The Metaphysical Club


In many ways, this is a unique book. It’s not just a work on American history, it’s a detailed, biography driven book about – of all things – American philosophy. And it’s very fascinating because it follows four major thinkers of the generation that actually fought in the Civil War. Thus, this book is about ultimately about American being itself; it’s about the thinkers that have really come to define American and our understanding of the world.

Following the lives of Oliver Wendell Holmes (the long-lasting and extremely influential Supreme Court Justice), and the philosophers William James, Charles Pierce, and John Dewey, Menand takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of ideas in 19th century America. It’s very interesting to think in terms of generations here. Because there is the generation of the Revolutionary War, then you have a successive generation (of the Second Great Awakening, John Brown, etc) which raised the generation we are mainly concerned with here, the generation that actually fought in the Civil War and steered the country into the Gilded Age.

It’s a intellectual coming-of-age book about America truely becoming American (as opposed to simply a English colony). As you might expect, the causes of the Civil War and the war itself are the fundamental fact of the book (well, along with Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution) which profoundly shapes each figure. While each of our four heroes followed a different intellectual path, they all found themselves formulating the same solution to the same problem, albeit it in different ways.

Very roughly, Pragmatism was the core tenant of their thinking. Pragmatism sees ideas as tools of the mind that each person uses to make sense of and live their lives. Taken cumulatively, these tools of the mind seem to formulate our culture and society. Thus, a cultural motif that is dying out signals that it is no longer “working”; it no longer seems ‘true’. New ideas might be risky – a gamble – but they are also necessary because they will inevitably form the basis for a healthy society in the future (change being inevitable and inexorable). New ideas or ways of thinking might eventually be seen to be ‘right’ or ‘true’ based on their success out in the real world.

It is this conception which forms some of the more sophisticated reasoning behind our current freedoms. Our Bill of Rights is based on easier experiences with religious wars of the Early Modern period; the original conceptions of freedom of speech is linked with religious freedom. It is Pragmatism that updates this conception to the industrial era and the birth of mass society.

As a student of intellectual history; I am more immediately familiar with Marx’s economic and materialistic conception of ideas, culture and society. Pragmatism is fundamentally a mental or psychological conception which (especially in William James’ hands) plays a tight-rope walk with metaphysics; it leaves the door open to metaphysical connections. In contrast, Marx’s theories see ideas as “superstructure” which results from elites exploiting the labor process. You can see how both conceptions point away from a Platonic conception that ideas are a sort of eternal, fixed set of fundamental truths.

In this we observe the massive effect Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution had on 19th century thought. It had a wide variety of effects and people sought to understand – or not understand – the idea of evolution. You see, evolution was interpreted in a social sense; it seemed to cut at the ideological and religious underpinnings of Victorian society. This trigged an explosion of misinterpretation of Darwin, most famously the idea of “Social Darwinism” – i.e., only the strong survive (a shallow reading of the theory of evolution seems to lend a sort of moral authority to this). Increasingly, human behaviour was seen not to be the actions of an individual tempted by evil on one side and his ‘better angles’ on the other, but as a statistically predictable series of responses underlying a fundamental randomness in nature. Thinkers scrambled to retain God – and the dignity of human choice – in this new universe of chance. Pragmatism can be seen as a response to this new intellectual climate.

As a book, it does a very solid job of explaining complex intellectual histories (like the influence of ‘continental’ thought like Hegel on say John Dewey via the Vermont Transcendentalists). It portrays the experience of a generation and it’s influence admirably. All in all, this is a great book – one that you need to read to understand our own thinking and way of seeing the world. I do have some fussy little complaints though: Menand doesn’t stick to the narrative of the four central characters very well. He seems to loose the thread – and his readers – after the Civil War. Oliver Wendell Holmes’ early life is clear as a day, but when we move on to William James, all becomes muddled. I grant Menand the complexity of the story he is trying to tell (four biographies, multiple intellectual histories and philosophy and an over-arching history of a generation), but I sense that he and his editor where at logger heads about the length and depth of the book.

This is important work; the kind of book that kids in high school should be reading.


4 thoughts on “The Metaphysical Club

  1. Your understanding of Pragmatism is very good.
    ” New ideas or ways of thinking might eventually be seen to be ‘right’ or ‘true’ based on their success out in the real world.”
    I think that this attitude is typical of Pragmatism. This shows contempt for ancient philosophical attitude of search for truth for its own sake. I heartily dislike Pragmatism.

    • Thank you!
      Yes, Pragmatism does have a rather unsatisfying whiff of moral relativism (might is right) about it; I think Bertrand Russell said “Pragmatism means that whoever has the best machine gun is right” (or something to that effect). Pragmatism is best thought of as a sort of rule for human psychology I think, a sort of valet for liberalism, rather than the basis for ethical or social systems.

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