The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America

by Louis Menand

Paperback, 2002




Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2002), Edition: Reprint, 576 pages


Winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for History a riveting, original book about the creation of modern American thought. The Metaphysical Club was an informal group that met in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1872, to talk about ideas. Its members included Oliver Well Holmes, Jr., future associate justice of the United States Supreme Court; 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 depend -- like germs -- on their human carriers and environment. And they thought that the survival of any idea 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 an absorbing narrative about personalities and social history, a story about America. It begins with the Civil War and s in 1919 with Justice Holmes's dissenting opinion in the case of U.S. v. Abrams-the basis for the constitutional law of free speech. The first four sections of the book focus on Holmes, James, Peirce, and their intellectual heir, John Dewey. The last section discusses some of the fundamental twentieth-century ideas they are associated with. This is a book about a way of thinking that changed American life.… (more)

Media reviews

Very few books can be legitimately described as important, but this is one such. Menand, a superb and subtle stylist, is an academic and a New Yorker writer, and here he shows his powers both as a scholar, and as a populariser in the best sense.
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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, Louis Agassiz, Chauncey Wright, the fathers of Holmes, James and Peirce, Charles W. Eliot, Jane Addams, Hetty Green, Franz Boas, Hegel, Kant, Wilhelm Wundt, W. E. B. Du Bois, the Second Great Awakening, probability theory, the nebular hypothesis, the Pullman strike, academic freedom and the ever-present issue of race.
The 2002 Pulitzer Prize for history went to Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. The book, highly praised in the press for its scholarship, is an amusingly written account of the philosophy named “pragmatism.” It is popular history, but that is what the Pulitzer Prize is for. So, what better recipient? The only problem is that Menand’s scholarship, even granted its nonspecialist aim, is an empty pretense. What is worse, the emptiness of its pretense is, in several ways, obvious. It appears, then, that educated, intelligent, and informed people, charged with responsibility for reviewing and judging books, can no longer tell the difference between scholarship and sham, or do not care to.

User reviews

LibraryThing member paradoxosalpha
The Metaphysical Club of Menand’s title was a small, fairly short-lived conversation society organized by Chauncey Wright in 1872 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with members including Oliver Wendell Homes, Jr., William James, and Charles Pierce, among others. Menand represents this coterie as the seedbed of the American philosophical school of pragmatism, and uses it for a point of orientation in tracing the intellectual formation and accomplishments of pragmatists James, Pierce, and John Dewey. Along with Holmes, who despite his distaste for the label “pragmatism,” shared in much of the intellectual innovation of his erstwhile club colleagues, these men were “the first modern thinkers in the United States,” according to Menand’s account. (pp. xi, 432-3) This phase of American thinking germinated during the closing decades of the nineteenth century, flowered in the first decade of the twentieth, and persisted until the middle of the twentieth century—a span punctuated by the Civil War at one end and the Cold War at the other.

The Metaphysical Club offers an imposing tangle of vivid biographies, in order to repeatedly demonstrate how the “modern” perspectives of the pragmatists and their peers differed from their immediate predecessors: the “modernizing” generation of their parents and teachers. Intellectual biographies of the pragmatists’ fathers serve as points of comparison and contrast, rather than contributing causes of their sons’ careers. The Cambridge-based Saturday Club of Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Agassiz and their associates (including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.) helps to make this comparison concrete. The signal event that divided these two generations was the Civil War. And Menand suggests that a driving principle of their thought was “fear of violence,” a fear instilled by the Civil War and activated by economic and social conflict in the 1890s (p. 373).

Menand’s description of the intellectual mode of the pragmatists emphasizes their attention to liberty and tolerance, unity of thought and action, contextualism, and a refutation of natural essences. At the same time, he remarks the extent to which thinkers like Holmes and Dewey were actually quite alien to the standards usually at issue in characterizing “liberal” thought. They were hostile to individualism, scientific instrumentalism, and laissez-faire economics. Their typical tendency was to discuss complex phenomena as differentiated wholes, rather than combinations of reified elements. Menand also shows how the philosophical “pluralism” coined by William James was significantly different than its later mutation as cultural pluralism.

