|EDITOR'S NOTE: Since there is no normal pagination on a web page, paragraph numbersincluded in brackets and placed flush right, just above the paragraphare provided for purposes of scholarly reference.
If you wish to quote from or refer to this version of the paper in a scholarly context please use its URL address, which locates it as appearing on this page on the Arisbe website:
"When an idea is conveyed from one mind to another, it is
by forms of combination of the diverse elements of nature,
say by some curious symmetry, or by some union of a tender
color with a refined odor. To such forms the law of
mechanical energy has no application. If they are eternal,
it is in the spirit they embody; and their origin cannot be
accounted for by any mechanical necessity. They are
embodied ideas; and so only can they convey ideas."|
C. S. Peirce, "The Law of Mind," July, 1892.
The logician, polymath, and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), then a figure of mysterious greatness, was a most attractive subject for a dissertation in the history of American ideas, when, in 1957, as a Ph. D. candidate in History at the University of California at Los Angeles, I came upon him in Perry Miller's introduction to his pioneering anthology, American Thought: Civil War to World War I.1 Almost nothing had been written about Peirce's life, unlike the major studies on William James, Royce and Dewey, and what had been written about Peirce showed no citations to the reportedly extensive biographical material at Harvard University. Correspondence with the appropriate Peirce scholars determined that none of them was working on a biography, and in March, 1958, at my request, the Harvard Department of Philosophy, owners of the Peirce papers, gave me permission to consult their collection. That summer, research grant in hand, I moved to Cambridge to begin work. Immediately, I encountered serious obstacles. Getting into the papers was delayed for two months while my permission to consult them was verified. I discovered that four boxes of biographical material were restricted from consultation. The papers were in extraordinary confusion and disrepair, and the Harvard philosophers, in various ways, but especially because of Peirce's lurid reputation as a debauched genius, gave me to know that they had made a mistake in giving me permission at all. As a sop, the department offered to give me a written apology and $500.00, if I would give up the Peirce project. I appealed to McGeorge Bundy, then dean of the faculty, and consulted a lawyer. In the end, I agreed not to press to see the restricted papers, because I believed I had found what they contained in other collections, both at Harvard and elsewhere; there were about 10,000 pages of Peirce material in the Coast Survey papers at the National Archives, much Peirce material in other collections at the Library of Congress, and at such depositories as the Massachusetts Historical Society, the university libraries at Columbia, Yale, Chicago, and in various private collections.
My difficulties with the Harvard philosophers were not yet over, however. In 1959, they appointed Max Fisch, a Peirce scholar who had been interested in Peirce's life for twenty years, as their official Peirce biographer. 2 Fisch and I had agreed earlier to share the results of our research into Peirce's life and were then doing so. One of the conditions of Fisch's appointment was that he break with me, which he did and thereafter he never shared his Peirce researches with me, though I had given him copies of my more than 3000 notecards made over three years of extensive archival research. These notes were immediately integrated into the effort that, in 1975, became the Peirce Edition Project at Indiana-Purdue University at Indianapolis under Fisch's general editorship. In 1960, I completed my dissertation and was informed by Harvard that they would not give me permission to quote from their Peirce collection. This bar continued until Fisch retired, in 1989, without writing his biography. Finally, in December, 1991, the Harvard philosophers gave me permission to publish selections from their Peirce collection in my forthcoming biography, which the semeiotician Thomas Sebeok had solicited the year before and Indiana University Press published, in 1993.3 In his review of it, Murray Murphey, author of The Development of Peirce's Philosophy, wrote that my biography:4
[3}In the thirty years between the approval of my Peirce dissertation and the revising of it for my biography, I had continued to think about Peirce's way of thinking, particularly his analysis of the nature of inquiry. The most recent, interesting, and useful lesson I learned from Peirce as a historian is that we are practicing semeioticians, whether we know it or not. We study the past to find out what happened and what it meant, using the plethora of signs that was left behind. In studying the past we depend on three kinds of sources or texts: documentary, artifactual, and oral, and combinations of these. All are concatenations of signs. Academic historians are still mainly committed to the firstthe documentarybut the other two are meeting with greater acceptance, thereby providing an opening which is beginning to break down the boundaries established in the nineteenth century between the disciplines of history, archeology, anthropology, sociology, politics, and economics. This kind of deconstruction can be unsettling, because it undermines the accepted models which have long hidden what working historians do. We become deeply involved in a dialogue with our sources; we come to understand the complexity of the interrelationships that always exist between sources and their interpretations. This understanding begins with the collection and initial categorization of materials. Simply placing some material in one category and other material in anotherthe acts of colligation and classificationestablishes primitive interpretive patterns which subtly, but certainly, influence how we proceed thereafter. As inquiry progresses, thoughtful historians carefully maintain a continuous awareness of the dialogic relationship between ourselves, our sources, and their meaning, called their interpretations. This triadic relation of sign, object and, interpretant Peirce calls semeiosis. The facts as sign, the historian as object (and sign), and their meanings as interpretant (and sign), say, my biography, Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life.