American intellectuals love the higher gossip because it gives intellectual life here–ignored or sneered at by the public–a good name. Sensational anecdotes (Harvard’s Louis Agassiz getting caught in flagrante Clinton), tart one-liners (Oliver Wendell Holmes’s crack that Dewey wrote as “God would have spoken had He been inarticulate”) and stark biographical details about influential thinkers (William Lloyd Garrison’s habit of burning copies of the Constitution at his public appearances) do more than illuminate thought, explain impulses and entertain. In the right hands, they create solidarity with the rest of modern consumer and media culture, injecting the sizzle of boldface revelation into respectable scholarly work.
What red-white-and-blue-blooded man or woman of letters can resist the news that Holmes made his family practice fire drills in which the satchel with his new edition of Kent’s Commentaries on American Law was to be evacuated from the house first? Or Alice James’s verdict on her brother William that he was “just like a blob of mercury, you cannot put a mental finger upon him”–a man so pluralist all the way down that he resented the notion that everyone should spell the same way? Don’t the tales of Charles Sanders Peirce’s blatant philandering with a teen belle, his inability to finish manuscripts, his erratic disappearances when scheduled to teach, his failure to include return addresses on requests for money, the impulsive sale of his library to Johns Hopkins, his flamboyant hiring of a French sommelier to give him lessons on Medoc wine in the midst of financial chaos–provide the pizazz of a stellar film, while also giving further force to traditional questions about genius and madness?
These are our cerebral celebrities, after all. For modern American intellectuals suckled on the concrete like their everyday peers–for whom even a paragraph of “abstract” blather is a signal to put the headphones back on, grab a magazine, tune out–such perky additives are necessary. But bringing the higher gossip to American philosophy–the Death Valley of American humanities, when it comes to literary style–is a uniquely forbidding matter. For every Richard Rorty whose unabashed colloquial style reveals he’s a native speaker of American English, legions of disciplinary weenies, raised in exotic places like Pittsburgh and Palo Alto, stultify the subject by writing in a stilted English as a second jargon. To entrenched American philosophy types still bound to the flat prose of logical positivism (even after ditching its assumptions), anecdotes, biographical details and colorful examples remain a foreign rhetoric: irrelevant information properly left to bios of the canonized dead by scholars from second-rate schools, but no part of the laughable research programs of conceptual analysis they pursue.
Louis Menand enters this arid terrain with sainted credentials and connections. Having begun as a work-one’s-way-up English professor, Menand, now at City University of New York, ranks as the crossover star of his academic generation, a bi-Manhattan emissary between campus and media whose prose travels only first-class, the public intellectual whose pay per word every public intellectual envies. In the media capital of the last superpower, where thousands of professors undoubtedly think they, too, with a little Manhattan networking, could be a contributing editor (and editor heir apparent) of The New York Review of Books, or staff writer at The New Yorker, or contributor to The New Republic, Menand has actually pulled it off as he works out whether he wants to be Edmund Wilson or Irving Howe, or just Luke Menand. Let the naysayers sulk. A few years back, to the annoyance of some careerists in American philosophy, he got the nod to edit a Vintage paperback edition of classic American pragmatists despite outsider status in the field. The specialists who carped about that choice will not be happy to welcome The Metaphysical Club, unless they welcome redemption.
