The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America by Louis Menand, Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
June 18, 2001        

Not long ago the philosopher Daniel Dennett called Darwinism – the theory of evolution by means of natural selection – “the best idea ever.” It is certainly one of the most consequential. Both as an explanation of an enormous range of biological and cultural phenomena and, perhaps more important, as a mode of explanation, it has altered the intellectual landscape decisively. Even Karl Marx, only a few years the publication of On the Origin of Species, sought permission (unsuccessfully) to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin. (“Organisms of the universe, unite … ”?)

One of Darwinism’s consequences, as Louis Menand tells it, was a change in the character of philosophy in America. Before Darwin, philosophy was in effect an adjunct of religion. There were few philosophy professors in America, and they were largely concerned with justifying the ways of God to their gentlemen-students. The conflict between Calvinism and Enlightenment had produced a temporary compromise: Unitarianism, which amounted to deism, or natural theology, plus New Testament morality. Emerson and the Transcendentalists had rejected this compromise, spurning deistic rationalism in favor of German idealism, and Christian morality in favor of a semi-mystical individualism. But it was Darwinism that, by stripping natural history of any evidence of divine purpose, kicked the props out from under supernatural religion altogether.

Contemporaneous with Darwinism, and equally shattering, was the Civil War. “As traumatic wars do,” Menand writes, “the Civil War discredited the beliefs and assumptions of the era that preceded it.” In this case, what was discredited was the belief that moral certainty is attainable or desirable. Moral certainty, on both sides, had after all helped bring about the bloodiest war the world had yet seen.

The generation that came to maturity in America after the Civil War and On the Origin of Species is the subject of Menand’s superb study, The Metaphysical Club. Actually, “study” is almost too stuffy; it really is, as the subtitle asserts, a story, full of color, incident, and personality. The protagonists are William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes Junior, Charles Sanders Pierce, and John Dewey. The first three were members of a short-lived Cambridge discussion group called, in a spirit of self-mockery, the Metaphysical Club. (All the members were decidedly anti-metaphysical.) Dewey, a generation later, synthesized and publicized their intellectual innovations. This is, as Menand rightly claims, the central lineage in our intellectual history: “Together they were more responsible than any other group for moving American thought into the modern world. … We are still living, to a great extent, in a country these thinkers helped to make.”

And what is their legacy? Pragmatism is its name, as everyone knows; but what is its substance? In Menand’s summary:

What these four thinkers had in common was not a group of ideas, but a single idea – an idea about ideas. They all believed that ideas are not “out there” waiting to be discovered, but are tools – like forks and knives and microchips – that people devise to cope with the world in which they find themselves. They believed that ideas are produced not by individuals, but by groups of individuals – that ideas are social. 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. And they believed that since ideas are provisional responses to particular and unreproducible circumstances, their survival depends not on their immutability but on their adaptability.

What was new about this? In the traditional, metaphysical view, abstractions such as “human nature,” “soul,” “truth,” and “justice” had a real existence. Since such entities
were immaterial, immutable, and eternal, they were, in a sense, even more real than physical objects or events. Philosophical discourse therefore ascended very quickly beyond mere fact to the loftier sphere of concepts, essences, and ideas.

This was all very well as long as not much of interest was happening down on the ground. Eventually, however, thanks to science, commerce, the revival of classical culture, and the decline of political absolutism, things down here got very interesting indeed. Pragmatism was an attempt to drag philosophy back to earth.

It did this by redefining the meaning of a statement or theory or idea as whatever can be done with it, or made of it. The proper judges of whether what someone has made of a statement is legitimate or useful are all those interested in the question; and the criterion they judge by is their own sense of what is plausible and important. This is rather general, but it captures the essential elements in Menand’s definition: inquiry is purposeful, social, and provisional. It is not and cannot be, in the strong, traditional sense, disinterested, solitary, or definitive.

The philosophical shift from dogmatism to skepticism, from finality to tentativeness, was clearly an imitation of modern scientific practice. It was also, Menand suggests, an adaptation to modern capitalism. Pragmatism inculcated “a kind of skepticism that helped people cope with life in a heterogeneous, industrialized, mass-market society”; an intellectual and psychological flexibility that “is what permits the continual state of upheaval that capitalism thrives on.”

This is, so far, a fairly standard account of pragmatism’s origin and significance. What is enthralling and illuminating about The Metaphysical Club is its portraits of individuals and their milieus. Menand is wonderfully deft at evoking a climate of ideas or a cultural sensibility, embodying it in a character, and moving his characters into and out of one another’s lives and careers. What might have been a jumble of intellectual movements and colorful minor figures – abolitionism, nineteenth-century race theory, the rise of statistics and probability theory, Social Darwinism, cultural pluralism, legal realism, anthropological relativism, experimental psychology, academic professionalism, progressive education, the settlement-house movement, the Pullman Strike; Oliver Wendell Holmes Senior, Louis Agassiz, Benjamin Pierce, Henry Abbott, Chauncey Wright, Hetty Robinson, Alain Locke – is instead a subtle weave of entertaining narrative and astute interpretation.

