-committee on psychology.

 Gurney, Ephraim Whitman.
letter to Chauncey Wright
1857 August 1, 52 ALsS

Thoughts on his beach holiday.

 letter to Chauncey Wright
1857 September 24, November 132 ALsS

Requesting a review of Blodgett's climatology.

 Harvard Club.
Circular letters
1855-18575 Pr. Ls

Proposal to form a club of Harvard graduates; three notices of meetings; and notice that the club has decided to shutter and sell its rooms on Tremont for lack of support.

 Harvard College (1780- ).
Invitations to Chauncey Wright
1857 July 1; 1866 June 222 Pr. Ls

Invitation to dine with the class of 1852 (1857); ticket of admission to Class of 1857 exercises in the church, and invitation to class dar, 1866.

 Harvard College (1780- ).
Letter of appointment to Chauncey Wright
1870 March 15LS

Signed by Charles W. Eliot, appointing Wright as Lecturer on Psychology.

 Harvard College (1780- ). Students.
Petition to Chauncey Wright
1874 October 27DS

Petition to teach a course on the elements of mechanics.

 Hopkins, Erastus.
letter to George Andrew
1861 October 11ALS

Letter of introduction for George F. Wright and family.

 Invitations to Chauncey Wright
n.d.5 ALsS

Miscellaneous invitations to dine, etc.

 Ireland, Catherine Innes.
letter to Chauncey Wright
1864-18697 ALsS

Thanks for the enjoyable article. Sympathizes in his whooping cough. Thoughts on Mill and his perspective on women: "I may deny his logical conclusions, from my very weakness you know; and why should I make myself a logician in order to convince myself of what I do not care to believe? But I am not sure that I dissent from Mr. Mill's conclusions yet, except the suffrage, and I may have to unmake my mind on that point" (1869 July 28). Includes one letters signed C. E. Ireland.

 Johnson, William Woolsey.
letter to Chauncey Wright
1873 December 31; n.d.2 ALsS

Seeking a position in mathematics. Seeks to discover meaning of "mean distance."

 Lesley, [unidentified].
letter to Chauncey Wright
1861 January 23; 1863 May 62 ALsS
 Lesley, J. P. (J. Peter), 1819-1903.
letter to Chauncey Wright
1860 October 1ALS
 Lesley, Joseph.
letter to Chauncey Wright
1861 January 9; n.d.2 ALsS

Letter of introduction for poor young man (not named).

 Lesley, Mary.
letter to Chauncey Wright
1864 September 25; 1868 February 92 ALsS

Includes carte de visite of Mary Lesley by Whipple, ca.1862.

 Lesley, Susan I. (Susan Inches), 1823-1904.
letter to Chauncey Wright
1862-187214 ALsS

Travel in France. Readings; Ruskin. Mary Walker's death; Peter overflows with students at the Scientific Institute. Recovering from four days of extreme pain. She and Mr. Lesley are "just as sick as dogs of Spiritual Manifestations."

 Logan, W. E..
letter to Chauncey Wright
1856 December 20ALS

Seeking to establish telegraph connection between Montreal and Boston.

 Lyman, James F..
letter to Chauncey Wright
1856 January 25ALS
 Massachusetts Historical Society.
letter to Chauncey Wright (acknowledgment of gift)
1872 April 12Pr. LS

Acknowledging gift of Wright's Darwinism: Being an Examination of Mr. St. George Mivart's Genesis of Species.

 Nautical Almanac.
letter to Chauncey Wright
1852 July 27; 1866 June 28ALsS

Appointment as a "computer in the preparation of the Natuical Almanac"; arranging to prepare the Ephemeris of the moon. Letter from J. H. C. Coffin .

 Norton, Charles Eliot, 1827-1908.
letter to Chauncey Wright
1872-18824 ALsS

Glad Wright was able to dine with Darwin: "He is a man whose personal qualities, only to be known by acquaintance with him in his own home, complete and satisfy the highest conception of him that one may have formed from his books. He is one of the most satisfactory of men" (1872 September 5). Divide between his inner and outer man is greater than ever before. Has seen only one interesting person lately, Carlyle. Understands Darwin is not well, having worked too hard on his new book and too much with the microscope (1972 October 23). Obliged for the letters from Darwin, which he will make available to (1882 September 8).

