The Metaphysical Club Author:Louis Menand 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 ... more »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 depent -- like germs -- on their human carriers and environment. And they thought that the survival of any idea deps 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."« less
This is an extraordinarily rich account of the development of pragmatism - the basis for modern liberalism. Menand deals with topics as diverse as The Civil War, The Pullman Strike, Thermodynamics, Law, Politics, and the outcome of an inheritance dispute, and ties them all together into a synthesis of the ideas that undergird the New Deal, the Great Society, and modern liberal thought.
This is not an argument for liberalism, rather it is an account of where it cam from. Don't expect one of those political tracts that fill up the bookshelves in Borders - "Dramatic Phrase: the danger to America from ______", etc. This is thorough, academic, intelligent work that is never glib, never trite, and always engaging.
As the cover promises The Metaphysical Club truly is the story of ideas in America. It follows the arc of four great thinkers from William James to John Dewey. The reader not only participates in their developing schools of thought (i.e., James Pragmatism) but the political, historical, and cultural contexts that framed these ideas.
Personally, it was fascinating to watch the seeds of postmodernism begin to germinate in American thought very much earlier than I had realized. It was also quite enlightening to watch how great philosophical foundations are so easily torn down and built up by men who almost unfailingly have a hubris and arrogance about their own framing of truth. Many of these great thinkers propagate their ideas with the same assurance as if they were astronomers discovering new galaxies with the Hubble telescope. My nagging sense was that their ideas seemed plucked from thin air. I came away from this book with the following caution about Metaphysics in general Buyer Beware.
Lest those who identify themselves as more rationalist in their approach, this book also serves as a caution that the boundary between physics and metaphysics is not as clear as one might think and is influenced in surprising degrees by politics, culture, and sheer randomness.
For these and many other reasons, I found this book educational on so many layers. In particular, those who like history or philosophy will find this a fascinating read.