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.

The Metaphysical Club

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In the nineteenth century, long before American universities had established their role as disinterested centers of learning, ideas in the United States were often developed and disseminated in regular literary and philosophical meetings. Probably the most famous of these gatherings was the Saturday Club, which met in Boston before the Civil War, and whose members included some of the most important thinkers of the time: the Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz and the writers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The Metaphysical Club was a similarly loose-knit group that lasted for probably no more than nine months in 1872, but Louis Menand uses it as the fulcrum to balance his account of the major intellectual shift that occurred in the middle of the nineteenth century, largely as a result of the work of the key members of this club, the men he calls the first modern thinkers in the United States: Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Peirce, and Chauncey Wright. The Metaphysical Club becomes, in Menand’s dramatic account, a symbol of the radical philosophical changes that occurred as the rigid, predominantly religious ideologies of the first half of the nineteenth century gave way to more scientific and pragmatic perspectives in nearly every field of American thought, particularly in philosophy, education, and law.

Pragmatism “was the product of a group of individuals, and it took its shape from the way they bounced off one another, their circumstances, and the mysteries of their unreproducible personalities.” The brilliant mathematician Charles S. Pierce first used the term in its philosophical sense, but it was William James, the philosopher and brother of novelist Henry James, who popularized it. Clearly pragmatism was an idea whose moment had come. The Civil War, Menand writes in his preface, had

swept away the slave civilization of the South, but it swept away almost the whole intellectual culture of the North along with it. It took nearly half a century for the United States to develop a culture to replace it, to find a set of ideas, and a way of thinking, that would help people cope with the conditions of modern life. That struggle is the subject of this book.

The center of that culture was pragmatism, “an account of the way people think—the way they come up with ideas, form beliefs, and reach decisions.” Pragmatism became a way of making philosophy more practical and effective, and mainly by seeing that ideas are social tools, and that “their survival depends not on their immutability but on their adaptability.” Its results could be seen everywhere in modern American life. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who would become a Supreme Court Justice and live until two days short of his ninety-fourth birthday, implemented pragmatism in his jurisprudential writings, and John Dewey, who was not an original member of the Metaphysical Club but who later knew and exchanged ideas with both James and Holmes, and who worked actively until his death in 1952, revolutionized the theory and practice of American education with a perspective he learned in part from pragmatism’s founders.

Aside from these four major figures, there are biographies of dozens of secondary characters who play important roles in Menand’s account. Chauncey Wright is perhaps the most interesting, a gifted conversationalist who was also an alcoholic and a depressive, and whose talks at the Metaphysical Club were probably the highpoint of his career. There are many others in this interesting history: the abolitionist John Brown, for example; the influential Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz; Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House in Chicago; and Alain Locke and Randolph Bourne, radical social thinkers in the first decades of the twentieth century. Likewise, the story of the rise of pragmatism incorporates a whole range of other ideas: Transcendentalism and abolitionism, for example, are central in Menand’s account of the first half of the nineteenth century, as Darwinism and racial theory become important in the second half. Menand in short uses his narrative of the...

(The entire section is 1688 words.)