The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America Paperback – 8 Apr 2011
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‘Zestfully good, urbane and original, “The Metaphysical Club” enlivens virtually everything it touches, and on its frequent diversions it touches many things: natural selection and racism; probability distributions and disputed wills; the Dartmouth case and academic freedom. Anybody interested in modern America will find rewards aplenty.’ Economist
‘Brilliant…Menand brings rare common sense and graceful, witty prose to his richly nuanced reading of American intellectual history – a story that takes in (to name only a few of the other players) Emerson, Hegel, Kant, the second Great Awakening, probability theory, the nebular hypothesis, the Pullman strike, academic freedom and the ever-present issue of race.’ New York Review of Books
‘A hugely ambitious, unmistakably brilliant intellectual history, nothing less than an explanation of the social historical, economic and spiritual forces that caused American thinking to change radically…A landmark work of scholarship and a popular history of profound sweeping change of enormous worth.’ New York Times
The Metaphysical Club was an informal group that met in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1872, to talk about ideas. Its members included Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr, founder of modern jurisprudence; William James, the father of modern American psychology; and Charles Sanders Peirce, logician, scientist and the founder of semiotics. The club was probably in existence for about nine months. No records were kept. The one thing we know that came out of it was an idea - an idea about ideas. This book is the story of that idea. Holmes, James and Peirce all believed that ideas are not things "out there" waiting to be discovered but are tools people invent - like knives and forks and microchips - to make their way in the world. They thought that ideas are produced not by individuals, but by groups of individuals - that ideas are social. They do not develop according to some inner logic of their own but are entirely dependent - like germs - on their human carriers and environment. They also thought that the survival of any idea depends not on its immutability but on its adaptability. "The Metaphysical Club" is written in the spirit of this idea about ideas.It is not a history of philosophy but a narrative about personalities and social history, a story about America. It begins with the American Civil War and ends with World War I. This is a book about the evolution of the American mind during the crucial period that formed the world we now inhabit. See all Product description
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The key figures in "The Metaphysical Club" include the great American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes and the philosophers William James, Charles Peirce, and John Dewey. They were the basic American practitioners of a philosophy called pragmatism, which teaches that ideas are tools to be used to accomplish a purpose rather than abstractions which mirror to greater or lesser accuracy some independent reality.
Menand examines each figure in light of his family life (Holmes, James, and Peirce all were products, in their different ways, of homes were ideas mattered; Dewey less so), temperament, reading, and educational and cultural background. He places a great deal of emphasis on the American Civil War as a basis, with his protagonists, for rejecting absolutistic views of principle and reality. An uncompromising commitment to absolutes led, for post Civil War thinkers, to the War and its carnage. This is an important historical claim and it works very well in the case of Oliver Wendell Holmes. I am not sure how convincing it is as an explanation of the thought of the other three figures. William James wrote an important essay "The Moral Equivalent of War" unmentioned in Menand's book, which concerns the apparent inability of modern life to find values to move the heart and spirit as the heart and spirit were moved in the passion of war. In other words, James, at least, was searching for values, and perhaps even for absolutes, rather than expressing a skepticism towards them.
In addition to placing pragmatism in the context of the post Civil War era, Menand places great emphasis on the development of modern science, particularly Darwin's theory of evolution and statistical theory. These developments, for Menand, tended to discourage a view of the universe as fixed, rational, and purposeful. Knowledge became tied closely to theories of statistical generalization and theory of error, with an emphasis on what worked. Scientific theory in fact gets a larger place in the book than does the Civil War as a basis for the development of pragmatism and I think deservedly so.
Menand stresses how intellectual development in the United States was tied to racial theories and to other theories such as spiritualism that we find markedly out of place today. This is not a new story, but it is well told and does show something important about how ideas we value can emanate from teachings we would reject or find strange.
In addition to the four primary figures, Menand discusses many other philosophers and thinkers, predecessors, successors, and colleagues to Holmes, James, Peirce, and Dewey. The title of the book is based on an almost legendary "Metaphysical Club" that met all-too briefly in the 1870's under the auspices of Chauncey Wright, the "Cambridge Socrates". Ideas and intellectual life flourish briefly and quietly, but they may illuminate people's lives for times to come.
The book is chatty in tone with many disgressions on matters such as the Dartmouth College Supreme Court case, the Pullman Strike, Jane Addams and Hull House, and Louis Agassiz's expedition to Brazil. The digressions make it hard at times to keep to the thread of the narrative, but they do cast light on the era and on the development of thought in the United States.
The book does not expound in detail the thought of its principal characters. For that the reader will need to turn to texts, and the book encourages him or her to do just that. Menand is not overly critical or analytical about the success of pragmatism. He points out that the later Civil Rights Movement in America could not have succeeded with pragmatism as a base but rather required a commitment to principle and absolutes found more in other writers.
Pragmatism is a distinctive achievement of thinkers in the United States. This book teaches about it well and, perhaps not entirely consistently with the theory of pragmatism itself, promotes respect for the role of ideas in our country and for the value of the life of the mind.
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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