Here, in the major book of his career so far, Menand brings his exquisite literary and philosophical talents together to invent a new genre–intellectual history as improv jazz. In it, Alex Haley and Arthur Lovejoy seem sidemen jamming in the background as Menand samples family genealogy, battlefield coverage, popular science writing and philosophical exposition to tell “a” story (the indefinite article is key) of how pragmatism, the now consecrated philosophy of the United States, riffed its way to prominence through the art of four philosophical geniuses: Holmes, James, Dewey and Peirce. The Metaphysical Club, Menand warns in his preface, is “not a work of philosophical argument” but one of “historical interpretation.” Just so. In that respect, it belongs to the grand tradition of American intellectual history staked out by V.L. Parrington, Merle Curti, Max Lerner and Richard Hofstadter. Yet true to the pragmatist spirit, Menand aims “to see ideas as always soaked through by the personal and social situations in which we find them.” His overview of pragmatism’s evolution and triumph, told mainly through the lives of his four horsemen of absolutist philosophy’s apocalypse, integrates textured biography and superlative storytelling to an extraordinary degree (though a seeming cast of thousands get walk-on roles, too). “I had no idea, when I started out,” explains Menand in his acknowledgments, “how huge a mountain this would be to climb.” If so, he deserves a Sir Edmund Hillary Award for sustained commitment to an extreme sport. All four of the familiar figures he focuses on have been “biographied” to death, often at massive length. Menand’s excellent syntheses of secondary works and primary materials demonstrate exactly how steeped he became in the materials.
Menand’s combination of dogged historical research–almost daring the reader to dispute the representational accuracy of his story among stories–with an unapologetic literary stylishness makes The Metaphysical Club a page-turning pleasure to read. Yet it also forces one to sharply different judgments: one literary, the other philosophical (in a perhaps antiquated sense) and historical.
As a literary effort, a daring act of bringing the narrative magic of a Tracy Kidder or Tom Wolfe to thinkers who largely lived on their keisters while reading and writing intellectual prose, The Metaphysical Club is a masterpiece of graceful interpretation. Menand’s sly wit and reportorial hijinks, his clarity and rigor in making distinctions, his metaphorical gift in driving home pragmatist points make The Metaphysical Club this summer’s beach read for those who relax by mulling the sands of time. If one takes Menand at his pragmatist word–that this is just one “story of ideas in America” that does not preclude other narratives–there’s little to complain about. On a Rortyan reading of the book, the type Menand plainly invites (there’s less space between Rorty’s and Menand’s views of pragmatism than between Britannica volumes on a tightly packed shelf), the right question to ask is not “Does Menand have the story right?” but “Is this the best story for us Americans in achieving our purposes?”
At the same time, if one retains a shade of the representational approach to the world that pragmatists largely disdain–the notion that America’s intellectual history did happen one way and not another–one can’t help rejecting Menand’s fundamental organizational claim that the Civil War (as he states in his preface) “swept away almost the whole intellectual culture of the North.” It’s a belief expeditiously assumed because it smooths the post-Civil War story he chooses to tell. At one point late in The Metaphysical Club, while writing of the now largely forgotten political scientist Arthur Bentley, Menand describes James Madison as “a writer to whom Bentley strangely did not refer.” One might say almost the same, in Menand’s case, regarding the father of the Constitution, whose devices for accommodating factions in the structure of democracy were at least as pragmatically shrewd as Holmes’s neutralist dissents in jurisprudence. And one might say it in regard to Benjamin Franklin, that larger than life proto-pragmatist who gets only a single mention as the great-grandfather of one Alexander Dallas Bache. Franklin, to be sure, is not a figure helpful to Menand’s project, given the author’s premise that there was “a change in [the country’s] intellectual assumptions” because it “became a different place” after the Civil War. But a closer look at the story Menand tells helps explain why.
His method throughout The Metaphysical Club is to toss out the genetic fallacy and explain, in wonderful set pieces, how the experiences of his four protagonists drove them to the views they eventually held as magisterial thinkers. In Part One, devoted to the young Holmes, Menand thus laces the history of antebellum abolitionism and the politics of slavery through Holmes’s own trials of conscience before his Civil War service. Holmes’s story serves as a model of how Menand finds an internal pragmatist evolution in each of his leading characters. The future giant of American jurisprudence, Menand reports in graphic detail, witnessed an extraordinary amount of fighting and carnage in the Civil War. At the 1861 battle of Ball’s Bluff, he took a rifle bullet just above the heart, but survived. In 1862, at the horrific battle of Antietam, where the Union suffered 13,000 casualties, he took a bullet in the neck, but again survived. In 1863, at a battle known as Second Fredericksburg, enemy fire struck his foot. He returned to Boston and the grim reaper didn’t get him until 1935, when he was 93, a retired Supreme Court Justice and the most distinguished jurist in the country. But the war, Menand writes, “had burned a hole… in his life.”
