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.

It wasn’t, however, the cramped, angular style of his prose that turned people off Peirce, but his uncompromising sense of himself as an original who was entitled to live by his own rules. At 14, according to one CV that he wrote, he ‘set up for a fast man and became a bad schoolboy’. At 15, he found a deviant ‘theory’ on which to base his future: ‘I am not to be an old fogy or go by any rules other people give me – if I should turn old fogy or obedient lad my life would in troth and indeed be a failure.’ Over the next sixty years he was to turn neither fogeyish nor obedient; consistency mattered more to him in his vanity than conciliation. As a student at his father’s university he duly performed badly, getting shameful grades and a reputation for drinking. And the ‘fastness’ was a habit that continued into his adult life. Peirce drank, he may later have used cocaine, he womanised, he could be violent (one of his servants sued him for assault), he was at the least careless, if not actually dishonest with other people’s money. Brent goes so far as to wonder whether he may not have turned criminal in New York at one desperate moment in the 1890s, but there is no evidence that he did. Yet all the time the wayward living and the disagreeableness went with an unfailing productivity of mind; Peirce may have gone to the bad socially and financially, he at no time did so intellectually.

He was a poor student, moreover, only where his public education was concerned; privately, he was anything but that. He learnt a great deal of mathematics and astronomy from his father and he began reading philosophy when still very young. At the age of 12 he discovered logic, which was to be the ‘passion’ of his life, logic understood not as some exclusive suburb of philosophy but as philosophy’s essence: as ‘the science whereby we are enabled to test reasons’. This was a science which, Peirce was to argue, contra John Stuart Mill and others, must have nothing to do with psychology but be purely formal, with the task of classifying the products of thought, not of investigating the manner of thought’s production. As the study of validity in argument or inference, logic must be autonomous, self-contained. It was a new demand in Peirce’s time and that he should have insisted on it entitles him to the high place he has been accorded by W.V. Quine as one of the two great sources, with Frege, of modern logic.

Four years after getting a first, unsatisfactory degree from Harvard, Peirce got a second, ‘summa cum laude’ this time, in chemistry. By then he already had a job, found for him by his father, as Assistant Computer with the US Coast Survey, for which he was to work, on and off and seldom happily, for the next thirty years. Peirce’s career in the Survey reflected his life as a whole: he did some brilliant things there but regularly fell foul of his colleagues and superiors and was at long last forced to resign. The USCS was by the sound of things a cliquish, scientifically indolent body; Peirce was at once too clever and too touchy to fit smoothly into it. His speciality was gravimetrics, or determining variations in gravity by taking measurements at specified points in the landscape. This was stultifying work for someone as naturally curious and theoretically minded as Peirce. He made his name as a geodesist all the same, by his investigations of the degree to which measurements were affected by flexure in the pendulum stands on which gravimetricians relied. This confirmed firsthand for Peirce the crucial Pragmatist principle that the imprecision necessarily entailed in its systems of measurement did not undermine a science; whatever the flaws in its methods, geodesy worked. As a successful practice it gave substance to the maxim on which his Pragmatism rested: that the meaning of an ‘intellectual conception’ was made up of the sum of those effects ‘which might conceivably have practical bearings’. Thus the conception of hardness included such sensible effects as that hard things ‘will not be scratched by many other substances’, will resist when touched, and so on. Once all these effects have been supposedly experienced, the conception of hardness will be known in full; until that time, science must go on clarifying it.

Peirce took the fallibilist view, Popperian long before Popper, that science dealt in provisional, not in absolute truths. Its laws weren’t fixed from the beginning but were true until such time as they were improved on; they were the mental ‘habits’ derived from the successful testing of hypotheses in the past and agreed on currently by the community of working scientists. Peirce was eventually to base a very hopeful cosmogony on these same premises, proposing that the universe was in evolution away from an original chaos of mere potentiality towards a state of total regularity. This vast movement was reflected in the ‘generalising tendency’ of the human mind, which would be fulfilled only once the world could be thought of as perfectly systematic. Meanwhile, that tendency would be kept on the alert by the spontaneous irruptions of Chance into the evolving scheme of things. Peirce was no 19th-century mechanist: he left room for a creative indeterminacy in the universe that ensured its continued growth in complexity.

