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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 14.1 (2000) 67-75

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Kenneth Laine Ketner on Charles Sanders Peirce

Bruce Wilshire

His Glassy Essence: An Autobiography of Charles Sanders Peirce. Vol. 1. Kenneth Laine Ketner. Nashville, TN, and London: Vanderbilt UP, 1998. Pp. xiii + 418. $39.95 h.c. 0-8265-1313-1.

Charles Sanders Santiago Peirce. How to deal with this incredibly brilliant, multisided, quirky genius? The trackers of the Peircean labyrinth are numerous and various, and many have either engaged the Minotaur and been slain, or sighted him, bolted, broken Ariadne's thread, never to be seen again. Some are just stunned by the sight of him.

We think, for example, of the fine scholar, Max Fisch, who worked for forty years collecting and collating Peirce materials from hither, thither, and yon. Entrusted with these to write an intellectual biography, he never did produce the book (though some important articles did materialize). Or we call up a vivid memory: forty years ago in a seminar on American philosophy taught by Sidney Hook, the professor introduced an advanced, well-qualified graduate student, just returned from abroad, who discoursed briefly on the dissertation he was about to write on Peirce. Forty years later, no dissertation, no Ph.D. I, myself, have published for thirty-seven years on American thought, been strongly influenced by Peirce (particularly his realistic view on universals and his scorching attack on Descartes's psycho/physical dualism, introspectionism, nominalism), but this review is my first attempt at an essay exclusively on him.

Why so many scholars hors de combat? In my case, it was surely dread, in Søren Kierkegaard's precise sense of simultaneous attraction and repulsion. I wanted badly to say something, but was afraid that I [End Page 67] wouldn't get it right, particularly, that, if I made a critical remark, I would be proved wrong by the nth Peirce article I should read, but never had or would.

Kenneth Laine Ketner has found a way. I think most thoughtful readers will find His Glassy Essence: An Autobiography of Charles Sanders Peirce as quirky and brilliantly creative as Peirce himself. Right off the bat, following his mentor, Ketner offends the conventional mind. How can there be an autobiography written by somebody other than Peirce himself? Getting into the book, the reader sees how it can be. Ketner fabricates an elaborate conceit: There is supposedly a marvelous recently discovered treasure chest of autobiographical materials from Peirce's own hand (in fact, there are boxes of Peirce materials, which include scattered autobiographical notes, all of which scholars have been trying to get a handle on for eight decades or more). Then Ketner invents three fictional characters: Okie Ike, transplanted (to Boston) Oklahoman Ike, an amateur detective vastly intrigued by Peirce's odyssey; Ike's wife, a level-headed nurse; and a mysterious old philosopher, Doctor LeRoi Wyttynys (clearly, a cryptogram: the three ys suggesting thirdness and interpretation and also the idea of witness). As a young man, the old fellow had supposedly known Peirce himself.

This conceit affords Ketner leverage from multiple angles on Peirce's voluminous and scattered writings that works his thought into a shape never before seen, I think. This is hermeneutical phenomenology in action. Okie Ike's love of sleuthing excites the reader to persist in threading the labyrinth of Peirce's thought when exhaustion might otherwise set in. Ike's nurse wife reminds us of the all-too-human man himself who thought these thoughts, so that we neither forget his many-sided humanity nor overly pity or praise him. Dr. Wyttynys allows Ketner to amalgamate distinctly philosophical analyses of Peirce, to combine in one commentator some of the most mordant and revealing views on Peirce that have cumulated over the decades (we think, for example, of Morris Cohen, Max Fisch, Carolyn Eisele, Walker Percy, Hilary Putnam, and Ketner himself--though there is a bit of grass roots Oklahoman Ketner in Okie Ike too).

Now, all this appalls academic pietism. Joseph Brent (1999), for example, author of a recent Peirce...


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