With his chosen cast of characters, Menand is able to explore the expression of the pragmatist viewpoint in the diverse fields of law, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, statistics, and education. At the same time, he provides an account of a key phase in the professionalization of the academy. He details the beginnings of graduate education in the US, the founding of several key universities, the establishment of AUUP and key juridical precedents for the intellectual freedom of academic professionals.
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LibraryThing member kukulaj
I am not too good on American history; this book did a very nice job of filling in lots of gaps. There is always a lot of talk around about why people fought the Civil War. Well, why did the South fire on Fort Sumter? Anyway, Menand does a very nice job describing how antislavery folks in the North mostly wanted to split with the South, while Unionists were not so opposed to slavery.

The whole book is very much a pragmatist look at pragmatism - seeing pragmatism as a response to the situation after the Civil War. There is mention of how people took the ideas of Holmes, Peirce, James, and Dewey, and maybe their followers didn't live up to the potential of the ideas... but Menand doesn't really show us that. The story pretty much ends along with the lives of the principals. It's a complete book as it stands... but I guess just a few more hints of how to follow the trail might have been nice.

My few brief forays into the writings of C. S. Peirce have left me befuddled. Menand's book at least reassured me that maybe the fault is not entirely mine. I was hoping that this book might give me an entry point into the threefold nature of a sign... OK, that a dictionary involves a kind of infinite regress, that's helpful. But I still didn't quite manage to count to three. No problem really - it wouldn't be fair to expect that level of completeness and precision from Menand.

The core focus here is pragmatism, which is a sort of Darwinian view of how ideas evolve. Which reminds me, Menand gives a nice history of the reception of Darwin's ideas, and how these related to ideas about race, which clearly then connect to ideas about slavery... and immigration. Egads I must say... the political climate of our day sadly seems to be going back to hmmm like 1915 or something. That movie The Birth of a Nation was it?

There's a level of crispness that I didn't quite find in reading this book. Probably the shortcoming is in my own superficial reading and thinking? But Menand describes modern society as being always in motion - always moving forward, if not upward. Hmmm. What does "forward" mean? Is there any kind of consistent direction?

I suspect that we just bounce around in some space of possibilities, sometime orbiting in some basin of attraction, then flipping into a rapid spiral to some point of relative stability, before tipping over into yet another pattern. For sure we are always headed into the future, to the extent anyway that time really does have a direction. But the space of possibilities itself seems filled with trajectories that cross and tangle every which way. We just might drop back into some feudal scene. Modernity doesn't last forever.
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LibraryThing member Smiley
Challangingly dense, thought provoking and satisfying.

My tags are a good guide to the contents: American History, Biography and Philosophy. Most of the book spans the years from the Civil War to the outbreak of WW1, The development of American philosphical thought told through the biographies and interactions of O.W. Holmes, Dewey, Charles Pierce, Benjamin Pierce and a number of others.

