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Joseph Brent, Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life.

Joseph Brent, Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life (Indiana UP, 1993), 388 pp., $35.00 cloth.

Powerful irony confronts the reviewer of Joseph Brent's superb new biography of the American philosopher, mathematician, and scientist, Charles S. Peirce. The story that Brent tells is one of the constant series of obstacles that arose to prevent Peirce from publicly sharing the full fruits of his lifelong philosophical labors. Yet Brent himself encountered, since the beginning of his dissertation research more than three decades ago, a variety of obstacles to the completion and publication of his work on Peirce. (This irony is deepened by the fact that officials at Harvard University, although generations apart, proved to be a thorn in the side for both men.) A significant difference between the two cases is that, as Brent's account makes clear, Peirce himself was the cause of many of his own professional failures. Nevertheless, there is a happy conclusion to both stories: Peirce's work has been and is still being published in a variety of scholarly editions; and the publication of Brent's biography is a long-awaited and overdue event of immense scholarly significance.

Peirce was an eccentric and troubled genius. A continuously growing body of scholarship devoted to his thought has effectively exposed the depth and the range of Peirce's genius. But Brent's book represents the first serious attempt to explore the man's eccentricities, as well as the multiple and complex factors that made Peirce's remarkable life a life of almost constant crisis. These include health problems, substance abuse, a moody disposition, extreme vanity, stormy emotions, troubled relationships, professional enemies, fiscal irresponsibility, and a habit of procrastination. Brent's portrayal is unstained by the hagiographic impulse; indeed, the stark realism and rigorous honesty of his account supply the best explanation of why some of Peirce's admirers may have been eager to suppress the book. Nevertheless, the story that Brent tells does nothing to diminish its readers' appreciation of Peirce's brilliance. Rather, it is a narrative that supplies tragic insight into the flawed greatness of America's greatest philosopher.

In his Introduction, Brent appeals to Baudelaire's ideal of the "Dandy" in order to illuminate Peirce's personality, especially the tension displayed in it "between intellectual strength and moral weakness" (22). The Dandy is, in Baudelaire's view, a heroic individual who achieves greatness by his own standards, indifferent both to the criticism and to the approval of others. His is a life that is "solitary and unhappy" (24). Brent suggests that it is this aspect of Peirce's personality that has been ignored, indeed "suppressed for so long" (25). In delineating Peirce's "Dandyism," Brent does not fail to note the stark contrast between the lonely life that Peirce led and his philosophical ideals that extol the value of community and depreciate individualism. Unlike Baudelaire, the older, mature Peirce was able to submit his own life to a rigorous and painful moral evaluation, to extol virtues that, by his own admission, he personally had failed to embody. Nevertheless, throughout his life Peirce was inclined to think and to act as he chose, rather than as others prescribed or preferred. Moreover, while Peirce's consistently lofty assessment of his own talents may have smacked of arrogance, it was probably quite accurate. That is to say, Peirce may have been every bit as smart as he thought he was.

Brent carefully explores the important shaping influences on Peirce's life, the key relationships. Early in the narrative Benjamin Peirce, Charles' father, occupies center stage. It is worth noting that Max Fisch (himself a father figure for several generations of Peirce scholars), when he began preparations for a biography of Peirce in the fifties, projected it as a two-volume work treating the lives both of Benjamin and of Charles. Murray Murphey, in his classic 1961 study of the development of Peirce's philosophy, devoted considerable attention to the relationship between father and son. Brent shares this insight concerning Benjamin's significance, but his account supplies a more detailed and complex assessment of it than anything previously published. For example, it is well known that the elder Peirce (himself a prominent Harvard professor and mathematician) played a vigorous and normative role in Charles' somewhat idiosyncratic early education. It is also quite clear that, as a powerful figure in the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, Benjamin was able to shape, promote, and protect Charles' career as a research scientist: Indeed, the latter's fortunes in the Survey declined precipitously after his father's death in 1880. What Brent adds to this standard portrayal of the relationship, however, is invaluable insight into its darker side. To begin with, Charles inherited from his father an extraordinarily painful facial neuralgia, the treatment of which consisted in the use of and subsequent addiction to powerful narcotics. (Much of Peirce's moodiness and erratic behavior can be understood, if not completely excused, by appealing to both the agonizing pain and the drugs as explanatory factors.) In addition, Benjamin's overly indulgent attitude toward many of Charles' eccentricities contributed to the latter's flaws of character. In both positive and negative ways, it seems, Charles struggled to live up to his father's considerable expectations (succeeding in this regard, perhaps, a bit better than his brothers, about whom Brent offers some illuminating observations).