>6 In this process, we also become more and more aware of the part that guessing, or hypothesizing, actually plays at every step along the complicated way, from the very first act of classification until we decide to stop and work out our narrative (or more theoretically social scientific) explanations. The influential philosopher of history R. G. Collingwood called this kind of dialogue with sources imaginative reenactment.7
As Peirce's biographer, I try to reconstruct his life from the sources as if it were my own, imagining the reasons for his actions. Collingwood's idea, which we might call rational explanationexplanation by reasonsto distinguish it from explanation by causal laws, is actually not explanation at all, but a species of what Peirce calls abduction, or hypothetic inference, which, along with induction and deduction, make up the elements of his logic of inquiry. They are themselves elements in his more general doctrine of signs, or, as he called it, semeiotic. The vehicle for this imaginative inquiry, is the existence of a public language and other conventional signs. For any historian, the assumption is that the public language changes in determinate ways through time. For a Peirce biographer, this means that the public language and other conventional signs of Peirce's time, place, status, and culture can be learned and will dependably reproduce their meanings.
For Peirce, all inquiry has three elements. The first is creative, an almost irresistible inflowing of meaning. A few inquirers have the openness and insight to harbor hypotheses, or as Peirce preferred to call them, abductions. He calls this activity the Pure Play of Musement and suggests that it reflects "some natural tendency toward agreement between the ideas which suggest themselves to the human mind and those that concern themselves with the laws of nature."8 The problem with hypotheses is that, more often than not, more than one could explain the facts. Hence, the requirement for deductionfor the logical elaboration of the hypotheses quite independently of the evidence for or against themin order to determine what things would be like if the hypotheses were true, and to enable the inquirer to choose which among them seems most likely, if it were to be tested. These two elements constitute the abductive phase of inquiry and constitute what Collingwood meant by imaginative reenactment. Peirce writes, introducing the third element, induction, "that nature and the mind have such a community as to impart to our guesses a tendency toward the truth, while at the same time require the confirmation of empirical science;" the requirement to test to see if things probably do look like that, after all.9 All three elements are constantly interwoven and integrated in the process of inquiry, conceived by Peirce as a form of semeiosis.
The Peirce of my biography is (as are the persona of any biography) a hypothetical Peirce, an imaginative reenactment, the product of continuous deductive elaborations of many related abductions. To be sure, there must always be many inductive checks to test the movement of this entire process, a process that Peirce called ampliative reasoning, but whatever life exists in my recreation of Peirce is entirely hypothetical. I will now describe the way he came to be and, also, why I now think the portrait of him in my biography is, in two important respects, incomplete.
When I began my research in the Widener Library attic, I had no clear idea of how to proceed except to go on my musing way, taking hundreds upon hundreds of verbatim notes by hand, with no consistent reasons for my choices, except to establish a chronology (which itself involves a controversial hypothesis about the nature of time) in the hope that some useful way of understanding this obviously complicated man would come to me. After two months, as I studied my notes carefully for the first time, now numbering more than 1000, I realized that I had already decided on one category into which many of the notes fell, that of the extremes of Peirce's behavior, subdivided into three topics: possible diseases, defects of personality, and the development of patterns of thinking as expressions of his temperament. Without realizing it, I had been acting on the hypothesis that, if I could only find out what the Harvard philosophers were trying to hide, I would understand Peirce. So, I was looking for the worst in him and I found it. I found his intellectual and personal arrogance, his extravagant dandyism, his violence, his severe depressions, his sexual adventures, his addiction to drugs and alcohol, his wild financial extravagances, his thefts, and his lies, and I had tentatively decided that he suffered from syphilis as the most likely hypothesis to explain these extremes. But I had not found Peirce.
