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This review appeared in Volume 4 (3) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Peirce Unbound

by Charles Lock

Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life. By Joseph Bent. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press,1993. Pp. xvi,388, ISBN 0-253-31267-1.

The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings. Volume One (1867-1993). Houser Nathan, and Christian Kloeset eds. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992. Pp. xfi,399. ISBN 0-253-32849-7.

Playing on his name and his unusual pronunciation Peirce was wont to speak of his characteristics as Peirce-istence and Peirce-everence. Such qualities have certainly been needed. As it the vagaries and misfortunes of his life were insufficiently testing, the eighty years since Peirce's death have been filled with stories of hazards and obstacles. Brent's biography, which should now do much for the recuperation of Peirce's reputation, has its own sad and scandalous history. Brent began work on this biographical study of Peirce almost forty years ago; it was completed as a doctoral dissertation in 1960, but Harvard withheld permission to quote material in copyright, the dissertation remained unpublished, and Bent became persona non grata in Peircean circles. Some five years ago Thomas Sebeok came across two separate references to a dissertation of which he had never heard -- perhaps the only citations it ever received? -- and searched for the author, who, when eventually found, was encouraged to revise and publish his graduate work of thirty years ago.

To say that the biography is even more fascinating than the story of its suppression is high praise. An intellectual biography rather than a documentary life, the book is organized in seven chapters, each a self contained essay. This is by far the best introduction to Peirce available, lucid where Peirce is gnarled: Peirce once characterized himself in contrast to James Williams, "he so concrete, so living; I a mere table of contents, so abstract, a very snarl of twine." Peirce was happy to accede to the spirit of James' remark that Peirce made a "thorny and spinous bedfellow". (See Howard M. Feinstein, Becoming William James, 1984, 302). Brent, always faithful to Peirce's subtleties and open to his inconsistencies, unravels the twine and bodies for the table of contents.

Most importantly, Brent fills out the historical and intellectual context of Peirce's life, and traces the often tortuous and (as Peirce might say) "anancastic" development of his thinking. It has been quite impossible for students to grasp the sequence of Peirce's writings, even in outline, since the editors of the six-volume Collected Papers (1931-35) had scrambled together paragraphs written years apart, with the aim of presenting some esoteric notion of thematic unity. Buchier's familiar Dover selection, Philosophical Writings of Peirce (1940, 1955, etc.) only compounded the editorial confusions of Hartshorne and Weiss.

The material which Brent presents is, therefore, though in storage for so long, almost all new and fresh, and there is nothing that does not enhance Peirce's reputation, and our fascination. Certain philosophers will of course be displeased: those whom Sebeok in his foreword describes as " Peirce' s deepest misinterpreters" (x). Peirce was always conscious, almost habitually so, of the difficulty of his thought, aware that his very way of thinking "to a normal mind seems almost inconceivably awkward" (15). Exemplifying his refusal of dualism, Peirce liked to explain his difference and oddity in terms of his left-handedness; it was therefore no paranoia that others might find him sinister. His sense of being a misfit, one who should be cast out, is well displayed in a letter to William James: "I want to be appointed Professor of Scientific Logic in the University of St. Helena. Could not some people be found who would subscribe something handsome to induce me to go there and never come back?" (136)

One might even say that it was the physiological or motor-neuron level which was decisive in the Peircian contribution to semiotics. For Peirce was possessed of extraordinary ambidexterity. His nephew reported -- and this is typical of the richness of unpublished material so long withheld -- "that Peirce was able to write on the blackboard, ambidextrously and simultaneously, a logical problem and its answer" (15). Surely in this detail we have a clue to Peirce's assumption of the potential simultaneity of signs, of their atemporal status (shades of Freud's subconscious?, and to the absence in Peirce of anything corresponding to the chain or sequence of signification in Saussure. For Peirce a sign is not part of a temporal linear sequence, any more than an answer is in temporal succession to a question.

This, I suspect, is at the very core of Jakobson's discovery of Peirce; in his struggle against the linearity of signification as established by Saussure, Jakobson had been anticipating, in the 1920s and 30s, the theory of iconicity that he was able to articulate only with the help of Peirce. Jakobson, unlike Saussure, would not keep linguistics apart from poetics, and in Peirce one finds something similar: information may be presented in a linguistic sequence, but the aesthetic appreciation of language in, for example, poetry requires the atemporal apprehension of the whole linguistic icon, the last one being temporally coexistent with the first. What Jacobson recognises in Peirce was a "preceding echo" of the painter Malevich who in 1916 had written: "Thus we tear the letter from its line, its singular direction, and we give it the possibility of free movement. (Lines suit only the world of bureaucracy and domestic correspondence.") (Cited in R. Jacobson & K. Pornorska, Dialogues, Cambridge, 1983, 173)

