- Series: later printing
- Paperback: 576 pages
- Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Reprint edition (April 10, 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0374528497
- ISBN-13: 978-0374528492
- Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 1.4 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 133 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #110,565 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America Paperback – April 10, 2002
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From The New Yorker
A group portrait of four men—Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, Charles Peirce, and John Dewey—who changed the way America thought. Because Menand, like his subjects, views ideas as being "soaked through" by the situations we find them in, his book embraces everything from Darwin, probability theory, and the battle of Antietam to infighting at the University of Chicago.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
“The Metaphysical Club is dramatic and persuasive ... something very like a history of the American mind at work.” ―Alan Ryan, The New York Review of Books
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'The Metaphysical Club' is the biography of four men and an idea. The four men are the legal scholar Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (who would later become one of the most celebrated justices ever to sit on the United States Supreme Court), the psychologist and philosopher William James, the polymath Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced "purse"), and the philosopher and social reformer John Dewey. The idea, of course, is Pragmatism.
Pragmatism is an innovative approach to doing philosophy that was developed by Holmes, James, Peirce, and Dewey (with contributions from numerous others, of course) in the period between the American Civil War and the First World War. Pragmatism is by far the most influential school of philosophical thought ever to come out of the United States, and it has been argued that Pragmatism reflects the American way of thinking better than any other philosophical movement. This is why Pragmatism has come to be treated as virtually synonymous with "American philosophy."
Pragmatism is often misunderstood, in large part because we tend to use the word "pragmatism" to mean practical-mindedness or expediency. Well, Pragmatism can certainly be seen as a practical-minded or expedient approach to doing philosophy, but it is important to keep in mind that Pragmatism (at least in the philosophical sense of the word) is specifically an approach to doing philosophy—it is not really about practical-mindedness or expediency in everyday affairs. In other words, the goal of Pragmatist philosophers is not to preach the virtues of practical living; it is to do philosophy in a particular way. (Here, I am using the word "philosophy" in a fairly broad sense to mean the serious, reasoned contemplation of ideas and their implications; so this would include not only the academic discipline of philosophy, but most other fields of scholarship as well, plus at least a few professions outside of academia, the most notable being the field of law.) Pragmatism is about taking a particular approach to the contemplation of ideas—an approach that Pragmatists consider to be more practical-minded than most of the alternative approaches that have been tried over the centuries.
William James, in his famous series of lectures on Pragmatism in 1906-07 (which he later published in book form), illustrated the Pragmatist approach to thinking with this amusing anecdote:
"Some years ago, being with a camping party in the mountains, I returned from a solitary ramble to find everyone engaged in a ferocious metaphysical dispute. The corpus of the dispute was a squirrel—a live squirrel supposed to be clinging to one side of a tree-trunk; while over against the tree's opposite side a human being was imagined to stand. This human witness tries to get sight of the squirrel by moving rapidly round the tree, but no matter how fast he goes, the squirrel moves as fast in the opposite direction, and always keeps the tree between himself and the man, so that never a glimpse of him is caught. The resultant metaphysical problem now is this: DOES THE MAN GO ROUND THE SQUIRREL OR NOT? He goes round the tree, sure enough, and the squirrel is on the tree; but does he go round the squirrel? In the unlimited leisure of the wilderness, discussion had been worn threadbare. Everyone had taken sides, and was obstinate; and the numbers on both sides were even. Each side, when I appeared, therefore appealed to me to make it a majority. Mindful of the scholastic adage that whenever you meet a contradiction you must make a distinction, I immediately sought and found one, as follows: 'Which party is right,' I said, 'depends on what you PRACTICALLY MEAN by "going round" the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive positions. But if on the contrary you mean being first in front of him, then on the right of him, then behind him, then on his left, and finally in front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to go round him, for by the compensating movements the squirrel makes, he keeps his belly turned towards the man all the time, and his back turned away. Make the distinction, and there is no occasion for any farther dispute. You are both right and both wrong according as you conceive the verb "to go round" in one practical fashion or the other.' "
While this anecdote cleverly illustrates the sort of practical-minded approach that Pragmatists like to take when thinking about ideas (in this case, the rather trivial idea of what it means "to go round" a squirrel), this illustration only scratches the surface of what philosophical Pragmatism is all about, and you'll need to do quite a bit of reading on the subject (or take a course in American philosophy) in order to fully understand how Pragmatists do philosophy.
'The Metaphysical Club' is actually a pretty good place to begin. It won't teach you everything you need to know about the subject, but it will give you a pretty good sense of what Pragmatism is all about. More importantly, you will learn a great deal about how Pragmatism came to be. You will learn about the men and women who contributed, directly or indirectly, to its development—in particular, about the four men who are most directly responsible for bringing us Pragmatism: Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Peirce, and John Dewey. You'll learn about how their lives and experiences—and the most important and controversial issues of their day—helped shape their ways of thinking. You'll learn about how the history of Pragmatism is connected to the troubled history of race relations in America as well as to the growing tension between science and religion that could be seen in the decades after the publication of Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species'. Understanding the historical context and intellectual climate in which Pragmatism developed will give you a better sense of what Pragmatism is really all about.
