he Metaphysical Club, a group that discussed philosophical questions, held its first meeting in January 1872, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One of numerous social and discussion gatherings where intellectual work was done before universities assumed that role, it disbanded after nine months. The club was not even identified by name until 1907, when one of the participants, Charles S. Peirce, the philosopher-logician who coined the term "pragmatism," referred to it in an unpublished manuscript.
The group included two men who were to have a major impact on American thought for years to come: William James in psychology and philosophy and future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in law. The pivotal figure, though, was Chauncey Wright, a freelance thinker who wrote book reviews, whose role model was Socrates and who seemed to live for serious conversation. From their probing explorations over the years emerged an understanding about ideas and the philosophy we know as pragmatism. Their intellectual heir, John Dewey, was America's most influential public intellectual for the first half of the 20th century.
Pragmatism, which emphasizes that ideas should never become ideologies and that skepticism and tolerance are crucial, developed out of many strands of 19th century thought. In his enlightening new book, The Metaphysical Club, New York University English professor Louis Menand, who also writes for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, follows these men whose search for a new way of looking at things in the years following the Civil War led them to question many assumptions of their culture and to find better ways to deal with the challenges of modern society. What James, Holmes, Peirce and Dewey "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 . . . 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. . . . 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 on their adaptability."Menand traces the individual routes to this conclusion. Holmes, for example, was the only one of the four who fought in the Civil War. He was wounded and saw friends killed. "The lesson Holmes took from the war can be put in a sentence," Menand writes. "It is that certitude leads to violence." But most human beings had certitude about something. Democracy, Holmes believed, is what should keep competing conceptions from becoming violent. Holmes lived until 1934, and the chief struggle in that period was between capital and labor. The author writes, "Nearly every judicial opinion for which he became known constituted an intervention in that struggle, and his fundamental concern was almost always to permit all parties the democratic means to make their interests prevail."James used Peirce's term to identify his own views when he "invented pragmatism that is, he named his own philosophical views after a principle Peirce had published 20 years earlier in an article, based on his Cambridge Meta-physical Club paper, called 'How to Make Our Ideas Clear' in order to defend religious belief in what he regarded as an excessively scientific and materialistic age."Menand's book is part biography, part intellectual history and part demonstration of the interplay of ideas, personalities and cultural context. The author conveys all of this with a sure hand, guiding the reader through what may be unfamiliar territory. In addition, he shows how discussions long ago continue to influence our society today. For this reviewer, The Metaphysical Club was sheer pleasure.
Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.