After three months of exhaustive research, I wrote in my notes that I still vacillated between seeing him at times as the misunderstood great philosopher I "expected to find and at others only a pathological liar." Shortly afterwards, I wrote that "Peirce was so complex a man that four months of intensive research has produced only frustrated confusion and a still unwavering suspicion of his motives." As I was to discover during the next two years, I was expressing the same judgments that Presidents Eliot of Harvard and Gilman of Hopkins and others had made a century earlier.
On the other hand, Peirce's 1902 application to the Carnegie Institution, then in the unrestricted biographical material at Widener, reflected the almost feral manner in which he stalked Truth through the intricately abstract branchings of his thinking. I was overwhelmed by the depth, breadth, and apparent simplicity of his philosophizing. I studied the application ignorantly, but with great care, and concluded that the philosopher presented by Buchler, Goudge, Madden, Gallie, Thompson, and Feibleman, the leading Peirce scholars of the day, was not the Peirce of the application. Unlike any of their differing attempts at explication, the whole structure of Peirce's architectonic, to judge from his own carefully elaborated statement, was based upon a very general doctrine of signs he called semeiotic, about which I knew nothing and could find nothing of any significance in 1959 or the early sixties. I did not learn until many years later of C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards 1923 work The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and the Science of Symbolism, which mentions Peirce in its appendix has having proposed "by far the most elaborate and determined attempts to give an account of signs and meaning" of which they were aware, or Jacques Maritain's 1956-57 articles on language and signs.10
At the time of the completion of my dissertation in 1960, my thinking about Peirce was still very confused. I had more than 3000 notes from various collections and dozens of hypotheses. The probability of the syphilis hypothesis had declined for me to near zero. No one, I thought, could write so clearly as Peirce did a few months before his death in 1914 at seventy-four while suffering from that disease. That Peirce was extremely neurotic seemed probable. His father's demands on him overwhelmed him. He suffered attacks of conversion hysteria during which he was briefly paralyzed, had periods when his sanity was in question, was episodically severely depressed, seemed extremely narcissistic, frequently lost control of himself, and showed other typical symptoms. In the never finished draft of his memorial biography for the National Academy of Sciences, the chemist E. B. Wilson wrote, about 1925, a description that summarized the extent of my hypothesizing at the time; "He had genius; he lacked character. It is this Jekyll-Hyde duality which must be perceived if Peirce is to be understood..."11 But none of this seemed to have anything to do with the blurred picture that had been slowly emerging in my mind (and which appeared tentatively in my 1960 dissertation) of a truly singular man; a prodigiously learned, protean, brilliant, Rabelaisian, and extraordinarily productive intelligence, who lived a humiliating, tragic, and tortured life.
Because of Harvard's continued opposition to my publication of any of their Peirce biographical manuscripts, I worked only episodically on Peirce and semeiotic puzzle until thirty years later when, in 1990, Sebeok and John Gallman, director of the Indiana University Press, asked me to undertake a revision of my dissertation as a full-length biography. In the biography, based primarily upon my early archival research, I used three hypotheses to account for the extremes of Peirce's behavior; some were his own.
1) He was obsessed with logic and the commonplace and obdurately inexplicable mystery of meaning. He also believed that he had a God-given calling to present to the world what he knew to be the original discoveries in his doctrine of signs. As he put it in 1902, his passionate dedication to the study of meaning derived from "an uncontrollable impulse....it has been necessary for me at all times to exercise all my control over myself, for fear that my mind might be affected by such unceasing application to a particular subject."12
2) After 1910, Peirce looked to the poison of biological inheritance to account for his more bizarre behaviour. He was born left-handed and a mathematical prodigy, both common in his family. He blamed his inability to express himself in language and his dependence on diagrammatic thinking on these traits, as well as crediting them for his aptitude in logic. In his old age, in trying to account for his extremes of behavior, he blamed his genetic inheritance for his uncontrollable emotionality, what he called the "criminal trait in the blood" and added, "three mental twists are strongly marked in the families that have given me being, and seem to be so in myself."13 He described these as unusual mathematical aptitude with its attendant unworldliness, extreme belligerence, and exaggerated sensibility, of which he wrote, "For long years I suffered unspeakably, being an excessively emotional fellow, from ignorance of how to go to work to acquire sovereignty over myself."14 He also suffered terribly from the pain of trigeminal neuralgia and took ether, opium and morphine, alcohol, and later cocaine to control it. He was addicted by thirty, if not before, and came to depend on these drugs to get his work done.
