143 of 147 people found the following review helpful
"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. Better to battle over a belief in socialism or communism through public debate then on the battlefield where thousands perish.
Charles Peirce was a philosopher and mathematician. While he is relegated to relative obscurity today, Menand argues that Peirce is tremendously significant in American philosophical history. Peirce worked as a statistician for the government, but in his off time he wrote intricate philosophical arguments concerning the nature of ideas and belief systems. The underpinning of all of Peirce's writings is the belief that human knowledge cannot rely on the observations of individuals. Peirce argued that humans have limited sensory perceptions that detect limited information. Just because we see something in front of us does not mean that it is an absolute. Even the law of gravity may not be absolute because we cannot see it in action everywhere that it exists. The best way, or at least the way with the least room for statistical error, to come to some form of "true" knowledge is to rely on the collected perceptions of the community. This idea can be extended to a "community over the individual" mentality, and it reached its greatest expression in the writings of John Dewey.
One of Peirce's ardent admirers was William James. James is best known today for the philosophy of Pragmatism (he is also the brother of novelist Henry James). Pragmatism is a method of philosophical inquiry that attempts to find a middle ground between absolute belief systems. It does not rely wholly on empirical based beliefs or theological based beliefs, as neither one of those systems provide an adequate explanation for why people believe the things that they do. According to James, ideas or beliefs that do not benefit humanity are irrelevant; discussion or debate about these inactive ideas is merely mental gymnastics. Only beliefs that may be actualized are worth believing in. In short, beliefs must have a "cash value," they must WORK in everyday life. Only then do they assume the value of truth.
John Dewey also adopted the pragmatic method in his numerous philosophical investigations. Dewey's most significant contribution (depending on how you look at it) is to the modern educational system. While at the University of Chicago, Dewey took a pragmatic approach towards education by rejecting the rote memorization of intangible concepts in favor of a "hands on" education. Children didn't learn tables of measurements from a chart; they actualized measurements through cooking classes. What they did is DO; they took a belief (measurements) and made it real in everyday life. The children also worked together, embodying another important Dewey concept: the emphasis of community over the individual. Most people believe that there are individuals first and then they form a society, but Dewey believed that there is no individual without society. The distinction is a difficult one, but important when applied to education, politics, and other fields of human endeavor. It is not surprising modern conservatives despise Dewey.
What impressed me most about Menand's book is the importance of Charles Darwin to philosophy. It was Darwin's theories that defeated the pseudo-scientific racial theories of Louis Agassiz, Samuel Morton, and Josiah Nott. Darwin's greatest contribution was clearing a path through the theology based educational systems in 19th century America. After Darwin, empiricism gained ground rapidly in schools and in philosophical arguments. Some reactionaries attempted to weld religion and science together, but the damage was already done. Our modern, secularized society with its mania for technological innovation can be traced back to this groundbreaking figure.
Menand's book is an absolutely fascinating read. He does digress often, but these digressions are unbelievably entertaining (read about William James's father and see why) and necessary to the arguments of the book. By providing the background and the influences of these four individuals, we see them outside the vacuum-sealed world of their arguments. Louis Menand, you deserve your Pulitzer Prize.
83 of 85 people found the following review helpful
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.
59 of 61 people found the following review helpful
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. In some 440 pages he deals with such a variety of topics as abolitionism, slavery, Daniel Webster, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., Emerson, the American reception of and reaction to Darwin, Louis Agassiz, Jane Addams, the Pullman Strike, W.E.B. DuBois, Alain Locke, Franz Boas, Benjamin Peirce, Chauncey Wright, theories of race, Boston societal structure, the development of the American university, several key decisions by the Supreme Court, Swendenborg, 19th Century conceptions of laissez-faire, the development of probability, the rise of statistical thinking, and a host of other issues. But what is striking is how well Menand integrates each new individual or idea with the rest of the work. He never introduces anyone just in order to chat about them; in each instance the introduction deepens and enhances the issue at hand. Each new idea helps take the story to the next stage.
Finally, I want to point out just how marvelously well written this book is. The prose is never less than utterly clear; it frequently rises to the level of exhilarating. It is not just that the book tells a story that deserves telling. The book is so well written that it is flat out fun. It is the nearest thing to an intellectual page turner as one is likely to find. The book is also enhanced by a number of superb photographs of all the principal characters.