But this book is about so much more than just Pragmatism. Likewise, it is about so much more than just the lives and the intellectual accomplishments of Holmes, James, Peirce, and Dewey—who are arguably the four most important American thinkers of the period between the end of the Civil War the end of World War I (and in the case of Holmes and Dewey, well after the end of World War I). Yes, it is a biography of these four men and the idea they gave birth to. It is also, to a lesser extent, a biography of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (the father of Justice Holmes), Henry James, Sr. (the father of William James—whose brother was the famous novelist Henry James), and Benjamin Peirce (the father of Charles Peirce), all of whom were well-known and highly-respected (if a bit eccentric) intellectuals of their day who had a great deal of influence on the intellectual development of their respective sons. (John Dewey's father, Archibald, on the other hand, was a storekeeper—a fairly intelligent and well-read man, it seems, but not a scholar or a public figure like Holmes, James, and Peirce, Srs. The book devotes only a few sentences to him.) And the book also includes brief biographical sketches of many other people who influenced the development of Pragmatism in some meaningful way, including a number whose main contribution was simply to argue in favor of views that the Pragmatists ultimately rejected. But this book is also, as its subtitle, 'A Story of Ideas in America,' suggests, a biography of America itself, or at least a chapter in that biography. It is the story of how the Civil War and its aftermath changed America—in particular, how it changed the way American intellectuals think about big ideas.
But it's even more than that. There are so many delightful treats in this book that it would be impossible for me to list them all. The author frequently goes off on what at first appear to be random tangents about topics ranging from the whaling industry to the Pullman strike to Laplace's and Maxwell's demons to legal battles over who gets to hire and fire professors at a university to how statistical analysis can be used to detect a forged signature on a will, but he always manages to tie all of these odd digressions back to the story of how ideas in America evolved in the decades after the Civil War, ultimately leading to the development of Pragmatism. The journey that the author takes us on has lots of twists, turns, and detours, but it is fascinating and fun—not to mention educational. I was particularly intrigued by the discussion of the various ideas about race and race relations that were being debated both before and after the Civil War. You may be surprised at some of the things you learn. (People held some pretty bizarre and appalling ideas about race in those days. Of course, most white Americans back then—on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line—were horribly racist by today's standards, and that includes a number of Abolitionists! But the sheer variety of views on race and race relations that were seriously proposed, discussed, and debated in those days is staggering. In the decades after the Civil War, many black intellectuals began to make their own contributions to this discussion. These included scholars such as W.E.B. du Bois, who had studied philosophy under William James, and Alain Locke, who was also influenced by the Pragmatist tradition. They are also discussed in this book.)
If you are interested in philosophy, American history (particularly the history of the Civil War and its aftermath), or the history of ideas, I highly recommend this book. I guarantee you will learn something interesting, and you'll probably enjoy it, too.
And how does one characterize the philosophy of pragmatism? Pragmatism was, first of all, a reaction to the death and destruction of the Civil War, it was a reaction to the political certitudes that led to the violence of war. As the subtitle indicates this is a story about ideas. The pragmatists "believed that ideas were not 'out there' waiting to be discovered, but are tools..." They believed ideas were social, that no individual could lay claim to them. And borrowing from the Darwinism of the day, they "believed that ideas do not develop according to some inner logic of their own, but are entirely dependent, like germs, on their human carriers and the environment." The pragmatists thus had a fluid notion of knowledge and truth: "ideas are provisional responses to particular and unreproducible circumstances." Therefore truth is contingent: ideas are true only insofar as they work. As William James famously said in "Varieties of Religious Experience," pragmatists are only interested in "truth's cash value." As you can see, this is a very homespun American philosophy.
Before going into some of the problems of this philosophy , it is important to point out that Menand's method of collective biography of pragmatism's four key orginators - Oliver Wendell Holmes,Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey - is the logical way to discuss its ideas. Since ideas are always "soaked through" with contingency, it is proper to describle the historical milieu from which they ushered. If truth is provisional it follows that what was true then may not be true now. This explains why Menand's pragmatists and their pragmatisms readily dodged criticism: they were always moving targets.
Menand's portraits of Holmes, Peirce, James, and Dewey show how each of them from different angles arrived at convergent conclusions. Going into their backgrounds, their professional and social standing, and the events of their lives, he follows the method of how pragmatists arrive at truth. What has practical consequences in one's life is the only truth one need be concerned with.
The last part of this book - Part Five - contains three chapters entitled respectively Pragmatisms, Pluralisms, and Freedoms. This is where one would expect to find the final summation of pragmatism as a body of ideas, instead we are left hanging in abeyance. When truth is reduced to efficacy and there are no other standards by which to judge it, we find that something is lacking. If certitudes led to the violence of the Civil War, the absence of certitudes could lead to even greater injustices. Unlimited freedom and tolerance - the "truth is whatever works" attitude - is highly problematic. It is difficult to imagine what a pragmatist's ethics would look like. It sounds like a recipe for totalitarianism. The author was not convincing in resolving the problem of ethical relativism or the so-called situational ethics.
That said, the book advocates tolerance, pluralism, and multiculturalism, it promotes the positives. It is also very well researched and very well written, and reading it has been very instructive. I would definitely recommed it.