The Metaphysical Club joins the list of my favorite nonfiction books.
The book tells the story of four thinkers who helped create the intellectual foundation for modern America — Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Peirce, and John Dewey.
These thinkers, in Menand’s analysis, responded to two challenges to conventional 19th century certitudes. The writings of Charles Darwin destroyed faith in the determinist hand of the Deity in history, and also in the determinist clockwork of enlightenment science. The bloody US Civil War, in which the combination of modern weapons and premodern tactics caused horrific carnage, cast doubt on the purity of prewar sanctimonious convictions.
The response — expressed differently in the lives and works of the main characters — was American pragmatism. For Holmes, a judicial philosophy that valued circumstance above absolute principle. For Peirce, a philosophy based on probability rather than certitude. For Dewey, an educational philosophy based on the integration of thinking and doing. For James, the death of religious and scientific determinism led to an experiential take on religious experience, where the value of faith is its benefits for the mental health of the believer.
Menand tells the stories of the main characters in the context of their personal and professional biographies, with plenty of colorful, telling, and gossipy anecdotes. Peirce, who was the least successful in his lifetime, and most obscure because of the lack of institutional success, was acoholic, drug addict, depressive, and sometimes violent. Holmes held the race, gender and class preferences of his day, and helped exclude women and black students from Harvard. James took years of vacillation to make personal and professional decisions (but despite that had a dramatically successful career).
The main characters pursued their careers at a transitional time for American intellectuals. They were the last generation of semipro thinkers. They shifted between disciplines, and between university and practical life, with a flexibility lost to later generations, while they helped to build the structure of siloed, professional academia that gave scholars a measure of professional security and independence, while confining them to narrow topics and cloistered resistance to practical life.
This trajectory is similar to other charismatic figures in the early years of American modernity; John Wesley Powell, the self-educated geologist whose expeditions mapped the American West and whose institutional prowess helped create the US Geological Survey; and Frederick Law Olmsted, the self-educated pioneer of American landscape architecture who designed Central Park and helped create the field.
One of the curious omissions in the book is money; the industrialization that reshaped of the American economy during the time covered by the book; it is omitted except for the reaction of John Dewey to the Pullman strike. In the book, Dewey’s story is mostly about the development of his ideas and academic career; a different picture might emerge from a fuller review of his work. Dewey sees and responds to the creation of an American proletariat; the rest of the characters live in an insulated, upper-class world, transitioning from family money to professional academic prestige and comfort.
By contrast, the work of Henry Adams, a contemporary in the social circles of the Holmes and James families; whose autobiography is full of resentment of the nouveau riche businessmen and enterprising professionals of his generation; and the masses of immigrants crowding American cities, staffing the factories and urban stores. Adams doesn’t like industrialization, but he sees it.
The Metaphysical Club traces the rise and fall of pragmatism across American history. The contingent and qualified worldview went into eclipse during the Cold War, where aggressive certainty was seen as necessary to combat world communism; and during the triumphs of idealistic liberalism in the 1960s, when civil rights and women’s rights movements made progress because of their rejection of conventional social compromises. Pragmatic thinking rose again briefly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and is occluded again after September 11, when doubt-free confidence is in favor once again.
The core ideas of the pragmatists; pluralism, the need to protect diversity of thought, the social nature of meaning, are fundamental to American liberalism, at a time when liberal thinking seems to be eclipsed by confident, militant conservatism, which seeks to return to a pre-Darwin world of cheerful imperialism and militant moral certainty.
Menand’s training is in literature, where the mantra is “show but not tell”. This is a strange attribute for nonfiction; where the conventional principle is to explicitly state and then support a hypotheses. Compared to typical nonfiction, Menand emphasizes storytelling and de-emphasizes argument; his analysis and conclusions grow on the reader, on later association and reflection.