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The Metaphysical Club

4.06 of 5 stars 4.06  ·  rating details  ·  2,749 ratings  ·  299 reviews
The Metaphysical Club was an informal group that met in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1872, to talk about ideas. Its members included Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr, founder of modern jurisprudence; William James, the father of modern American psychology; and Charles Sanders Peirce, logician, scientist and the founder of semiotics. The club was probably in existence for about ni ...more
Paperback, 560 pages
Published February 1st 2010 by HarperCollins Publishers (first published May 1st 2001)
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Frank Stein

Although this is a supposed quadruplicate biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes Junior, Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, it’s really an unparalleled intellectual history of America from the Civil War up through the turn of the century. Thankfully it doesn’t try to be a comprehensive intellectual history, and it doesn’t try to trot out every “important” thinker of the age and analyze them for relevance. It’s mainly a circuitous and winding story of how that most American of philosophic
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Colin
Shit this is great. Wonderful history of American pragmatist thought, starting with its roots in post-Civil War America and ending with John Dewey trying to figure out how to deal with World War 1 and the build to World War 2. Pop scholarship, too, so it was a good introduction to the ideas as a whole and helped me understand what the hell pragmatism in general was about. Which, in turn, helped me understand what pragmatic thinkers were trying to get at (such as Richard Rorty). Read it if you ha ...more
Mark
The premise is that Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William James, John Dewey and, to a lesser extent, Charles S. Peirce (who is the only one of the four that I'd never heard of until I read this book) were the first intellectuals of American modernity (a phrase that seems to communicate the correct amount of portent where simply "modern thinkers" would have fallen short) and that being young men who knew each other during the American Civil War (and who travelled in the same social circles) shaped a ...more
Tbfrank
I found this book to be a fascinating and enlightening study of how certain ideas came to be prevalent in American society. The author examines the lives of four individuals whose ideas represent many of the underlying tenets of American thought: Oliver Wendall Holmes, William James, Charles S. Pierce and John Dewey. Beginning with the watershed event of the Civil War, the author shows how America changed in its institutions, its economics, its social makup, its approach to addressing and solvin ...more
Paul
This is probably the last book I bought at the now defunct Cornerstone Books in Salem, MA and that probably means nothing to you if you're just here trying to determine whether or not to read this one. Stick with me. I'm getting there. I bought it just before the birth of my daughter and began reading it in the hospital when she was born. She turns three next month. Does this suggest that I didn't thoroughly enjoy this book? Hardly. It's simply not a book that can be digested in small bite size ...more
Clif
Modernity. I've heard it mentioned so many times but have never paused to think of what it means. In this book, Louis Menard gives a simple definition. Modernity is the break from the cyclical world where one generation succeeded another by taking on the same tasks, to one where each generation is faced with a new world. Once, the son would become a farmer to replace his father. The peasant of medieval times would sire a peasant to be. Now the janitor can be father to the astronaut.

In the pre-mo
...more
Jimmy
The title of this book is misleading. There's really not a lot about the actual Metaphysical Club. Records were not kept of their meetings. The subtitle was better: A Story of Ideas in America. But I would add "at the Turn of the Twentieth Century." It was an absolutely terrific read for those of you who aren't ashamed of having a brain.

Some of the racial comments were quite disturbing. Here's one by Giddon and let that suffice: "the most superior types of Monkeys are found to be indigenous exa
...more
Betty Ho
Part history and part philosophy. This book is an eloquent biography of American intellectuals from 19th century. Boiled down, it's about Pragmatism.

