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The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (2001)

by Louis Menand

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2,263234,710 (4.12)48
Winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for History 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 depend -- like germs -- on their human carriers and environment. And they thought that the survival of any idea 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.… (more)



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Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
Was this book supposed to be funny? I thought this book was so funny in the wriest way. ( )
  jshttnbm | May 14, 2020 |

I really did like this book. While it was pretty dense in some parts, it was fascinating in other aspects. This is a quadruple biography smushed into a larger biography of how science & the scientific community came to be in the USA during the post-Civil War era. I skimmed the last few chapters and hope to one day go back and take my time with them. I am a bit of science history geek.

The most fascinating aspect of the book was not just the theme of how personal biases influenced how science was being framed (I believe the purpose of this book being assigned), but how those personal biases were reflections of how people felt about slavery, African-Americans and immigration during the late 1800s. It was especially fab to read about the differences in how Northerners felt about slavery, abolitionists and Southerners.

The downside of the book is that you get a mini-biography for almost every minor character that just bogged down the book, including the fathers of each of the main characters. TMI!
  roniweb | May 30, 2019 |
You have to really be into the nitty-gritty details of intellectual history in the US to enjoy this. Other than the obviously thorough research, it's all the worst that the subject of history has to offer. Long drawn out stories of people's lives that average folk have either never heard of or if they have, don't really know what they did and don't care about them anymore. Ok, some of them may have been influential but that doesn't necessarily make their lives interesting or worth archiving for history. I got 1/3 of the way through it waiting for something interesting but it was just one monotonous droning on about long since dead people. So I skipped to the rear 1/3 of the book thinking it would get better and read a chapter or two there...same...yawn. If you are an insomniac and want to get to sleep, read this. If you're an obsessive history buff stuck in a life raft at sea with nothing to do while waiting to be rescued, you might actually like it. Oh and this won the Pulitzer prize for history, but I think that's mostly due to the extensive research into this book, not because it's a particularly interesting read. ( )
  Chickenman | Sep 13, 2018 |
I am not too good on American history; this book did a very nice job of filling in lots of gaps. There is always a lot of talk around about why people fought the Civil War. Well, why did the South fire on Fort Sumter? Anyway, Menand does a very nice job describing how antislavery folks in the North mostly wanted to split with the South, while Unionists were not so opposed to slavery.

The whole book is very much a pragmatist look at pragmatism - seeing pragmatism as a response to the situation after the Civil War. There is mention of how people took the ideas of Holmes, Peirce, James, and Dewey, and maybe their followers didn't live up to the potential of the ideas... but Menand doesn't really show us that. The story pretty much ends along with the lives of the principals. It's a complete book as it stands... but I guess just a few more hints of how to follow the trail might have been nice.

My few brief forays into the writings of C. S. Peirce have left me befuddled. Menand's book at least reassured me that maybe the fault is not entirely mine. I was hoping that this book might give me an entry point into the threefold nature of a sign... OK, that a dictionary involves a kind of infinite regress, that's helpful. But I still didn't quite manage to count to three. No problem really - it wouldn't be fair to expect that level of completeness and precision from Menand.

The core focus here is pragmatism, which is a sort of Darwinian view of how ideas evolve. Which reminds me, Menand gives a nice history of the reception of Darwin's ideas, and how these related to ideas about race, which clearly then connect to ideas about slavery... and immigration. Egads I must say... the political climate of our day sadly seems to be going back to hmmm like 1915 or something. That movie The Birth of a Nation was it?

There's a level of crispness that I didn't quite find in reading this book. Probably the shortcoming is in my own superficial reading and thinking? But Menand describes modern society as being always in motion - always moving forward, if not upward. Hmmm. What does "forward" mean? Is there any kind of consistent direction?

I suspect that we just bounce around in some space of possibilities, sometime orbiting in some basin of attraction, then flipping into a rapid spiral to some point of relative stability, before tipping over into yet another pattern. For sure we are always headed into the future, to the extent anyway that time really does have a direction. But the space of possibilities itself seems filled with trajectories that cross and tangle every which way. We just might drop back into some feudal scene. Modernity doesn't last forever. ( )
3 vote kukulaj | Jul 25, 2018 |
After the trauma of the civil war the focus of American philosophy began to shift away from the notion of "perfectability" (individual or universe) as well as the idea that evolution, under the guiding hand of a divine entity, strives toward a goal. The shift was toward "pragmatism", that is, using philosophy to improve lives in the here and now. Three men, William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and John Dewey, and one woman, a social worker, Jane Addams emerged as leaders of a new way of thinking and acting--acting being the essential ingredient here. Each in their own way began to see humans as being, always, part of a greater whole, acting but also acted upon by the people around them, fluid, ever-changing, predictable only when the whole is considered. However, their ideas did not emerge out of nowhere, they were all three acquainted with or at least aware of one another, although Dewey and Addams were one generation removed, children during the war, as opposed to Holmes and James who lived through it, Holmes as a soldier injured three times and changed forever. Curiously one of the foremost influences was of "Vermont Transcendentalism" founded by George Marsh which contains the seed of the idea of the individual human as being inseparable from a community context. (His goal was to securely fasten religious belief to philosophy.) John Dewey, a Burlingtonian by birth, and student at UVM of which Marsh was president for decades, received this teaching early and took it with him. Many other threads went into what eventually emerged, from Jane Addams's view of conflict and resolution, to the discoveries of statistical analysis but it is where ideas of pluralism, of strength in diversity and many that (most of us) hold dear emerged. Holmes as a lawyer and judge, James as a scholar of the human mind each contributed in unique ways--and don't think they all agreed with one another. And that is, in a powerful way, the point that Menand makes. These thinkers understood something that we still struggle with, that a democracy to work, has to take in the ideas of everyone within--so that no matter how much you might disagree with someone else's views it is the clash, discussion, and compromise that will place the majority of the people in the best possible situation. There is so much content in here, from the legacy of slavery to the founding of unions that I could write a book about this book, but I will spare you. One takeaway is that the Civil War was a watershed of watersheds, a traumatic event from which this country has not yet moved on. The takeaways are that whatever your ideas about 'how things should best be' don't happen in a vacuum--you fabricate these ideas out of your experiences and contexts, e.g. your social units of family, friends, associates.