3) Peirce's father Benjamin was a loving and overwhelming figure of a man, who rigorously trained his son for genius from childhood on and also thought of him as an extension of his own metaphysical vision, paying little attention to standard curricula or expectations of academic performance. At the same time in this hothouse of a scientific environment, he encouraged his son's social explorations and introduced him to the good life. A nephew wrote that he became a "highly emotional, easily duped and rather snobbish youngster going his own way indifferent of consequences."15 Because of his neurological and nervous disorders, his family, and particularly his father, indulged and protected him into his forties. I summarized Peirce's character by means of the poet Baudelaire's ideal of the Dandy, the modern hero who makes himself into a great man, according to his own standards.
As an elaboration of Wilson's characterization of Peirce as a Jekyll-Hyde personality, I thought that these three hypothesesPeirce's obsession with meaning, his neurological pathologies, especially the terrible pain of neuralgia, and his father's powerful and destructive influencecould account for his extremes of behavior. Two months after the biography's publication in January, 1993, I read Kay Redfield Jamison's brilliant and scholarly study, Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament (just released) and suddenly recognized that what I had written about Peirce was probably an account of the course of the disease she describes so vividly. I had suggested this possibility in the book, but the signs of it I then had were too scattered. After studying Jamison, I proposed the hypothesis, which I still find convincing, that beginning at about twenty, Peirce began to show the symptoms of manic depressive illnessthe inherited "divine madness" of so many great creators, whether statesmen, physicists, painters, poets, philosophers, mathematicians, entrepreneurs, saints or generalsand that the disease is the primary reason for his extremes of behavior. The disease is heavily skewed toward successful upper class and professional families like the Peirces. It is not psychological in the typical meaning of an emotional maladaptation (though it obviously exhibits this); rather it is the result of a genetic chemical imbalance in the brain for which today effective treatment exists. In Peirce's day, the often alternately terrifying and ecstatic mood swings which accompany the disease were generally thought to be entirely failures of character. It is surprising that his most dependable friend and ally William James, the brilliant and pioneering psychologist, who was himself an often tortured sufferer from pathological depression for which he several times sought treatment, did not recognize, in his friend Charles, the signs of a similar malady. James wrote in 1903, when Peirce was producing some of his most original work:
Peirce was subject to the wide and uncontrollable mood swings typical of the disease. He also exhibited other associated symptoms: manic grandiosity and visionary expansiveness; driven, paranoid, and impulsive actions; extreme insomnia; almost superhuman energy; hypersexuality; irrational financial dealings, including compulsive extravagance and disastrous investments. These manic states, beginning in his twenties, during which Peirce worked feverishly on his philosophy and often prolonged over weeks or months by his knowledgeable use of drugs, were interlaced, in a constant undulation of emotions, with severe melancholic or depressive states characterized by suicidal feelings or flatness of mood, accompanied by inertness of mind, inability to feel emotion, and a sense of unbearable futility.17 At first, the severity and extent of the disease were relatively mild and could easily be interpreted as the consequence of his passion for logic, but by his forties it was increasingly severe and had already shown apparently psychotic episodes, which continued to increase in severity and frequency as he grew older.18 In his sixties, suffering from abdominal cancer, he was sometimes completely incapacitated for weeks at a time by depression and pain and utterly dependent on cocaine to continue work. I give one of many examples of the severity of his mood swings. In the space of two months in 1895, in his mid-fifties, Peirce wrote joyfully, "my ideas are immortal"19 and in suicidal despair, "A strong desire for death had long been on me, is yet."20
I will examine these extreme swings of mood and other symptoms of the disease in the context of the collapse of his professional life. In 1884, President Gilman of Johns Hopkins fired him on the grounds of his unsuitability for "the guidance and instruction of young men in their university studies."21 The knowledge of Peirce's adulterous relationship with his future second wife, which affected Gilman's judgment, came from the astronomer and mathematician Simon Newcomb, Peirce's colleague at Hopkins and the most powerful and influential American scientist of his generation.22 Thereafter, Newcomb and an informal group of prominent scientists and educators intervened to destroy Peirce's scientific and academic career.23 In September, 1891, Superintendent T. C. Mendenhall of the Coast Survey, Peirce's employer, wrote a letter firing him at the end of the year from his thirty year career in geodesy there, an event Peirce expected, welcomed and dreaded.24 Mendenhall's decision was based on an evaluation of Peirce's major gravimetric work written, unknown to Peirce, by Newcomb at Mendenhall's request, which called Peirce's work virtually worthless.25 Two weeks before his termination became effective, Peirce wrote Mendenhall a letter begging a year's extension, the last of many such requests, to bring it into shape.