In a notebook Holmes kept during the war, the young soldier entered a phrase to which Menand calls special attention: “It is curious how rapidly the mind adjusts itself under some circumstances to entirely new relations.” Holmes’s experiences taught him, Menand writes, that “the test of a belief is not immutability, but adaptability.” During the war, Menand maintains, Holmes “changed his view of the nature of views.”
“The lesson Holmes took from the war,” Menand continues, “can be put in a sentence. It is that certitude leads to violence.” And so even though Holmes never accepted pragmatism as his official party affiliation, believing it a Jamesian project to smuggle religion back into modern scientific thought, he’d come to share one of its tenets: rejection of certainty. The whole of his subsequent judicial life, Menand contends, became an attempt to permit different views to be democratically heard in the marketplace of ideas and policy.
Too simple? Too slim a reed to sustain the view that Holmes’s turn against certainty (exemplified by antebellum abolitionism) came as an adaptive response to a life in which certainty spurred violence–one more Darwinian twist in a story replete with Darwinian themes? Menand’s evidence is substantial. Holmes never tired of telling war and wound stories. He “alluded frequently to the experience of battle in his writings and speeches.” After his death, Menand reports, “two Civil War uniforms were found hanging in his closet with a note pinned to them. It read: ‘These uniforms were worn by me in the Civil War and the stains upon them are my blood.'”
Menand finds a similar evolution documented in James. Famously fragile in his emotions, and a legendary procrastinator, James came to believe that “certainty was moral death.” Rather, he thought, the ability and courage to bet on a conception of truth before all the evidence was in amounted to the best test of “character.” That remarkably open mind, Menand relates, grew, like Holmes’s resistance to dogmatism, out of experiences, such as the “international hopscotch” that family patriarch Henry Sr. imposed on his children’s educations by yanking them out of one school after another.
“The openness that characterized both the style and the import of his writings on pragmatism,” Menand writes of William James, “seemed to some of his followers to have been specifically a consequence of his disorganized schooling.” Similarly, James’s close work with Agassiz on the naturalist’s famous “Thayer expedition” down the Amazon in the 1860s taught James that “everything we do we do out of some interest,” a tenet crucial to pragmatism. Menand suggests that meditations on Brazilian Indians (“Is it race or is it circumstance that makes these people so refined and well bred?” James asked in a letter) may have begun James’s relational thinking. Alluding to such influences, Menand concludes, “It seems that Brazil was to be, in effect, his Civil War.”
By the time the author gets to Peirce, in Part Three, and Dewey, in Part Four, his entertaining method is in full swing. Menand portrays the pragmatism of his foursome, with their individual idiosyncrasies, as the consequence of experience-driven epiphanies, with epiphany playing the role in intellectual development that chance adaptive mutation plays in what once was considered “lower” biological development. Giraffes get longer necks–Americans get pragmatism.
Peirce proves the most challenging of Menand’s subjects because he remained unpredictable and dysfunctional. The son of Benjamin Peirce, professor of mathematics at Harvard at the age of 24 and “the most massive intellect” Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell claimed ever to have met, he had a lot to live up to. But Peirce suffered from painful facial neuralgia and turned to opium, ether, morphine and cocaine over his lifetime to ease the suffering. Violence and infidelity complicated the picture further–Peirce spent many years trying unsuccessfully to regain the brief foothold in academe he’d achieved during a short teaching stint at Johns Hopkins. With Peirce, Menand takes us through a famous nineteenth-century probate action, known as the “Howland will case,” in which Benjamin Peirce testified, with behind-the-scenes help from his son, about the probability of a forged signature. A fascinating set piece, it’s also Menand’s inspired way of backgrounding the younger Peirce’s involvement with the increasing importance of probability theory in the nineteenth century.
