Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Charles S. Peirce

My interest in the pragmatist philosopher Charles S. Peirce, reawakened recently by reading Louis Menand's Metaphysical Club, drew me to Joseph Brent's fine 1993 biography of Peirce. While Brent gives a moving depiction of Peirce's tragic life and helped me better understand his ideas, I was struck by Brent's need to somehow explain Peirce's failure to understand the motives of others and poor judgment. He implicates his left handedness, his trigeminal neuralgia and the narcotics and cocaine that he took for the pain, as well as the influence of his father, the mathematician Benjamin Peirce, who worked quite hard to train the young Charles to be a great man. Not quite satisfied with these influences, Brent turns to the notion of the Dandy, that is a person determined to live by his own rules, to make sense of his erratic behavior. While I didn't find any of these efforts very satisfying, I was quite surprised, when reading a 2000 biographical essay by Brent, to find that the scales had fallen from Brent's eyes and he finally realized that everything could be simply explained by the fact that Peirce suffered from Bipolar Disorder. All the symptoms were lined up like ducks in a row. How wonderful it is for us to have the DSM to help us understand difficult people. Then, of course, there are Peirce's ideas. I find them both quite challenging and resonant with my way of thinking about people.