Before examining the letter, it will help to characterize briefly the conditions and setting of Peirce's life at the time he wrote it in mid-December, 1891. In 1887, he and Juliette had moved from New York City to the virtual wilderness of Pike County, Pennsylvania. Using small legacies from his mother and aunt, he rebuilt to his own design old farmhouse in Milford, which his young and mysterious French, second wife Juliette then decorated to her taste. There, black-balled by the academy and many of his scientific colleagues, he intended to write his philosophy and to make a new life for himself as a scientific entrepreneur and educator with the help of the self-made millionaire James W. Pinchot. Pinchot, after making a fortune in the New York City dry goods business, had retired at forty-four and built, in addition to other residences elsewhere, in Milford a large Norman castle called Grey Towers. There, in the summer season, Pinchot entertained the barons of great new wealth, such as the Belmonts and Vanderbilts. Pinchot's wife and chatelaine Mary Eno Pinchot was Juliette's close friend and adviser. Mary's father, Amos Eno, was a real estate tycoon and one of the richest men in New York City. He owned the glamorous Fifth Avenue Hotel, as well as some of the leading brothels in the city. Mary's brother John Eno was president of the city's Second National Bank and absconded to Canada with several hundred thousand dollars. At the time of the letter to Mendenhall, Peirce was involved in two schemes which he expected to make him very rich, the first a technique for extracting wood alcohol he was hoping to sell to George W. Vanderbilt and the second a dyeing process of his invention, which his brothers James Mills, then chairman of Harvard's mathematics department, and Herbert, then a minor bureaucrat in the Department of State, were trying to help him market in Boston. Both failed. On January 1, 1892, the day after his forced resignation from the Survey, he began a diary:
Peirce's grim forecast was accurate. Within two years, in large part because of a number of reckless business gambles and his alcoholism and drug addiction, he was ruined both financially and in reputation and, by the summer of 1895, he was down and out in New York City, expelled from the Century Club, his elite retreat, and a fugitive from Pennsylvania law. These desperate events profoundly depressed him and he became increasingly suicidal.27
Yet, in his work, he had come to believe that he had unlocked the key to understanding the way things are and how they got they way. This conviction of elemental success had its beginnings at Johns Hopkins just after his father's death in 1880, when he first considered the idea, put forth in his 1884 lecture "Design and Chance" that the existence and evolution of physical laws must themselves be explained:
In the same lecture, he proposed for the first time his grand hypothesis to answer such questions: out of chance, in the Aristotelian sense of absence of cause, comes habit, of which physical laws are a kind, whose main element "is the tendency to repeat any action which has been performed before." In 1887-88, in his unfinished work a "Guess at the Riddle" he summarized his solution to the problem of the origins of the universe in the sentence, "According to this, three elements are active in the world, first, chance; second, law; and third, habit taking."29 This cosmological proposal evidently has its basis in his system of triadic categories, which goes back in various forms to his 1867 paper "On a New List of Categories."30 Though Peirce failed in his intention to make "A Guess at the Riddle" a great architectonic work of speculative philosophy in the tradition of Aristotle, its major ideas were briefly set forth in The Monist series of 1891-93, the very time of his travails just described.31
At the beginning of his draft of "Guess at the Riddle," he had written with manic grandiosity:
Peirce never gave up his belief that his philosophy had that great and persistent a potential. Now, increasingly, ordinarily sober-sided scholars are seeing things at least partly his way.33 Such is often the case with great intellects who are also manic-depressives.
