Undue Neglect

by HRM on July 12, 2011

Book review by Lendl Barcelos


Title: An Introduction to Peirce’s Philosophy. Interpreted as a System
Author: James Feibleman
Publisher: Harper & Brothers
Date Printed: 1946
Pages: 503
Format: Hardcover
Language: English
Colour: Black
Smell: Musty with a touch of mold
Size: Side bag
Marginalia: Minimal

Within the three or four shelves that comprise the philosophy section of the Shakespeare & Company library, you’ll find an entirely unassuming book. Unassuming not in its size, but in its modest attempt at distilling the entire project of American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce.

The date of its publication coincides with the founding of the Charles S. Peirce Society, a group devoted to the study and communication of his work. The book was, in fact, penned by one of its founding members. Perhaps then this book can be read, negatively, as propaganda or, positively, as a handbook for the as-yet uninitiated.

Peirce is a notoriously neglected philosopher. Betrand Russell makes note of this in his forward to the book: “I am—I confess to my shame—an illustration of the undue neglect from which Peirce has suffered in Europe.” Russell was perhaps unaware that Peirce’s disregard extended to North America as well, thus the need to establish a society and write an introduction to his work.

If you turn to page 43 of this particular copy, you will find a handwritten note. On it someone has transcribed the following passage:

If man’s ideas are frozen into their final pattern when his own earlier work joins other environmental conditions in moulding whatever he sets about to do. His own past becomes … a part of his present environment, at least, so far as logical influence is concerned. (p. 23, referring to Peirce)

This same logic can be applied to the book itself. We find the “New York University, School of Commerce” stamp impressed several times throughout the book. This stamp, as with the note inside, are artefacts from the object’s past, testaments to its material history. In a strict sense, these are present manifestations of the past.

Perhaps this brings us back to its unassuming aspect. At the risk of collapsing contextual levels, a line from Peirce becomes illustrative: “A person is nothing but a symbol involving a general idea; … every general idea has the unified living feeling of a person.” This “living feeling of a person” Peirce speaks of can be understood as the unification of past (unconscious), present (conscious), and future (potential) material conditions.

So then we can say this distillation of Peirce, taken as a general idea, expresses this three-fold living feeling explicitly. In accordance with the material evidence we can state: previously, this book sat on the library shelves of the New York University School of Commerce; at present, the volume sits behind a leather chair on shelves reserved for philosophy; and going forward, perhaps it will continue to sit, gather more dust and await further inspection.

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