Nearly everything is known by now about William James and John Dewey, two of the book’s four protagonists, but Menand’s account of their development is lively and perceptive. He dwells on the young James’s trip up the Amazon with Louis Agassiz, Harvard’s celebrated naturalist. Agassiz was looking for evidence against Darwin and in support of polygenism, the theory that species and human racial groups were created separately, with distinct and unchanging attributes. James was initially impressed, like most of his contemporaries, by Agassiz’s knowledge and flair but later reacted strongly, again like many contemporaries, against Agassiz’s dogmatism. It was Agassiz’s apriorism, his style of “typological and prescriptive thinking,” that, Menand shows, taught James how science should not be done.

James was temperamentally undogmatic, almost to a fault. Menand has some fun with James’s famous indecisiveness: about whether to propose to his beloved, what to name his son, when to resign from Harvard. (It was not always so amusing: James suffered long afterward for his inability to decide whether to serve in the Civil War.) But he makes good use of this psychohistory, too, in characterizing James’s thought. The programmatic open-endedness of pragmatism becomes more intelligible when we’ve been made acquainted with James’s “quicksilver” personality.

John Dewey, by contrast, had no personality, or practically none. Still, Menand makes an interesting connection between an obscure episode in Dewey’s life and his uniquely influential (among Americans in the first half of the twentieth century) writings. Dewey had just arrived at the University of Chicago when the great Pullman Strike of 1894 broke out. He and Jane Addams, founder of the Hull House settlement, discussed it. Dewey described himself at the time as “a good deal of an anarchist” and damned the upper classes. Addams, though equally disgusted with the rich, insisted that social antagonisms were fundamentally illusory. Her profession of this mystical-sounding notion caused the scales to fall from Dewey’s eyes. “I never had anything take hold of me so,” he wrote his wife the next morning. “I can see that I have always been interpreting the dialectic wrong end up.” Dewey’s organicism, his continual attention to the intimate relations between the individual and the social, may be partly traceable to this episode.

The third of pragmatism’s leading figures – and, according to James, its real originator – is not quite so familiar. Charles Pierce, the son of an eminent mathematician, was himself mathematically gifted and worked for thirty years on the US Coastal Survey. He was also a womanizer, spendthrift, drug addict, and, as he confessed in his Harvard class book, afflicted with “1 Vanity, 2 Snobbishness, 3 Incivility, 4 Recklessness, 5 Lazyness, 6 Ill-temper.” For a decade or so, Pierce and Chauncey Wright – another unstable genius, revered by James and Holmes and known as “the Cambridge Socrates – hashed out Darwin, logic, cosmology, and other philosophical matters, in and (mostly) out of the Metaphysical Club. Pierce’s thought is difficult, and even Menand cannot render it altogether intelligible. He does, though, quote from Pierce’s essay “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” what is probably the best one-sentence statement of pragmatism: “The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes Junior is the tragic hero of The Metaphysical Club. Son of Doctor Holmes – the original Boston Brahmin, friend of Emerson, and “Autocrat of the Breakfast Table” – the young Oliver was brilliant, good-looking, and well-connected. Already a religious and philosophical skeptic, he dropped out of college to enlist immediately after the shelling of Fort Sumter, in a burst of unionist and antislavery fervor. But the dogmatism of the abolitionists, the irrationality of war, and the paradoxical example of Henry Abbott, a fellow officer who disagreed emphatically with the Union cause but nonetheless fought with exceptional skill and bravery, turned him into a moral and political skeptic as well.

After the war Holmes entered on a prodigiously successful career as a legal scholar and judge. His legal philosophy was the ne plus ultra of skepticism. Law is not based on first principles, according to Holmes; indeed, it is not based on anything: it is “nothing more or less than what judges do.” All legal reasoning involves at least some interpretation and is therefore, at least to some degree, open to challenge and reinterpretation. Settled law is simply whatever seems pretty likely to survive all such challenges. By analogy with Pierce’s sentence above, one might consider Holmes as saying: “The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who adjudicate, is what we mean by the law.” Law, like philosophy, is contingent all the way down.

Holmes and James, once the best of friends, grew apart over the years. Holmes thought James softheaded; James thought Holmes hardhearted. Present-day sympathies are mostly with James, but Menand’s account maintains a careful balance. Holmes may sometimes have been “selfish, vain, thoughtless of others,” as one of his oldest friends remarked with some bitterness. But there was something admirable, too, about his grim, unyielding refusal of philosophical or moral solace. It was, in its way, an experimental life: few people have dispensed with conventional belief and sentiment so utterly as Holmes. Those who aspire to live, as Nietzsche urged, “without metaphysical comfort,” will take heart, or take heed, from his example, which, like much else, is figured delicately and poignantly in The Metaphysical Club.