At much the same time that he joined the Survey, Peirce married for a first time – calamitously. His wife, Melusina (Zina), was clever, feminist, puritanical and depressive. She held, among other opinions, ‘that Creative Deity having entrusted to monogamic marriage the transmission of the human soul, adultery is not only the violation of the most intimate and solemn contract of the universe, but also the betrayal of and corruption of the source of life itself.’ Her husband took a looser, less portentous view of the nuptial tie and he and Zina appear to have had a stormy time together almost from the start. The marriage survived, in name, for 21 years; but before it ended Peirce had taken up with a mysterious Frenchwoman, Juliette Pourtalai, who claimed to be a Habsburg princess and to have played as a child with the future Kaiser Wilhelm II. In 1883, two days after his divorce was made official, Peirce married Juliette. She was sickly, dependent and took no interest in his work: qualities that he seems to have found more companionable than those of the argumentative Zina. Juliette was badly treated, perhaps battered, by her husband, but she stayed with him.

To allow only two days between his divorce and his remarriage was a characteristically insolent act on Peirce’s part. Up until then, Juliette had been a rumour; now she was a fact and a troublesome one, their liaison having patently begun long before his divorce. This was the occasion of scandal and it gave his enemies an extra purchase on him. Only a year after he remarried Peirce was forced out from the one academic job he ever held. In 1879 he had been appointed Lecturer in Logic at Johns Hopkins. He taught in Baltimore for five years before the appointment lapsed and was not renewed, for reasons left vague by a mealy-mouthed university president but which were clearly personal. Peirce had, as ever, quarrelled with too many people there.

In his few years in Baltimore, however, he formed a school of young logicians and together they published a progressive volume of Studies in Logic. It might seem odd that someone as flagrantly self-serving as Peirce should have been willing to go shares in the glory of authorship, but by doing so he was making an important philosophical point. The autonomous realm of ‘logicality’ was not to be built in a day, nor by individual effort alone. It had to be the work of indefinitely many generations of philosophers, combining together in the disinterested service of a common purpose. ‘Logic is rooted in the social principle,’ was how Peirce summed it up. And because he was also an epistemological realist, convinced that the real existed ‘independently of the vagaries of me and you’, reality must be rooted in the same social principle. It was the objectivity on which our particular experiences as subjects converged and whose nature it was science’s job to clarify. The real was to be defined by agreement among the community of those whose scientific credentials were such as to compel our trust in them. This co-operative ideal was both selfless and rather sinister: it was healthy in being against the individual consciousness as a fit arbiter of truth – anti-Cartesian, as Peirce would have put it; not so healthy in implying that the only expertise to which we should now give heed was the proven expertise of Science – as if the scientific community embodied some sort of ethical or even political ideal.

The Coast Survey, alas, fell distinctly short of the ideal. Peirce worked for it for seven more years after leaving Johns Hopkins. Then, in 1891, his failure to write up his gravimetric results finally undid him, along with his insistence that the hypothesis on which experimental work was based should come first in any report – sound scientific practice but bad politics in respect of the hidebound USCS; there was resentment on both sides, and Peirce went. This meant he no longer had a regular income. He did, however, have an expensive home to pay for and no intention of giving up his pleasures. Three years before, he had bought two thousand acres of land and a house in the Delaware valley, a promising retreat where there were Vanderbilts, Stuyvesants and other tappable millionaires to hand, whom Peirce could see becoming patrons of his scientific and other plans for making money. They could play Alexander to his Aristotle: the arrogant comparison was one of his own. He had plans to exploit his knowledge of chemistry, to teach logic by mail order, to turn manufacturer even. The most fetching prospectus was one to make his home into ‘a sort of Casino for fashionable people of “cultural” tendencies to spend the summer, have a good time, and take a mild dose of philosophy’. Mild doses were not Peirce’s thing; these all remained paper projects.

During the 1890s he was commissioned by publishers to write a number of books, including a 12-volume ‘Principles of Philosophy’. These ideas, too, came to nothing, even though the Peirces were at times living partly on charity and, according to Peirce, on a diet of oatmeal. His one source of earned income was what he could make as a journalist. Between 1890 and 1905, he wrote well over two hundred reviews for the Nation, of books well matched to the unnatural spread of his interests, going from geodesy and physics at one end to gambling, wine and food at the other. These reviews were paid for in advance, and Peirce was never out of debt to his editor.