I will use his letter to Mendenhall begging indulgence to give substance to Peirce's profound demoralization as he saw his world collapsing around him in 1891. He wrote:
Peirce requested a year to bring his reports into shape, but Mendenhall refused.
Peirce's letters, diaries, and publications contain hundreds of expressions of both manic and depressive symptoms, only a few of which I have quoted. The symptoms of severe depression which he exhibited episodically during much of his adult life include apathy, hopelessness ("I think I shall very soon be completely ruined"), slowed thinking, impaired memory and concentration ("My greatest trial is my inertness of mind"), and thoughts of suicide and death ("a strong desire for death had long been on me, is yet"), all of which significantly affected his behavior and reputation for the worse. The same sources also exhibit mania, the other extreme of ebullient, almost transcendent self-confidence. All The Monist articles (1891-1893) are shot through with the most expansive claims for his "Working Hypothesis" of the evolution of the universe. For example, to conclude "The Architecture of Theories" he asserted:
In "The Doctrine of Necessity Examined," he announced grandly:
As is usual with manic-depressives, Peirce's behavior was also quite ordinary for much of his life, a fact that further confused his friends and enemies, making it appear that he could control himself if he wished.
If we provisionally accept the hypothesis that Peirce was severely manic depressive, doing so would appear to put in question Peirce's whole philosophical enterprise as the outpourings of a mad genius whose claims are, therefore, deeply suspect. Yet madness and genius have been joined since antiquity as the sign of extraordinarily productive creativity. As Jamison has shown at length, modern psychological and medical research has found that the disease is genetic in nature; that there is often a causal relationship between the extremely creative person and manic-depressive illness; and, further, that the disease occurs far more often among families in the successful classes whose abilities it has enhanced down the generations. The following names, most taken from a list prepared by Jamison, of those who may well have had the disease is illustrative of the connection: the poets George Gordon, Lord Byron, Emily Dickinson, and Marina Tsvetayeva; the writers John Bunyan, Leo Tolstoy, and Virginia Woolf; the composers and musicians George Frederic Handel, Robert Schumann, and Peter Tchaikovsky; the artists Thomas Eakins, Georgia O'Keefe, and Mark Rothko; the mathematicians Georg Cantor, Luitzen Brouwer, and Kurt Gödel; the physicists Ludwig Boltzman, Erwin Schrödinger, and David Bohm; the philosophers Plato, Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, William James, Charles Peirce, and many more.
Many of the most brilliant sufferers have learned to ride the wild rollercoaster of moods by using the highs, often amplified and extended by drugs, as their flights of ecstatic invention. Byron, among others, demonstrates the characteristic pattern of intense creative activity followed by cold, depressed, critical analysis of the creation, as the thoroughly annotated manuscripts of many of his greatest poems shows. Byron sometimes studied his disease with detached curiosity and understood both its marvelous gifts and its often fatal consequences.39 Peirce, in his letter to Mendenhall understood the same relation between the period of intoxicated creativity and that of analytical reconsideration, when he said he was "never so brilliant as then" in his logical work, but found that it contained "some very curious and unaccountable errors" which he detected and corrected. In his late maturity, Peirce, the fallibilist, constantly reworked his inspired and intricate manuscripts, always looking for errors. Peirce is joined with a brilliant, motley, and immensely productive company of creative genius through his manic-depressive illness. I find no reason to suspect his splendid work because of it, and every reason to admire the disciplined genius of his philosophical originality, despite it and because of it.
This elaboration completes the outline of the manichean personality I first hypothesized in 1958. Since reading Jamison's book, I have found in Peirce's manuscripts an abundance of the kinds of facts to which the hypothesis points deductively. These discoveries also support, as well, Peirce's own general hypothesis of the poison of biology as a major cause of his self-destructive behavior.