Suprising readable and well constucted. Not sure I understood it all, but I learned much and enjoyed it. As a matter of fact, I wish it was longer.
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LibraryThing member subbobmail
Spring is here, bright and sunny, so of course it's time to curl up in a dark corner and read a thick tome about deep thinkers in 19th century New England. "The Metaphysical Club" essentially traces the history of American ideas from the Civil War through the early 20th century. Major figures like Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James and John Dewey mingle here with semi-forgotten folk such as Chauncey Wright and Louis Agassiz. They were all working and thinking in the shadow of the war -- and of Charles Darwin, whose ideas they struggled in different ways to either reject or assimilate into their philosophies. I found this book fascinating -- it chronicles the birth of a pragmatic, anti-dogmatic worldview I take for granted.… (more)
LibraryThing member glacialerratic
Who are we as "Americans"? What people and events have defined the America we now inhabit? Author, Louis Menand, offers a compelling argument that the America we now live in was significantly defined by figures and thinkers in the time directly after the Civil War. While school book history might define figures like Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln as wellsprings of our identity, their contribution feels rather remote and intangible. Menand makes the case that Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, philosophers William James and John Dewey, and statisticican Charles S. Peirce had more to do with defining our current beliefs and identity. Not only interesting subject matter, but really, really well-written and accessible. An intellectual joy.… (more)
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
I have read Louis Menand writing on T. S. Eliot and literary modernism, but here he tackles history, and it is not quite the same world. Non-historians are often the most popular history writers because they can tell a good story without getting to involved in the inevitably complicated interpretations professional historians relish; yet they often leave rigor on the side of the road. In what amounts to a quadruple biography, Mr. Menard does an excellent job of charting the birth of modern freedom of speech and cultural pluralism by examining the events that shaped the lives of protagonists Holmes, James, and Peirce. While it ventures into many different directions, covering topics in American history, notable pioneers of American higher education and philosophy, it mainly concerns the erosion of metaphysics and its eventual replacement by pragmatism as a dominant force in shaping American philosophy and its conception of ideas. The title of the book stems from the club formed by Holmes, James and Peirce. The author has the gift of vision but not focus. His asides can span entire chapters and leave the reader a bit bewildered. It's always worth thinking about why we believe what we do, and thinking about it with The Metaphysical Club is revealing.… (more)
LibraryThing member BrianFrank
Maybe my favourite book ever.
LibraryThing member gregorybrown
Fascinating book on a subject I wasn't previously familiar with: the major strains of American thought between the Civil War and WWI. Under the banner of Pragmatism, Menand looks at four thinkers from the era: Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William James, Charles Pierce, and John Dewey. It gets off to a sort of weird start as he dwells heavily on the Civil War, but as you get used to it you can start to see the overall thesis being hammered at. The Civil War was a traumatizing event in so many ways, shocking most of the thinkers of that time to understand why it happened and come up with ways for it to never happen again.

One of the biggest revelations of the book, and one that shouldn't have been as stunning to me, was Menand showing just how much everyone was racist back in the day. And even moreso, how much that racism drove scientific thought to try and justify itself. It didn't even happen in expected ways either: we see more modern scientific theories gaining credence over the flawed theories of the past, but due to their success in excusing racism instead of the evidence we rely on today. This isn't to disparage the huge leaps happening at the time, often with a foresight astonishing to today's scientists, but instead to note how much racism corrupted everything it touched.

This was kind of frustrating to read because while the prose itself is superb—Menand surely is one of the guiding lights of the New Yorker's style in its modern era, along with Remnick—there's not really a great arc to the whole book. Each of the chapters reads as if it were a New Yorker essay, and they don't really tell an emotional truth through the course of the story.

Sure, there's an overarching thesis haphazardly completed in the epilogue:pragmatism, ever mindful of the power of circumstance to determine truth, was itself birthed by the circumstances of postbellum America and killed off by the changed circumstances of the Cold War. But this thesis only lightly guides most of the book. The Civil War recedes with distance, and the internal politics of the movement start churning and changing its members. By the end of the book, Menand is down to pointing out the recognizable products of pragmatism—our conceptions of cultural pluralism, and a justification for free speech and other rights. It's certainly a great book, but I'm less sure if it's a good one.
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LibraryThing member jddunn
The story of how American thought changed after the Civil War in attempt to comprehend the much more chaotic and expansive modern world it created, told through the intertwining lives of four of the men who led the way. I’ve studied the ideas of James, Peirce, Dewey, and Holmes, but learning about how those ideas shaped, and were shaped by the history they lived through is just fascinating. I’ve been trying for a few years to pin down my idea of America, whatever it is, and this is shaping up to be a crucial piece of the puzzle.… (more)
LibraryThing member JBD1
Well deserving of the many awards it earned.
LibraryThing member applemcg
time to do a weblog/wikipedia. paragraph per personality, add links between relationships
LibraryThing member Marjorie
One gets an excellent background in the thinking of previous generations of America.
LibraryThing member neurodrew
24 October 2001
The Metaphysical Club
Louis Menand