97 of 106 people found the following review helpful
This is a rare book with ambitions to be scholarly and popular at the same time. On one level it is more successful as a popular exposition of complex ideas and thinkers. On another level, however, it succeeds both ways because it awakes in the reader an appreciation of the scope of intellectual life in the United States and a desire to understand and to perpetuate it.
The key figures in the book are the great American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the philosophers William James, Charles Pierce, and John Dewey. They were the basic American practicioners of, roughly speaking, 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 Pierce all were products, in their different ways, of homes were ideas mattered; Dewey perhaps less so), temprament, 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 talks about the apparent inability of modern life to find values to move the heart and spririt as the heart and spririt 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 a host of other philosophers and thinkers, predecessors, successors, and colleagues to Holmes, James, Pierce, and Dewey. The title of the book is based on an almost legendary "Metaphysical Club" that met all to 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.
As suggested earlier, 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 consistent 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.
29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
This well written book is a group biography of the founders of the only native school of American philosophy, pragmatism. It is simultaneously an analysis of how a group of gifted intellectuals who inherited a relatively stable intellectual system dealt with a series of severe challenges to their received ideas. Implicit in Menand's analysis is the that these individuals are examples of how 19th century USA dealt with the tremendous intellectual and social changes of the second half of the 19th century. Menand describes the careers and important philosophical works of Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, C.S. Peirce, and John Dewey. While there were certainly significant differences in thinking among these disparate individuals, Menand identifies crucial similarities in their thinking. All were inheritors of the pre-Civil War New England intellectual tradition that included various strains of protestantism, including Unitarianism, Transcendentalism, and moderately liberal political ideas. Menand uses the careers of these individuals to illustrate the challenges that arose to the intellectual inheritence of these men. Menand uses Holmes to show how the bitter experience of the Civil War created lasting skepticism about the value of ideals. With William James, Menand shows the tremendous impact of Darwin's ideas on the 19th century. With C.S. Peirce, Menand explores the impact of statistical mechanics and the erosion of deterministic Newtonian physics. Finally, the career of Dewey is used to illustrate the challenges produced by urbanization, immigration, and industrialization. With all these men, the end result was profound skepticism about received ideas, a tremendous suspicion about dogma, and an emphasis on methods of thinking and decision making rather than conclusions. Menand sees this intellectual movement as implicitly part of America's transition from a predominantly rural, Protestant society to the pluralistic, urban, and modern world we have today.
The Metaphysical Club is well written and Menand integrates a remarkably broad swath of knowledge about 19th century America into his book. It is hard to write a book with broad appeal that sustains a high level of scholarship but Menand has brought it off very well.
I do see some defects in the book. I don't think Menand really shows how atypical the Pragmatists were in their own time. Popular American culture remained individualistic, Protestant, and entrepeunerial in orientation. While Menand correctly stresses the discontinuities in American life and thought after the Civil War, he doesn't remark on some very important continuities found in the lives of his protagonists. All grew up within the orbit of New England intellectual culture. This culture inculcated an ethos of striving and personal achievement. At its best, this ethos stressed achievement not for the individual's sake but some form of social contribution or leadership, a legacy of New England Puritanism. In their different ways, Holmes, James, Peirce, and Dewey all manifested these traits.
27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on November 18, 2002
As I was reading Thomas Friedman's "Latitudes and Attitudes," I kept coming back to Louis Menand's "Metaphysical Club," where a major theme is how we form beliefs; and how we are to navigate through life in a universe shot through with contingency. When an absolute belief dominates one's thinking, when theocracy is held high and democratic dissension is not allowed: violence results. This is as true today with the Islamic Jihad as it was in the antebellum US, when differing beliefs on race and slavery led to Civil War.
To appreciate this fully, one would need to read Menand's book. It isn't really about a philosophy club - indeed the club is hardly discussed. Nor is it a biography of the key members of that club - Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Chauncey Wright and Charles Sanders Pierce, John Dewey et. al. It's not even about an idea. It's about an approach to thinking - Pragmatism -"an account of the way people think - the way they come up with ideas, form beliefs and reach decisions." It's about the interplay of necessity, belief, free will and chance in the face of war, labor unrest and the dynamic growth of a young country.
