The Metaphysical Club. Louis Menand.

Menand, Louis. The Metaphysical Club. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2001. NF; 12/19.

I went looking for more by Menand after being impressed with his precision and humour in a couple of New Yorker articles, and so dove into this “Story of Ideas in America”, only to have to swim like hell because I was out of my depth. The book deals with four famous late-19th century Americans: Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Pierce and John Dewey, and how along with the other members of the “Club” (Chauncey Wright, John Fiske, Francis Abbot, Nicholas Green, and Joseph Warner — Dewey was 20 years younger than most of the rest and I don’t think he actually met with the Club) defined and made influential the philosophical ideology known as pragmatism, also the title of a book by James.

The time covered is about 55 years, from the start of the American Civil War (1861) to the start of World War I in 1914, with comments on the influence of pragmatism through to the end of the 20th century. Large sections of the book deal with the lives and ideas of those four principal characters.

Holmes was wounded in the Civil War, and became a US Supreme Court Justice and Acting Chief Justice of the United States, late in his life. Menand says that the War made Holmes “lose his belief in beliefs”, and fixed in his mind “a certain idea about the limits of ideas”. This introduces one of the great changes in American thought that was at the heart of pragmatism, stated this way by Pierce: “Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.” (italics mine). I think this means that the reality available to humans of anything consists entirely in its possible practical effects.

This idea, in line with developments in science going on at the same time (the invention of statistics and Darwin’s natural selection for example) flew in the face of usual contemporary thinking that started from Platonic, including religious, ideas and proceeded to show how reality instantiated them. Holmes the lawyer and judge, to emphasize the reversal of that process, said of the common law that its merit is that “it decides the case first and determines the principle afterwards”.

William James was the brother of novelist Henry James, and was not educated in conventional elite academic circles of his time. Menand says that this “not only lent passion to his convictions but—something even more useful—made it easier for him to ignore those convictions when he felt them beginning to operate as prejudices”. We are told that “he ended up inventing a philosophy, pragmatism, that is supposed to enable people to make good choices among philosophical options.” He was a psychologist, influenced by religious paleontologist Louis Agassiz with whom he collected samples in the Amazon River, but also by Charles Darwin. His pragmatic conclusion favoured Darwin: supernatural intelligence doesn’t exist, so forget as Menand says “the idea that the universe is the result of an idea.”

It seems the most original intellect of the four main historic characters, Charles Pierce, suffered from painful facial neuralgia and through that developed opioid addiction. His “philosophical difficulties, though he faced them with genius, (were) exacerbated by professional difficulties which, because they stemmed in part from a temperamental idiosyncrasy, he could never overcome. But he left behind many brilliant insights on his road to unsuccess.” He opposed the nominalism that, it could be argued, is consistent with pragmatism, that is the idea that “reality is just one unique thing after another, and that general truths about those things are simply conventions of language, simply names”, believing that there must be things in the universe to which our names – or generalizations – correspond, and that we are approaching a more perfect understanding of these, by evolution.

John Dewey, two decades younger than the rest of the main characters, developed from an educator, in which field he applied pragmatic philosophy, into a philosopher in his own right. His famous Laboratory School in Chicago pioneered the progressive belief that children should not have information fed to them as passive recipients, but that they learn best if they are active participants in putting together their own worldview by interacting with reality. Dewey was a social activist, and Menand says of Dewey’s philosophical orientation that as “liberalism stands for an opposition to the reproduction of hierarchies—political, social, cultural, and even conceptual—Dewey was probably as liberal a thinker as the United States has produced.” We take it that Louis Menand also considers himself progressive and socially democratic: left-of-center, not to put too fine a point on it.

Along the way in describing the thinking of the four principal characters, we recognize also the ideas of Emerson, Darwin, Kant, and of some of the characters of the famous Vienna Circle in the early 20th century.

Here are a few of my highlighted quotes (of Menand):

There is intelligence in the universe: it is ours. It was our good luck that, somewhere along the way, we acquired minds. They released us from the prison of biology (and) everything human beings do by intelligence rather than instinct, any course of conduct they choose when they might have chosen differently, is a moral action (reverse italics mine).

Here we happily hop across the mind-body problem assuming free will. Fair enough, but the first sentence implies “… it is only ours”: there’s no other (“alien”) intelligence, and pragmatism as Menand sees it has thrown away the idea that “the universe is the result of an idea”, so no unmoved mover: no God (not to put too fine a point on it). I’d have gone a little gentler: “The only instance of intelligence in the universe everybody can be fairly sure of is ours.” One of pragmatism’s loveliest features is humility: just act as though our conception of effects which might conceivably have practical bearings is the whole of our conception of the object, and we won’t go far wrong, recognizing and emphasizing our terrifying limitations. “Our conception”.

Nineteenth-century liberals believed that the market operated like nature because they had already decided that nature operated like a market.

Green thought that all beliefs have this purposive character—that knowledge is not a passive mirroring of the world, but an active means of making the world into the kind of world we want it to be—and this was a point he insisted on in meetings of the Metaphysical Club… He often urged the importance of applying Bain’s definition of belief as ‘that upon which a man is prepared to act’

Though it is always in view while you are thinking, “what is right” is something that appears in its complete form at the end, not the beginning, of your deliberation.

Reading this book with my partial understanding of history and philosophy pulled me into certain other lines of thinking. The invention of statistics in the late 19th century paradoxically (and arguably theoretically) appeared to create precision from approximation, and of course statistics powers epidemiology, the science of medicine. There was a profound influence of Darwin’s “dangerous idea” on philosophical and religious thought, not just on biology. And this “story of ideas” dealt with other questions: How legitimate and generally beneficial is the authority of academic scientists and other tenured professors? Is reality general or particular? Are generalities real (did they exist before minds appeared), or just human instruments? And finally do statistics and Darwinism, along with particle physics and artificial intelligence, justify philosophical materialism?

And then Menand seems to step back from the brink of that philosophy. He did after all take the time and trouble to write this book: “in the post-Cold War world, where there are many competing belief systems, not just two, skepticism about the finality of any particular set of beliefs has begun to seem to some people an important value again.” (emphasis mine). Pragmatism may have, along with Viennese logical positivism, been superseded in the late 20th century by a tsunami of metaphysical doubt and a resurgence of fundamental religious certainty, but through its simplicity, humility, and focusing on practical solutions it may point a way to escape the political and social polarity that we can’t otherwise seem to get past. Menand here sounds like he’s saying it would now be safer and smarter to be more centrist or “pragmatist” than for example John Dewey in the mid-20th-century, or either the radical left (gender is a construct, every reference to a minority group is cultural approbation, politically incorrect speakers should be banned in universities) or the radical right (climate change is a hoax, gun-control threatens liberty, and white Anglo-Saxon males are superior to everyone else). I think he’s on the right track.

I’d say you need to be interested in cultural and intellectual history and have a bit of enthusiasm for philosophy to find this book stimulating and to manage to swim all the way through it with a sense of having gotten to some further shore. I made it across the channel all right but haven’t yet found anything I can call fully coherent on other side.


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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