The Metaphysical Club
is a non-fiction book published in 2001 by the American essayist Louis Menand. Subtitled A Story of Ideas in America
, the book chronicles the formation of The Metaphysical Club, a philosophical conversation group formed in 1872 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Prominent members of the club included future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and the American philosophers John Dewey, William James, and Charles Sanders Peirce. Profoundly influenced by the American Civil War, the group's members formed a new theory of philosophy known as Pragmatism, which rejected the tenets of European Idealists in favor of the practical application of knowledge and thought. In 2002, The Metaphysical Club
was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history.
In an effort to chronicle how the Metaphysical Club formed its belief systems, the author structures the book as a multi-part biography
of its four principal members. The section on Oliver Wendell Holmes prioritizes the jurist's military career during the Civil War as the most formative time of his life. The son of a prominent abolitionist, Holmes enlisted in the Massachusetts militia in 1861 to fight on behalf of the Union cause. Holmes participated in numerous campaigns and battles, including the notoriously bloody Battle of Antietam where he suffered grievous war wounds and witnessed the deaths of an untold number of soldiers on both sides. Deeply scarred--both physically and emotionally--by his experiences during the war, Holmes concluded that such horrific violence, even in the service of a worthwhile belief like abolitionism, must be avoided at all costs. Thus, the author writes, Holmes' war-time experience "made him lose his belief in beliefs" and "changed his view of the nature of views." That isn't to say that Holmes abandoned his disgust for slavery. Rather, the experience encouraged Holmes to find some new way of taking control of his ideas, rather than being controlled by them. He began to favor a philosophy that prioritized direct causal effects of ideas, rather than the ideas themselves, thus leading him to the notion of pragmatism.
The second part of the book focuses on the philosopher and psychologist William James. Unlike Holmes, James skipped the Civil War, refusing to join the Union Army and missing out on "the defining experience of his generation," according to the author. Instead, James had his own adventure when he accompanied the naturalist Louis Agassiz to the Amazon River to study and categorize various species of fish in Brazil. This experience, along with his studying the research of Charles Darwin, helped James formulate and refine his philosophical theory of pragmatism, according to the author. James, the book states, thought of pragmatism as the practical effects of ideas as they relate to human survival. In this sense, the Pragmatism of James and his peers was a kind of philosophical and psychological extension of Darwin's Theory of Evolution.
The book's third part covers the life and ideas of Charles Sanders Peirce. Over the course of a long but tumultuous career marked by drug addiction and bouts of poverty, Peirce nevertheless made a number of important mathematical and philosophical advancements which placed him among the top thinkers of his time. His involvement with Holmes and James in the Metaphysical Club may have helped him refine many of these ideas, according to the author. His work in statistics led him to believe that while the universe follows certain patterns, it is largely governed by randomness. Therefore, he believed that any effort to formulate some kind of unified theory of philosophy of humanity was flawed. In the absence of such a unified theory, he too favored the pragmatic approach, judging ideas by their usefulness as opposed to their consistency with one another or with existing models of thought. And unlike the thinkers of the Enlightenment, Peirce believed that nature was too chaotic to serve as the primary source of human knowledge and thought. Rather, he believed that knowledge was the result of a "social consensus."
The fourth part explores the life of the American philosopher and psychologist John Dewey. By far the youngest of the four men, Dewey "reached maturity as a thinker at exactly the moment American social and economic life was tipping over into modern forms of organization," the author writes, "forms whose characteristics reflect the effects of size: impersonal authority, bureaucratic procedure, mass markets." These societal conditions, the author argues, led Dewey to become far more involved with social activism and reform than his predecessors. Under the tutelage of the prominent, pioneering social activist Jane Addams, Dewey learned to differentiate between resistance to ideas and opposition to them. Using the tenets of pragmatism, Dewey worked to reconcile the disparate ideologies battling one another in American society in hopes of building a consensus that might bring people together in a shared vision of progress and survival.
In the book's fifth and final part, the author examines the legacy of these four thinkers and of pragmatism in general. He argues that modern conceptions of free speech and tolerance owe a great debt to the work of the pragmatists involved in the Metaphysical Club. He also notes that the very survival of America's political system may have been aided by pragmatist philosophy, writing, "The political system their philosophy was designed to support was democracy."
By describing Pragmatism through biographical details and sweeping historical narratives, The Metaphysical Club
is able to make its philosophical musings leap off the page in a way few philosophy books can manage.