The Metaphysical Club

The Metaphysical ClubThis is a successful attempt at a reconstruction of a several synchronic slices of American thought, mostly following the Civil War Menand focuses on four thinkers he thinks most influenced modern American gestalt before the Cold War They include the three most familiar names in American Pragmatism, Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, along with Oliver Wendell Holmes Menand also considers briefly why their thought has arisen again as relevant in the twenty first century.Though it doesn t hurt to be interested in philosophy to read this book, because it is written as history, with many inter connected stories weaving in and out of descriptions of thinkers lectures, books, and articles, anyone who is interested in the backgrounds and causes of culture will likely enjoy this book It is probably also true that since a key feature of pragmatism is contingency, it could be said that Menand s approach is pragmatic He tells the stories of these men, as well as their families, friends, and other people in their lives How did Holmes s experience in the Civil War lead to his part in forming modern conceptions of freedom of expression How did Dewey s conversations with Jane Addams affect his enormous influence on American education Menand suggests that you can t understand these philosophers expressions of their ideas without the context of the generation of those thoughts.Some of the chapters in this book read like a novel, with pages quickly turned in order to see how he or she responded to what she or he just did Others require slowing down and a little re reading Menand holds these parts together and offers a great book that is well worth the time to read it. Modernity I ve heard it mentioned so many times but have never paused to think of what it means In this book, Louis Menard gives a simple definition Modernity is the break from the cyclical world where one generation succeeded another by taking on the same tasks, to one where each generation is faced with a new world Once, the son would become a farmer to replace his father The peasant of medieval times would sire a peasant to be Now the janitor can be father to the astronaut.In the pre modern world there was no concept of Progress for society or technology Medieval painters had no difficulty showing ancient times and current times in the same painting There was only progress of the individual toward salvation and often even that was not considered possible see Calvinism Little was expected to change in a world that called for struggle and endurance Everyone was just serving time until Judgement Day Without science, whatever concepts were created that people were willing to believe were the truths that could be lived under for one generation after another without question Curiosity was discouraged because it was pointless the deep questions were already answered The understanding that there was a purposeful God who, though inscrutable, had a plan, made it possible to escape the fear of the unknown that continually knocked on everyone s door Whatever terror was presented by disease or weather or simple accident, all was known to God who knew best.Then came modernity As science grew to explain everything on the surface, it explained nothing at depth only raising doubt where certainty was most desired.The Metaphysical Club is a rich adventure that marks the way from the old view to the new, from the certainty of belief to the insecurity of today The four men around whose intellectual lives the book is built Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Peirce, William James and John Dewey illustrate through their thoughts and actions the transformation of the world on the American scene and how human beings have come to deal with uncertainty as fact.I don t mean uncertainty about what to wear tomorrow, I mean profound uncertainty about the universe we inhabit and the thoughts that sculpt our identities Even the idea of free will is doubtful This is the territory of profound anxiety where all that we value is questioned.Moving easily though matters of faith, elements of statistics, the mania for eugenics and so very much , each new chapter takes in another aspect of society to reinforce the narrative of intellectual and social transition Menand so skillfully describes.How do we know the truth Yes, we can say that the world accords with much of what we know, but couldn t this indicate only that our minds have evolved to deal with the environment of which they are a product, rather than any objective understanding of reality Perhaps we are certain only of a charade.And what of our dearest beliefs What of good and bad, right and wrong What is there of them outside of our heads We create concepts metaphysics that have no reality in themselves, yet we act as if they were real Does it matter if they have no hard reality if we believe they do and act accordingly Are the laws of science any real than those of faith Faith worked when it was the system within which everyone lived Now science provides the system.The Metaphysical Club takes us from the moral certainties based on faith of the Civil War period to the foundation of reality on chance demonstrated by Darwin and his idea that intelligence is simply a product of blind chance, an accident on planet Earth.The thoughts and actions of the four principles of the book along with background from their parents generation allow us to see how this happened and the intellectual challenge in the accommodation, with generous samples of the schools of thought that were involved along the way Transcendentalism, Socialism, etc To say that God knows all is simple and satisfying Our being here as an accident of chance may be entirely deceptive, but is nonetheless all we have to work with, alone as we are in an otherwise meaningless universe This is both terrifying and challenging This book is about those who looked directly at the challenge, teased out the implications and attempted to meet them. Pragmatism is uniquely American It is America s only home grown school of philosophy THE METAPHYSICAL CLUB is Louis Menand s award winning book about the emergence of pragmatism as a distinct school of thought The book s vehicle for describing the early decades of pragmatism is a discussion of a group of thinkers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who participated in a loosely organized club that, in fact, called itself The Metaphysical Club The participants developed the founding principles of pragmatism in the final decades of the 19th century, though