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

by Louis Menand

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
2,452284,777 (4.13)49
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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» See also 49 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 28 (next | show all)
The evolution of civil thought and politics between the Civil War and the Depression. Familiar and unfamiliar names from the American intellectual elite digest and rethink Darwin and other scientists and philosophers from the late 19th century. Menand effectively shows how these, mostly men, affect American thinking today and how the idea of individual freedom of expression protected by law did not reall emerge until after WWI. ( )
  JBreedlove | Aug 26, 2021 |
A history of pragmatist philosophy in the late 1800s in the United States, as expounded by John Dewey, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Pierce, and William James. It alternated between biographies of these philosophers and their associates and sometimes mind-numbing explanations of their thinking. In fairness, I listened to the abridged audio book, and audio is probably not the best format for philosophy, and the abridgement, I suspect, didn't do justice to the work as a whole. ( )
  Charon07 | Jul 16, 2021 |
NA
  pszolovits | Feb 3, 2021 |
It took me a long time to finish this book. I picked it up in the remainders bin probably a dozen years ago, and put it in the pile of books to get to "someday".

When someday finally came in April I wondered why I had picked this book up to begin with. It is A LOT. When people talk about weighty books, this is the model. Part biography, part history, part philosophy. It's fascinating in pieces, and I found it best to read it a bit at a time, with intermissions.

There are plenty of reviews here that will give you a good overview of what the author is up to with this book. I'll just say that I'm not sure he fully conveyed his stated thesis, but I enjoyed the ride. ( )
  stevesbookstuff | Nov 7, 2020 |
Dewey, Homes, James, and Pierce ( )
  brianstagner | Sep 19, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 28 (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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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)
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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.

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HighBridge Audio

An edition of this book was published by HighBridge Audio.

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HighBridge

An edition of this book was published by HighBridge.

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