By JOHN MARTIN
Author Louis Menand discussed his critically acclaimed new book, The Metaphysical Club, at the Library of Congress on May 30. Ambitious in scope, the book charts the transformation of American intellectual thought from 1865 to 1919 and traces the emergence of "pragmatism," a distinctly American philosophy based on experience and experiment rather than fixed principles.
Louis Menand is Distinguished Professor of Literature at City University of New York and a staff writer for The New Yorker. He is the author of a book on T.S. Eliot, Discovering Modernism (Oxford University Press, 1987); the editor of The Future of Academic Freedom (University of Chicago Press, 1996); and Pragmatism: A Reader (Vintage, 1997). Mr. Menand received a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University in 1980.
The Center for the Book sponsored the program as part of its "Books & Beyond" series. Director John Y. Cole introduced Mr. Menand, noting that the Library's collections are especially strong in the subject covered by the book, 19th century American intellectual and cultural history.
Mr. Menand takes a biographical approach, exploring the development of pragmatism through the lives and careers of its progenitors: Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.; psychologist William James, who popularized the term "pragmatism" and was a brother of the writer Henry James; Charles Sanders Peirce, a brilliant but self-destructive scientist and philosopher; and John Dewey, founder of the American Association of University Professors, often described as America's "first public intellectual." The book's title, The Metaphysical Club, refers to the conversational club begun by Holmes, Peirce, James and their Harvard friend Chauncy Wright in 1872.
"They used to get together at 8:30 p.m. at Holmes's house, usually with a bottle of rum," said Mr. Menand, "to argue about the meaning of life, which is something people did in 19th century Cambridge."
His brother's forays into the abstruse did not impress Henry James. "My brother," he wrote a friend, "has formed a metaphysical club; it gives me a headache just to know it."
Although the club dissolved after only nine months, its members carried the ideas germinated in those meetings into their future careers in law, academia and public life. Mr. Menand views the club "as the symbolic starting point for the deliberate re-creation of intellectual culture." Pragmatists, explained Mr. Menand, rejected the traditional philosophical approach of linked ideas, abstract and logical. As he writes in the book, "They helped put an end to the idea that the universe is an idea, that beyond the mundane business of making our way as best we can in a world shot through with contingency, there exists some order, invisible to us, whose logic we transgress at our peril."
According to Mr. Menand, the mixed experience of the Civil War provided the catalyst for the deliberate re-creation of American intellectual and cultural life. The war led to the America of today, a modern industrial and pluralistic society. Northern victory, and the triumph of the federal government, spelled the end of parochialism and permitted a territorial, commercial and industrial expansion across the continent. "The war, however," said Mr. Menand, "was also traumatic, violent and horrible beyond the expectations of those who survived it. It discredited the ideas, beliefs and assumptions of the prewar world." The devastation wrought by a clash of ideals, argued Mr. Menand, convinced Holmes, Peirce and, later, Dewey, of the need for a new, nondoctrinal approach to political and social problems.
Also known as "humanism," pragmatism, said Mr. Menand, is a kind of antifundamentalism. "It attempts to free people from the shackles of received belief systems." From this standpoint, it has been criticized as being without values or origins. The new philosophy, nevertheless, steadily gained ground in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Espoused by Dewey, it helped establish the principle of academic freedom in American universities. Its emphasis on the external causes of social problems, such as crime and poverty, is reflected in the Progressivist policies of early-20th century social reformers, such as Jane Addams. The influence of pragmatism also appears in the Supreme Court jurisprudence of Holmes, as epitomized in his 1919 dissenting opinion in Abrams v. United States. In that sedition case, Holmes defended free speech, not as a matter of individual rights, but because he believed the "marketplace of ideas" thus created to be a desirable social good. Holmes personally did not agree with the violent, Socialist content of the disputed speech, writing a friend after the ruling that he "had just defended the right of the donkey to drool."
Despite its significant impact in the first quarter of the 20th century, pragmatism, said Mr. Menand, "goes into almost complete eclipse during the Cold War. … It was not a philosophy that was attractive to a country that was leading the free world in a great ideological clash."
Mr. Martin is an examiner in the U.S. Copyright Office.