There is one other, equally controversial, aspect of Peirce's life, which I believe is crucial to understanding not only his life, but his thought as well. In my biography, I called attention to a close similarity between Peirce's metaphysics and mysticism, which Leibniz, whom he considered his closest philosophical relative, called the perennial philosophy.40 I then knew of no direct evidence in support of the hypothesis, but after publication of the biography, two Peirce scholars informed me that there was a letter (first published in 1984 by Donna M. Orange) in which Peirce called himself mystical.41 He had at least one mystical experience, of which he wrote a description addressed to the Reverend John W. Brown, Rector of St. Thomas's Episcopal Church in New York City. I quote the letter entire, because of its interest:
The letter was probably never sent and there is no reason to believe that Peirce met with Rector Brown, a perfect stranger. Peirce had a life-long and profound ambivalence about formal religion. On the one hand was his intense distaste for theology and its associated metaphysics. I imagine him one Sunday sitting in a pew picking out of the Creed the doctrine of the resurrection of the body and contemptuously making fun of it: "These perfected bodies will certainly enjoy feasting on perfect food and being lulled by a divine process of digestion. Will there be perfected toilets in Heaven?" On the other hand, Peirce had a deep and constant longing for a religious community in which he would be able to express his "passionate love for the church and a complete faith that the essence of christianity,whatever that might be,was Divine," without the dangerous absurdities of theological metaphysics. This community would be a transfiguration of his ideal of the community of scientific inquirers and Peirce described its nature sixteen years later in his 1908 essay, "A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God," which is, among other things, a manual to help others achieve mystical experience by means of the "Pure Play of Musement," whose practice will lead to a state of mind in which
Peirce had some knowledge of the mystical tradition from his father, from Henry James Senior's Swedenborgianism, from Emerson, and from his own reading, at this time particularly the works of F. W. J. Schelling with its references to European mystics like the Neoplatonists and Jacob Boehme, and Eastern mystical writings.44 It was from Schelling that Peirce took the phrase, "objective idealism," which he introduced in The Monist articles of 1891-93. But as the phrase, "I have never before been mystical; but now I am," indicates, Peirce before the experience had thought of himself as non-mystical, or better, anti mystical as a practicing scientist and philosopher of science.
When Peirce used the image of "the cross like death," the unidentified burden that he was to bear "for the Master's sake," it was almost certainly as the sign of his belief that he must dedicate his life, whatever the sacrifice, to the work God had given him to do: "to make a philosophy...so comprehensive that, for a long time to come, the entire work of human reason...shall appear as the filling up of its details." The extent of his obsessed and desperate dedication is revealed in a letter to William James's wife Alice written in April, 1902, in which he described how he worked while he was developing his Minute Logic. He blamed that feverish intensity for his harsh criticism of James and Royce in it:45
That Peirce was able to maintain this kind of manic concentration by means of drugs is supported by a letter also to Alice James from his wife Juliette several years later in which she described a very different perspective of his labors:
Juliette understood almost nothing of Peirce's philosophical life, though she believed in his genius and sacrificed herself to support his passion, just as Peirce believed in his calling and sacrificed the two of them upon the "cross like death."
I now turn to Peirce's mystical experience, an event which must also bring his work into question for many, especially those whose faith lies in the scientific doctrine that every event has a cause. To understand why Peirce said "I have never before been mystical, but now I am," we must be able to understand his experience. Fortunately, the record of the mystical tradition is as old as writing, and much has been written by the mystics themselves. Unfortunately, that record is often confusing because of cultural differences, the difficulties of language, and because it has often included aberrations of various kinds, including sympathetic magic, numerology, astrology, witchcraft, scientism, and other oddities associated with spiritualism.
The central experience of the mystic is that there is a mysterious fissure or juncture in our everyday world, if we analyze it in a certain way. One way to do so is to examine our visual experience of objects. We perceive a red rose and the experience is seamless; the form and color are seen as one and we scarcely ever question its unity. Yet it is possible to see the redness and not the rose at all. The eye is a sensor (like a camera, spectroscope, or X-ray machine) and it perceives color (the light of the visible spectrum), but not specific form. One example, which may help to understand the mystic's insight into the origin of experience, is camouflage. A naturalist watches a pheasant alight in a bare autumn field and disappear from her sight. She stalks it, reaching a distance from it of no more than three feet, but she cannot see it, though she knows exactly where it is. Then, she sees it blink its inner transparent eyelid and can see an eye, but no more. Knowing the structure of the eye she can, in imagination, place the bird almost exactly where it must be, but she cannot see it, even though she knowledgeably and carefully searches the ground with her eyes where the bird must be. She leans over and the bird suddenly flies away, leaving an empty spot on the bare ground. Her eyes saw the variety and intensities of the colors of the feathers, but not the form of the bird. Specific form may be represented in sense, but not perceived by us and, in this sense, is independent of us.