Louis Menand demonstrates effectively how the foundation of modern American society ideas and principles took root through the semi-biographies of William James, Charles Peirce, Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Dewey whose paths crossed in different time and places. These pragmatists defined "thought" as an instrument or tool for prediction, action,
...more
Varad
The story Menand tells - and it is very much a story, one of the book's chief strengths - is a familiar one in modern history: the attempt to reconstruct an intellectual and cultural firmament in the wake of a cataclysm in which the previous one was destroyed. Similar attempts after the World Wars have been amply studied. Likely we will see similar explorations of European culture after the Cold War; the last chapters of Tony Judt's superlative "Postwar" preview some of the directions such inqui ...more
Douglas Dalrymple
Personally, I have a hard time getting excited about John Dewey. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr is more compelling, and the first section of Menand’s book - dealing with Holmes’s experience of the Civil War - was thrilling and powerfully reflective. It’s the figures of William James and Charles Pierce, however, that really made this book for me. I only wish it had spent more time with them. I didn't know Pierce before. Reading about James, however pleasurably, is topped (I think) by reading James hims ...more
Andrew
Mar 05, 2012 Andrew added it
Shelves: history, pragmatists
I have a habit of using philosophy books as self-help. And when I discovered the pragmatists, it was such a breath of fresh air... all of the sudden, so many variations on my general malaise became irrelevant. William James and Richard Rorty seemed to point the way to some plane of thought that was comfortable with contingency, uncertainty, and relative truth while at the same time making bold, positive statements and seeming to provide very useful ammo for dealing with the problems of the world ...more
Bruce
Considering how riveted I was with this account of the rise of pragmatism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I feel very uncomfortable giving only four stars. It's a great read, incredibly informative, and creates numerous tributaries of interest drawing one to read and study more about the milestones of thought it chronicles. The star is withheld because it has no ending, no resolution, no theory of its own to answer the theories of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, Charl ...more
Brook
I'm quite proud of myself for finally finishing this one, after 7 years on the shelf. Turns out, this intellectual history of the years between the Civil War and World War I wasn't as intimidating as I feared. There's a reason why it won the Pulitzer--Menand renders complex ideas through character and narrative, mediums I understand. Thus, not only do I think I understand pragmatism, (Ask me about chickens in boxes, pecking for pellets), I also know that William James wrote The Varieties of Reli ...more
Bob Woodley
A review of 4 major thinkers of the post civil war era: Oliver Wendell Holmes Junior, Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. It touches on the contributions of many others during the period of 1820 thru 1920. This was an era I knew almost nothing about and it was fascinating to trace the impact of the civil war and Darwin on science and philosophy.

I find it hard to understand philosophy without the historical context. James and Dewey make so much more sense once we realize they were att
...more
Erik
Jan 10, 2011 Erik marked it as to-read
Listed by NY Times as one of the best of 2001: The club was a short-lived affair begun in Cambridge, Mass., in 1872, but the ideas espoused by three members and one of their disciples became foundations of American thought in the 20th century. The four men Louis Menand concentrates on are Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William James, Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey. He argues that Darwin's ''Origin of Species,'' published in 1859, and the Civil War swept away the notion that a divine being gov ...more
Luther
This is a (successful) attempt at a reconstruction of a several synchronic slices of American thought, mostly following the Civil War. Menand focuses on four thinkers he thinks most influenced modern American gestalt before the Cold War. They include the three most familiar names in American "Pragmatism," Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, along with Oliver Wendell Holmes. Menand also considers briefly why their thought has arisen again as relevant in the twenty-first century.

Though
...more
Ron Charles
In 1776, a congress of savvy landowners in Philadelphia announced to the world (particularly to King George) that they held self-evident truths.

One hundred years later, a few misfit geniuses in Boston confessed that they could hold no truths at all. In fact, they could barely hold each other's attention.

But both groups changed the world. The first, of course, created the United States of America. The second created the modern mind.

The story of how the idea of truth could evolve from self-evident
...more
Fred R
As history, it's well done, but in its ambitions to explain the sociological origins of American Pragmatism, it falls flat. Menand seems to believe that Pragmatism was developed in horror against the (abolitionist) ideological excesses of the Civil War. In fact, as the book itself demonstrates, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was the only one capable of taking such a view of the war. To Dewey it was ancient history (and in any event his sympathies would have been with the Radical Republicans), Pierce ...more
Steve Horton
The Metaphysical Club is subtitled A Story of Ideas in America, and that is a bulls-eye description of this ambitious but ultimately accessible tour-de-force. Moving from the Civil War to the Progressive period in the US, the Metaphysical Club is populated with geniuses and demagogues, sometimes housed in the same person.

A phenomenon with which I was unfamiliar, but in the author's narrative seems obvious, is that the preamble to the Civil War and the war itself shredded existing paradigms. As
...more
Erik
Nineteenth-century American history has always been a slightly shaky issue for me. The gaping hole in my knowledge in this area is pretty much bookended between my fascination with the first three presidencies – Washington, Adams, and Jefferson – and my basic understanding of the Civil War. Oh, and there is of course my quarter-long intensive reading in nineteenth-century American literature – most notably Melville, Hawthorne, Poe (all whom I found fascinating and engrossing story-tellers), Coop ...more
Tim Pendry
This is a highly recommended work of intellectual history with major insights into the construction of the American mind. Menand's approach can be easily summarised. He takes the lives of four significant American intellectuals - William James, Charles Peirce, Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Dewey - and weaves a history around them, their associates and historical events.

The purpose is to elucidate the pragmatic turn of mind that emerged as a central element in American political and intellectual
...more
Matt
A mental workout, and one I enjoyed.
I haven't read much philosophy seriously and dipping my toes into some epistemology and other tough stuff for the first time in a long while was challenging, though Menand is a good guide.
What was fun (and thought-provoking) about the book was the way Menand strung it all together. You're marching from Oliver Wendell Holmes to William James to Charles Sanders Peirce to John Dewey with them all spiraling together but with time for detours for Alain Locke and Da
...more
Jill
The Metaphysical Club introduces the origin and early development of American Pragmatism, by contextualizing it within American modernization and by grounding its philosophical points in the biography and contributions of four key thinkers.

