The Metaphysical Club
By Louis Menand
A remarkable historical perspective on changing ideas.
Review by Bruce McKinney
The Metaphysical Club was a short lived group in the early 1870s that met in Cambridge, Massachusetts "to discuss alternative intellectual, philosophical, and historical perspectives that in time became pragmatism, a movement of varying but associated theories and distinguished by the doctrine that the meaning of an idea or a proposition lies in its observable practical consequences." In other words, leave the ice box door open and the ice cream melts. We are all neo-pragmatists today because we have learned to see the results on television and jump to conclusions, with the aid of paid flacks that stalk the network sets to offer fifteen second interpretations. We no longer read or comprehend and we certainly no longer need to think. Stupid is in. America digests what TV barflies vomit and we prance about with these conclusions without having to understand anything. It is now enough just to begin with conclusions and select facts to fit. But it hasn't always been that way.
Two hundred years ago intellectuals focused on explaining the world they inhabited. The focus was on knowing and the brain was a keyboard of white keys. While life was short and uncertain religion filled in blanks. Explanation focused on experience and that which could not be explained, was consigned, with a leap of faith, to the "other side" where belief is the currency of the realm. The prevailing theory was essentially that a supernatural intelligence existed and that the universe was the result of an idea. The God you worshipped was its author. Scientific predication, the handmaiden of more modern theory, was only beginning to come on the scene.
Along the way advocates and apologists developed theories to explain why their kind were up and other people were down. Absent scientific certainty to extinguish bizarre theories many unsubstantiated ideas found adherents and support. Many such ideas became the waist around which the hula-hoops of explanation revolved - always with tiring effect. White people took comfort in Lamarck's theory of progressive adaptation which in simple language said acquired information is heritable. White people had more knowledge and passed it on thereby maintaining and increasing their advantage over other races. Oh well. No one with teenagers of any color is able to confirm this theory.
By the time Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of Species in 1859 the world of the explicables was quickly increasing and the unknowns and inexplicables, the residual left for religion to explain, shrinking. Darwin sought to establish that all living things evolve by natural selection effectively moving a significant percentage of hitherto imponderables into the science category. God wasn't yet dead but he was headed for under-employment.
The Metaphysical Club
By Louis Menand
This book is widely recommended.
By 1890, when William James published his Principles of Psychology, the black keys were identified on the keyboard. The brain was divided left and right and emotions and feelings given seats at the table. Facts and experience would have their place but they would share the stage with emotions whose origins ands meanings would prove to be infinitely more complex than the infinite adding machine tapes of facts in the right brain.
Out of the recognition that the mind is an interleaving of fact and feeling arose pragmatism which ought, and today still seeks, to explain and reconcile what we know with what we feel. Its principal television advocate is Dr. Phil and he spends 52 minutes of every televised hour connecting feelings to rules.
The second half of the book sees this emerging philosophy put into action in the words and actions of John Dewey and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
For me the interesting story is in the development of pragmatic theory. It was an enormous, if gradual, intellectual conversion and discovery made possible by the incremental contributions of many thinkers and is as defined by what it clearly was not as by what it came to be understood to be. The quickly changing facts of the nineteenth century demanded a theory to explain them and pragmatism emerged as the logical box big enough to encompass and contain them. Of course, had the facts been different, the theory too would have been different for it is defined, understood and explained by the events and facts of the moment. In other words it is philosophical reverse-engineering.
Where does that leave us today? In an apparently precarious place but at least we have a theory to explain it.
Read this book and draw your own conclusions. Feel free to disagree with me. This book will make you think. I've read 500 or so books over the past 10 years and I'd put this one in the top 10.
The Metaphysical Club was written by Louis Menand who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for history for this work in 2002. It is available in hardcover and paperback online and at bookstores around the world.