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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Metaphysical Club
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. .
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.
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!