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The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  3,766 Ratings  ·  389 Reviews
The Metaphysical Club is the winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for History.

A riveting, original book about the creation of modern American thought.

The Metaphysical Club was an informal group that met in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1872, to talk about ideas. Its members included Oliver Well Holmes, Jr., future associate justice of the United States Supreme Court; William J
ebook, 384 pages
Published April 10th 2002 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published May 1st 2001)
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Frank Stein
Jul 28, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

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
Denying the Privilege and Presumption of Power

Philosophy is, more often than it likes to admit, a response to traumatic political events. It is therefore frequently less about the concepts it makes explicit - knowledge, truth, correct action - than it is about dealing with the lingering consequences of profound social upset. The Metaphysical Club documents this thesis in its analysis of the roots of American Pragmatism.

Few might recognise today that the various schools of American Pragmatism ass
Brad Lyerla
Jan 28, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
Pragmatism is uniquely American. It is America's only home-grown school of philosophy. THE METAPHYSICAL CLUB is Louis Menand's award-winning book about the emergence of pragmatism as a distinct school of thought. The book's vehicle for describing the early decades of pragmatism is a discussion of a group of thinkers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who participated in a loosely organized club that, in fact, called itself "The Metaphysical Club". The participants developed the founding principles of ...more
Jun 02, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Josh Friedlander
Popular philosophical history doesn't get better than this - rigorous (a good hundred pages of footnotes meticulously back up every quote and incident) and not shy on depth, but still enormously readable. Menand combines fascinating personal anecdotes with the political and intellectual history of the time to create a seamless flow of thought, moving logically from one idea to another. (In fact, if there's any criticism to be made of this book, it's that in making everything fit so perfectly, it ...more
Oct 30, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jun 25, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: philosophy
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
Jan 29, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jun 02, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.

Jul 06, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 08, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: pulitzer, nonfiction
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
Jay Green
Sep 21, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Really enjoyed this informative, illuminating, and well-written history of Pragmatism. A handy introduction for lay readers to the quintessential American philosophy (surely that's consumerism. [Ed.]).
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
Feb 09, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Ron Charles
Dec 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Betty Ho
Jun 17, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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,
Douglas Dalrymple
Jan 14, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 17, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
May 11, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Tara Brabazon
Dec 09, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A fine intellectual history of modernity and modernist thinkers: Holmes, James, Peirce and Dewey. This book demonstrates the incredible richness of American intellectual life before the Cold War, and what we have lost.
Sep 01, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is a popular attempt at an intellectual history of the birth of American prgamatism. Rather than a detailed history, however, the story is told through four biographies of tfour key figures: Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey. Three of the four were linked to a discussion weekly discussion group in Cambridge, Mass. in the early 1870s. Dewey, although too young to be a member is included because he was intellectually linked with other members of ...more
Menand argues the civil war and Darwin gave rise to a pragmatic scientific culture. If only they had ended Puritan moralizing and Transcendentalist spirituality.
Jan 05, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Steve Horton
Jun 04, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 10, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
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
Jan 10, 2011 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 25, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Louis Menand is a literary's more than that. He's the ultimate academic - someone who can bring seemingly disparate elements of what it means to be human ( i.e. the elements of life, living and death) and tie it all together. All knowledge actually relates to other areas of knowledge as it is, Menand just knows how to articulate it in the accessible way that only a distinguished English professor could.

This is an intellectual history of America from the 19th and 20th centuries.
Fred R
Feb 19, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Bob Woodley
Aug 17, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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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
“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.” 9 likes
“The lesson Holmes took from the war can be put in a sentence. It is that certitude leads to violence. This is a proposition that has an easy application and a difficult one. The easy application is to ideologues, dogmatists, and bullies—people who think that their rightness justifies them in imposing on anyone who does not happen to subscribe to their particular ideology, dogma, or notion of turf. If the conviction of rightness is powerful enough, resistance to it will be met, sooner or later, by force. There are people like this in every sphere of life, and it is natural to feel that the world would be a better place without them.” 4 likes
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