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The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America Paperback – April 10, 2002


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 568 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (April 10, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374528497
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374528492
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.5 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (108 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #66,767 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

If past is prologue, then The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand may suggest an intellectual course for the United States in the 21st century. At least Menand, a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, thinks so. This enthralling study of Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey shows how these four men developed a philosophy of pragmatism following the Civil War, a period Menand likens to post-cold-war times. Together, "they were more responsible than any other group for moving American thought into the modern world."

Despite this potentially forbidding theme, The Metaphysical Club is not a dry tome for academics. Instead, it is a quadruple biography, a wonderfully told story of ideas that advances by turning these thinkers into characters and bringing them to life. Menand links them through the Metaphysical Club, a conversational club formed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1872. It lasted but a few months, and references to it appear only in Peirce's writings (its real significance seems rather limited), though Holmes and James were both members. (Dewey was much younger than these three, and more an heir than a contemporary.) It is difficult to describe in a sentence or two what they accomplished, though Menand takes a stab at it: "They helped put an end to the idea that the universe is an idea, that beyond the mundane business of making our way as best we can in a world shot through with contingency, there exists some order, invisible to us, whose logic we transgress at our peril." Academic freedom and cultural pluralism are just two of their legacies, and they are linchpins of democracy in a nonideological age, says Menand.

A book like this is necessarily idiosyncratic, yet at the same time this one is sweeping. It presents an accessible survey of intellectual life from roughly the end of the Civil War to the start of the cold war. Dozens of figures receive fascinating thumbnail sketches, from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Charles Darwin to Jane Addams and Eugene Debs. The result is a grand portrait of an age that will appeal to anyone with even a modest interest in the history of philosophy and ideas. --John Miller --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

The Metaphysical Club was an informal intellectual gathering of philosophers and academics that met in Cambridge, Mass., for only nine months in 1872. Menand, known for his contributions to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, follows the evolution of pragmatism as it emerged from the minds of four of the club's "members": Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey. The Metaphysical Club describes how the lives of these great thinkers interconnect in an enjoyable, though sometimes complex, narrative. Leyva's reading is fluid and clean. His delivery, that of an enthusiastic yet slightly removed academic, transports the listener to a classroom seat, alert and ready to take notes. Unlike those audiobooks in which the enthralled listener cannot wait to listen to each subsequent tape in order to see what happens next, listeners may find themselves rewinding the tape to repeat bits here and there, or just turning it off from time to time to digest the thoughts introduced. This audiobook is stimulating for our nation today, as Menand stresses the important role of intellectuals in times of chaos (in this case, after the Civil War), when people's beliefs are put to the test. Based on the Farrar, Straus & Giroux hardcover (Forecasts, Mar. 12, 2001). (Sept.)n

Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

Louis Menand, professor of English at Harvard University, is the author of "The Metaphysical Club," which won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in History. A longtime staff writer for The New Yorker, he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Customer Reviews

I recommend the book to readers interested in history as well as in history of ideas.
Amore Roberto
The Metaphysical Club is well written and Menand integrates a remarkably broad swath of knowledge about 19th century America into his book.
R. Albin
For that the reader will need to turn to texts, and the book encourages him or her to do just that.
Robin Friedman

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

129 of 133 people found the following review helpful By Jeffrey Leach HALL OF FAME on October 21, 2002
Format: Paperback
"The Metaphysical Club" spent a whole lot of time on bestseller lists, and won a Pulitzer Prize for its author, Louis Menand. Its subtitle, "A Story of Ideas in America," gives some indication on what the book is about, but until you actually read the book you cannot begin to grasp its depth and sheer brilliance. The biggest surprise is Menand's credentials; he is a professor of English at the City University in New York. That an English professor wrote an amazing synthesis of philosophy, sociology, and history is worthy of some type of prize.
This book involves the reader on so many different levels that a review is sure to leave lots of information untouched. In short (very short!), Menand argues that studying the philosophical works of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey will tell us about where America has been, and where it is now. Menand argues that these four people influenced the way we think and act today.
Oliver Wendell Holmes fought in the Civil War as a young man. Later in life, he became one of America's leading legal theorists as a justice of the Supreme Court. The war deeply scarred Holmes, calling into question his conceptions of life and truth. In his legal rulings and scholarly articles, Holmes subscribed to the view that "certitude leads to violence," which means those with absolute ideas (like abolitionists and pro-slavery forces) won't compromise their belief systems. The result of this unwillingness to compromise is often bloody violence. Many of Holmes's rulings and writings support the belief that ideas, no matter how repugnant, should find full expression in society regardless of how unworthy they may be.
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77 of 79 people found the following review helpful By Jon L. Albee TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 18, 2001
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Have you ever wondered what replaced Transcendentalism? The Civil War found American intellectuals receptive to less idealistic discourse, and a loosely related group of ideas we now call "pragmatism" became the foundation of post-Trancendentalist thought. If this sounds interesting to you, read on.

This book, a blend of biography and intellectual history, truly has it all: a profound, original thesis; a beautiful narrative style; and a clear presentation of complex ideas without diluting their intellectual gravity. The book does for William James, Wendall Holmes, Charles Peirce, and John Dewey what Tony Judt's wonderful THE BURDEN OF RESPONSIBILITY did for Blum, Camus, and Aron--rescues critically important intellectual figures from obscurity and presents them in a graceful human form. The analysis of both character and theory is appreciative and appropriately irreverent. Menand wants you to see them and their ideas in the context of a society tolerant of both eccentricity and fanaticism, and in the context of a society that was fundamentally altered by the Civil War. Beautifully done, and an exhilarating read.

A warning to specialists: This book is intended for a general audience.

A warning to the politically correct: You may be offended.

A warning to regionalists (like myself): It's not as simple as Yankee = the good guys, Southerner = the bad guys.

The only criticism I have is slight. Menand neglects the contributions and counterpoints of Josiah Royce, the lone idealist, to the intellectual community of the period he is describing. He more than makes up for it with vivid portraits of such forgotten figures as Louis Aggasiz, G. Stanley Hall, Eugene Debs, etc...

If this one doesn't pull down the Pulitzer I'll be disappointed.
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56 of 58 people found the following review helpful By Robert Moore HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 25, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Both the editorial review and many of the individual reviews have mentioned that this is a study of four principal figures of pragmatism: Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey. That depiction is, however, incomplete and misleading. THE METAPHYSICAL CLUB is, as the subtitle proclaims, a study of ideas in America. While it is true that these four individuals are the lynchpins around which much of the story revolves, Menand keeps in mind one of the main doctrines held by all these thinkers, that the social is more primary than the individual. This book is a study of the intellectual life of late nineteenth century America as a whole, and while Holmes, James, Sanders, and Dewey provide much of the focus, their individual stories do not exhaust the tale that Menand is trying to tell.
Menand provides a brilliant portrait of the intellectual life of America in the post-Civil War era. The story is told from a generalist and not a specialist point of view. If one is interested in pragmatism, this provides the background and an outline of an introduction to the subject. As historical background, this book is unsurpassed. But it is crucial to keep in mind that it is background, not foreground. It does not begin to rival, for instance, such studies as Murry Murphy's tragically out of print study of Peirce's thought, or Gerald Myer's biography of James, or Bruce Kuklick's study of the development of American Philosophy. Apart from the works of the figures themselves, these are the secondary works to which one would go for greater depth on the subject. But none of these works provides Menand's delicious breadth.
The number of subjects that Menand takes up is stunning.
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