The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America
|Publisher:||Farrar Straus Giroux|
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 depent—like germs—on their human carriers and environment. And they thought that the survival of any idea deps 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.
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