The Sinister Genius of Charles Sanders Peirce

SIAM News, January 1992

Review of Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life
By Joseph Brent
Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1993, 512 pages, $35.00

What songs the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture. --- Sir Thomas Browne.

Ignored in his own day. bypassed over and over again in terms of academic recognition, living in the last years of his life at the edge of starvation, Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), a man who some say has been the most original of the American philosophers, is now much more than a philosopher. He is an intellectual industry.

There is a large mass of his writings, published and unpublished, that one can contend with. There are collected papers. There are studies, commentaries, interpretations, selecta. There is a Peirce Society that publishes transactions. There are ongoing publication projects. There must be hundreds of theses on individual aspects of Peirce's work. There are comparisons with Sherlock Holmes and E.A. Poe's detective Dupin. A research ship for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was named after him. There is a roadside marker on the highway near his estate in Milford, Pennsylvania. I have even seen his bearded face on T-shirts.

And now there is Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life, a riveting work, one that has been very carefully researched, and one that greatly clarifies the personality of this polymath and singular genius, and the relation of his life to his work.

Peirce was a strange and unruly man. He was a crank. He was arrogant. He was his own worst enemy. In an obituary notice, his nephew wrote, "He loved and hated and quarelled with almost everyone he came in contact with." He thought to make a bundle by his investments and lost what he had. Although a Northerner, he did not believe that slavery was bad, and in this respect he duplicated the opinions of his father. He had unconventional views about religion and theology. He thought himself a dandy; a number of his college pals were dandies, and as long as he could afford it, he lived a dandy's life. In his last years, Peirce doubted the value of giving women the vote. "They have all the influence they need" was the way he put it.

He was a Boston Brahmin, related of course, to all the other Brahmins. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, for example, was his first cousin. He was the favorite son of his renowned father, who worked with him in his early years with the thought that he would be a genius. (Parents of talented children have followed this policy at the peril of all concerned. Consider Norbert Weiner and the child prodigy Billy Sidis, two other children of Harvard professors; it worked in the case of the former, but not in that of the latter.

From childhood and throughout his life, Peirce suffered form facial neuralgia, allaying his pain with opiates. There are conjectures of syphilis. He suffered from "conversion hysteria" and psychological fugues. His fury could be uncontrolled. In 1889 he pleaded guilty to assault on a servant girl, and in 1895 he was a fugitive from justice. There were conjectures of adulterous affairs.

He was given to drink, and he might appear on the lecture platform in a drunken state. He experimented with drugs by way of self-treatment. He was left-handed and, punning on the meaning of the word in Latin, called himself "sinister". He pondered intensely on his left-handedness all his life and ascribed his "incapacity for linguistic expression" to it. He thought himself close to madness, and he searched endlessly for the reasons for the multiple deficiencies that led to a thwarted and tragic career.

The presidents of Johns Hopkins and Harvard and the heads of foundations kept their distance from him. He was not a "safe" appointment. President Daniel C. Gilman of Hopkins, finding on one occasion that he would be sleeping under the same roof as Peirce, left immediately. It reminds one of the social ostracism that Oscar Wilde suffered at about the same time. But there's a profound difference: Peirce was what would now be called manic-depressive. A good many of the medical details are known, but for a variety of reasons, including "author's turf" they remain unpublished.

One may even sympathize with the presidents of Harvard and Johns Hopkins who denied Peirce what he most fervently hoped for. Imagine that you are on the awards committee for the MacArthur Fellowships and an updated version of young Peirce is put forward. You might quite reasonably conclude that the candidate is brilliant but socially unacceptable. Would he get your vote? Even today, many brilliant people are shut out of the job market by the public's suspicion and lack of understanding of mental disabilities.

