Thursday, August 2, 2007

Mental Left-handedness


Just a note to suggest the inclusion of C.S. Peirce, who still lacks a good literary interpreter as far as I know, in the annals of queer philosophy broadly construed. Like the romantic hypochondriacs Coleridge, De Quincey, and Nietzsche (“’Be natural!’ –but what if one is unnatural?” Nietzsche writes in The Will to Power §66), Peirce believed that what was original about his thinking was also something different in his brain or body. According to his biographer, Peirce opined to William James that his left-handedness had resulted in a sort of left-mindedness that made him “by nature most inaccurate”: “I have always labored under the misfortune of being thought ‘original’ . . . . my mental left-handedness makes me express myself in a way that to a normal mind seems almost inconceivably awkward” (quoted in Joseph Brent, Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life [Indiana UP, 1993], 328). Although Peirce apparently believed that his imagination was intuitive and graphic rather than verbal, his visual representations of semiotic principles, not to mention more fanciful productions such as his picture of “the labyrinth of signs” (above), aren’t exactly reassuringly straightforward. Coleridge and De Quincey rarely but occasionally consider queer sexuality directly, as well as a diffuse sense of queerness throughout experience; like them, Peirce belongs among those writers who indicate the resonance and possible continuity of the two dilemmas and who seem to feel, as Michael Warner phrases it, “nothing of the normalcy that might be attributed to them” (The Trouble with Normal [Harvard UP, 1999], 37).


Image 2: Peirce's transcription of the opening of Poe's "The Raven"

4 comments:

orpheusfx said...

I don't think I've heard of Pierce before. I'm intrigued. (Kinda regret not taking the Reverie class.)

RT said...

He really is pretty obscure. Peirce is active in the U.S. from the 1860s to 1914; he's a personally and professionally rather dysfunctional logician who worked for the U.S. Coastal and Geodesic Survey (he might be one of your figures-who-also-work-at-a-desk), and has a convoluted theory of signs and a fragmentary evolutionary cosmology. The writing is truly weird. I'm quite reluctant to get into it because the labyrinth picture does indicate what it would probably be like to be in there. Example:

the action of thought is excited by the irritation of doubt, and ceases when belief is attained; so that the production of belief is the sole function of thought. All these words, however, are too strong for my purpose. It is as if I had described the phenomena as they appear under a mental microscope. Doubt and Belief, as the words are commonly employed, relate to religious or other grave discussions. But here I use them to designate the starting of any question, no matter how small or how great, and the resolution of it. If, for instance, in a horse-car, I pull out my purse and find a five-cent nickel and five coppers, I decide, while my hand is going to the purse, in which way I will pay my fare. To call such a question Doubt, and my decision Belief, is certainly to use words very disproportionate to the occasion. To speak of such a doubt as causing an irritation which needs to be appeased, suggests a temper which is uncomfortable to the verge of insanity. Yet, looking at the matter minutely, it must be admitted that, if there is the least hesitation as to whether I shall pay the five coppers or the nickel (as there will be sure to be, unless I act from some previously contracted habit in the matter), I am excited to such small mental activity as may be necessary to deciding how to act . . . . Feigned hesitancy, whether feigned for mere amusement or with a lofty purpose, plays a great part in the production of scientific inquiry. However the doubt may originate, it stimulates the mind to an activity which may be slight or energetic, calm or turbulent. Images pass rapidly through consciousness, one incessantly melting into another, until at least, when all is over--it may be in a fraction of a second, in an hour, or after long years--we find ourselves decided as to how we should act under such circumstances as those which occasioned our hesitation. In other words, we have attained belief . . . . And what, then, is belief? It is the demi-cadence which closes a musical phrase in the symphony of our intellectual life . . . . ("How to Make Our Ideas Clear," The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings Vol. 1 [Indiana UP, 1992], 127-129)

and then of course belief goes on to have "three phases" etc etc etc.

Jordan said...

Such an intriguing post, not least because I was introduced to Pierce and queer theory around the same time in college, and I read them with similar avidity, never supposing any kind of connection between them. (Though, over the years, Pierce's discussion of "abduction" and the cognitive principles of probability has seemed to be the most convincing way to rethink [now I might say, to queer] causality.) The best fact about Pierce, however, is that Hopkins went so far as to effectively dissolve its graduate faculty as an excuse to fire him.

RT said...

That's a pretty high standard to match...