Wasp in a Bottle

John Sturrock

  • Charles Sanders Peirce by Joseph Brent
    Indiana, 388 pp, £28.50, January 1993, ISBN 0 253 31267 1
  • The Esssential Peirce: Vol. I edited by Nathan Houser and Christian Koesel
    Indiana, 399 pp, £17.99, November 1992, ISBN 0 253 20721 5

All rationality as a thinker, all unreasonableness as a man: this ancient non sequitur was never more vividly realised than in C.S. Peirce, first and foremost of the American Pragmatists. Peirce was a major philosopher and prodigiously many things besides, polymathic to a degree that should have been impossible in the later 19th century: ‘Mathematician, astronomer, chemist, geodesist, surveyor, cartographer, metrologist, spectroscopist, engineer, inventor; psychologist, philologist, lexicographer, historian of science, mathematical economist; lifelong student of medicine; book reviewer, dramatist, actor, short story writer; phenomenologist, semiotician, logician, rhetorician and metaphysician.’ The list was made by his most supportive modern editor, but even if Peirce wasn’t equally competent in all these roles that shouldn’t disallow the same editor’s claim that he was ‘the most original and the most versatile intellect that the Americas have so far produced’.

He was also a prize misfit, versatile, too, in his incompatibility. At the start, Peirce had everything he might have needed in order to do well: looks, a good address, an influential parent and an extraordinary mind. But he was unable ever to make the right, ingratiating use of these advantages and in the end spent much of his later life shut complainingly away from the world, with little and sometimes no money, and finding scant acknowledgment among his contemporaries of the substantiveness of his ideas. Many of these ideas, in logic and the philosophy of science, were no doubt too new to be comfortably absorbed by minds far slower than his to modernise; others were too exalted or too obscure. This isn’t enough on its own, however, to explain why he should have ended by being a marginal figure, in crying need of posterity to grant him his due.

Largely, he had himself to blame, because with his genius of mind there went an untameable insolence of behaviour. Henry James met the 36-year-old Peirce in Paris in 1875, and reported to his brother William back in Boston that ‘he is a very good fellow & one must appreciate his mental ability, but he has too little social talent ... too little art of making himself agreeable.’ The extent to which Peirce failed in that most Jamesian of arts is the theme that haunts Joseph Brent’s melancholy biography, in which a lavishly endowed young man declines into a superior kind of wastrel, erratic and unliked in his personal life and barely employable as a professional scientist or academic philosopher. In his unsociability, as sometimes in his philosophy, Peirce puts one in mind of Wittgenstein, and curiously, the two of them all but coincided in the image they resorted to when summing up their philosophical merits. Wittgenstein famously said that what he had been trying to do was to dissolve old philosophical muddles, to ‘show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle’; years before Peirce had written that his own greatest virtue as a thinker was to have gone methodically ahead with ‘a perseverance like that of a wasp in a bottle’ – or with ‘peirce-verance’, a spelling that reminded people his family name should be pronounced to rhyme with perverse. Peirce remained waspishly embottled all his life and died in 1914, at 75, philosophising to the end, accumulating over many reclusive years a Nachlass estimated to cover some eighty thousand manuscript sheets.

He had been born to the purple, a Wasp if not as yet a wasp. His father, Benjamin, was Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at Harvard and, according to Brent, ‘easily the most brilliant and outstanding mathematician to appear in America before the Civil War’. Benjamin Pierce was by all accounts a terror, eccentric, intolerant (especially of the Boston Irish) and fearsomely bad-tempered. Looking morosely back on his own life in old age, his son Charles blamed his father for having passed down to him three crippling ‘mental twists’ (with Peirce everything is grouped in threes): an unusual mathematical ability which, far from being a blessing, had led him to hold unacceptable religious opinions; a contentiousness bordering on the pathological, so that he fell out with just about everyone he met; and an excessive ‘sensibility’, which had made the world and its ways an abundant source of grievance to him. On top of which there was his left-handedness, which he saw not just as a manual inconvenience but as a pervasive gaucherie that had infected everything he did. Even his failure to make himself understood and to find recognition as a philosopher was seen as a consequence of his inability to write as clearly as he wanted.

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