Customer Review

4.0 out of 5 stars A movement of ideas, from the Civil War to the Cold War, 9 Nov. 2013
This review is from: The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (Paperback)
This is an absorbing, fascinating, complex, and obscure book all rolled into one. It is a kind of flowing narrative of ideas as they evolved, with succinct but frustratingly incomplete references to their substance, and the men and a few women who gave birth to them. It is also thick with historical context. Yet it is not intellectual history, not a philosophical argument, and not biography. As such, the book is an odd hybrid that did not quite constitute the full meal I was hoping to find.

Menand begins with the Transcendentalists just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, with the second great awakening of Evangelical Christianity as the backdrop. This was a time when intellectuals thought in absolutes, that there was some underlying truth to uncover that was compatible with a life of faith. It could be observed and known. In the case of the Transcendentalists, they were skeptical of groups and institutions, but still believed they could arrive at some individual truth that would mean something to others. I saw this as akin to a Platonic ideal merged with protestant theology, ideas which the world only dully reflected. The abolitionists were part of this, zealots who would drag the entire country into war in support of their mission; southern slave owners were similar, though with a diametrically opposed fanaticism of their own. An entire generation of youths went to their slaughter in the service of these ideals, marking the survivors as skeptics and doubters of such certainties for the rest of their lives. It affected budding philosophers, including William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and others.

At the same time, these philosophers absorbed 2 crucially important scientific concepts: statistics and Darwin's theory of natural selection. Statistics taught that you could not count on exact results to prove a point, but an average of many separate observations; that meant that observers and individuals could not always be trusted to find or see the one "truth". Far more importantly, Darwin introduced an entirely new way to interpret the natural world: it incorporated not just chance as affecting outcomes, but challenged the notion that there was some discernable, deterministic plan or end in accordance with God or whatever Platonic ideal you might choose. Menand explains these developments at great length, sometimes in too much detail, such as the chapter on a court case involving the comparison of signatures. These developments set them in opposition to the great scientists of their time, such as Agassiz, who was a Linnean creationist, willing to categorize organisms but without any theory to organize his observations beyond a vague theology.

A new way was forged in an informal grouping (The Metaphysical Club) that met for just one year. From this, William James formulated his philosophy of pragmatism. Rather than seek set and unchanging truths, James concluded that one's ideas and ideals - one's personal truth - were chosen as useful to one's goals or aspirations. In other words, truth was instrumental, a means to an end. It was a kind of relativism in philosophy and psychology, James' domains as the leading American thinker of his age. Intellectual colleagues in others areas applied these ideas to their disciplines, Holmes in law - promoting free speech in new ways as part of the political process to arrive at better results, even when people are wrong - and Dewey in education, founding new kinds of schools to support individual development and helping to institutionalize academic freedom as a public good. However, if relativist, they believed in discipline, even sacrifice, in the service of social ideals. They were optimists, reformers of the existing systems rather than revolutionaries, and they embodied the new, democratic consensus that arose from the crushing of the confederate rebels. Their vision was tolerant and inclusive, though the rights of blacks were ignored for the sake of harmony.

The end result was the establishment of related methods in all disciplines. In science, process became all-important, no longer yoked to pre-conceived notions but allowing whatever conclusions emerged from exhaustive observation and confirmed by professionals - there might be paradigms, but even they could fall, and the effort was collective, even social. In psychology, it meant that individual striving for truth and personal goals was paramount, though conforming to social purpose. Finally, in politics and law, the democratic process should allow the best ideas to emerge from the widest possible debate, a new kind of pluralism at the moment that immigrants were swamping the Anglo-Saxon ruling class. This consensus, relativist and naive as it was, lasted more or less until the Cold War, when either/or ideals again came to the fore in the fight between capitalism and communism, but also in the fight for civil rights, which was particularly unyielding and absolutist. It was then that the metaphysical club's ideals were overtaken by a new consensus. Interestingly, Menand argues that the current era may see a new relevance in tolerance and democratic process.

This book is often a difficult read. Whenever I was well acquainted with the ideas, it was an excellent evocation of an intellectual confluence, but when I didn't know the ideas, it was hard to follow. To be sure, this is due to the holes in my own understanding - and it inspires me to read in new areas - but it was a nagging frustration. On balance, it is worth the effort, though not as complete a portrait of an age as similar works, such as Ronald Steele's "Walter Lippmann and the American Century", which fully explained every intellectual movement of which he was a part. Of course, Menand is a peerless writer of prose, his ideas are always interesting, and I learned an immense amount. The biographical details are also very fun.
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