Peirce was married twice. His first wife, Harriet Fay, was an early feminist and one of the moving spirits in the founding of Radcliffe College. She came to have rather elevated notions about the marriage of men and women, viewing it as consisting of pure spirituality. After 14 years of marriage, years of both love and abuse, she walked out on Peirce. Legally, this was considered desertion on her part, and ultimately, after he had lived five years in sin --- as it would have been called until recently --- with Juliette Portalai, the future second Mrs. Peirce, he divorced Harriet.

Juliette, to the outside world, was a mystery woman as regards her origins: She claimed to have been a Hapsburg princess, and, in her wilder fantasies, said the had been an innocent bystander at the Tragedy at Mayerling. Some people who knew her concluded that she had been a fille de joie --- but a rather cultured one. This marriage lasted, and despite chronic illness, she outlived Peirce by 20 years. He had no children by either wife.

Brent, whose book contains many passages of poetic intensity, write in his introduction:

The beauty of the past arises from its permanence, from the impossibility of changing what was done. It is this forgiving permanence, suffusing even folly and tragedy with melancholy beauty, that transformed the bitter, humiliating, and above all tragic life of ... Peirce into an odyssey of spirit which is at once fascinating, saddening, and compelling.
This, then, is a very brief outline of Peirce's life, including its darker parts, given in the hope that it will entice readers to examine Brent's tremendously thoughtful and nontechnical presentation of Peirce's ideas.

The professional mathematician may recall that, following the interests of his father, the Harvard mathematician Benjamin Peirce, Charles Sanders Peirce proved that only three algebras admitted a uniquely defined operation of division: the real numbers, the complex numbers, and the quaternions. He also recognized the utility of the structure now known as Boolean algebra.

As regards mathematics as such, while his contributions are skillful, they are simply not in the genius category. Peirce himself admitted as much.

Cartographers may recall his "quincuncial" projection of the world, said to be of utility in plotting long airline routes. Contemporary physicists might dismiss his three decades in gravimetrics at the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey as mere "pendulum swinging", although that work is mentioned in the great Enzyklopaedie der Mathematischen Wissenschaften (1904). Peirce once deprecated the famous work of George W. Hill in celestial mechanics, saying that it was mere calculation and not a method for the discovery of new truths. This may have been a coverup for his feelings about his own bread-and-butter work at the survey.

Peirce spread himself far and wide. Among other accomplishments. he was a chemist, astronomer, logician, student of medicine, encyclopaedist, essayist, and book reviewer. There are no writers today --- short of editorial writers in cities of at least moderate size --- who would consider themselves qualified to write on as wide a range of topics as Peirce did.

It has been claimed on his behalf, moreover, that he anticipated general relativity, quantum theory, chaos theory, and the switching circuit computer. With an imagination that ranged so widely, it was inevitable that his thoughts were spread thin in certain places, and if Peirce is remembered at all in the larger world of ideas, it is as the originator of the philosophy of pragmatism (or pragmaticism, as he came to call it later) and as the Father of Semiotics the science of signs.

Peirce thought of himself primarily as a logician. Logic to him was the road to meaning and to the structure of thought. In 1887, he asserted (in A Guess at the Riddle, 1887) that he intended to

make a philosophy like that of Aristotle ... to an outline a theory so comprehensive that, for a long time to come, the entire work of human reason, in philosophy of every school and kind in history, in sociology ... shall appear as the filling up of its details.
He said that he was in possession of a "method of thought" but to this day others have had difficulty in fathoming it.

Although such contemporary authorities as Ernst Schroeder and William Kingdom Clifford considered Peirce's contributions to logic great, mainstream mathematical logic developed rather differently, in the direction of the logistic school of Frege, Russell and Whitehead, and Hilbert, some of whose votaries have dismissed Peirce out of hand. In this regard, Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) thought by a few to be the greatest of the modern philosophers of mathematics, who was antiplatonic (hence anti-Hilbert) and who was tremendously difficult to understand, has suffered the same neglect as Peirce.

