Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), the most important and influential of the classical American philosophers, is credited as the inventor of the philosophical school of pragmatism. The scope and significance of his work have had a lasting effect not only in several fields of philosophy but also in mathematics, the history and philosophy of science, and the theory of signs, as well as in literary and cultural studies. Largely obscure until after his death, Peirce's life has long been a subject of interest and dispute. Unfortunately, previous biographies often confuse as much as they clarify crucial matters in Peirce's story. Ketner's new biographical project is remarkable not only for its entertaining aspects but also for its illuminating insights into Peirce's life, his thought, and the intellectual milieu in which he worked.
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Kenneth Laine Ketner is the Charles Sanders Peirce Professor of Philosophy at Texas Tech University and the director of its Institute for Studies in Pragmaticism. He is editor of several works by and about Peirce and was co-organizer of the Charles S. Peirce International Congress held at Harvard in 1989. He is also one of the two principals in a noteworthy volume of correspondence with Walker Percy (A Thief of Peirce: The Letters of Kenneth Laine Ketner and Walker Percy, published in 1995).From Kirkus Reviews:
Framed as an ``autobiography'' full of deliberate fictional creations, this life of Pragmatisms founding genius is a breathtakingly original attempt to reinvent the dry habitudes of biography. Unfortunately, it is also an epic, perplexing failure. The first of an anticipated three volumes, this account takes us, in a jittering, wildly idiosyncratic way, through the first 28 years (childhood and schooling) of Peirces life. In the frame-tale manner so popular in the 19th-century novel, Ketner (Philosophy/Texas Tech Univ., A Thief of Peirce: The Letters of Kenneth Laine Ketner and Walker Percy, not reviewed) has created a labyrinth of multiple narrations. First off, there is fictional interpolator Ike Eisenstaat, a writer of detective stories. Digging through a box that his wife, Betsey Darbey, inherited, he comes across Peirces fragmentary autobiography, which he then proceeds to flesh out with additional notes, anecdotes, commentary, etc. Then there are the explications of Peirces philosophy, provided by his centenarian student, LeRoi Wyttynys. The autobiography as such consists of Ketners clever, but impossibly fragmentary, compilation and distillation of autobiographical snippets from Peirces various writings. Peirce was one of the 19th centurys great minds; his influence on everything from philosophy to semiotics has been enormous. But he is not well served here. The general effect is confusion and tedium. Ketner knows his subject almost too well, forgetting that the general reader, especially given the complexity of Peirces thought, needs a more straightforward grounding, at least intermittently. The author does dig up some interesting tidbits, including a secret first marriage, and convincingly traces, as much as his disjointed structure allows, the early beginnings of Peirces ideas. But as much as one wants to salute this audacious project, Ketners style, sensibility, and methodology dont rise to the occasion, begging the ultimate question, ``Why?'' (20 b&w illustrations) -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
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