restricted access The Politics of Survival: Peirce, Affectivity, and Social Criticism (review)
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Reviewed by
Lara Trout. The Politics of Survival: Peirce, Affectivity, and Social Criticism. New York: Fordham University Press, 2010. 362 pp. with Index.

In this book Lara Trout provides provocative but problematic food for thought. She crafts an exegesis of Peirce's concepts of evolutionary agapism and critical commonsensism as resources for a theory of social justice aligned with contemporary race and gender theories. Conforming Peirce's tenets to her own agenda, she develops a radical politics of societal inclusiveness by way of analyzing and critiquing putative "nonconscious biases" in the "background" beliefs of broad segments of the contemporary populace. Unfortunately, this steers Peirce's ship on an unrecognizable course. Trout's strategic word, straight out of the Foucaultian-Frankfurtian play-book, is "hegemonic," which she repeatedly applies to "white males," "heterosexuals," "able-bodied people," "stable wage earners," and like targets of leftist criticism. She contrasts such "hegemonic viewpoints that are circumscribed by whiteness, maleness, economic security, heterosexuality, and so on" with those of "oppressed groups, such as the poor, GLBTQs, people of color, and women." (The capitalized letters refer to persons who do not consider themselves heterosexual, such as "those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, queer, or questioning.")

Through this problematically mixed polarization of societal groups—a kind of Nietzschean theory in reverse drive—she both coopts Peirce's philosophy for her communitarian concept of social justice and critically contests it—pointedly, as I will indicate below, by proposing a concept of "everyday science" or "communal science" in lieu of Peirce's concept of "real science." Needless to say, such a politicized "consensus" theory collides head-on with Peirce's objective realism—his sense of truth and reality that is independent of you, me, or any group or epoch of persons. By itself, Trout's polarization of social groups is an ingenious blame game. The accompanying problem is that her political solution seems logically to entail a system of social engineering not only over nurture but also over nature—shades of the flattened-out, dumbed-down populace of Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron. [End Page 524]

For his part, Peirce's career followed in the wake of such leading 19th-century proponents of democratic social theory as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. Though never directly framing a theory of the State, Peirce's Pragmatism (later Pragmaticism) wrote the so-to-speak epistemology of democracy in its essential logic of free inquiry and accomplishment in a merit-based society. (Continuing this heritage of the American cultural symbolic, James and Dewey, though arguably in more attenuated versions, wrote democratic scripts to the same effect.)

Whitman's magnificently inclusive "Song of Myself " and Democratic Vistas followed in the lead of Emerson's "Politics" of 1844. In the latter Emerson inscribed his two laws of identity and metamorphosis, which in turn grounded his twin political principles of equality and property.1 The first of these principles Peirce generalized into his broad-banded Pragmatist sense (fallibilist, self-corrective, open-ended, cooperative, inter-national, inter-cultural, inter-generational) of equality of opportunity in the domain of conceptual activity. Any dedicated, competent person can cast a vote, so to speak, in the open-ended arena of the pursuit of truth—as inscribed in his guiding maxim of keeping open the road of rational inquiry. And for Peirce (as for Emerson and Whitman) differential property did not reduce to material gain—to the contrary, all three American thinkers inveighed against the Greed Gospel of their own century—but rather referred to the freedom of productive invention and achievement, and thus to the intellectual and moral property an individual person, or group of persons, or even nations and epochs can contribute to the progress of civilization.

By and large, passages of Trout's book range competently over Peirce's social semiosis, and her overall vision of societal inclusiveness is preciously endearing. But her superimposed "biological survival model" crimps Peirce's more balanced pluralistic episteme of spontaneous orientations and creative achievements as ideal ends of nature and society.

Trout's vision is transparently agenda-d. Adopting a contemporary "pragmatist-feminist" perspective, she goes so far as to characterize Peirce as an "elite scientist...