CHARLES SANDERS PEIRCE: A Life by Joseph Brent

CHARLES SANDERS PEIRCE: A Life

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KIRKUS REVIEW

After completing his doctoral dissertation on Peirce (1839-1914), Brent (Intellectual History/University of the District of Columbia) waited 30 years to gain access to the private papers of the controversial founder of pragmatism and semiotics--papers that were suppressed by a Harvard faculty who believed they were protecting Peirce's intellectual reputation--and to write this biography. Trained as a scientist, Peirce was a versatile, eccentric genius, his reputation based on his lecturing on logic and philosophy at Johns Hopkins and Harvard. His major ambition was to articulate a method that explained all knowledge, including the origin of the universe. However grand this ambition and however rare his talent, Peirce was crippled, he believed, by a left-handedness that interfered with his linguistic abilities; by a painful facial neuralgia that he treated with opium and morphine; and by an erratic, volatile, possibly manic-depressive nature that he later decided was genetic. Brent explains this colorful, intense, dramatic personality through Baudelaire's archetype of the ""dandy""--self-invented, sensitive, arrogant, impulsive, original, vain, and extravagant. But Peirce was even more complex: Although Henry James befriended him, Peirce was, James said, ""a man of whom critics have never found anything good to say."" A philosopher who thought metaphysics was ""moonshine,"" Peirce lost all his money on hopeless inventions such as ""electrolytic bleaching"" and on hapless schemes such as selling encyclopedias. At the very least, Peirce's hold on reality was tenuous, his life a series of bitter disappointments. Friendships, opportunities--even his fortunate second marriage to his mistress, the sickly but devoted Juliette--and his refuge in an isolated estate held little joy, and his bright promise as a philosopher was never realized in his lifetime. It may be possible to offer more subtle and revealing readings of Peirce's character, but it would be hard to write a more sympathetic and eloquent one.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1993
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Indiana Univ. Press