Peirce’s work with “the law of errors,” which “quantified subjectivity,” was just one experience that drove him to pragmatist views. In time, writes Menand, Peirce came to believe both that “the universe is charged with indeterminacy” and that it “makes sense.” He held that “in a universe in which events are uncertain and perception is fallible, knowing cannot be a matter of an individual mind ‘mirroring’ reality…. Peirce’s conclusion was that knowledge must therefore be social. It was his most important contribution to American thought.” Only in this stretch does Menand come to the title subject of his book: “The Metaphysical Club,” an informal discussion group that Peirce, James and Holmes attended for perhaps nine months in 1872. There the idea that Menand considers a central link among the three, and fundamental to pragmatism–that ideas are not Platonic abstractions but tools, like forks, for getting tasks accomplished in the world–took articulate form for the first time. Here, as elsewhere, Menand evokes the atmosphere and supporting actors of the setting through fine orchestration of detail. He smoothly recovers the mostly forgotten Chauncey Wright, another man who learned in the Civil War that “beliefs have consequences.” Wright used weather as his favorite example, and the “notion of life as weather” became his emblematic position.
Finally, in exploring Dewey in Part Four, Menand follows pragmatism’s clean-up hitter from Vermont childhood to early academic stints at Hopkins, Michigan and Chicago. Menand’s two-tiered approach falters a bit here. When the camera is on Dewey, we see him wrestling with issues of Hegelianism and laissez-faire individualism, and drawing lessons from his laboratory school at Chicago (“if philosophy is ever to be an experimental science, the construction of a school is its starting point”). He gets the de rigueur epiphany–the evil of antagonism among social factions–personally from Jane Addams. He absorbs moral insights offered by the Pullman strike and articulates his own great priority within pragmatism, on democracy as a matter of social participation and cooperation, not just numbers and majorities. But here Menand’s characteristic deep backgrounding, particularly on the genesis of the “Vermont transcendentalism” that was more conservative than the Boston variety, seems overmuch. For all of Menand’s literary deftness, we sometimes wonder, when taking in the variations on French figures like Laplace, or Scottish ones like Robert Sandeman, whether we’re listening to a wonderful stretch of intellectual exotica–fine improvisational solos–or music crucial to the story. At the same time, one of the book’s undeniable pleasures is Menand’s voyages into the estuaries of nineteenth-century intellectual history, from Agassiz’s endorsement in the 1850s of polygenism (the claim that races were created separately, with different and unequal aptitudes), to the work of the Belgian mathematician Adolphe Quetelet, “a brilliant promoter of statistical methods” who called his approach “social physics.” Menand’s accounts of nineteenth-century America’s intellectual debates, like his sketches of Darwinian thinking and its social ramifications, are models of efficient summary.
Their net effect, of course, is to show that pragmatist concepts–opposition to certainty, evolution toward probabilistic modes of thought–were in the air, and his four protagonists breathed deeply. To Menand’s credit, given the compass of this biographical and sociological work, he keeps his eye on the enduring subject–pragmatism as a distinct mode of thought–showing the family resemblance in pragmatist epiphenomena of the time, from proximate cause in law to statistical understanding of the role of molecules in heat. His superbly syncretic summary, late in the book, of what he’s found sounds less sweeping than the claims in his preface:
Pragmatism seems a reflection of the late nineteenth-century faith in scientific inquiry–yet James introduced it in order to attack the pretensions of late-nineteenth century science. Pragmatism seems Darwinian–yet it was openly hostile to the two most prominent Darwinists of the time, Herbert Spencer and Thomas Huxley…. Pragmatism seems to derive from statistical thinking–but many nineteenth-century statisticians were committed to principles of laissez-faire James and Dewey did not endorse…. Pragmatism shares Emerson’s distrust of institutions and systems, and his manner of appropriating ideas while discarding their philosophical foundations–but it does not share his conception of the individual conscience as a transcendental authority.