This is not a biography in the usual sense. Indeed, the main characters are "Representative Men" in Emerson's sense - or - l'homme moyen -- " the average man" in The Queteletan, statistical sense. These are the men who "for a given era...represent everything that is grand, beautiful and good." The book begins with Holmes - whose story opens and closes the book. Holmes serves the story as an encapsulation of the changes in America, from antebellum Boston-Brahmin beliefs in absolutism and abolitionism to the Supreme Court Justice whose jurisprudence rests on hard-won experience and the first widespread use of the concept of "the reasonable" man.
This approach to biography was both fascinating and frustrating. Holmes is not Holmes, but the nexus of Emerson, the Civil War, and progressive politic in the court. William James serves as the point of departure for a comparison of the absolutisms of Agassiz vs. the contingency of Darwin, societal pluralism, race relations, and the assimilation of Eastern and Southern European immigrants into the American "race." Pierce is emblematic of the use of statistics in the analysis of personality traits (the Hetty Green case), and an object lesson in the clash of changing morals and a conservative academy. Dewey serves as the transition from the impractical Burlington (VT) school of Transcendental philosophy and Hegelianism (absolutisms) to a reformer of education, psychology, university-faculty tenure rights, sociology and labor practices.
All of these ideas and currents wend through the individual lives and times Menand covers. The overall narrative structure of this book is equally fascinating and frustrating. The reader is forever led down tangents that circle back and intersect with some other section, thought, event, or person covered elsewhere. In this way, the book really is a tapestry showing the warp and woof of American life.
Menand handles most of the people in this narrative in a dismissive and belittling manner: Emerson comes across as nothing more than a lapsed Unitarian who never really read a book but grabbed higgledy-piggledy for gems among the works of others. William James is a procrastinating, depressed dilettante and drug taker, a mystic who "discovered" Pragmatism in the works of a French philosopher, and then promptly dropped it (indeed, this reader got the sense that Pragmatism was not an original American idea at all but was derived from France). Eugene Debs is a drunk. All these things may be true of these men, but it is not the key to their greatness or why they are remembered today.
One thing I was not aware of which Menand covers at some length, is the degree to which American Transcendentalism derives from Coleridge's Aids to Reflection and how this in turn derives from Coleridge's misreading of Kant. I studied Coleridge, Kant, James and Emerson at Harvard Divinity School and still I didn't know this. Must of missed class that day (it was known to happen).
All in all, The Metaphysical Club was well worth the time invested. I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in the development of American cultural identity, history and philosophy. Of all the books I've read so far this year, this is the one I keep turning over in my mind. "The Metaphysical Club" is a thrilling, intellectual and cultural adventure. Highly recommended.
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on September 29, 2001
The Metaphysical Club is a study of the foundations and conception of the philosophy of Pragmatism. Louis Menand approaches his subject by tying it to the biographies of Pragmatism's key authors -- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey -- biographies which thread their ways through the rest of the history.
Menand's central argument, as I see it, is that the American Civil War was so murderous that it spawned in many that saw it through doubts about the morality of belief in the absolute. It provided a stark example of how beliefs strongly held can end up in carnage and as such a moral reason to be rid of absolutist thinking. The publication of Darwin's Origin of the Species' materialistic version of evolution provided an extraordinarily powerful means of doubting the truth of a designed universe - the basis of most arguments for absolute truths. And the invention of the science of statistics provided a way to understand mathematically, and thus predict, the behavior of groups of people, animals and things so as to demystify them. So, the Civil War provided the end and the reason to strive for it. What made it different from other examples of horrible destruction based on belief-systems is that Darwin and statistics provided the means to introduce doubt.