Other important relationships are examined here. Both of Peirce's wives were rather remarkable women--the first, a pioneering nineteenth-century feminist writer and activist, the second, a French woman of exciting but mysterious origins (even Brent is not able completely to dispel the darkness that enshrouds the early life of Charles's Juliette). The first marriage failed, while the second survived almost constant crisis. The influence of these women upon the actual shape and substance of Peirce's philosophy was less pronounced than that of his father, whose perspectives on a whole variety of topics Charles inherited and adapted for his own purposes. Nevertheless, the effects of such influence are discernible. For example, Charles's first wife, Zina, very likely mediated his "conversion" from Unitarianism to a Trinitarian theology, a conversion that both reinforced and was itself reinforced by his philosophical predilection for triadic conceptual schemes (64). More significantly, Brent's portrayal of these relationships reveals a great deal about the sort of personal circumstances under which Peirce wrote and worked, circumstances that were almost always distressing and distracting.

Other details are woven into the fabric of Brent's rich narrative. He unravels Peirce's stormy relationships with powerful institutions, like Harvard and Johns Hopkins universities, as well as the Coast Guard Survey. But Brent is also attentive to the positive value of important friendships, like that with the admiring, compassionate William James, and with Josiah Royce, whose mature philosophy bears the clear imprint of some of Peirce's most creative ideas. In each instance, Brent draws skillfully upon a massive body of correspondence, much of it produced by Peirce, some of it written to or about him.

My very few criticisms of this book take the form of honest disagreements concerning matters of philosophical interpretation. For example, I do not share Brent's conclusion that Peirce moved gradually from an early nominalist perspective to his mature articulation of an extreme realism (see, e.g., 48, 69, 119, 173, 206, 261, 325). This conclusion is reinforced by the appeal for evidence to some of Peirce's most famous papers, written in the 1870s. But I would argue that these essays are among Peirce's weaker published efforts. They were produced for a semi-popular audience, suffer from a lack of precision, and hardly provide a precise or balanced account of Peirce's early metaphysics. Because they were widely read and discussed, they almost immediately made Peirce vulnerable to nominalist misinterpretations (as Brent himself observes). Nevertheless, Peirce was, for what he regarded as compelling religious as well as scientific reasons, a convinced realist from very early on in his philosophical career. I must disagree with the claim that, during the period between 1870 and 1890, Peirce was either "confused" about his realist position or unwilling to risk "contemptuous rejection by his peers" in articulating it (69).

I would also hesitate to endorse Brent's judgment that Peirce came to discern a clear relationship between ethics and logic only toward the end of the century, late in his life, and that the insight grounding both of these normative sciences in aesthetics is a later development still (261). What I regard as evidence of a consistency in perspective throughout Peirce's philosophical career, Brent describes as a curious "shift," that is, a shift by the later Peirce writing about the logic of Musement back to the perspective molded by his youthful study of Schiller's Aesthetic Letters.

Even if I could demonstrate conclusively that Brent's account of the development of Peirce's thinking about these matters was inaccurate (and I make no such grandiose claim here), it would detract little from my overall evaluation of his work. Brent's basic instincts as a biographer are consistently felicitous. However Peirce's formulation of the relations among the normative sciences may have evolved, for example, Brent is shrewd to detect the painfial irony of the elderly Peirce's point of view. Peirce believed that the success of one's inferences is at least partially determined by the strength of one's character; virtue is one of the preconditions for genuine theoretical insight. Yet Peirce himself displayed both logical brilliance and serious moral weaknesses, as Brent's narrative so vividly illustrates. This is one of the central, tragic paradoxes of Peirce's life and thought, and Joseph Brent has done a superb job of exposing and exploring it.

Michael L. Raposa

Lehigh University
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Author:Raposa, Michael L.
Publication:Nineteenth-Century Prose
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 1994
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