Peirce's proposals (circa 1885) for a probabilistic interpretation of nature were certainly in advance of the physical thinking of the time He claimed to have derived them from questioning "the exact truth of axioms" but I wonder the perception of his own peculiar difficulties (left-handedness, neuralgia, etc.) contradicting the regularities that he might have reasonably expected, fed into a world view in which chaos played a role. Peirce must have been familiar with the well-known verse from Ecclesiastes: "The race is not to the swift ... nor riches to men of understanding, but time and chance happeneth to them all."

In his intention of the subject of semiotics, he divided signs into three types: the icon, the index, and the symbol. (He later balkanized these three types into 66 types!) As Brent interprets it, "An icon is a sign of a quality, an index is the sign of a relation, and a symbol is a sign of a representation." Peirce himself threw out only slight impressionistic hist as to how semiotics might operate in mathematics. It is only in the past decade of so, in the works of such people as Solomon Marcus in Romania or Brian Rotman in England and the U.S., that semiotics as entered the arena of mathematical philosophy. I believe that mathematics is calling out for a certain amount of semiotic interpretation and that we have seen only the opening chapters.

Modesty was not Peirce's long suit. As regards genius, he placed himself on a par with Leibnitz, and occasionally he would add Aritotle and Duns Scotus to the list of his peers. (Karl Popper, the distinguished philosopher of science, agreed with this judgement.) To the average American mathematician, Peirce's name probably elicits one question: "Is he the man for whom the instructorships at Harvard were named?" To the average educated person, his name probably means nothing at all. It is simply not up there with Aristotle or Leibnitz, and the question is whether it should be.

I, frankly, have never been able to read Peirce in the original. I find him difficult --- both incomplete and redundant, tentative and vague. I am not alone in this opinion; Peirce's great friend and admirer William James, the psychologist and philosopher, had much the same opinion. I am grateful that many scholars (and now Brent, who is a historian) have made Peirce's ideas accessible to me, although I wonder about the extent to which, out of necessity, the interpreters have reconstructed Peirce in their own images.

What attracts me most about Peirce is his pragmaticism, related but by no means identical to the pragmatism expounded by and made popular by William James. The philosopher Karl-Otto Apel summed up its application to scientific philosophy: "The world cannot be known or explained merely by its fixed, lawful structure, but rather must continue to be developed as a historical, social world of institutions and habits for which we must assume responsibility." To this, which was quoted by Brent, I should like to add the words of Husserl (in The Origin of Geometry): "The whole cultural world, in all its forms exists through tradition. These forms have arisen not merely causally ... they have arisen within our human space through human activity."

Peirce's "contrite fallibilism," which he described as his personal reaction to the doctrine of papal infallibility promulgated by the church in 1870, struck a blow against the creeping scientific dogmatism of his day. Seventy or eighty years in advance of Imre Lakatos, it presaged the fallibilism of the latter and of the varieties of "social constructivist" interpretations of mathematics. In this sense, the books written by Reuben Hersh and this reviewer ( The Mathematical Experience and Descartes' Dream) derive partly from the Peircian spirit.

I read Brent two times over and then laidi it aside, wondering about Peirce's accomplishments and career. To what extent were his great achievements stimulated by his frustrated academic career. Had he been given a university chair at an early age, as he fully expected, would his dandyism and his safe and comfortable life have stifled his necessity to philosophize? Or, given his mental difficulties, would he have in any case received the message that he had been tapped by the gods to enlighten benighted humanity? Would he then have tried over and over again, like a wasp trying unsuccessfully to escape from a bottle, as he put it, to find the words to tell us what his great method of reasoning was?

We can never know; nor can we know exactly what he meant by the logic of discovery that he called "abduction" to which he claimed that one's intuitive inner light made major contributions. We can only guess, and Peirce himself asserted that "we must conquer the truth by guessing, or not at all."

Philip J. Davis is an independent writer, scholar, and lecturer based in Providence, Rhode Island.