Most importantly, Peirce honours aesthetics above all else. In 1898 he presented the extreme development of Schiller's Spieltrieb magically glossed by Peirce as "the play of musement" whereby logic was said to depend on ethics, and ethics on aesthetics. The aesthetic has a crucial mediating status in Schiller, but in Peirce both ethics and logic are subordinated to the aesthetics. This extraordinary claim is derived from Peirce's premise that there is no possible separation between thoughts and things. All thoughts are signs, he insisted, repeatedly and axiomatically, in his defiance of Kantian intuition which began with the two great essays of 1868, "Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man" and "Some Consequences of Four Incapacities". And by the 1890s, in "The Monist Metaphysical Series" of essays, he dared to explore the concomitant, that, while all thoughts are signs, so also all things are signs, and signs and things must necessarily and absolutely coinhere:

an idea can only be affected by an idea in continuous connection with it. By anything but an idea, it cannot be affected at all. This obliges me to say... that what we call matter is not completely dead, but is merely mind hind-bound with habit. (210).

...it follows that whatever affects matter according to regular laws is itself matter. But all mind is itself directly or indirectly connected with all matter ... so that all mind more or less partakes of the nature of matter. (211)

...even plants make their living... by uttering signs. (311)

Of a projected work, Peirce writes that it will challenge "the assumption that it is one thing to see red or green and another to look red or green". (227)

It must be precisely here, in the inseparability of looking and seeing, that logic and ethics find themselves subordinated to aesthetics. These ideas, especially in isolated citation, sound a little wild; Peirce acknowledges his increasing debt to Swedenborg. We could perhaps trace a similar motion from the Sweden organism of Henry James Sr. to the inseparability of cognition and aesthetics in the novels of his son. Strether's anagnorisis by the river in the dénouement of The Ambassadors is precisely phrased in terms of the priority of the aesthetic -- the suggestion of a landscape painting by Lambinet over the perceptible, even, so dramatically, over the conceivable.

Roman Jakobson's discovery of Peirce -- which marks, in the wake of Charles Morris, the wider recognition of Peirce -- is less of a mystery after reading Brent. Peirce had an enormous admiration for Duns Scotus. In 1909, in a job application possibly sent to the president of Harvard, Peirce compared himself to others in the field of logic:

the only writers known to me who are in the same rank as I are Aristotle, Duns Scotus, and kibniz, the three greatest logicians in (my) estimation, although some of the most important points escaped each (324)

It would not be entirely misleading to draw an analogy, at least in the influence and reputation of each, between Duns Scotus and Swedenborg. The other great (and, once, almost equally occluded) revaluation of Duns Scotus in the late nineteenth century was undertaken by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Like Peirce, Hopkins was under the explicit influence of Scotus -- astonished at the inseparability of seeing green and looking green which is to say, of seeing and being seen: "What you look hard at seems to look hard at you," Hopkins wrote in his journal, in March 1871. Jakobson came across Hopkins shortly after he read Peirce, and in this triad (as, for Peirce, in all triads) there may be some significance. Here, alone, can the primacy of the aesthetic be claimed on material grounds. (One says "material" in some desperation, redefining what could possibly be the ground of an aesthetic on which logic self is dependent. Here for Jakobson was a principle, if not a metaphysic, which would affirm the status of the poetic in language, and render linguistics virtually dependent on poetics.

Peirce formulated the primacy of the aesthetic around 1897. The only other thinker of that epoch, as far as I know, thus to honour the aesthetic was the Russian polymath, Father Pavel Florensky (1882-1937). Florensky's philosophy was presented in 1912, as The Pillar and Ground of Truth. Ontology and epistemology are, if not subordinated, entirely dependent on aesthetics. Florensky writes: "Knowing... is a real act of going out of himself by the knower, of which is the same, a real going out of that which is being known into the one who knows -- a real unity of the knower and the known." (Cited in Victor Bychkov, The Aesthetic Face of Being: Art in the Theology of Pavel Florensky, New York, 1993, 26-7)

Instead of the ontological proof, Florensky proposes the aesthetic proof: that the existence of God is proved by the existence of an icon. (The coincidence of the revival of the term "icon" in the context of semiotics, albeit with apparently divergent connotations for Peirce and Florensky, needs to be investigated). One might compare Peirce on signs with Florensky's definition of the "bi-une" nature of the symbol:

"A being that is greater than itself -- this is the basic definition of the symbol. A symbol is something that manifests in itself that which is not itself, that which is greater than itself and is nevertheless essentially manifested through itself ... a symbol is an essence the energy of which is joined, or ...commingled, with the energy of another essence..." (Cited in Bychkov, 70)