Therefore, one of the main goals of pragmatism was to undermine the idea of absolute truth. As Menand quotes James, "The whole notion of truth, which naturally and without reflexion we assume to mean the simple duplication by the mind of a ready-made and given reality, proves hard to understand clearly ... [A]ll our thoughts are instrumental, and mental modes of adaptation to reality, rather than revelations or gnostic answers to some divinely instituted world-enigma." (p. 358) Beliefs, then, are simply ways of thinking that have the property of making the organisms that hold them more or less likely to survive in any given environment. Those beliefs that are apt adaptations, or at least not hobbling in some way, will survive because their host organisms will survive and those that are not will die with their hosts. There is some reason to suspect that successful beliefs are closer estimations of the world in itself, but there is no way to know that to be true. Or as Menand quotes Dewey, "The chief service of pragmatism, as regards epistemology ... will be ... to give the coup de grace to representationalism." (p.361)
One way to think of pragmatism, then, is as "bets-ism". "Beliefs, Holmes, James, Peirce, and Dewey had said repeatedly, are just bets on the future. Though we may believe unreservedly in a certain set of truths, there is always the possiblity that some other set of truths might be the case. In the end, we have to act on what we believe; we cannot wait for confirmation from the rest of the universe. But the moral justification for our actions comes from the tolerance we have shown to other ways of being in the world, other ways of considering the case. The alternative is force. Pragmatism was designed to make it harder for people to be driven to violence by their beliefs." (p. 440)
Although Pragmatism is associated with progressive thinking and Menand ties it to the modern concept of pluralism, it is a very conservative creed, with a strong preference for the status quo. As Menand quotes Holmes letter to Laski, "Some kind of despotism is at the bottom of seeking for change. ... I don't care to boss my neighbors and to require them to want something different than they do -- even when, as frequently, I think their wishes more or less suicidal." (p. 62) I think that it is intellectually related to Pascal and Erasmus' apologias contra the reformation and in defense of the Catholic Church's historical inconstancy. Surely they knew they were alluding to Pascal's wager when they said that beliefs were just bets on the future. I think of both intellectual traditions as kinds of intellectual Thermidors, if you will.
The Metaphysical Club is very well written and has, in my estimation, a convincing argument to make, but I doubt that someone with little exposure to philosophy would find all of it easy going. There are sections that are quite dense and take some time to digest, while others are relatively straight-forward narratives. The book is not a biography of the four central Pragmatists, it has biographical sketches and those parts that are more relevant to the book's theme are stressed and those which are not are passed over. Nonetheless, difficult intellectual histories as approachable as this one are few and far between. If you find the subjects addressed intriguing, I think it would be difficult to find better than The Metaphysical Club.
Note: the book is listed as being 546 pages in length, but the text is only 445 pages, the rest is devoted to endnotes and the index. There are very few additional comments in the endnotes. The index is solid but not nearly as comprehensive as it could be.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on November 4, 2002
Louis Menand - The Metaphysical Club
At the heart of "The Metaphysical Club" is the American Civil War, an epochal event which split America in two and forever scarred a generation of Americans. It was so profound an experience that many Americans would, like Oliver Wendell Holmes (one of the four "members" of the Metaphysical Club), drink libations each year in memory to their fallen countrymen. Such an experience rendered the old modes of thinking about life obsolete and after the Civil War Americans were in search of new ideas through which they might interpret and understand their existance and the society in which they lived. The discovery and development of these ideas is principal concern of Menand's book.
Pragamatism is the philosophy most closely connected to the post-war American generation, and it is around this philosophy which Menand constructs his narrative. Menand carefully shows how each of pragmatism's four principal developers (the four members of the Metaphysical Club, Holmes, Charles Pierce, William James, and John Dewey) contributed to making it a uniquely American response to the challenge posed by a new era.
And what a new era it was. Post Civil War America was filled with startling ideas such as evolution, determinism, psychoanalysis, and statistics. As Louis Agassiz, whose lectures on the superiority of the white race were delivered to packed audiences, could tell you Americans were fascinated by these ideas, some of which were used to solidify old myths, while others arose and threatened to overturn some of the most basic assumptions of human understanding. Menand skillfully relates these important ideas and draws on historical events to illustrate the logic and impact these new thoughts had on American society.
Portraits of the lives and times of the four principal figures in the development of American pragmatism - Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Pierce, William James, and John Dewey - are well-drawn and robust. The personal development of these four principals is traced, examining the events and conditions that helped build each man's pragmatist philosophy. Menand is concerned not only with telling each man's story, but in examining how each came to discover pragmatism for himself. The last section of the book unites each man's tale, bringing the four lives together in a beautiful synthesis of understanding and revelation.
Although these four figures are the focus of "The Metaphysical Club", Menand's book also creates a compelling picture of the post-Civil War generation by bringing alive several tributary characters including the eugenist Louis Agassiz, Charles Pierce's father, Benjamin, William James' brother and father, Henry and Henry, Sr., respectively, humanitarian Jane Addams, and the socialist Eugene Debs. The narrative is filled with interesting, even at times thrilling, anecdotes featuring these characters, each of which illustrate some crucial fact or idea.
