This book was so good. I discovered Menand in a New Yorker piece on higher ed, and I sought out more because I loved his writing style. Broadly, thisThis book was so good. I discovered Menand in a New Yorker piece on higher ed, and I sought out more because I loved his writing style. Broadly, this is a series of interwoven biographies of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William James, Charles Sanders Pierce, and John Dewey, with bits of Agassiz, Darwin, Pullman, Jane Addams, Chauncey Wright, Boston Brahmins, Burlington transcendentalism, abolitionism, civil war, law, and statistics all thrown masterfully into the mix. More broadly, it's an intellectual history of pragmatism in America, or as the subtitle says, "a story of ideas in America."
I should probably disclose that I'm both a pragmatist and a pluralist, so I love reading about the social, historical, and philosophical underpinnings of some of my own beliefs. But I also liked Menand's no-nonsense tone. He didn't whitewash the nasty things that even the 'nice' people said. Instead he lets the reader chew through everything, gristle and all.
It's a beast of a book, though, and may be best digested in lots of little sittings. Among other things, it definitely opened my eyes to the scale and degree of 'scientific' racism on display in mid-19th century America. (And as an aside to my animal studies friends, the passages on abolitionism make fascinating reading when read in the context of the animal abolitionist social movement of today.)
Here are some of my favorite passages (1st paperback ed., 2002):
[Discussed in the context of Agassiz's polygenism] "A way of thinking that regards individual differences as inessential departures from a general type is therefore not well suited for dealing with the natural world. A general type is fixed, determinate, and uniform; the world Darwin described is characterized by chance, change, and difference--all the attributes general types are designed to leave out. In emphasizing the particularity of individual organisms, Darwin did not conclude that species do not exist. He only concluded that species are what they appear to be: ideas, which are provisionally useful for naming groups of interacting individuals...Difference goes all the way down." (Menand 123)
"James believed that scientific inquiry, like any other form of inquiry, is an activity inspired and informed by our tastes, values, and hopes. But this does not, in his view, confer any special authority on the conclusions it reaches. On the contrary: it obligates us to regard those conclusions as provisional and partial, since it was for provisional and partial reasons that we undertook to find them. A theory good for explaining why finches have differently sized beaks in different environments has no further necessary claim on is--and maybe we will come up with a better explanation for finch beaks someday, too. The mistake is not simply endowing science with an authority it does not merit. It is turning one belief into a trump card over alternative beliefs. It is ruling out the possibility of other ways of considering the case. That there is always more than one way of considering a case is what James meant by the term (which he introduced to English-language philosophy) 'pluralism'." (Menand 143)
[Regarding Pierce, Laplace, Quetelet, and the law of errors] "...Like all appeals to natural laws as a justification for human arrangements, the "discovery" of the laws reflected the arrangements to be justified. Nineteenth-century liberals believed that the market operated like nature because they had already decided that nature operated like a market." (Menand 195)
"In criticizing the notion that "proximate cause" means anything more than "the place we choose to attach liability in this particular fact situation," [Metaphysical Club member Nicholas St. Charles] Green was not suggesting that the term is empty of truth value. He was arguing that its truth value is a function of its usefulness in sorting out the facts in the case at hand, very much as Darwin had argued that the term "species" doesn't refer to anything definitive in nature, but is nevertheless a useful way of lumping organisms together." (Menand 224)
"The politics of the dispute [between Vermont Transcendentalist James Marsh and Dartmouth's John Wheelock] were strictly academic--that is, the issues were myriad, they were interrelated in arcane ways, and they were fantastically petty." (Menand 239)
[Building up to a great back and forth between Dewey and Addams on the function of antagonism in society] "Dewey's view of the Pullman strike was consistent: he thought that whatever the outcome, it was a way..."to get the social organism thinking." The social organism had a lot to think about. For the strike showed what a tangle of contradictions and anachronisms lay in the accumulated mixture of Christian piety, laissez-faire economics, natural law doctrine, scientific determinism, and popular Darwinism that characterized many people's attitudes toward social and economic life in the decades after the Civil War." (Menand 299)
[On the buildup to Holmes's invention of the 'reasonable man' standard] "Jurisprudential theories, like theories of literary criticism or historical methodologies, are generally categorized according to the element of their subjects they take to be essential. A legal theory that stresses the logical consistency of judicial opinions is called formalist; a theory that emphasizes their social consequences is called utilitarian; a theory that regards them as reflections of the circumstances in which they were written is called historicist. The problem with all such theories is that they single out one aspect of the law as the essential aspect. It was Holmes's genius as a philosopher to see that the law has no essential aspect...Holmes thought that there were no hard-and-fast distinctions in any of these areas; he believed that the answer always boils down to a matter of degree. But he thought more: he thought that even if we were to select one imperative to trump all the others, we would still find that the consequences for any particular case were indeterminate. Principles are manipulable. Many years later, when he was on the Supreme Court, Holmes used to invite his fellow justices, in conference, to name any legal principle they liked, and he would use it to decide the case under consideration either way. "Cost-benefit-analysis" is as malleable as "rights talk." When there are no bones, anybody can carve a goose." (Menand 339)
[On Dewey's critique of epistemology] "An idea has no greater metaphysical stature than, say, a fork." (Menand 361)
"Coercion is natural; freedom is artificial. Freedoms are socially engineered spaces where parties engaged in specified pursuits enjoy protection from parties who would otherwise naturally seek to interfere in those pursuits. One person's freedom is therefore always another person's restriction: we would not have even the concept of freedom if the reality of coercion were not already present. We think of freedom as a right, and therefore the opposite of a rule, but a right is a rule." (Menand 409)
"Academic freedom and the freedom of speech are quintessentially modern principles. Since the defining characteristic of modern life is social change--not onward or upward, but forward, and toward a future always in the making--the problem of legitimacy continually arises. In a premodern society, legitimacy rests with hereditary authority and tradition; in a modernizing society, the kind of society in which Louis Agassiz and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., and Benjamin Peirce lived and wrote, legitimacy tends to be transferred from leaders and customs to nature...But in societies bent on transforming the past, and on treating nature itself as a process of ceaseless transformation, how do we trust the claim that a particular state of affairs is legitimate?...The solution has been to shift the totem of legitimacy from premises to procedures." (Menand 431)
"Holmes, James, Peirce, and Dewey were modernists; the eventual obsolescence of their work would hardly have shocked them." (Menand 439)...more
The closest I've found to a kindred philosophy to my pick-and-choose blend of various schools of moral, political, and aesthetic thought. I really lovThe closest I've found to a kindred philosophy to my pick-and-choose blend of various schools of moral, political, and aesthetic thought. I really loved this book, and I'm surprised I hadn't come across Rorty earlier....more