they appear not to have been aware that they were inventing a new way of thinking until the very eve of the 20th century An important feature of pragmatism, not the only feature by any means, but the feature that I will focus on in this short review, is that it rejects absolutes Menand traces this back to the horror of our Civil War and a perceived need for a philosophy that would accommodate multiple points of view in order to avoid conflict in the future A difficulty with absolutes in government is that there may be no way to resolve conflicting points of view when they are based on absolutes, except though violence American scholars after the Civil War tried to solve the problem that Lincoln struggled with how can a nation founded on the principle of self government peacefully resolve an issue when its citizens are irreconcilably divided based on absolute positions for example, an inalienable right vs God s will The pragmatists approach was to re define truth for purposes of governing though this varies among pragmatists, some regard it a comprehensive theory of truth in order to tie truth to solving problems and no longer to inflexible Platonic ideals, which was the prevailing way of thinking about truth before the Civil War in the United States Some thought that such an approach was realistic for a dynamically pluralistic society like ours where we are not going to agree on everything, even fundamental things.Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the great American legal scholar and Supreme Court Associate Justice, participated in the Metaphysical Club He was also an officer in the Union Army during the Civil War and, astonishingly, sustained serious wounds in battle on six separate occasions Menand seems to believe that Holmes war time experience shaped his later thinking about government and law Holmes was on the Court when it decided the seminal legal case, Erie v Tompkins I mention Erie here because it illustrates what can happen when we abandon the habit of thinking about truth in terms of absolutes For decades, our federal court system assumed that federal judges would look to something referred to as federal common law to decide legal claims that were based on state law, but were being litigated in federal court The assumption was that common law was the same for all wise judges because law is based on principles that are unchanging in nature To understand this, imagine that the common law is written on golden tablets in the sky like Plato s famous theory of forms The assumption is that if a judge is wise enough and free from distracting passions, he can discern what s written on those tablets without regard to whether he is a state or a federal judge A federal judge need not read the decisions of the courts in the relevant state Instead, he can simply read the golden tablets If you will forgive the over simplification, that was how many people thought about truth before the pragmatists After the war, as legal scholar and state court judge in Massachusetts, Holmes recognized that once we abandon a Platonic view of the law, and accept that the law is not based on absolute ideals, but on ever changing human values, then we can understand that law will be different in different jurisdictions That understanding will lead us to the realization that the concept of a federal common law does not make sense Different states have different values and can fashion different laws to reflect those values And of course, values change and so law will change Accordingly, once we abandon the Platonic ideal, federal judges adjudicating claims based on state law, must study the law of the state in question to discern the applicable rule of law to decide the case The rule will not be the same from state to state Nor will the outcome be the same, even on similar facts In Erie, the Court embraced this view and over ruled an old case called Pennoyer v Neff, in which Chief Justice Storey, who authored the opinion, had implicitly relied on the Platonic conception of law.Menand discusses Holmes at length in THE METAPHYSICAL CLUB, though not specifically the Erie case He might have It nicely illustrates a point that he seems to want to make.The balance of the book focuses on the thinking of the great triumvirate of pragmatism Charles Sanders Pierce, William James and John Dewey These are fascinating men and uniquely American It is difficult to imagine that they could have arrived at pragmatism in any other place or time.Menand won the Pulitzer Prize for his book and deservedly so THE METAPHYSICAL CLUB is a very readable book about the history of ideas in America during a period that uniquely influenced politics, philosophy and law in the United States Menand is a professor of English and not a professional philosopher Some professional philosophers have criticized Menand s interpretation of pragmatism I would urge anyone who is thinking about reading THE METAPHYSICAL CLUB not to let these criticisms discourage you I found Menand s book to be an excellent re introduction to pragmatism James, the best known of the Pragmatists, might well say that professionals have no monopoly on good philosophy. The premise is that Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William James, John Dewey and, to a lesser extent, Charles S Peirce who is the only one of the four that I d never heard of until I read this book were the first intellectuals of American modernity a phrase that seems to communicate the correct amount of portent where simply modern thinkers would have fallen short and that being young men who knew each other during the American Civil War and who travelled in the same social circles shaped a great deal of their intellectual temperament A densely intricate history of American intellectualism after the Civil War that I m glad I read, although it may have been a wee challenging to my ADD comprehension than it was rewarding Menand didn t compress or narrow the results of his research in a way that might have made for a accessible read and I m glad of that, but it at times seemed he could have even with the extensive detail constructed the narratives and the points he was trying to make through them in a linear fashion I found myself wishing the book had hyperlinks so that when he connected a minor academic figure he had introduced several chapters previously to a matter presently at hand, I could click back and refresh my memory I could have used the index diligently, but I m ADD and lazy, too.Upon finishing the book I m a bit distracted by the extent to which he ignored the issue of socioeconomic