Overall Menand's book points to where we (America) as a society have been and where he believes we are headed. The strong reception this book has received speaks to how many people agree with his analysis. After reading The Metaphysical Club do not be surprised to find yourself discovering that the very same ideas that captivated Americans of the post Civil War generation still figure most prominently into contemporary America.
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on July 24, 2002
Pragmatism was the only major school of philosophy to have germinated and flowered entirely within the United States. Always slippery to define, except by enumeration of its canonical figures (William James, Charles Peirce, John Dewey), never in good odor in Europe, it fell into disrepute in America too at midcentury, since when its three one-time revolutionaries have largely been rebels without applause.
In this Pulitzer prize winner, Louis Menand aims to rekindle interest in the pragmatists' program, and assess at its proper weight the magnitude of their legacy.
This was the most unflaggingly entertaining historical essay I've read in years. At least as serious as "John Adams", it isn't remotely as ponderous. Its panorama of the American scene, from Daniel Webster and Henry Clay to Eugene V. Debs and Learned Hand, is densely and colorfully populated. It sparkles with wit, not just with humor but with wit in the older sense, delighting the reader with unexpected and apt connections.
For most of the book, I was swept along uncomplainingly in what seemed to be a rambling current of anecdote. I'd expected a book about philosophy, and it seemed I was getting one about philosophers (and politicians and naturalists and Union soldiers and Pullman porters). Only in the culminating Part Five do most of the eddies come together; and then you realize how artfully directed the random flow really was. What philosophers write typically comes across as numbingly abstract (even when, as in the case of these men, their philosophizing was aimed at exalting ordinary experience); summaries of what they write typically seem even more so. Therefore Menand spends most of his time constructing, strand by strand, a tapestry of the times in which these thinkers were imbedded, of the times' communal disasters and hopes, the social tensions, the political tugs of war, to which the creedless faith of James and the faithless creed of the others became the response.
As a result, when he grasps the nettle and writes directly about their philosophies, the issues become as concrete for us as they were for the pragmatists themselves. Brief as it is, his final section succeeds in getting directly at the heart of the four subjects' very different philosophies. I can't think of a comparably readable, sympathetic, and precisely expressive piece of popular philosophical exposition since Walter Kaufmann's definitive guide to the existentialists forty years ago.
Menand has chosen to expand the traditional triumvirate to a tetrad, adding Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Given his goal of grounding the pragmatic impulse in a generation's concrete experience, that choice was a brilliant stroke. Menand's main thesis is that pragmatism was born of a revulsion toward certainty, toward any conviction that one has hold of an absolute truth. That revulsion in turn was born of the horrors wrought by the noble abolitionists, and the noble defenders of Southern sovereignty, each so brimful of moral certainty. None of the canonical three pragmatists saw the ravages of the Civil War at first hand; but Holmes did. And out of that experience of what high ideals can produce, he rejected the idea that jurisprudence aims at an abstract perfect justice, much as the others rejected the idea that philosophy aims at an abstract perfect truth. (Justice for Holmes was the sum of what judges have decided, as truth for the other three men was the sum of the beliefs upon which men act.) Menand persuaded me that Holmes, whose adventures open and close the book, not only belongs in this company, but fitly epitomizes it.
Anyone who cares about both history and philosophy will love this book; anyone who cares about either will be diverted and instructed.
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on July 10, 2001
Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club is a lucidly written account of the lives and ideas of four of America's seminal intellectuals--William James, John Dewey, Charles Sanders Pierce, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. To many of us, these are names only, but Menand brings each one to life with a rare ability to tie biography to thought.
All four were members of a small, short-lived club at Harvard in the 1870s, and all shared ideas about the peculiarity of America's intellectual tradition in light of current European philosophy. Menand shows that each in his own way contributed to the formation of a unique way of thinking later to be called "pragmitism." This quasi-philosophy seemed to addresss the American situation (the frontier, the bi-racial society, action oriented individualism, etc.) more directly than borrowed European schemas (Hegel, Locke and Laplace are discussed, among others). For those with a desire to see philosophical ideas in a fresh, vibrant light, this book is a "must-read." That a scholarly work should rank so highly among the intelligent public is a tribute to its brilliant author.