The American intellectual scene in the period between the Civil War and the First World War is the subject of this multiple biography. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Pierce, William James and James Dewey are the main protagonists. The book takes its name from the informal debating club that these individuals and others formed in 1872, when they were all young men in Boston, taking courses at Harvard. They are ultimately associated with the philosophical movement of pragmatism. Pragmatism was never a popular term with its authors, but refers to the idea that thoughts are working assumptions about the real world that persist because they favor accurate predictions that are evolutionarily advantageous. The author starts with the experiences of Holmes in the Civil War, and suggests that the pragmatist philosophy originates in revulsion against the fanatical belief of the abolitionists that spawned the slaughter. This thesis ultimately gets lost in a wealth of fascinating detail about intellectual life and the lives of these characters, and it is by no means proved. The story brings in a lot of details about the history of this period in America that I did not know, and I found it fascinating to read about the Pullman strike, Eugene Debs, the Sedition Act in the First World War (especially with the current debates about increasing police powers in the current security crisis), and the growth of academic freedom in universities. The author never quite sides with or against pragmatism, but does suggest that interest in these philosophers is re-surging, and links this to the end of the Cold War. He claims that the Cold War made it impossible to preserve the skepticism needed to believe in pragmatism. .… (more)
LibraryThing member J.v.d.A.
One of those books you just happen to pick up whilst browsing in a store and get lucky with. Very well written, though a couple of chapters do get a little complicated and would obviously merit a second read - which I look forward to getting around to. Full of interesting stuff.
LibraryThing member jshttnbm
Was this book supposed to be funny? I thought this book was so funny in the wriest way.
LibraryThing member JBreedlove
The evolution of civil thought and politics between the Civil War and the Depression. Familiar and unfamiliar names from the American intellectual elite digest and rethink Darwin and other scientists and philosophers from the late 19th century. Menand effectively shows how these, mostly men, affect American thinking today.
LibraryThing member Charon07
A history of pragmatist philosophy in the late 1800s in the United States, as expounded by John Dewey, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Pierce, and William James. It alternated between biographies of these philosophers and their associates and sometimes mind-numbing explanations of their thinking. In fairness, I listened to the abridged audio book, and audio is probably not the best format for philosophy, and the abridgement, I suspect, didn't do justice to the work as a whole.… (more)
LibraryThing member stevrbee
It took me a long time to finish this book. I picked it up in the remainders bin probably a dozen years ago, and put it in the pile of books to get to "someday".

When someday finally came in April I wondered why I had picked this book up to begin with. It is A LOT. When people talk about weighty books, this is the model. Part biography, part history, part philosophy. It's fascinating in pieces, and I found it best to read it a bit at a time, with intermissions.

There are plenty of reviews here that will give you a good overview of what the author is up to with this book. I'll just say that I'm not sure he fully conveyed his stated thesis, but I enjoyed the ride.
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LibraryThing member roniweb

I really did like this book. While it was pretty dense in some parts, it was fascinating in other aspects. This is a quadruple biography smushed into a larger biography of how science & the scientific community came to be in the USA during the post-Civil War era. I skimmed the last few chapters and hope to one day go back and take my time with them. I am a bit of science history geek.

The most fascinating aspect of the book was not just the theme of how personal biases influenced how science was being framed (I believe the purpose of this book being assigned), but how those personal biases were reflections of how people felt about slavery, African-Americans and immigration during the late 1800s. It was especially fab to read about the differences in how Northerners felt about slavery, abolitionists and Southerners.

The downside of the book is that you get a mini-biography for almost every minor character that just bogged down the book, including the fathers of each of the main characters. TMI!
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