“In short, pragmatism was a variant of many strands in nineteenth-century thought,” writes Menand, “but by no means their destined point of convergence. It fit in with the stock of existing ideas in ways that made it seem recognizable and plausible: James subtitled Pragmatism ‘A New Name for Old Ways of Thinking.'” So maybe it’s not true that the Civil War “swept away almost the whole intellectual culture of the North.” That judicious modesty makes it easier to note some of the oddities of Menand’s choices, especially given the bold leaps he takes to find pragmatist principles in areas of knowledge far afield from traditional philosophy. Some, considering the prominent space and harsh spotlight he devotes to discussions of slavery and racism by nineteenth-century thinkers like Agassiz, are regrettable.
At times, for instance, Menand can seem more interested in patricians for patricians’ sake–or Boston Brahmins for Brahmins’ sake–than the tale requires. It’s easy to feel that a story with more nineteenth-century black and feminist thinkers, and fewer Northeastern gentlemen, would be a better tale for understanding the development of American thought. Menand’s maverick status with regard to philosophy, welcome in his syntactic verve and enthusiasm for complex biographical explanation, perhaps intimidated him in this regard. As an outsider, he arguably stays too respectful of professional philosophy’s ossified white-man pantheon of American philosophy, despite the canon wars of his own field. Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for instance, ought to be recognized as part of the pragmatist tradition, whether they have been formally or not.
Yet while Menand briefly mentions Delany and his troubles in being accepted at Harvard, he presents him more as a victim (which he was) than a thinker. More happily, Menand does devote respectful attention to the black pragmatist Alain Locke late in the book. But the biggest surprise is that W.E.B. Du Bois, who surfaces about 400 pages into the book, gets short shrift–four pages. Du Bois’s famous articulation, at the beginning of The Souls of Black Folk, of the question black people silently hear asked of them by too many whites–“How does it feel to be a problem?”–provocatively inverted the pragmatist problematic in a way Dewey and James never fully pondered in their model of (white) agents facing their environments: the problem of being a problem to others. One imagines Menand could have made fascinating arabesques out of that peculiarity.
Then, finally, there is the Franklin problem. It’s often forgotten, in an era when Franklin’s face stands for thrift and prudence in bank ads, that his reputation, as John Adams wrote in the early nineteenth century, was “more universal than that of Leibnitz or Newton, Frederick or Voltaire,” that Jefferson viewed him as “the father of American Philosophy” and Hume agreed. Is a thinker who wrote in his Autobiography in 1784 that “perhaps for Fifty Years past no one has ever heard a dogmatical Expression escape me” far from pragmatism? In his emphases on experience, experimentation and community, Franklin was the proto-pragmatist par excellence. Even in the free-jazz genre of intellectual history, his absence is a large lacuna.
Pragmatism, however, offers special benefits to authors and reviewers. Once one abandons the idea that we mirror the world exactly with our stories, and takes the nervier view that we tell stories about it that may be good for us in the way of belief, the kind of criticism made here–that Franklin, Madison, Delany and other thinkers merit membership in that ironically named “Metaphysical Club”–assumes its humble place. The greater accomplishment–Menand’s–is to show that powerfully experienced consequences form beliefs, that beliefs form consequences and that the whole circular process of life teems with blood and pain and laughter that expose the abstract approach of much professional philosophy for the self-interested charlatanism it is. Writing to his father about Agassiz, William James observed that “no one sees farther into a generalisation than his own knowledge of details extends.” Accepted as a truism rather than a rebuke, the insight suggests that questions about Menand’s choices represent rival stories–what James might have seen as another pluralist tale seeking airtime. Judged by the latter’s standards–what difference it makes if this or that worldview is true–The Metaphysical Club casts a vast, brilliant light on the human subtleties of America’s most influential philosophical achievement. It’s a feast of canny wisdom and sophisticated entertainment, and one hopes Menand’s already privileged position in the intellectual elite, and the envy of the specialists, won’t muffle the sounds of celebration.