This is remarkably close to Peirce's denial of intuition (and, therefore, of ideas without representation or materiality) and his insistence that ideas occur and change only when signs move into material contiguity. For Florensky, as an Orthodox priest and theologian, the threeness of signs has obvious Trinitarian overtones. Peirce's move, as an adult, in 1862, from Unitarianism to the Trinitarianism of the Episcopalian Church, is well understood by Brent, who cites this passage from a lecture given by Peirce in 1866:

Here, therefore, we have a divine trinity of the object, interpretant, and ground... In many respects, this trinity agrees with the Christian trinity; indeed, I am not aware that there are any points of disagreement. (65)

What is interesting here is not an empirical concern with religious belief or faith, but the heuristic use of metaphysical or mythological models. Peirce is explicit, as is Florensky, about the Trinitarian model, though the elements in their triads are very different. Florensky's considerable influence on Russian Formalism tends to be oblique and, where most visible, parodic, notably in Shklovsky's "Resurrection of the Word". One can here only speculate, but I would suggest that the Orthodox Trinitarian aesthetics of Florensky, whose influence is far from oblique in the Tartu-Moscow School, was -- as a heuristic paradigm, one must insist -- part of Jakobson's intellectual formation. Peirce and Florensky bear remarkable similarities. No other thinkers of the time made such claims for the aesthetic, nor thought so insistently and coherently in threes.

At the biographical level, Peirce as what he would call the "man-sign" (73) is surprisingly taken up with appearances, especially his own. Brent speaks of Pierce as, in one mode at least a dedicated dandy; with this too both Florensky and Jakobson might have identified. Such modes and images do not square with pioneers in a new and rigorous discipline. That may be why semiotics, of the aesthetic tendency at least continues to offer a counter-discourse today, when thinking, however avant-garde, seldom challenges body mind dualism, and quite fails to question the subordination of the aesthetic to the logical and the epistemological: a subordination virtually axiomatic in Aquinas, Descartes, Kant Husserl.

Every reader of Brent will want to go back to Peirce, or rather to read Peirce as if for the first time.

This begins to be possible, at least in a library, now that the first four volumes, of a projected thirty (each of around 700 pages) have been published in the "Chronological Edition" from Indiana U.P. The same editorial team and publisher are issuing a paperback set, The Essential Peirce, of which the first volume (1867-1893) is now available. At last we have reliable and complete texts, accessible to students, of the major essays. This in itself means that -- for the first time ever -- Pierce can conveniently be studied in the classroom. The editors have decided, however, that the appeal will be to philosophy students, and the "Essential" Peirce is entirely confined to "Selected Philosophical writings". This is a very strange decision: philosophers -- with some notable exceptions such as the late David Savan -- have surely by now demonstrated their inability to make anything of Peirce, or even to recognize that he should be taken seriously at all. It has been linguists and semioticians who have sustained the Peircian cause, and they are likely to be very disappointed by the editors' notion of what is to be considered "essential".

The fundamental essays from the late 1860s are here: "On a new List of Categories" (1867), "Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man" (1868), and "Some Consequences of Four Incapacities" (1868); essays whose challenge to Kant seems to belong to a period forty years later -- is indeed still poignant. It is intriguing to wonder how the debates of neo-Kantanism and phenomenology might have been conducted had Pierce been reckoned with.

There is then in what's "essential" an internal of virtually ten years, and we end the more technical and conservative essays contributed to the Popular Science Monthly (1877-78) on logic, belief, induction, chance, etc. -- topics treated far more provocatively in the essays of the 1860s, and topics, moreover about which Peirce was doing his serious thinking informally, in notes and letters, rather than in the commissioned essays. Regrettably, the "Essential Peirce" is confined not only to writings judge to be philosophical but, even more damagingly, to formal essays. This edition presumes to represent Peirce without any sense of correspondence or working papers (so luminously deployed by Brent) without any sense of his astonishing intellectual range: nothing of his work on the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, nothing of his linguistic or literary writings (who has read his 1864 essay "Shakespearean Pronunciation"? Brent tells us that this study of Shakespeare's language was instrumental in the development of Peirce's theory of signs), nothing of his textbooks for school children.

Brent's biography should be read by everybody concerned with the development not of philosophy but of thinking in modernity: here, for the first time, Peirce is liberated from his philosopher captors. One hopes that the impact of this book, and news of the scandal of its suppression, will provoke an entirely fresh edition of Peirce's work, appropriate for students and addressed to the widest constituency of this readers, actual and potential.

Sebeok tells us that around 1980, he confided to Roman Jakobson (himself then at Harvard) something of his disquiet at the way in which the Peirce Trustees were discharging their responsibilities. Jakobson replied gnomically: "I think that Pierce was much too good for Harvard". To "Harvard" one would like to add "and for philosophers"; and to make explicit that Peirce-istence and Peirce-everence have found in Brent their proper champion, and in this biography the seeds of reward: due and overdue.

Charles Lock is Professor of English at Erindale College, University of Toronto.


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