The Metaphysical Club

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., psychologist and philosopher William James, and philosopher Charles S. Peirce were influential American intellectuals, who all lived in the area of Boston, attended Harvard University, and came to adulthood in the turbulent years of the American Civil War. Philosopher John Dewey, born in 1859, was almost a generation younger than these three and he came from Vermont, but he was an admirer of William James and an heir to the ideas of the three older men.

In The Metaphysical Club author Louis Menand tells how Holmes, James, and Peirce came together in the short-lived and ironically named Metaphysical Club in 1872. The fathers of these were all intellectuals of an older American generation. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. was a celebrated writer, as well as a physician. Henry James, Sr., father of William and the novelist Henry Jr., was a wealthy but eccentric writer on his own version of religious mysticism. Benjamin Peirce was a Harvard mathematician. The Civil War and Darwin’s revolutionary theory destroyed the old certainties, though. The three sons, in different ways, responded by developing a way of thinking that came to be known as “pragmatism.” From the pragmatist perspective, ideas were social products, emerging from human relations, to be judged by standards of usefulness, rather than by standards of absolute truth.

John Dewey, as a university professor and a public intellectual, helped to make pragmatism into a major American philosophical approach. Dewey also made it part of American institutional life, since his ideas about education influenced many schools and educators. In describing the development of pragmatism from the Civil War and Boston intellectual life to Dewey’s impact on the twentieth century, Menand digresses often and sometimes seems to want to trace every idea or event back to its origin. Still, the book is absorbing reading, as well as an original presentation of some of the most important concepts and individuals in the intellectual history of the United States.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 97 (May 15, 2001): 1728.

Library Journal 126 (June 1, 2001): 169.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (June 10, 2001): 10.

Publishers Weekly 248 (March 12, 2001): 70.

World and I 16 (October, 2001): 236.