class in the book Yes, perhaps how the nascent philosophy of pragmatism wrestled with ingesting Darwinism was a consuming issue for the Harvard elite and their ilk, but how much impact if any did that have on the day to day lives of the lumpen proletariat Overall, though, I enjoyed it, have half a mind to reread it at some point down the line and may seek out other books by Menand A height, for me, was the point he made about modernity near the end of the book Modernity is the condition a society reaches when life is no longer conceived as cyclical In a premodern society, where the purpose of life is understood to be the reproduction of the customs and practices of the group, and where people are expected to follow the life path their parents followed, the ends of life are given at the beginning of life People know what their life s task is, and they know when it has been completed In modern societies, the reproduction of the custom is no longer understood to be one of the chief purposes of existence, and the ends of life are not thought to be given they are thought to be discovered or created Individuals are not expected to follow the life path of their parents, and the future of the society is not thought to be dictated entirely by its past Modern societies do not simply repeat and extend themselves they change in unforeseeable directions, and the individual s contributions to these changes is unspecifiable in advance To devote oneself to the business of preserving and reproducing the culture of one s group is to risk one of the most terrible fates in modern societies, obsolescence Wow It s like I always knew that on some level but it feels good to have someone lay it all out so nicely I wish I d found high points like this in the book. How Ideas Matter In AmericaLouis Menand s The Metaphysical Club is a rare book which manages to be both scholarly and popular As a popular work, it offers an accessible exposition of complex ideas and thinkers On a scholarly level, the book succeeds because it awakens 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 Metaphysical Club include the great American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes and the philosophers William James, Charles Peirce, and John Dewey They were the basic American practitioners of 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 Peirce all were products, in their different ways, of homes were ideas mattered Dewey less so , temperament, 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 concerns the apparent inability of modern life to find values to move the heart and spirit as the heart and spirit 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 many other philosophers and thinkers, predecessors, successors, and colleagues to Holmes, James, Peirce, and Dewey The title of the book is based on an almost legendary Metaphysical Club that met all too 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 digressions 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.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 in other writers.Pragmatism is a distinctive achievement of thinkers in the United States This book teaches about it well and, perhaps not entirely consistently 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.Robin Friedman Popular philosophical history doesn t get better than this rigorous a good hundred pages of footnotes meticulously back up every quote and incident and not shy on depth, but still enormously readable Menand combines fascinating personal anecdotes with the political and intellectual history of the time to create a seamless flow of thought, moving logically from one idea to another In fact, if there s any criticism to be made of this book, it s that in making everything fit so perfectly, its author elides some of the complexity of his subject matter At the heart of the book is a club briefly formed by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, but the club s antecedents and results are really what the book is about Menand follows the impact of the Civil War, on the one hand, and scientific developments and the rise of skepticism on the other, in changing the established weltanschauung of the Boston Brahmins and American intelligentsia The first caused the post war generation as wars often do to turn against ideology They believed that even noble ideas were not worth such bloody sacrifices The second, the ideas of statistical probability and regression to the mean, opened a new world one in which everything was deterministic, but within a certain zone of error one in which species could evolve through random mutations, with the best characteristics slowly being selected, and in which ideas and societies could similarly evolve through freedom of thought Thus the idea of a static natural world, which was mirrored by the mind, and a corresponding system of beliefs, was replaced by a flexible idea of an ever changing world with no fixed goals or values aside from what is useful, and a mental image which is constructed by the process of the mind s interaction with the world Epistomologically, this meant the philosophy of pragmatism that what is true is merely what it is useful to believe in jurisprudence, this meant allowing the law to change in accordance with the flux of human experience, and not some unchanging underlying logic which the lawyer must discover And in policy, as exemplified by John Dewey, this meant a greater openness to social change a belief that the gaps between thought and action must be bridged Dewey was famous as an educational reformer, but he also worked to promote the advancement of women and minorities, worker s unions, and pacifism These thinkers and the many others described herein had many differences for example, James was famous as a defender of belief in God, something Holmes had little time for but their views taken as a whole illustrate the sea change which created the modern, pluralist, scientifically as opposed to theologically oriented society of today The ideas despite the major cultural changes of the Cold War and subsequent events, which Menand touches on in an Epilogue are an essential part of understanding contemporary culture This book explains it with pulsating anecdotes and crystal clarity, combining in the best possible way the spirits of the intellectual historian and the raconteur. The title of this book is misleading There s really not a lot about the actual Metaphysical Club Records were not kept of their meetings The subtitle was better A Story of Ideas in America But I would add at the Turn of the Twentieth