One last comment before I sock you with quotes: one thing that struck me sideways is that Bernie Sanders emerged from this Burlington context and all of the serious Vermont politicians from Leahy to Kunin to Dean to Sanders are fully aware of and devoted to the idea of the intertwining and inseparable responsibilities of the community and the individual to one another that forms the basis of the successful democratic form of governing.

On Holmes: "The war did more than make him lose those beliefs. He lost his belief in beliefs." (e.g. beliefs change with changed contexts and needs.)
"The lesson Holmes took from the war can be put in a sentence. It is that certitude leads to violence."

Charles Peirce (contemporary mathematician and philosopher). "... perception is fallible, knowing cannot be a matter of an individual mind "mirroring" reality. Each mind reflects differently at different moments--and in any case reality doesn't stand still long enough to be accurately mirrored. Peirce's conclusion was that knowledge must therefore be social."

"Addams said she believed that antagonism was always unnecessary. It never arose from real, objective differences she told Dewey, 'but from a person's mixing his own personal reactions--the extra emphasis he gave the truth, the enjoyment he took in doing a thing because it was unpalatable to others, or the feeling that one must show his own colors.' "The antagonism of institutions was always unreal: it was simply due to the injection of the personal attitude & reaction; & then instead of adding to the recognition of meaning, it delayed and distorted it."

"Dewey taught that there is no such thing as an individual without society. We think we know in order to do,. Dewey taught that doing is why there is knowing,"

James, summarizing pragmatism: " . . . the soul and meaning of thought . . . can never be made to direct itself toward anything but the production of belief . . . .When our thought about an object has found its rest in belief, then our action on the subject can firmly and safely begin. Beliefs, in short, are really rules for action . . . .

On pluralism: "People come at life from different places, they understand the world in different ways, they strive for different ends. This is a fact that has proved amazingly hard to live with, and the reason is that as associated beings, we naturally seek to find our tastes, values and hopes reflected in other people."

"Coercion is natural; freedom is artificial. Freedoms are socially engineered spaces where parties engaged in specified pursuits enjoy protection from parties who would otherwise naturally seek to interfere in those pursuits. One person's freedom is therefore always another person's restriction . . . ."

Finally -- "Democratic participation isn't the means to an end . . . it is the end. The purpose of the experiment is to keep the experiment going."

***** ( )
2 vote sibylline | Feb 26, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
Very few books can be legitimately described as important, but this is one such. Menand, a superb and subtle stylist, is an academic and a New Yorker writer, and here he shows his powers both as a scholar, and as a populariser in the best sense.
added by paradoxosalpha | editThe Irish Times, John Banville (pay site) (Jun 8, 2002)
Menand brings rare common sense and graceful, witty prose to his richly nuanced reading of American intellectual history -- a story that takes in (to name only a few of the other players) Emerson, Louis Agassiz, Chauncey Wright, the fathers of Holmes, James and Peirce, Charles W. Eliot, Jane Addams, Hetty Green, Franz Boas, Hegel, Kant, Wilhelm Wundt, W. E. B. Du Bois, the Second Great Awakening, probability theory, the nebular hypothesis, the Pullman strike, academic freedom and the ever-present issue of race.
added by mikeg2 | editNew York Times, Jean Strouse (Jun 10, 2001)
The 2002 Pulitzer Prize for history went to Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. The book, highly praised in the press for its scholarship, is an amusingly written account of the philosophy named “pragmatism.” It is popular history, but that is what the Pulitzer Prize is for. So, what better recipient? The only problem is that Menand’s scholarship, even granted its nonspecialist aim, is an empty pretense. What is worse, the emptiness of its pretense is, in several ways, obvious. It appears, then, that educated, intelligent, and informed people, charged with responsibility for reviewing and judging books, can no longer tell the difference between scholarship and sham, or do not care to.
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To my parents and to Gilda
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It is a remarkable fact about the United States that it fought a civil war without undergoing a change in its form of government. (Preface)
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was an officer in the Union Army.
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