He wrote also for a new periodical, the Monist, where between 1891 and 1893 he published a series of five essays in which he emerged as a combative metaphysician, and the champion of what he called ‘objective idealism’. This, ‘the one intelligible theory of the universe’ in his opinion, is something like a realist’s version of idealism, holding that reality is external to our minds but also ‘mental’, insofar as its regularities are cognisable by the mind, so proving the continuity of the one with the other. This was Peirce’s monist solution to the mind-body problem, a version of the old belief in a pre-established harmony between Mind and Nature. His most startling formulation of it was in the axiom that ‘matter is effete mind’, which means, if I’m right, that matter is mind no longer spontaneously and randomly active but regulated by ‘habit’ or physical laws. Mind, in any case, was ‘the fountain of existence’, and the way was open for the evolutionary theism in which Peirce was to come metaphysically to rest. The universe might be interpreted as the thought process of an evolving God, the Supreme Hypothesis that time alone could prove. (The Monist essays are included in the first volume of the compact and welcome Essential Peirce; they are by Peirce’s standards quite accessible and splendid in their cosmic scope and assertiveness.)

In the 1900s he was invited back more than once to Harvard to lecture by his most constant friend and advocate, the admirable William James, who in 1907 got up a subscription for Peirce and raised enough to provide him in his last few years with an annual income of $1000. The Harvard lectures, on Pragmatism and on logic, were not on the whole well understood: ‘flashes of brilliant light relieved against Cimmerian darkness!’ was James’s verdict, though he continued to acknowledge the debt his own thought owed to that of Peirce, and deferred to him when a debate arose as to who had originated the name Pragmatism for the mode of thinking they in part shared.

It would be a wonder if Peirce were not the originator, because no one ever tried to intrude so many unpleasant new nouns into philosophical discourse. ‘Tychism’, ‘synechism’, ‘agapism’, ‘anancasm’ were among those that he thought were needed. They were alike in being formed on the Greek, and alike in dying with him. The only one of Peirce’s Greek revivals that has become established is Semiotic, the name he gave to his theory of Signs. It’s as the great theoretician of Semiotic, indeed, that many are likely to have come across Peirce.

For Peirce, Semiotic was central, pervasive. ‘All thought is in signs,’ he declared, and because thought is continuous, one thought inescapably leading, actually or potentially, to another, the process of semiosis, or the interpretation of thoughts, is the activity specific to the human mind. Peirce’s Semiotic is therefore a general theory of meaning. Its essence is his analysis of the sign-relation into its three components: of the Sign itself, the Object which determines the Sign, and the ‘effect’ that the Sign produces, called by him the Interpretant and by most other people the ‘meaning’. His confusingly named Interpretant is not a person nor is it a psychological item, but an inference, statable in words, and as such the objective possession of a community. Because it is itself a thought, the Interpretant, too, is a Sign, productive of a further Interpretant. And so on, ad infinitum: there is in theory no end to the process of semiosis.

The sign-relation is fundamental for Peirce but even so not quite the most fundamental thing in his philosophy. Beneath it there lies his schema of the three universal, a priori categories, of First, Second and Third. These are none too easy to keep separate when reading Peirce, and it may be he doesn’t always apply them consistently. The clearest definition of them I can find to quote is the one he gives in ‘The Architecture of Theories’ (an essay included in the Essential Peirce): ‘First is the conception of being or existing independent of anything else. Second is the conception of being relative to, the conception of reaction with, something else. Third is the conception of mediation, whereby a first and second are brought into relation.’ It is simple enough to see how the sign-relation accords with this tripartite arrangement. First is the Object, conceived in its independence, Second is the Sign relating to the Object, Third the Interpretant which makes that relation explicit. Third is thus the category which introduces intelligibility into the world: it is literally the meaningful one of the three. The other two are hard to grasp, given that they appear by definition to precede signification and must therefore remain meaningless. Peirce makes things no easier by seeming to argue that far from being the latecomer onto the scene that it should be, Third is actually already present in things in their independence, is part of First – an argument characteristic of the mystical direction he gave to his later thought but also one required by his Realism, in the archaic sense of the term, because Peirce stood robustly out against the prevailing nominalism of his (let alone our) time and believed that universals (which are Thirds) had real existence and were not merely figments of language. Whether this unlikely Realism can be made to hang convincingly together with his ‘objective idealism’ is beyond me to say; I would have supposed not. But Peirce’s greatest attraction as a philosopher to a lay reader has to be the mixture in him of the rigorous with the eccentric, a mixture I shall put down to the fact that he did his thinking well away from the niggling haunts of the professionals, who might otherwise have called him to order.

Joseph Brent’s is the first full biography there has been of this decadent, difficult, supernally clever man. It is more than a little amateurish in its inclination to dally and repeat itself, but it is the work of someone who is clearly steeped in his subject and all the more able to point up the unhappy contrast between the largesse of Peirce’s ideas and the crabbiness of his nature.