Since scores of other reviewers write at some length what a pleasure to read Menand’s writing style is, I’ll just add that I agree, and was not remotely surprised that Menand had a background with The New Yorker. He’s varied and readable, and doesn’t let the
...more
N.A. Ratnayake
I cannot apply a sixth star to this book, which prompts me to seriously consider re-normalizing all other ratings in my library to accommodate the fact that I was forced by the design of this site to apply only five.

The tone and vocabulary are fairly intellectual and elevated, and as a consequence the book may seem initially too dense to be of any profound value. I would recommend at least a basic awareness of the major subjects in American history (particularly Civil War and immediately followi
...more
James Askari
Menand's book is more than the sum of its parts--unlike pragmatism, that cannot conceive of beliefs or behavioural dispositions other than as part of a whole complex of continuous adaptation to the world. Its mode is not intellectual history, in that the circumstantial connections between its main figures are slender, and anyway not the book's focus. The Metaphysical Club, bringing together William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes jnr, C. S. Pierce and its catalysing and inspiring figure, Chauncey W ...more
Mommalibrarian
In the preface the author wrote, "There are many paths through this story. The one that is followed here runs through the lives of four people: Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles S. Pierce, and John Dewey." In fact the book runs through the lives of many persons whose thought presumably influenced the times and the above four. It takes each life from start to finish with brief mentions of overlaps. Because of this the time is constantly being rolled back some odd amount. The first men ...more
Austin
I enjoyed this read immensely, even if it seemed a bit underwhelming after "The German Genius." In fact, the story is largely about German-influenced American intellectuals who end up forging their own paths of fruitful inquiry, culminating in the beautiful system of pragmatism, which continues to inform much of the American approach to thought.

Some gems:

"Pragmatism belongs to a disestablishmentarian impulse in American culture-an impulse that drew strength from the writings of Emerson, who at
...more
Robert Luke
This is my second reading, the first being in 2001 when first published. Louis Menand is a writer at the New Yorker magazine and was a professor at City University at New York at the time. I like reading about the history of ideas and, as one might expect, Menand is an excellent writer. His book describes the interacting ideas of a number of what are now called public intellectuals in the 19th and early 20th century. Included are Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, Charles S. Peirce, Chau ...more
Mike Harper
I'm a lawyer. I think Oliver Wendell Holmes was a great man, a unique blend of Boston brahmin, war hero, intellectual and judge. I read this book primarily to reacquaint myself with Holmes, whom I'd met previously through his great biography, "Yankee from Olympus." Menand's treatment of Holmes is nicely done, but a little disappointing due to its brevity. If you really want to know Holmes, read "Yankee from Olympus."
So what about the remaining 350 or so pages? First, some context: my formal educ
...more
Tim
A personal and group biography following Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Peirce, and eventually John Dewey (and those in their orbit as influences and as disciples) from before the Civil War, through the changes the war wrought as well as the new developments in science and the university in the late 19th century, and into the 20th century where Holmes and Dewey lingered. Challenging and well written intellectual history.

"They all believed that ideas are not 'out there' waiting t
...more
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Louis Menand, professor of English at Harvard University, is the author of The Metaphysical Club, which won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in History. A longtime staff writer for The New Yorker, he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
More about Louis Menand...
The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University Pragmatism: A Reader American Studies The Best American Essays 2004 Discovering Modernism: T.S. Eliot and His Context

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“If you look up a word in the dictionary, you find it defined by a string of other words, the meanings of which can be discovered by looking them up in a dictionary, leading to more words that can be looked up in turn. There is no exit from the dictionary.” 6 likes
“Modernity is the condition a society reaches when life is no longer conceived as cyclical. In a premodern society, where the purpose of life is understood to be the reproduction of the customs and practices of the group, and where people are expected to follow the life path their parents followed, the ends of life are given at the beginning of life. People know what their life's task is, and they know when it has been completed. In modern societies, the reproduction of the custom is no longer understood to be one of the chief purposes of existence, and the ends of life are not thought to be given; they are thought to be discovered or created. Individuals are not expected to follow the life path of their parents, and the future of the society is not thought to be dictated entirely by its past. Modern societies do not simply repeat and extend themselves; they change in unforeseeable directions, and the individual's contributions to these changes is unspecifiable in advance. To devote oneself to the business of preserving and reproducing the culture of one's group is to risk one of the most terrible fates in modern societies, obsolescence.” 1 likes
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