Department of Linguistics, New York University
During my post-doctoral research at MIT, I read Cartesian Linguistics and Noam’s publications relating to generative grammar’s antecedents, locally to C. S. Peirce (b. 1839, Cambridge) and remotely to Plato’s followers. Many people had heard of C. S. Peirce in his various flavors, ranging from insane and criminally minded, to one of the world’s greatest scientists and mathematicians. Bertrand Russell thought him the USA dazzling wit of the previous century. Peirce’s father, Benjamin, stood as the most outstanding scientist/mathematician in the USA. The Peirces stood atop the pinnacle of Boston Brahmin high society.
Hollywood made a movie covering the life of Alan Turing, and spiced up his boring existence using cinematic license. As a stroke of genius they cast an outstanding beauty as the object of his affections. No such spice-up required for the salsa chili-pepper life of C. S. Peirce. During the Civil War he would have joined Lee and fought for Dixie. After graduating Harvard, via family connections, he was put on the Johns Hopkins faculty. He promptly had an affair with Hopkins’s president’s wife. Unperturbed, C. S. left in disgrace. He married Melusina Fay, a leading feminist and spearhead for the radical women’s rights group the Cooperative Housekeeping Movement. Melusina was the daughter of the head minister of the Cambridge church attended by the Peirce family. The couple moved to London and then Paris, whereupon C. S. divorced her for infidelity and “dumped her.” Distraught, she returned home. C. S., undaunted by social trivialities, married a gypsy woman who had adopted the Catholic faith to obtain “legal papers” in France. Peirce found himself dumfounded when the Cambridge blue bloods did not accept his new wife. He moved to Milford, Pennsylvania.
There begins a new chapter of his life as he began to examine “exotic pragmatic” versions of thinking. His wife supported the family by telling fortunes at fairs using her crystal ball.
I thank Noam for introducing me to C. S. How did Noam spur on my C. S. research? When I asked Noam how to find relevant materials, he (very excitedly) told me about his love of doing research in the stacks of Harvard Library, and more so in English libraries. Why, I queried? He gave a passionate discussion of where he found Peirce materials at Harvard, where the shelves were, how the books, pamphlets, pages, pictures, folders . . . were arranged and laid out. He introduced me to the concept of “stack browsing.” I had never browsed library stacks. When I followed his instructions, the stacks and racks of books lay undisturbed exactly as he described them in considerable detail concerning shape, size, color, condition of the binding. . . . The little red pamphlet still leaned on the thick book with a ripped brown cover. Lordy, Lordy, if Hollywood hankers to make a movie of a brilliant sparkplug of an outgoing party-animal playwright-actor hedonist mathematician scientist during Harvard’s roaring 90s, I could spill the beans on Peirce now that the statutes of limitations have expired, and he did too. Thank you, Noam, for the introduction.