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The Metaphysical Club

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  4,492 ratings  ·  472 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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Oct 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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
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
Brad Lyerla
Jan 28, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
robin friedman
Sep 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing
How Ideas Matter In America

Louis Menand's "The Metaphysical Club" is a rare book which manages to be both scholarly and popular. As a popular work, it offers an accessible exposition of complex ideas and thinkers. On a more scholarly level, the book succeeds because it awakens in the reader an appreciation of the scope of intellectual life in the United States and a desire to understand and to perpetuate it.

The key figures in "The Metaphysical Club" include the great American jurist Oliver Wende
Jun 02, 2012 rated it liked it
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
Oct 30, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
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
Aug 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is such a brilliant and thoughtful book. I came here after reading Louis Menand's slash and burn review of Fukuyama's new Identity book. The review was excellent and I was curious about Menand's own thoughts. What's fascinating about this book is that it just sort of starts. It doesn't have a build up or an intro and it doesn't tell you what it's going to be about. It's about America and philosophy and law. I learned so much and was spellbound the whole time. ...more
Jan 29, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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.

Jun 25, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 27, 2012 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
Jul 06, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
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
May 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
A dense and fascinating history of the often-overlooked period of American history between the Civil War and World War I through the lens of ideas. Menand essentially wrote a philosophical history of America at the dawn of the 20th century, and you can see why it won the Pulitzer Prize: It’s detailed and thorough, bringing together numerous threads, including science, philosophy, theology, politics and race.

The flip side of that thoroughness is length; the book is long, and I wasn’t always sure
Sep 08, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Todd Stockslager
Jun 09, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Massively disappointing. The result is much smaller than the subject. What purports to be a synthesis of the intellectual ideas percolating change throughout American culture between the Civil War and World War I is instead a rambling collection of random facts without a thesis or a logical argument to prove it.

Menand pulls in seemingly random tangential people and circumstances, writing without discipline or direction. The disappointment is the greater because of the importance of the subject--
Jay Green
Sep 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
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.]). ...more
Ron Wroblewski
Oct 17, 2019 rated it liked it
It took a long time for me to finish this book. You can learn a lot from it, but it is deceptive as it not only covers the thoughts of a few famous Americans from the Civil War times to the end of WWI, but talks about dozens of individuals the their background, education, jobs, and ideas and then attempts to tie them in with the ideas of others. Major emphasis of the ideas is racial superiority and immigration. Also covers freedom of speech (academic), the ability to express yourself without los ...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
Ron Charles
Dec 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
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,
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.
Jan 14, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Feb 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I'm so glad I read this book!
From the outside it might not appear to be a book that I would pick up or enjoy. But my husband has recommended it for years, and my book club chose it to read. It is a book about the history of ideas which results in Pragmatism. But it is so much richer than that! In many ways, it is a book about the development of American idealism.
I'm so glad I was reading it now, because it dovetailed nicely with a class I am teaching on Theory. Many of the key ideas of theory i
May 11, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Oct 11, 2010 marked it as to-read
Menand is very good, and the Bostonians fascinating as ever, but my interest is elsewhere right now.
John Yelverton
Nov 08, 2015 rated it really liked it
There are many sections in this book that I do not agree with, but the author is very skilled in writing, which makes this an enjoyable read.
Jan 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
When I picked up this book I was only expecting to skim through it to get a glimpse of what Philosophy of Pragmatism is all about. Halfway into the book you don't really see anything about that philosophy in the narrative that you just waded through. Only then you can mentally map out the course of Intellectual history that Louis Menand has charted out in this book. You get a glimpse of what lies ahead.

Pragmatism is "an idea of ideas" (to quote the book) - it's about how ideas are born in us, i
Tara Brabazon
Dec 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
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.
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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.

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“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.” 10 likes
“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.” 10 likes
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