A Life
Email this 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. (Thirty-five b&w photographs--not seen.)

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-253-31267-1
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Indiana Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 1992