Steve Horton's Reviews > The Metaphysical Club

The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand
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Jun 12, 11

Read from June 04 to 10, 2011

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 Menand tells it, the intellectual culture of the North was swept away. The four luminaries around which the rest of the book orbits are Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Dewey, William James and Charles Pierce. In a retelling that rivals fiction, their lives and ideas are as intertwined as a mangrove swamp.

Although it is so much more, The Metaphysical Club (the title is derived from the eponymous clubs that Pierce started in his academic wanderings) is a history of pragmatism (the philosophy that the function of thought is to guide action, and that truth is to be tested by the consequences of belief) that Pierce formulated, and James took to his bosom. Pragmatism is the thread that binds these extraordinary gentlemen together. Its development was nutured by a disestablishmentarian impulse during the Civil War, then the development of evolutionary theories later. Along the way, the fields of anthropology, sociology, psychology, and a host of minor disciplines were born, making this an incredibly fecund period in American history.

Among the more incredible biographies in the book is the story of Louis Agassiz, the founder of modern anthropology. Agassiz exploded on the Boston intellectual scene in the mid-1800's. Through his charm and powers of persuasion, he was able to establish a new academic appointment for himself at Harvard, and wring $100,000 from the Massachusetts Legislature for a Museum of Comparative Zoology. And with these resources firmly in hand, Agassiz committed his life to spreading his thesis that although blacks and whites were of the same species, they had different origins. At this time in American history, this is exactly what a lot of people wanted to hear. Backed with the full weight of the most cherished US academic institution behind him, Agassiz spends his life lecturing on his meretricious polygenism.

For me, the Story of Ideas was also a story of missed opportunities. If a few of the intelligensia in this history had the courage and foresight to treat race issues differently, the antebellum period of our history could have been a glorious fork that paved the way for an empowerment of black Americans, whose contributions over the past century could have been immeasurable to our science, education, philosophy, whatever. Instead, we have a legacy of Jim Crow, Dred Scott, Plessy v. Ferguson- decisions which the most learned men and institutions of their time fully endorsed.

I do not want to distract from the many layers of this educating, enlightening, and sometimes dense Pulitzer Prize winning work by focusing on one issue, but I read in horror how the greatest minds of the time totally bungled the race issue, and unfortunately left decades of human detritus in its wake. I can only hope we can do better with immigration.

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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by William (new)

William Oh, very erudite! Be sure to write down your comments.


Steve Horton just trying to keep up with you, William!


message 3: by William (new)

William Impressive review. Makes me want to read it. But tell me, how abstract does it get? I have a low tolerance for the abstract scramble of most philosophy.


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