Form, then, is not sensible, it is intelligible, but form is not the only element in our perception of that type. A quick sample of such elements might include space (here), time (now), number, cause, person, life, and love. The list can be extended indefinitely. For space alone, we might add position, distance, height, measurement, extent, interval, opening, separation, contraction, divergence, compression, mass, reach, margin, contiguity, conjunction, touch, union, and many more. As the mystic Duncan Brent puts it, taken in themselves, these elements
But it is also true, in the mystic's experience, that the intelligible elements, if they are to be perceived, must be represented by means of that which is not intelligible but perceivable and further, that these intelligible elements cannot be in, but are only represented to be in the world of sense. In this way of understanding things, there can be no disembodied ideas existing in some heaven. Instead, in the type of realistic metaphysics that underlies Peirce's distinction between the real and existent and informs his doctrine of signs, the intelligible, mind, or the real is itself or through the agency of the representing sign both immanent and transcendent in the world of nature.
A world which so represents the real transfigures its perceiver into something magnificently alive and sacred. I suggest (a study I am currently pursuing at length) that Peirce's development of his doctrine of signs, after his mystical experience, transformed it in such a way that semeiosis, the action of signs, became for him the formalization of the mystical tradition of the logos, which is equated with the idea of the world as God's utterance, a figure of speech that is more than metaphor. In the semeiotic triad, sign, object, interpretant, the interpretant is the name for the intelligible represented by the object acting as sign. Peirce expressed this transforming universe as a puzzle:
Peirce was a lonely and afflicted man who, in spite of his personal degradation, never lost an essential innocence or allowed his condition to destroy his passion for the highest goods of the discipline of philosophy. But his disorders warped and distorted his character, which, when he was free of them, was considerate, and affectionate. He was intensely and uncontrollably emotional and deeply affected by the senses, in fact unlike cold, arrogant, and distant logician he often seemed to be. The wild and charismatic poet Byron, the model for manic depressive-illness in Jamison's book, like Peirce, received his inspiration from the "divine madness" and refined his work in pain and suffering. Both men produced controlled works of genius. I believe that the terrible disease was a tragic and perhaps an essential part in that outcome for both, as it was for many others we also call great.
I conclude with a quotation well-known to Peirce scholars from John Jay Chapman's letter to his wife written in the summer of 1893, two years before Peirce was reluctantly expelled from the Century Club for stealing food, failing to pay his dues, drunkenness, and probably for forging members names on checks. I invite the reader to indulge in the pure play of musement and to imaginatively reenact the scene and its meaning for an abductive understanding of the life of this greatest of American logicians, polymaths, and philosophers:
Citations to works other than those by Peirce are given in
the usual form. Those for Peirce are given in abbreviated
form: for the Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce,
C.P 1.1 means volume 1 paragraph 1; for Writings of Charles
S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition, W1:100 means volume 1
page 100; for The Essential Peirce, EP:100 means page
100; for Reasoning and the Logic of Things, RTL:100 means
page 100; for Peirce manuscripts at Houghton Library, MS, L,
or MSL followed by a number means the manuscript as numbered
by Richard S. Robin in his Annotated Catalogue; other
Peirce manuscripts are identified by the collection, as in
Brent, Duncan. 1967. Of the Seer and the Vision.
Amsterdam: MennoHertzberger & Co.
Do you think the author has it wrong? If so and you want to contribute a critical comment or commentary, brief or extended, concerning the above paper or its subject-matter, or concerning previous commentary on it, it will be incorporated into this webpage as perspicuously as possible and itself become subject thereby to further critical response, thus contributing to Arisbe as a matrix for dialogue. Your contribution could also be of the nature of a corroboration of the author, of course, or be related to it or to some other response to it in some other relevant way.