Century It was an absolutely terrific read for those of you who aren t ashamed of having a brain Some of the racial comments were quite disturbing Here s one by Giddon and let that suffice the most superior types of Monkeys are found to be indigenous exactly where we encounter races of the most inferior types of Men No disgusting quotes like that are necessary Giddon also pointed out that no monkeys are in Europe The philosopher Herbert Spencer s great mistake in regard to evolution was his seeing continuity He felt there was progress No such thing exists Evolution is random It has no brain behind it People today still try to put a god there The author does a great job of explaining the importance of statistics and probability in coming to conclusions No longer was accuracy needed, just a lot of information to make intelligent conclusions I enjoyed it so much, I made a list of pages to reread in the future. This is probably the last book I bought at the now defunct Cornerstone Books in Salem, MA and that probably means nothing to you if you re just here trying to determine whether or not to read this one Stick with me I m getting there I bought it just before the birth of my daughter and began reading it in the hospital when she was born She turns three next month Does this suggest that I didn t thoroughly enjoy this book Hardly It s simply not a book that can be digested in small bite size chunks It is a stunning piece of academic work, thought provoking and thorough It needs to be savored You try savoring a book full of heady thoughts with a young child and then a second on the loose What I found most interesting about this book though was the way that some of the other books I ve picked up along the way have added to my understanding and appreciation of it along the way I wouldn t have taken so much from it had a I finished it in the weeks after my daughter s birth even if I did have all my faculties at that time I didn t Certainly the last few chapters have been greatly aided by some of the side reading I ve been doing lately So what does this book cover It examines how Americans think and why we think that way That s too simplified of course It makes it sound like pop history and this is not It is rather, a five star book I would recommend only to those who come to it eagerly It builds slowly to the point taking care to delve into the relationships and influences of the men who shaped our thinking in the period between the Civil War and the Cold War Only at the very end does it pull everything together in a way that had me turning pages quickly, absorbed enough to ignore the singing of Dora the Explorer in the background Clearly I need to read it again, right through, start to finish over a period of less than three years For now though I m satisfied to have finally completed it and to have enjoyed it so much. Although this is a supposed quadruplicate biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes Junior, Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, it s really an unparalleled intellectual history of America from the Civil War up through the turn of the century Thankfully it doesn t try to be a comprehensive intellectual history, and it doesn t try to trot out every important thinker of the age and analyze them for relevance It s mainly a circuitous and winding story of how that most American of philosophical systems, pragmatism, with its suspicions of transcendent ideals and its awareness of multiple contexts, emerged gradually out of the mystical antebellum New England world of Emerson and Thoreau It s seemingly disparate chapters, which focus on such people as naturalist Louis Agassiz and reformer Jame Addams, at first seem difficult to pin together, but gradually the reader realizes that this is a way to show how many individual threads were woven into pragmatic philosophy While other writers act like philosophers were only reading other philosophers, Louis Menand uses multiple biographies to show how real life and real events shaped abstract thought For instance, William James saw the failure of Louis Agassiz s quest for an overarching natural explanation of the animal world, one that relied on God s placement of all animals in their current environments a quest which led him, with James, to look for evidence of glaciers in Brazil , as confirmation of a world mainly governed by blind evolution and chance Holmes s experience at the tragic Battle of Ball s Bluff in the Civil War soured him on all high ideals, and his survival of the fittest theory later influenced his theory of judicial restraint by which he hoped to let interest groups battle it out in politics and paradoxically made him a liberal hero Charles Pierce s wrestling with astronomical observations as an employee of the US Coastal Survey led him to look at the fallibility of all human judgment and search for a probabilistic theory of thought John Dewey s concern over the 1894 Pullman strike, and his connections to Jane Addams, made him search for a tolerant pluralism that would encompass all apparent conflict into an actual unity Interestingly, a large part of the book is a biography of that strange, in bred world of 19th century Boston of course centered around Harvard , where everybody seemed to be a cousin or son or wife of a famous thinker and writer, and where everybody was part of their own philosophical club Menand shows that before one can talk about a philosophy, one needs to talk about the peculiar environment that philosophy emerged from The pragmatists would of course have entirely agreed.I can honestly say that I ve never read a book like this anywhere, one that brings so much to the table and makes it all seem so interconnected Menand is someone who actually knows how to mold a good story out of abstract ideas, and who makes all these ancient, intractable debates seem important and worthwhile. The Metaphysical Club Was An Informal Group That Met In Cambridge, Massachusetts, In , To Talk About Ideas Its Members Included Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr, Founder Of Modern Jurisprudence 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 Dependent Like Germs On Their Human Carriers And Environment They Also Thought That The Survival Of Any Idea Depends Not On Its Immutability But On Its Adaptability

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.

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  • Paperback
  • 560 pages
  • The Metaphysical Club
  • Louis Menand
  • English
  • 20 May 2018
  • 9780007126903

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