Review of <em>The Metaphysical Club</em>

Menand, Louis. The Metaphysical Club. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001. 546 pages. ISBN: 0374528497.

Most self-described intellectuals have joined a discussion club at some time or another. Though a few intellectual clubs have left their mark, such as the Holy Club of John and Charles Wesley or the Inklings of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein, most groups disband, leaving behind few records and even less influence. Scarcely any informal gathering of intelligentsia can claim to have promulgated a new philosophy that remade a nation.

But that influence is what Louis Menand claims for the Metaphysical Club, a gathering of intellectuals in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1872. Started by Chauncey Wright, a brilliant, talkative, but shiftless philosopher of science, the club claimed as members Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William James, and Charles Sanders Peirce, among others. Their name was a joke, though a bitter one, for the members all hated metaphysics. The record of the club is scanty—it is mentioned only in a letter by James and an unpublished work by Peirce—and its life short, but from that circle of thinkers originated pragmatism. By his title Menand means not just the club proper but all the connections among the pragmatists. For example, the fourth member of the broader club is John Dewey, who was a boy in New Hampshire during the club’s existence but who later showed the influence of pragmatism.

The idea that a club of intellectuals could have such broad influence is thrilling (at least, for intellectuals), but Menand traces their influence back to a more fundamental and pervasive cause: the Civil War. Though the Civil War caused few changes in government compared to, say, the English Civil War, it did give rise to the new philosophy of pragmatism. Menand’s thesis is that in shattering the lives of Americans, the Civil War shattered not just the ideas that provoked the war but the very idea of what ideas are.

Pragmatism’s definition is familiar, and in defining it Menand does not break any new ground. The Civil War proved to pragmatists that ideas can fail, and had. Only ideas that worked, as judged by society, could claim to be true. To put it metaphysically, as the pragmatists would not, ideas have no independent ontological reality; to quote Menand, “Ideas are not ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered, but are tools—like forks and knives and microchips—that people devise to cope with the world in which they find themselves” (xi).

Menand’s genius is his ability to explain pragmatism though biography. Most of the book describes the lives of Holmes, James, Peirce, and Dewey. Each is the subject of a major section of the book; only the last section deals topically with pragmatism’s implications. Menand describes a host of other thinkers too: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Chauncey Wright, Louis Agassiz, Learned Hand, W. E. B. DuBois, and Franz Boas, to name just a few. He argues implicitly that pragmatism cannot be understood apart from the lives of the pragmatists. Menand’s method fits the pragmatists, for they thought ideas were not higher metaphysical reality but a means of managing life.

Menand’s sketch of Holmes is perhaps his best, and so it is a suitable example of his method. Holmes rejected the anti-abolitionism of his father and broke Harvard College’s regulations so that he could join the Union Army—he volunteered to serve an idea. That idea produced horrific consequences, however, as Holmes experienced war’s suffering. Holmes’s friend Henry Livermore Abbott proved his valor despite being an open Copperhead, and Holmes concluded that one could do his duty divorced from his ideas. Menand brilliantly reconstructs how Holmes reconsidered his philosophy in a hospital after being wounded at Ball’s Bluff; Holmes concluded that he needed no religion and forsook his former beliefs. Holmes was reacting against the war but also against transcendentalism and abolitionism—the ideas that caused it. Menand concludes, “The lesson Holmes took from the war can be put in a sentence. It is that certitude leads to violence” (61). Holmes famously wrote, “In our youths, our hearts were touched with fire,” and Menand has showed how.

Menand demonstrates how the lives of the other philosophers provoked their philosophies too. He marshals in support such disparate episodes as James’s expedition to Brazil with celebrity scientists Louis Agassiz, Peirce’s testimony about probability in a cause célèbre over a forged will, and Dewey’s struggles with New Hampshire transcendentalism and Hegelianism. Since Holmes was the only one who fought in the Civil War, Menand’s connection between war and the Metaphysical Club is clearest with him, but he extends the connection to his other three main subjects too.

Pragmatism influenced many fields, but Menand seems to cover them all. In discussing Supreme Court justice Holmes, Menand explains the influences of his philosophy on his jurisprudence. Holmes argued that law was not what judges discover but what judges make it. Holmes thus tried to preserve individuals’ right, lest the certitude of any group destroy the nation. He also favored judicial restraint, on the theory that judges could be no more certain of justice than the legislatures. A large part of Menand’s book is given to discussing science and mathematics. He finds mathematical principles of statistics and probability, such as the law of errors, to have been an important influence on Pierce’s pragmatism. Another area that science influenced was racism. Menand’s explanations of the different theories of monogenism and polygenism and how evolution led to racism are among the more enlightening parts of his book. Menand also touches on religion in relation to James’s famous The Varieties of Religious Experience, education in relation to Dewey’s attempts at educational reform, and academic freedom in relation to Dewey’s involvement with the American Association of University Professors.

If any criticism can be made of Menand’s work, it is that his pragmatists are too similar. I do not mean that his biographical sketches are the same—they are all masterful—but that his pragmatists hold essentially similar philosophies. Their similarities, however, did not preclude philosophical differences. Menand points out, for example, that James was willing to give place to religion so long as that idea worked for the individual, but Holmes could make no room for religion. What Menand does not point out is that Dewey had real differences with Holmes, James, and Peirce: first, he never completely shook off his early Hegelianism, and second, he lived so much longer into the twentieth century than the others that he was subjected to a great many different influences.

But to pursue this criticism too far is to mistake Menand’s purpose. Menand never purports to offer a nuanced philosophical discussion of pragmatism (and the reader is doubtless grateful). Rather he seeks to explain historically how the Civil War changed how Americans thought about ideas. At that he has succeeded.