An American Prodigy

Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life

by Joseph Brent
Indiana University Press, 388 pp., $35.00
Charles Sanders Peirce
Charles Sanders Peirce; drawing by David Levine


Charles Sanders Peirce is a notable figure in the histories of logic, semiotics, statistics, mathematics, metrology (the science of measurement), and experimental psychology; but he is famous to people who are not logicians, semioticians, statisticians, mathematicians, metrologists, or experimental psychologists because in 1898 William James, in a lecture at Berkeley, named him as the founder of pragmatism.

In 1898, James was an international academic celebrity, and Peirce was a bankrupt. He had not had an academic appointment since 1884 or a job since 1891. He had been living, sometimes on the street, in New York City, a fugitive from Pennsylvania, where he was being sued, in separate cases, for aggravated assault and battery (by a former servant) and for nonpayment of debts (by various creditors). But in 1898 he was expelled from the Century Club, where he had been in the habit of cadging food in order to survive, and he returned (after settling the lawsuits) to the enormous, dilapidated estate in Milford, Pennsylvania, that he and his wife had bought in 1888 but were unable to sell. Much of the time there he was without heat; he sometimes went for days with nothing to eat but oatmeal and crackers, and for weeks without speaking to anyone but his wife at mealtime. James’s attribution, though he repeated it on many prominent occasions, had no effect on Peirce’s circumstances. In 1907, when pragmatism was the hottest philosophical topic of the day, Peirce was discovered by some of James’s students in a rooming house in Cambridge, alone and near death from malnourishment.

Peirce was not a recluse or a pauper by choice. He was a brilliant and tireless conversationalist and a dedicated bon vivant. His professional behavior could be graceless and domineering; but he wanted nothing more than to be regarded by his peers as a laborer in the common enterprise of intellectual inquiry. It was the peculiar and profound misery of his life that he never was. One of the purposes of Joseph Brent’s fascinating biography is to explain why.

Brent’s book is the first life of Peirce ever published. He began it in 1957, as a dissertation in history at UCLA.1 He was given a hard time with his research by the Harvard philosophy department, which—by no wish of Peirce, who not only had never been a member of the Harvard philosophy department, but had been banned, for most of his life, from speaking on the Harvard campus—had taken control of Peirce’s papers after his death. Brent was prevented from examining several boxes of materials; and although the dissertation was completed in 1960, it could not be published, because Harvard refused permission to quote from Peirce’s letters. UCLA (evidently to Harvard’s annoyance) put the dissertation on microfilm anyway, and it remained in celluloid until Brent was encouraged, a few years ago, to resurrect and revise it.

This time,…

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