 Oliver, James Edward, 1829-189.
letter to Chauncey Wright
1855 October 12; 1859 May 1; n.d.3 ALsS

Re: Wright's Individuality theory.

 Oliver, U. K..
letter to Chauncey Wright

Re.: measuring height of the piazza by length of shadow.

 Palfrey, John C..
letter to Chauncey Wright
1874 February 28Postcard
 Pearson, Chauncey Wright.
Letter from Grandmother
1906 May 22, 252 ALsS

His birthday.

 Peirce, Charles S. (Charles Sanders), 1839-1914.
letter to Chauncey Wright
1865 September 2ALS

Mill's discussion of free will is highly ingenious... "The contradictions in Hamilton are well brought out; but with a malicious intent. Mill wants to root out this philosophy, by adequate arguments or by inadequate ones..." Mathematics of a card trick.

Access digital object:

n.d.Cabinet card

Cabinet card, damaged, by Hardie and Schadee.

 Rigston, John.
letter to Chauncey Wright
1860 August 6; n.d.2 ALsS

Letter of introduction for John C. Rivers, with p.s. by Rives.

 Runkle, John Daniel.
letter to Chauncey Wright
1862 August 9; n.d.2 ALsS
 Sedgwick, Sara.
letter to Chauncey Wright
1872 October 6ALS

Visit of Mrs. William James and Mrs. Anderson, the latter a "champion of her sex & so hot & comic in the exposition of her views, that the weary & time worn topic of women's rights and women's wrongs was often brought up for discussion. She made me thing that after all Colleges might be good places for some women by & by for she was quite too indifferent to our tyrant's cow to spend her time in [illeg.], and she had a large intelligence that was worthy of the best cultivation."

 Sheldon, D. S..
letter to Chauncey Wright
1858 August 25ALS

Letter of introduction for Clemens Hirschl.

 Sprague, Joseph W..
letter to Chauncey Wright
1854-18604 ALsS
 Storer, Horatio R..
letter to Chauncey Wright
1865 November 24ALS

Regarding articles on medical topics published by the Academy, including one of surgical removal of the uterus.

 Thayer, James Bradley.
letter to Chauncey Wright
1850 February 13; 1850 August 14; 1871 April 8; n.d.3 ALsS

Fanny Kemble playing Shakespeare.

Access digital object:

 Theyer, William Sydney.
letter to Chauncey Wright
1851-18586 ALsS
 Underwood, Francis Henry.
letter to Chauncey Wright
n.d. (February 17)ALS

Apologies for late payment.

 Van Vleck, J. M..
letter to Chauncey Wright
1855 December 10ALS

Promises to repay his debt. Wishes he could still be studying mathematics with Wright, Runkle, and Oliver.

 Ware, D. E..
letter to Chauncey Wright
1862 August 6ALS

Meditating a short vacation inland.

 Ware, William R. (William Robe.
letter to Chauncey Wright
1864 June 15; n.d.2 ALsS

Re: Wright's Individuality theory.

 Wilder, D. P..
letter to Chauncey Wright
1852-18534 ALsS

Regarding a problem in Davis' plane trigonometry. Situated as he was last year, teaching the same branches, but without the higher classes (1852 September 27). Misunderstandings in Baltimore over Thanksgiving, "that day so fatal in New England to turkeys, chickens, mince-pies, plum-puddings, et cetera" (1852 November 29). Seeking solution to mathematical problem from Davies (1853 February 27).

 Wright, Asher, 1803-1875.
letter to Chauncey Wright
1852 November 19ALS
 Wright, Chauncey.
Was the Act of Brutus in Killing Caesar Justifiable?

School essay(?)

 Wright, Chauncey.
Whether the Government of this Country Ought to Interfere in the Politics of Europe, to Aid or Countenance those Who are Struggling There for Liberty?

School essay(?)

 Wright, Chauncey.
Positivist Hymn (after Watts)

School essay(?)

 T., J. B..
letter to Chauncey Wright
n.d. (August 24)ALS

Urging a visit to Northampton.